It was around then I began to realize that there was some current between Chloe and me that was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before; it was a vague, clouded feeling that I couldn’t quite place or identify. It didn’t happen all of a sudden; it was more like moments of dim awareness, followed by a gradual recognition that it was there without my understanding what it was.
Deborah Hautzig’s Hey, Dollface, written while she was a student at Sarah Lawrence College, was originally published in 1978, one of the first books of its kind. I’ve only ever seen it on one list of LGBTQIAP+ YA, although it was just reprinted in 2010 (and subsequently released as an ebook) — it’s been largely overshadowed by Nancy Gardner’s Annie on My Mind (which deserves the recognition it gets). I would most likely never have found it if my father hadn’t left a copy of it on my bed in mid-2011. It’s a very short read: my paperback copy from 1980 is only 118 pages.
Our protagonist is Valerie, a Jewish girl living in New York City, about to start her first year at a new school. Val is a quirky narrator, but without ever seeming artificially quirky. She’s just Val — odd, charmingly idealistic Val who assures herself she’ll “never get jaded”. And she doesn’t, either, even faced with the disappointment towards the end of the book — Val never gives in to cynicism. At school, Val quickly bonds with Chloe Fox, who in another book might risk becoming, as she occasionally imagines herself to be, “some mythical mysterious girl that everyone wonders about”. Given that this is posted on Gay YA, I’m sure you can see where the story is headed from here.
Homosexuality is evoked at several points early in the book (i.e., even before Val starts to realize that she isn’t straight), both subtextually (Val’s vague feeling of “What-will-people-think” when walking around the city with Chloe) and explicitly (as when Chloe suggests they “pretend [they]’re gay” to avoid unpleasant encounters with men as they walk back to Val’s house one evening), and eventually Val and Chloe discuss it specifically. This conversation ends on an ambiguous note:
“Do you think homosexuality is a sin?” I said.
“I don’t know. I mean, I don’t feel like it’s a sin. I really don’t know.”
“I know what you mean. I don’t feel like it is, either. But….”
The main drama of the book is, of course, Val’s growing attraction to Chloe. She wonders if the relationship she and Chloe have is normal, she daydreams about the two of them, she weighs the pros and cons of telling Chloe she dreams about the two of them. During a particularly intense moment on a hillside in Massachusetts, the moment seems almost right:
I tell her everything else. Why can’t I tell her this? Would she tell me? Our heads were so close I could see the pores on her nose. We stared at each other in silence for a long time. What’s she thinking about? I wondered. […] What would she think if she knew I’d been having weird daydreams about her? Or that I’d thought of touching her? Would she be disgusted, or would she want me to?
Then, of course, Val’s father interrupts.
After an awkward night at Chloe’s house where nothing quite happens but also something happens, everything starts to fall apart. Val wonders, “Did I do something wrong? Why didn’t you call me? Do you feel guilty, too? Or just scared of me?” Finally, they manage to have a real conversation. It doesn’t go quite as Val might have hoped, but (and this is especially striking to me in a book from 1978) it ends with a reconciliation of sorts:
“Chloe? Remember before I said I was sorry about what happened?” She nodded. “I’m not. I’m not sorry about anything.”
The question of sexuality aside, it’s not an easy book. Val watches her mother’s struggle with grief in the aftermath of her grandmother’s death and does her best to help support her through it (even as she herself is grieving), and then has to find a way to help Chloe through her father’s death (“Why do people say, ‘It’s okay’?” Val asks herself). She grapples with love, sex, and romance (with insightful help from her mother), and with the realities of being a woman in a world where women are constantly subject to sexualization by men. She finds herself subject to unwanted attention from her babysittee’s middle-aged father.
Judaism permeates the text, without the book ever becoming a story about the “conflict” between religion and homosexuality, in contrast to a lot of contemporary LGBTQIAP+ YA where religion is foregrounded (and where the religion is usually Christianity, usually some variety of Evangelical Protestantism). When Val muses on the morality of homosexuality, it is with reference to Anne Frank:
I remembered reading in The Diary of Anne Frank about how Anne wanted to feel another girl’s breasts and offered to let the other girl feel hers, but the other girl didn’t want to. I guess if you’re cooped up all the time and miss out on everything you start doing with boys when you get to be the age Anne Frank was, it’s okay, I thought. She had an excuse to want to do it. But what about people who don’t have any excuse—they just want to? Do I want to?
The generational trauma of the Holocaust and contemporary antisemitism are also frequent low-level presences in the story, whether in Val’s memories of her grandmother:
[Grandma] had made me certain that there was a God; she was history, and tradition, and culture, she cried on the holidays, her very existence was proof that God was there and that being a Jew meant believing this.
or, subtextually, in her mother’s insistence that Val has a “nice nose”. I don’t remember how much I noticed this Jewish-ness the first time I read it, but this time it really stood out to me.
I should attempt to wrap this up, so I’ll leave you with a concluding thought. A number of Goodreads reviews said the book felt dated, and to a limited extent I agree, in that I don’t think you could tell this kind of story with these (white, private school-attending, middle- to upper-class) characters, set in New York City in 2014. But it’s not set in 2014: if nothing else, as my father pointed out to me, Hey, Dollface is a reminder that there have always been people willing to push the envelope of “acceptable” YA fiction.
If this post has felt a little dry, it’s because I’m struggling to put my feelings about this book into words. I can only imagine what this book would have meant in 1978, but I know that it rings true for me still (despite not being Jewish, a girl, or in any doubt about my sexuality) thirty-six years later. I hope other people will find the same.
Nathaniel Harrington was born and raised in suburbs of Boston, studied (comparative) literature in college, and is currently improving his Gaelic on the Isle of Skye. He has been writing gay YA since 2008 and reading it since 2009; someday he hopes to be able to share it with others in a format that isn’t half-finished NaNoWriMo first drafts and miscellaneous fragments. He enjoys working out the details of magic systems, doing citations for academic papers, reading in several languages (although he has yet to read any LGBTQ YA in a language other than English; suggestions are welcome), and obsessively categorizing books he reads on Goodreads.