Why are there so many vans in Queer YA books?
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On the cover of Aristotle and Dante discover the secrets of the universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, one of the most acclaimed and beloved queer YA books of all time, a red 1957 Chevy truck is parked under a clear sky full of stars. Unsurprisingly, you’ll also see this truck in fan work on the book.
When I read Cameron Post’s Bad Education by Emilie M. Danforth I was struck by the image of Cam having her first kiss in the back of a van with another girl. While the original cover does not include a truck, the film cover does.
Then I picked up From here by Lisa Jenn Bigelow, which began with the line, “The last time I kissed Rachel Greenstein, we lay in Scarlett’s bed, my Ford pickup truck, watching the sun go down beyond West Lake.”
These are far from the only queer YA books featuring a van in some way. Sometimes it’s the main character, as in Far from Xanadu/pretend to love me by Julie Anne Peters, or the love interest, as in The lucky list by Rachael Lippincott. mara in Like the other girls by Britta Lundin saves for a truck, while the main character of Everything leads to you by Nina LaCour calls an ex to borrow his truck. lucky girl by Jamie Pacton is another sapphic YA book that has a cover showing the main character in front of a truck.
So what about gay teens and trucks?
Despite the first example I gave, which is an exception, one of the most striking things about this list is that almost all of these characters are white teenage girls. Most of these characters also live in a rural area, and many of them are isolated in one way or another.
These traits go hand in hand: characters are more likely to have trucks if they’re in a rural area, and rural US is generally whiter than its cities. Vans can serve as a class indicator: they are associated with manual labor, agriculture, and rural life. Of course, they usually aren’t cheap, which makes it an interesting object to attribute to the working class.
American teenagers have associated vehicle ownership with freedom and maturity since the 1950s. Cars or trucks allow teenagers to go on their own, without their parents having to drive them. They open up more possibilities, including going to places they may not have explicitly been granted permission to go. But they are also a small piece of intimacy: a place that belongs only to them.
When home can feel stuffy for a thriving teen, their car or truck is a place they can be alone without worrying about a parent knocking on their door. They may have friends or a date with them that might not be allowed in their home, or only allowed with the door open. They don’t have to worry about overheard conversations.
This is precious for any teenager, but this freedom can be crucial for gay teenagers. If they live in a gay-unfriendly area, a truck or car might be a safe place. It could also be an escape route, and trucks represent that even more than a car: it seems much easier to throw everything into a truck bed – even some furniture – and then take off than to quickly fill a chest full of all your material goods.
In the cover of the film Cameron’s postit is this very escape that is represented by the image of the three of them in a truck bed. (Spoiler for Cameron’s message:) This is when Cam and two of his friends run away from a gay conversion camp, trying their luck anywhere but there.
Along the same lines, pickup trucks are seen as a representation of self-sufficiency. For the odd characters in these books who feel isolated, it can be reassurance that they can get on on their own. Of course, each of these symbols changes depending on the context: for many of us, the “friend with a truck” is someone who gives, who demonstrates interdependence. Maybe the ex in Everything leads to you likes to make himself useful to his friends or even uses this value as leverage.
Vans are also a symbol associated with masculinity and tradition. For Aristotle, his Chevy is a “true Mexican truck”, although in other circles a pickup truck may be a symbol of rural white masculinity. In these spaces, a teenage girl with a van may be received differently from a teenage boy who owns one. For Mara of Like the other girlswho plays football and presents in a more masculine way, a van can assert its butch gender expression.
Let’s face it: there’s also something romantic about driving your truck through the desert and laying in the bed of the truck with a crush on stargazing and whispering to each other. In a world that can be hostile to queer love, having a little space to yourself can save lives.
From masculinity to security to freedom and more, queer YA vans play a multitude of roles, depending on the setting. Hopefully soon, queer teens won’t need to arm themselves with a symbol of escape or self-sufficiency, because they’ll all have such a strong support network that it becomes redundant. Until then, I expect we’ll continue to see vans appear in these novels, and with the draconian anti-trans laws being rolled out against trans teens, I expect we’ll see more YA trans novels incorporate them too, or something else like that to fulfill the same role.
Did I miss any of your favorite pickups in queer YA, or did I completely miss their significance? let me know about Twitter.