One of my favorite books of all time is Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes — partly because it was one of the earliest and sweetest representations of romantic love between two women I’d ever read, partly because I’m bonkers for southern food, and partly because it’s just a funny, kind-hearted, and boisterous story with memorable characters.
I was therefore ecstatic to find many of these same elements in Courtney Steven’s YA novel, Dress Codes for Small Towns. Stevens’ book follows the rough and tumble life of high school senior Billie McCaffrey, touted on the cover blurb as a “box-defying dynamo and daughter of the town’s preacher.” While she and her close band of friends — the “Hexagon” — attend church, blow up microwaves, and try to save the town’s precious Harvest Festival and Corn Dolly Contest (yes, it’s as quaint as it sounds), Billie navigates her ever-evolving understanding of sexuality, gender, love, religion, and friendship.
There are many things I loved about this book. Billie herself is full of charm and charisma—a complicated, unwavering friend anyone would be happy to have in their corner. Additionally, though, this is one of the few YA books I’ve read that depicts its young characters as both queer and religious. Billie and her friends gladly attend church each Sunday while participating wholeheartedly in the church youth group and sometimes the boys kiss other boys and the girls kiss other girls. Billie’s own struggle with her understanding of God and her developing sexuality is conveyed thoughtfully and sweetly. To top it all off, Stevens’ writing is some of the best I’ve seen in the YA literature I’ve read — there is nuance, fully developed characters, and a real sense of place here.
Considering my adoration for Fried Green Tomatoes, I was delighted, then, to find that Stevens shouts out Fannie Flagg in her acknowledgements for giving her Idgie, the memorable tomboy of FGT, as a teen. Unlike Fried Green Tomatoes, there are no recipes in the back for skillet cornbread, candied yams, and other such deliciousness, but the spirit of Flagg’s novel certainly runs through Stevens’ book, and if you’re looking for a sweet story to escape some of the sourness of current events, read both!