Ramona Blue is a well-crafted coming-of-age romance that fills readers with the warm fuzzies of a healthy relationship without establishing unhealthy expectations for love to magically resolve challenging circumstances and personal identity struggles. Author Julie Murphy's writing style reminds me of Sarah Dessen, whose love stories I devoured as a teenager. Both authors craft strong, complex female protagonists who often pump the brakes on a promising new relationship in order to find space for self-reflection and time to sort out personal problems before committing to love. This young-adult romance story arc is familiar and perhaps makes the book too predictable, but I love this classic arc because it encourages young readers to remain self-reliant and not to depend on anyone else to define who they are.
Murphy takes themes of exploring identity and navigating relationships a step further than the previous generation of YA romance. Her characters and the relationships they develop with each other are diverse and complicated. Protagonist Ramona thinks she has her identity figured out — she loves girls and came out at a young age. She is 6 feet 2 inches and rocks electric blue hair. She surrounds herself with equally confident queer friends and allies. But when her childhood friend Freddie moves to her hometown for their senior year and they develop romantic feelings for one another, Ramona is forced to question her identity. Is she gay, bisexual, or somewhere in between? Will her queer friends still accept her, or will they think that she was just experimenting? Worse yet, will the people who never accepted her sexuality think that Freddie has cured her and "turned her straight?"
In addition to reexamining her sexuality and what that means for her identity, Ramona learns about navigating an interracial relationship. She is white and Freddie is black. Because of their shared history, Ramona views Freddie as her childhood friend and is far less fixated on the color of his skin than the other members of their predominantly white small town. Occasionally, Ramona has to confront their racial differences, like when she and her friends take Freddie along to trespass without his knowledge and the property owner threatens them with a gun. Ramona feels guilty for keeping Freddie in the dark, but tries to laugh it off, and Freddie has to educate her about the dangers of racial inequality. "We click," he says. "And it's almost easy to forget all the things that set us apart. Maybe sneaking onto private property is just some kind of stupid antic for you, but from where I stand, that's how black kids get shot."
It is moments like this that Murphy is at her best. She puts her characters into difficult situations, and the thoughts and conversations they have are heartfelt and believable. After her uncomfortable and eye-opening conversation with Freddie, Ramona realizes that she put him into a dangerous situation and didn't even know it because of her white privilege and "anger and shame weigh heavy on [her] chest." After Ramona and Freddie take a big step in their relationship, she thinks, "Life isn't always written in the stars. Fate is mine to pen. I choose guys. I choose girls. I choose people." Occasionally Ramona's thoughts reach Shakespearean heights of melodrama, and sometimes these thoughts bring her to beautiful revelations, like loving the person instead of the labels. The healthy dose of drama makes Ramona a believable teenager, and the transcendent insights about sexuality and race make the book an excellent read for teens and adults alike.