Why time loops, like the one in “Groundhog Day,” work in YA novels

What would you do if you had to live the same day over and over again?

Yeah, I don’t know either. Considering this concept has become a popular trope in books and films — I think about it frequently.

My first introduction to the time loop trope was “11 Birthdays,” a children’s book by Wendy Mass that follows a girl who relives the day of her 11th birthday alongside her estranged best friend. I can understand, though, if most people recognize the time loop trope from the 1993 film “Groundhog Day” starring Bill Murray (“Ghostbusters”). Murray’s character, Phil Connors, is a weatherman who goes to Punxsutawney, Pa., to report on Groundhog Day and finds himself repeating the same day over and over. Ever since 1993, this trope has been used in films in a variety of genres: From action (“Edge of Tomorrow”) to holiday (“Christmas Every Day”) and from horror (“Happy Death Day”) to rom-com ( “The Map of Tiny Perfect Things” and “Palm Springs”), the time loop trope is everywhere.

Time loops never get old to me, especially in young adult books. Just this year, two authors of viral YA and adult rom-coms — Lynn Painter and Rachel Lynn Solomon — released books with time loops. But besides that, these books don’t have much in common.

In Painter’s “The Do-Over,” the people-pleasing main character, Emilie Hornby, is stuck reliving a disastrous Valentine’s Day. Over and over again, she watches her boyfriend cheating on her, she (literally) crashes into her cute-but-distant lab partner, Nick, and her father reveals news that changes everything. When Emilie finally starts to enjoy herself in the time loop, she finds out her do-overs are limited and learns to deal with the consequences of her actions.

In Solomon’s “See You Yesterday,” we meet Barrett Bloom, a girl looking forward to her new life as a college student after a rough high school experience. But on her first day, she wakes up to find that her new roommate is her high school nemesis, she ruins her chances at writing for the college newspaper and she accidentally sets a frat on fire. As Barrett continues to relive her first day, she realizes she’s not alone. Miles, a classmate who embarrassed her in Physics 101, has been stuck for months. Together, they try to escape the time loop and (surprise!) fall for each other along the way.

Books with the time loop trope are fun because they follow a particular pattern, and “The Do-Over” and “See You Yesterday” are no different. At first, the characters think they’re experiencing déjà vu. Then there’s a day of no consequences, where the characters do whatever they want because they think that nothing matters. Sometimes the characters decide to “do everything right” in order to escape the time loop. Self-discovery creeps in and out of the pages. The trope is repetitive, but that’s in its nature.

“See You Yesterday” resonated with me more than “The Do-Over” due to the nature of the characters. Emilie isn’t one-dimensional by any means, but she reads like an average YA main character in high school — aiming to be perfect to make up for her complicated family situation. In contrast, “See You Yesterday” is set in college, so Barrett grapples with overcoming her high school identity while being stuck in time. Mindful of diverse representation in YA books and her own Jewish identity, Solomon includes characters like Barrett, our plus-size Jewish main character who was raised by a young single Queer mother, and Miles, the Jewish and Japanese American love interest with a brother who is an addict. Solomon approaches these characters and their situations with care, which adds depth to an already intriguing story.

Another aspect to consider is the romance in both books. “The Do-Over” relied too much on the insta-love cliche for me. After Emilie comes to terms with her relationship and her cheating boyfriend, she quickly moves on and pursues Nick. Although Nick has a part to play each time Emilie repeats a day, their romantic interactions are overshadowed by the fact that he won’t remember what happens between them. In “See You Yesterday,” Miles is trapped in the time loop with Barrett, justifying the romantic element of the story.

Rom-coms are fun to read, but there are more serious takes on the time loop trope, like in “Opposite of Always” by Justin A. Reynolds and “Before I Fall” by Lauren Oliver. In “Opposite of Always,” the main character, Jack, repeats the day he met his girlfriend, Kate, over and over again. Kate is dying, so Jack uses each repeated day to try to save her. “Before I Fall” follows Samantha, one of the most popular — and meanest — girls in her school who relives the day she dies. She must learn the truth behind her death, and by doing so, has a chance to make up for her careless mistakes of the past.

Death raises the stakes in any story, but when it involves teenagers, it’s incredibly emotional. I cry every time I re-watch the film adaptation of “Before I Fall” starring Zoey Deutch (“Set It Up”). Books like “Opposite of Always” and “Before I Fall” are thought-provoking. The stories make me wonder if I’m a good person and if today matters, and the use of time loop trope only amplifies these thoughts. Existential crisis, party of one! Both “Opposite of Always” and “Before I Fall” stress the importance of the choices we make and the people we choose to surround ourselves with. How we treat others matters, regardless of how many times it takes to get it right.

The time loop trope works well in many different genres and forms of art, especially in YA books. The trope emphasizes that maybe we do have some control over our lives, but sometimes we don’t, and that’s OK. Time is finite and life is a gift, so enjoy it.

Daily Arts Writer Ava Seaman can be reached at avasea@umich.edu

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