January 2007

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

Heirs to Judy Blume

Every woman of a certain age remembers the first time they came across the revelation that is Judy Blume’s Forever. Pity us for entering our teenage years at a time when there was no Internet to order books from (or download the steamy passages) and we were lucky to have even a sad little Waldenbooks in local shopping center. The librarians knew us -- and our parents -- so getting a copy was fraught with all sorts of danger. Basically, to get to Forever we had to find that friend with an older sister or cousin or hip cool aunt and then pass it around endlessly so everyone had a chance to read those all important pages with the corners turned down.

Don’t judge us too harshly; we were coming of age in the 1980s after all, and in the middle of all that Madonna music we needed something to show us just what the sex thing was supposed to be about.

In the decades since Ms. Blume changed the landscape of YA literature, many other authors have written about teen dating and sex. Not one of them has lingered in my memory however, until a recent spate of novels that all seemed to touch not only the impact of sex on a teen girl’s life, but also its impact on the lives around her. Romance is a great grand and wonderful thing, but in high school it is rarely just about the romance. (See: any episode of My So-Called Life or the first two seasons of The Gilmore Girls.) Thus the new era of Forever books tackle the expanded issue of sex and notoriety head on, and show just how far reaching the decision to “do it” can have. It’s the 21st century after all, and as much as we might want it to be, teenage sex isn’t just about a boy and girl anymore (or boy and a boy or girl and a girl -- you get the idea).

In Sara Zarr’s Story of a Girl, sixteen-year old Deanna Lambert is still trying to live down the brief relationship she had with her older brother’s friend three years earlier. When she was thirteen Deanna fell into a sexual relationship with Tommy for reasons she still does not understand. It would never have worked -- she was barely a teenager and he was a senior in high school -- but before either of them could end it, Deanna’s father caught them in the back seat of Tommy’s car.

The only thing that could make it all worse was Tommy’s big mouth in the weeks that followed. Deanna became the girl whose Daddy found her having sex. She could not escape the reputation that night gave her, and after a while she no longer even tried. The worse part isn’t the kids at school, though, it’s her parents. Her father can’t see her as anything other than a tramp and her mother can’t fix it, no matter how hard she continues to try. Couple all that tension with Deanna’s brother and his girlfriend welcoming an unexpected baby (and all of them having to live in the basement of the family home while they save money), and Deanna’s home life is beyond uncomfortable. She wants something to change and so she pins her hopes on a summer job and the chance to save some cash and hopefully move out before the next school year. (It’s always about reinventing ourselves over the summer, isn’t it?) What should be her salvation turns out to be an enormous complication, however, and Deanna must confront not only why she had sex in the first place, but what to do about it now. She can’t keep being the girl who was caught -- it is impossible to continue living that way and not just for her. Consider Deanna’s mother:

I could see it all like a movie on a screen: her, alone with Dad for the rest of their lives, the house staying exactly the same (down to the last detail), shabby and worn-out, all the stains and holes and leaks showing, green shag carpet forever. Maybe she was an innocent bystander, like those people you read about, standing around minding their own business when the stray bullet shoots them exactly through the heart. Or maybe not so innocent. It didn’t matter. In the end, she’d be the one left to walk through that door everyday and try to figure out what went wrong.

What I really liked about Zarr’s book was not only the sincerity of Deanna’s voice, but also that her relationship with her parents was so realistically portrayed. Her father’s shock at discovering her has ruined their relationship -- he can not get over seeing his daughter that way and she can not forget that when the sordid story made its way to the teenagers he worked with, he didn’t stand up for her. He is still embarrassed by one moment in her life, and no matter how hard Deanna tries to prove that it is not who she is now, he will not let it go. Of course just because she has come to that conclusion, doesn’t mean everyone else is ready to and that is the story Zarr is so adept at telling. You can be stupid at thirteen, because you are young, but that doesn’t mean everyone will forgive you for it, or more importantly, that they will forget.

In Laura Ruby’s Good Girls, it’s not the sex that ruins Audrey’s life, it’s the photographic evidence. In one colossal moment of bad judgment, Audrey puts herself in a most compromising position at a party where bedroom doors do not have locks. And even though she is with Luke, her on-again, off-again, sometime sort-of boyfriend (some things never change), Audrey is known far and wide as a “good girl” and so she has so much further to fall. As the picture makes its way around the school (and pretty much everywhere else), she finds herself crashing lower than she ever thought possible. How can one picture become the most important thing in everyone else’s life? Easy -- it’s high school and when the good girls turn out to have feet of clay then everyone jumps on the party wagon to tear them apart. Don’t you just wish you were back there in those hallowed halls of learning again?

The plot is very simple in Girls; there is a picture, everyone sees it, lots of shit happens and Audrey’s life gets so incredibly hard that it seems impossible to believe that she could be the same girl she used to be. The kick to this story though is not what happens, but how everyone reacts to the proof of what happened. Her parents can’t believe it (don’t even ask how they find out) and more than one teacher offers up a horrible level of judgment about just what kind of girl Audrey must be. Here’s one shocker from her principal:

Mr. Zwieback frowns, as if he has no idea what to make of this. Of course I was victimized, of course I was forced. Nice girls are forced, honor students are forced. If I wasn’t forced...

He taps a pen methodically on the top of his des, tap, tap, tap. "Several of the teachers and administrators were in favor of taking action against you."

I’m so surprised that my eyeballs almost pop from my face. "What? What do you mean?"

"I’m not saying I agree with them, but some people feel that our top students should set a better example."

I can’t speak. I should set a better example, but not Luke. No, that boy’s obviously doing just dandy as he is. It’s those girls that you have to watch. Girls are tricky.

As she weathers all the lowering of everyone’s standards and expectations, Audrey makes a few discoveries about just what a “bad” girl really is. She finds that all the labels she was part of handing out in the past, all the jokes she laughed at and the gossip she happily spread is far less believable now that she knows how quickly the truth can be lost in a high school hallway. What is the difference between a good girl and bad girl anyway, and who gets to decide? And why do girls have to choose one or the other when boys just blissfully wander along, dancing back and forth from one extreme to the other with no one judging and everyone cheering? It’s not fair, and Audrey is shocked to see just how heavily she has participated in this standard her whole life. Why did she have to choose one or the other, she wonders, and why is it sex that always makes the distinction?

I have enjoyed Laura Ruby’s earlier books, Lily’s Ghosts and The Wall and the Wing, and found Good Girls to be yet another example of this author’s impressive versatility as a writer. It’s amazing to me that she could transition from middle grade ghost story to fantasy to teen drama without skipping a beat. She nails the whole carnivorous high school experience with Good Girls and shows just how confusing an environment can be that equates sexual behavior with morality, but only for the girls. It is exhausting to be who everyone wants you to be, especially when it means that you can not be the girl you might think you are. Sex is part of life, it is part of the world, and it’s in our faces every second of the day selling every product, film and vacation spot you can think of. And it’s not fair that thinking about it or even doing it should brand you as trash forever.

Laura Baratz-Logsted moves past the sex part very quickly in her new novel, Angel’s Choice. We learn that Angel has a crush on Danny and while they are friends, he seems always to be dating someone else from the popular clique. At a party in the beginning of the book, Angel suffers a letdown when Danny becomes distracted by another girl practically in mid-conversation with her. Feeling more than a little crushed, she has one beer too many and wanders away with another classmate, a likeable enough guy named Tim. One thing leads to another, clothes are soon off, and in Angel’s muddled state it all goes by so quickly that she later tells her best friend, “…it was so…so…so…nothing. It was like the least important thing I’ve ever done. It wasn’t like I had something important to tell you. I mean, it was like less than nothing. Does it even count as a first time, if I don’t even remember it?”

It would have ended there -- the rumor mill was already spinning but there was nothing really dramatic to the story. Angel’s crush on Danny was back in full swing while Tim was clearly disinterested, and the whole thing would have degenerated into a funny story she would tell her college roommates in a few years when they were all sharing their “virgin stories,” except Angel ends up living out a cliché. She gets pregnant.

Angel’s Choice is the kind of YA title that brings to mind a ton of memories for an adult reviewer. In my high school there were several girls who dropped out after getting pregnant and several others who graduated in that condition. I don’t remember a single thing about the boys involved, but the girls were there, every day, plunging through the hallways, trying to keep math classes and English tests a significant part of their lives. I had no idea how they did it -- not then and not now. I don’t know how they maintained focus on their diplomas in the face of continuous catty comments and speculation about who, where, and how. There was even one poor girl that had a baby, gave it up for adoption, and came back to school. Two years later she was on the drill team and fairly popular, but still, the first time she was pointed out to me as an incoming sophomore, it was in the context of “there’s Joyce, she had a baby once.” There was no living that strange scandal down. That’s the lesson Angel learns right away, the minute her body won’t let her deny the reality of her situation any longer.

What happens in the book is that Angel makes a choice to keep the baby. She does consider abortion, and her decision there is not at all faith- or feminist-based – she’s okay with abortion, just not in this instance. Tim (and his family) reacts in a less than impressive manner, but Danny comes through like a trooper. It is her parents that disappoint Angel the most, though, echoing the experiences in Story of a Girl and Good Girls to a certain extent. It is so easy to be a hip, cool parent until it is your daughter having the sex and, even worse, getting pregnant. Angel’s parents aren’t ready for this sort of thing. But that is part of what makes the novel so interesting for its readers; it’s not just about Angel, but her best friend, the boy, her crush, and her parents (even her grandmother and aunt weigh in with opinions). The pregnancy affects a lot of people, and Angel is just one large part of a puzzle that forms in the wake of her choice.

Teen girls should find a lot in Angel’s Choice to think about. I’ve seen other reviewers react to a message they think Baratz-Logsted is sending about sex in her story, but I didn’t see it. Sex gets Angel pregnant and the pregnancy derails her life -- in that sense, yes, you might want to rethink the getting drunk at parties decision. But there’s no hidden agenda here to scare teens from having sex; they just shouldn’t have stupid sex. (And for that matter, avoid it if you are thirteen and in the backseat of a car or at a party without doors that lock, both bad ideas as the previous titles showed.) This is just a story about one girl, one night, and one long consequence that followed. As such, it is another book about what might happen when sex becomes part of the picture, and thus is a worthy read for any young woman.

I came to Aury Wallington’s Pop with a certain level of expectation as there has been a bit of controversy surrounding this title. Jessa reported several months ago in the The Book Standard that Borders had decided not to carry the book -- and gave no concrete reason why. As it comes from Razorbill, a division of Penguin, Pop clearly has all the weight of a major publishing house behind it, but Borders was not interested. Jessa speculated that it might be the book’s sexual content that got it passed by the chain, although she could get nothing more than a generalized response from the children’s book buyer. I couldn’t help but wonder just what Wallington had her characters doing that might have been too hot for the malls, and now, after finishing this very delightful and most atypical teen romance, I am at an utter and complete loss as to why it has been passed up. There’s nothing freaky about Pop, people, and it should certainly be front and center in any YA book section.

Pop is most certainly about sex, in this case seventeen-year-old Marit’s determination to lose her virginity. For whatever reason, every time Marit gets into a serious makeout session (even with a guy she just plans to mess around a little bit with), she freezes up. This knee jerk reaction has prevented her from having a serious relationship, and now that new student Noah has showed up, she would really like to gain the confidence to date the guy. So on the advice of her sister, Marit suggests that she and her best guy-friend Jamie take their friendship to a more physical level. They will still be friends only, but friends who also occasionally get it on (shades of Sex and the City’s infamous fuck-buddy episode). Jamie is all for it and so slowly, the two of them (both virgins as it turns out) start to figure out this whole sex thing. They do it, more than once, and they get pretty good at it, but Marit’s feelings for Jamie (and longing for Noah) do not change. As it turns out, the whole experiment has meant a great deal more to Jamie than Marit realized, and thus the massive amounts of teen drama commence.

What was really interesting to me about Pop in the context of the other books I’ve reviewed, is that Marit and Jamie really have the healthiest sexual relationship of all the teens. They are plenty old enough, unlike Deanna Lambert in Story of a Girl, not doing it at a party merely to impress someone, unlike Audrey in Good Girls, and certainly not the slightest bit wasted, unlike Angel in Angel’s Choice. Yet Pop seems to be the book that everyone knows the least about. Clearly, it is by the far the sort of sexual situation that teens will become most familiar with in college and aside from the complication of not being completely upfront about their feelings, the sort of relationship that many young people should strive to emulate.

As Marit and Jamie love each other as friends, the business of sexual exploration is much easier and more comfortable for Marit then it has ever been before. She trusts Jamie, so she doesn’t suffer the same worries with him that seemed to affect her in every other intimate situation. This trust actually leads them to be very open about what they like and do not like about sex, and results in both of them enjoying themselves a great deal more than they first anticipate. While the book ends with Marit pursuing Noah (after some typically skanky high school rumors threaten to tear the friends apart), it doesn’t change the fact that she still loves Jamie. In fact, I couldn’t help but think as I was closing the cover that Marit and Jamie had some real staying power -- that they just might return to each other later when they realize how rare that level of relationship trust is. Unlike every other couple in this column, what Marit and Jamie have (on any level) is real, and it is what makes Pop exactly the sort of book that any teenager should be reading.

Cool Read: An excellent anthology found its way to me a couple of months ago: She’s Such a Geek! Women Write About Science, Technology and Other Nerdy Stuff. With essays written by women in all sorts of scientific or technological fields, it’s a unique way for college-bound teens who never thought they would fit in to realize that really, they’ve been part of a larger in crowd all along. There’s biophysicist and science fiction writer Corie Ralston writing that “maybe the key is not to specifically encourage girls to go into science, but to stop discouraging them from going into science.” Writer and former video game programmer Mara Poulsen wonders why games must be written a certain way, explaining that “what really seems to irritate me is this notion of women as a foreign species, that we need to liquefy a woman’s brain and inject it into her chest in order to make her interesting.” There are real women out there, Poulsen writes, “Lara Croft cannot be your girlfriend, so turn the game off, take her calendar down, and go meet someone with a personality.” She’s not the only one celebrating smart real women; comic book writer Devin Grayson includes her thoughts, along with physicists, biologists, software developers and all manner of women who work and study in fields that do not commonly see women. They are brave, bold, and utterly fearless when it comes to how they want to live. For the teenage woman striving to find her own moment of courage in a field dominated by men, it’s the perfect book -- just make sure they are of the sixteen-and-older sort as there is a sexy essay here that would be a bit much for the junior high crowd.