Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

Sunday Reflections: The Trouble with “Clean”

sundayreflectionsEvery once in a while a conversation will start up on Twitter or the Yalsa-Bk list about “clean” books for teens, and I always bristle. Occasionally I tweet about it. Sometimes I see other tweet about it as well. But I stopped putting together “clean” book lists some time ago, and there’s a simple reason why: Clean means something different to everyone.

You see clean is a value statement, not a genre. And since it is a value, that’s harder to navigate. We know what elements make a book fantasy, or contemporary, or a mystery, but what makes something “clean”? That’s different for everyone. And if we label something as “clean”, that means everything else is “not clean”, which is a negative value statement. By giving something the label clean we are assigning judgments to actions, language, choices, interests, etc. That’s not our place at the library; I don’t get to decide for others what is clean or unclean any more than I can push my own personal political agenda.

And because it is a value statement, it’s an imprecise label. When I send my children in to clean their rooms, I am reminded every time that their idea of clean is much different then my idea of clean. I’ll even try to parse it out, “Is it your clean or is it mom clean?”, I’ll ask. But I find I get much better results if I give more specific instructions: Throw away all the trash in your room, make sure there are no clothes on your floor, put items back where they belong, and make your bed. By giving these more specific instructions I’m much more likely to end up with an end result that meets my actual definition of clean, not that of a 6-year-old who would rather be playing.

It’s Saturday as I type this. My 20th Teen Summer Reading Challenge has just kicked off and I just talked to the mother of a 15-year-old girl. She wants my help finding “clean” books for her teen. “That depends,” I say, “on what clean means to you.” I stopped assuming I know what a patron means by clean a long time ago. For her, clean meant not dark, no fantasy or magic, no going to an underworld. Or all of my favorite books to be honest.

For others it means no sex, drugs or drinking.

For some it means no kissing. Period.

So how, she wondered, can I find the right books for my child without reading them all first? It’s a good question. A question that every parent who wants to be more attentive to their child’s reading choices asks. And I support their right to ask it, even if I don’t always inwardly agree with the choices that they make.

Part of the answer is, of course, good reader’s advisory with an informed YA librarian. This means someone who reads YA literature, who reads YA literature reviews, and someone who knows what is happening in the world of YA. But it also means someone who knows how to do a good reference/reader’s advisory interview to really suss out what “clean” means to that individual. If we assume that by clean they mean “no sex” then we are doing our patrons a disservice. And even in doing really good reader’s advisory, I always end with the caveat that I think this might meet their criteria, but at the end of the day it’s still a value judgment and they should decide for themselves.

The other part of the answer is that parents must do their research. I have several talking points that I share with parents who ask me about selecting books for or with their teens.

1. Read the back cover, inside flap and CIP information on the title page. It will give you a general idea of what the book is about. In particular I show them how to use the subject headings in the CIP information.

2. Read the first few pages or chapter to get a general idea of tone – for those concerned with “darkness” – or language – for those that are concerned with cussing. Of course this only gives you a taste, anything can happen in the pages of a book, which is part of the glory of reading.

3. Do your research. There are several places you can go to get a wide variety of general reviews. Though you have to keep in mind that each reviewer has is different and subjects, situations or language that might stand out to you may not to reviewers. I remember once a patron complaining to me because one of the Harry Potter books had a cuss word in it. It apparently says damn, something that did not stand out to me when I read it.

4. At the end of the day, the only way to know for sure is to read the book and decide for yourself.

Many libraries have Inspirational Fiction sections – which are really Christian fiction sections, but that’s a discussion for another day – and feel that this helps to meet the need for “clean” fiction. But the truth is, not all parents who are worried about content do so because they are practitioners of the Christian faith, or any faith at all. Some parents, for example, are concerned that having their teenagers read about sex will put sexual thoughts in their heads. And while developmentally we know that all teens think about and wonder about sex as some point and that access to good sex education can help teens make informed choices, I have found that most parents aren’t going to be swayed by that information. And in the end, it’s my job to respect the person in front of me regardless of my personal opinion. Other parents are concerned about what they consider the unrelenting darkness of YA literature, and I’m more than happy to help them try and find “lighter” reading materials once we have had a good discussion to help establish what exactly it is they are looking for.

Since a library’s policy is that a parent is financially and intellectually responsible for their child’s use of the library, we have to allow parents to make those types of decisions for their teen readers, even if we ourselves feel that there is tremendous value to allowing teens to choose their reading materials freely. So when I say I don’t support the use of the term “clean” books, I’m not saying that I don’t support the right of individuals and parents to make the reading choices that are right for them. I’m saying I object to the label because it is laden with judgment – because a reading choice is not right for you it does not mean it is bad or wrong for someone else, it is not a matter of clean versus unclean – and because it is ineffective. If I put up a display labelled “clean” thinking that this book doesn’t contain sex but the patron picks it up and reads it and it doesn’t meet their definition of clean, not only have I not served them well, but now I have broken their trust in terms of reader’s advisory.

I don’t even necessarily know what the right answer is in terms of doing displays and book lists for our patrons with these specific needs, I just know that I want us to stop calling them “clean” books. That particular label seems to serves no one well.

Friday Finds – May 29, 2015

fridayfindsThis Week at TLT

Sunday Reflections: How We Talk About the Victims of Sexual Abuse Matters

Middle Grade Monday – Memorial Day Take 5

Book Review: The Porcupine of Truth by Bill Konigsberg

Book Review: Anything Could Happen by Will Walton

Career Conversations – What I learned when my teens wanted to host a program series on careers

Sexual Violence and Male Survivors: a Dialogue between Two Male Survivors Who Are Thriving (#SVYALit)

Be a Changemaker Workshops

Take 10: A Geek Pride Day Book List

Hinduism in YA Lit: A #FSYALit Guest Post by Shveta Thakrar

Around the Web

Why we should let kids choose their own summer reading books

The kids are all right

The numbers about the gender disparity in literary awards

American Kids Are Poorer Than They Were Decades Ago, Education Report Shows

Hinduism in YA Lit: A #FSYALit Guest Post by Shveta Thakrar

As part of the Faith and Spirituality in YA Lit (#FSYALit) Discussion, we are honored today to feature guest blogger and YA author Shveta Thakrar to discuss Hinduism in YA Literature.

hindiusm1One thing that frustrates me is seeing the word religious come to be equated with “Christian.” Not only is this inaccurate, but it also erases those of us who practice any other faith or even just come from a background associated with one. Even if you don’t often see them on TV or in movies and books, Hindu teens exist all over the world, and their stories deserve to be told, too. (Since I live and write in North America, I’m going to focus this post on that market.)

Literature helps shape how we view those around us, so it’s vital that writers not only think about why they are writing their characters (going beyond straight, white, able-bodied, cis, Christian people) but how they do it. Like with any other faith, not everyone who is nominally Hindu practices, not everyone even believes, and for the gods’ sakes, we’re certainly not all repressed! But many of us do believe and practice in different ways, and I’d really love to see all these journeys depicted respectfully and thoughtfully in young adult novels.

Worldwide, the Hindu population is projected to rise by 34 per cent over the period, from a little over 1 billion to nearly 1.4 billion, roughly keeping pace with overall population growth, the report noted. – Source: The Hindu.com

I’ve noticed a general lack of familiarity with Hindu dharma/Hinduism or misunderstanding of what it is in North American media. Spoiler: it’s a very old and rich, complex collection of beliefs, scripture, and practices that vary from region to region in South Asia and was really only brought under one umbrella during the British occupation. And no, despite what Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom claimed, we do not eat eyeballs. In fact, many of us, but not all, are vegetarian—inspired long, long ago by Buddhism. No stereotypes or dismissive attitudes, please.

I’ve been told I’m exotic, whatever that means, I’ve had my bindi mocked, and I’ve even been told I would burn in hell for not being Christian. Please don’t do those things, and writers, please, please, please don’t put them in your novels. Instead, do your research! Hindu dharma is far more than (often misunderstood) karma, chakras (pronounced “chuk-ruh”), and (again misunderstood) tantra.

When I was a teen, I would have given anything for characters who looked like me with names like mine, who grew up in the West but with Hindu rituals and beliefs shaping our lives in overt and subtle ways—so I would have known I was okay and important, too. So I’d like to see well-researched novels star Hindu characters in a story that isn’t about them struggling with being brown or Hindu. That happens sometimes in real life, sure, but there’s so much more to us, and for some reason, with a couple exceptions, that’s the only story we ever get. Why? We should get to have magical adventures or go on epic road trips or win art contests or dye our hair bright pink and teal (yes, you can like saris and punk rock, or not; people are complex) or have huge crushes on boys/girls/people outside the gender binary just like any other character.

I’d especially like to see novels that use Hindu mythology and folklore—with Hindu characters. I cannot stress this enough. This means no white saviors coming in to save the day, and no one showing us the light about how being Western/Christian/fill in the blank is the right way to be. Just exciting, well-researched, well-crafted, thoughtful, fun books!

And one thing we can all do—writers, booksellers, librarians, reviewers, readers—to help right the incredible imbalance of white characters to everyone else in YA is to support writers from the background they share with the characters they’re writing about. In other words, let us tell our own stories first, and use the megaphone of your platform to boost them. Erasure happens on many fronts, but at the end of the day, because Hindus are an underrepresented group in North America, no one else is going to be able to tell our stories as well as we can (Coe Booth nailed it in this podcast with Sara Zarr.) Our voices matter.

I’ve compiled a list of the few titles I’ve found in the North American market that deal with Hindu dharma in some way. It’s not a long list, and I definitely hope that changes in the near future. (It’s a mix of contemporary, romance, historical fiction, and fantasy, with the role of Hinduism in the text ranging from large to incidental, just like with any faith or religi

Chasing Shadows by Swati Avasthi

5 to 1 by Holly Bodger. I haven’t yet read this, but the author told me that while religion has been banned in the book, Hindu influences linger in various ways, including in the characters’ names. (May 12, 2015 from Knopf Books for Young Readers)


Ash Mistry and the Savage Fortress by Sarwat Chadda (the first in a middle-grade trilogy)*

Ash Mistry and the City of Death by Sarwat Chadda (book two)

Ash Mistry and the World of Darkness by Sarwat Chadda (book three)

The Bride of Dusk and Glass by Roshani Chokshi (out in 2016)

Lovetorn by Kavita Daswani

Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier

“Believe it or not, Dimple–and I would believe it–I am just a regular person who has decided to be who I am in life. That’s all. That’s how you make your life magical–you take yourself into your own hands and rub a little. You activate your identity. And that’s the only way to make, as they say, the world a better place; after all, what good are you to anyone without yourself?”
Tanuja Desai Hidier, Born Confused

Bombay Blues by Tanuja Desai Hidier (the sequel)

Enter Title Here by Rahul Kanakia (out fall of 2015)

Tina’s Mouth: An Existential Comic Diary by Keshni Kashyap and illustrated by Mari Araki


The Third Eye by Mahtab Narsimhan (the first in a trilogy)

The Silver Anklet by Mahtab Narsimhan (book two)

The Deadly Conch by Mahtab Narsimhan (book three)

Secret Keeper by Mitali Perkins

My So-Called Bollywood Life by Nisha Sharma (out in 2017)

Toads and Diamonds by Heather Tomlinson (a retelling of the Charles Perrault fairy tale)

Climbing the Stairs by Padma Venkatraman

A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman


Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld

* Yes, this trilogy is middle grade, but I’ve yet to see anything like it in the North American YA market—books that use Hindu myth and folklore in contemporary/urban fantasy.

Meet Our Guest Blogger:

Shveta Thakrar is a writer of South Asian–flavored fantasy, social justice activist, and part-time nagini. She draws on her heritage, her experience growing up with two cultures, and her love of myth to spin stories about spider silk and shadows, magic and marauders, and courageous girls illuminated by dancing rainbow flames. When not hard at work on her second novel, a young adult fantasy about stars, Shveta makes things out of glitter and paper and felt, devours books, daydreams, draws, bakes sweet treats, travels, and occasionally even practices her harp. Check out her website and follow her on Twitter.

Kaleidoscope-Postcard-1-706x1024“Krishna Blue” by Shveta Thakrar appears in the young adult speculative fiction anthology Kaleidoscope, which made the NPR Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Books of 2014 and 2014 Locus Recommended Reading lists

(You can also find her at the Star-Dusted Sirens website. You should check it out.)

You can find all the Faith and Spirituality in YA Lit (#FSYALit) posts here.

Take 10: A Geek Pride Day Book List

Did you know that May 25th was Geek Pride Day? Me neither. Geek Pride Day is a cultural holiday created to celebrate and promote all things geek, nerd, and science fiction. “The date was chosen as to commemorate the 1977 release of Star Wars,but shares the same date as two other similar fan ‘holidays’: Towel Day, for fans of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy by Douglas Adams, and the Glorious 25th of May for fans of Terry Pratchett‘s Discworld” (from the holiday’s Wikipedia page).


Geek Pride Day got me thinking about great books to pull together to make a display celebrating geek/nerd/dork pride. Here are 10 to get you started. All descriptions from the publisher.


Take 10: Geek Pride books
The Improbable Theory of Ana and Zak by Brian Katcher

ISBN-13: 9780062272775

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers

Publication date: 5/19/2015


Perfect for fans of Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and The Statistical Probability of Love at First SightThe Improbable Theory of Ana and Zak is Stonewall Award-winning author Brian Katcher’s hilarious he said/she said romance about two teens discovering themselves on an out-of-this-world accidental first date at a sci-fi convention.

When Ana Watson’s brother ditches a high school trip to run wild at Washingcon, type-A Ana knows that she must find him or risk her last shot at freedom from her extra-controlling parents.

In her desperation, she’s forced to enlist the last person she’d ever want to spend time with—slacker Zak Duquette—to help find her brother before morning comes.

But over the course of the night, while being chased by hordes of costumed Vikings and zombies, Ana and Zak begin to open up to each other. Soon, what starts as the most insane nerdfighter manhunt transforms into so much more. . .



Guy in Real Life by Steve Brezenoff  

ISBN-13: 9780062266835

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers

Publication date: 5/27/2014


It is Labor Day weekend in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and boy and girl collide on a dark street at two thirty in the morning: Lesh, who wears black, listens to metal, and plays MMOs; Svetlana, who embroiders her skirts, listens to Björk and Berlioz, and dungeon masters her own RPG. They should pick themselves up, continue on their way, and never talk to each other again.

But they don’t.

This is a story of the roles we all play—at school, at home, online, and with our friends—and the one person who might be able to show us who we are underneath it all.

(You can read my review here)


 Into the Wild Nerd Yonder by Julie Halpern

ISBN-13: 9780312382520

Publisher: Feiwel & Friends

Publication date: 9/29/2009


It’s Jessie’s sophomore year of high school. A self-professed “mathelete,” she isn’t sure where she belongs. Her two best friends have transformed themselves into punks and one of them is going after her longtime crush. Her beloved older brother will soon leave for college (and in the meantime has shaved his mohawk and started dating . . . the prom princess!) . . .

Things are changing fast. Jessie needs new friends. And her quest is a hilarious tour through high-school clique-dom, with a surprising stop along the way–the Dungeons and Dragons crowd, who out-nerd everyone. Will hanging out with them make her a nerd, too? And could she really be crushing on a guy with too-short pants and too-white gym shoes?

If you go into the wild nerd yonder, can you ever come back?


Geektastic: Stories from the Nerd Herd edited by Holly Black and Cecil Castellucci 

ISBN-13: 9780316008099

Publisher: Little, Brown and Company

Publication date: 8/1/2009


Acclaimed authors Holly Black (Ironside)and Cecil Castellucci (Boy Proof) have united in geekdom to edit short stories from some of the best selling and most promising geeks in young adult literature: M.T. Anderson, Libba Bray, Cassandra Clare, Tracy Lynn, Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith, David Levithan, Kelly Link, Barry Lyga, Wendy Mass, Garth Nix, Scott Westerfield, Lisa Yee, and Sara Zarr.
With illustrated interstitials from comic book artists Hope Larson and Bryan Lee O’Malley, Geektastic covers all things geeky, from Klingons and Jedi Knights to fan fiction, theater geeks, and cosplayers. Whether you’re a former, current, or future geek, or if you just want to get in touch with your inner geek, Geektastic will help you get your geek on!


The Summer I Became a Nerd by Leah Rae Miller

ISBN-13: 9781620612385

Publisher: Entangled Publishing, LLC

Publication date: 5/7/2013


On the outside, seventeen-year-old Madelyne Summers looks like your typical blond cheerleader–perky, popular, and dating the star quarterback. But inside, Maddie spends more time agonizing over what will happen in the next issue of her favorite comic book than planning pep rallies with her squad. That she’s a nerd hiding in a popular girl’s body isn’t just unknown, it’s anti-known. And she needs to keep it that way.Summer is the only time Maddie lets her real self out to play, but when she slips up and the adorkable guy behind the local comic shop’s counter uncovers her secret, she’s busted. Before she can shake a pom-pom, Maddie’s whisked into Logan’s world of comic conventions, live-action role-playing, and first-person-shooter video games. And she loves it. But the more she denies who she really is, the deeper her lies become…and the more she risks losing Logan forever.


The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl by Barry Lyga 

ISBN-13: 9781606861561

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Publication date: 9/28/2007


Fanboy has never had it good, but lately his sophomore year is turning out to be its own special hell. The bullies have made him their favorite target, his best (and only) friend seems headed for the dark side (sports and popularity), and his pregnant mother and the step-fascist are eagerly awaiting the birth of the alien life form known as Fanboy’s new little brother or sister.

Fanboy, though, has a secret: a graphic novel he’s been working on without telling anyone, a graphic novel that he is convinced will lead to publication, fame, and—most important of all—a way out of the crappy little town he lives in and all the people that make it hell for him.

When Fanboy meets Kyra, a.k.a. Goth Girl, he finds an outrageous, cynical girl who shares his love of comics as well as his hatred for jocks and bullies. Fanboy can’t resist someone who actually seems to understand him, and soon he finds himself willing to heed her advice—to ignore or crush anyone who stands in his way.


Geek Magnet by Kieran Scott

ISBN-13: 9780399247606

Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group

Publication date: 5/29/2008


Everybody loves KJ. Especially the geeks. See, KJ Miller is super nice, smart, pretty, the stage manager of her high school’s spring musical . . . and a total geek magnet. She’s like the geek pied piper of Washington High, drawing every socially clueless guy in a five-mile radius. If only Cameron, the hottest guy in school, would follow her around and worship her the way her entourage of dorks do. Enter Tama Gold, queen of the popular crowd, and solution to all of KJ’s problems. KJ is too nice, and the nice girl never gets the guy. Tama’s ready to help KJ get cruel, ditch the dorks, and win Cameron’s heart. But is KJ?



The Queen Geek Social Club by Laura Preble 

ISBN-13: 9780425211649

Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group

Publication date: 9/5/2006


If you’re somebody like Shelby Chappelle, a smart, witty, pretty geek army of one, you can’t just put a poster up at school and advertise for somebody to be your best friend. But now freakishly tall Becca Gallagher has moved to town, with her dragon tattoo and wild ideas. Suddenly Shelby’s madscientist father and their robot, Euphoria, seem normal. They become best friends instantly. But Becca wants to shake things up at school and look for “others of our kind”…and decides to form the Queen Geek Social Club.

The thing is, this guy Fletcher Berkowitz keeps nosing around, asking lots of questions about the Club. He’s cute, and interesting, and possibly likes Shelby. Therefore, she must torture him. One good thing about being a loner: no one can break your heart.


Adorkable by Sarra Manning

ISBN-13: 9781907411007

Publisher: Little, Brown Book Group

Publication date: 4/1/2013


Jeane Smith’s a blogger, a dreamer, a jumble sale queen, CEO of her own lifestyle brand, and has half a million followers on Twitter. Michael Lee’s a star of school, stage, and playing field. A golden boy in a Jack Wills hoodie. They have nothing in common but a pair of cheating exes. So why can’t they stop making out? This novel is about an unlikely relationship, but it’s also about roller derby, dogs on skateboards, dogs on surfboards, dogs doing any form of extreme sport, old skool hip hop, riding your bike downhill really fast, riot grrrl, those boys you want to kiss but punch in the face at the same time, dyeing your hair ridiculous colors just because you can, stitch ‘n’ bitch, the songs that make you dance, the songs that make you cry, being a bad ass, cake, love, death, and everything in between.


The Rise of the Dorkasaurus by Alan Lawrence Sitomer 

ISBN-13: 9781423139966

Publisher: Disney-Hyperion

Publication date: 7/5/2011

Series: Nerd Girls Series


Maureen, a thirteen-year-old self-proclaimed dork-a-saurus, is totally addicted to cupcakes and hot dogs and thinks that her body looks like a baked potato. Allergy-plagued Alice can’t touch a mango without breaking out in a rash, and if she eats wheat, her vision goes blurry. Klutzy to the extreme, Barbara is a beanpole who often embarrasses herself in front of the whole school. These outcasts don’t have much in common—other than the fact that they are often targets of the ThreePees: the Pretty, Popular, Perfect girls who rule the school.

But one day Maureen discovers that the ThreePees are planning to sit next to Allergy Alice in the cafeteria and eat peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches on whole wheat toast with mango marmalade for lunch. And Maureen decides that it’s time to topple the eight-grade social regime. She joins forces with Alice and Barbara and the Nerd Girls enter the school talent show, determined to take the crown from the ThreePees. Will their routine be enough to de-throne the popular crowd? Or will their plan backfire and shake their hold on the bottom rung of the social ladder?


If you would like to recommend additional titles on this topic, please leave us a comment. We always look forward to hearing what books others value and recommend.

Be a Changemaker Workshops

beachangemakerSometime last year I got a call from Kirsten Cappy at Curious City asking if I wanted to help her write a series of workshops supporting a book called Be a Changemaker by Laurie Ann Thompson. If you aren’t familiar with Curious City, it’s a site where you can find a variety of book based library program ideas with easy to personalize and use publicity materials. I was familiar with Curious City because I had used Kristen’s materials in a previous teen summer reading program. Because I end up having to develop so many program ideas and publicity materials from scratch, it’s nice to find a resource I can use that is less time intensive.

Curious City facilitates children’s literature discovery by creating marketing tools that engage readers with story. “

So Kirsten and I spent a year developing a curriculum, brainstorming ideas, and writing out detailed “lesson plans” or workshop outlines to help librarians lead teens through a multi-part workshop that would encourage teens to be changemakers in their local communities. The premise, for me, became something like what I try to do with Teen Programs in a Box: here are a bunch of ideas and resources, pick and choose the ones that work best for you in terms of your resources and community and bam – you have a program.

I was excited that it was about this book, this topic, because I believe in the power of teens to be a positive force for change in our world. That’s what a changemaker is, someone who sees a problem and works to help address it. Teens do this everyday as we see in moments like the Halo Awards that recognize kids and teens for their amazing achievements and positive contributions to this world. Be a Changemaker takes teens through a variety of steps that begin with brainstorming what problems you would like to address, what your passions are and then leads you through the process of basically organizing a small group of people around a plan to help try and address that problem. Whether it be creating a plan to collect discarded crayons from restaurants or finding a way to help encourage sick kids in your local community, teens can and do start amazing initiatives and this is a great tool to help them do it.


The workshops we created are available for free in PDF form at the Curious City website. They include workshop outlines, some basic support materials like handouts and worksheets, and publicity materials that you can download and personalize with your library (or school) information to promote your workshop. You can find it all here: http://www.curiouscitydpw.com/2015/05/10/be-a-changemaker-workshops/. In all there are a total of 6 workshops. I tried to take what I know about what makes programs successful and apply them to these workshops. We tried to make sure they were engaging, with lots of hands on activities and opportunities for self exploration and self expression.

Teens can change the world. These workshops and this book can help inspire and challenge them to do it.

More on the Book:

Be a Changemaker: How to 
Start Something that Matters

By Laurie Ann Thompson
Foreword by Bill Drayton
Published by Beyond Words/Simon Pulse
For Ages: 12 and up
Hardcover ISBN: 9781582704654, $19.99
Paperback ISBN: 9781582704647, $12.99

Sexual Violence and Male Survivors: a Dialogue between Two Male Survivors Who Are Thriving (#SVYALit)

svyalitIn June, as part of the #SVYALit Project, we will be discussing the topic of male survivors of sexual abuse. Current stats indicate that by the time they reach the age of 18 1 in 6 males will be the victim of sexual abuse. Today YA author G. Donald Cribbs interviews a fellow male survivor and therapist about the topic.

Donald: Gerry, thank you for joining me today as we talk about sexual violence for male survivors, what that looks and feels like, and the particular struggles male survivors identify on their journey toward wholeness and healing.

To begin, can you please introduce yourself and your credentials as far as how they apply to today’s topic?

Gerry: My name is Gerry Crete and I’m a licensed professional counselor, licensed marriage and family therapist, and a certified clinical trauma professional. I have a doctorate from the University of Georgia and my dissertation topic was resilience of male survivors of sexual abuse. As a survivor myself, I was drawn to this topic out of a desire to advocate for other male survivors and to make a difference in the way that society sees this problem.

Donald: My name is Donald Cribbs, and I am currently employed as a Therapeutic Support Staff (TSS) in behavioral health and rehabilitation services. I work with clients who are school-aged, in schools, their communities, and homes. During the summer, I often work at our intensive therapy camp, which allows me to work with other staff members and clinical professionals. During the rest of the year, I also work some shifts at our inpatient hospital which has three sections, adult, child/adolescent, and extended acute care.

While I am a mental health professional, I am also a graduate student at Messiah College for a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling. I may be nowhere near your caliber of qualifications, Gerry, but the thing that makes us equals is unfortunately that we have both grieved, faced, and survived our childhood sexual abuse. I join you in seeking to find ways to support other male survivors through my writing and advocacy.

What is the difference between identifying as a victim and a survivor of sexual violence? Why is this harder to disclose for male survivors in particular?

Gerry: I would say that I was a victim in the past, but now I am a survivor in the present. Victimhood occurred in the past and identifying solely as a victim keeps me stuck in the past. In the present, however, I am not only surviving but also thriving. This is not meant to deny either the painful realities of the past or the struggles of the present, but it is a way to stay focused on the present and the future in a positive way.

Most male survivors do not disclose for a variety of reasons. Boys are often socialized to believe that there is shame in being a victim. They might hope that if they just forget about it, that it will go away. They may fear that if other people know about it, then they will be judged or blamed. In many cases sexual abuse involves seduction by an older person and the boy may experience pleasure. If this is the case, then the boy may have a lot of confusing thoughts and feelings. He might feel that he was somehow responsible for the abuse. He might question his sexual identity. If the abuser is someone he cares about, like a family member, then he might be afraid that something bad will happen to that person. He might be afraid of the perceived “fall out” that will come in the family with disclosure. These are just a few, but there are many more reasons why male survivors avoid disclosure.

Donald: These are all excellent points, Gerry. Thank you. Several points you made resonate with me as a survivor. I follow a continuum of: victimà survivor à adaptor à thriver à overcomer

I have also been studying about posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), posttraumatic stress symptoms (PTSS), posttraumatic growth (PTG), and resilience, which make a kind of continuum of their own. I appreciate what you said about surviving and thriving, that these aspects of our healing journey are not necessarily separate from painful memories, or current struggles, as you said. As a childhood sexual assult (CSA) survivor, we live in an interesting paradox of opposites at times. We might experience growth or resilience in one moment, and then something may trigger us, opening old, painful wounds.

What are the stigmas our culture has perpetuated surrounding male survivors of sexual violence and sexual abuse?

boytoyGerry: The stigma around sexual violence and abuse is so great that our culture is afraid to talk about it. It is this silence that keeps victims living in fear and shame. Our culture teaches that men must be strong, independent, and invulnerable. Sexual violence and abuse creates a wound that is personal, physical, and relational. Deep down victims may fear that they are so damaged that no one would love them if they knew the truth. Society perpetuates this lie by promoting the image of the stoic, tough, and self-sufficient male. Instead society needs to learn how to nurture, heal, and connect with boys, not just with survivors of sexual abuse, but also with all boys, so that they grow up as secure and compassionate men.

Donald: Coming to terms with abuse and surviving sexual violence is hard enough. What do you see as essential for male survivors?

Gerry: It is essential for male survivors to engage in the process of healing. At first this might mean disclosing to a trustworthy person. I recommend seeing a professional counselor who specializes in trauma recovery in order to begin the process of remembering the past and mourning this loss. In my experience shame and isolation are the poisons of abuse. The essential antidotes are acceptance and community.

Donald: Once a male survivor has shared his experience with others, what might be appropriate next steps? Can you suggest any online resources for male survivors?

Gerry: www.malesurvivor.org and www.1in6.org are excellent online resources.

Donald: How can I know if my experience as a male survivor has affected my sexual identity? Is there hope for me?

Gerry: One reason why childhood sexual abuse is so wrong is that it can disrupt a person’s natural sexual identity development. Many male survivors of sexual abuse question their sexual orientation or experience unwanted or confusing sexual desires. Sometimes survivors re-enact their abuse in some way. This is the brain’s way of trying to resolve past trauma. Unfortunately reliving the trauma through pornography or with others causes more confusion, shame and bad feelings.

The good news is that a counselor who specializes in treating sexual abuse can help a survivor to work through these confusing thoughts and feelings and distinguish between one’s own identity and any effects from the abuse. A survivor can reclaim his own sexual identity apart from the abuse and build a better future.

Donald: Do I have to go to a counselor or seek counseling? Why or why not?

swaggerGerry: Sexual abuse is a very serious trauma and counseling is highly recommended. In my opinion, the sooner you begin treatment, the better. If you had a physical injury, like a broken leg, you would want it treated by a doctor right away. You wouldn’t want to limp around in pain for years and risk infections or other complications. Guys often dismiss, deny, and suppress their feelings and avoid their pain. Counseling is an opportunity to begin the healing process and take your life back.

Donald: I can admit to having a negative initial experience with counselors and counseling, yet here I am working in mental health and seeking to become a counseling professional. Thankfully, I have good news that not all counselors or counseling is negative, and I have benefitted from receiving good counseling. I hope those reading this interview will seek out a counseling option that is best for them.

Speaking of options, what are my options with regards to my healing journey? Will it ever get any better than it is today?

Gerry: If you are struggling with this alone, but are willing to begin the healing journey, then the answer is a definitive yes.

Donald: What else can I do to deal with it? What shouldn’t I do to deal with it?

Gerry: It is so important that you don’t deal with this alone. Avoid turning to alcohol, drugs, sex, television, gambling, the Internet, you name it, to numb the pain. My belief is that healing happens through growth fostering relationships. When you risk vulnerability with someone that you trust, and that person responds with compassion and understanding, then healing happens.

Donald: Am I alone? Is it just me? How common is this for male survivors?

Gerry: You are not alone. It is estimated that one in six men have experienced sexual abuse or assault.

Donald: As a professional, what have you learned that can help me deal with this right now?

Gerry: If you are currently being abused, then you need to seek help immediately. If you are not currently being abused, then it is important to recognize that you might become triggered by people or things that remind you in some way of the abuse. When this happens, it is helpful to first acknowledge that you are safe and take deep breaths. Be conscious of how your body responds to triggers. Notice if your muscles tense or if your breathing changes. As you inhale, tense your muscles; then as you exhale, relax your muscles. Do this until the tension goes away. Practice prayer and/or meditation.

Donald: Would it help me to read books about other male survivors, or will it just make it worse, or possibly trigger me?

Gerry: Reading a book about other male survivors can validate your experiences and help you process your own thoughts and feelings. It can also help you recognize the reality that you are not alone.

It is possible, however, to be triggered by stories similar to your own, so be conscious of your reactions. It is a good idea to journal your thoughts and feelings as you read. There is nothing wrong with feeling angry or sad when reading a book about abuse. But if you notice that you are having a traumatic reaction such as increased heart rate, tense muscles, changes in breathing or feelings of fear, then put the book away and reach out to a trusted friend or family member.

Donald: How can I cope with the memories, flashbacks, nightmares, or times when I become triggered? What does it mean to “revisit the trauma”?

Gerry: If you are experiencing these symptoms on a regular basis then you need to speak with a counselor who specializes in trauma. There are many treatments that can reduce and possibly eliminate these symptoms.

Donald: Gerry, thank you very much for taking the time out of your schedule for this important discussion. Male survivors need fellow male survivors to know they are not alone, that survival and the ability to thrive and move beyond the abuse is possible.

If you have questions, or you’d like to join this discussion, you may comment below; however, please understand, this is not a substitute for counseling. If you need to speak with someone immediately, call RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network):

National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1.800.656.HOPE (4673) or www.rainn.org

About Donald Cribbs:

G. Donald Cribbs has written and published poetry and short stories since high school. Donald is a graduate of Messiah College in English and Education, and is currently a graduate student in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. He and his wife and four boys reside in central Pennsylvania where the author is hard at work on his next book, the sequel to his debut novel, THE PACKING HOUSE (2015), by Booktrope. Having lived and traveled abroad in England, France, Belgium, Germany, China and Thailand (you can guess where he lived and where he visited), the author loves languages and how they connect us all. Coffee and Nutella are a close second. Learn more at his blog.

More About Male Survivors:

On June 24th author Eric Devine will be moderating our next #SVYALit panel discussion which will feature the author of Boy Toy, Barry Lyga, and the author of Swagger, Carl Deuker. The conversation will take place live at 12 Eastern and be archived as part of The #SVYALit Project for everyone to hear.

You can read Donald Cribbs review of Swagger here: Book Review for SWAGGER: http://gdonaldcribbsbooks.blogspot.com/2015/05/book-review-swagger-by-carl-deuker.html.

We have a booklist featuring male survivors of sexual violence here. In addition I would recommend the newer titles The Gospel of Winter by Brendan Kiely and Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Mathew Quick.

Please visit the #SVYALit Project Index for more information and links to all of the posts.

About the Books:

Swagger by Carl Deuker
Publisher’s Annotation: When high school senior Jonas moves to Seattle, he is glad to meet Levi, a nice, soft-spoken guy and fellow basketball player. Suspense builds like a slow drumbeat as readers start to smell a rat in Ryan Hartwell, a charismatic basketball coach and sexual predator. When Levi reluctantly tells Jonas that Hartwell abused him, Jonas has to decide whether he should risk his future career to report the coach. Pitch-perfect basketball plays, well-developed characters, and fine storytelling make this psychological sports novel a slam dunk.

Boy Toy by Barry Lyga

Five years ago, Josh’s life changed. Drastically. And everyone in his school, his town—seems like the world—thinks they understand. But they don’t—they can’t. And now, about to graduate from high school, Josh is still trying to sort through the pieces.

Heather Booth says: “I think this is a good one because the boy needs to confront and understand the problems with society’s idea of male sexuality before he can admit that he was actually abused by his teacher.”

Career Conversations – What I learned when my teens wanted to host a program series on careers

Career Conversations posterThis year I undertook a challenge: an ongoing program series designed by my teen board, reliant on the generosity of adults in the surrounding community, not especially fun, on my night off. This became Career Conversations, and we had our fourth and final program last night. Overall, it was a smashing success. Here’s what I’ve learned this year in taking this leap.

High school students just won’t register ahead of time.

Wouldn’t it be great if they did? Wouldn’t it make our lives so much less anxiety ridden? Yeah. It would be so nice. But they just don’t. I think it’s partly because they are so bleeping busy that they genuinely do not know that they’ll have time to attend a non-essential event, and partly because they just don’t think about it the way the parent who registers younger kids and tweens for programs does. They assume that the program will happen with or without them, and that’s the kicker. Last night’s program would have been the fifth of its type, but I panicked and pulled the plug at the last minute when no one had registered. When I told my teen board that it was cancelled, several teens said that they had been planning to come…. but just didn’t register. Every night as my panelists arrived, I had a sinking fear in the pit of my stomach, waiting for teens to trickle in. And they did. Every time. Phew.

Learning about other people’s jobs is so interesting!

I would run this program every week, just to sit and hear people talk about what they do. This year, we heard from an engineer who worked in health care, a doctor who followed his wife into his career path, someone who worked for a political campaign that changed her life, a stay at home dad who started his own business so he could be his own boss, an author whose passion is helping victims of sexual violence, and an art historian who has unwittingly become an expert in the best – and worst – truck stops in the midwest. “What kind of work do you do?” is a cocktail party question, but beyond hearing “I’m an engineer, a librarian, a stay at home mom, a volunteer…” what do we really learn about people? This panel conversation setup allowed people to really get to the heart of why they love what they do, what brings them satisfaction, and what challenges they face.

Each profession definitely has a different tone

The engineers were surprisingly funny, and engaged in a fair amount of competitive, good natured ribbing between themselves. The health professionals left no doubt about the weight they bear in being responsible for people’s lives. The politically connected folks had long answers and carefully measured every word that they spoke. The creatives talked to each other a lot, and focused the most on finding fulfillment and personal satisfaction in their work. A number of teens attended all four panels, and I’m so glad that they were able to see this diversity. After last night’s panel on arts & entertainment careers, a teen thanked the panel at the end by saying, “I don’t plan to go into your field at all, but this was definitely the most interesting conversation and I learned so much from it!”

Life is long and the path isn’t always straight

This is something that I think teens don’t hear so often, and I wish they did. Sure, some people knew from a young age that they were going to be doctors and then became doctors, and I can certainly admire their dedication and focus. But I definitely appreciated the panelists who talked about trying things and finding out that they hated them and changed direction, those who worked two jobs to do what they really had a passion for, and even last night’s graphic designer and screenprinter who talked about getting kicked out of high school at 15 then moving to the US with a backpack, $100, and one friend on this continent. There are as many ways to make a life as there are people on earth, and teens need to understand that they are the ones ultimately in control of the path they follow.

Following the teens’ lead was so worth it, but I needed their support to do it.

Several years ago, I stopped trying to program “just for fun” types of events for high schoolers and shifted to things that were more useful: learn to caddy, summer volunteering, getting a teen liaison on the Board. I’ve tried to do some jobs workshops or resume review events before, but with a huge and well funded high school in our community with a counseling department that can far outpace me, they never flew. But partly they didn’t fly because I clipped their wings. Fearing failure, I would cancel the programs if I didn’t get a response. Career Conversations worked in part because I pushed on despite the fear. But it would not have worked it all without the buy in and support of my teen board. They promoted it to their friends, they showed up even when the topic wasn’t in line with their interests, and they gave suggestions for future panel topics. And this worked, I got their buy in and support, not because of something I did, but because of something I didn’t do. I didn’t butt in. I didn’t tell them it wouldn’t work. I didn’t redirect them when I thought “been there, done that, didn’t work.” I let them lead, and it made for one of the most terrifying and most successful things I did this year.

Book Review: Anything Could Happen by Will Walton

anythingIn Will Walton’s Anything Could Happen, 15-year-old Tretch realizes he is in love with Matt, his straight best friend, while sitting together in church and hearing the message “hold fast to that which is good.” Tretch isn’t out yet, even though he suspects that Matt, who has two gay dads (and is often assumed to be gay himself because of this fact—weird logic, right?), would be fine with it, as would his family. His mom is “uneasy” about Matt’s dads, but Tretch knows his family would still love him and stand by him if he came out, though he can’t imagine it. Their town is tiny and he thinks that his family would become ostracized if he came out and they supported him.


But coming out doesn’t feel really pressing to Tretch. He nurses his crush on Matt all through their semi-eventful winter break. They hang out and have sleepovers (where they sleep together in the same bed), Matt kind of starts to date a girl named Amy, another girl has a crush on Will, and Tretch starts to think more about coming out. This book is light on plot but heavy on interpersonal dynamics, which is just fine by me.


Anything Could Happen is a great addition to the younger side of LGBTQIA+ books. The whole story is sweet, warm, and happy. It’s all very wholesome (if you know me well, you know I usually accompany that word with a retching noise, but I mean it in kindest and best sense of the word here), full of gosh, heck, and freakin’. The friendships are all happy and loving, as are the family relationships. Tretch spends a lot of time with his grandparents and parents. The first person he comes out to is his older brother, who just says “cool” and then tells him a story about his girlfriend’s brother coming out to their preacher dad and how that went fine, too.


The whole thing sort of feels like it’s from another time, which I think is because of the setting in a very small town. If it weren’t for references to contemporary music and electronic devices, it could be set anytime in the past. The ending packs a lot in—Tretch busts out his amazing moves on the dance floor, has a heart-to-heart with Matt, and comes out to a few more people. He even comes to some kind of understanding with Bobby, the son of his dad’s business partner and his longtime bully.


The message at the end is that things are going to get better, but they’re already good. Will really takes to heart the lesson from the beginning, to hold fast to that which is good, surrounding himself with good and kind people throughout the book. Great for the 12 and up crew.


Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780545709545

Publisher: Scholastic, Inc.

Publication date: 5/26/2015

Book Review: The Porcupine of Truth by Bill Konigsberg

porcupineThere are some books that you finish and think, well, that’s it—I can’t pick up another book today. Gotta let this one sit. Bill Konigsberg’s The Porcupine of Truth is one of those books. In fact, I suspect I will be thinking about this book for a long time to come. This was the 65th book I read this year, and it stands out as easily being in my top ten so far.


Carson and his mom relocate from New York to Billings, Montana for the summer. Carson hasn’t seen his dad for 14 years—not since he was 3—and now his dad, a longtime alcoholic, is dying of cirrhosis of the liver. Caron’s mother, a therapist/school counselor, dumps him at the zoo when they first arrive in town, where he runs into Aisha, an intriguingly funny girl around his own age. It turns out Aisha isn’t just hanging out at the zoo—she’s been sleeping there since her dad kicked her out of their house for being a lesbian. Her dad wanted to send her away to a religious program to “make” her straight, but Aisha would rather live on the streets than suffer through that. Carson and Aisha instantly bond and he invites her to stay with his family. When they start to clean out flood-damaged boxes in the basement storage, they uncover some interesting details about Carson’s father’s family that don’t exactly match up with the story he’s been told. Carson knows his grandpa (also an alcoholic) took off when his dad was just a kid, but doesn’t know much beyond that. He and Aisha start to put some pieces together and decide to embark on a road trip to see if they can uncover the truth… and maybe meet his grandpa.


On their road trip they follow in grandpa Russ’s footsteps, tracking down the same people he stayed with as he went west. Throughout Wyoming, Utah, and California, Carson and Aisha have many deep and profound (as well as silly) conversations about family, faith, and choices. Early on Carson notes that he doesn’t believe in God. Aisha isn’t a fan of the things people do in the name of Jesus—she bonds with Carson’s dad over this, too. They decide they believe in plenty of things other than God—waffles, strawberries, and The Porcupine of Truth, their made-up deity. On their journey, they meet and have intense conversations with a spiritual couple, a narrow-minded Christian, a Mormon couple, and a man raised Jewish but who has lots of questions and sees lots of options for faith and belief.


Here is the part where I talk about some spoilers, okay? Because this book is so important and I want to tell you why. So if you intend to read it—and you should—and don’t want to know what happens near the end, just stop reading this review now. Know that the book is wonderful—I laughed and cried in equal parts. The writing is brilliant and the story will stick with you.


Are you sticking with me? Ready for the spoilers? Okay.


When Carson and Aisha get to San Francisco, they track down a man named Turk who may have known Russ. When Carson finds this now elderly man, he is in for a big surprise: Turk was his grandpa’s lover. Another shock? His grandpa died in the early 80s from AIDS. When he finds this out, standing in front of an AIDS quilt, he loses it. Everything that follows is profoundly moving. What was a good book became a great book in the last 100 or so pages. For those of us who were adults or even children in the 80s, we remember seeing the initial stories about AIDS, reading about the panic and fear, understanding that, generally speaking, it was a death sentence. And it never becomes less powerful or upsetting to see a personal story of life in the shadow of AIDS. Many teen readers might not fully understand the history behind AIDS (going back to it being called GRID and understanding how severely it ravaged the gay community) or have seen or read some of the documentaries or stories adults are more familiar with. This look at what it meant to be a gay man at this period of time will be deeply moving for readers of all ages. For Carson, he came to Billings with only a rather icy mother who talked to him like he was one of her patients. Weeks later, his father is back in his life, his mother understands now what he needs from her, and he has a new grandpa (Turk) and sister (Aisha).


This story of family—both the one we are born into and the one we can choose to make—is not to be missed. Konigsberg packs so much into this story, and his characters, all damaged and flawed, struggle with HUGE questions. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It left me wanting to know more about all of the characters’ pasts and their futures. Masterfully written and intensely moving, this is a road trip book unlike any other. Be ready to laugh, groan, and cry as you follow Carson and Aisha on their (literal and metaphorical) journey.


Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780545648936

Publisher: Scholastic, Inc.

Publication date: 5/26/2015


Middle Grade Monday – Memorial Day Take 5

middlegrademondayI’m somewhat torn over the fact that Memorial Day is a holiday. On one hand, I think it’s valuable for us to recognize the service and sacrifices of those who’ve served our country so selflessly. On the other hand, as a middle school librarian, I wonder what it means to my students beyond a day off from school. The ones who have family members who have served or are currently serving in the military certainly understand, but what about the others? And as for me, I grew up in an era of growing doubt and skepticism of those serving in our military. Gone were the days when service people were viewed through the lens of unambiguous patriotism. A sense of unease over military tactics, fueled by growing real-time media coverage, had brought a sense of the moral complexities of war that concerned many parents and teachers I had, who had grown up in a more ‘Captain America’ era of viewing the military as the ultimate good. But seeing people and their actions in their complexity it ultimately a good, if confusing, reality.

There are a number of young adult books which deal so well with these topics. I’m thinking of A.S. King’s Everybody Sees the Ants, Laurie Halse Anderson’s The Impossible Knife of Memory, and Walter Dean Myers’ Fallen Angels and Sunrise Over Fallujah. But for middle grades, there are not as many obvious choices. Issues such as PTSD need to be dealt with on a more sensitive level, and can be difficult to fully describe to a middle grade audience. I recommend the following 5 books / series for those students in the middle grades who are interested in stories dealing with the military side of war:

9780545270298_xlgChris Lynch’s Vietnam series:

Four best friends. Four ways to serve their country.

Morris, Rudi, Ivan, and Beck are best friends for life. So when one of the teens is drafted into the Vietnam War, the others sign up, too. Although they each serve in a different branch, they are fighting the war together — and they pledge to do all they can to come home together.

9780545522946_xlgAnd his World War II series:

There are few things Roman loves as much as baseball, but his country is at the top of the list. So when it looks like the United States will be swept up into World War II, he turns his back on baseball and joins the US Army.

Roman doesn’t mind. As it turns out, he is far more talented with a tank than he ever was with a baseball. And he is eager to drive his tank right into the field of battle, where the Army is up against the fearsome Nazis of the Afrika Korps.

The North African terrain is like nothing Roman has ever known, and desert warfare proves brutal. As Roman drives his team deeper into disputed territory, one thing becomes very clear: Life in wartime is a whole new ball game.

Camo Girl  by Kekla Magoon (see my review here) provides a complex view of a middle grader dealing with his father’s PTSD that was a direct result of his military service.

10677573The Bloodlines series by M. Zachary Sherman:

Tradition. Loyalty. Strength. It’s in their blood. A set of war stories connected by a family bloodline–each book follows a different family member into battle. This series reinvents military fiction through the exciting combination of graphic-novel art and socially interactive story lines. Each hero faces a realistic character-building moment as they experience life on the battlefield in these wars: World War II,in Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan. Each book includes maps, notes on weapon technology and background on the actual historical battle.




And, finally, P.S. Be Eleven, by Rita Williams Garcia, which deals realistically and sensitively with the after effects of serving in Vietnam as seen through the three girls’ interactions with their uncle, Darnell.