Teen Librarian Toolbox
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Take 5: Important Books on a Difficult Topic – Sexual Violence in the Lives of Teens

When I lost my baby, I went into a deep, dark hole.  The only thing that helped me claw my way out of the darkness was to read books about other women having a miscarriage.  It helped me know that I wasn’t alone, that what I was feeling was perfectly normal, and that I could once again – one day – find my way into the light.  That is one of the magical powers of books, they hold our hand on a healing journey and they remind us that the world is big and there are others that do in fact understand what we are going through.  And if you haven’t been through it, they can help shed light on the feelings and emotions that those that have may be feeling.

Statistics indicate that by the time they are 18 years old, 1 out of 3 (or 4) girls and 1 out of 5 boys will have experienced some type of sexual violence in their lives. A troubling statistic to be sure. One that needs to change, to zero.  But it also means that there is a need for books written for teens to include these types of horrific acts.  Not for shock value, but to be the books that remind those teens that they can claw their way out of the darkness.  And to remind those of us that work with and care about teens what their lives may be like, and the emotions that come with that.  As the mom of two little girls, my hope is that we will read these types of books, be horrified, and join together to work to make sure that no more children have to experience this type of abuse and the painful emotional after effects, emotions that can plague survivors for the rest of their lives.

These are 5 books that I think we should all read, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us feel.  Please note, if you click after the jump there will be spoilers for a couple of new titles.  Also, please be aware that the discussion of the titles and of course the titles themselves can be triggers.

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

Speak is one of the classics on this topic.  It is a haunting tale of the emotional after effects of one girls rape at a party.  So traumatized is she by what happens, she literally shuts down and loses her voice.  It is also about her slow journey to find herself again, and to speak up when the moment calls for it.  Laurie Halse Anderson is an advocate for rape victims and works with RAINN. 1999, Highly Recommended

Fault Line by Christa Desir

Although rape affects its victims greatly, it also affects those that love them.  Fault Line is unique in that it looks at how rape can affect those that love its victims, in this case the boyfriend.  Told entirely from the boyfriend’s point of view, we see guilt and the desire to rescue those we love as they spiral into the dark aftermath of rape.  Fault Line is also important because it reminds us that not all who are assaulted become quiet and withdrawn, sometimes they react by becoming promiscuous and trying to take control of their sexuality by having a lot of sexual experiences.  This is emotionally a very hard read, and it is very frank in its depiction of many sexual situations and strong emotions. It is a unique and important perspective. 2013, Recommended

Where the Stars Still Shine by Trish Doller

Callie has spent her life on the road fleeing with her mother, who kidnapped her from her father.  Along the way, her mother has had various men in her life, one of whom did horrible things to her.  Where the Stars Still Shine is a beautiful, moving portrait of the deep emotional effects of childhood abuse.  It is one of the most well developed emotional portraits I have read.  Like in Fault Line, Callie becomes promiscuous as a way to try to take control of her sexuality and to try and find the perfect healing sexual experience; It gives her a power over herself that this man in her past took away.  But unlike Fault Line, this story is told from the victim’s point of view so we get a deep, nuanced look into Callie’s psyche.  There is a scene where she freaks out during a sexual encounter because it triggers her that just rings truer than most scenes I have ever read.  It is also a book that leads Callie into a journey of healing as she finds people who truly love her.  As a side note, it is also a good depiction of mental illness (her mother).  Also, there are some disturbing, very realistic scenes that depict what has happened to Callie; though they are not graphic in their depiction, they are so spot on in capturing the terror and emotions.  2013, Highly Recommended

Monstrous Beauty by Elizabeth Fama

There is a rape that occurs in this book, and it is disturbing.  Very disturbing.  But there are also two scenes of street harassment in this book.  On the surface, they don’t necessarily need to be in the book.  But I am glad that Fama included them because it is a powerful reminder of what life for many can be like, how they can have these totally random and unexpected moments where suddenly they find themselves in a perilous position being harassed and frightened by both people they know and complete strangers.  They are effective reminders of what life is like because they don’t need to be in the story, but they are.  Just as these moments shouldn’t be in the lives of our teens, but they are.  When we have written about street harassment here in the past we get a lot of comments from teens who tell us about how they are harassed while walking to and from school and sometimes even in their school hallways.  They way these scenes are included in Monstrous Beauty is a stark reminder of the reality of street harassment. 2012, Highly Recommended

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick

Sexual violence doesn’t just happen to girls.  Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock is a powerful story of the emotional effects of rape and sexual violence on a boy, Leonard.  Leonard sets out on his birthday to kill himself, but only after killing the boy who did something horrible to him.  There is a powerful scene where Leonard tells a teacher what happened and he looks at him and says, “You know that boys can be raped, too, don’t you?” (not an exact quote from the book, I don’t have it sitting in front of me).  In that moment he has put a name to that which Leonard could not. 2013, Highly Recommended

In these books, the teens don’t always seek out help (in fact, they almost never do).  And the adults don’t always do the right thing.  But the power is in how well they capture the emotions.  And these are, of course, not the only titles on the subject; many would argue sometimes not even the best.  However, my goal is to capture a wide range of experiences and emotions to represent a wider view on the topic.  Share your thoughts in the comments.

More on the Topic in Teen Issues:

What It’s Like for a Girl: How Monstrous Beauty by Elizabeth Fama made me think about the politics of sexuality in the life of girls
Sexual Assault Awareness Month, talking to teens about consent and rape part 1 and part 2
Should there be sex in YA books? 
Plan B: What Youth Advocates Need to Know 
Because No Always Mean No, a list of books dealing with sexual assault
Who Will Save You? Boundaries, Rescue and the Role of Adults in YA Lit.  A look at consent and respecting boundaries in relationships outside of just sex. 
Incest, the last taboo
This is What Consent Looks Like
Street Harassment

Book Review: Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick (SPOILERS)

Spoiler Alert: Please note, given the sensitive nature of this book, this review contains spoilers.  You have been warned.
Short, non-spoilery review: This is an excellently written book about a young man struggling with emotional issues and the day he sets out to kill Asher Beal and then himself.  Raw, powerful, stunning and a shining example of the literary YA novelObviously it contains mature content (and refers to a topic not often addressed in YA lit) and language. 4.5 out of 5 stars (minus half a star for concerns about the ending)
Opening Scene: 
“The P-38 WWII Nazi handgun looks comical lying on the breakfast table next to a bowl of oatmeal.  It’s like some weird steampunk utenisil anachronism.  But if you look very closely just above the handle, you can see the tiny stamped swastika and the eagle perched on top, which is real as hell.
     I take a photo of my place setting with my iPhone, thinking it cold be both evidence and modern art. . . .
    The art and naswer worlds will love it, I bet.
     Especially after I actually kill Asher Beal and off myself.” – pages 1-2
When we first meet Leonard Peacock, it is his birthday.  The day he is going to kill Asher Beal and then commit suicide.  It is the day he visits the only 4 people in the world that matter to him and gives them a single present before he commits this horrible act.  It is the day that changes everything.

The Long Spoilery Review
Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock is an excellently written book.  An extremeley uncomfortable read, but amazing writing and insight.  In fact, there are parts where Leonard talks about dressing up and following adults around to see if he can find just one happy adult that will take your breath away; the insight of this teenage boy and the amazing way Quick presents it are so deep and profound, you will take a moment to think about your own life.  Before I talk about the book itself, I just want to say: the writing in this book is just amazing.  Award winning, razor cutting, amazing.
As a character, Leonard is interesting because you should obviously not like him.  I mean, he is about to go and kill someone.  But he is heartbreaking and you know that horrible things have happened to him.  In fact – and again, HUGE SPOILER ALERT – I don’t think readers are very surprised to learn that Asher Beal has raped Leonard Peacock.  And as horrific and heartbreaking as it all is in this book, I am glad that Quick wrote this story because there is not a lot of ya lit out there about male rape, and those victims need to have books to turn to in their own time of need.
Leonard Peacock is a book about sexual violence, but it does not include sexual violence as  a way to shock or entice readers. (For more on this topic, read Maggie Steifvater’s post on Literary Rape.)  No, here we have a tale that is very much about the damage that is wrought in the life of its victims, and there is more than one victim.  It brings up meaningful discussion about how our actions can negatively impact others and it effectively portrays just the visceral shattering of this boy, Leonard, who was already on shaky ground to begin with (he has the WORST mother ever present in ya lit. Just absolutely the worst.)
Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock is full of little oddities: It has sarcastic footnotes throughout the text, letters appear throughout as a future Leonard writes to present day Leonard.  When reading Leonard Peacock you will be reminded of writers like A. S. King (who apparently is my benchmark for awesome, gritty, cutting edge realistic teen fiction).  But these quirky elements really add to the power of it.
Which brings me to what I consider to be a huge note of CAUTION about this book!!! And again, spoiler alert: the ending.  Leonard is saved, in a way, by his favorite teacher (Herr), one of the 4 gift recipients.  He breaks all kinds of rules and takes Leonard home and tells him that yes, high school sucks, but if he just keeps working at it he will survive and be okay.  And then Leonard goes home and his mom never really appears to embrace the fact that Leonard is really and truly messed up and needs help.  Some people will disagree, but I just worry that the end message ends up being “hold on, it will get better” when there needed to be a real statement of “horrible things have happened to you and you are struggling and let’s get you some professional help.”  Even an end note to this affect would be good.  Also, I feel that there would be incredible legal ramifications for Herr who had this knowledge and didn’t report it, especially in light of Aurora and Newtown.  Herr is an excellent teacher and character, and I worry that he is not making the right decision here for either of them.
Look, I understand that the author’s responsibility is ultimately to the story and not the reader, but this is such a sensitive subject and teen readers, especially those who are struggling with these issues already, are so young, I just feel like we have a responsibility to make sure teen readers get the best and most correct information.  What I read was an ARC of the book (borrowed from a friend), so I hope when it is published in August of this year there will be some good endnotes and organizations to contact for help.  But even if there aren’t, I can’t deny that this is an excellently written, powerful, and important book.  
Of course the other hot topic issue is that of teenage violence and violence in the schools.  This is a fascinating look at what leads one boy to contemplate this path, and of the people in his life who both bring him to it and might help him step off it.  Not only should teens read this book, but everyone who works with or parents a teen should read it.

RAINN is dedicated to helping victims of sexual violence in their healing journey 

Edited to add a Link to this Goodreads review by Laura: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/517205211

She says: “The build-up here is slow, and we really get a sense of how smart Leonard is, how he’s not afraid to be different (or think different) than his peers, and how lonely he is and desperate to see something – anything – good in life.”  This is spot on and I love how eloquently and fiercely that desperation is portrayed.

She says: “I’m not so fond of the Letters from the Future, however, and Herr Silvermann was (at times) too much of the Good Teacher Who Cares, hence the rating issue.” I also was not fond of the letters from the future but got that they were another attempt by Leonard to try and convince himself that the future held promise.  The first time you read one of the letters, however, is very jarring.
Forgve Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick.  Published by Little, Brown in August of 2013.  ISBN: 978-0-316-22133-7