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Sunday Reflections: Colonel Mustard in the Library with the Lead Pipe, aka on “Due Process” in Literature and Yes, Another Discussion of MOXIE

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A teen stumbles on a body in a field. Or their best friend is missing. Or they get a mysterious package in the mail. What do they do? They almost never call the police. Never. In the great tradition of Scooby Doo, they investigate themselves, because of course they do. In fact, if they didn’t, there would be no novel.

While investigating they touch everything. They move important information. They don’t talk to each other about what they find, let alone the authorities. Yet I have never read a review that suggested a mystery novel was a problem because the main characters didn’t follow due process.

In case you are wondering what I am talking about, a recent Kirkus review of Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu complained that this novel was a problem because it embraced vigilante justice and ignored due process. I have already written my thoughts about this book and this review earlier this week, but I can’t help continuing to think about the concept of due process. (See Let’s Talk about MOXIE by Jennifer Mathieu)

If we demanded that our main characters followed the letter of the law in every novel that we read the entire mystery, thriller and horror genres would cease to exist immediately. Poof, they are gone.

We read about teen crime fighters, teen spies, teen hackers and more, but a teen girl sharing with others that she was the victim of an attempted rape is a line you can not cross?

Sexual crimes are largely under-reported. Do you know why? It’s because of the ways that we treat victims who come forward. They will be questioned about what they wore, what they drank, where they were, their sexual history and more. They will be treated as if it is all their fault. Due process does not favor those who come forward and ask for justice for the sexual crimes committed against them.

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The fact that this reviewer insists upon due process in a FICTIONAL NOVEL meant to empower young women highlights how loathe we are to give a voice to the victims of sexual violence. I have never seen this insistence of due process in any other type of novel, nor have I seen a fear of vigilante justice, even in novels that actually include vigilante justice. Because we understand that novels are, well, fiction.

So here I am days later still grappling with this review but not because of the review itself, but because of what it reinforces about rape culture. We don’t believe victims. We hold conversations about sexual violence to a different standard then any other discussions about criminal behavior. We ask things of the survivors of sexual violence that we don’t ask the survivors of any other crime.

But this review is written by a woman? Yes, yes it is. And women are raised in the same patriarchal society that teaches us that the voice of men and the concerns about men’s futures are more important than the voices of the victims of sexual violence. It’s hard work breaking down that internalized misogyny. It’s work that even the most feminist of feminists are still doing. News, media, churches, our own families – they reinforce the patriarchy from the moment we are born and it is hard and constant work to break that down and to choose to give women equal footing. That is, by the way, what Moxie is doing, it’s doing the hard work of breaking that down and empowering teen girls by reminding them that they deserve to have a voice. But even in a book designed to empower and give teen girls a voice, many are asking but what about the men? It’s hard to center the female voice because we have been taught that we can’t, that we shouldn’t.

For another great discussion of Moxie, check out this Booklist review: Girls to the Front: Jennifer Mathieu’s MOXIE

And that refusal to listen to and center the female voice – even on occasion – is part of the reason why there is a group of 12 male senators writing a secret healthcare bill that will dramatically impact women’s healthcare choices and costs. It’s why male senators continue to ask female senators to be quiet or “less hysterical”, despite the fact that the data continues to show us that even when women speak less than men, they are perceived as dominating the conversation.

It’s why we have a review demanding that a fictional novel become a how-to-manual when it involves a female main character accusing a male character of rape (actually, attempted rape if we are going to precise).

I was a middle school child who tried to tell the adults around me that I was the victim of sexual violence. I followed “due process” and nothing ever came of it. It was swept under the rug, as these things often are, and my voice was taken from me. I never got justice. In fact, I have spent the rest of my life trying to navigate and juggle family situations in a way that keeps me safe from having to be around the person who violated me. The work was put on me, a child, because every adult around me – including law enforcement – failed me. I now talk about what happened to me in coded ways so as to protect myself from any legal repercussions from the person who violated me as a child. If you have read this blog long enough you will realize that I never say who or what relationship I have with this person; I do this so that this person can never come back and sue me for character assassination. Now I protect him even though no one protected me. That’s what it is like being the victim of sexual violence and trying to follow due process.

I imagine what it would have been like for me if I had read a book like Moxie during the time that I was being abused. If I would have felt more empowered to ask for help sooner, to demand justice more fully, to give myself a voice instead of growing old in shameful silence. I wonder what it would be like to have had people stand up with me and walk out of a school in a show of solidarity and support instead of having a family that complained that I was being unfair to my abuser and making the family uncomfortable and strained. Moxie is not supposed to be a how-to-manual, because no novel is by definition, but it is an empowering and inspiring one. And for that I am forever grateful. Teenage me is glad that today’s teens will have this book that reminds them that they don’t have to be silent, that they don’t have to center men, and that they can choose to be advocates and activists.

If you can read a mystery novel and not complain about the lack of due process then you should be able to read a novel about female empowerment and not complain about the lack of due process. If not, you should probably take some time to reflect and ask yourself why.

Let’s Talk about MOXIE by Jennifer Mathieu

moxieTrigger Warning: Sexual Violence

This past year was a rough one for The Teen. I got repeated texts from my daughter asking me to please come pick her up at school because she didn’t feel safe. She came home and talked about boys touching her and her friends in the hallways, catcalling, asking them to send naked pics and telling them to suck their d*cks. As a mother and a sexual abuse survivor, it was so hard to watch my daughter go through this year.

During the last few weeks of school 15 girls were sent home for wearing school spirit t-shirts as opposed to the uniform polo shirts. Fifteen. But during an assembly where they were being taught CPR nothing happened to the boys who yelled out to the instructor crude comments about sucking and blowing. Absolutely nothing.

I called the school. I wrote to the admin. I asked them to address their sexual abuse policy and how it was being implemented. I shared with them stories about what was happening to my daughter and her friends.

And in the midst of all of this, I read Moxie.

Moxie is the story of a high school where the girls are going exactly through what my daughter was going through. This book was personal. So I after I read the book, I ran into The Teen’s room and said, “you need to read this right now.”

In Moxie, our main character, Vivian, begins a revolution to call out and raise awareness of harassment and injustice the girls in her high school face. It begins when she finds some old zines in her mother’s closet. She posts her own zine and asks her fellow students to show up on a specified date with stars on their hands to raise awareness. And several do. Over time, the movement evolves. Others post their own zines. Many of the girls hold a bake sale to raise funds for new uniforms for a female sport that isn’t supported in the same way that the HS football team is. When the bake sale is banned on campus, they hold an event off campus. They go from supporting one female sport to all female sports. Their advocacy is a work in progress as they learn, grown, regroup and figure out what it means to be involved and an advocate. I found this process to be incredibly realistic, that is the nature of waking up to injustice and choosing to be vocal. No one is a perfect advocate, ally or activist; we are all learning as we go. So of course these teenage girls are imperfect in their attempts. In fact, I appreciated the way the girls talked and worked out the kinks as they went along in their journey. Character growth is an awesome thing.

In a recent review by Kirkus, there were some harsh criticisms leveled again Moxie and the way these girls approach speaking out about their experiences. The reviewer complained that boys weren’t given a voice and that the book didn’t really address the issue of due process vs. vigilante justice. I disagree with this review.

Kirkus Quote: Vivian’s incensed reaction when her boyfriend suggests the anonymous accuser might be lying ignores the American judicial system’s core tenet of due process.

For one, Vivian has a boyfriend with whom she has many important conversations about these issues, including that of believing the victim. In fact, they have a very good discussion when one of the football players is accused of rape regarding false accusations and the important of believing the victim. It’s also important for us to note that false accusations are incredibly rare, in large part because of the harsh realities that victims must face when they do come out and share their story. We as a culture are quick to blame victims while even convicted offenders like Brock Turner will receive very little jail time as we are more worried about what happens to men who rape as compared to what happens to the girls that they rape. Vivian’s message is believe the victim, and that’s an important message. Victims are re-harmed time and time again because no one will believe them.

Kirkus Quote: But there are troubling moments when Vivian excludes willing male participants, seemingly suggesting that achieving female empowerment requires gender separation.

First, I’m not sure I view this quote as entirely accurate. For example, towards the end of the book, I felt that the girls were in fact thankful for the guy’s who participated in their walk out. As for the criticism that this book doesn’t embrace the activism of feminist men, I reply with this thought: why can’t a book about female empowerment be a book about female empowerment? One of the things I am learning as an ally is that my voice should never rise above that of the group or persons I am trying to be an ally for. In the work of feminism, this is true of the male voice. I appreciate the allyship and support of men when it comes to fighting for equal rights and sexual safety, but the male voice should not be louder than the female voice in this discussion because then nothing about the dynamics have changed. We currently have an all male leadership working to make laws about women’s healthcare and reproductive choices and male senators keep telling female senators to be quiet and sit down – now is the time to raise and amplify the female voice in the discussion of female rights and safety. Men do not lack a platform or a voice, so just this once maybe we can agree to empower our daughters and give them a voice and let men take a back seat. Is that too much to ask? I don’t think it is. I think it is the only way that the dynamics will change. It’s time to listen to women when we talk about women’s rights and bodies and experiences. This is a book that amplifies the female voice in the discussion of female experiences of oppression and sexual violence.

Kirkus Review: Further, the novel fails to educate readers that qualified police investigators, not school officials, must be alerted in accusations of criminal behaviors.

This quote is of particular interest to me because this what not actually the experience of some of the girls and their parents at our school this year. In fact, when a teen girl was held down in class as a boy tried to touch her and another boy tried to video tape it, her mother called the police to report the incident. She was told it was a school and not a police matter. Schools are required by Title IX to protect all students, including to protect them in instances of sexual violence. Unfortunately, schools are failing our students in this regard every single day. 1 in 4 of our daughters will be the victim of some type of sexual violence before they graduate high school. Much of this will take place in our schools. In fact, the police, schools and the judicial system keep failing them.  There are far more guilty Brock Turners who will serve zero to little time after being found guilty.

As the mother of a teenage daughter who went through the exact experiences shown is this book, I feel Moxie is a powerful and important and relevant and inspiring story of how girls can join together to fight for their rights and safety. It’s a novel, not a hand book, but it’s definitely an inspiring starting point that says to girls, you can change the dynamics. What a powerful message that is to receive when you live in a world where you don’t feel safe at your school.

There are other powerful messages and discussions in this book. The characters change their minds about a lot of things as they learn and grow. They come to regard each other differently as they see each other as complex and dynamic people. There is, in fact, a powerful story about a cheerleader and how their stereotypical views of this person change when they receive new information.

I loved this book. It is the book that my teenage daughter and I needed in the midst of this school year. And I know, because I have worked with teens for 23+ years, that her experience was not unique. The first time a boy ever reached out and grabbed my breast was when I was walking through the hallways of my middle school. It was not the only time. Go ask any woman and they will probably be able to share similar stories as the stories that you read about in Moxie. And that’s why this book matters.

I highly recommend it. I’m buying it for every teenager I know.

Publisher’s Book Description

An unlikely teenager starts a feminist revolution at a small-town Texan high school in the new novel from Jennifer Matheiu, author of The Truth About Alice.

MOXIE GIRLS FIGHT BACK!

Vivian Carter is fed up. Fed up with a school administration at her small-town Texas high school that thinks the football team can do no wrong. Fed up with sexist dress codes, hallway harassment, and gross comments from guys during class. But most of all, Viv Carter is fed up with always following the rules.

Viv’s mom was a tough-as-nails, punk rock Riot Grrrl in the ’90s, and now Viv takes a page from her mother’s past and creates a feminist zine that she distributes anonymously to her classmates. She’s just blowing off steam, but other girls respond. As Viv forges friendships with other young women across the divides of cliques and popularity rankings, she realizes that what she has started is nothing short of a girl revolution.

Moxie is a book about high school life that will make you wanna riot!

This book comes out in September 2017

Sunday Reflections: That’s Me in the Corner . . .

TRIGGER WARNING: SEXUAL VIOLENCE

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This year was more triggering for me then I ever could have imagined. 8th grade, the worst year of my life. The year of betrayal at the hands of a man who swore to keep me safe, a man I trusted. The year my teenage daughter was now entering into. This was the year I dreaded since learning I would become a mother, and to daughters.

I thought at the beginning of the year, if I can just keep her safe this year then everything will be okay. If we just can make it through the 8t grade, she’ll be safe.

It turns out, that is a lie.

That’s me in the corner
That’s me in the spotlight
Losing my religion
Trying to keep up with you
And I don’t know if I can do it
Oh no I’ve said too much
I haven’t said enough

This election peeled off the scab that had formed over the wounds of my own experience with sexual violence. As election night drew near, my heart sank. I drove through my town and watched as more and more signs for Donald Trump went up, despite the fact that we had all heard the audio of this man openly boasting about sexual violence. I heard pundits and friends and family dismissing this behavior as locker room talk. I read the letter sent out by my church from Franklin Graham assuring me that the only right way to vote was for the sanctity of life.

But whose life?

You see that’s what this election has made clear, we do not value the sanctity of all lives equally. We made that clear when we put a man in the White House who is on record as saying that he can grab any woman he wants by the pussy. A man who filled his cabinet with at least 3 men who have been accused of domestic violence. A man whose first act as president was to sign a piece of paper in a room full of men that rescinded some of the rights of women both in healthcare and in the workplace.

Every whisper
Of every waking hour
I’m choosing my confessions
Trying to keep an eye on you
Like a hurt, lost and blinded fool, fool
Oh no, I’ve said too much
I set it up

So I look at my daughter and I realize, even if I get her safely through this 8th grade year, if she can get through this year without being touched by a man against her will, she still isn’t safe. Not really.

Last year, as the election drew to a close and it was announced that Donald Trump would be the 45th president, I wrote a letter on my FB page to the church universal. I poured out my heart to the universe about how I would not be able to go to church the following Sunday knowing that the church didn’t care about me, a survivor of sexual violence. It was me pouring out my pain and my fear and the rejection I felt from my safe place, my faith, because they had just voted a man into the highest office who said out loud the very things victims of sexual violence have to live with. It was angry, it was real, and it was raw.

My best friend unfriended me. My church abandoned me. I was told I was a sinner who needed to get right with God. I was left standing, alone, in my despair as I realized that power, a Supreme Court judge, and a few key issues were more important than the safety of women, the safety of my daughters. It was in this moment that I truly I understood my place in the Christian faith, and my sorrow knew no bounds. I was an outsider in this place I was supposed to call my home, my family.

That’s me in the corner
That’s me in the spotlight
Losing my religion
Trying to keep up with you
And I don’t know if I can do it
Oh no, I’ve said too much
I haven’t said enough

All of those feelings came surging back again this week as more and more news came out about Bill O’Reilly. I have never personally been a big viewer of Fox News, but I know that it is the channel endorsed by my church and most of my Christian friends. I also knew about the sexual harassment accusations and ousting of Roger Ailes. And now comes news of Bill O’Reilly. And I am reminded again, many people are willing to sacrifice the safety of women for whatever it is they perceive they gain by propping up these men, by looking the other way. For Bill O’Reilly, it’s rating and money. For Donald Trump, it’s power and money. The safety of women, it appears, can be easily bought.

What do I tell me daughter as she reads, once again, about the sexual harassment of women? Brock Turner. Bill Cosby. Donald Trump. The Baylor football team. Bill O’Reilly. It’s everywhere. A new name comes up before the old name is even able to leave fully formed from our lips. The list grows longer. The world grows less safe as we become more aware of how prevalent sexual harassment, abuse and violence really is.

This world feels fundamentally unsafe for women. We’re willing to look past crimes against them because we want comfort, power, a conservative Supreme Court judge . . . We are willing to sacrifice women at the altar of male power. The truth of it burns deep into the core of me; I am a fire that can not be quenched any longer with platitudes and niceties. I am rage. I am despair. I feel like I might finally understand what it means when we describe God as a vengeful God, as a heartbroken parent, as a rejected bridegroom . . . I feel cast aside, and I alternate between despair and a need for vengeance. I want to rain down a cleansing fire and hold our daughters in our hearts and whisper to them, you are loved, you are valued, you are safe.

How do I help my daughter feel like she is precious in the eyes of God when the church is willing to sacrifice her to the wolves? How do I make her feel valuable in this world when men in power call her a host and pass laws that make her powerless over her body? How do I make her feel safe when legislators and judges try to explain away rape by trying to say it’s not legitimate rape? How do I make her feel confident and motivated and worthy of an education when schools punish girls for having bodies and put the responsibility of boys education on them somehow by calling girls distractions? How, how, how . . .

How do I raise a daughter who is whole and healthy and confident and chosen when everything about this world seems designed to tell her that she is none of those things, and doesn’t deserve to be?

The Vice President of the United States recently revealed that he can’t have dinner alone with a woman, preventing women from being involved in business and government as his equal. We are lesser objects, temptresses, bodies to be feared, not minds and heart and voices to be included and respected.

When I was twenty, I was engaged to the man who is now my husband. We have been married 22 years this year. But at the time, I was living in Southern California, renting a room from a family in my church. They called me their daughter. Their children called me sister. This arrangement was made because I wasn’t safe in the house I was living in. For two years, I called their house my home and I called them family.

One day, the mother came to me and told me that she and the kids were going on a two week vacation and I would have to find somewhere else to live while they were gone. It was then that I knew that it was all a lie. I was not family, I was not a fellow Christian, I was as I have always been a female body that couldn’t be seen as anything more than a sexual object, a temptation, a lesser being. I packed up my belongings and went to the only place that was open to me, the place that they had supposedly been keeping me safe from for the last two years.

That was 24 years ago and the world feels less safe now than it did then. Then the church universal still pretended to care about the sanctity and safety of women, but now the curtain has torn and the sheep have taken off their costumes to reveal the wolves underneath. The church no longer feels like a sanctuary but a pit of vipers thriving off of my fear.

I close my eyes at night and I see the leaders of the church as monsters, gnashing their teeth at the tether of female safety, willing to sacrifice us all for power. The 44-year-old sexual assault survivor, the 8th grader whose mom just wants her to be safe, the 8-year-old who doesn’t yet understand what it means to have wolves in office. Women are all on the sacrificial altar when it comes to maintaining money and power.

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In this lifetime, 1 in 4 women will be the victims of sexual violence of one kind or another. Many of us have been fighting hard to raise awareness and to help lower these statistics. But now, we have put a predator in office who has surrounded himself by others who appear to hate women, and most days it feels like we have lost the fight. How do we tell the current generation of boys growing up how to treat a woman when we have contradicted ourselves by the men we put in power? How do we tell them we value consent and respect when they can go on YouTube and hear their president speaking the way he does about women? We have legitimized the very thing I have been fighting again.

I recently started going to another church. I listen every week waiting to hear someone say that what is happening in our world is not okay. I’m waiting for a man – any man –  to stand at the pulpit and say, without hesitation or doubt, but in the boldness that comes from speaking the truth, that sexual violence against women is not under any circumstances okay. That women shouldn’t be given a numeric value, that women’s health matters, that consent is the only acceptable option.

I’m waiting for the letter from Frankly Graham that says the only right way to vote is for the candidate that values the sanctity and safety of women. That it is never acceptable to have a sexual predator in our highest government office.

I’m waiting for the world to tell me that my daughters deserve to be safe and loved and respected.

I’m desperately waiting.

faith and Spirituality

I need to know that my church, that my faith, values me. Values my daughters.

I need to know that moving forward, we will no longer continue to tolerate propping up men who abuse women – not for ratings, not for profit, and not for power. Not for a Supreme Court justice. Not for a majority in Congress. Not for the power to make laws that make men richer.

That’s me in the corner, sitting on a pew, waiting for my church to tell me that I am safe among them. But slowly, so slowly, I am losing my religion. Because I refuse to take my daughters to a place of worship that thinks their value and safety is something that can be sacrificed.

And now, I finally understand the song. I’m losing my religion, though I am trying desperately to hang on to my faith.

Title and quoted lyrics are from LOSING MY RELIGION by R.E.M.

#SVYALit (2014)

The Sexual Violence in YA Project, using YA literature to discussion sexual violence in the life of teens

#FSYALit (2015)

The Faith and Spirituality in YA Lit Discussion, using YA literature to discussion a diversity of faiths in the life of teens

Sunday Reflections: Wrestling with Nate Parker and the Narrative of Forgiveness

sundayreflections1When I started high school, I completely had to cut myself off from a part of my family in order to protect myself from the man who had spent the previous year molesting me. I was not universally supported in this decision. Many people considered it an inconvenience to the family. Many others remarked that I was hurting this person. Very few people were concerned about my safety or well being, which is often the case with sexual violence.

We live in a world where we still care more about the ramifications of sexual violence charges on the perpetrator then on the results of sexual violence on the victim. Judges, for example, give lenient or almost non-existent sentences because they are worried about how it will impact these lives of these young men. Brock Turner will serve little to no time. And he is but just one example.

I have thought about this a lot this week as I have wrestled with the news of Nate Parker and reading IRREVERSIBLE by Chris Lynch.

In the interest of full disclosure, let me say this: the man who abused me when I was in the 8th grade is now a part of my life. He went to therapy. I went to therapy. I have chosen to forgive him and have a relationship with him. But it was my choice. And it is not always an easy relationship. It’s been 30 years, but I still wrestle with many of the effects of being sexually abused. And there are both spoken and unspoken rules to our relationship. He doesn’t get to pretend that my childhood was okay, because it wasn’t. He doesn’t get to act like nothing happened because it did. He knows that I talk openly about being a victim of sexual violence and he doesn’t get to complain about that because this is the truth of my life.

So if I have forgiven and chosen to have a relationship with my abuser, why am I so hesitant to easily forgive public figures for their crimes of sexual violence? The answer is because of this: in the public discourse, we still focus to much on dismissing and coddling the perpetrators of sexual violence and this is a huge problem for victims everywhere. Our focus on perpetrators as opposed to victims continues to support rape culture and victim blaming, making it harder for victims to come forward and get the legal and emotional help that they need to survive.

Also, I think that we need evidence that perpetrators have done the work necessary to understand their crimes and seek true forgiveness. It’s one thing to say your sorry because you got caught and need to save public face, it’s quite another to understand that you have truly harmed your fellow human beings and contributed to a culture that makes it harder for victims of sexual violence to get justice and support. I’m sorry I got caught is not the same thing as I did an evil thing.

How we discuss and handle sexual violence publicly is incredibly important. It defines our culture. It can make it easier or harder for victims. Traditionally, our culture has made it incredibly hard for victims. And even though there is more discussion about sexual violence, we are still wrestling with victim blame and perpetrator supporting. How we talk about these issues in the media sends both explicit and implicit messages to everyone about how we should respond to accusations and victims of sexual violence, and right now we are still not doing a very good job with this.

Nate Parker’s charges of sexual violence occurred in 1999. Do they matter today? We don’t get to decide that. Unfortunately, the only person who does get to decide that took her own life because of the many ways she suffered as a victim of sexual violence. But now that this information is public, we very much have a responsibility to all past and future victims to discuss the ways in which we publicly wrestle with sexual violence. How we talk about what happened then now matters because it can either reinforce or dismantle rape culture.

When we talk about Woody Allen, Nate Parker, Bill Cosby and more, we’re not just talking about individual cases. We’re talking about about sexual violence as a whole and how we can change our culture so that victims can get the justice and the support that they need. Because Nate Parker’s case has become public it is no longer a private matter, but it’s a part of a larger discussion that helps us define as a culture how we are going to respond to sexual violence. It sets the tone for the next victim who comes forward seeking justice and support. We have failed victim after victim after victim. It’s time that we change the conversation and start supporting them, which is why I can’t separate the art from the artist. It’s not just about the art, it’s about our culture.

The Book I DNFed: IRREVERSIBLE by Chris Lynch

irreversibleToday I want to talk with you about IRREVERSIBLE by Chris Lynch. I am currently 50% done reading this book and I am going to do something that I have seldom done before and not only DNF this book but discuss with you why I am choosing to do so. As a librarian and a professional book reviewer, I am actually very uncomfortable with DNFing a book. I am even more uncomfortable with talking about a book that I have chosen to DNF. I have traditionally been a huge proponent of you can’t judge a book that you haven’t fully read, that is also probably true of this book. And yet, here I am wrestling with what to do about this book.

Before we begin, let’s discuss the controversy surrounding this book. This is the companion book to INEXCUSABLE by Chris Lynch. In Inexcusable, we meet Keir on the morning after he has raped a girl named Gigi. The story then is told in flashbacks as Keir tries to convince us that he is a “good guy” and that what she says has happened can’t be what really happened. Keir is an unreliable narrator, meaning that you can’t trust his perspective. Inexcusable is an award winning book that I feel does a really good job of making it’s point and asking readers to think about the topic of consent. In fact, I spoke with Chris Lynch about this book as part of the #SVYALit Project.

Ten years later, Lynch has written this follow up book, IRREVERSIBLE, which many people have already claimed they will not read or cover based on the book description. See, for example, We Will Not Cover Irreversible by YA Interrobang.

Here is the publisher’s book description:

The accused date rapist from the “finely crafted and thought-provoking” (School Library Journal) National Book Award Finalist, Inexcusable, must confront the kind of person he really is and come to terms with his past actions, in this stunning sequel from Printz Honor–winning author Chris Lynch.

Keir Sarafian insists he did nothing wrong. But no one will believe that he’s the good guy he knows he is—no one except his father, Ray. And Ray is just the person Keir has to leave in order to have the fresh start he deserves.

Now at Carnegie College, Keir’s life isn’t what he thought it would be. Two soccer players are poised to take his spot as kicker. Ray keeps calling, and Joyce, his guiding light on campus, seems to be avoiding him. When tragedy strikes, will Keir finally be able to confront his past actions and realize his potential?

What the Reviews are Saying:

As an unreliable narrator with a disturbing sense of entitlement and lack of self-awareness, Keir will have readers dying for justice or radical growth. But his shift in perspective is too little and comes too late. Those who found the previous chapter of Keir’s story fascinating will find little new territory to explore here.

An exhausting run with a protagonist seemingly incapable of growth. (Source: Kirkus)

 

Keir’s growth is minimal, and many plot devices, including the death of someone close to Keir, are jarring and forced. With little character growth and a meandering plot, this sequel misfires. (Source: Publisher’s Weekly)

And yes, the description is a huge red flag, particularly the way it ends: When tragedy strikes, will Keir finally be able to confront his past actions and realize his potential? We are dealing here with a young man that has just committed rape, who fails to acknowledge or atone for the fact that he has committed rape, and you want me to be invested in whether or not this young man “realizes his potential”? I have a hard time with this concept. Whatever potential he may have had, he threw it away when he sexually assaulted another human being. I am tired of us, the universal us here, worrying about the impact of rape on rapists and not enough time worrying about the impact of rape on its victims. We do that enough. That’s what we are doing when we worry about how the conviction of rape will ruin the football and college careers of the rapists in Steubenville and not how it will affect the girl he raped. That’s what we are doing when we suggest that the fact that Brock Turner has real skill as a swimmer is more important then the fact that he raped an unconscious girl behind a dumpster, an act he was caught in by witnesses. That’s what this judge was doing when she wondered whether or not a convicted rapist could be rehabilitated and sentenced him to no jail time. We spend too much time worrying about whether or not rapists can fulfill their potential and not enough time worrying about the effects of rape on girls who have been raped. Why are our rape statistics so high? Maybe it’s because there are still too little consequences for raping.

My Thoughts (with Spoilers!)

I am half way through this book and I hate it. With every fiber of my being. An intense, searing, burning hate that burns like the setting sun that seems to be setting the surrounding trees on fire. Let me tell you why. Please note, there will be spoilers. Sorry, but I can’t discuss this title without them and I feel like it is a title that warrants discussion. Proceed at your own risk.

IRREVERSIBLE opens right after Gigi has left. Carl immediately comes into the room where Keir is still trying to tell himself that he has not in fact raped Gigi and that this is just a misunderstanding that will soon be sorted out and beats the snot out of Keir. Keir is then picked up and taken home where he is recuperating from his physical injuries, which are substantial. His father is protecting him from many things, including the fact that every day people leave protest notes and “gifts” outside their house. There are hints that both of them have some basic understanding that everything is bad and wrong, but the two continue to live in extreme denial. It’s maddening to read, especially since this book is written from Keir’s perspective and he continually wants you to feel sorry for him. I hated spending time in his head and, more importantly, I felt that the attempt to humanize and breed sympathy for this character is contemptible. So much of the focus after a rape is on how the perpetrators of rape suffer – remember how the press lamented how the Steubenville rapist’s lives were now ruined – that this is not in any way helpful to the world wide discourse we are currently trying to have about sexual violence. I’m sure that being a rapist does have a lot of affects on the people who commit rape, I do not care. Whatever those effects may be, they made a decision that will have life long consequences for another human being and it is the effects of that crime on those people that we should focus on. I’m tired of victim blaming and I’m tired of rapist sympathizing.

I am halfway through this book and we have met 4 female characters.  The first two are Kier’s sister, both of whom flat out tell him that he is not welcome at Norfolk university, not just by them but by their fellow students. If you read the first book you will recall that this is where Keir raped Gigi. Mary, in particular, makes a point of reminding their sister that if the accused was anyone other then their brother, they would 100% be supporting the female. Mary I liked; Mary spoke a truth that needed to be spoken in a way that was clear and on message.

However, Keir then leaves to go to a different college across the map hoping that he can run from his troubles and start his life over. It is here that we encounter the first female that Keir is not related to, and there is so much wrong with everything that happens here. First, it is very clear that she is a young (possibly teenage) mother who is in an abusive relationship. So now in this world we know 4 women, one of whom is kind of supporting her brother an accused rapist, one of whom is the victim of rape, and this young woman who is a cliche in every way. It gets worse. She has two kids with her, one of whom takes Keir’s seat on the bus. When he protests, the mother is dismissive in ways that would not really be socially acceptable. And when he complains that her kids are eating his food, she not only doesn’t care but calls him a crybaby. It’s hard to believe not only that she would act the way that she does, but that nobody on the bus would call her out for her behavior which, again, is completely socially unacceptable. And just when you think, well at least she’s confident and standing up to a man, she is picked up at the bus terminal by a man who is clearly controlling her. Keir tries to tell her that this man is a “bad man” – rich irony coming from this character – but she begs him please just to leave. The problem is, of course, that Keir is an unreliable narrator, so it’s not clear what parts of this interaction are more true than others. But this is the first woman we have spent actual time with in this story and this is the interactions that we get. Many people will understand the subtleties of reading a book from the point of view of an unreliable narrator, but many won’t and this story line leaves me filled with concern and contempt for the way it feeds into many of the cliches and stereotypes that I hear men’s rights activists expressing about women and I’m not sure that the author successfully writes this part of the story nor do I feel it was a necessary part of the story.

Keir then finally arrives at college and is in basic training. There he meets his teammates, which we don’t learn a lot about at this point. He also meets the fourth female, a campus tour guide that seems at times to be fearful and repulsed by Keir – she refers to him as a “charmer” in a way that makes it clear that she knows his type and won’t fall for any of his bullshit, but then she agrees to meet him for a private tour where she takes him by the hand and takes him to her most favorite and secluded spot on campus. Again, unreliable narrator, but again thanks for depicting women as wishy-washy stereotypes who don’t know what they want and come across as teases. This is 100% not helpful in the discussion of sexual violence.

But here’s the deal, I am reading this book with the full knowledge that Keir is an unreliable narrator and that if history serves based on my reading of Inexcusable, then Lynch might successfully flip the script and make it clear by the end that all of these things were not truth and Keir is in fact a complete insert expletive of your choice here. If that happens, that means that readers would 1) have to finish the entire book to experience this catharsis and 2) be a sophisticated reader who can go beyond any initial biases or preconceived notions to reach this conclusion, and 3) be familiar with the idea of an unreliable narrator and how it works in order to reach the proper conclusions about rape, consent, sexual violence, women and Keir. This is a lot to ask of readers given such an important topic; that’s too many ifs that need to happen to make this book successful.

I have never wanted to DNF a book so badly in my life. Reading this book is equal parts depressing, discouraging and enraging. Some readers may still be giving Lynch the benefit of the doubt because he was successful with INEXCUSABLE, I am not that reader and this is a personal choice I have chosen to make. This book reads as rape apology and I do not want to finish it and I do not recommend it. It is harmful to victims and it is harmful to our intent to discuss consent and healthy sexual relationships with teens. I feel it is unfortunate that Lynch didn’t understand what he had accomplished with INEXCUSABLE and leave it at that.

Book Discussion: Autism in AFTERWARD by Jennifer Mathieu

afterwardWhen I initially began reading AFTERWARD by Jennifer Mathieu, I was certain I would be coming to you today to discuss this title as part of the Sexual Violence in YA Literature Project (The #SVYALit Project). However, as I got further and further into the book, this book became an important read – to me personally and I think to the larger topic of disability representation in YA lit – for its look at the way a young man’s struggle with Autism, and in particular being on the Autism Spectrum and suffering from a severely traumatic event, impacts him and his family. This book moved me in ways I could never have imagined.

You see, I am the aunt of three nephews who are on the Autism Spectrum. They are on the higher end of the spectrum, which means that there is little to no verbal communication, stimming, self harm, sleep disruption, the need for strict routines and predictability, etc. This is not an end of the spectrum that is represented very often in the mainstream media. While there has been some progress with the representation of ASD characters in the media, it has been my experience that they tend to be characters on the lower end of the spectrum. This means they often can communicate verbally and are portrayed as being charmingly “quirky”. Although it is obvious that these characters are not what would be considered neurotypical, it does not represent the lives of many families who are living with the daily reality of more severe Autism. When I read or watch these stories, I do not see my nephews and the struggles of their family. When discussing the topic of Autism, I often think to myself, we need to have more diversity in Autism representation.

Afterward is the story of two boys who are drawn together through a horrific event. Caroline’s brother Dylan is kidnapped by a man and is missing for a period of 4 or 5 days. He is found in the apartment of this man and in the presence of Ethan, another boy who was kidnapped and has been missing for about 4 years. Dylan is Autistic and although he does engage in some verbal communication, he is not able to tell his family what happened to him. It is clear, however, that he has been very traumatized by the events and his sister Caroline wants to know what happened to him so she can try and help him. This causes her to seek out and start up a friendship with Ethan. The book is then told from the dual POV of Caroline and Ethan.

There is a lot happening here in Afterward. This is a book about struggling with trauma and sexual violence; it is a book about emotional and mental health; it is a book about PTSD; it is a book about surviving. But it is also a book about Autism. And more importantly, it may be the only book that asks us to consider the impact of trauma not just on a family, but on a family that was already struggling to raise a young man on the spectrum.

And it asks us to consider what it is like for a teenager to not only love a brother who is on the spectrum, but to want to help this brother that she loves without being able to ask him what happened to him. And it was this part of the story that resonated with me the most. There are scenes where Caroline tries to calm down her brother using her toolbelt of techniques that her family has developed over the years. There are recorded episodes of Jeopardy watched over and over and over again, Caroline knowing every question and answer before they come because she has seen them so many times. For one of my nephews, it was Veggietales. And like Dylan, another one of my nephews repeatedly stacks blocks as a source of comfort. It sometimes felt like Mathieu had stared right through the windows at our family home to write this story.

And like many families, there is guilt and blame and anger and sorrow and grief. Dylan’s family was already dealing with all of these things, but now they are amplified by this traumatic event. Caroline in particular struggles with guilt because she was supposed to be watching Dylan in that moment that he left the house, as many on the spectrum do, and was wandering alone when kidnapped. In fact, wandering is one of the greatest safety concerns for individuals on the higher end of the spectrum and many families install locks, alarms and take other measures to help ensure the safety of their loved ones. But those steps take money, and money is something Caroline’s family doesn’t have a lot of.

Socioeconomic diversity is also something that is addressed in Afterward. Dylan’s family doesn’t have the money they need to get Dylan many of the Autism therapies that would benefit him, and they definitely don’t have the money to get him the counseling he needs after his kidnapping. It’s something that Caroline reflects on a lot, especially as she talks to Ethan, whose family does have money and is working hard to get him the therapy he needs.

As I mentioned, for me this book was personal. I saw my neurotypical nephew struggling to take care of his three ASD brothers in the character of Caroline. I saw a family struggling to navigate daily life and stay together in the face of stress and economic hardship, like my family and friends with children on the spectrum do. But most importantly to me, I saw an acknowledgement that there are kids on the higher end of the spectrum.

I do want to take a moment to point out that there is a lot of good #SVYALit and #MHYALit discussion happening here, particularly between Ethan and his therapist. There are discussions of how Ethan’s body could have responded physically to the sexual abuse even though it was not something that he wanted, discussions about whether or not he could have escaped and why he might not have tried to, and more. And although this is a good example of a positive therapy experience, it reminds us all that therapy is not a quick and easy fix but a process. In fact, the book takes place over the course of about a year and the therapy process is not a steady march forward, but a jagged line of progress and set backs. And it’s an important reminder for all that although survivors can in fact survive, they must embrace a new you in order to do so.

I felt that Afterward by Jennifer Mathieu was a moving and powerful read on many levels, but it was this reflection of my family that stuck with me the most.

Publisher’s Book Description

When Caroline’s little brother is kidnapped, his subsequent rescue leads to the discovery of Ethan, a teenager who has been living with the kidnapper since he was a young child himself. In the aftermath, Caroline can’t help but wonder what Ethan knows about everything that happened to her brother, who is not readjusting well to life at home. And although Ethan is desperate for a friend, he can’t see Caroline without experiencing a resurgence of traumatic memories. But after the media circus surrounding the kidnappings departs from their small Texas town, both Caroline and Ethan find that they need a friend–and their best option just might be each other. (Roaring Book Press, September 20, 2016).

Autism and Libraries

Sunday Reflections: It’s Not Transgender People in the Bathroom I Worry About When I Think About Sexual Violence

svyalit

**Trigger Warning**

Many years ago I sat at the Reference Desk reading a brief story in Library Journal that I would never forget. It was close to closing time when a mother and daughter walked up to the Circulation Desk to check out their books. The young girl was 8. They were in a library somewhere in Pennsylvania I believe. The girl asked for the key to the restroom, which was kept locked. As she walked in to the restroom a man followed in behind her unbeknownst to anyone and he raped her. He wasn’t a transgender woman. He wasn’t a man “wearing a dress” so he could walk into a girls bathroom and rape our daughters. He was just a man wearing whatever men wore on that day. He didn’t have to “dress up”, he just walked in.

****

Three years ago my family and I drove from Texas to Las Vegas for the ALA Annual Conference. In the middle of nowhere New Mexico, barren and hot and vast, we stopped at a rest stop to use the bathroom. As we got out of the cars we read signs in the rocky landscape around us: ” beware of rattle snakes”.  Inside the building my girls waited for me as I went in to use the restroom. On the wall was another sign: “Are you traveling of your own free will? Is someone making you do things you don’t want to do?” It was a sign about human trafficking. I walked back out and made the girls follow me into the restroom; made them stand in a 6×6 foot stall with me, locked safely inside where I could see them, just in case. Here was yet another reminder that our children aren’t safe in the restroom, but not for the reasons we keep hearing.

I am, in fact, afraid of my children’s safety in a public restroom. But it’s not transgender women that I fear. I’m not afraid of a man putting on a woman’s dress (not my description, but the argument I keep hearing) to gain access to a bathroom so that he can rape my daughters. . .

I fear the man who wakes up in the morning and puts on his armor of toxic masculinity; the type of man who will follow a young girl into the bathroom because he feels he has a right to take what he wants. He knows that there is no need to put on a dress. He knows that many of his friends will slap him on the back for his go-get-em attitude, for showing that bitch who’s in charge, for marking another notch on his belt. He knows that even if he gets caught he’ll get a slap on the wrist in a court of law, serving just 15 months for multiple crimes against multiple people, if it even makes it to a court of law.

I fear the man who wakes up in the morning and puts on the uniform of coach or teacher, using that uniform to gain access to vulnerable kids who trust him and have been taught that they can’t say no to authority figures.

I fear the man who wakes up in the morning and puts on the uniform of youth pastor or Sunday school teacher, hiding behind his bible as a token of righteousness while he preys and not prays on the very kids that trust him to teach them Godliness.

I fear the man who puts on the face of father or uncle or family friend; the man who use this mask in the middle of the night to tell our daughters that this is what love looks like, that they are special, that they are his favorite but they shouldn’t tell anyone because keeping it secret makes it all the more special.

I fear the man who puts on the uniform of police officer and receives the call when I report that my daughter has been the victim of sexual violence; the man who will ask why were you at that place at that hour doing that thing and wearing that outfit and question whether or not my daughter was “asking for it”.

I fear the man who puts on the robe and sits on the judges bench who will say, “but she looks older than 14”, “but she led him on”, “but we don’t want to ruin this man’s life” . . .

I fear the man who puts on the outfit of reporter who will write about my daughter in ways that suggest she is not an innocent party in this story because she had a drink, has had sex before, and after all, she went with him to his room so what did she expect was going to happen.

And I fear the man who will know that we’re so busy worrying about “men in dresses” in girls bathrooms that he follows a young boy into the restroom and rapes him, because we keep forgetting to talk about how boys sometimes rape boys and girls sometimes rape girls (and boys), sometimes in bathrooms but most often not really.

No, I’m not afraid of transgender people in the bathroom. But what I am afraid of is this: while we argue and debate and post memes on our Facebook pages about who should get to use which bathroom, we’re not having honest conversations with one another about what sexual violence is, what it looks like, who its victims are, and who perpetuates it. And while we’re not having those important conversations, a person is being raped every 2 minutes, usually not in a bathroom, usually by someone they know and trust, and usually they will be afraid to report it because they know that we will blame them.

Please read these important facts about sexual violence

Some facts about sexual violence:
Someone is raped every 2 minutes;
80% of the time it is by someone you know and trust;
Girls are not the only victims of rape, girls rape boys and boys rape boys;
We live in a world where very few rapes go to trial and when they do the sentencing is often light and we mourn the fact that the judge has ruined the lives of the boys found guilty:
We blame victims;
In 35 years of transgender rights there is 1 recorded case of a “man dressing up as a woman” to enter a bathroom and rape a girl;
Most rapes do not occur in bathrooms;
Basically, the way we are currently talking about sexual violence is completely wrong and does nothing to keep our children safe

RAINN

Sunday Reflections: Yes, I Talk to My Teenager About Sex (Sexual Assault Awareness Month)

svyalit

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month

“Does it hurt the first time you have sex?,” she asked me.

I wasn’t so much surprised by the question, but by the where and when of the asking of it. We were in a park. With my mother. But my mother didn’t flinch and neither did I.

“I think for some people it does and for some it doesn’t.”

And then the conversation just naturally drifted off into other topics.

I even think I know where the question came from. You see, I wrote a short story about the first time that I had sex in a book that just came out called The V Word, edited by Amber Keyser. A copy of the book came in the mail and she saw it. I told her why I chose to share my story in the collection – mainly because I wanted there to be a story that showed someone choosing to wait until their wedding night. I also told her that I didn’t think she was ready to read the book yet and that I wasn’t sure if I would ever be ready for her to read my story. No one wants to think about their parents having sex.

*****

A couple of years ago, I had the honor of meeting and talking with Laurie Halse Anderson, the author of Speak. Speak is perhaps one of the seminal books written about sexual violence in the lives of teens. At the time, she was working with RAINN to help promote Sexual Violence Awareness. We talked about parenting and talking with our children about sex. “The key is,” she said, “that whenever they ask a question you should answer it honestly. You want to keep a dialogue open so that they will come to you.”

I talk to my daughter about sex because I know that she is curious about sex at her age and I want to keep the dialogue open. I want to make sure she is getting the correct information. I want her to be very clear about what a healthy relationship looks and feels like, what consent is and isn’t, and that she always has a right to say no.

This is not always easy for me. I became a Christian my senior year of High School and I attended a conservative Christian college. In fact, I was attending said college at the age of 22 when I married her father. Conservative Christian women tend not to talk about sex unless it is in the midst of a women’s bible study where they tell you that you have to have sex with your husband all the time no matter what to keep him happy. In fact, you will often be asked to take a 30 day challenge where you are told that you have to submit to your husband sexually every day for 30 days NO MATTER WHAT YOU WANT and see how blissfully magical it will make your marriage.

I didn’t have friends I could ask questions of. We didn’t share stories. And the church itself is a little fuzzy about mutual consent and sexual satisfaction. So talking with my teenager isn’t always easy, I’ve been programmed to hide my questions and think of sex from a male desire point of view exclusively. But I do, in fact, talk about it when she asks. Because I want her to know that her questions are normal, sex is not shameful, and you have a right to say no and when you do finally have sex, you also have a right for your needs and desires to be met as well as your partner’s. A healthy relationship is about mutual consent and pleasure.

****

Part of what helped me learn all of this has been my experience working with the #SVYALit Project with fabulous people like Christa Desir, Carrie Mesrobian and Trish Doller. I’ve learned a lot about consent, teaching consent to kids, and the importance of education in the lives of kids and teens. I’ve also learned a lot about communicating in ways that keep conversations open. As I said, I want my daughter to keep talking to me if she feels she wants to talk about something.

These days, I talk to Carrie and Christa. When I have a question, I go to them. And for the first time in my life, I have female friends that I can talk about sex and sexual desire and sexualization and the sexual messages our culture sends and it’s so incredibly liberating. When everyone was reading 50 Shades of Grey and talking about things I had no context for, I asked and they answered, which was nice because I really feared what would happen if I Googled some of those things. And that’s what I want, to keep my daughter from feeling like her only option is to Google and to be introduced to things she is either not ready for or may be outright toxic. There’s a lot of crap out there on the Internet, I don’t want that being my daughter’s sex ed teacher.

****

Working on the #SVYALit Project, a couple of repeated statistics come to mind. One, the average age that a kid first sees pornography is 10. And two, the average age that a teen loses their virginity is age 17. Whatever I may want as a parent, I can’t escape the fact that children are being exposed to information, usually through their peers. I want to be a primary factor in shaping my child’s sexual values, so yes, we talk about sex. I have made sure that she understands the simple biology of it, but we also talk about the emotional experience of it. We talk about our culture. We talk about our faith. And I try to always be honest and age appropriate.

We also read a lot of YA literature. I happen to have an advantage because I also read a lot of YA literature. She recently came home from school, having checked out The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants at her school library. She read it, and because I have also already read it, I ask questions. What did you think of the book? What characters did you like? What do you think about Bree’s story?

Because of the relationship we have, she will often read a book that I suggest to her. For example, if I really love a book and think she will love it, she will read it. If she doesn’t like it, she knows that she has permission to stop reading it. We’re big believers in not laboring over a book you hate in this house because I don’t want reading to be a chore or an argument, I want it to be something she continues to choose to do because she enjoys it. But as much as she loves it, I also recognize that it is a useful tool for me as a parent.

The first YA book she ever read was When My Heart was Wicked. It was a book she read that I had not yet read yet and it contained a scene of sexual violence. She was sitting next to me in the car when she said, “I think . . . I think this boy is raping this girl.” And then she started reading the scene out loud to me. “Yes,” I said, “that is what’s happening. Are you okay?”

“Do I have to keep reading this?”, she asked. And the answer was of course no. But she did finish the book and we talked about it. My take away from this story has always been this: Because we talk about consent and sexual violence, she recognized that what was happening in her book was sexual violence. Then she questioned whether or not she was ready for the scene, she thought about her media consumption. And then, after choosing of her own free will to finish the book, we talked about what had happened and what it meant and how she felt about it. None of this conversation would have happened if she hadn’t read that book. And that conversation helped form who she is as a person and what she wants out of relationships in the future. That book and that conversation is just one of the many building blocks of who she is, what she thinks, what she values, and what kind of life she will demand for herself now and in the future. And because I talked about that book with her and she with me, I got to help put that building block into place in healthy ways.

It’s a far cry from when I snuck a copy of Flowers in the Attic at the age of 12 and tried to process it on my own. That is some messed up stuff right there and it would have been nice to have a trusted, respected adult just simply say no this is not healthy and here are the reasons why.

And I think those are our choices as parents: we can put up walls and barriers and make it clear to our kids that this topic is too shameful or taboo, forcing them to seek answers elsewhere. Or we can keep the conversation open and let our kids know that they can come to us for answers and in keeping ourselves as part of the dialogue we get to help shape our children’s sexual values. The questions are going to be there whether we want to admit that or not, but how and what answers they find are critical. It’s a chance I’m not willing to take because the conversation is too uncomfortable for me. Parenting is hard, and this conversation is hard, but the answers matter so very much and I want them to come from me, not some stranger or boy who doesn’t know my daughter and doesn’t have her best interest at heart. It’s perhaps one of the most important questions my daughter will ever ask me.

For more information, check out the #SVYALit Project or hear Christa Desir speak about this topic at NPR.

Traffick Blog Tour: Christa Desir Interviews Ellen Hopkins for #SVYALit

Today as part of the Traffick blog tour, author and #SVYALit Co-Creator Christa Desir (Other Broken Things coming in January 2016) is interviewing Ellen Hopkins for #SVYALit. You can find all of the #SVYALit posts here. And let me just take a moment to say thank you to Christa and Ellen for their time. Ellen Hopkins is hands down one of the most popular YA authors out there and I know that many of my teens are excited for a new book by their favorite author.

 

The sequel to “Tricks,” Hopkins’ latest book follows five teenage victims of sex trafficking — from all walks of life and gender orientations — as they try to extricate themselves from their current situations and find a new way of life.

 

CD: Tricks absolutely blew me away when I read it and I was so happy to see you continuing this story. Why did you feel compelled to revisit this now? Was it your readers or something you just felt ready for?

 

EH: Sequels often percolate in my head for years, and then suddenly they seem right. These five characters demanded closure eventually, and reader desire definitely had something to do with that.

CD: Trafficking is such a big feminist issue these days, with people planting their flags in both sides arguing both for and against “rescue missions” as it bumps up against sex worker rights. Tell me how you navigated this and what your research involved?

EH: I worked with vice, and also with a couple of rescue groups on the research end. One of those had a program where the survivors wrote poems or drew pictures representing their stories. Once you truly understand what’s at stake for trafficking victims, so many of whom are underage, it’s easy enough to know which side you’re on. I don’t see an argument when children are involved. They have no “rights” when it comes to this particular “business.”

CD: Your cast here is so diverse and came into sex work from so many different backgrounds, I’m curious about your decision to include such myriad stories and the challenge that put on you in terms of creating well-developed characters. Can you speak to that?

EH: Young people find themselves on the streets for many reasons, and I wanted to represent a range to illustrate various ways it can happen and hopefully break some stereotypes. Some do engage in sex work purposefully, but so many are coerced, and that coercion can come from fear, or love, or hopelessness, or addiction. So important to develop understanding, which hopefully will lead to empathy, for victims of sex trafficking, as well as to encourage their journey into survivorship.

 

CD: You’re an outspoken feminist and liberal. How much of your own politics inform your writing? In particular, I love how you’ve handled your LGBTQ characters in Traffick and I wonder if that’s because of your own advocacy or more because of the increasing relevance of the topic in YA (and frankly in US politics).

 

EH: Whether I’m writing characters like me, or unlike me, my politics will always inform my writing. I’m a devout advocate of equal rights for every population, and have been an LGBTQ ally for decades, which means way before it was “fashionable.” I’m extremely happy to see increasingly awareness and acceptance for those who have been marginalized, and to in some small ways influence future generations to continue the fight gives me deep satisfaction.

 

CD: You push hard in this book, crossing lines with sex, drugs, sexual identity that I imagine make the “clean YA” proponents a little squeamish. Tell me how you push against those who wonder if your content isn’t appropriate for teenagers. (I’m particularly interested in this because I find myself apologizing for my gritty books more than I’d like to).

 

EH: Whether or not people want to accept the idea that teens do drugs or have sex (straight, gay, or something else) or wind up turning tricks, the fact remains these issues touch young lives every day, everywhere. To not represent them in books is to pretend they’re isolated incidents, and they’re not. Better to investigate them safely between the pages and provide readers with the knowledge they need to make better choices. As authors, we must write honestly, or what’s the point? Teen readers are really quite sophisticated, and will close a book if it’s “too much.” I push back through dialogue, and with reader letters telling me how my books have positively impacted their lives. I keep files of them. Every one of my books represents truth, and censoring truth is shortsighted at best.

 

About The Book:

TRAFFICK (Tricks, #2)
By: Ellen Hopkins
Release Date: November 3, 2015
Pages: 528
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books

Five teens victimized by sex trafficking try to find their way to a new life in this riveting companion to the New York Times bestselling Tricks from Ellen Hopkins, author of Crank.

In her bestselling novel, Tricks, Ellen Hopkins introduced us to five memorable characters tackling these enormous questions: Eden, the preacher’s daughter who turns tricks in Vegas and is helped into a child prostitution rescue; Seth, the gay farm boy disowned by his father who finds himself without money or resources other than his own body; Whitney, the privileged kid coaxed into the life by a pimp and whose dreams are ruined in a heroin haze; Ginger, who runs away from home with her girlfriend and is arrested for soliciting an undercover cop; and Cody, whose gambling habit forces him into the life, but who is shot and left for dead.


And now, in Traffick, these five are faced with the toughest question of all: Is there a way out? How these five teenagers face the aftermath of their decisions and experiences is the soul of this story that exposes the dark, ferocious underbelly of the child trafficking trade. Heart wrenching and hopeful, Traffick takes us on five separate but intertwined journeys through the painful challenges of recovery, rehabilitation, and renewal to forgiveness and love. All the way home.

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November 2nd Batty for Books – Review
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November 13thMiranda’s Book Blog – Guest Post 
About The Author:

Ellen Hopkins is a poet, freelance writer, and the award-winning author of twenty nonfiction titles and five NY Times Bestselling novels-in-verse. She has published hundreds of articles on subjects ranging from aviation to child abuse to winegrowing.

Ellen mentors other writers through her position as a regional adviser for the Nevada chapter of the Society of ChildrenÕs Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).

She is a regular speaker at schools; book festivals and writers conferences across the US, and now throughout the world. 

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About Christa Desir, our interviewer:
Christa Desir is a YA author and rape victim advocate. Her YA novels, Fault Line and Bleed Like Me, are both honest and gutwrenching explorations of teens grappling with real world issues like rape (Fault Line) and cutting (Bleed Like Me). In January 2016 her next book, Other Broken Things, releases and it explores addiction in the life of a female boxer. I recently read a copy of Other Broken Things on Edelweiss and it has an engagingly authentic teen voice and I liked the way it honestly dealt with and talked about the topic of addiction. I highly recommend it.

All the Dragons in the World – The Depiction of Sexual Abuse Exposure and Escape in YA Literature (a guest post by author Ash Parsons)

Today as part of the #SVYALit Project (Sexual Violence in Young Adult Literature), we are honored to host author Ash Parsons. You can find all the #SVYALit Project posts here.

stillwatersThere are many beloved, necessary novels in YA literature which deal with characters experiencing and exposing or otherwise escaping abuse (sexual and other). These books are valuable. These books are beloved for a reason. My issue is not with these books, but with the sense that they are often perceived as depicting the proper “way” which survivors of abuse should act to “save themselves.” The exposure-and-escape narrative is so prevalent that it can sometimes feel like other stories about abuse, stories which depict the consequences of action or inaction, or the manifold ways which abuse is experienced or endured, are somehow less valid or are “wrong.” This is a subtle, poisonous pressure which the heroic narrative (and by extension, our society) places on survivors. Our culture’s emphasis on competition, on winners and losers, on victory, places every encounter in a win/lose, triumph-over-adversity binary. In other words, if you don’t fight, you can’t win. Or worse, if you don’t fight, you somehow are to blame.

It’s understandable that readers and writers often want and need to tell stories of escape and triumph over abusers, but there are many other stories that need to be told. When you study national statistics and spend even a little time with survivors of abuse, hidden stories emerge over and over. While it is impossible to tell with absolute certainty, statistics indicate that far more abuse remains hidden than ever gets exposed.*

When I wrote Still Waters I wanted to show that exposure is sometimes the wrong course of action. Or at least I wanted to show how a character could perceive that speaking out could be the wrong course. I wanted to write characters that felt trapped not because they lacked courage, insight, or resources, but because – actually – they had made an informed decision using the knowledge at hand and had determined their best course was to outlast the abuse, instead of speaking out about it.

I hate the implication, even the language, which we use to speak of abuse – “fight” “speak out” “take action” “come forward” – the language itself is oppressive to survivors who through whatever circumstance or choice– do not speak out. In the hero’s narrative, we like to think in oppositional terms – the hero faces the dragon, and the dragon is slain.

But the dragon can devour. Or there might be more than one dragon, all breathing fire. Or the hero may spend a season in the dragon’s grasp and then escape. There are countless different narratives which may happen, all different stories beyond slaying the dragon.

In no way do I mean to imply that fighting isn’t a good thing, just that there is a skewed emphasis on fighting in our stories. That it is cast as the “right” action because of cathartic release -we want our characters to fight and to win.

But that’s not always the way it works out in life. One of the reasons I wrote this book is because I wanted to have both the physical abuse of Jason and sexual abuse of Cyndra to be part of the tapestry of another story. A different story- what I mean is, the story isn’t “how I escaped abuse.” While their home situation absolutely helps form the pixelated picture of where they are and why they are there, it’s not the primary focus of the plot.

I used to teach in a rural 7th-12th grade school. After that, I became a foster parent. Through both of these experiences I was reminded how much young people can hide, and how frequently they are highly motivated to do so. Often young people’s decisions to hide awful injustices is due to a clear-eyed understanding of “what would happen next.”

In foster parent classes we learned that the number one reason for case referrals was parental abandonment. The second was neglect. Sexual abuse was near the bottom of the list because it is so often hidden successfully by the abused. Not in collusion with their abuser, but in desperation – because the devil you know is better than the fire of the unknown, or worse, all the horrible stories that you also know. Normalization of abuse is both a misapprehension and a coping mechanism. Survivors often do not realize the true extent of their abuse (in other words, that it isn’t “normal”). This is because telling themselves that it “isn’t that bad” is a coping mechanism as well as a lesson which may have been ingrained through their family culture or their community at large.

I wanted to write a story where a character, Cyndra, experienced sexual abuse and didn’t “do anything” about it. I didn’t want to make it the purpose of the story for either character (Cyndra or Jason) to “triumph” over their abuser, or for them to even try. I wanted to write Cyndra not to accept, but to endure, and to triumph (if we simply must bow to the heroic language) through her resilience. Through writing this character, I also wanted to reflect the reality for all too many young people. Statistical analysis indicates that sexual violence and abuse go unreported the vast majority of the time, often because the survivor has compelling reasons to keep the abuse hidden. This is a truth lived daily by many adolescents, which I wanted to reflect in my work.

Sometimes dragons are endured.

*Hidden Fires -Looking at Statistics on Incident Reporting:

The Children’s Bureau (an Office of Administration for Children and Families – which is part of the larger US Department of Health and Human Services) – puts out an annual report, Child Maltreatment: National Data About Child Abuse and Neglect Known to CPS Agencies. 2013 is the most recent published year. According to this report, child protective service referrals nationally are statistically divided as follows:

“Four-fifths (79.5%) of victims were neglected, 18.0 percent were physically abused, and 9.0 percent were sexually abused. In addition, 10.0 percent of victims experienced such “other” types of maltreatment as “threatened abuse,” “parent’s drug/alcohol abuse,” or “safe relinquishment of a newborn.” States may code any maltreatment as “other” if it does not fit in one of the NCANDS categories.”     (http://www.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/cb/cm2013.pdf#page=20 )

The aggregated national data largely reflects what I learned in foster parent classes – abandonment/neglect is the number one reason for CPS referral, by a staggeringly large margin. Sexual abuse is way, way down the list, actually below “other” as a category of referral.

Now let’s take that knowledge, that data, and hold it in mind next to some other data. According to statistics reported by RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network) “Sexual assault is one of the most under reported crimes, with 68% still being left unreported.1”   (https://www.rainn.org/get-information/statistics/reporting-rates )

And according to the FBI, “child sex abuse is at epidemic levels where tens of thousands of children are believed to be sexually exploited in the country each year. “The level of paedophilia is unprecedented right now,” Joseph Campbell of the FBI told the BBC.” (Time Magazine – linkhttp://time.com/3978236/american-children-sold-sex/)

Last but not least, the findings of a study published in the British Medical Journal Lancet, “Children in highly developed countries suffer abuse and neglect much more often than is reported by official child-protective agencies, according to the findings of the first in a comprehensive series of reports on child maltreatment”

“The official statistics agencies produce are conservative estimates of probably the lowest level of child maltreatment,” says Dr. Cathy Spatz Widom, a psychology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who specializes in the long-term effects of child abuse and is a lead author on one of the Lancet studies.”     (– Time Magazine -http://content.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1863650,00.html)

You can see what I’m getting at here. The first statistic, the percentage of cases which are referred to DHR, coupled with the last one, shows you the hidden story. By and large, sexual abuse is not reported, neither by the survivor, nor by anyone who may come into contact with the survivor.

Furthermore, as regards sexual abuse, “a 2000 study found that family members account for 34 percent of people who abuse juveniles, and acquaintances account for another 59 percent. Only 7 percent were strangers.” ( http://www.newsweek.com/2015/07/03/hunt-child-sex-abusers-happening-wrong-places-345926.html )

There is sadly ample reason to believe that the sexual abuse of children and youth is hidden epidemic. As much as we like to hear the heroic narrative of exposure and escape, it is simply not the case for the majority of survivors.

About STILL WATERS by Ash Parsons

A gritty, powerful debut that evokes The Outsiders. You won’t be able to look away.

High school senior Jason knows how to take a punch. Living with an abusive father will teach a kid that. But he’s also learned how to hit back, earning a reputation at school that ensures no one will mess with him. Even so, all Jason truly wants is to survive his father long enough to turn eighteen, take his younger sister, Janie, and run away.

Then one day, the leader of the in crowd at school, Michael, offers to pay Jason to hang out with him. Jason figures Michael simply wants to be seen with someone with a tough rep and that the money will add up fast, making Jason’s escape plan a reality. Plus, there’s Michael’s girl, Cyndra, who looks at Jason as if she sees something behind his false smile. As Jason gets drawn deeper into Michael’s game, the money keeps flowing, but the stakes grow ever more dangerous. Soon, even Jason’s fists and his ability to think on his feet aren’t enough to keep his head above water.

Still Waters is an intense, gritty thriller that pulls no punches—yet leaves you rooting for the tough guy. A powerful, dynamic debut. (Publisher’s Book Description)

Published April 2015 by Philomel Book. ISBN: 9780399168475

ashparsonsMeet Ash Parsons

Ash Parsons has been involved in Child and Youth Advocacy since college. Recently she taught English to middle- and high-school students in rural Alabama. Watching some of her students face seemingly impossible problems helped inspire her first novel, Still Waters. Additionally she has taught creative writing for Troy University’s ACCESS program and media studies at Auburn University. Ash lives in Alabama with her family.