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Let’s Talk About Sex…Positivity in YA, a guest post by Jenn Bennett

My latest YA contemporary, Serious Moonlight, is a book about Birdie and Daniel, two teens who meet one rainy afternoon in Seattle and impulsively decide to hook up. Unfortunately, the experience is bumbling and embarrassing. Birdie’s only solace is that she’ll never see him again, but alas, when she lands a job working the front desk at a historic hotel, Daniel is the hotel van driver. Awkward. Do they ignore each other? Pretend it never happened? What if they still like each other? What if they are both just bad at sex?

All of my YA contemporaries are romances; all of them include sex on the page. It’s by no means the driving force of my stories, which also include a lot of other big-ticket items—themes about non-traditional families, exploration of mental health issues, and the importance of self-expression. But when you write about two people falling in love, just like Real Life, that connection sometimes gets handsy.

Luckily for me, this is one of my favorite subjects to write about, because sex is such a complex and wonderous thing filled with weird emotions and meaningful conflict. How can something so simple go so wrong, so often? How can something so pleasurable be plagued with baggage, shame, and guilt?

I never once considered not including sex scenes in my YA books, nor did I want to “fade to black” during the kissing, or skim over the good parts. And by good parts, I don’t mean the actual sex—though that’s in there, too. (Three cheers for joyful female desire!) No, I mean the talking about it. Because my characters talk about sex a lot. They talk about birth control. Previous partners. Lack of experience. Pain. Rejection. Body image. Masturbation. Pregnancy.

My characters are curious. They ask permission and respect boundaries, but they also get confused and make mistakes. They know exactly what they want, and yet know nothing at all. Like all of us, really.

The subject of sex is strange when you’re a teen. It can be both alienating and blissful, both scary and alluring. It can change your life in terrifying ways (pregnancy, STDs) and in unexpected ways (establishing an intense, beautiful connection with another human). Sometimes it’s all of the above, and that’s a heady thing to explore when you’re trying to figure out who you are while also surviving the day-to-day pressures of finishing high school.

I’ve never once had a teen reader tell me they were upset with the sexual content in my books. Occasionally I see reviews from parents who like my books but warn other parents about “intimate situations,” like it’s something they can’t even bear to say out loud. It’s bizarre, really, that in America, sex is still one of the big taboos. We are A-Okay with violence in our fiction, on our televisions, in our streets. But when it comes to sex, we seem to be perpetually stuck in arrested development—censoring it, hiding it, shaming people who do it too much, laughing at people who don’t do it enough.

Sometimes writing these kinds of stories make me feel like everyone’s cool auntie, the person in who you feel safe confiding. My sister-in-law asked me if I thought it was okay if my nephew, who was twelve at the time, could read my YA. Was it? Did I want to be the person who taught this kid about sex? WAS THAT WEIRD? I recommended that she wait until the kid was thirteen, at least. I didn’t want to scar the kid, for the love of Pete. (Spoiler alert: he’s now almost fifteen and turned out just fine.)

Being a YA author comes with a certain amount of responsibility. I always tell my editor, when we’re both in doubt about a certain piece of dialogue or the direction a scene’s taking, that my personal philosophy as an author is much like a doctor’s oath: do no harm. That’s a lot of pressure, especially when I don’t have all the answers about sex, love, and relationships. But I think I’m okay with it. I do my best, and that’s all any of us can do.

Who knows? Maybe Birdie and Daniel’s journey in SERIOUS MOONLIGHT is not the experience you remember having with your first boyfriend or girlfriend. Maybe you’ll judge Birdie for having sex with someone she didn’t know very well. Maybe you’ll empathize with her. Fiction is part escapism, part mirror…and sometimes, it’s rebuilding the world how it should be. To that end, I hope that teens (and adults!) reading Birdie and Daniel’s story will see two people on the page who make a few mistakes but eventually get to know each other, talk frankly about their hopes and fears, and eventually build a stronger, lasting connection.

And what could be more positive than that?

Meet Jenn Bennett

Jenn Bennett is an award-winning author of several young adult books, including: ALEX, APPROXIMATELY; STARRY EYES; and SERIOUS MOONLIGHT. Her books have earned multiple starred reviews, won Romance Writers of America’s RITA® Award, and been included on Publishers Weekly Best Books annual list. She lives near Atlanta with one husband and two dogs. Find her online at Twitter: @Jenn_Benn, IG: @J3nn_Benn,and at her website http://www.jennbennett.net/

About SERIOUS MOONLIGHT

After an awkward first encounter, Birdie and Daniel are forced to work together in a Seattle hotel where a famous author leads a mysterious and secluded life in this romantic contemporary novel from the author of Alex, Approximately.

Mystery-book aficionado Birdie Lindberg has an overactive imagination. Raised in isolation and homeschooled by strict grandparents, she’s cultivated a whimsical fantasy life in which she plays the heroic detective and every stranger is a suspect. But her solitary world expands when she takes a job the summer before college, working the graveyard shift at a historic Seattle hotel.

In her new job, Birdie hopes to blossom from introverted dreamer to brave pioneer, and gregarious Daniel Aoki volunteers to be her guide. The hotel’s charismatic young van driver shares the same nocturnal shift and patronizes the waterfront Moonlight Diner where she waits for the early morning ferry after work. Daniel also shares her appetite for intrigue, and he’s stumbled upon a real-life mystery: a famous reclusive writer—never before seen in public—might be secretly meeting someone at the hotel.

To uncover the writer’s puzzling identity, Birdie must come out of her shell…discovering that most confounding mystery of all may be her growing feelings for the elusive riddle that is Daniel.

ISBN-13: 9781534445284
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Publication date: 04/16/2019


Book Review: The Ocean in My Ears by Meagan Macvie

Publisher’s description

ra6Meri Miller lives in Soldotna, Alaska. Never heard of it? That’s because in Slowdotna the most riveting activities for a teenager are salmon fishing and grabbing a Big Gulp at the local 7-Eleven. More than anything, Meri wants to hop in her VW Bug and head somewhere exciting, like New York or L.A. or any city where going to the theater doesn’t only mean the movies. Everything is so scripted here—don’t have too much fun, date this guy because he’s older and popular, stay put because that’s what everyone else does.

But when her senior year should be all boys, SAT prep, and prom drama, Meri feels more and more distance between herself and the people she loves. Her grandma dies, her brother gets hurt, and even her best friend checks out to spend more time with some guy. As she struggles with family, grief, friends, and hormones, Meri must decide if she really is ready for the world beyond her backyard.

Meagan Macvie’s debut novel, The Ocean in My Ears , raises questions of love, purpose, and the power to choose your own future even when your future’s the thing that scares you the most.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

the oceanMeri is complex. Heading into her senior year of high school, she’s desperate to leave her tiny Alaska town (a town known for two things—salmon fishing and having the highest per capita teen birthrate in the nation), but also terrified of leaving behind everything she knows. She has sex with a creepy older guy she’s dating but is also worried that it’s a sin and she might regret it (also, he’s a terrible human being but she hangs out with him for waaaaay too long). She doesn’t reveal anything about her life to her distant (both emotionally and physically) parents but longs for someone to do some parenting and for them to maybe understand her or even just see her. She has big dreams and big doubts. She’s been raised in a religious setting, having gone to Christian school until junior high. Her mother, and the church, repeatedly drive home the point that sex outside of marriage is a sin. It’s terrible, awful, you will go to hell, you will get diseases, you will get pregnant. Meri hears all of this but still wants to make her own choices, come to her own conclusions. It’s never easy stumbling your way through adolescence (the only way through is by stumbling, I think), but Meri is having a particularly hard time senior year. Her dad is either always off working in the oil fields or at home ordering her around, her grandma is dying (and her mom is gone for much of the book in Idaho tending to Meri’s grandma), her best friend has ditched her for a boy, and she likes Joaquin, a nice dude who she worries her parents won’t approve of, but instead dates jerky oaf Brett. She’s trying to figure out what she wants in life, but that’s hard to do in her tiny, isolated town with the constant talk of judging, sinning, and Satan.

 

Set in 1990, this look at a small town girl feeling trapped, frustrated, and ready to explore bigger horizons will appeal to fans of Carrie Mesrobian’s Just a Girl and other realistic YA where the main plot is the day-to-day existence of a teenager just trying to figure it all out. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781932010947
Publisher: Ooligan Press
Publication date: 11/07/2017

Book Review: Just a Girl by Carrie Mesrobian

Publisher’s description

just a girlTaking a hard look at the societal constraints on teenage girls, Morris Award nominee Carrie Mesrobian tells one girl’s story with bracing honesty and refreshing authenticity.

By her senior year of high school, Rianne has exhausted all the fun there is to have in small-town Wereford, Minnesota. Volleyball season is winding down, the parties feel tired, and now that she’s in a serious relationship with reformed player Luke Pinsky, her wild streak has ended. Not that she ever did anything worse than most guys in her school…but she knows what everyone thinks of her.

Including her parents. Divorced but now inexplicably living together again, Rianne wonders why they’re so quick to point out every bad choice she’s making when they can’t even act like adults—or have the decency to tell Rianne whether or not they’re getting back together. With an uncomfortable home life and her once-solid group of friends now dissolving, the reasons for sticking around after high school are few. So why is Rianne locking step when it comes to figuring out her future?

That’s not the only question Rianne can’t answer. Lately she’s been wondering why, when she has a perfect-on-paper boyfriend, she wants anything but. Or how it is that Sergei, a broken-English-speaking Russian, understands her better than anyone who’s known her all her life? And—perhaps the most troubling question—why has Rianne gotten stuck with an “easy girl” reputation for doing the same exact things as guys without any judgment?

Carrie Mesrobian, acclaimed author of Sex & Violence and Cut Both Ways, sets fire to the unfair stereotypes and contradictions that persist even in the twenty-first century.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

Here are things I consistently like about Carrie’s books: the plots are really just about the day-to-day lives of teenagers (we all know by now I’m a big fan of plots that don’t extend a ton between just talking/daily lives/figuring out what life as a teenager means—you know, that small plot); the endings never tie everything up neatly or definitively; the teenagers talk and act like actual teenagers; the books are set in Minnesota. Given that I grew up in the same area as Carrie at roughly the same time, I always so enjoy the way she captures the feeling of small-town Minnesota and like being able to recognize the details of places and references.

 

Rianne spends a lot of time thinking perhaps she should behave one way and then doing the opposite. She doesn’t think of herself as a “good girl,” whatever that means (we know what that means), and often tries to convince herself to behave better… maybe later. She’s bored and restless and aimless. Welcome to the end of senior year, right? Her friendships aren’t as strong as they once were, her long-divorced parents are apparently now dating each other, and somehow Luke, the boy she’s been hooking up with, thinks he wants to settle down with her. At a time in her life when the big question is “what’s next?” Rianne doesn’t seem to have any answers that actually seem appealing. Move to St. Paul just because some of her friends are going there? Find an apartment in boring Wereford? Move in with Luke? It all seems to sound awful to Rianne. Her mother has basically washed her hands of trying to guide Rianne, telling her once graduation happens, she’s out on her own. Though Rianne has always done her own thing with little regard for consequences, her impending total freedom doesn’t seem exciting or appealing—it just seems terrifyingly uncertain and sort of depressing. She doesn’t really talk to anyone about any of this. Her friends have their own drama going on, she’s never confided much in her parents, and Luke, though attentive and fun, isn’t someone she really feels any big connection to. She can’t even bring herself to call him her boyfriend and is pretty freaked out that he calls her his girlfriend. She’s constantly pretending with him, which she knows. She continues to date Luke, leaving him in the dark about her potential plans—or lack of plans—and also leaving him in the dark about Sergei, the older Russian college student she’s hooking up with. He seems like the only person she really feels any real connection with, though even that is marked by her passivity and inability to decide her life for herself. Rianne is a complex character. Though on the surface she seems bold and confident, she’s actually really insecure. Losing the stability she’s had (a solid friend group, an understanding of her family unit, a predictable but secure life in Wereford) is throwing her for a loop and it’s not clear if she will be able to recover and take some control over her life or just be led where others take her. Readers worrying about their own uncertain futures will particularly relate to Rianne. A realistic but uneasy look at choices, expectations, independence, and everything else that comes with the end of high school. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9780062349910

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers

Publication date: 03/28/2017

Book Review: Consent by Nancy Ohlin

consentPublisher’s description:

In this sexy and intriguing novel, an intense—and passionate—bond between a high school senior and her music teacher becomes a public scandal that threatens the reputation of both.

Bea has a secret.

Actually, she has more than one. There’s her dream for the future that she can’t tell anyone—not her father and not even her best friend, Plum.

And now there’s Dane Rossi. Dane is hot, he shares Bea’s love of piano, and he believes in her.

He’s also Bea’s teacher.

When their passion for music crosses into passion for each other, Bea finds herself falling completely for Dane. She’s never felt so wanted, so understood, so known to her core. But the risk of discovery carries unexpected surprises that could shake Bea entirely. Bea must piece together what is and isn’t true about Dane, herself, and the most intense relationship she’s ever experienced in this absorbing novel from Nancy Ohlin, the author of Beauty.

 

Amanda’s thoughts:

Oh, boy. I will be so curious to hear feedback from actual teens on this title. As an adult reading this, I was scowling the whole time. I don’t like the word “sexy” up in that description, nor do I like the words “romance,” which I’ve seen in a few other reviews. Usually I don’t look at reviews on a book until after I’ve written mine, but I poked around a little this time and my scowling continued. You wanted their relationship to work out? You’re saying, wait, wait, it’s not that creepy–she’s nearly 18 and he’s only ten years older? AND HER TEACHER. And underage. And he’s TEN YEARS OLDER.

 

That said, Ohlin certainly doesn’t present this as really romantic or even okay. She also doesn’t paint anyone as clearly the villain. Both Bea and Mr. Rossi have justified their relationship, and the thoughts they have about it are complicated. But there wasn’t one second while reading this that I wasn’t thinking, this is statutory rape. She is underage. He’s much older. He’s her teacher. I wanted to yell at her. And at him. And at the friends that Bea eventually convinces to help lie for her and cover for them. And at Bea’s oblivious and undeveloped dad. And her loser brother, for that matter. That’s a lot of yelling, I know.

 

When the book opens, Bea is being interviewed by the police. Other bits of the interview are interspersed in the narrative. We see that she’s lying to the police about what actually happened. Bea is at the top of her class, despite not seeming to have any real drive or ambition, or even putting in much work. She’s looking at applying to Harvard, but really only because her best friend, Plum, wants her to apply there with her. She’s never had piano lessons but is a prodigy, playing in secret at home when her dad isn’t around, worried it will trigger him because her piano prodigy mother died while giving birth to Bea. Bea says she’s not a slacker and is not depressed, but has little motivation for anything and carries a heavy weight of guilt over her mother’s death and what happened to their family after.

 

When Mr. Rossi shows up to substitute for the music teacher on leave, Bea pretty much has insta-feelings for him. He’s young(ish), British, attractive, and a skilled piano player. Instantly, Plum is asking if Bea has a crush on him. Bea has sudden and incessant thoughts about Mr. Rossi, after only seeing him one day. He takes an interest in her after he hears her play piano and mentors her, aghast that she isn’t applying to any conservatories and shocked that she’s never had a lesson. They meet up outside of school, first at a cafe and then eventually at his house. He wants her to play for his professor friend at Juilliard and takes her to NYC for the weekend. Yes, they go on a trip together. Yes, things happen on that trip. Yes, I yelled at Bea. The whole time all of this is happening, Bea and Plum talk about him as though he’s a boy their age, as though this is fine. They of course mention the risk and everything, but mostly think it’s okay because Bea’s nearly 18, he’s only a sub, and they’re obviously in love. This is special. It’s not creepy. It’s not predatory. It’s not statutory rape. She’s consenting. Isn’t she? 

 

Mixed into the story are references to Nabokov’s Lolita; composer Robert Schumann and his relationship with this piano teacher’s daughter, Clara; the forbidden love in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera;  and other stories of age difference, like both Plum and Bea’s parents, giving readers more to think about regarding age differences and consent.

 

When things fall apart, as we know they will have to, and their relationship gets discovered, things go from bad to worse. People get pulled in to lie for them. Bea and Mr. Rossi make a REALLY BAD choice at school. Bea’s dad, a lawyer, is concerned and gets involved, but it’s debatable if he really understands what’s been going on as Bea continues to lie to him. Even when Bea has her eyes open to the potential pattern going on with Mr. Rossi, she still thinks they will end up together, still continues to lie to authorities to protect him. The ending was rather abrupt. I was reading this on a tablet and assumed I still had quite a bit to go. I wanted to see more of Bea dealing with the aftermath of their relationship being exposed and the fallout. An epilogue shows us how she’s moved on, but I wanted to see her get there.

 

This is a book that will make you uncomfortable. It might make you furious. It will definitely make you sad. When we talk about consent, as we so often have in our Sexual Violence in Young Adult Lit project, it’s important that that conversation includes the legalities of age of consent and examines what statutory rape looks like. Some readers may read this story as a doomed affair. They might indeed find it “sexy” or “romantic.” But others, especially adults, will see a vulnerable and naive girl being preyed upon by a man far older than she is–a teacher–and deluding herself into thinking there is anything okay about what’s going on. A powerful, complicated look at consent that offers plenty of fodder for great discussions. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9781442464902

Publisher: Simon Pulse

Publication date: 11/10/2015

Book Review: Heat of the Moment by Lauren Barnholdt

I’m going to summarize the entire plot of Lauren Barnholdt’s Heat of the Moment in one sentence for you, okay? Here it is: Lyla really wants to have sex with her boyfriend Derrick while they’re in Florida for their senior class trip, but she’s surprised to find herself suddenly (and desperately) attracted to Beckett, much to her consternation.

 

That’s pretty much it. And you know what? I’m okay with that. Yes, there is of course (a bit more) to it: she ends up rooming with her two former best friends and she’s receiving constant emails that she wrote to herself when she was 14 telling her to learn how to trust. We get a little of her backstory—her family situation, why she’s estranged from Aven and Quinn (the former BFFs), her relationship with Derrick. But really it’s about sex and attraction. Lyla is thinking about sex all the time. She really wants Florida to be the setting for that perfect first time with Derrick—even though it appears they haven’t really ever talked about having sex or wanting to have sex, despite having dated for 2 years and been doing “everything but” for a long time. Really? I suppose it’s possible to have not talked about it. Derrick doesn’t seem nearly as excited about this plan to have sex as Lyla is. He says they shouldn’t rush it and should take some time to think about it (especially now that he’s pissed that Lyla caught a ride to the airport with Beckett after they both missed the school bus that took their class there). Lyla doesn’t seem deterred by Derrick’s attitude (though she does wonder why he is hesitant—what guy wouldn’t be psyched that his girlfriend is initiating a conversation about sex, she wonders). She continues to think about sex, hoping it will be romantic and special, wondering how long it will take and other fine details. She thinks about birth control, wondering if Derrick will have a condom (though, really, Lyla—this was your plan; go buy those condoms yourself, girl), wondering if she should go on the pill, etc. Lyla keeps pushing for it to happen and Derrick keeps holding her at bay (for reasons that never become super clear), asking her if she’s sure, if she’ll regret it.

 

And then there’s Beckett. Lyla, against all rational thought, is unbelievably attracted to him. She thinks he’s hot. Pretty quickly after they start hanging around each other, she’s picturing kissing him, making out with him. Yes, all of this is happening while she’s also getting ready to have sex with her boyfriend for the first time. She knows it’s not right, but can’t seem to help herself: she’s into Beckett. Even though he’s sometimes kind of douchey (and so is Derrick, and so is Lyla for that matter), she is drawn to him. And when they eventually (and inevitably) kiss, it’s no surprise. She thinks to herself, “One of my personalities is totally normal and loves Derrick and is excited about this trip. My other personality is some kind of sex-crazed maniac who can’t seem to keep her boobs inside her top and wants to kiss and cheat with every guy she sees.”

 

Personally, I adore Lyla. I love that she’s sex-crazed, that she makes crappy choices, that she lies, she’s confused, she’s stubborn. She’s real. She’s a type of girl we don’t get to see a lot of in YA—someone who’s constantly thinking about sex. I just wish she had more people to talk to about it than Derrick, who doesn’t seem as interested as she does. A lot of her thoughts and desires are kept in her head. Her former friends she’s rooming with, Aven and Quinn, are pretty peripheral characters who only are used for convenient plot purposes in this story, though the cliffhanger ending makes it pretty clear they will play a big part in book two. Readers who don’t mind an extremely thin plot will fly through this story of lust, mistakes, and trust. 

 

REVIEW COPY COURTESY OF EDELWEISS
ISBN-13: 9780062321398
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 5/12/2015