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Book Review: Uses for Boys by Erica Lorraine Scheidt (Very Spoilery, In Depth)

This is perhaps the saddest yet most beautiful book I have ever read. The loneliness and longing drips off of every page.  Instead of simply reviewing this book, I really want to talk about it. So if you haven’t read it, be warned now, there be HUGE SPOILERS ahead.

In the tell me again times, Anna’s mom tells her the story of how she was alone and had always wanted a daughter. But Anna slowly learns the truth, having a daughter is not enough to fill the void inside her mother. So she watches as her mother marries, divorces, marries, divorces, and then spends a great deal of time dating man after man and leaving Anna in the house alone.

Anna often spends night after night alone in the lying house. It looks beautiful, but it is empty. She turns on the TV to fill it with noise. She wanders from room to room. And when nothing she can do fills that emptiness, she begins to try and fill it with boys in much the same way she sees her mother trying to fill her own emptiness with men.

“And then he hugs me. Really hugs me. Like he thinks that there’s only one of me and I’m special and I’m enough for him. Like he doesn’t need anything else. Like he was alone and then I came along.” 

Through a variety of short chapters, some as short as a half a page, Scheidt is able to use her words sparingly and yet perfectly to create a tale of longing so real, so visceral, that you will want to hold everyone in your life a little closer, a little tighter. The melancholy of this book – you want to step into the story and just take Anna into your arms and hold her tight.

She knows how it is with boys. “It’s always romantic in the beginning,” she says.” 

Anna’s story is a series of relationships, very few of them real or fulfilling:
Her mother – absent, distant, unaware
The first boy – a boy who assaults her on the school bus, although she doesn’t realize at the time what it is
Joey – For a while, he fills the void. But then just as her mother told her all men do, he leaves.
The rapist – he haunts her.
Toy – the best friend, lost herself, but Anna doesn’t recognize this until much later
Josh – For a while, he too fills the void.
And then Sam – here she sees for the first time what a real family must look like, and it creates in her a longing so real, so palpable that the world around her shifts.

There are several elements that make this an excellent addition to the #SVYALit Project:

1. Sex is Not Love and Love is Not Sex

In Anna we see a clear example of how easy it is to mistake sex for love. We see clearly how all the sex in the world doesn’t fill the emptiness inside of her. We see that you must first find ways to love yourself before you can truly learn to love and be loved by others. We see Anna try and fill the emptiness inside of her with boy after boy after boy until she sees something else and decides she is going to find a way to make it happen for herself. And it is also important because Anna realizes this for herself and acts upon it for herself.

“I want Toy to know that I know. That no matter how many boys tell her they love her, how many boys tell her she’s beautiful, how many boys crawl into her window at night and make love to her, it doesn’t help.” 
“If you give boys what they want, they give you what you need. Right?”

2. Consent vs. No Consent

Uses for Boys provides very straightforward talking points about consent and contrasts it with it very clear examples of assault and rape, including a scene on a school bus and a scene where Anna is passed out at a party. The school bus scene is also important because it reminds us that assault doesn’t have to involve full intercourse. Scheidt does not shy away from the sex, there is no fade to black here, but this is necessary in order to have those contrasting scenes and understand the underlying emotions and after effects of both the consensual sex and the rape. With such clear and straightforward examples, it provides good talking points.

3. We See a Boy Asking to Wait

By the time Anna meets Sam, she is very experienced. Sam, however, is a virgin. This time the relationship is slower, Sam is asking Anna to wait until he is ready. This reversal is so profound and boys – and girls – need to know that yes, sometimes, boys want to wait and that is okay. And then when he is ready, that too is another example of consent.

“He’s not saying slow down. He’s looking at me and we can’t wait. We can’t help ourselves. He’s everywhere.”

4. Protection is Used (Most of the Time)

I am noticing more and more that authors are addressing the issue of protection in YA literature. This is important because if we are going to have teens engaging in sex (as we know that some of them do), then we also need to make sure we are being realistic with the inclusion of discussions and use of protection. Anna does end up pregnant at one point (and has an abortion, also rare in YA literature), but it never seemed like punishment for having sex as it sometimes can in YA literature. It just seemed like the natural course of events for someone who is actively and regularly engaged in sex because even protection has a chance of failure.

5. The Stark Reminder that Teens Still Need Active Parents

As someone who works regularly with teens, I have seen time and time again the way that parents seem to somehow start disengaging when their kids reach the teenage years. Parenting is exhausting and teens can be difficult. But teens still need parents, families. They need someone to love them unconditionally, to help them navigate the world, and to be a shoulder to cry on. Anna is someone who has been emotionally abandoned by her mother. She is also someone who has seen and learned through osmosis a lot of negative lessons about life, love, appearance, growing older and more. As much as teens should read this book, every parent should read this book as it is an example of how children learn what they see, of how we can put our own issues onto our children, and what a powerful force emotional neglect can be.

In the happy times, in the tell-me-again times, when I’m seven and there are no stepbrothers and it’s before the stepfathers, my mom lets me sleep in her bed.
Her bed is a raft on the ocean. It’s a cloud, a forest, a spaceship, a cocoon we share. I stretch out big as I can, a five-pointed star, and she bundles me back up in her arms. When I wake I’m tangled in her hair.
“Tell me again,” I say and she tells me again how she wanted me more than anything.
“More than anything in the world,” she says, “I wanted a little girl.” 

This is not an easy read because the loneliness is so stark and some of the scenes are so graphic, though it is oddly beautiful in its melancholy feel and the language that is used. I began listening to the story on audio book and the rape scene was so difficult to listen to I switched over to print because it gave me more control over how I heard the story in my head. 

This book will haunt me for a long time.  No, Anna’s voice will haunt me for a long time, her stark, naked, barren loneliness and the intense need that she wears on her like a badge. We all know far too many Annas and this look into the heart of them, well it just makes me want to wrap them up in a blanket of confidence and self acceptance. Unfortunately, the world is cruel and much like some of the men in this book it seems to sense this need as if the need itself is blood in the water and they are a shark just hunting for the next victim. Be kinder to the Anna’s around you. And read this book; it is actually one of the best books I have read for discussing a lot of the important and revelant topics related to sexual violence because of the contrasting examples presented within its pages.

Please note: this title contains mature content and triggering scenes.

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