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The #SVYALit Virtual Panel #2 Recap

Yesterday we had our second Google Hangout on Air as part of the #SVYALit Project. Author Carrie Mesrobian (Sex and Violence) moderated our virtual panel which included authors Stephanie Kuehn (Charm & Strange), Rachele Alpine (Canary) and Brendan Kiely (The Gospel of Winter). Below the video is a recap of the conversation with minute indicators should you want to go view a specific part of the video.

This was a great discussion as we talked about how institutional culture – including the church and sports culture – can put the needs of the institution above individuals and the danger that lies in that. They also had some great discussion about the important of friends and allies in breaking the silence surrounding sexual abuse and what we expect of our main characters in terms of likability and decision making. And tucked in here is some great discussion about the gray areas of consent and how we fail to talk to our teens about this.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xzIriaUoQ5k?rel=0]

A Brief Introduction of Each of the Books by the Authors

The Gospel of Winter – 16-year-old boy who recognizes that the relationship he has with his priest is not love but abuse. Kiely is from the Boston area and he wanted to do a story about the betrayal and the real courage it took to stand up and say that they had been abused. Young people were the ones who really opened the floodgates of this revelation. GOW is about a culture of fear that prizes secrecy and uses that secrecy to create an atmosphere of abuse and it relates to the post 9/11 culture.

Charm and Strange – A book about a boy who literally thinks he is a monster and what has led him to believe that. He is afraid he will hurt others so he actively pushes them away and the past narrative reveals why he thinks this way about himself. It is about him trying to integrate his past in his present together to be a more complete person. Trying to convey that for someone who was struggling with his mental illness to be seen as someone strong and resilient and doing his best given the circumstances.

Canary – A young girl dealing with grief, Kate, is thrown into a new school environment that has a strong sports culture that idolizes the basketball team and its players. She slowly cedes parts of herself to this culture until she is sexually assaulted and has to decide whether or not to reveal the truth or to be silent. It is told in multiple formats flipping between a traditional narrative and using poetry to reveal Kate’s inner thoughts.

Discussing the Idea of Institutional/Hero Worship and How They Ask Victims to Remain Silent (11:35)

Brendan Kiely: When we attack institutions, the people involved in those institutions sometimes take it as an attack on themselves. For some, it is a belief that the institution/the community as a whole are more important than an individual member. They begin to protect itself over the people that they are supposed to be serving. It’s never okay to sacrifice young people to protect the institution.

While researching GOW, Kiely learned that many of the priests guilty of abuse were abused themselves, they were perpetuating the cycle of abuse. If you are going to promote people to be community leaders (including teachers) there needs to be good education on how to best serve.

It has a lot to do with the “adoring” a certain figure, letting that figure stand in.

18:00 – We have to have open conversations about sex so that we can have real conversations about both sex and sexual violence. That failure to talk about it allows these types of things to happen.

Rachele Alpine: (20:00) – We are taught from a young age to revere certain people through our media and experiences. The culture that is created that exalts and celebrates certain people over others, in this case athletes, and speaking out against this culture becomes a problem of me against them.

Carrie Mesrobian: Discusses the entitlement of this culture and how it takes over everyone’s time and priorities; how it becomes the culture instead of becoming PART of the culture. There is also a good portrayal of how the male character grounds down Kate’s voice to the point that she starts to really lose pieces of herself.

Stephanie Kuehn (24:00) – Here we see the institution of the family and how it too can became a breeding ground for dysfunction and abuse. Kuehn wanted to discuss Win’s challenge to separate himself and his family, the evil that is in his family and whether or not it is in him. In this family, you are either a victim or a victimizer and it is better to be the one with power, the victimizer. Why don’t people speak up? Because of family bonds and the idea of personal narratives and blame.

The Response and Importance of Friends (26:00)
How do friends help or hinder people speaking the truth?

Carrie Mesrobian: If we can learn anything from Harry Potter – and really, I think we can learn everything from Harry Potter – it’s the importance of friends.

Brendan Kiely (27:00) – People need to find the space where two people can be equal in a relationship in order to form more honest relationships with each other. Adolescence are beginning to understand this process, how to share vulnerability, how to become allies. The danger is when a person can begin to feel like an outcast; it can require such a leap to bring that person back into the fold. In GOW, the MC doesn’t want to see himself as a victim. That’s okay that he wants to try to maintain a normal life, but he has to find a way to integrate that part of his life – his victimhood – into his overall identity or he will remain fractured. But there is a character in the story that reaches out to him and says they will be there for him. These types of stories allow teens to have conversations about how to be a better friend and ally. Friends are more important than family when you are 16. Having books like these to talk about how to support each other to be better friends is so important, there isn’t a lot of that in our culture.

Stephanie Kuehn (31:00) – For Win, all of his relationships have been destructive. He believes it is inevitable that he will hurt the people around him. But Kuehn wanted to create some characters struggling with their own issues who didn’t understand Win but we’re willing to reach out to him and say they were there for him. These characters demonstrate empathy; empathy and having someone care about you even when you can’t care about yourself can be that spark that makes you reach for healing. Compassion is a powerful gift to give to someone else.

Rachele Alpine (34:00) – The important part of Kate’s story is that she eventually recognizes that these people who have said they are her friends really aren’t. Her brother is the voice of reason that she refuses to listen to. “When you do find the courage to speak out, it might not always be the first or second person who listens to you. Keep looking and keep searching for that person who will.” You deserve to be heard. This message is part of Kate’s journey, she needs to make sure she is being heard.

Talking About Sex Scenes and Consent (36:00)
How do you look at the consent?

Rachele Alpine (37:00) – Poetry is used to reveal Kate’s real voice. In it we see that even though she says yes to Jack when they have sex, we see here that she is more being pressured into by Jack and by her friends. Kate is questioning it and doesn’t really want to do it.  To Kate, it is something she feels she needs to do to stay with Jack (which reminds me that we need to write that post about guilt/manipulation and how it can muddy the consent discussion). The gray areas of consent: we don’t talk enough about what sexual assault can be and what consent is. Teenagers know that someone forces themselves on you, that’s rape, but they don’t understand the finer elements of consent.

Carrie Mesrobian: Most young people’s idea of consent that silence and letting things happen is the same thing as consent. They need to understand that saying yes – enthusiastic consent – matters. (42:00)

Talking About the Main Characters (43:00)

Carrie Mesrobian: The main characters in these stories are important because they aren’t the noble, sympathetic character who was raped by knife point in the bushes. They are unlikable characters who don’t always make the right choices and we are still supposed to feel compassion for them.

Stephanie Kuehn (44:00) – Why would Win be likable? He is arrogant, cold, protective. There is no perfect victim, the idea doesn’t even make sense. For any kid that is victimized, we should care about them no matter who they are or what they are like; we need to protect them at all costs. If we can’t, that says a lot more about us as adults then it does the kids.

Brendan Kiely (47:00) – Adain imagines this scene where he sees the community seeing him as a monster. Kiely was consciously trying to make connections between the novel Frankenstein. Aidan is created in some sense by the circumstances of his abuse because you can’t not be affected by that. Just like in the novel Frankenstein, Adain might be described as a monster, but just as in Frankenstein Aidan, the “monster”, is actually the most human. If we are going to honor the victims of sexual abuse it does an injustice to paint them into a rosy picture rather than allow them their full humanity. It seems like a worse injustice to not allow our characters to be as messed up as people who aren’t victim of sexual violence. If we don’t have a character who is making poor choices, then it is harder to invite readers to discuss how to make better choices going forward. Unless we have muddy scenes, how else do we have real conversations with teens?

Here Brendan Kiely recommends the book Salvage the Bones

Carrie Mesrobians: The friends have moments of grace.

Listen to what Carrie says around the 52:00 mark about how we don’t allow characters with a history of sexual violence to have more complex narratives.

Rachele Alpine (53:00) –  Important to show some redemption for some of the characters. The most comments that she has gotten about Kate is that she shouldn’t get involved in the this world, but she needed to be flawed and we needed to see what she had to lose by speaking up.

Carrie Mesrobian (56:00) – People who do this don’t always look like evil, there is a banality to it. They tell themselves this story about themselves when they get up in the morning – they have a story they have to tell themselves to live with who they are. Having that nuance where we can hear that secondary victimization is so powerful.

Brendan Kiely (58:00) – If we insist on cardboard people it’s like we have no faith in people. At the end of the day it is celebrating how we emerge from the muck.

Stephanie Kuehn (59:00) – It’s so easy to qualify our compassion, but life is not black and white. Here she discusses reading Inexcusable by Chris Lynch.

Talking About the Ending (1 hour mark)

Stephanie Kuehn – There are no easy answers, but I wanted to show that empathy and friendship matter; that believing in yourself is what ultimately matters and moves us forward.

Rachele Alpine – Wanted to end it with the fact that you do move forward. At the end of the book Kate is not letting people silence her anymore.

Brendan Kiely – Wanted to end on the note that we are not alone. As victims we are not alone because there are other victims but also we are not alone because we can find the right communities and those communities can rally around the victims. Together we can work to make a better world then the world we found.

Carrie Mesrobian: “I love all 3 of the endings of these books because while they don’t show that the road ahead for any of the characters is going to be smooth, they kind of show that this is the reality of what you contend with when you deal with trauma but that you can be honest about it.” Read Carrie’s thoughts about the hangout on her blog.

The Next #SVYALit Google Hangout/Virtual Panel Will Be:

Consent Positive YA Lit: Looking at positive depictions of healthy relationships and consent in YA literature
Date: May 21st
Moderator(s): Christa Desir, Carrie Mesrobian, Karen Jensen

Confirmed: Courtney Stevens (FAKING NORMAL), Brandy Colbert (POINTE) 

Book Reivew: Charm and Strange by Stephanie Khuen

This book is an amazingly well written and profound story, but it is incredibly difficult to read, unsettling. It is an amazing example of the power of books to make us think about difficult topics. You can find a discussion guide here.
“She must have seen more of my charm than my strangeness tonight.” 

Publisher’s Description:  

No one really knows who Andrew Winston Winters is. Least of all himself. He is part Win, a lonely teenager exiled to a remote boarding school in the wake of a family tragedy. The guy who shuts the whole world out, no matter the cost, because his darkest fear is of himself …of the wolfish predator within. But he’s also part Drew, the angry boy with violent impulses that control him. The boy who, one fateful summer, was part of something so terrible it came close to destroying him. A deftly woven, elegant, unnerving psychological thriller about a boy at war with himself. Charm and Strange is a masterful exploration of one of the greatest taboos.

My thoughts:

Charm and Strange is told by flashing from the present to the past in alternating chapters.  In the present, Win is attending a boarding school where a murder has taken place. He is struggling to hold himself together, thinking that on the next full moon he will surely turn into a horrible monster because it is his family’s curse. In the past, we are living the summer when he and his brother went to go live with his grandparents, building up to the reveal of what, exactly, happened that summer.

“She loves us all.”
“Then why doesn’t she act like it?”
“Because love doesn’t always look nice.” 

The writing in this book is truly astounding. The storytelling is complex. And it has one of the most devastating scenes I have ever read in a book. It is not graphic, but there is no doubt as to what is happening and then there is full and complete understanding of who Win is and why.  It is almost as if Win has developed some type of dis-associative disorder to protect himself and you both see that moment happening and see how it is used as a coping device. The mother also appears to suffer from some extreme depression, though it is never called this, so you can see glimpses of mental illness coursing through the veins of this family and touching all of its members in various ways.

“Because blood is blood, and every family has its own force.
Its own flavor.
Its own charm and strange.”

After I finished the final chapter on this book I couldn’t read anything for a few days afterwards, I just felt completely shattered for this young man. It is an important and stark look at the damage that is left in the wake of sexual violence. This book is deeply relevant and unique because it explores a type of sexual violence that is often overlooked in YA literature, but unfortunately we know it happens far too often in the real world.

Charm and Strange is also is also very important because, like books like The Gospel of Winter by Brendan Kiely and the books on this list, it reminds us all that boys can and are often the victims of sexual violence. It is also a profound and important look at the confusion and destruction left in its wake. Some of the difficult topics include sexual violence, allusions to mental illness, and suicide.


Daniel Kraus says, “Debut author Kuehn comes out swinging with this confident, unnerving look at a damaged teen struggling with something violent inside of him” (Booklist, June 1, 2013). This literary look at sexual violence is a compelling and highly recommended read.

Stephanie Khuen will be joining us on March 26th for our next SVYALit Google Hangout on Air.