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The Bad Man With the Nice Smile, a guest post by Victoria Lee

Content warning: discussion of sexual assault, rape, child abuse, and gaslighting.

In September 2019, Netflix released a new miniseries, Unbelievable. The show followed the true story of a young girl who claimed a stranger broke into her house at night and raped her. But when she reports what happened to the police, parts of her story don’t seem to match up. As the series unfolds, we become aware of all the ways the system—but also the girl’s friends and family—have become biased against her. She’s a resident in a group home, a former delinquent, a foster child with a history of acting out, who had made accusations of abuse before. Everyone seems to assume that she is lying for attention.

As you might have predicted by now, she wasn’t lying. But by the time her attacker was caught and brought to justice, the damage was done; the girl had already been abandoned by everyone she should have been able to trust, just because she didn’t match the vision of what a “real” victim looked like in their heads.

The idea of real victims is a pervasive and pernicious one. Turn on the news and you’ll hear a litany of all the things that real victims do: they wear the right clothes, they don’t go out at night, they report the crime to the police and they don’t wait to do it, they have never made these kinds of allegations before. We are told these things even though victims cannot control the behavior of their aggressors, even though being in foster care or having mental illness or having been previously victimized all substantially increase your likelihood of experiencing future violence. Even though externalizing behaviors like drug use and acting out are often symptoms of having survived abuse.

As a child, I was sexually abused for four years, from ages twelve to sixteen. The perpetrator—although maybe I should say the molester or the rapist or the abuser, all of which are less sanitized and therefore strike me as more accurate—was a close friend of the family. He was my neighbor, my triathlon coach, a man so enmeshed in our lives that I described him to other people as my uncle because any lesser word seemed inadequate to describe the relationship he had with my family. He was in his early thirties and looked like Orlando Bloom and every single one of my friends who came over to the house commented on how ungodly hot he was.

When I was thirteen, I even wrote a character in one of my stories to look just like Brian. (We will call him Brian, because that is, in fact, his actual name. F you, Brian.) The character was the love interest, and was also the protagonist’s teacher. As you can see, already I knew that my job as victim was to romanticize such things. That was the only way to survive.

Brian was not a man in the bushes, was not unshaven in a stained wifebeater; he had no substance abuse problems that I was aware of; he was just a guy. A tall, athletic, well-educated, charismatic, attractive guy. Kids loved him, and he loved kids. Me, on the other hand…I couldn’t be a victim.

I was not what a victim looked like. I was a problem child. I spent too much time on the internet, and listened to angry music, and skipped class and stole my parents’ credit card and shoplifted and screamed at teachers and once threatened to kill a boy who touched me wrong. I was the girl that other girls weren’t allowed to be friends with. I was the girl they prayed for at night. I was the girl who wore boys’ clothes, all black, and kissed other girls and insisted it wasn’t a phase.

Therefore, I was not believed. Not by my family, not by my therapist. I was believed by the crisis team that was called in to evaluate me when the staff at the psychiatric hospital I was later admitted to following a suicide attempt suspected abuse. But at that point the damage was done—I swore to the crisis team that nothing had happened, their suspicions were unfounded, anything I had to say to keep the past buried. I couldn’t deal with being told, once again, that I wasn’t a victim.

Eventually, other girls came forward about my abuser, and he was charged by the state, and ultimately convicted. But this isn’t the kind of trauma you move past. Not just the trauma of the abuse, but the trauma of being told you’re too villainous to ever be victim.

This is why I wrote The Fever King and The Electric Heir. In the series, Dara and Noam both experience abuse in different ways. Dara was physically and sexually abused by a father figure, whereas Noam became enmeshed in an unhealthy, manipulative, exploitative relationship with a much older and much more powerful mentor figure. Both characters are, ultimately, abused by the same man, but their experiences of that abuse are different. The books follow how each character comes to terms with what happened to him, and begins the process of healing. Their abuser, like mine, was charismatic and respected and good-looking—he wasn’t the rapist hiding in the bushes or the drunk frat bro, he was a pillar of the community. When people look for the bad guy, they aren’t looking for Brian. They aren’t looking for Calix Lehrer.

That’s why it was so important to me to write about abusers who don’t fit our vivid stereotype of what an abuser ought to look like—that makes it more difficult to recognize abusers in the real world. And equally so, not all victim/survivors fit the same mold. Some survivors withdraw from the world and become quiet and nervous and fear sex. Other survivors lash out, angry, furious, willing to burn down anything that tries to hurt them again. And still others seem oddly unbothered by what happened to them, numb to the pain or burying it so deep they no longer feel it anymore.

All of these reactions—and others—are okay. The only “right” way to respond to trauma is the way that helps you survive.

I don’t think that good and varied representation of victim/survivors and abusers in literature is a panacea. Abusers are very skilled, after all, at gaslighting their victims (and everyone else). But wide representation of survivors and perpetrators is one step toward chipping away their power and undermining the stories they try to tell about villains and victims and heroes.

Meet Victoria Lee

Victoria Lee grew up in Durham, North Carolina, where she spent twelve ascetic years as a vegetarian before discovering that spicy chicken wings are, in fact, a delicacy. She’s been a state finalist competitive pianist, a hitchhiker, a pizza connoisseur, an EMT, an expat in China and Sweden, and a science doctoral student. She’s also a bit of a snob about fancy whiskey. Lee writes early in the morning and then spends the rest of the day trying to impress her border collie puppy and make her experiments work. She currently lives in Pennsylvania with her partner.

www.victorialeewrites.com Facebook: @victorialeewrites, @amazonpublishing Instagram: @sosaidvictoria, @amazonpublishing, Twitter: @sosaidvictoria, @amazonpub

About The Electric Heir by Victoria Lee

In the sequel to The Fever King, Noam Álvaro seeks to end tyranny before he becomes a tyrant himself.

Six months after Noam Álvaro helped overthrow the despotic government of Carolinia, the Atlantians have gained citizenship, and Lehrer is chancellor. But despite Lehrer’s image as a progressive humanitarian leader, Noam has finally remembered the truth that Lehrer forced him to forget—that Lehrer is responsible for the deadly magic infection that ravaged Carolinia.

Now that Noam remembers the full extent of Lehrer’s crimes, he’s determined to use his influence with Lehrer to bring him down for good. If Lehrer realizes Noam has evaded his control—and that Noam is plotting against him—Noam’s dead. So he must keep playing the role of Lehrer’s protégé until he can steal enough vaccine to stop the virus.

Meanwhile Dara Shirazi returns to Carolinia, his magic stripped by the same vaccine that saved his life. But Dara’s attempts to ally himself with Noam prove that their methods for defeating Lehrer are violently misaligned. Dara fears Noam has only gotten himself more deeply entangled in Lehrer’s web. Sooner or later, playing double agent might cost Noam his life.

ISBN-13: 9781542005074
Publisher: Amazon Publishing
Publication date: 03/17/2020
Series: Feverwake Series #2

Ages 14-17

Healing Is Not a Journey We Take Alone, a guest post by Bree Barton


(Content warning: this post talks about sexual assault.)

If you eavesdrop on a bunch of writers talking about writing, you might think they’ve just returned from the boxing ring.   

“This book is going to destroy me.” “That scene has beaten me to a bloody pulp.” 

The second book seems to hit especially hard. “Boob 2 is killing me,” an author typed in an online support group I’m a part of, a typo that spawned a delightful series of Boob 2 memes.

When my novel Heart of Thorns debuted last year, I was struggling under the massive weight of Boob 2 myself. Tears of Frost is the hardest thing I’ve ever written. I’m fiercely proud of it, but the process was excruciating. What I didn’t say in my online support group was why it was so hard.

I’d been drafting for under a month when my little sister was raped. I share that with her permission, because she’d like our culture to be able to talk more openly about rape and sexual assault.

My sister and I are very close. I dedicated my first book to her. I would burn the world to the ground to protect her. After she was raped, I wanted to.

So I did what any furious writer would do. I poured every ounce of rage into my book.  

I’d had a vague sense that I wanted to write about assault in the sequel to Heart of Thorns. After all, I’d built my entire magical system on an imbalance of power and a history of oppression, specifically against women’s bodies. How could I not write about assault?

After my sister’s rape, I grew braver. I was ready to tackle the messy, contradictory, enraging realities of trauma and its aftermath. I felt both angry and helpless, so I made my main character a fighter, someone who channeled her anger with her fists.

Meanwhile, my sister took a weeklong leave from high school. I brought her out to Los Angeles where we watched YouTube videos of Krav Maga, jujitsu, and street fighting, then practiced our new moves in my living room. We laughed together. We cried. We felt strong and powerful.

Sometimes, that isn’t enough.

One year later, during a trip to Morocco to research Book 3, I was assaulted in my hotel room by a hotel employee. 

Processing what happened has been an ongoing journey. My Tears of Frost copyedits were due the week after I left Morocco. I was reading, at a very close level, a book that dealt overtly with sexual assault. At best it was surreal. At worst, impossible. 



Here’s the kicker: the following week I flew to Portland to moderate a panel at a literary conference. The subject of the panel?


Girls and Sexual Agency. 



Oh, dramatic irony, my old friend. 

My story is not unique. Most of my friends have been harassed or assaulted, many far worse. I know, rationally, it wasn’t my fault. I’ve said this to my sister dozens of times, and I say it to her still. Yet the same questions continue to plague me. Was it because I smiled in the lobby? Were my pants and long-sleeve shirt too form fitting? Why was I naïve enough to open my hotel room door? 

When my mind wanders down those familiar furrows, I do my best to coax it back. Rape and sexual assault cannot be traced to smiles and clothes and open doors. It’s always about power. In Morocco, my power was taken away from me.  

And yet. I survived. I’ll tell you why.



Other women

After I was assaulted, our tour guide led me down a dark back hallway of the hotel to confront my assaulter so that he could “apologize” and keep his job. I knew this wasn’t right—I was absolutely terrified—but I was in too much shock to be able to stop what was happening. When the women on my tour found out? They LEAPT into action. They ensured that the employee was fired and off the premises immediately. They took me into their rooms, their dinner tables, their train cars. They comforted me through the mental fog that descended after the adrenaline wore off. These women became my sisters, my mothers, my friends. They walked beside me through the streets of Morocco, and they walked with me through the tortuous labyrinth of blame, fear, and confusion inside my own brain.



When I think of that time now, these women emerge out of the dark haze like warm beacons: with jokes, snacks, courage, and compassion. I don’t know how I would have survived without them. That’s not me being weak. That’s me being human.



I have felt so many things these past months. Frightened and frozen, hopeful and lucky, incandescent with rage. I was okay, and I wasn’t okay, and telling the whole story over and over made me feel exhausted and exposed. When a friend asked, “Will you travel alone again?” I didn’t know how to respond. Traveling solo brings all the best parts of me to life. The thought of losing that was so painful I had to put it in a box and shove it onto the tallest shelf, until I was ready to take it down. 

Six months later, an opportunity came to take it down.

I met a woman who was curating a book of letters by Arab women. She offered to fly me to Bahrain, a tiny archipelago in the Persian Gulf, to help her conduct interviews. I said yes.

I could write whole books about the women I met. The badass lawyer who’s fighting the patriarchy on a daily basis, whether it’s representing women pro bono or hiring an all-female team of other badass lawyers. The founder of a nonprofit that empowers and develops youth and women. The blogger who was incarcerated for posting on Instagram about female anatomy and women’s sexual pleasure. Since coming home, I’ve gone to sleep every night thinking, There is so much to fight for. And there are so many women fighting for it. 

That is why I wrote Tears of Frost. It’s why I poured so much of my heart into crafting a story about two young women who are in a dark, isolating place—and how they crawl, claw, and fight their way back to one another. The book became a way for me to reflect on larger themes of assault, power, and ultimately, healing.

I don’t believe healing is a journey we take alone. I believe we need friends, communities, sisters. We need guidance and support from people who have walked this path before, which is why it was important to me to include an author’s note at the front of my book, and resources at the end.

My Boob 2 is not a perfect book by any means. But it’s a book in which I chose to fight for something.

Sometimes, that is enough.

Meet Bree Barton

Bree Barton is author of the Heart of Thorns trilogy, a fierce feminist fantasy series about three girls with dark magic—and even darker secrets. The second book, Tears of Frost, comes out from KT/HarperCollins on November 5th, 2019. Bree’s novels have been published in seven countries and four languages, three of which she cannot speak. 

When she isn’t crafting a story, Bree teaches Rock ‘n’ Write, a free dance-and-writing class she created for teen girls in LA. You can find her on Instagram @SpeakBreely, where she posts fan art, book giveaways, and the occasional picture of her melancholy dog. 

About Tears of Frost by Bree Barton

This captivating second book in Bree Barton’s Heart of Thornstrilogy deftly explores the effects of power in a dark magical kingdom—and the fierce courage it takes to claim your body as your own. This feminist teen fantasy is perfect for fans of Sarah J. Maas and Leigh Bardugo.

Mia Rose is back from the dead. Her memories are hazy, her body numb—but she won’t stop searching. Her only hope to save the boy she loves and the sister who destroyed her is to find the mother she can never forgive.   

After her mother’s betrayal, Pilar is on a hunt of her own—to seek out the only person who can exact revenge. All goes according to plan until she collides with Prince Quin, the boy whose sister she killed.

As Mia, Pilar, and Quin forge dangerous new alliances, they are bewitched by the snow kingdom’s promise of freedom…but nothing is as it seems under the kingdom’s glimmering ice.

ISBN-13: 9780062447715
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 11/05/2019
Series: Heart of Thorns #2
Age Range: 13 – 17 Years

Book Review: Girl Made of Stars by Ashley Herring Blake

Publisher’s description

girl made ofFor readers of Girl in Pieces and The Way I Used to Be comes an emotionally gripping story about facing hard truths in the aftermath of sexual assault.

Mara and Owen are as close as twins can get, so when Mara’s friend Hannah accuses Owen of rape, Mara doesn’t know what to think. Can her brother really be guilty of such a violent act? Torn between her family and her sense of right and wrong, Mara feels lost, and it doesn’t help that things are strained with her ex-girlfriend, Charlie. As Mara, Hannah, and Charlie come together in the aftermath of this terrible crime, Mara must face a trauma from her own past and decide where Charlie fits into her future. With sensitivity and openness, this timely novel confronts the difficult questions surrounding consent, victim blaming, and sexual assault.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

BILLY STARS

There’s what I tweeted after I finished this book. What a powerful and memorable read. I read a LOT of books. Often, as the weeks and months pass, the details get lost to me. I’ll remember I liked something, but not necessarily all of the reasons why. Or I’ll forget characters’ names or how the book made me feel. But this book? This book will stay with me. All of it.

 

Relationships in twins Mara and Owen’s world are closely-knit. They attend an arts magnet program with all the most important people in their lives. Hannah, Owen’s girlfriend, is one of Mara’s best friends. Charlie, Mara’s very best friend, is also her ex-girlfriend (Mara is bisexual; Charlie is nonbinary). And Owen’s best friend, Alex, has always been there, but Mara finds herself turning to him more and in new, unexpected ways. When Hannah says that Owen raped her at a party they all were at, Mara is devastated. She knows her brother would never do that. But she also knows Hannah would never lie about that. She turns to their small group of friends, including both Hannah and Owen, as she tries to process what happened. Mara has her own reasons for fiercely thinking that “believe girls and women” is a good policy (beyond it just being a good policy). She’s held on to a secret for years, a secret that ruined her relationship with Charlie. Mara and Owen’s parents believe Owen when he says he didn’t rape Hannah. They urge Mara to understand the need to be united on this, to not talk to anyone about it, to make sure they all have the story straight. But Mara is sick of not talking about things. She stands by Hannah, especially when Hannah comes back to school and is repeatedly greeted with, “Hey, slut, welcome back.” Mara, Charlie, and Hannah all have truths to tell. They rely on each other, and the support of girls (particularly in their feminist group at school, Empower) to find the strength to not be silenced. 

 

This masterpiece is gutting. It’s not just the characters, the dialogue, and the writing are all wonderful—they are—but that the story is so real. So true. So common. Maybe not the specifics, but the general story. This is in incredibly important read about the aftermath of a sexual assault, about consent, rape culture, family, friendship, and feminism. A powerful, heartbreaking, but ultimately uplifting read. 

 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781328778239
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 05/15/2018

 

 

Book Review: Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough

Publisher’s description

blood water paintHer mother died when she was twelve, and suddenly Artemisia Gentileschi had a stark choice: a life as a nun in a convent or a life grinding pigment for her father’s paint.

She chose paint.

By the time she was seventeen, Artemisia did more than grind pigment. She was one of Rome’s most talented painters, even if no one knew her name. But Rome in 1610 was a city where men took what they wanted from women, and in the aftermath of rape Artemisia faced another terrible choice: a life of silence or a life of truth, no matter the cost.

He will not consume
my every thought.
I am a painter.
I will paint.

Joy McCullough’s bold novel in verse is a portrait of an artist as a young woman, filled with the soaring highs of creative inspiration and the devastating setbacks of a system built to break her. McCullough weaves Artemisia’s heartbreaking story with the stories of the ancient heroines, Susanna and Judith, who become not only the subjects of two of Artemisia’s most famous paintings but sources of strength as she battles to paint a woman’s timeless truth in the face of unspeakable and all-too-familiar violence.

I will show you
what a woman can do.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

17-year-old Artemisia understands the way the world works: women are a beauty for consumption by men. There are many expectations for women and few freedoms. She understands that girls are prey, that they are seen as things and possessions. Artemisia, ostensibly an apprentice to her painter father, though clearly far more skilled than he, begins to paint biblical women she knows intimately from her mother’s stories, knowing a man could never capture the truth of the story the way a woman could. Her mother’s stories made clear the heavy burden of the inescapable male gaze, but they also made clear Artemisia’s (and all women’s) right to be outraged, to act, to push back, to speak up. These woman from her mother’s stories, Judith and Susanna, come to be her strength and solace when Artemisia is raped by Agostina Tassi, her painting tutor. Artemisia tells her father of the rape and they take Tino to trial. But, of course, it is not Tino on trial, but Artemisia’s virtue. 

Both the stories from Artemisia’s mother and Artemisia’s own story ask the readers to bear witness, to see the truth, to hear the voices, to understand the strength in the stories. The stories are the weapons, the armor, the refuge, and the map. This intensely passionate and powerful exploration of women’s lives, stories, truths, and power is a masterpiece. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780735232112
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 03/06/2018

#SVYALit Book Review: Rani Patel in Full Effect by Sonia Patel

Publisher’s description

raniAlmost seventeen, Rani Patel appears to be a kick-ass Indian girl breaking cultural norms as a hip-hop performer in full effect. But in truth, she’s a nerdy flat-chested nobody who lives with her Gujarati immigrant parents on the remote Hawaiian island of Moloka’i, isolated from her high school peers by the unsettling norms of Indian culture where “husband is God.” Her parents’ traditionally arranged marriage is a sham. Her dad turns to her for all his needs—even the intimate ones. When Rani catches him two-timing with a woman barely older than herself, she feels like a widow and, like widows in India are often made to do, she shaves off her hair. Her sexy bald head and hard-driving rhyming skills attract the attention of Mark, the hot older customer who frequents her parents’ store and is closer in age to her dad than to her. Mark makes the moves on her and Rani goes with it. He leads Rani into 4eva Flowin’, an underground hip hop crew—and into other things she’s never done. Rani ignores the red flags. Her naive choices look like they will undo her but ultimately give her the chance to discover her strengths and restore the things she thought she’d lost, including her mother.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

After I finished this book, I was torn between racing upstairs to write about it and racing upstairs to listen to a whole bunch of pre-90s hip hop. Writing now, music later. Yes, yes, y’all.

This review will have spoilers, so if you want to go in not knowing anything beyond what the blurb up there tells you, beware. The bottom line of this review is GO BUY THIS BOOK. Remember how it seems like the only stories that I can actually stick with reading these days (during The Great Reading Slump of 2016) are ones that feel completely fresh and new? Here’s another that fits that bill. I just want to see stories told by people we haven’t seen before and we get that in RANI PATEL IN FULL EFFECT.

Set on Moloka’i, a Hawaiian island, in 1991, Gujarati Indian Rani Patel is about to turn 17. She works at the general store and the restaurant that her parents own and is fairly miserable. Her parents, who had an arranged marriage, have a volatile relationship—her mother is often on the verge of suicide and her father is increasingly distant, relying on Rani to smooth things over for him, which, in addition to being a totally inappropriate expectation of a child, has left Rani and her mom near strangers to each other. She’s senior class president, but, as she points out, only because no one else ran. She has a couple of close-ish guy friends, Pono and Omar, but she isn’t exactly confessing any of her thoughts and feelings to them. She’s crushing on older white dude Mark (like, older-older: he’s 31). She’s also a rapper, known as MC Sutra, who’s constantly writing new lyrics. When we meet Rani, she’s just shaved off all of her hair and just seen her father with his mistress. Her relationship with her father is complex. Like, WAY complex. He’s always treated her as his little princess and lavished her with affection and attention. HERE COME SOME OF THOSE SPOILERS I TOLD YOU ABOUT. He’s also been sexually abusing her. It would be an understatement to say that her eventual relationship with Mark (31-year-old Mark) can be seen as a result of what has happened to her as she seeks some attention and validation from an older man who, much like her father, is a pretty awful person. And (SPOILER), just like her father, Mark rapes her, too.

 

The thing that seems to be saving Rani is music. She gets an invitation to audition for an underground hip hop crew and is completely surprised when she sees who is already in the crew. Rani pours her heart into the rhymes that she spits, revealing more about herself and the other women in her family. She’s smart and political and a feminist. But she’s also just a kid who has had some really horrific stuff happen to her. It’s hard to watch her make cruddy choices over and over again. There are many lines in my notes that simply note the place I was at in the book followed by UGH. She is a kid who has had horrible stuff go on, had no real support system, had no therapy, and now is replicating many of the same troubling dynamics and not learning who to stay the hell away from. She also blames herself for everything that has happened to her, which resulted in lots of “Oh, Rani, no” in my notes. Through music, she works out some of what she’s feeling and what has happened to her, and to other women in her family. Through music, she finds a community and real friendship, honesty, and support. 

 

Overall, I found this to be a really interesting look at both a place and characters I haven’t seen in YA. Are we calling books set in the 90s historical fiction? The 1991 setting felt important because of the music that means so much to Rani. Will contemporary teen readers feel the impact of her references? Maybe not. A glossary in the back defines not just Gujarati words but also Hawaiian words, Hawaiian pidgin, and late 80s/early 90s slang. While it took me a little bit to get into the book, and the pacing toward the end felt rushed, once I got into the story, I couldn’t put it down. The author, a psychiatrist, includes a long note at the end saying that, like Rani, she is a Gujarati Indian who lived on Mokoka’i and loved hip hop. She also tells readers that she’s a psychiatrist and talks at length about sexual abuse and how it has affected Rani. She also offers resources. Rani’s story is one of growth and empowerment and is a book I’ll be thinking about for a long time. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9781941026502

Publisher: Cinco Puntos Press

Publication date: 10/11/2016

#SVYALit Book Review: Wrecked by Maria Padian

Publisher’s description

wreckedEveryone has heard a different version of what happened that night at MacCallum College. Haley was already in bed when her roommate, Jenny, arrived home shell-shocked from the wild Conundrum House party. Richard heard his housemate Jordan brag about the cute freshman he hooked up with. When Jenny formally accuses Jordan of rape, Haley and Richard find themselves pushed onto opposite sides of the school’s investigation. But conflicting interests fueling conflicting versions of the story may make bringing the truth to light nearly impossible–especially when reputations, relationships, and whole futures are riding on the verdict.

Maria Padian offers a kaleidoscopic view of a sexual assault on a college campus. Wrecked will leave readers thinking about how memory and identity, what’s at stake, and who sits in judgment shape what we all decide to believe about the truth.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

As you can imagine, this wasn’t an easy read. I read this as a woman in the world, as a mother of a son, as a friend to many, many women who have been raped, as a witness to rape culture, and as a human beyond infuriated by everything that went on with Brock Turner. I would say this book is “timely,” but the sad reality is that it has always been and will always be timely—rapists and rape culture are not going anywhere any time soon—so let’s just say this it totally relevant to all teenage (and adult) lives. And it will make you mad. And it should.

 

The story is told through the eyes of Richard, who is a housemate of Jordan, the accused rapist, and Haley, whose roommate is Jenny, the victim. In between their chapters, we also see exactly what happened the night in question, doled out in small bits. After being raped, a few days pass, and Jenny calls the crisis line at her school. While she doesn’t go to the police, she does file a formal sexual misconduct complaint at the school–she has her reasons for only wanting to report what happened at school. She chooses Haley to be her advisor–the person who can be with her during all of the interviews and can offer advice and support. Often this role is filled by someone on the faculty or by a lawyer. Jordan chooses Richard for this role—for reasons that really have nothing to do with support. Given that Haley and Richard are just beginning to possibly date, their roles and the “sides” they appear to be on make things even more complicated for them. Jordan challenges the accusation and the bulk of the novel is about finding out what will happen in the case and how the events really unfolded.

 

By showing us not just the rape and presenting the story not just from the viewpoint of the victim, we are able to more fully see rape culture at work and understand all of the things that can come along with something like this. Jenny must deal with the reaction and desires of her parents and the advice from friends and advocates as well as the assumptions, lies, and harassment that come with the story getting out. We see what others are saying about her or about that night. We see misinterpretations and fuzzy memories and friends making bad choices and others trying to make good ones. We see the people who feel they share some of the blame and those who don’t feel at all responsible for what happened that night. We see the questions asked by people and the questions that get ignored. We see blame, guilt, and facts. And at the heart of everything is truth—something that can easily get buried under lies and blame and foggy memories. 

 

I hope everyone who reads this remembers that rape victims get to feel how they feel, get to react how they react, and get to move forward in whatever way they feel is best for them. I also hope everyone who reads this walks away mad. If you have somehow managed to make it to this point in life without having watched a friend struggle with the aftermath of a rape (or been a victim yourself), this book will make it perfectly clear how horrible, frustrating, angering, upsetting, and complicated it is. A powerful and important read. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781616206246

Publisher: Algonquin Young Readers

Publication date: 10/04/2016

Rural Poverty and THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES by Mindy McGinnis

Sometimes, it is indeed a small world after all. Shortly after moving to Texas, I learned that author Mindy McGinnis lived just 10 minutes from the very library I had spent the last 10 years working at in the state of Ohio. This town was my home, the place where my children were born. It was also, at the time, the county with the highest poverty rate in all of Ohio. So while there were many aspects about Mindy McGinnis’ THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES that stood out to me, one that stood out most vividly is the depiction of rural poverty. THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES is set in a small, Midwestern town that is ravished by poverty and in my mind’s eye I could picture the very places around this small town that I thought Mindy might be talking about. And while all poverty is bad, each type of poverty has its unique challenges. For example, one of the greatest challenges in rural poverty is transportation. Rural communities are often spread out and don’t have public transportation systems, which makes things like going to a grocery story or doctor’s appointment quite challenging. There are usually fewer options in rural communities, and less options means less competition and less price choices.

Although I currently live in Texas, I work in a public library in another rural Ohio community that is also fighting high poverty. Many of my patrons don’t have the money to buy current technology, and even if they did have the money the truth is, there are still parts of my community that have no providers offering wireless or DSL Internet. Like many other places experiences high rural poverty rates, drug use and drug related deaths are reaching epidemic proportions. So as I mentioned, THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES resonated with me in ways that I can not even begin to describe.

Today, I am honored to host author Mindy McGinni who talks about rural poverty and the part it plays in her newest release, THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES.

thefemaleofthespecies

The Female of the Species addresses many issues within its pages; rape culture and vigilante justice being the most prevalent. A quieter issue raises it’s head though, one that is easy to overlook, shadowed as it is by the more controversial topics.

Rural poverty.poverty2Much of the time poverty is associated with urban life and that is certainly a truth that cannot go ignored. However, there is another face to poverty, one that looks picturesque. Farms with collapsed barns. Homes where no one lives anymore.

I was born and raised in a rurally impoverished area and now I live and work in one. For fourteen years I have been employed as a library aide at a local school where nearly forty percent of our student body receive free and reduced lunch.

During deer hunting season our attendance list shows double digits of our students are excused for the day to participate… and in most cases it’s not a leisure activity for them. They’re putting much-needed food on the family table.

Food pantry lines are long, faces are pinched, and during the summer months many of our students go without lunch because they depended on the school to provide it. Because it is a sprawling, rural community, people who have to weigh the cost of gas for the drive to the pantry against the food they will get there.

None of the characters in my book suffer the indignity of hunger, because I feel it’s an issue that deserves more space than there was room for within this particular story. But hunger breeds a specific type of desperation that calls for an escape, and this can open the door to darker things.

poverty1

Upper and middle classes know the need for a vacation. We all feel the cycle of our daily lives triggering stress, causing irritation and anger, and even pushing us towards exhaustion. So we take a “mental health day,” call off work for little or no reason, or we cash in those vacation days and just “get away from it all.”

We have that luxury.

Many of the jobs available to the working poor pay by the hour, and to take a day off means to take a pay cut – one that the budget doesn’t allow for. Vacation time may be possible, but the idea of affording to actually leave is laughable. Escapes from reality are sometimes sought not in a getaway, but in drug use.

There is a major heroin epidemic in my area. We have lost students in my small school district to it. One Twitter user already thanked me for mentioning the epidemic in The Female of the Species, saying that she hopes it may draw more attention to the issue. If it doesn’t, this should; last weekend alone multiple people OD’d, two of them in a mini-van with a four year old.

It’s easy to point fingers, lay blame, criticize and judge. What kind of people do this?

The desperate. The addicted. The hopeless.

Such descriptions aren’t solely the realm of the poor, but there are correlations that can’t be denied.

On my worst days – and we all have bad ones, no matter who we are – I can get upset, feel like giving up or just ducking out of reality for awhile. Stress is present in all our lives, no matter our socioeconomic standing.

But on these days I remind myself that I have food. I have clothes. I have a working car that I can drive to my next school visit, library appearance, or book club talk. I can fill the gas tank and go to work without having to worry about paying for that stop.

The small luxuries of our lives are something that most of us take for granted until they are taken away from us – a cracked phone that doesn’t work, the car being in this shop for a few days, the heat and electric always being on.

When you do have one of those days, think about those who can’t afford a phone at all, and are literally holding their cars together with duct tape. In the past I’ve had students that heat their home with the kitchen stove, and the children sleep with the pets to share body heat.

Spare a thought for them on your bad days, and if you can spare more than that, please do.

Publisher’s Book Description

Alex Craft knows how to kill someone. And she doesn’t feel bad about it. When her older sister, Anna, was murdered three years ago and the killer walked free, Alex uncaged the language she knows best. The language of violence.

While her crime goes unpunished, Alex knows she can’t be trusted among other people, even in her small hometown. She relegates herself to the shadows, a girl who goes unseen in plain sight, unremarkable in the high school hallways.

But Jack Fisher sees her. He’s the guy all other guys want to be: the star athlete gunning for valedictorian with the prom queen on his arm. Guilt over the role he played the night Anna’s body was discovered hasn’t let him forget Alex over the years, and now her green eyes amid a constellation of freckles have his attention. He doesn’t want to only see Alex Craft; he wants to know her.

So does Peekay, the preacher’s kid, a girl whose identity is entangled with her dad’s job, though that does not stop her from knowing the taste of beer or missing the touch of her ex-boyfriend. When Peekay and Alex start working together at the animal shelter, a friendship forms and Alex’s protective nature extends to more than just the dogs and cats they care for.

Circumstances bring Alex, Jack, and Peekay together as their senior year unfolds. While partying one night, Alex’s darker nature breaks out, setting the teens on a collision course that will change their lives forever. (Katherine Tegen Books, September 2016)

More on Rural Poverty and America’s Rural Drug Crisis

Understanding the Epidemic | Drug Overdose | CDC Injury Center

Opioid Addiction 2016 Facts & Figures

About the Epidemic | HHS.gov

5 Charts That Show How Bad America’s Drug Problem Is | TIME

Rural Poverty Portal: Home

Why the Left Isn’t Talking About Rural American Poverty – Rural America

Child Poverty Higher and More Persistent in Rural America

Who’s Afraid of Rural Poverty? The Story Behind America’s Invisible

Hunger and Poverty

Additional Sources:

Social Mobility:

Cycles of Poverty:

How Poverty Affects Schools:

Karen’s Thoughts on THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES: Highly Recommended

femaleofthespecies femaleofthespecies2 femaleofthespecies3 femaleofthespecies4More From Mindy McGinnis

THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES 9.20.16 HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen Books
GIVEN TO THE SEA 4.11.17 Putnam Children’s Books
Available Now:

Book Review: The Way I Used To Be by Amber Smith

Publisher’s description

the way i usedIn the tradition of Speak, this extraordinary debut novel shares the unforgettable story of a young woman as she struggles to find strength in the aftermath of an assault.

Eden was always good at being good. Starting high school didn’t change who she was. But the night her brother’s best friend rapes her, Eden’s world capsizes.

What was once simple, is now complex. What Eden once loved—who she once loved—she now hates. What she thought she knew to be true, is now lies. Nothing makes sense anymore, and she knows she’s supposed to tell someone what happened but she can’t. So she buries it instead. And she buries the way she used to be.

Told in four parts—freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior year—this provocative debut reveals the deep cuts of trauma. But it also demonstrates one young woman’s strength as she navigates the disappointment and unbearable pains of adolescence, of first love and first heartbreak, of friendships broken and rebuilt, and while learning to embrace a power of survival she never knew she had hidden within her heart.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

This was a rough read. After Eden is raped by Kevin, her brother’s best friend, she falls apart. Covered in blood and bruises, she can’t believe it was real—it must’ve been a nightmare or a fever dream. Her mom shows up in her room hours after the assault and Eden thinks, “Now, I’ve seen enough TV movies to know you’re supposed to tell. You’re just supposed to fucking tell.”  But her mother misses the obvious signs—she thinks Eden unexpectedly got her period—and Eden can’t bring herself to say the words. How do you tell that you were raped by your brother’s best friend and college roommate, someone long considered a part of your own family? Someone you have to sit at the breakfast table with just hours after the rape? Eden spend the next few years trying to erase and ignore the agony that’s with her every second of every day.

 

For a while she kind of keeps her head down and finds solace in her friends Mara and Stephen, and in their newly formed lunchtime book club. When Mara decides she’s ready for a change—to go from being a picked on and ignored geek to someone more confident and interesting—Eden thinks that idea sounds pretty okay. She’d certainly like to become someone else, too. We follow Eden, who is raped in 9th grade, through to her senior year, sometimes skipping over huge chunks of time. There’s really not a minute that she isn’t thinking of what happened to her. She’s angry and hateful—at Kevin, at herself, at everyone—and just wants to act normal and be okay. In 10th grade, she hooks up with Josh, a popular senior jock, and wants to have sex with him just to get it over with—to maybe try to replace the Kevin memories. But of course, that’s not how things work. Josh, who is kind and sweet, really likes Eden, but she makes it clear that she won’t be his girlfriend. She’s mean and hurtful and eventually drives him away. After Josh, there’s a long string of mostly nameless boys she has sex with. By senior year, she’s slept with 15 guys. She drives away all of her friends and potential friends, just still hurting so much and still completely uncertain how the hell you continue to go on with her after something like this happens. She’s an absolute wreck, and although some people definitely notice the changes in her, no one calls her out. No one digs deeper. No one asks the right question. No one helps her. It isn’t until Kevin is accused of raping his ex-girlfriend that Eden begins to find a way toward saying what she’s been biting back for so many years.

 

Though at times the pacing can be weird (junior year flies by in just a few pages), I found this book hard to put down. I think it may be easy for readers to sit back and feel they know what Eden should or should not do, or how she should or should not act. But Eden’s story is a reminder that there is no right or wrong way to behave or move forward after being raped. Eden knowing what she should do (tell someone immediately etc) and understanding why she’s making increasingly crummy decisions doesn’t make it any easier for her to dig her way out of this. It’s really hard to watch her downward spiral and see her surrounded by people who are completely oblivious to what is going on with her. The Way I Used To Be is an intensely gripping and raw look at secrets, silence, speaking out, and survival in the aftermath of a sexual assault. A must-have for every collection that serves teens. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9781481449359

Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books

Publication date: 03/22/2016

Book Review: The Word for Yes by Claire Needell

words for yesPublisher’s description

At once honest and touching, Claire Needell’s debut novel is a moving look at date rape and its aftermath, at the love and conflicts among sisters and friends, and how these relationships can hold us together—and tear us apart.

The gap between the Russell sisters—Jan, Erika, and Melanie—widens as each day passes. Then, at a party full of blurred lines and blurred memories, everything changes. Starting that night, where there should be words, there is only angry, scared silence.

And in the aftermath, Jan, Erika, and Melanie will have to work hard to reconnect and help one another heal.

The Word for Yes will inspire necessary conversation about a topical and important issue facing our society. The book includes a thoughtful author’s note that provides resources for readers.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

I almost abandoned this book about ten times, starting in the first few pages. The writing is stilted, the characters are flat, and the dialogue is unnatural/forced.

 

BUT I wanted to keep going because this book is about rape and it seemed like there may be some interesting things going on or worth talking about. I’m not much for writing negative reviews on here, so I’ll just hit the high points of why you might want this in your collection or might want to at least know about its content.

 

15-year-old Melanie is raped at a party. She’s raped by a guy she is friends with. They’re both drunk. She instigates the hookup. Her sister Erika and some friends find her partially naked and passed out. They find the boy in a nearby bathroom getting sick. When Melanie comes to, she instantly and fiercely tells Erika she will kill her if she tells anyone what happened. Erika takes this quit literally and, terrified, talks to no one —except her best friends Morris and Binky, and also her sister, Jan, none of whom take any steps to help. Melanie knows what happened. Her guy “friend” knows what happened. He tries to talk to her about it and be friendly. Melanie just wants to ignore it all and get back to normal. We see the guy’s perspective twice (the book alternates view points between the three sisters). As you’d expect rumors go around, blame is placed on Melanie. She thinks girls are responsible too for getting raped. Erika finally tells the school counselor what happened, who in turn brings Erika’s mom into the conversation. She is seems upset during the conversation, but also like she kind of doesn’t care. (There are also remarks made in this conversation like how drunk Melanie was and how that complicates things.) We don’t see her talk to Melanie about it or address it at all. We don’t really see how this reveal is handled. We do, however, know that their mom isn’t going to tell the girls’ dad about it because it’s a “women’s issue.”

 

All of this is to say that this story is about a girl being raped, but it’s also about nothing. There is a lot of filler here. The way the characters all react and choose to act or not act on this information is not unrealistic—there’s no one way for anyone to handle any of this—but it all feels so frustratingly distant. I couldn’t get a grip on the characters enough to really care about them. There’s no depth. Perfect Jan, favored Erika, and explosive Melanie fail to move beyond their roles and are just boring. I spent a lot of time yelling at this book for how the rape is handled and there’s certainly plenty to talk about there, but the book as a whole did nothing for me. There are plenty of other books that tackle this subject in better, more effective, more well-written ways.

 

The author includes a lengthy afterword about rape: what constitutes rape, nonstranger rape and the likelihood of it being reported, what roles drinking might play, self-care, what do to if raped, etc.

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9780062360496

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers

Publication date: 02/16/2016

Book Review: What We Saw by Aaron Hartzler

what we sawPublisher’s description:

Critically acclaimed memoirist Aaron Hartzler, author of Rapture Practice, takes an unflinching look at what happens to a small town when some of its residents commit a terrible crime. This honest, authentic debut novel—inspired by the events in the Steubenville rape case—will resonate with readers who’ve ever walked that razor-thin line between guilt and innocence that so often gets blurred, one hundred and forty characters at a time.

The party at John Doone’s last Saturday night is a bit of a blur. Kate Weston can piece together most of the details: Stacey Stallard handing her shots, Ben Cody taking her keys and getting her home early. . . . But when a picture of Stacey passed out over Deacon Mills’s shoulder appears online the next morning, Kate suspects she doesn’t have all the details. When Stacey levels charges against four of Kate’s classmates, the whole town erupts into controversy. Facts that can’t be ignored begin to surface, and every answer Kate finds leads back to the same questions: Who witnessed what happened to Stacey? And what responsibility do they have to speak up about what they saw?

 

Amanda’s thoughts:

The relative calm of Kate’s Iowa high school is broken when the police show up and arrest four basketball players on charges of sexual assault, rape, and distribution of child pornography. What follows is an utterly sickening look at the pervasiveness of rape culture. When Stacey Stallard doesn’t show up to school the Monday after Dooney’s big party, rumors go around about how blackout drunk she was. The above mentioned picture circulates widely. When Mr. Johnston calls her name for attendance (she’s absent), Randy fake coughs the word “whore.” And that’s the general consensus about Stacey–she’s a whore, a slut. Kate notes, “[Stacey] has no problem attracting guys—any guys. All the guys. Jocks, preps, burnouts. Sometimes, it seems as though she’s dated half the junior class.” Even before we get very far into the story, it seems like a safe bet to think that Stacey will be blamed for getting raped. After all, she’s a slut, right? When Kate looks at Twitter, she sees messages like these:

Wait, the police can take my phone cause U R A SLUT?

Gonna rape her good for SURE now.

White trash ho was so drunk she couldn’t tell a dick from a donut.

What u get for inviting a TRAMP to the party.

If we lose state cause of this whore she’s gonna get more than raped.

 

The messages make Kate feel sick. They make me feel sick. Kate is initially shocked at the vehement outrage everyone seems to instantly have for STACEY, not for any of the star basketball players. I only wish I could feel shocked. Anyone who has paid any attention to the world at all is familiar with rape culture. Hartzler spends 336 pages making us take a long, hard look at exactly how rape culture plays out in this story. A reporter shares that allegedly there is a video of Stacey being raped—though authorities haven’t been able to find it. The principal’s statement is sickening and just the first of many times he defends these “fine” boys:

“These young men are innocent until proven guilty. It is important to understand that we are dealing with allegations against four students who have been examples of fine sportsmanship….”

 

The news report is also sickening, talking about “troubling” reports of Stacey’s behavior—the same tired old garbage that is always trotted out: she was drunk, she was dressed provocatively, she was maybe dating one of the boys. In other words, she was asking for it. I could quote passage after passage supporting these points (these “fine” boys, this “slutty” girl).

 

Kate and a friend are the only ones who seem to spend any time at all thinking about Stacey and how this is affecting her. At times I felt this overwhelming awe that a whole entire town could so easily champion these “good boys” and vilify the victim. Not awe because it seemed impossible, just awe that it is so completely possible. When I was a teenager, a friend of mine was raped.  A few weeks after it happened, her mom called me. She wasn’t calling to see if I thought her daughter was doing okay; she was calling to ask me if I thought her daughter was lying. This was well over 20 years ago now, but I still remember everything: where I stood in my room, what my phone looked like, how I instantly felt sick that her own mother didn’t believe her. That was the first time I remember really seriously thinking god help you if you’re raped–even your own mother might not believe the truth. Of course, in this case, the truth might just be on film, if anyone can track down the alleged recording.

 

There is a lot to talk about here. I have pages and pages of notes. Hartzler’s novel addresses the role social media plays in rumors and bullying, rape culture, slut-shaming, speaking up, and consent. He pushes Kate to think about what consent looks like and models both what it does and does not look like in her relationship with Ben. There is a wonderful scene where Mr. Johnston takes Reggie to task for making it seem like he couldn’t help himself if he were to rape a drunk girl. “You’re saying that our natural state as men is ‘rapist,'” Mr. Johnston says to Reggie. He asks the boys in class to brainstorm what you could do with a drunk girl instead of rape her. Bring her water, drive her home, find her friends, just walk away. THIS is the conversation that we all need to be having—not girls, here’s how you don’t get raped, but boys, here’s how you don’t rape.

 

Hartzler’s novel is not just phenomenal, it is important. It is an unflinching examination of just how exactly rape culture comes to exist. If you’ve somehow made it this far in life without really thinking about what rape culture looks like, Hartzler’s book will make it clear to you. And if you read this and think, but that’s not really what is happening, you need to look around you. Look at the news. Look at Steubenville.  Look at Owen Labrie‘s case, where the girl said no at least 3 times, but “the defense maintained that she did not resist actively enough.”  Look anywhere, really. Powerful and terrifying, this is another title that definitely makes my top books of 2015 list.

 

And, hey, parents reading this: go talk with your kids about consent. NOW. Think they’re too young? They’re never too young for that conversation. Here are some places to start if you need some food for thought for starting this VITAL ongoing conversation.

How to Teach Consent to Kids in Five Simple Steps

It’s Never Too Early to Teach Children About Consent and Boundaries

How Parents Talk to Children About Consent

How to Have the Consent Talk with Your Kids

Off to College is Too Late for the Consent Talk

Check in First: How to Talk About Sexual Consent

Planned Parenthood’s Consent and Rape section

 

For further reading also see:

The Steubenville High School Rape Case

Teen Librarian Toolbox’s Sexual Violence in Young Adult Literature hub

Buzzfeed: What Is Rape Culture?

#NoMoreShittySons, a Storify by Carrie Mesrobian

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9780062338747

Publisher: HarperCollins

Publication date: 09/22/2015