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the deed

February 3rd, 2010

WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS FOR SHIVER AND IF I STAY.

So, I finally got around to reading Maggie Stiefvater’s wonderful, amazing book Shiver. What the hell took me so long? Maybe it was all the haters saying it was like Twilight, only with werewolves, when it was so nothing like Twilight, which, btw, has werewolves, and which, btw, I was as addicted to as the rest of you, so don’t get mad at me for what I’m about to write.

Anyhow, the books are crazy different. Allow me to count some of the ways.

1. Shiver was long but not thick enough to prop open a lead door.

2. Grace was a strong, self-actualized character who does not subvert herself for a dude, supernatural and hot tho he may be.

3. The other teenagers in the books felt like teenagers.

4. The writing was lyrical.

5. Sam was a sensitive emo-core type, not bossy Victorian.

6. Grace and Sam have sex.

It was this last point that really surprised me—and pleased me. In part because Grace and Sam have so much sexual tension between them, sexual tension borne of actual love, that it was satisfying to see it come to, um, fruition, on the page in the first installment. And in part because in real life, which is what YA fiction is supposed to represent (even if allegorically telling a story about a werewolf boy and semi-cured werewolf girl in love), when teens fall in love, often times, this is what comes of it.

Yet, in this day and age, sex in teen novels still seems to fall into distinct categories: It’s either the sluts having the sex (Gossip Girls et al). Or sex brings consequences (The Secrets of Peaches by Jodi Lynn Anderson; Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants by Ann Brashares, After by Amy Efaw). Or dysfunctional girl where sex is a symptom. But the love stories I love to read (Sarah Dessen, Elizabeth Scott, etc.) we rarely get the action unless the action is part of the problem.

And yet, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the median age that girls first have sex is 17,a  fact that trust me, adults like to ignore. When I worked at Seventeen magazine, it was hilarious in that absurd way to see how we’d deal with Q&A questions from obviously sexually active teens asking about  sex. The top editors would want to answer the questions while simultaneously disavowing the fact that teens were having sex (for fear of upsetting the parents, and then the advertisers, usually). Answers came out with like three lines of “It’s better to wait. STD info. Pregnancy warnings. Emotional consequences of sex info,” and then the last line or two would actually answer the question that was asked.

We have this idea in this country that if we talk about sex openly, acknowledge that teens are having it, tell them what to do if they are having it, they’ll all have crazy orgies, when in fact, evidence from other countries like Holland, where children’s TV shows discuss safe sex, shows that teens there wait longer (and have lower pregnancy and STD rates and all that good stuff).

This antiquated way of thinking still shrouds some YA novels, where too much sex or cursing can get your book on the wrong side of parent or teachers and then banned. For the longest time it was such a taboo to have teenagers in YA novels do the deed. Books like Judy Blume’s Forever, which has pretty graphic depictions of teens losing their virginity, has enjoyed a long history of being banned.

Part of the success of Twilight has been attributed to the chastity in the book. It works twofold: There’s this kinetic sexual tension that carries through the first three books until (SPOILER ALERT FOR THOSE OF YOU LIVING UNDER ROCKS) Edward and Bella marry and can now have violent vampire/mortal sex, which leads to an immediate and dangerous pregnancy. But all is right in the moral world because there’s no premarital sex.

When I was growing up, my fairly progressive-minded mom always told that she’d prefer I waited until I was married but that she really hoped I’d wait until I was in love before I lost my virginity. Now that I’m a mother, I put the characters in my books to a similar litmus test. Not married (I didn’t get married until I was 29 and I moved in with my husband when I was 23 so that should give you some idea of what I was up to). No, my test is this: Would I be happy if my own daughters were doing what my girl characters are doing?

In If I Stay, Mia and Adam have sex. It’s never on the page (though there is a sex scene on the page, it’s not intercourse, if we want to get technical about it) but it’s implied that they’re sleeping together. There has been very minimal fuss about this (more people seem upset about the cursing, of which there isn’t much, especially compared to this upcoming book which is like a four-letter-word-o-rama). I like to think it’s because Mia and Adam are so obviously in love. So are Grace and Sam. I haven’t seen much fuss made about their “relations” either in the brief Googling I did.

Or maybe it’s because we’re past that now. With so many of the Gossip Girl-type novels where everyone hooks up with everyone, maybe readers (and adults) have been become inured to a little action between the covers (heh heh). Or maybe parents who are reading books like Shiver and  putting it to their own mother litmus test? I don’t know.

Speaking of the mother litmus test, let’s take this scenario: My daughter is dating a guy who might kill her. Then he dumps her and she gets kinda suicidal. But they reconcile and wind up getting married and she has his baby at 18, a pregnancy that near kills her. She’s not going to college. She hitches her wagon to a guy she’s known for a year for all of eternity. Literally.

If Willa were 13 right now and I were helping her with book selections and it was between Twilight and Shiver, I know which book I’d steer  her toward.

  1. This is why I love you–awesome assessment!!!

  2. I said much of the same thing about If I Stay, it is in no way related to Twilight. The parents are nice and normal and actually have a clue. The same goes for Shiver, there are no comparisons. I agree there should be some sex in some way in teen books. We learn through reading. One of my favorite authors for teens is Laurie Halse Anderson because she is not afraid to broach the hard subjects and we all learn.

  3. Best description of Twilight’s plot ever.

  4. Wonderful post, Gayle! HUGE YAY for healthy teen sex in literature. Thank you for writing this. It still amazes me what a taboo it is, and I hope you’re right — I hope this is a sign that we’re beginning to grow past it.

    I just spent a month in Paris, and my French friends were astonished when I told them what “abstinence only” education meant. They kept saying, “But surely zey see iz not working. So zey change program. Right?”

    So embarrassing to say, “Well . . . no.”

    Tiny side notes: (1) We share an editor! (2) I *LOVED* If I Stay. The scene when Adam “plays” her was the sexiest I read last year. I dog-eared the page. (2) My characters are sexually active in a normal way. (Though in my debut, it’s off page.)

    Thanks again for this great post!

  5. Gayle –

    Awesome post! It’s real, it’s here, it’s sex in the YA novel! I agree that the Twilight sex scenario is anything but what I would want for my daughter (although I have a son). The sex in that saga is so… vacuous?

    So let’s get real, and if it’s more than just acknowledging that the characters are doing it, then all the better. I always put reality first in what I write.

    Again, great post!

    – Julie

    P.S. Forget about Team Edward – it only results in eternal disappointment.

  6. Here, here! Well said.

    Teenagers are having sex, and more to the point, having relationships that feel serious and important enough that they want to include sex in the relationship.

    Sexual feelings are natural for teens (and adults). Learning how to express and share those feelings w/o gratuitous or mindless acts is a sign of emotional maturity (for teens AND adults).

    The books that show teens who are (or grow to be) self-aware and thoughtful about these interactions are the ones I enjoy reading, ones I would share with teens, and ones I hope to write.

  7. You have put down in lovely words my exact thoughts on sex in YA. Bravo! Am cross posting on my own blog (http://thetulgey.blogspot.com) because I think it’s such an important issue. Sex is not the demon! Girls who have sex aren’t just sluts or “damaged” somehow. It all depends on their character and circumstances.

  8. Great, great post. Let’s hear it for realistic YA sex–I have some in my books, too. And I agree–perfect TWILIGHT synopsis.

  9. Great post. I’m working on an upper YA right now, and I know my main characters will have sex without over-the-top repercussions. One of the main themes of the novel is freedom, and for them, that includes sex.

    Teenagers have sex. Not saying it or accepting it won’t make it less true.

    Back to work I go :P

  10. (*crawling out from under my cozy rock*) I really enjoyed this post, not as a reader of either series, but as a writer and mom. I completely agree that the topic is a realistic one that teens do, think about and face daily, and it should be something they read about as fact too, not fantasy.
    As an unpub’d YA writer, I am glad that the topic will not be too taboo. My MC is sexually active, but she and her peers experience both the positive and negative aspects, just like in real life. As a mom, I believe I vote with you. More parents should probably check out the messages their kids are getting in all media.

  11. Grace was a strong, self-actualized character who does not subvert herself for a dude, supernatural and hot tho he may be.

    While she was less of Mary Jane then Bella I have to say that no I didn’t think that Grace was self-actualized. Unless her self-actualization came from being in love with Sam. Her parents were just as clueless as Bella’s. Shiver was all about the romance and keeping those two together. I was actually surprised that they didn’t have sex the first night that Sam slept in Grace’s bed. That would of been truer to life I think.

  12. Might I just remark that I am loving
    a) the discourse
    b) the French accents used in said discourse
    c) the use of “Mary Jane” to describe goody-goody or bland girl characters (I’ve seen Mia described as such, tho), even though I think it is an insult to a cute shoe, it’s a great term.
    Keep it coming!

  13. I read Twilight about three years ago and I loved it. I was younger at the time and didn’t realize things that now I do from another perspective. I loved the love story and the characters but now I realize how extreme the book is.
    I’m not a mother yet but I can’t imagine how I would react as such, but I think that if parents are open about that ‘taboo’ subject, kids won’t be that curious or interested in that matter and it wouldn’t be so problematic.
    I’m from Argentina, by the way, and in this country that subject is practicaly the same.

    Love your books. I read If I Stay and now I’m reading Sisters in Sanity.
    Bye!

  14. While I am a fan of the Twilight series, I have to say I fully agree with you. When my daughter is old enough to read YA (got awhile, she’s only six months) I would much rather her read books like Shiver over Twilight. Let’s face it, teenagers do fall in love. When people fall in love, they want to share it physically. Would I want my teenage daughter quickly getting married to have sex? Hell no! I agree that our country needs to talk about things like sex more openly. Great post Gale!

  15. I loved this post. It’s something I feel very strongly about as someone who has worked with teens and sex education in various capacities since I was a teenager myself. I would rather show teens in healthy relationships making individual choices and practicing safe sex than encourage them to get married young and pretending that sex doesn’t exist.

    And thank you for your excellent summary of Bella in Twilight. Her wimpy, I-can’t-live-without-my-man attitude made me want to strangle her through the entire series. And you’ve officially put Shiver on my To-Read list. Thanks!

    Liz

  16. The parents who are buying my books have expressed that they like the fact that the main characters aren’t having sex so if I were to do add it at this phase in the series, they wouldn’t like it.

    I try not to preach at the girls in the book, but show through scenes the consequences of choosing to have sex too early.

  17. Great topic! I’ve been seeing a lot more sex in YA coming from the indies, especially. I bought my older teen (who loved Twilight–and reads Sherrilyn Kenyon, so you know I’m fairly progressive) a copy of WHITE ODYSSEY by Darrell Bain (EPPIE winner 2007 in YA). Darrell covers everything from teen sex (and yes, the characters are very much in love) to race wars, space travel, and alien threats. Since that book would have been published in late 2005 or early 2006…this change has been coming on slowly, and I’m glad to see it happening.

    Brenna

  18. Gayle,

    Mary Jane is a strange way of describing a character, but mostly I realize that Shiver didn’t hit me like other readers. I think I had other expectations for the book and the intense romantic themes was not one of them. So that could of effected my feelings toward it.

    I find it interesting that sex in YA is still a problem. I find that most adults don’t know that there is sex in YA even if it isn’t at the forefront of the story. Sex in YA is good, because it happens. And it isn’t always gruesome.

  19. Bravo, first for recognizing the lovely, lyrical Shiver (if you haven’t read Maggie’s Lament and Ballad, you’re in for a treat), and second for championing reality in YA lit–including paranormal & fantastic.

    I’m happy to report that an editor from a major house read the first chapter of my WIP YA novel and asked me if I’d taken out the swearing. Yes, I replied, many of them because a couple of agents had complained about it. She requested my manuscript, then asked me to PUT BACK ALL THE SWEARS. Do I want to work with her? You bet your (*looks both ways*) ass I do.

  20. Interesting discussion. I have a different perspective to add to the mix. Young adults choose their own books, so aren’t their choices dictating the market to a great extent? Also, is there really a correlation between what teenagers READ and what they DO? If my teenaged daughter loves the Twilight series does that necessarily mean that she will emulate Bella?

    Finally…I know from experience that the best way to make my daughter read a book is to tell her that I don’t approve of its values.

  21. Young adults do choose their own books, much more so than younger kids. But adults still act very much as gatekeepers with YA books—be it parents buying their children books, booksellers choosing which books to stock (or handsell to readers), librarians choosing which books to buy for their collections, or teachers choosing which books to suggest for their students. Adults play a very large role in what books teens read. Of course, there are lots of ways around the gatekeepers.

    And of course your teenager won’t become Bella if she reads about her. I think the values she sees played out in real life at home ultimately overcome much of what’s in the popular culture. But so much has been made of the book’s “morality” because the characters don’t have premarital sex. My point was only that the values inherent in Twilight actually contradict the kind of values/goals/life I want for my own daughters.

  22. I love your comparison of how sex is usually depicted in YA novels (sluts vs. having done it and finding out it’s a big mistake). I feel that as a writer it’s best to be honest with your readers and when creating a character, I have them make choices that are true to the stories. Teens are smart and they like the truth and I think in the long run, that’s what’s going to make a story good.

    Rachele
    http://freckle-head.blogspot.com/

  23. I loved your post on the issue of sex in YA books.. Your blogs are so interesting to read and I love love love your point of view on life and the books you read! Thanks for the great thoughts! You keep me very entertained ;)
    ~Peace~

  24. I loved your post on the issue of sex in YA books.. Your blogs are so interesting to read and I love love love your point of view on life and the books you read! Thanks for the great thoughts! You keep me very entertained
    ~Peace~

  25. i agree, gayle. i like when books show teenagers thinking about sex the way i did when i was a teenager (wasn’t that long ago, but still…time flies). like lindsey salmon in “lovely bones,” wanting to get it over with so that she could become an adult, or mia and adam, who would be the couple at school that everyone would be jealous of because they actually really seemed to love each other, or the main character in this book i just started reading (“before i fall” by lauren oliver – have you read yet? it’s really great), who talks about sex as a way to put herself on an equal playing field with her more experienced friends and plans to sleep with her boyfriend even though she can’t think of much else that she likes about him other than the way he looks in his lacrosse jersey.

    my sister is almost 13, and being 10 years younger than me, she’s way too smart for her own good. she read the first three twilight’s last summer, then stopped without making moves to get “breaking dawn.” one time, i asked her if she wanted me to pick it up for her and she said no. she told me she didn’t think edward and bella were realistic and she didn’t care what happened to them. clearly, she knows there are no vampires and no werewolves either. but she got me thinking – the dynamics between edward and bella are wacky. sure, all that sexual tension is for the suspense, but when they finally do hook up, all this weird stuff starts to happen. funny you mention those seventeen articles, because i read seventeen magazine religiously from the time i was 13 up til college. it’s almost what stephenie meyer was going for in her message. don’t have sex before marraige, or else you’ll look like a battered woman and you’ll get pregnant with a mutant baby. to tell you the truth, i’m glad my sis likes books like “if i stay” and “lovely bones” – books that deal with sex and relationships in a such a realistic way. last year, i read an article that talked about how damaging books like “twilight” can be – young girls read them and they get this idea in their heads that this is the perfect boyfriend. suddenly, no “real” boy comes close. hence the shirts i sometimes see in the windows of the hot topic at the mall: “my heart belongs to a fictional character.” really? whatever floats your boat, i guess.

    and i like your analysis of “twilight.” there’s no way an actual mom would unload her daughter on the steps of her astranged exhusband and correspond through emails even when her daughter is dumped and derranged. when i was student teaching, i had a student who wore a “twilight” shirt every day to school, carried a “twilight” messenger bag, and doodled “edward” all over the cover of her notebook. she told me her favorite twilight book was “new moon” because she “really understood what bella was going through.” my reaction? “babygirl, we should talk about that. that is not healthy.”

  26. i love the book if i stay and if she never made it i would never read another book gayle forman has inspired me to reader
    I LOVE U GAYEL FORMAN UR THE BEST BOOK WRITER

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