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.