Let me begin this by saying that I consider myself a prude. I’m not particularly proud of this, it’s just what I am. Which is why realizing that my colleagues at Kirkus know me for talking about sex came as something of a surprise. An essay I wrote discussing oral sex and specifically a book that broke YA ground by describing cunnilingus (Cadillac Chronicles, by Brett Hartman) has apparently become minor workplace legend. My poor mother would be mortified if she knew.
But when you think about it, it’s not that odd. When you work with books for teens, sex is an ever-present concern. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 50 percent of high school students report having had sexual intercourse, and slightly over 15 percent of them report having had sex with four or more partners. Since teens are having sex, it’s not a huge surprise that sex figures in books for teens and therefore in reviews of books for teens.
It is funny to step back and think about it. What reviewer of adult fiction routinely thinks about parsing sexual content and describing its presence and treatment in a book? When sex started making its way into books for teenagers, reviews appeared featuring lines that were variations of “Sexual content skews this book toward an older audience,” or worse, “Sexual content makes this book inappropriate for the audience.”
It’s the rare adult who wants to think about teenagers—particularly their own—having sex. And it seems we don’t want to think about teenagers reading about it, either. Librarians working with teens are always conscious of both the kids that they are working with directly and those kids’ parents. How will it affect a librarian’s relationship with a teenager and with his or her parents if the kid is found to be reading a book with sexual content his or her parent doesn’t want him or her to encounter yet? Blowback can get pretty scary, both on a personal and on an institutional level.
NOTE: I am firmly of the belief that developmentally typical kids who are not ready to encounter sexual content will, when they bump into it, consider it gross and put the book away until they are ready. Those children who have been inappropriately sexualized early may well stand to gain by seeing models of healthy, co-equal, consensual sexual relationships. They will also stand to gain, I hope, by seeing characters who are victims learning and growing beyond their victimization.
The comfort level of adults at large notwithstanding, books for teens are getting racier and racier. A genre that first confronted sex in the form of cautionary tales about teen pregnancy and the sex-ed manual that is Judy Blume’s Forever… has become more and more comfortable with the subject. And given those CDC statistics, it’s high time.
But just as there’s been a learning curve for writers, there is a learning curve for reviewers of teen books. I periodically get questions from reviewers about how to handle sexual content. My reviewer of Not Your Mother’s Meatloaf, a collection of comic-book–style short stories about teens and sex, wrote me with this concern: “Even though I consider myself pretty darn liberal when it comes to deciding what’s YA and what isn’t, I’m actually leaning toward recommending that this get reviewed by the adult section.” We had a conversation about it. Did he think that it was actively dangerous for teens to read it? Did he think that adults were the intended audience?
The answer to both questions was no, so we reviewed the book in the children’s & teen section with the following sentence: “There’s no doubt teens of all ages will be scrambling to get their hands on this title; it’s more of a matter of finding adults who are willing to offer it to them.”
I had a similar conversation about Night Creatures, by Jeremy Jordan King, a paranormal thriller about a gay young man from the Midwest who moves to New York City in the early 1980s, just as AIDS was emerging. My (gay) reviewer was uneasy about the numerous sex scenes that explicitly if not graphically addressed pretty free-wheeling stuff. Should we kick this upstairs to the adult section? I told him what I believe: that “from an equal-opportunity perspective, I think it's really important for gay teens to have access to the same type of content that straight teens are getting these days.”
It became very personal for me this summer, as I made my way through Lauren Myracle’s The Infinite Moment of Us, a first-love and first-sex story that in many ways is an early-21st-century update of Forever.... New high school graduates Wren and Charlie fall in love and initiate sex in the most responsible way possible; Wren both sees to birth control (and uses it properly) and insists that the already sexually active Charlie be tested for AIDS. Their sex scenes are both adorable and graphic, presenting an ideal for teen readers: Sex is awesome, when engaged in thoughtfully, at the right time and with love. And isn’t that what we want to teach our children?
But as I was reading the book and thinking of how far we’ve come since the early days of YA, my 16-year-old daughter casually asked, “Is that a good book?” And there I was, on the spot, my theoretician self and my mother self looking at each other over what seemed to be a very high wall.
“Um, yes,” I said. Did I then offer to give it to her as soon as I was done? Um, no. Apparently I am a coward as well as a prude. But do I hope she will pick it up on her own and read it? Yes, definitely, no ums about it.
Vicky Smith is the children’s & teen editor at Kirkus Reviews.