Friday, April 29, 2011

I’m Not an Evil Person! Why I Write Sexy Edgy YA

In high school, I was a church-going, show choir-loving soccer player.

But here are a few things I was thinking about when I was 16:

1.  My best guy friend was constantly asking me to help him locate places where he could take his girlfriend to park.  He needed something better than the side of the road right near her house.

2.  Another guy friend had just had sex with another friend’s ex-girlfriend.  I was sworn to secrecy.  When the ex-girlfriend found out I knew they’d had sex and didn’t tell her I knew, she punched me in the cafeteria, even though I was trying to be a good friend to everyone involved. I kept the secret! Gah!

3.  The guy I wanted more than anything (who I’d just gone to second base with) had decided to start having sex with the ex-girlfriend mentioned above (yeah, she got around).  From what other people told me, he’d go over to her house every night of the week and have sex with her in her room.  I cried and cried.  I wondered if he’d date me if I would have sex with him. 

4.  The guy friend mentioned above in #2 was trying to hook up with me, even though I didn’t want to hook up.  He came over to my house all the time and would lie on my bed and it freaked me out.  Somehow I managed to avoid doing anything with him, even though he was persistent.  Once he went through my underwear drawer without me knowing, and then asked me to model for him. Gah!

5.  My best girl friend was being pressured by her boyfriend to have sex.  He would whine to her that all the guys in the locker room made fun of him for not having gotten laid yet.  She didn’t want to have sex until she got married, but she didn’t want to lose him either.  They had sex and then she felt ashamed of herself for doing it, and I had to convince her that it was okay, she wasn’t going to Hell. 

6.  Everyone at my church told me that if you have sex before marriage, God would send you straight to Hell.  I spent a lot of time worrying that all my friends were going to Hell for having so much sex.

7.  I wanted a boyfriend. Bad. But no one wanted to be my boyfriend.

Nearly everything I write has sex in it. Why? Because teenagers have sex! They think about it, too!

It’s not that I’m trying to make a statement by writing sexy YA, it’s that I try to write the truth, and the truth is that kids have sex.

When I’m writing from the perspective of a teenage girl or boy, that subject is bound to come up.  And when reading books, teenagers want to relate to the main characters, not feel like they’re being preached to. They don’t pick books and think, “I want a lesson on morality today.”

Sure, all parents want to protect their kids and I don’t fault them for that, but I don’t want people to consider me a bad person for writing books for teenagers that include a sex scene. 

Sometimes I go into detail during sex scenes, because I remember when I was 16, I didn’t have the foggiest clue about the mechanics of sex.  It wasn’t that I was desperate to have sex and needed to know how to do it, I was just curious.  A girlfriend of mine managed to find a porno, and we watched it, and I was HORRIFIED.  But it did satisfy my curiosity.

For parents who worry that sexy YA books are going to make their kids race out and have sex, that might be true, but I don’t think so.  And if it does happen, then I hope those parents have prepared their kids for the real world by educating them about sex and risks and protection.  I always show my characters using condoms and/or birth control.  However, including sex in a book must serve the plot in some way - either positively or negatively. Being in love is a good enough reason for me.

At graduation, 50% of teenagers are still virgins. Good for them!  Some of my characters are virgins, too.

When I was a teenager, I searched the library for books featuring sex.  Today, some of my friends admit to having read romance novels as teenagers, because they wanted to read about sex.

A part of being a teenager is thinking about and being curious about sex. I want my books to be a place where teenagers can read the truth and not feel judged for being human.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Book Recommendation: Across the Universe

The Set Up: 
A Story of Love, Murder, and Madness Aboard an Enormous Spaceship Bound for the Future
Amy is a cryogenically frozen passenger aboard the vast spaceship Godspeed. She expects to wake up on a new planet, 300 years in the future. But fifty years before Godspeed's scheduled landing, Amy's cryo chamber is unplugged, and she is nearly killed.
Now, Amy is caught inside an enclosed world where nothing makes sense. Godspeed's passengers have forfeited all control to Eldest, a tyrannical and frightening leader, and Elder, his rebellious and brilliant teenage heir.
Amy desperately wants to trust Elder. But should she? All she knows is that she must race to unlock Godspeed's hidden secrets before whoever woke her tries to kill again.

My Thoughts:  I sort of struggled with this book recommendation, because like a lot of books I finished the book with more questions than I wanted to.  Part of this is because this is obviously the first in a series, but it’s also because I felt there were some things left unfinished, not just as a story arc, but just got left behind in the rapid pace of the story.
Still, this book was really good, and I found myself pulled into the story immediately.  The biggest issue I had with the story was the alternating POV.  I liked Amy much more than I liked Elder, and found myself zipping through her chapters eagerly while I read through Elders more slowly (Elder’s chapter were also where I took most of my breaks).  I think this was because I never felt any motivation from him to solve the mystery, not like I did with Amy.  In fact, most of his chapters are spent with him talking about her, and I never really felt like I knew him all that well.  Either way, it wasn’t enough to mar my enjoyment of the story.  Most likely, if this book had been Amy’s alone I would have read it twice as fast J.
The storyline flew, and I appreciated the minimal description and back story.  I like to be able to fill in my own details as much as possible, and I get bored with endless pages of back story and descriptions of things.  So I loved how Beth Revis described something for us and moved on, and I loved her creative look at how a micro-world would evolve, especially where human tinkering is rampant.  The terrifying moo-oink of cow-pigs (you’ll have to read the book to see what I mean) is still with me.
My biggest nitpick (because I always have one) is an incident that I believe isn’t handled.  Not that it isn’t handled well, it isn’t really handled AT ALL.  Suffice it to say something very upsetting happens, and instead of the character dealing with it, the aftermath gets all of two pages.  I’m hoping Revis comes back to this in later books, because I think it’s something that needs to be addressed.  But again, I still really enjoyed the book despite this.
Bottom line?  I liked this book, and I think you will, too.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

WINNER of THE TIME TRAVELING FASHIONISTA announced! Plus, check out these other giveaways!

Chosen by random number generators, the winner of THE TIME TRAVELING FASHIONISTA is....

Schuyler, aka @ReadersInk!

Schuyler, I just know you're going to love this one!  And to those of you who didn't win, don't dispair! There are a LOT of giveaways going on both here and at my other blog, The Tart.  (And more still coming!  Go ahead and enter -- I'm linking some of them below.  All of these are open through May 1!

For THREE Lois Duncan novels, newly reissued and updated by the author, see this post!  Three winners will win a set of these books including DOWN A DARK HALL, STRANGER WITH MY FACE, and SUMMER OF FEAR.

For a copy of the adorable new middle grade novel in verse, LIKE PICKLE JUICE ON A COOKIE by Julie Sternberg, comment on this post!

To enter to win a copy of POEM IN YOUR POCKET FOR YOUNG POETS, edited by Bruno Navasky, see on this post.

Especially for National Poetry Month, win one of THREE copies of renowned author Julia Alvarez' poetry collection, THE WOMAN I KEPT TO MYSELF, comment on this post.

And if you're interested in a set of TWO poetry anthologies for young readers from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, check out this post, here! Two winners will be selected.

Thanks to Abrams/Amulet, Algonquin, and Little, Brown for providing all of the above books!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A Terrifying, Scream Filled Run Down Memory Lane

When I was in seventh grade I started reading Lois Duncan. Keep in mind this was back in the early nineties, when Paula Abdul was still making albums (shudder) and the coolest thing fashion-wise was to layer several pairs of socks in a multicolored tier that matched your outfits (my shoes were two sizes bigger than I needed, and I wore those shoes until high school). Basically, Lois Duncan was the bright spot at the time.

The first Lois Duncan book I ever read was A Gift of Magic. I actually picked up the paperback at a thrift store, and it smelled like cat pee and cigarettes. But I braved the funk for the story, about a girl with a psychic ability. Why? Because it was AWESOME.

I then devoured just about every Lois Duncan book I could find. I loved the Daughters of Eve (appealed to my feminist side right up until it didn’t) and I Know What You Did Last Summer (even Jennifer Love Hewitt couldn’t ruin the story of a hit and run gone horribly wrong, as though a hit and run could go right). But my favorite Lois Duncan of all time has to be Killing Mr. Griffin.

This was the first book I’d ever read where even the protagonist was complicit in some not so nice behavior. I’d never really read a book where it was hard to agree with the hero, but in Killing Mr. Griffin you have the sense that the kids who kidnap their teacher aren’t bad. But their actions aren’t good.

The best part of the book is that you, as the reader, feel conflicted about whether or not they did the right thing. There’s no ambiguity like with I Know What You Did Last Summer, where you wonder right along with the folks in the car what the hell someone was doing in the middle of the road on a dark and stormy night (idea: stay home). The main characters in Killing Mr. Griffin set out to kidnap their teacher, and as things go from bad to worse (you had to know that the kidnapped English teacher was only the beginning) you begin to wonder why you even liked the characters in the beginning. Because you will like them, and they will continue to make bad mistakes, and you will groan and shout “WHY?” to the heavens, while the characters skip along towards what you know is going to be certain disaster.

And you will love every page of it.
So, I’m really glad that Lois Duncan is being re-released for a new generation. It looks like I have some reading to do…


Since there were only three entries for last Wednesday's contest, EVERYONE gets a book! Yay! Email your screenname, real name, and address to so I can send your books!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Gendertranscendent Love Story

(or, how I talk about Steve Brezenoff's new novel by first talking about my old job)

Love, when it comes down to it, is not defined by gender, nor is gender defined by love. Love, in my experience, resists definition. It is without boundary, without pretense, without externally-imposed rules. Love makes the rules.

I once had a student - a long time ago - who told me that the term "trans" was too limiting in their particular experience. "Trans," this kid told me, "assumes a person is transforming from one specific thing into another specific thing." My student was young - maybe fifteen - with dark, wide-spaced eyes, a shorn head, a fine-boned face and an easy smile. Tattoos on the neck. Lean, ropy muscles. Long, tapered fingers. Painfully thin - a body made of reeds and sticks and dry grass.

"Some of us," my student said, "are transitioning from middle to middle. A sea of endless middles. And endless possibilities. Gender doesn't define us. Only love does."

And so my education began.

Back when I was pregnant with my third child, I got a job as a GED teacher at a drop-in center for homeless youth in Minneapolis. Now, it doesn't take very much time trolling through Google - its deep undergrowth of studies and statistics and reports, its wide canopy of articles and profiles and sob stories - to know that the stats on homeless kids really, really suck. They're at risk for HIV and Hep-C. They're at risk for prostitution and sex trafficking. They're at risk for overdoses. And violence. And pregnancy. And lifelong poverty. They're at risk for everything.

Even more at risk? They gay and lesbian homeless kids. Of the estimated 1.6 million homeless kids in America, between 20 and 40 percent of those kids identify as GLBTQ

And even more at risk? The trans kids. A whopping one in five trans-identified children winds up homeless before the time they hit eighteen. And these kids are terribly at risk.

As the teacher at the drop-in center, I saw the kids who chose to come downstairs to my windowless rooms, lit by the strange blue light of my glowing computer screens, to let me poke and prod at their brains, filling in the gaps left by too many self-imposed "vacations" from school, too many schools in general (one kid had been in seventeen schools between the ages of five and fourteen) and too many years when their brains were simply in survival-mode, which left precious little time for learning.

But because they chose, because they wanted their degree - and the paths that lead away from that degree - the kids that I spent my time with were the kids who were poised to beat that statistic. I spent hours and hours with them in my basement domain, drilling them, foisting books on them, quizzing them, and generally annoying them to bits until they were ready to take the test.

Now, in my teaching life prior to that job, I had certainly taught a fair amount of gay and lesbian kids and certainly a LOT of kids who were questioning their sexuality, but I had never had a transgendered child in my classroom until I worked at the homeless center.

And there - well I had many. Now, seven years later, I can call up the names and faces of fourteen different kids. There were probably more.

These were kids who had been kicked out of their homes. These were kids who had been abandoned by their families. These were kids who had loved the people who were supposed to love them forever - and were betrayed.

I loved those kids. I loved them with my guts. (It's a mom thing, I think. The majority of your emotional energy goes naturally to the individual who needs it most. It's like a homing beacon for Love Rays.)

I loved that job. I really really did.

Anyway, once I had three kids, I couldn't make the schedule work, so I had to leave the job, but I found my mind and my heart and my memory pulled back into that experience so viscerally, so completely recently, that I could almost smell the cheap cigarettes and the haven't-been-washed-in-four-years black jeans and the yesterday's liquor and Jolly Ranchers that I smelled on those kids every day.

And it was all because of a book.

Last week, I read Brooklyn, Burning, by Steve Brezenoff. And maybe it's ridiculously cruel for me to brag that I got to read this marvelous, heartbreaking little novel in the first place. 

But holy crap. This book was amazing.
Coming September 2011It's not due out until September, I think, so come fall, I'm sure I'll be blowing horns and putting out signs and forcing all y'all to open up your wallets and spring for a copy. 
My point is this: there are other books that have come out recently - or that are making their way to the surface - that reflect a little part of the Trans experience in America (I AM J, for example. And Luna. And.....there was another one whose title I'm forgetting) (and, really, hallelujah, I say. We need more.) but none that I have read has achieved what Brezenoff has achieved in this lean, textured, lovely little book.
You guys. I loved this book so hard, I can hardly even express it.
Sometimes, you read a book that is larger, richer and more real than the elements that it contains.
This book, for example, has a main character in love with another character, neither of which is identified (nor do they seem to identify themselves) with a particular gender. But this is not a "trans book", nor is it a "genderqueer book". 
This book has a character in the throws of an addiction, but this is not an "addiction book".
This book has a teen runaway, but this is not a "teen runaway book".
This book is a love story - no. It is a love song. And while the love relationship between Kid and Scout defines the arc upon which the story is drawn, theirs is not the only love story being told. It is also a love song to youth. It is a love song to summer, and Brooklyn, and the ecstasy of music making. It is a love song to families - the ones in which we are born into, and the families that we choose. The families of our own making. It is a love song to teeming streets and hot, packed bars, and the songs that grab us by the guts and pull us away.
This is a beautiful book - big-hearted, and tough; clear-eyed and brave. The prose reads insistent as a song, breaking the heart again and again and agin. 
Brooklyn, Burning is the story of Kid - sixteen, kicked out of the house, homeless, aching and drunk (on booze, on youth, on music, on grief, on guilt). Despite the fact that Kid's innocence has been shattered nine ways from Sunday - betrayal, abandonment, loving broken people and being broken in return - Kid is still primarily an innocent. Kid is tender, vulnerable, and despite the many, many flaws, ultimately lovable. And, well, I'm a mother - and my instinct as a reader was to gather that child in my arms and offer my protection and my love. I loved Kid. From the very first page. 
And what I most appreciated was the fact that Kid's story brought me right back to that room in which I hung out with a bunch of teenagers who were just as fragile, just as broken, and just as brave as Kid. I appreciated having the opportunity to experience a love story that transcends gender. To see Kid as Kid sees Kid -  that is, without the pretense and limitations of the birth-gender construct - means that we can know that character in total. We understand Kid with no expectations, no assumptions, no baggage. Kid is just Kid - no more and no less, and that was an amazing experience. And what's more, I was able to experience the miracle and audaciousness of love in the context of the world-view of my beloved students all those years ago. I was able to experience a story of redemption that explores the bright sea of middles between the hard limits of "male" and "female" - where gender does not - and cannot - define people. The only definition that matters is love - and it is boundless, uncontainable and wild. 

Monday, April 18, 2011

Celebrate Lois Duncan with Us! And win a set of LD books!

So many generations have enjoyed Lois Duncan's eerie mysteries -- her tales of suspense and horror that kept us up at night reading, hoping that the good guys would maybe catch a break on the next page.

This week another generation gets the chance to read Lois Duncan. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers has redesigned the covers and the author herself has updated the text to add things like CDs and digital photography and cell phones to her novels, most of which were published in the 70s and 80s.

I recently read, oddly for the first time (I think -- I read so much LD as a tween it's hard to say) SUMMER OF FEAR, in which a Rachel's home is invaded by her cousin Julia -- a cousin who has recently lost her parents and to whom Rae is meant to act as a sister. Everyone seems to love Julia. She is charming and sweet and when Rae's dog attacks her cousin, her parents don't hesitate to exile him to the backyard. Rachel sees what the others don't see though -- there is an evil about Julia, and Rae is determined to figure out what she's really up to. And when Julia steals her boyfriend -- a boy who Rachel has known since childhood -- it's the last straw. Rae begins to suspect that Julia is practicing witchcraft, and when she starts to find evidence that she might be right, Rachel begins to fear for her life.

If you want to take a look at these gorgeous reissues of Lois Duncan's classic thrillers, make sure you leave a comment! Litte, Brown is sending a set of the three novels that come out this week to THREE of our readers. I'm super psyched to see some of the classics I grew up with making it into the hands of another generation. So if you'd like to read DOWN A DARK HALL, SUMMER OF FEAR, and STRANGER WITH MY FACE, just leave a comment below and make sure to include a way for us to contact you! One caveat: US addresses only, please!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Rock the Drop! And a Giveaway!!!

So, Thursday is the Readergirlz annual Rock the Drop, a really cool day in which folks are encouraged to leave YA books in public places, to sort of pass the YA book love along.

Since we obviously love YA here at the Five, and since I have a ton of CYBILs books that I'll be dropping around my town in the middle of Pennsylvania, and since the likelihood of any of you finding those books is slim, I thought it would be cool to give away a few books here on the blog.

YOU CAN WIN! It's easy.  Just leave a comment below telling us which book you'd like.  We're giving away:

Amy and Roger's Epic Detour by Morgan Matson
The Unwritten Rule by Elizabeth Scott
I Now Pronounce You Someone Else by Erin McCahan
Half Brother by Kenneth Oppel
By the Time You Read This I'll Be Dead by Julie Ann Peters

Amazing books! Amazing authors! Our own Internet version of the book drop!

Winners will be announced next Wednesday, and will be chosen randomly.  Please, only U.S. addresses.

All right, have at it!

Monday, April 11, 2011


Wow.  If there was ever a book that understood my passion for vintage fashion, it's this one.  Add a savvy teenager whose voice I can totally relate to (Louise and I would totally have been BFF in high school), a trip back to the Titanic (whoa!) and gorgeous full-color fashion illustrations throughout, and I'm hooked.  Bianca Turetsky's THE TIME-TRAVELING FASHIONISTA is a must read for all you girlie girls this summer.

I mean, it definitely helps that the story is compelling -- girl gets invitation to exclusive vintage sale, girl tries on mysterious dres, girl gets sucked back in time and is thrust into the life of a glamorous film star....and girl has to save herself and her new friends from dying on the freaking Titanic?  I mean, doesn't get much more riveting.    And you know what?  The writing is absolutely wonderful as well.  Just plain magical!

So, in celebration of this fabbity-fab new book for teen and tween fashionistas, Little, Brown has offered to give away a brand new copy to one of our YA-5 readers!  So leave us a comment to enter.  Winners will be determined by the random number generating faeries.  GOOD LUCK!

Monday, April 4, 2011

Review: PERCIVAL'S ANGEL by Anne Eliot Crompton

If you love Arthurian legend, knightly battles, and tales of The Good Folk (you know, faeries!), I have a book for you.

The third in Anne Eliot Crompton's series of companion novels taking place in the times of Merlin and the Knights of the Round table, PERCIVAL'S ANGEL is an adventure novel sprinkled with magic and mystery.  Percy has known the Fey Forest as home his whole life -- his mother brought him there when all of her other sons and even her husband were killed as knights.  She never wanted Percy to become a knight, and it was her life's goal to prevent this, even if it meant living in isolation among the faeries.  But when a few of Arthur's knights stumble into the forest, Percy knows that his path in life is to pursue knighthood.  He will have nothing else.

Lili is fey, grew up not knowing her mother, as is traditional for fey.  But she's always known Percy.  And over the years she's developed a desire to understand the human heart.  In fact, she wants one on her own.  When Percy decides to go questing, Lili accompanies him, both as a protector, but in pursuit of her own goal -- the human heart she yearns for.

And elegantly written novel, PERCIVAL'S ANGEL is filled with prose that is almost magical in its construction.  The reader is immediately swept into the world of magic and knights and ladies and kings.  While this is the third in a series, it does stand alone (I haven't read the first two books myself) and it's an adventure that readers of Robin McKinley and Ursula K. LeGuin will love to follow.