Archives for posts with tag: sexuality


Golden Boy, by Abigail Tarttelin, isn’t the first book to contain a character who is intersex, but books on this topic are few and far between (Simon & Schuster, $24.99, out today). Max Walker is the stereotypical golden boy. On the surface. But Max and his family have a secret. He is intersex: a person that used to be referred to as a hermaphrodite. Within this story, Max’s existence falls perfectly between horror (he has never been shamed or punished by his parents for being who he is as many intersex children have been) and complete acceptance (the parents do not make Max’s situation known to the outside world). Max identifies as a boy, but he is a true intersex: half and half. His family did not put him through reconstructive surgery as a baby. He’s known and understood that he was different his whole life, but it’s never really been a big deal. Just something that the family never discusses. At 16, the one childhood friend (boy) who knows about Max, rapes him. Rape is traumatic for anyone, but Max deals with a whole other layer of trauma. How is he supposed to process what happened? Thankfully he goes to a Doctor, one who is smart and sensitive enough to do some research and help Max find the vocabulary he needs to understand himself. This description might sound clinical, but even trying to talk about this book is a reminder of how inadequate our language is.

The narrative moves between Max, his brother, his mother, the doctor, and the girl he starts to fall for. This movement strengthens the story, because as each person struggles to talk about Max, the reader truly starts to appreciate Max’s inability to articulate himself. I most appreciated the Doctor’s narrative voice. She is professional, and remains at a somewhat critical distance, but truly helps Max and the reader navigate this rather uncharted territory. Max’s mom struck me as way too intelligent to be saying such ridiculous things. I liked her when Max talked about her. I started to despise her when she spoke for her self. I think the book would have been much stronger without her first-person chapters or perhaps if her voice had been introduced towards the end of the story, as Max’s dad’s voice is.

I also particularly liked Max’s younger brother’s commentary. Daniel is significantly younger (about 5 years); he looks up to Max and because Max is his older sibling, he knows nothing different. He is the only character (including Max) who doesn’t perceive Max as an aberration, because, to Daniel, Max is perfectly normal. Daniel’s voice, somewhat young and innocent, provides a strong counter to all the confusion that pervades everyone else’s voice. Golden Boy is not an easy book to read, but it is well worth it. I’m delighted that it has found the support of a major publishing house. This is a story that needs to be told.
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Here again, I feel a certain divisiveness in my reactions to a book that I’ve recently read. I’m desperate to talk about it, but I’m a bit wary of actually recommending it. I think the former impulse is winning out, however. I picked up A. S. King’s Ask the Passengers (Little, Brown, $17.99) super excited to read a new YA title, especially one that deals with gay and lesbian themes. I’ve really enjoyed seeing the various ways that authors have approached this topic, especially since we finally seem to have gotten over the ‘traumatic coming out’ narrative rut.

Ask the Passengers contains a very interesting protagonist. Astrid had a strong narrative voice, but was also somewhat detached from her life and environment. I liked that, because I often feel that way, like I’m watching, but not really participating. One of the recurring scenes in the book is of Astrid laying on the picnic table in the back yard, sending love and questions to the passengers of the planes flying above. Again, this concept felt incredibly relatable. I love traveling, because I like experiencing new places and cultures, but I like traveling, because I like moving. There was something intriguing about a high-school girl, stagnant in her home town, thinking about the people on the move above her. Her own struggles with the confinement of living in a small town, where she does not identify with the dominant way of thinking, were palpable in these scenes. Again, I connected with her there. I also connected with her resistance to the pressure pushing her in a direction that was not her direction. I felt the exhaustion of fighting back, and appreciated that she stayed the course.

What I did not like was the melodramatic trauma of dealing with her sexuality. Her confusion was normal, but overdone. Her girlfriend was pushy and super annoying. Her ‘gay best friends’ struck me as rather ignorant and irritating. Finally, the response, even from this small town, was so negative, it just didn’t feel very realistic to me. Maybe it would have if the book was set in the early 1990s, but the cultural references indicate that it is set in the 2010s. I’m not delusional and I realize that homophobia still exists, but the book seemed really imbalanced. It was as if she, and her friends, were the first kids to come out in this town ever. Highly unlikely.

What I did appreciate, however, was Astrid’s distinction between “lying” and “not telling everyone everything, just because they asked”. As she works through her own sexual orientation, she does so internally. Thinking. Critiquing. Speculating. Her friends, her parents, and even her girlfriend, all demand that she ‘come out’, ‘tell the world’, ‘tell the truth’. When accused of lying about herself, she tells her best friend, “I see what you’re trying to say. But you’re wrong. . . . Who is anyone to tell me when to talk about something so personal?” This conversation really struck a chord with me, because I firmly believe that it is one of these crucial aspects of teenagers that adults often ignore. Teenagers are accused of secrecy, sullenness, being cagey, or rude, but I’ve always felt that there is a larger developmental process occurring. I think that teens are starting to understand that they are separate human beings, with their own thoughts, and that they start to develop a sense of privacy. A sense of their right to privacy and that they can have thoughts that they don’t share with anyone. Or that they themselves can chose who they share their personal thoughts with.

Insofar as Ask the Passengers deals with teen identity, philosophy, and relationships, it is a good book, and one I would recommend. The lesbian plot line, however, was forced, unnecessary, and not remotely believable. While I commend the author for attempting to augment YA LBGT lit, unfortunately I think this book took a huge step backwards in that area.

9780316084246During Teen Read Week, back in October, we had a display of our teen customers’ favorite books. One of our high school-aged staff members recommended Kody Keplinger’s The D.U.F.F. (Poppy Books, $8.99). Around the same time, independent booksellers started carrying Kobo e-readers in store and I downloaded The D.U.F.F.  as my test book. Since I have a stack of books and ARCs sitting on my desk waiting to be read, I kind of forgot about that ebook, until last night. Bianca is the ‘Duff’: the Designated Ugly Fat Friend to her two gorgeous best friends. I haven’t been a teenager in a long time, but wow, I could relate. My two best friends were (are) beautiful and that’s one of the many things that this book really gets right — the recognition that we all kind of feel like the Duff.

I’m going to admit right now that this book made me feel kind of old. There is a shocking amount of sex. And the fact that I was shocked is what made me feel old. At the risk of dating myself, a contraband copy of Judy Blume’s Forever was passed covertly around (the girls) in my 6th grade classroom. I certainly read books containing sex when I was in high school, but they were adult novels, not YA books. When reading The D.U.F.F, I almost felt a bit uncomfortable. Bianca doesn’t just have sex, she uses sex . . . as a way to punish herself . . . as a weapon . . . as an escape. Her immaturity and inability to maintain a healthy relationship, not to mention her own self-loathing, was discomforting and seemed to embody all of the reasons adults typically use to discourage teens from engaging in sexual activity. What impressed me with the book, however, is that Keplinger didn’t just dismiss teen sex as an ‘everyone is doing it, it’s not a big deal’ thing. Bianca matures, slowly but drastically, during the narrative. She steps outside of herself and starts to see the insecurities of the people around her. Her two best friends love her fiercely. They don’t think of her as the duff; they value her, see her beauty, and consider themselves the duff in comparison. Bianca starts to understand that duff isn’t actually a ‘designation’ it is a state of mind. In a rather poignant moment, she is in the girls’ bathroom with the school ‘whore’ who has just had a pregnancy scare. She realizes:

I didn’t know Vikki that well. I didn’t know what her home life was like or anything that personal aside from her boy issues. And standing there in the bathroom, listening as she told me her story, I couldn’t help but wonder if she’d been running away from something, too. If I’d been judging her, thinking of her as a slut all this time, when, in reality, we were living scarily similar lives.

Calling Vikki a slut or a whore was just like calling someone the Duff. It was insulting and hurtful, and it was one of those titles that just fed off an inner fear every girl must have from time to time. Slut, bitch, prude, tease, ditz. They were all the same. Every girl felt like one of these sexist labels described her at some point.

It’s Bianca’s gradual self-awareness that made this book so powerful. Even more impressive is that Keplinger was seventeen when she wrote it. It turns out I was wrong. This isn’t a book about teen sexuality; it’s a book about growing up female and discovering your own value in a world that is trying to keep you down, telling you you’re a whore, a bitch, or even a duff. Maybe YA novels haven’t changed that much.

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