YA Corner – A Few American Contemporaries

perfectchem Welcome to the YA Corner! This is an ongoing feature in which Caroline and Jenna, two AAR reviewers who love their YA fiction, discuss a set of YA novels related by genre or theme.

How do we choose our books? First, because this is All About Romance, these novels are all romances or books with strong romantic elements. They are books at least one of us has already read and given a grade above a B. All things being equal, we’ll choose a more obscure book or non-AAR reviewed book over a more recent, buzzed-about one, in the hopes of showing something you haven’t seen before. Within our grade range, we also prioritize books which do something original, like show an unusual setting or feature under-represented characters. We’ll avoid spoilers whenever possible.

Our first YA Corner features American contemporaries. The books we chose this time around are:

Perfect Chemistry by Simone Elkeles: Brittany Ellis, obsessed with being the perfect blonde cheerleader daughter to compensate for her older sister’s cerebral palsy, finds herself falling in love with Alex Fuentes, whose impoverished background and dangerous Mexican gang affiliation makes him the least traditionally “perfect” match imaginable.

Going Too Far by Jennifer Echols: After 19-year-old cop John busts 17-year-old Meg for drunken trespassing on a dangerous train crossing, her probation sentence is to spend Spring Break on patrol with him, seeing a different side of her claustrophobic, Alabama small town. John’s reeling from a past loss, and Meg’s outrageous bad-girl risk-taking stems from her own trauma and desperate need to feel alive.

Sloppy Firsts by Megan McCafferty: Sophomore Jessica Darling is lost after her best friend, Hope, moves away from their New Jersey town, leaving Jessica to deal with a shallow group of “friends,” a wedding-obsessed mother, a father who only relates to her when she’s running, insomnia, perpetual PMS, and perhaps most confusing of all, the bizarre and mysterious Marcus Flutie.

Q: All three books feature drug and/or alcohol use by the protagonists. How do we feel about that?

Jenna: What I think would have been treated as an “issue” by books of the past seems somewhat expected or acceptable as the norm in today’s YA titles. In all three cases, drinking was a matter of course. While Going Too Far did utilize smoking and drinking as character traits to paint Meg as “bad”, even relative “good girl” Jessica in Sloppy Firsts got tipsy at a wedding and then flat out drunk at a party.

In Sloppy Firsts, drug use was directly responsible for the story’s set up – Jessica’s best friend Hope moved away after her brother died of a heroin OD. In the end, though, serious drug use (as opposed to recreational drug use), was kept off the page for the most part. Even Marcus Flutie (Sloppy Firsts), who begins the story as a burned out stoner dude, is never shown actually engaging in drug use.

Caroline: Except for the part where he has to fake his urine test.

Jenna: True! Talk about an unusual meet-cute. What I found interesting was the treatment of what I would say is more extreme drug use. In Perfect Chemistry, the concept of Alex having to move into actually dealing or muling drugs as way to get him deeper into his gang was frighteningly realistic.

This leads me to think that YA books that don’t intentionally feature drug use/abuse as a primary focus tend to treat drinking and “partying” as just that – a form of partying that teens engage in on a pretty regular basis. For better or worse, that seems to be a realistic portrayal of the role that drugs play in the lives of teens these days.

Caroline: I agree that it would be naive to pretend that drugs and alcohol aren’t around in American teen lives. I think it’s interesting that every hero/heroine except John (the police officer) uses alcohol underage and several characters use marijuana. I’d concur that we’re no longer seeing the good girl/boy as non-user and bad boy/girl as user, but rather most teens as experimenters.

It did bother me in Sloppy Firsts that the author characterized Marcus’s drug use as “because he was just so smart and bored and can stop any time he likes.” It struck me as an oversimplification, and also as an excuse I’ve heard from people who are not the geniuses they think they are. Marcus should have struggled more with getting clean.

I would like to see YA authors emphasize how vulnerable the heroines make themselves when they drink to excess. In Perfect Chemistry, the hero Alex refuses to get sexual with the heroine while she’s drunk, which I like as an indicator that Alex is “hero material.” However, I’d like to have seen the heroine reflect on how with many other men, including her ex-boyfriend, she would likely have been raped. In Sloppy Firsts, when Jessica managed to stay alert enough to extricate herself from a bad situation, I worried that this unrealistically suggested that a person can have sound, aware judgment while intoxicated.

Which leads into our next question…

Q: What do we think about depicting sexual activity by teens?

Caroline: First, let me say that I’ve probably been traumatized by working as a teacher, where I’ve had a parent want Perfect Chemistry removed from the school library because “it has the f-word in it.” How would she have felt about “the f-activity?”

I err on the side of over-stating the sensuality of a YA book just to cover my butt. I put Sloppy Firsts at Subtle, Perfect Chemistry between Subtle and Warm, and Going Too Far as Warm. In any case, for people who are worried about feeling “ick” reading sex scenes with minors, none of these books is very explicit – which is more than you can say for some old medievals starring 17-year-old heroines and 30-something knights!

Jenna: I just have to state for the record that I find parents who are offended by use of profanity in YA titles – to the point of endorsing censorship – to be incredibly and sadly naive. Unless a child is homeschooled, you can bet that he or she has heard the “f-word” and worse on a routine basis. Eliminating exposure to such stuff as a way to instill good values is much like slamming the barn door shut after all of the horses are long gone. A day late and a dime short.

Caroline: You are welcome in my school’s PTA any day.

Jenna: Anyway, while I’m probably a little less cautious than you are, I do tend to use a different scale when rating YA as far as sexuality. Even books that have a sexual element or scene tend to rate as subtle or warm for me because they are very rarely ever graphic in nature. In fact, if a YA book does get in the least bit graphic, it immediately jumps to “hot” or “mature” in my world because the audience for these books is so different. I would label all three of these discussion books as subtle. Ironically, the book that is most frank about sex and would probably warrant a “warm” rating is Sloppy Firsts, which is also the only one which didn’t depict an actual sex scene.

One big hot button issue in YA is the double standard that exists for boys with sexual experience versus girls with sexual experience. Sloppy Firsts is definitely guilty of slut shaming. The girls who do engage in sexual activity are labeled as sluts and skanks – even Jessica’s friends are disparaged and vilified by Jessica for their behavior.

Caroline: Thank you for actually using the word “slut-shaming” appropriately. It drives me crazy when people say it’s slut-shaming to talk about the sex lives of girls and women who only have one partner. How are those people sluts? But that’s another topic.

I agree that in Sloppy Firsts and Perfect Chemistry, “experience” for girls was used as shorthand for “bad,” and that that’s not fair to those characters or to teens who have been sexually active. On the whole, these were “bad” or villain characters, and that sex is a part of why, but it’s not because sex happened at all. Rather, it’s because the girls have an unhealthy relationship towards sex (sex as “currency” to win and hold boys in particular). But that message is easily misread as “Oh, slut, she’s bad!”

Jenna: In all three cases, it seems like sex is less an expression of love or even a moment of passion that goes all the way but rather a story element. Does that make sense? I’ll explain what I mean:

In Perfect Chemistry, Alex makes his bet with his friends to “get in her pants” as a way to bring Brittany down, and then after the deed is done, he uses the bet again as a way to push her away even though his feelings about her have changed. While Brittany does love Alex and want to have sex with him, she uses it as a way to distract him and keep him from being involved in the gang activity she believes is going to happen. She also expects that once she’s slept with Alex, he will be willing to stop his gang involvement.

In Sloppy Firsts, Jessica doesn’t seem disturbed by her lack of experience, yet the makes a very conscious decision to sleep with Marcus as opposed to it resulting from a spontaneous moment of passion. It’s very calculated on her part.

Caroline: Making a sex scene “the first time” is also an easy way to raise the stakes of, for instance, Jessica’s decision to sleep with Marcus. I admired the fact that in Going Too Far, John and Meg’s scenes felt so crucial and intense without the “crutch” of “first-time.”

Jenna: I would argue that Going Too Far treats sex much the way it does drinking and drug use – as a character trait to differentiate “good” kids and “bad” kids. Meg is “bad” because she does it with Eric and, presumably, others. Also, she admits that it’s all about the physical and not emotional. At least Meg has a profound realization that when you love someone, sex takes on a whole new dimension.

Caroline: See, I thought Meg subconsciously set out with a list of “Ways to be Bad,” and “have sex,” like “drink alcohol,” was on the list. But what Meg believes and what the author believes are not the same. I think the author wanted us to challenge our assumptions about a teen who displays “bad” external characteristics the way Meg does. Meg and John, and we as readers, and we in real life shouldn’t decide whether or not girls are good people based solely on whether or not they’ve only had sex with “the right guy.”

I can understand parents being skittish about books depicting teen sex, but I don’t think these teens are bad role models. The message of all three books is that sex is to be taken seriously, done while sober between characters who know each other well and have significant emotional investment in each other.

Q: What is the difference between “teen drama” and dramatic stories involving teenagers?

Jenna: I would say that “teen drama” is drama that comes out of the simple act of being a teen. It’s for the most part self-created and internal. It comes from the fact that teens experience so many things to an extreme, many times because it’s a first-time experience or because they don’t have the ability to contextualize things.

Dramatic stories that involve teens, IMO, are those where the external events happen regardless of the age of the actors, and the teens are brought into the action. The fact that they are teens may influence how the story plays out or how they perceive the action, but conflict is mostly external and physical, as opposed to emotional.

Caroline: I agree that teen drama is based on extremes and the lack of perspective most teens experience. I don’t necessarily think that external events are necessary for dramatic stories. After all, the tension in many adult romance novels is internal.

I was glad that you recommended Sloppy Firsts to me because if I used my standard test of reading the first few pages at the library, I never would have checked out the book. It felt too “teen drama” – Jessica thinking the world was over because one of her friends moved. (I moved a lot growing up and teach transitory students, and I just wanted to roll my eyes and tell her life goes on). Her voice was overwritten, melodramatic, and trying too hard to be clever. However, I think the author actually was playing on the expectation of surface veneers and melodrama. As the book progressed, I thought it became less overreacting “teen drama” and became more of an internal-conflict dramatic narrative. Her writing also matured through the book to suit the new level of seriousness.

Jenna: I would generalize that most of YA Contemporary deals with Teen Drama – more emotional and internal conflicts that result from the firsts of teen life than any external drama. There are exceptions, but I’d almost label them as a different subgenre.

Q: How do, or do, these authors successfully create serious, believable relationships despite the fact that modern high schools are not exactly hotbeds of HEAs, and we don’t typically think of modern teenagers as the best judges of character and soulmates?

Jenna: I think when it comes to contemporary YA, it’s hard to expect or even to imagine any true HEAs. I think you are more likely to get a Happy For Now ending, in which the main couple is together but without any reference to their long range future. At this age, it’s unrealistic to expect that the characters would meet a true soulmate or a lifetime partner while they are still teens. I think this is why non-contemporary YA is so popular – it lets you ignore this reality in favor of teens meeting soulmates.

This is just from my own observations of having a fifteen-almost-sixteen year old daughter. It seems that one-on-one dating in any kind of seriousness is not the norm in today’s high schools, or at least it happens less than when I was in high school. Most of my daughter’s friends aren’t dating anyone, or they date one guy for a couple of weeks and it ends. A relationship that lasts for a couple of months is huge. Whereas, I can think of at least half a dozen couples I knew who dated all through high school. I truly have no real answer to why this seems to be the case, but I have to wonder if kids today have a shorter attention span and also have so many more options. This is a longer discussion for this post, but I think it’s hard for a writer to convey a high school relationship that is soulmate-level deep.

Caroline: I’d guess that this depends on the population. If you’re in a community where college and high mobility are expected, then students take relationships less seriously because they see the ticking clock of senior year. In more stationary small towns or poorer urban areas, relationships may be a bigger deal because their future seems to include these people, or because teen pregnancies are more common and tie you to someone from a young age. You can see that in the protectiveness of Alex’s mother (a former teen mom) in Perfect Chemistry.

If you’re interested in reading more American Contemporary YA romances:

Jenna recommends:
Eleanor and Park (1980s setting) (Rainbow Rowell)
Dairy Queen (Catherine Gilbert Murdock)
Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (Anne Brashares)
Pushing the Limits (Katie McGarry)

Caroline recommends:
Anna and the French Kiss (Stephanie Perkins)
Lola and the Boy Next Door (Stephanie Perkins)
North of Beautiful (Justina Chen)
All-American Girl (Meg Cabot)

– Jenna Harper and Caroline Russomanno

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11 Responses to “YA Corner – A Few American Contemporaries”

  1. mari says:

    Thank you for this feature. I think you mischarecterize parents who seek to keep these books out of the hands of their teenagers. It is not “censorship” to ask the schools to not teach/have available books that go against family values in these communities. As far as I know, if anyone wants one of these books, Amazon is available. What parents don’t want is people in authority teaching/endorsing/promoting (and yes schools are often guilty of all three) behaviors that contradicts what teenagers are learning in the home and church. It is not the job of schools to push values that contradict the values of the parents and families. I am quite sure parents who ask schools to remove these books know very well what behviors are promoted by the popular culture. They would rather not have the school promote them as well. The lamest excuse in the whole world is a teacher saying “oh those parents don’t understand the way teenagers talk and the horse is already out of the barn door.” How arrogant. This is a great way of absolving the teacher and school of all responsibilty to teach any kind of morality. I am sorry to rant, but you really touched a nerve. I have to admit, the current YA books wherein casual drug use is the norm and everbody is getting laid disturbs me. The majority of teenagers (statistically anyway) don’t engage in this behavior so I wonder why these books are hailed as more “realistic” (when they aren’t) when they are not realistic at all for a majority of the teenage population? I sometimes wonder if adults don’t find the whole “kids behaving badly” thing to be of prurient interest, hence the the reason why all these YA books seeem to have this
    subject matter.

    • CarolinerAAR says:

      The question of what is and is not appropriate for children must always be determined by the children’s parents. However, I cannot accept that a parent who disapproves of a book may keep a book away from the children of other parents. A school library does not belong to one complaining parent; it belongs to the entire school community. Religious, private, etc. schools may set their own standards for libraries – but again, these must be decided as a community, and not by “the squeaking wheel bans the book.”

      • AARJenna says:

        Thank you, Caroline, for very eloquently expressing my feelings as well. While every parent has every right to determine what his or her child does or does not read, no parent has the right to determine what my child does or does not read. By removing a book from a library because you’ve determined it to be offensive, you’ve infringed on my right to read that book. And I would ask who has invested you (or anyone else) with the authority to determine what is or is not acceptable in the first place? I would never presume to assert my values on you. Please do not presume to assert your values on me. Besides, I am very confident that the values I have instilled in my children are strong enough to withstand anything that they might read in a book, so they don’t need the “protection” of censorship.

        As far as using the excuse that “they’ve already heard that word” as a way to let off educators, it is not within an educator’s ability or even responsibility to police what children say outside of a school situation. My point is that if parents think that children learn all bad things via books and that by taking those books away they will never learn bad things, they are being naive. Ideally, books should be a launching point for a discussion on how a story goes against what we value or differs from what we value or reinforces what we value. That character says bad words – what do we think about that? Do we agree with their choices? Why not? What do we think that character should do? What would we do differently? All good teaching opportunities to help us reinforce what we find acceptable versus what we find unacceptable.

    • Emma says:

      Well my mom censored what I watched although as I got older (high school) she lightened up and started trusting me. I can tell you though that she was different than most moms of the kids in my school. When I was in fourth or third grade, the movie Titanic came out and people took their kids to see it. Yes some kids are sheltered, but the majority of people I know have parents who don’t censor as actively as one might think. A lot of parents don’t see sex as bad or something to hide away. There is not one set of values for parents and families. For example when I was in 8th grade, one of my friend’s parents let her older sister (high school or early college?)’s boyfriend stay over. If you want others to respect you, you need to learn to show respect to them.

  2. Neyly says:

    I am another who steers away from wanting young adult books to depict drinking/drugs/sex as the norm. As a parent with avid (and early) readers, I find that many of these books are picked up by those in their early teens rather than the mid-to-upper teenage years. The books do send a message that is not one I care to promote: you will drink/drug/have sex sometime in the next couple years. If watching violence promotes aggressive behavior (or so they say), then how is reading YA books with certain behaviors different? I sometimes think we desensitize our children to the point that they feel they need to engage in certain behaviors to be normal – not so much a choice but rather an expectation.

    From reading the above discussion, I would have steered my young adults away from the above books. Fortunately mine liked Science Fiction/Fantasy books that don’t focus so much on drinking/drugs/sex.

    • CarolinerAAR says:

      Jenna and I definitely found that the sex/drinking/drugs thing is a feature of American contemporaries, to an extent which surprised me. We are currently working on the next YA Corner on Sci-Fi/Dystopias, and I’ve found nothing sexual “on screen.” I hope you’ll come back for that column!

    • AARJenna says:

      I too found it very difficult when my daughter was a young teen to figure out which books I felt comfortable with her reading. I remember one time at the bookstore, she wanted a book that I was pretty sure contained sex and drinking that I didn’t think she was ready for yet. I told her I’d have to read the book first before I’d let her read it. Now that she’s older, I let her choose her own books, but the YA category covers such a wide array of issues and can range from perfectly innocent to very explicit. As a parent, this is a hard terrain to navigate.

      In fact, when I had this problem with my daughter, I started a blog in which I tried to give parents a “heads up” for any YA book that I myself had read. I’ve slowed down with my postings, but I still try to add to it any YA title I’ve read. It offers a neutral opinion about what the book contains as far as sex, drug and alcohol use, language, violence, etc. No reviews on this site – just opinion on content appropriateness. You can check it out here: http://ageappropriate.wordpress.com/

  3. Yulie says:

    It’s been a while since I finished high school, but I find the YA novels I read much better and more realistic than some of the stuff I read as a teen – e.g. Flowers in the Attic is far worse in terms of writing and content than YAs in which kids have sex (and yet remarkably, none of us believed that incest was cool and would soon happen to us). When I was in high school, some kids were in long term relationships, a few had casual sex, and others didn’t do either. There was definitely drinking, though no drugs that I was aware of. I first heard the F word when I was in fifth grade. The 6th graders taught us that one.

    I very much agree with Caroline’s point above regarding what parents’ role versus the role of the school should be. If parents don’t want their own kids reading certain things, that’s fine. But they should not get to draw lines for other people’s kids.

    FWIW, I don’t believe that McGarry’s books always have sex in them, and though she wasn’t mentioned, neither do Miranda Kenneally’s, who also writes Contemporary YA romance.

    • AARJenna says:

      I’m laughing about your comment that the 6th graders taught the 5th graders about the “F” word!! Too funny.

      While I haven’t read ALL of Miranda Kenneally’s books, I did read “Catching Jordan” and “Saving Parker,” and both of these did feature sexual encounters. Jordan loses her virginity, and Parker has the reputation of being promiscuous as well as engaging in a physical relationship that I found highly inappropriate. In both cases they aren’t highly explicit, but given the younger age of the audience, I would issue them a “warm” rating if I were to review them.

      Speaking of YA books of the past, perhaps it’s because they weren’t so pervasive, but it seems like the thrill-factor of those “taboo” books, like “Flowers In the Attic” or Judy Blume’s “Forever” was so much higher than the books of today. Perhaps today’s teens are just that much more jaded. I don’t know.

      • AARJenna says:

        PS – I’m laughing about your story not because I think teaching bad words is funny – but because of the sad truth about the 6th graders passing their great “wisdom” down the chain.

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