Your Banned Book Week Reading List

It’s been ages since I talked books in this space, but since it’s banned books week – and I just got home from a writer’s conference where I spent most of the weekend talking books, I realized it was time. Past time, really.

I am a firm believer that teens need access to books with responsible, respectful and truthful information about sex. If you can weave that into a fictional novel without getting on your moral high horse or going preachy – you win!

Teens are struggling with these issues, of sex, sexuality, sexualization – and they don’t have the words and the language to talk about it, because the adults in their life, by and large, are not giving it to them. They find substitute sources of information. Some of them are wonderful and reliable like Scarleteen, Planned Parenthood, and local teen health clinics. Others, less so. They turn to older friends or cousins, they learn through online porn. Some of it hits the mark, and some of it is dangerously off base.

They have questions – and they need answers.

Books can be an amazing, wonderful source of information. Building great characters that teens can identify with can give them more than information – it can give them a role model, it can offer them real life examples of ways to handle tricky situations, it can remind them of the most important thing I think teens need to hear – That they are not alone. They are not the only ones struggling with these issues, grappling with these choices, trying to find a clear path through the mess of hormones, pressures and desires.

Most of the books I talk about in my Sex in YA workshop have been challenged or banned because they “promote teen sex.”

What I have learned in handing these books out to the teens in my life is that they do just the opposite. They have given these teens new ways to think and to talk about the choices before them. New language to deal with the pressures they feel all around them. New options when it comes to juggling their desires.

When I gave a close teenager a copy of Judy Blume’s Forever… I wasn’t sure what she would take from it. I took her out to dinner when she finished the book and asked her what she thought.

“I was really shocked!” She said.

My first thought was, “Oh, no. I messed up.” But I bit my tongue and asked what had shocked her.

“I was surprised by how many times the girl said no. And her boyfriend didn’t leave her. I thought if you wanted to keep your boyfriend, you had to say yes.”

And then I relaxed. This girl had just learned the lesson I think we want all teens to learn – that sex doesn’t equal love, and love doesn’t mean you have to have sex. That a person who won’t take no for an answer, doesn’t deserve your yes.

So, for those of you with teens in your life – or those of you struggling to find your own sexual voice and power – here are a few books to help light the way.

sex curious

Just a few books for the curious teen

Sex positive books that emphasize respect, responsibility and consent.

Forever… by Judy Blume (Judy wrote this book for her daughter who asked for a book where two nice kids have sex without either of them having to die. No lives ruined, responsible sex.)

Another book along these lines is Anatomy of a Boyfriend by Daria Snadowsky. This one also explores the orgasm gap and the weird myths we have created about the female orgasm being difficult, messy, and not a requirement of sex.

Before I die by Jenny Downham is a sweet, touching, wonderful sex positive book about a girl who is dying, and her bucket list. It covers both sex and love – and the consequences of both! (But not in a shame and fear based way.)

Books that explore homosexuality –

Rainbow Boysby Alex Sanchez This one book explores a jock boy with a girlfriend, who can’t stop thinking about guys when he’s having sex with her. A shy, quiet boy who is gay, but not out. And one boy who is out – and fabulous. It explores homophobia, fear of rejection, taking risks because of that fear, the need for support, responsible sex, fear of HIV/AIDS, etc. Very sweet book. There are more in the series, but I have not read them yet.

Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg – Only half way through this book, but I still can’t recommend it enough. I love the premise, and the delivery so far.

An out gay boy in Boulder gets tired of being the gay boy, he gets tired of that being the thing everyone knows about him first. So he sets off to a private school in another state to try to love label free. Not exactly back in the closet, more just standing in the doorway. Or so he thinks. This book explores the desire to live label free, to be more than the box the world puts you in. It feels like it is also about to explore what happens when you deny your label, and the piece of yourself that it reflects.

She Loves You, She Loves You Not by Julie Anne Peters – A young lesbian is dumped by her girlfriend and then thrown out of the house by her homophobic father. She is forced to live with her stripper/prostitute mother. Explores sexuality, acceptance and other issues around female sexuality in general and lesbian sexuality in particular.

Books that opened new doors of understanding for me.

Parrotfish by Ellen Wittlinger – This book follows a person transitioning from girl to boy and explores the issues around being a transgendered youth.

(This book really helped me, as a ciwoman, understand and sympathize with trans* people. Prior to this, I didn’t care if someone transitioned, but I didn’t understand the desire or need to do so. I also didn’t really understand what a big deal it was and how much support people needed. I believe a lot of cispeople don’t get it – this book helped me, a lot. Perhaps it can help others too.)

Luna by Julie Anne Peters is another book about trans youth. In this book a person born male transitions to female. It delves into the differences between homosexuality and being transgender. It talks about transphobia, homophobia and the risks of being yourself, when you don’t fit neatly into a preformed box.

I cover lots of other books in my course, but many of the others go into the darker sides of sex – rape, slut shaming, consequences. For this post, I wanted to challenge everyone to look at teenagers having consensual sex and not freak out. Think about them being safe, responsible, communicative. Think of them exploring, learning, trusting and growing. Think about the pressure they feel – both internally and externally to walk these weird lines of being sexy and attractive but not sexually active. To be smart, get good grades, be active in extracurriculars, be popular. The media tells them being sexy, and sexual, will get them popularity, power, love. But we dangle that carrot and tell them it’s off-limits.

It’s confusing at best, tortuous at worst.

And why? Because WE, the adults, are afraid. Of what, I’m not sure – yes there can be negative consequences to sex – but if we talk about, if we teach them about it, if we give them safe spaces to explore and learn and guidance along the way to encourage healthy communication, boundaries, respect – we can mitigate most of those. We can help them build a safety net and make smarter choices.

And – we can give them access to books – books that let them know they’re not alone. Books that assure them, that it gets better. Books that gave them tools to start making it better, for themselves and their friends, one day at a time.

9 Comments

Filed under Books, Of Course I'm a Feminist

9 responses to “Your Banned Book Week Reading List

  1. lilyanna1

    Interesting books and there are a lot of books that are banned by certain countries based on what the books entitled. Its a shame that some books are not granted of freedom but, there are religious warnings when it comes to reading such things like Romance novels.

  2. sk8eycat

    Are you familiar with Mercedes Lackey’s “Heralds of Valdemar” series? I think “The Last Herald Mage” trilogy is excellent for teenage boys who are homosexual or bi, and have been shamed, or feel ashamed, about it. These books are fantasy, set in another world entirely, in a feudal culture…Sword & Sorcery.

    In the beginning of “Magic’s Pawn,” the first book, the protagonist doesn’t know he’s gay, he doesn’t even know that there is such a thing, he just knows he’s “different.” His family lives on a huge estate out on the edge of nowhere, and his father (and everyone else) keeps trying to “make a man of him,” which he hates. He is finally sent to to the Capitol city to be “straightened out” by his aunt, and meets a slightly older boy who is his aunt’s protege’…and who is openly gay. And is accepted by everyone around him.

    Things happen…some good, some extremely dreadful, and he nearly dies. He is helped by another male couple who are involved with what we would call ecology…wild animals in particular. One calmly explains to him (this is the BEST part of the whole book, IMO) that many other creatures besides humans mate for life, and among them there are sometimes same-sex couples. They are NOT harassed, shunned,driven out of the pack, flock, group… and if this occurs in Nature, how could it possibly be “unnatural”?

    In the next two books, we see him mature,accept himself (it actually turns out that he’s borderline bi-sexual), and become a hero (which he never wanted to be), and after his death, a legend.

    I would not recommend these books to just anybody, but I enjoyed them tremendously, even though I don’t happen to believe in magic, or anything else that could be called supernatural. In fact I love everything Ms. Lackey has written, and that’s saying a lot. She is as prolific a writer as Isaac Asimov was, and MUCH more entertaining. You can FEEL and “see” her characters breathe.

    To anybody who is not familiar with her books, read a few first, and if you know someone who is struggling with his sexuality, and would benefit from an imaginary visit to a land where homosexuality is NOT a crime, pass them on. (I remember a time when just being in a gay bar, having a drink with friends, could get a man arrested. Cops used to LOVE to raid places like that just for “fun.”)

  3. As a teenager, I read a bunch of books by Norma Klein. She had several that deal with issues of sexuality: It’s Okay If You Don’t Love Me, Breaking Up, No More Saturday Nights.

    Then there were books like V.C. Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic series, which explored a lot of messed up relationships. And Barthe DeClements wrote sequels to Nothing’s Fair in Fifth Grade following Elsie, the ‘fat girl’ from the original.

    Not in regards to sex, but some other authors I read as a teen that explored uncomfortable topics were Lurlene McDaniel (death, terminal illness), Christopher Pike (scary situations, the occult, murder), Cynthia Voigt, Caroline B. Cooney (relationships, sometimes involving sex)…

    I could go on, but that was 20+ years ago. I’m glad there are newer books coming out that deal with these topics. Some of the older ones are a little dated, but maybe some hold up.

    • Yeah, there were some good ones back in our day. I missed a lot of them because I skipped that reading phase and went straight for Stephen King (NOT a healthy choice sexually speaking!) But I also found my way to the Handmaid’s tale, Clan of the Cave Bear books, etc. (And yes, VC Andrews)
      I have read a few of the older ones recently, and many do hold up, though the way they talk about pot as if it’s on par with heroin is super funny to me.

  4. Also, thank you for this walk down memory lane. It was a lot of fun reminiscing about books I used to love. I could keep naming authors (Bruce and Carole Hart, Judy Blume, Richie Tankersley Cusick….), but there are too many and I don’t remember them all.

  5. Pingback: Age Inappropriate | ThinkBannedThoughts Blog

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