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 Harper and Caroline Russomanno