Tag Archives: sex

Turning Point by Paula Chase

by Paula Chase
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

13-year-old Rasheeda is not looking forward to this summer, her first without her best friend, Monique, since moving in with her aunt in The Cove. Though the take ballet together, only Monique and Jamila, the best in their class, were selected and given scholarships to attend Ballet America, a 3-week intensive in another city. That leaves Sheeda home with just Tai, Mila’s best friend, and her church friends, a group which is splintering for different reasons. Oh and Mo’s brother Lennie, who is flirting with Sheeda like crazy.

Sheeda struggles with her precarious placement on the edge of adulthood, chafing against her aunt’s strict rules, but also seeing that they are there for a reason. There is an incident when an older boy, Lennie’s cousin, touches her in a way that she doesn’t like, and Lennie doesn’t stand up for her. He says, “I wouldn’t have let him hurt you,” and internally her response is, “He did hurt me, though.” Chase stops just shy of making explicit the connection: emotional harm IS harm. Harm doesn’t need to be physical or visible to be harmful. I think for 6th-8th grade readers, it might have been worthwhile to have stated this. But either way, that scene is very important and I’m glad it’s in there. It would be a great example to male readers of why consent is so important – and so murky sometimes.

The other important storyline is Mo and Mila off at the ballet intensive. They are grateful to have each other, and especially be roommates, because they are the only two Black girls there. (Curiously, their identities are not held up against anyone else marginalized, like say any boys, for comparison, but the storyline is rich enough on its own.) They share a bathroom with Katie and Brenna, who are White, and of course race, and racism, comes up. Mo is cast in the “angry Black woman” role and explains very clearly why she is frustrated by Katie’s and Brenna’s actions and words. Unfortunately, this does put her, and Mila to a lesser degree, in the role as Katie and Brenna’s teacher, but I think the microaggressions are very well shown. In a somewhat parallel situation to Sheeda’s, Mo is hurt by Katie’s failure to come to her defense in a hurtful situation – again, one that the other person didn’t recognize as hurtful.

I could go on and on about this book and the other relationships in it, but the only other one I want to mention is the one touched on most briefly: Sheeda’s relationship with her mother. I think the most telling way that Sheeda grows up is that she wants to hear her mother’s voice just to comfort her, and her mother is unable to give her any genuine attention. From the moment she answers the phone, it is all about her and her problems and her anger at Rasheeda’s aunt (her sister). Sheeda hangs up after a while, and seems to understand that her aunt is who she has, who will care for her in all the ways. Even if they don’t always agree, she’s her mother now.

Powwow Summer by Nahanni Shingoose

by Nahanni Shingoose
4 out of 5 stars

River is looking forward to starting university in the fall, but then her mother’s life upheaval, which also affects her, is too much and she runs away to her father’s house in Winnipeg. He lives on the reserve and she is soon in over her head with reserve life, which is much different than her life on a farm surrounded mostly by white people like her mom. River finds herself making bad decisions and in trouble with the Indian gangs, but she is saved by the grace of a kind soul and a healing circle before things escalate too far. However, she grows and changes over the summer and is a different person when she comes home – to her new home, with her mother’s new partner.

I am aware that other cultures’ storytelling norms are different than what I’m used to, so I want to not be too critical. I will say that I was surprisingly compelled by River’s story, even though the writing did not always follow conventions that I’m used to. Shingoose is a contributor on If I Go Missing, so it was not surprising that the story included some real teaching about missing and murdered Indigenous girls and women. River makes some truly bad decisions, most fueled by being drunk for the first times in her life. That she was encouraged to drink by her father, and not punished for it by her grandmother, is addressed by her father during the healing circle and also highlights the difference between her farm life and her reserve life. I appreciated the chance to spend a summer on a reserve with River and her dad and Nokomis, learning along with her about her culture.

There are parts where River’s boyfriend is pressuring her to have sex, but playing the role of patient boyfriend. (As an aside, I sure would love to see a story where a boy isn’t ready to have sex!) There’s also a pretty violent scene near the beginning where River’s stepfather is smashing plates, and one where River gets beat up.

Darius the Great Deserves Better by Adib Khorram

by Adib Khorram
Overall: 4.5 out of 5 stars

My favorite gay Persian teen is back! This time he’s dealing with his first boyfriend, his first real job, and the mysterious tensions in his house, especially when his dad travels for work for a month and his grandmothers come to visit. And by “dealing with his first boyfriend,” I mean everything from feeling not ready for sex, to feeling attracted to someone else, to doubting whether the relationship is a good fit for him. He’s attracted to a former nemesis, now a soccer teammate and friend, who is not out for most of the story and yet surprisingly bold with Darius.

As always, I loved Darius’ relationship with his father, and especially that they talk about all this sex and relationship stuff. I mean, it’s awkward, but his dad does a really good job. It’s actually Darius’ mom who he thinks has a harder time with it. Darius’ grandfather passes away, his grandmothers don’t say much so that’s always awkward, and his best friend Sohrab goes silent on the other end of Skype (spoiler: turns out he and his mom are applying for asylum). Throughout it all, Darius is himself, struggling with depression, super into watching Star Trek with his dad, sweet and caring and protective with his little sister Layla (and the same with his new friend’s 2-year-old niece), trying to figure out what he wants from his job, from a boyfriend, from life.

Khorram does an exceptional job of especially showing the nuances of a relationship and what would cause someone (or both someones) to be rethinking it, even in a high school relationship. I also loved that he gets into the grandmothers’ backstory – this is Darius’ father’s parents, and it turns out one is trans. They open up to Darius a bit about their history, but he – and I – were left wanting a lot more. Khorram also shows Darius making some big realizations about hobbies vs. careers, which is not something many teen books grapple with and it was nice to see.

Sorry For Your Loss by Jessie Ann Foley

sorryforyourlosshccby Jessie Ann Foley
Overall: 4.5 out of 5 stars

16-year-old James “Pup” Flanagan is the youngest of 8 in a close-knit, Catholic, Chicago family. His oldest sisters are referred to as “the sister-moms” and his oldest nephew is also a junior at the same high school (though the two don’t get along at all and Pup’s nephew teases him for being a poor student). Pup is closest with his sister Annemarie, and the whole family is still reeling from (but not dealing with or discussing) the death of his next-oldest brother, Patrick, from meningitis three years before. His brother Luke has failed out of law school and become a full-fledged alcoholic and drinking himself nearly to death, leading to a scene of domestic violence and an even more harrowing scene where Pup goes and drags him out of a dingy basement and gets him to the hospital. With Pup’s help, the family starts to heal together.

On the cheerier side, what gets Pup through the end of his junior year is photography, a Hail Mary (if you will) to save his failing art grade, which he turns out to be a natural at. He also happens to spend a lot of time with Abrihet, a classmate he vaguely knew but never interacted much with. Pup finally lets go of his longtime best friend and crush, Izzy, whose skeezy boyfriend pushes Pup’s crush into the open. As Pup gets closer to Abrihet, he realizes that what he has with Izzy is superficial and, worse, one-sided, and what he has with Abrihet is real and powerful. Even when Izzy finally gets wise and dumps Brody’s cheating butt, and comes to Pup for solace, he finds he doesn’t even want what he thought they had. Through it all, the metaphors of photography and what he is able to learn about himself through compiling a portfolio at his art teacher’s urging is quite moving and lovely.

A librarian friend recommended this one to me, selling it by saying that it’s the best first kiss ever and the last several pages blew her away, and I have to agree. (Well, to be fully honest, I was a little distracted when reading the kiss but upon rereading, it was delightful.)

For fans of: I’ll Give You the Sun (or maybe the other way around – if they read this, they’ll like Sun)

Fire Song by Adam Garnet Jones

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by Adam Garnet Jones
Overall: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Our hero, Shane, is still reeling from his little sister’s suicide, while also trying to navigate his secret relationship with her best friend, David, and his not-secret relationship with his girlfriend, Tara. But when Tara finds out about David, the shit really hits the fan. Meanwhile, Shane’s mom is deep in grief over Destiny’s death and seemingly oblivious to the state of the house, which is literally crumbling around them. Shane’s mom’s depression and the crumbling house conspire to keep him on the reserve (reservation), while everything in him screams to be in Toronto, at college. There’s a tribal enrollment snafu that’s keeping him from the scholarship money he desperately needs, so he gives in and agrees to sell drugs to make money, which David disapproves of.

Gay teen romance still gets me, and this one did not disappoint, especially when the scenes between Shane and David are contrasted with scenes between Shane and Tara. Jones’ Cree ancestry makes the characters wonderfully well-rounded and brutally honest about life on the reserve. There is abuse and drugs and poverty and nosy people, but there is also a close-knit community with important ceremonies to bind them together and continue their way of life. David’s grandmother is an important elder who is also sometimes at odds with the other adults in the community. It bugged me a little that I didn’t know how old David was, but I mostly got over that.

Little and Lion by Brandy Colbert

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by Brandy Colbert
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

Suzette, aka Little, has just arrived home in L.A. after spending her sophomore year of high school at a boarding school in Massachusetts. She was sent away by her mom and not-quite-stepdad, Saul, so they could focus on taking care of her not-quite-stepbrother, Lionel (Lion). Suzette and Lionel were as close as two siblings could be, but Lion’s bipolar diagnosis changed things between them. Though she’s a year younger, Suzette can’t help feeling responsible for and protective of him. Now that she’s home for the summer, they’ve fallen into their old patterns with a couple of new twists – besides Lion going off his meds, he’s also dating a girl Suzette is into, too, though she starts dating her close friend, Emil. Suzette also has a lot of thinking to do about how her secret relationship with her roommate, Iris, dissolved, and how to make things right. There is a fair amount of drinking, a little smoking pot, and some detailed sex scenes.

Suzette is the very definition of intersectionality. Saul and Lionel are Jewish (and Caucasian), and Suzette and her mother (who are black) converted years ago. Suzette also had a bat mitzvah, though she never wore her Star of David necklace at boarding school (keeping multiple identities under wraps). She speaks of feeling left out of Jewish spaces and friendships because she doesn’t fit into other people’s boxes. Though the author makes much of how connected Suzette feels to Judaism and her love of celebrating Shabbat (done quite artfully), Colbert seems to go out of her way to mention how Suzette and her family don’t keep kosher without addressing it at all. (They eat chorizo, prosciutto, and shrimp, off the top of my head.) Don’t get me wrong, there are many Jews who don’t keep kosher, or who pick and choose what feels meaningful to them in terms of dietary laws, but to not address it at all just seemed odd. The other odd thing was about the fictional Avalon, Massachusetts. I pictured it to be near the real town of Avon, MA, which is not far from Boston, but it is described as a place where drivers are chill and don’t honk or yell at each other, which definitely does not describe most of the towns near Boston. It’s possible Colbert pictured Avalon being in Western MA (like Northampton), where people are more chill, but that part made me wonder if Colbert had ever even been to Massachusetts!

But my nitpicking aside, this is a solid story with refreshingly complex characters, real dilemmas (especially how Lion blackmails Suzette to not tell their parents he’s off his meds), and a realistic and satisfying if not complete ending. It tackles both bipolar disorder and bisexuality and their many nuances with ease and grace and completely deserved to win the Stonewall Award this year. Now, if only I could figure out how to live in Suzette’s amazing house (and turret bedroom)…!

Saints and Misfits by S.K. Ali

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by S.K. Ali
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

Oh the teen angst! There’s so much going on in this book. Janna’s crush on a senior, Jeremy, is compounded by his bitchy cousin Lauren’s plot against her, and also the fact that he’s not Muslim. To make things worse, Janna’s older brother Muhammad has moved back in with them, forcing her to share a room with their mother (their dad, who is Indian, lives in nearby Chicago with his new family). Muhammad is trying to get engaged to a seemingly-perfect Muslim girl Janna refers to in her head as Saint Sarah, but who turns out to have secrets of her own. As she navigates all of this, Janna tries to lean on her friends Fizz and Tats (Fidda and Tatyana) and also stay away from the guy who molested her, Fizz’s cousin Farooq. I don’t want that part to get buried because it’s the undercurrent of the whole story – an older guy molests Janna days before the story starts. It’s not quite as dark a tale as Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, but it’s just as powerful and important.

There were very few clearly good and clearly bad characters, and they were both Muslim and non-Muslim. I have to say, though, I’m still confused about whether Jeremy actually liked Janna and wasn’t in on the tricks on her, and also some of Janna’s backstory with her classmate Sandra. When we met Sandra, it seemed like they had never talked before, but by the end of the book it turned out that they used to be close friends. There were also a few technology mentions that will date this book quickly, and one that didn’t really make any sense, which was that Janna and her friends were all very active on Facebook (most teens are not on Facebook). She does mention Instagram, but that will also go out of style pretty soon.

I liked the adults, including Janna’s elderly neighbor, Mr. Ram, whom she keeps company sometimes. Mr. Ram passes away by the end of the book, and I appreciated how his death, funeral, and Janna’s mourning were addressed. And of course I saw the “surprise” nice-guy crush coming at the very first mention of him, but that was lovely anticipation to watch throughout the book. I also loved that the story taught me more about Islam, from specific words and concepts to greetings, religious tenets (Janna, Sarah, Sausan, and others are on an Islam Quiz Bowl team), and dress. I was right there with her, choosing to cover her hair and then feeling naked when video of herself is posted online or when her molester sees her hair uncovered. (Sausan wants to wear niqab and even makes a convincing argument for the power of choosing to wear the head-to-toe dress in which only your eyes are seen.) Overall a powerful story and one that is long overdue: more voices of young Muslims in America.

Ramona Blue by Julie Murphy

Overall: 5 out of 5 stars
Ramona lives in a small vacation town in Mississippi, not far from New Orleans. When she was little, Hurricane Katrina ripped through and destroyed their already-precarious lives, splitting up her parents and sending her, her sister Hattie, and their father into a FEMA trailer. Her mother, who had gotten pregnant with Hattie at 15, gradually dropped out of the picture. When Ramona’s childhood friend Freddie moves back to town, her attraction to him makes her question whether she’s really gay or not. I was sold this one on the issue of bisexual erasure, which is a thing. Curiously, much more is made of Ramona’s questioning her sexuality than her relationship with Freddie, who is black. Although in one particular scene, Ramona and her friends trespass into someone’s backyard to use their pool and Freddie has to spell it out to her that while it seemed like a foolish prank to them, it could have been life and death for him.
Meanwhile, Hattie, who is maybe 20, gets pregnant and Ramona is very torn between needing to help her sister raise the baby and believing she can pursue a future of her own that includes community college on a swimming scholarship. The baby’s father, Tyler, moves into their trailer for a bit before insulting Ramona and getting tossed out by Hattie, but they later make amends. One of the things I really found interesting to ponder was the fact that their family, though barely making ends meet with three working (semi-)adults, had not always been that way, and had once been used to a slightly more comfortable lifestyle before the hurricane took that away, and how hard that must have been. This is not your typical poor girl story.
I found the dynamics of their small southern town interesting. Maybe it’s my Yankee background, but I had a hard time believing that Ramona showing up to prom with a girl, even another (the other) known lesbian in town, went largely ignored. (The school librarian was the hero in that scenario, which I love.) Ramona and Hattie both work at a local restaurant with Ruth (the other lesbian – she and Ramona are not dating) and Ruth’s brother Saul (also gay). I also had a hard time believing that her dating a black guy went even more largely ignored. If my perception of small southern towns is wrong, then great! But things wrapped up pretty neatly in that arena and others in a way that made me a bit suspicious.
There were many subtle themes that I enjoyed, like that Ramona is very tall – too tall for their trailer – and feeling physically and emotionally like she doesn’t fit. Murphy has a knack for not hitting you over the head with her insights, but letting them trickle down gently and be moving when you’re least expecting them.
Reminds me of the movie Kissing Jessica Stein, a bit (mostly in the bisexuality question part).

Honor Girl

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by Maggie Thrash
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

I’ve read my fair share of gay teen love stories and generally find them intense and satisfying, but something about this one didn’t hit quite as hard. I’m not sure what it is. I think from the beginning, I found the pictures hard to follow – I thought Maggie was a boy at first, even though she’s wearing a skirt in the first scene. I had trouble telling some of the other characters apart. Aside from that, I wasn’t sure exactly what the author was trying to get across, which may come more from my experience being in fiction form, rather than memoir. The ending was anticlimactic but it’s hard to get mad about that since it was her life that just didn’t tie up neatly. Or maybe I’ve just been reading too much middle grade fiction where things tie up very neatly all the time.

All that being said, Honor Girl is pretty solid. It’s a quick read, as are many graphic novels. I liked that Maggie has a good friend at camp who is there for her, as opposed to the younger (and much more immature) Bethany. It reminded me in parts of This One Summer with the younger annoying friend. I also liked that the reader, along with Maggie, didn’t feel Maggie worthy of the title Honor Girl, even though in retrospect she absolutely did earn it. It’s just that ending that really bugged me, even if it did have good foreshadowing.