I know, I know, Wednesday’s post on The Chocolate War was really long and super-involved. Don’t worry. I won’t put you through that again. As a quick refresher, this week I’m reading books chosen during Banned Books Week. Wednesday’s was chosen from the ALA’s lists of the top banned and challenged books of the last twenty years. Today’s was chosen because it was one of the books called out as “filthy” and equated with “soft-core pornography” by Wesley Scroggins’ op ed piece from two weeks ago in the Springfield Missouri News-Leader. Mr. Scroggins objected to Sarah Ockler’s Twenty Boy Summer being in the library on the grounds that it “glorifies drunken teen parties, where teen girls lose their clothes in games of strip beer pong. In this book, drunken teens end up on the beach where they use their condoms to have sex.” I had not read Twenty Boy Summer, so I picked a copy up and read it last night and this morning.
Now, as a reminder, I don’t tend to voluntarily read a ton of contemporary, realistic fiction. I like weird cities and bizarre worlds and bending reality. I’m not generally moved to pick up a book unless there’s an element of the uncanny to it. That said, I have stumbled into reasons to read a number of books outside my usual comfort zone in the last couple months and I’ve had reason to be grateful afterward (Bamboo People and The Last Summer of the Death Warriors pop immediately to mind). Twenty Boy Summer is another one I would probably never have picked up, but I’m so glad I did.
On Anna Rieley’s fifteenth birthday, her best friend Frankie’s brother Matt (who Anna has been in love with since she was ten) kisses her. For one month they keep their new (and, I should mention, very chaste) relationship secret, because Matt wants to be the one to tell his sister. Then Matt dies of a previously undiagnosed heart defect. Because Frankie still doesn’t know about Matt and Anna’s fledgling relationship, Anna keeps the secret. For a year the two girls mourn their respective losses, only superficially mourning together. Anna cannot bring herself to tell the secret, and Frankie slowly spirals out of control. Then Frankie’s family decides to try returning to their annual California trip, with Anna invited for the first time. Frankie’s grand plan for the trip is for the girls to meet twenty boys in the hopes that one of them will be the right guy to help Anna get rid of her “albatross”–her virginity (Frankie claims to have lost hers months before). Anna, who still writes letters to Matt in her journal and who (like the rest of the family) feels his presence everywhere, cannot imagine so much as kissing another boy. Then she meets Sam, and despite her best efforts to stay aloof, finds herself drawn to him.
Is it a book about sex? “Soft-core pornography” for teens? Nope. There’s sex in it, but it’s the most gently, gracefully rendered interaction I’ve ever read. It’s not about seduction or sensuality at all–it’s about the decision to have sex for the first time, not about the act. There is some wonderful discussion of the pressure Anna feels (even from her best friend) to shed her virginity–and I hope we all understand that teen girls really do feel that pressure. We see Frankie fling herself desperately at every male who pays attention to her (and Frankie, beautiful and desperate, gets plenty of attention). We see Anna disgusted with this behavior and refusing to involve herself with it. And then we see her fall slowly and reluctantly for Sam, who is so absolutely kind and patient that he winds up being the first person Anna speaks to honestly about Matt. If only every girl held out for her first time until she met someone who actually cared about her, actually engaged her in real conversations, and actually respected her–well, that would be a big step in the right direction. (And yes, Mr. Scroggins, they use condoms, thank goodness. Yes, there is a beach involved. No, they are not drunk. Settle down.)
But this is a book about friends and families, first and foremost. It’s about how friendships change, about how teens and families mourn, and about how what we choose to say (especially when it would be easier not to speak at all) can save us in the end, even if the act of speaking means more pain before things start getting better. It’s also a book about how to move on after the death of a loved one, a book that promises that you never truly lose those you have loved. I actually felt my eyes prickle a little at the end. I kind of hate to admit it, but there you go. It was lovely.
One of these days I’m going to have kids. As I read this book I tried to think of what might concern me if I was a parent rather than a writer. I think, were I to discuss this book with my daughter, I would want to talk about the teenagerish stuff the girls get up to and discuss how lucky the girls were that nothing went horribly wrong as a result. There is some sneaking around, there is some light smoking and drinking, and there is a lot of flirting with strangers, and I would feel like giving a basic “this is not behavior I approve of” speech. But none of it is glamorized, and most of it is done by Frankie, who is so obviously out of control that Anna spends a good amount of time trying to protect her. I think it’s made abundantly clear that one of them is on a downward spiral, and that her behavior is potentially dangerous. But, being a parent, I would probably want to make sure my daughter didn’t miss the point. On the other hand, I think she’d have to be pretty stupid not to. And there is plenty that I would be very glad to have my daughter discover in this book: things about friendship, about how families can fracture and come together again, about how the memories of our loved ones stay with us forever but must not keep us from living.