A year ago, with the #MeToo movement in full voice, novels about sexual assault, sexual harassment, and consent were in high demand. That development has coattails: this year’s YA books offer a wealth of new titles about the dangers of toxic relationships.
Fueled at least in part by the current political climate, publishers are also churning out books that look more broadly at sexual politics, including an impeccably timed novel about the realities of restrictive abortion laws.
Unpregnant by Jenni Hendriks and Ted Caplan (HarperTeen, Sept.) centers on Veronica, a pregnant 17-year-old in Missouri, where state law requires minors get parental consent for an abortion. Veronica’s Catholic parents will not agree to end her pregnancy; the closest place to get an abortion without their permission is in New Mexico, 900 miles away. A high school senior with an Ivy League future and a loser boyfriend, Veronica is desperate. She doesn’t have a car so she turns to her ex-best friend, Bailey, a legendary malcontent, who does. The plan is to drive 14 hours to the clinic, have the procedure in three hours, then immediately drive home. What could go wrong?
“What’s so remarkable is that this is the honest truth of what so many women face in our country,” said Alyson Day, a senior editor at HarperTeen. “The authors worried how much things might change from the time they delivered the manuscript last fall until publication, but things have only gotten worse.”
Though both Day and Writers House agent Brianne Johnson, who represented the authors, say the book is “hysterically funny” (that has to be a first for a book about abortion), in the end it’s about a system that is failing young women and the saving grace of friends. “Teenagers don’t always have the support system they need,” said Day. “This book is asking, ‘Who’ll be there for you when the world turns its back on you?’ ”
The F Word
To understand both where the #MeToo movement came from and the current debate over reproductive health rights, some of this year’s YA books suggest starting with the feminist movement of the 1960s and ’70s. Feminism Is... with a foreword by Roxane Gay (DK, Feb.) tackles concerns that affect women at school, work, and home, getting down to the nitty gritty by examining issues such as the gender pay gap, the male gaze, and mansplaining. What Every Girl Should Know by J. Albert Mann (Atheneum, Feb.) is a historical novel about the early formative years in the life of feminist and women’s health activist Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood. And a young reader’s edition of Cecile Richards’s memoir, Make Trouble (S&S/McElderry, Oct.) recounts the challenges and achievements of the former Planned Parenthood president, who stepped down in 2018 after 12 tumultuous years at the organization’s helm.
And it’s hard to overstate the ground broken by Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, published 20 years ago, about the emotional aftermath of a girl who is sexually assaulted at a high school party. At the time, a book about date rape had a hard time finding a publisher and even after Anderson sold it to Farrar, Straus and Giroux, she was told to temper her expectations—it was an important book but it probably wouldn’t sell more than a few thousand copies in hardcover.
With four million copies sold in North America, Speak is a curriculum staple that has kickstarted dialogue in countless classrooms. This spring, Anderson released Shout (Viking, Mar.), a memoir in which she recounts not only her personal history as a survivor of sexual assault but two decades of reader reactions to Speak. While Anderson also voices her frustration about the lack of progress in the years since Speak was first released, she is grateful that the #MeToo movement has reinvigorated the discussion and has prompted publishers to respond with more stories on a difficult and often painful subject.
In Trail of Crumbs by Lisa J. Lawrence (Orca, Mar.), a teenage girl who blacks out at a party must process the shame she feels when she learns afterward that she had sex. In Are You Listening? by Eisner Award winner Tillie Walden (First Second, Sept.), two girls on a road trip share stories of loss, heartbreak, and, finally, a startling revelation about sexual assault. In Girl Made of Stars by Stonewall Award winner Ashley Herring Blake (HMH, July), a sexual assault survivor must face hard truths about consent and victim blaming.
Like Anderson, debut author Laura Sibson (Viking, June) drew on personal history for The Art of Breaking Things, a novel about Skye, a high school senior whose plans for art school crumble when her mother rekindles a romance with a boyfriend who sexually abused Skye. How can Skye go off to school when she has a little sister? “When I started this book in 2014, I was writing it only for me, needing to process what had happened all those years ago,” Sibson said. “Initially, it was really angry and raw and I realized I just needed to get the story out.” She shared one scene with a writer friend who was “blown away.”
“She urged me to continue and to seek an agent for this book because teen girls need books like this,” Sibson said. Even so, when Sibson queried agents in 2016, she got several requests for the full manuscript but no offers of representation. A year later, she shopped it to agent Brianne Johnson. “#MeToo had happened and Bri saw a way to pitch it to publishers,” Sibson said.
Other novels try to get at the culture that allows harassment, which can be insidious. Screen Queens by Lori Goldstein (Razorbill, June) follows three girls at a startup incubator competition who uncover the truth about what it means to succeed in the male-dominated world of tech. In Michigan vs. the Boys by Carrie S. Allen (KCP Loft, Oct.), a girl who makes it onto the boys’ hockey team must deal with teasing from male teammates that crosses the line into verbal abuse. Though most of the books dealing with these issues involve female victimhood, Cub by Paul Coccia (Orca Soundings, Jan.) features a teenage boy who enters a baking competition. After surviving several rounds, he realizes it might not be his culinary skill that the judge, a] celebrity chef, is really interested in.
Little, Brown editor Deirdre Jones picked up an Australian import, Amelia Westlake Was Never Here by Erin Gough (LB/Poppy, May), because of its irresistible pitch: “When I saw that it was described as a ‘grand feminist hoax,’ I thought, ‘I gotta read this,’ ” Jones said. Two girls team up to expose their swim coach’s inappropriate behavior when the administration attempts to sweep their complaints under the rug. They stage provocative pranks, which they credit to imaginary classmate, Amelia. “It’s a timely story and the way they figure out how to clap back at the school administrators trying to sweep his misdeeds under the rug is empowering,” Jones said.
The Last Taboo?
Pornography has been occasionally addressed in YA novels, but mostly as humorous hijinks—a “what boys get up to” mentality. But with explicit content now only a Google search away, psychiatrists are warning that teenage boys are getting a very distorted idea of what healthy human sexuality entails. “It’s called ‘adult content,’ for a reason,” said Beverly Horowitz, v-p and publisher of Delacorte Press. She acquired Point of View by Patrick Bard (Delacorte, Dec.) from a French publisher, a novel about a teenage boy looking for a superhero film who stumbles onto a porn site instead. “He was startled by it and by his physical reaction to it,” Horowitz said. Pretty soon, all the boy wants to do is watch porn. “It becomes his downfall,” she said.
According to one study by Covenant Eyes, a company that produces software that can block inappropriate content, 90% of teenage boys are exposed to Internet porn by age 18.
Horowitz sees a straight line between the astronomical rise in porn viewing and some teenage boys’ attitudes toward girls. “Do these boys understand women are not just pieces of meat if they’ve been watching hours and hours of this stuff? They might not get it, and sadly so.”
It’s not an issue she thinks is going to go away on its own. “Just like some of the books we’re publishing now about LGBTQIA issues, which would have seemed bold five years ago, the topic of online pornography in books for teens will not be bold five years from now because this is something that’s affecting millions of people,” she said.
That said, she knows there may be pushback from schools and accounts. Similarly, HarperTeen is aware that Unpregnant could unleash a firestorm. The authors—Hendriks, formerly a staff writer on How I Met Your Mother, and Caplan, the music editor for The Hate U Give—are preparing. “Jenni is going to do all the talking and Ted is going to wear a T-shirt that says ‘Woke,’ ” says Johnson, who believes that getting a book about abortion into the hands of teen readers was not only a good business decision (rights have already been sold into 14 territories) but a valid political act, too.
“I can’t read the news without thinking of these gross old men who want to restrict a woman’s access to healthcare and thinking just how important this book is,” said Johnson. “You can feel powerless when it comes to politics, but to publish a book like this feels like one way we can help.”