December 16, 2012

Taboo Topics in Young Adult Literature

Explicit sex. Drug-use. Severe violence. These are the top three taboo subjects, in my opinion, which many YA enthusiasts prefer not to see in what is perceived to be a ‘light hearted’ genre for older children and adults. In essence, these can be considered taboo subjects by many YA lit lovers; however, there are YA consumers that are more tolerant of serious and ‘real life’ subject matter in the YA genre. Let’s demystify the explicit sex taboo in YA literature first.

Many YA readers believe that explicit sex should not be included in YA lit and if it is included then the inclusion of such a subject renders the book adult literature. The nature of the sex is important. For instance, my debut novel Sweetest Taboo does not include overly graphic sex scenes but does include one or two instances where a sexual encounter is described tastefully. Nevertheless, some YA readers feel that the type of sex, in this case sex between a student and a teacher, will dictate the genre of the book. I, however, disagree. My experience with YA literature extends back to the mid-80s when I began devouring the VC Andrews Flower in the Attic series. I was perhaps 13 at the time and reading what was then considered YA literature, a series of books that included sex between a brother and sister. The scenes were not overly graphic, but as a 13 year old I was definitely aware of what was being described in the book. I firmly believe that if sex is treated realistically and tastefully in a book that is YA classified (i.e. a book that is written from the perspective and voice of a young adult/teen), then explicit sex should cease to be considered a taboo topic in YA lit.

As for drug-use and severe violence, many believe these should not be included in YA lit and if included, again, the book ceases to exist in the YA genre and should be classified as adult fiction. As I’ve argued in several other posts, young adults (primarily those 14 and older) are exposed to many of these taboo topics in their day-to-day lives. Young adults are faced with many unpleasant situations in their lives. Teens may have friends with drug-abuse problems, or they know someone that was depressed and attempted suicide, maybe they have friends who have been molested, raped, or physically abused by relatives or boyfriends. Sheltering young adults from literature that contains mature subject matter is not doing them a service, but rather these young adults miss out on the opportunity to learn about how others address these difficult issues in their lives, how they cope, how they seek help and how they overcome obstacles. Life is not always as pleasant as we would like and by providing young adults with realistic literary content, teens venture beyond vampires and fairy tales to learn how to cope with life’s trials and tribulations, and also learn from the mistakes characters make throughout any given story. In Sweetest Taboo we learn where Isabel went astray, we see the exact choices she made that sent her down a very dangerous path. In She’s Come Undone, we learn to recognize the signs of eating disorders and the importance of self-worth. There are so many rich lessons to be learned in our young literary journeys, why limit the opportunities of self-discovery by labeling mature content as taboo?

What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Beautiful Disaster: A Review by Eva Márquez

Title: Beautiful Disaster

Author: Jamie McGuire

Publication: August 14, 2012

Pages: 432

Genre: Young Adult/Adult

Publisher: Atria Books

ISBN: 1476712042

Price: $12.00

The new Abby Abernathy is a good girl. She doesn’t drink or swear, and she has the appropriate number of cardigans in her wardrobe. Abby believes she has enough distance from the darkness of her past, but when she arrives at college with her best friend, her path to a new beginning is quickly challenged by Eastern University’s Walking One-Night Stand.

Travis Maddox, lean, cut, and covered in tattoos, is exactly what Abby wants—and needs—to avoid. He spends his nights winning money in a floating fight ring, and his days as the ultimate college campus charmer. Intrigued by Abby’s resistance to his appeal, Travis tricks her into his daily life with a simple bet. If he loses, he must remain abstinent for a month. If Abby loses, she must live in Travis’s apartment for the same amount of time. Either way, Travis has no idea that he has met his match.

My thoughts
What can I say that has not already been said about this New York Times Bestseller? McGuire self-published this book in May 2011 and in approximately one year and a few months, it was picked up by Atria Books and re-published under a different cover in August 2012. Beautiful Disaster had already reached success as a self-published title and for good reason. It’s an incredibly well written contemporary work of fiction. Although I would not necessarily classify it as YA, it does teeter back and forth between YA and adult fiction. The main character is Abby, a 19-year old college student who, although incredibly bright and sharp with her tongue, still has a teenage ‘voice’ and seems to make terrible decisions. The other characters in the book are equally young in voice, which is appropriate. Each character was carefully crafted and it was entertaining to follow them through the Beautiful Disaster journey. I found that perhaps the author was either employing symbolism or some other type of representative approach to the character names in the book. For instance, the only to two average names in the story were those of the two main characters and those who were involved in the love interest, Abby and Travis. Abby’s best friend was America, America’s boyfriend was Shepley, Abby’s gay friend was Finch, and a mutual friend of everyone was Brazil. Those are an odd mix of names!

Although the love story was a complete and utter mess, as sometimes they can be, I found the ending to be just a little too neat and tidy for my taste. I felt as though Abby would not have really gone that route, although Travis obviously would. I won’t say more about this because I don’t want to spoil the ending for anyone, BUT I did find the ending slightly disappointing and expected something more grandiose or dramatic, keeping with the theme of the entire book. One thing that I felt was a little over-the-top and not realistic was Travis’ obsession with Abby. Yes, young men can become obsessive about their girlfriends, but Travis exemplified one of the most obsessive and unhealthy cases of ‘psycho boyfriend’ symptom I’ve ever read about or have witnessed in real life. With that said, the book was still great and I recommend it to readers who enjoy contemporary fiction with some sex, lots of violence, and tons of unhealthy obsession.

My favorite passage
“I had fought my feelings, guarded them, and bottled them up. I had experienced the happiest moments of my life while at Eastern, all of them with Travis. Fighting, laughing, loving or crying, if it was with him, I was where I wanted to be.” 
- Page 228

My rating

Student/Teacher Romances: Does gender matter?

Over the last several years as well as decades, many student/teacher romances hit the news in a big way. One of the liaisons I recall most vividly is the one between an adult female teacher and her 12-year old elementary school student. Ring a bell? Mary Kay LeTourneau, the former schoolteacher released after a 7 1/2-year prison term for having sex with one of her grade school students, while marrying the male student upon her release. This one of the first major cases of a female teacher engaging in a sexual relationship with a male grade school student to hit the national/international headlines. The coverage of that case was quite interesting and distinct from similar (and perhaps less offensive to some, as far as age is concerned) cases involving male teachers and female students. Let’s use a case study method to analyze my hypothesis, which is that female teacher/male student romances are more acceptable to our society than male teacher/female student romances. The fist case study has been presented, the LeTourneau case. While that case did shock the country when the news broke, we learned that the couple was ‘in love’, that the boy ‘consented’ and that LeTourneau herself was impregnated by this sixth grade student.

The media took great interest, as it often does. Eventually when LeTourneau was released from prison and married her former grade school student, big names in the media circuit clamored for interviews. I use ABC news as a case in point of its reporting of the LeTourneau case vs. a similar and very recent (but perhaps less disturbing) male teacher/female student case. ABC news ran several pieces on the LeTourneau case and one in particular stands out as ‘high profile’ because it was an interview of LeTourneau aired on Good Morning America and conducted by Chris Cuomo (and also interviewed by Barbara Walters in a different piece). In the majority of ABC news pieces I’ve read on the case, including the Good Morning America interview, my attention was captured by the following sound bites: LeTourneau never doubted her romantic feelings for her then-12-year-old student Villi Fualauu, her marriage was falling apart, she was feeling emotionally overwhelmed, she had an ‘emotional attraction’, Villi persuaded her and she no longer resisted.

Fast forward to early 2012 and read through ABC’s coverage of the Hooker/Powers controversy. James Hooker, 41 and Jordan Powers, 18, met when she was a freshman and he was her business class teacher at James Enochs High School in Modesto, California. The couple, who went public with their relationship in March 2012, saying that it evolved over time and only became physical after she turned 18 in September. Hmmm…this case seems exponentially more healthy and legitimate than the LeTourneau/Fualauu case. For one, these folks actually came out in public about their relationship and were not ‘caught’ doing the dirty on school premises, for example. Second, the two both allege that there was no physical interaction until Powers turned 18. Finally, even if something were going on early (prior to her 18th birthday) it was likely only emotional AND if it had been physical, which no one has alleged it was, the student was a young woman as opposed to a grade school student. In my book, that distinction is absolutely critical because age does matter. However, ABC news’ coverage of this story contrasted greatly with the LeTourneau coverage…listen to some of the ABC sound bites on this story: Hooker is a sex predator; the couple are suffering from shared paranoia; Hooker is pathologically immature; This is what you see with pedophilia, with offending patterns, with teachers who have sex with students; Hooker does what sex offenders often do; Hooker has now left his family and children; They’re both dropouts at this point. She’s a dropout from school and he’s a dropout from society.

Does gender really matter in these cases? If you ask me, and if you just peruse over some articles on media outlets (I chose ABC for the sake of comparing the coverage by one news network on two high profile student/teacher romances…i.e. comparing apples and apples and NOT apples and oranges) gender does matter and gender is a key factor in the type of judgment that will be made on the teacher/student relationship of the day.

What do you think? Does this make sense to you or has your media consumption experience been different? I would love to hear what others think!

In Between Seasons: A Review by Eva Márquez

Title: In Between Seasons

Author: Cassandra Giovanni

Publication: May 9, 2012

Pages: 290

Genre: Young Adult

Publisher: Self-published

ISBN: 1477413685

Price: $9.99

At eighteen there is one thing Kate Ericson is certain of—the world is at war and has been since she was two years old. That was when her father pulled her family and a group of close friends to a God forsaken place in the middle of nowhere. For Kate there is no escape from the sea of lies she is drowning in until her world collides with Hunter Marks—the son of her father’s biggest opponent. An opponent that Kate didn’t even know existed. What Hunter kidnaps Kate for, and what her family will try to kill her to keep secret, is a knowledge that she doesn’t have. Now Kate’s innocence seems to becoming undone at the seams of reality. Hunter then finds himself fighting the hopelessness that is creeping into the edges of her heart as she learns more about the corruption that has devoured their lives. As Hunter and Kate forge a strong and unique relationship it becomes clear that their love is something that the bureaucracy never expected, and that Hunter’s father will do whatever he can to destroy it. Hunter believes he must sacrifice love in order to teach Kate that the world’s deadliest weapon is her. Hunter and Kate will have to find the strength to rise above a deception that is so great, even the ones who created it don’t realize its depth.

My thoughts 
As a lover of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic/futuristic society stories and books, I was really hoping In Between Seasons would turn out to be a page turner and a creatively written story about a new world order intertwined with a love interest and some drama. The story line was definitely about a post-apocalyptic society in which tribes are at war with each other, although we never truly learn what led to the post-apocalyptic world, how these tribes organized themselves, and why they were at constant war. Sure, Giovanni does give us a glimpse of what occurred, but it was not the thorough explanation I was hoping for. I wanted to know, in detail, what led the modern world to collapse, why these tribes formed and fought, and how the main characters (Kate and Hunter) understood and experienced this fuzzy world order that was not as well-defined as I would have liked. Perhaps my review is tainted by classic reads like 1984 and A Handmaid’s Tale so I was expecting much more about the new society. What the author did give the reader is a good love story that persists under pressure and persists and flourishes until the very end. 

In my literary opinion, this book is a sci-fi or futuristic romance novel for YA audiences. It fits nicely in that category because the romance, rather than the post-apocalyptic context, dominates the story. I would have loved to know more about the context, myself. I felt as though Giovanni skimped a bit on the backdrop and focused her energies on the love story itself, which would have been fine if the contextual elements of the story were not so promising. Also, as a published book, I would have expected a more thorough copy editing process. I was disheartened when I quickly noticed grammar inconsistencies, spelling errors (i.e. the use of ‘Sara’ and ‘Sarah’ throughout the book) and typos. In its current state, I give this book 3 out of 5 stars. This book has great potential, and with a more elaborate backdrop and some professional copyediting, I think this book will do great. 

My favorite passage 
"There’s something about forbidden love that’s always intriguing. No matter how wrong it seems you just want it to prevail because it’s so right for those two people." 
(Kindle Location: 2409-2410) 

My Rating 

Inspired by Music: the ‘Sweetest Taboo’ Book Playlist

Not too long ago I was asked by an avid YA reader/blogger if I wrote ‘Sweetest Taboo’ with a playlist in mind and my response to her was, ‘I wish I were that clever!’ Actually, as I wrote the book songs that evoked many emotions as I transitioned from adolescence into early adulthood, songs that inspired me, songs that made me cry, and songs that perfectly captured my loves and heartaches with their lyrics. Because ‘Sweetest Taboo’ is about the life, love and heartache of a teenage girl and her coming of age, I thought it would be most appropriate to tip off the reader with a song title as chapter headings in order to foreshadow the contents of what was in store in the chapter. It made perfect sense to me, and because songs evoke such strong emotions, especially as we first discover music, love and freedom during our teenage years, I couldn’t help but title each chapter after a song that had some sort of impact on me during my teens.

Although most YA readers (aside from those of us in our 30’s!) are too young to appreciate the ‘Sweetest Taboo’ book playlist, I think many will discover music that they’re familiar with but never paid too much attention to. Perhaps older YA audiences will recognize every song, and even have fond memories of each, as these may bring back memories of a time long ago. Whatever the case is, I want to share the ‘Sweetest Taboo’ book playlist with all of my readers and encourage them to either discover these powerful songs, or simply re-discover or re-acquaint themselves with music that touched many people in my generation (those of us growing up in the 90’s).

For me personally, the song ‘Wind of Change’ by the Scorpions is one of my favorite from the playlist and has special meaning and evokes memories of an eventful time in world history. On November 9, 1989 at 10:45 pm, East German guards yielded to popular pressures and opened checkpoints along the Berlin Wall dividing East from West Germany, and allowed people through with little or no identity checks. As the Ossis (Easterners) swarmed through, they were greeted by Wessis (Westerners) waiting with flowers and champagne amid wild rejoicing. Soon afterward, a crowd of West Berliners jumped on top of the wall, and were soon joined by East German youngsters. They danced together to celebrate their new freedom and bit by bit, the Berlin Wall was demolished by the most amazing social and popular movement the world had witnessed! Okay, so I was more of a kid than a teen at that moment in time, but I remember the events being played over and over on television, and as I watched MTV music videos (yes, they actually had music videos back then!), I distinctly remember the Scorpions rendition of ‘Winds of Change’ with moving backgrop images of the wall coming down and Easterners celebrating with Westerners. It was a powerful image, it was an important time in history, and it was an influential song that evoked a great deal of emotion.

We all have those ‘special’ songs from our youth or teenage years that mean a great deal to us. Heck, many of us have dozens. For me, the ‘Sweetest Taboo’ Book playlist represents nearly two dozen of those songs that have left a lasting impact on me, and songs that I discovered when I was an adolescent and a very, very young adult.

I’d love to hear about songs that have impacted others in their teens, and how and why these songs have left a lasting impact.

Below, please find the ‘Sweetest Taboo’ Book Playlist…for your enjoyment!

1. Careless Whisper by George Michael (1984)

2. It’s Raining Men, Hallelujah! by Weather Girls (1984)

3. Is it a Crime? by Sade (1985)

4. Sowing the Seeds of Love by Tears for Fears (1989)

5. Sweetest Taboo by Sade (1985)

6. More than Words by Extreme (1991)

7. Friday, I’m in Love by The Cure (1992)

8. Winds of Change by The Scorpions (1990)

9. It Ain’t Over ’til It’s Over by Lenny Kravitz (1991)

10. No More “I Love You’s” by Annie Lennox (1995)

11. I’ll Stand by You by The Pretenders (1994)

12. Better Be Home Soon by Crowded House (1996)

13. Believe by Lenny Kravitz (1993)

14. Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad? by Moby (1999)

15. Losing My Religion by R.E.M. (1991)

16. Come What May featured in Moulin Rouge (2001)

17. No Ordinary Love by Sade (1992)

18. Sweet Surrender by Sarah McClachlan (1997)

19. Into Temptation by Crowded House (1988)

20. Just Like Heaven by The Cure (1987)

22. With or Without You by U2 (1987)

23. Please, Please Tell Me Why? by Duran Duran (1993)

24. You Were Meant for Me by Jewel (1997)

Jilly-Bean: A Book Review by Eva Márquez

Title: Jilly-Bean

Author: Celia Vogel

Publication: July 29, 2012

Pages: 208

Genre: Young Adult

Publisher: Altair Books

ISBN: 978-0988032712

Price: $14.95

Temperatures are rising and superstition reigns supreme! Eighteen year old Jillian Crossland has her life planned out. Or so she thinks. Despite her better judgment, a séance one evening sets a blueprint for disaster when fate steps in and shakes up her plans and her life. Jilly-Bean is a novel that explores fears and superstitions as it relates to beliefs, religion and love. Book One in the Jilly-Bean Series.

My thoughts
Séances, coming of age, the discovery of love, spells and omens…all of these elements should make for an enjoyable and intriguing story but unfortunately these ingredients were not well developed into a compelling plot that piqued this reader’s interest in turning the pages (or in my case, touching my Kindle’s touch screen). As part of an international romance book club on GoodReads, I volunteered to review this book and committed to finishing it. The story was relatively interesting in the first third of the book, but right when I expected a plot crescendo or a climatic event, none appeared. This is a process novel whereby we simply read about the life and (rather mundane) events in the main character’s life. Like I said, there was a great deal of potential, the elements were there, but they were not utilized in an effective manner to draw the reader into the story. There were sub-stories that were not directly related to the main story, which took away from the main story, which was the coming of age of Jilly-Bean. There was far too much time spent on developing those sub-stories that did not really bear fruit at the end, nor contribute any meaningful elements to the overall plot of this book (again, there was a general lack of plot).

The ‘love story’, if you can call it that, did not touch me in any way. I did not ‘feel’ the connection between Matt and Jilly-Bean and found that their breakup was more indicative of normal teenage experiences than of any superstitious undercurrent that the author attempted to unsuccessfully develop. I seemed to be reading, reading and reading hoping that the book and story would redeem itself somewhere down the line, that something would happen, that there would be a climax to what the author had set up. Once I reached 90% ‘read’ on my Kindle, I realized that either the author waited far too long to get to the climax of the story or that there just would not be a climax…and unfortunately, the latter was true. Not only was the love story and superstitious elements of the story developed rather superficially, there was no clear plot to the story and no meaningful and/or rewarding ending to the story. I realize this is the first book of the series and if the author is waiting on book 2 to introduce an actual plot, then that is far too late to have piqued my interest in picking up any other books in this series.

On a positive note, the book was well-written, although I did run into several typos along the way. The language was complex, the imagery was lovely, and the descriptions of context and backgrounds was very well done. I did detect a timeline issue, and it was difficult to follow the timeline the author set up in the book, as it seemed to be rather discordant and did not clearly flow (I couldn’t quite decide whether or not this was a ‘flashback’ technique employed by the author or simply a lack of clarity on the story’s timeline).

This book may be interesting to very young adults/older children, but I would not recommend it for anyone over the age of 16 and certainly would not recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good momentum and plot construction.

My favorite passage
"Around her native wood flowers sprouted and dazzled; insects hummed loudly and birds flashed their wings among the shadows of the trees as she made her way down the steep incline where a single canoe stood by the water’s edge."
(Kindle Location: 2151-2153)

My Rating

December 15, 2012

Student/teacher Romances in American Films

For years, the topic of student/teacher romances has fascinated filmmakers far beyond the made-for-TV movie about Mary Kay Letourneau (a quick reminder for those who don’t remember or know about Mary Kay Letorneau…Mary Kay Letourneau was a highly respected elementary school teacher who began a sexual affair with a 13-year-old student. Even when facing criminal charges and public scandal, this wife and mother couldn’t stop her obsessive feelings for the teen who eventually became her husband).

This fascinating subject is, of course, the topic of my debut novel, Sweetest Taboo. However, before delving into next week’s blog topic (which will highlight my inspiration, as an author, to weave a sordid and illicit tale in Sweetest Taboo), I thought it would be interesting to identify just how many recent ‘pop culture’ films have been produced about these taboo and yet fascinating romances. Below is a Top Ten list of relatively recent inter-generational student/teacher romances that challenge social norms and mores.

Lolita is, by far, my favorite (both the literary work and film adaptation)! Respond with your favorite/s, or with your thoughts on these relationships…or which one of these appears to be the most taboo of them all. I welcome all (clean and respectful) thoughts and views.

1. Election
In the satirical Election, civics teacher Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) wants to take down conniving overachiever Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) in the high-school election, after Flick seduces a fellow teacher and causes him to lose his job.

2. Notes on a Scandal

Art teacher Sheba (Cate Blanchett) falls for a charming 15-year-old student and into a sordid affair in Notes on a Scandal — but a fellow teacher (Judi Dench) uses her knowledge of their liaisons to blackmail Sheba into a friendship.

3. Wonder Boys

Professor Tripp (Michael Douglas) tempts fate by allowing his student Hannah (Katie Holmes) to rent a room in his house, but he successfully rebuffs her advances in Wonder Boys. Meanwhile, his prize pupil James (Tobey Maguire) ends up in the sack with Tripp’s book editor (Robert Downey Jr.).

4. Rushmore
In the coming-of-age comedy Rushmore, Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) starts pining for teacher Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams) around the time he befriends a father figure named Herman Blume (Bill Murray), who also develops a crush on Ms. Cross.

5. The Reader

In The Reader, the young Michael (David Kross) is a sort-of surrogate teacher, introducing the older Hanna (Kate Winslet) to the world of erudite literature, while she offers him lessons in something else entirely.

6. The Squid and the Whale

In The Squid and the Whale, Prof. Bernard Berkman brags that while many of his students have made passes at him, he’s never had an affair with a student. But things get complicated when he rents a room to a sexy coed played by Anna Paquin.

7. Never Been Kissed

Josie (Drew Barrymore) is going undercover as a high-school student in Never Been Kissed on assignment for a Chicago paper. So when sparks fly between her and her teacher (Michael Vartan) it’s actually age-appropriate.

8. Lolita

Though the famous relationship between Humbert Humbert and his Lolita isn’t a student-teacher affair, Humbert loses her at the hands of playwright Clare Quilty when he sees Lolita perform one of his plays at her school.

A letter to readers from Tom Stevens

Dear Readers,

I suppose many of you might have comments or even unanswered questions that you would like to ask me, given the opportunity to do so. With that said, I would like to take this brief moment in time to at least try to partly explain “my side of the story”, and what my thoughts were as to the decisions I made so many years ago.

I would like to start by saying, you don’t always have a choice with whom you truly fall in love with. For those of you who would like to argue the point, well, all I can say is…have you really ever been in LOVE? I am not talking infatuation, dependency, or that you have been with someone for such a long time you are “used” to them and you wouldn’t know how to live without them in your life. I am talking about the type of love that you KNOW, that you FEEL in every fiber of your soul, a feeling of comfort, of being “at home” in the arms of that person, knowing if you never saw them again, you would continue to love them unconditionally with all of your heart for the rest of your life? This is how I felt about Isabel, don’t ask me why…because I can not explain, it is just how it was, how it is, and how I feel.

The first time I saw Isabel from afar, I felt a connection. I don’t know why I should have felt anything at all, as she was just one of thousands of students I have seen on campus over the years. But there was something there, I know, you may be saying “but she was only 15”. I didn’t look at Isabel as an “age” or anything else, I just felt a connection of some sort…it was that simple. I didn’t see her until the following year on the swim team, where as you have read, I got to know her quite well. I NEVER set out to seduce her; it was quite the opposite as she flirted and made relentless advances by being near me every chance she could. Eventually things happened (against my better judgment I might add) as we got to know each other, as we fell in love with each other, and as we dreamed of a life together.

I will always say that Isabel was never a “school girl”, she was never an “age”, and she was never anyone I pursued. She just appeared in my life at that particular moment in time, and while the relationship that developed between us was strong, it only became stronger as time went on. To you, the reader, know that I love Isabel with all of my heart, with all of my soul, and with every fiber of my being. It can and will never be any other way for me. This I know.

~ Tom Stevens