Let’s talk about sex. It comes up in young adult literature perhaps as much (if not more) than in any other genre. That’s because YA tackles the process of entering adulthood, and with that, there’s often hormones, desire, and sex. B. T. Gottfred, author of The Nerdy and the Dirty, knows this firsthand from his own work. Here, Gottfred shares five of his favorite classic YA novels that tackle the subject of the birds and the bees.
For my generation especially, Judy Blume helped usher all of us through key moments from childhood into teenagerhood into adult-ish hood. I can still remember reading Forever on a plane and thinking, I can’t believe they let kids read this. Now, as an adult, I’m left thinking, I can’t believe they don’t MAKE kids read this. One of Blume’s many gifts is creating characters almost anyone can relate to and taking them—judgment-free—through situations we all will go through but so few adults are willing to discuss honestly. (On a side note, my first novel’s title, Forever for a Year, paid slight homage to the godmother of all YA.)
If Blume is the godmother of all YA (with her many books), J.D. Salinger is the godfather with just this one. While Blume crafts universal characters that are still three-dimensional, Salinger crafts the one-of-a-kind Holden Caulfield, who we relate to as fellow one-of-a-kinds. Because Holden is so absolutely real and true, when he makes choices (like hiring a prostitute) that would seem unthinkable to 99% of teenagers, we understand why he’s making those choices. And, hopefully, Holden helps us to understand further why we make (and don’t make) choices of our own.
I truly believe Sherman Alexie’s book is a descendant of Catcher in the Rye, and Junior is every bit as unforgettable as Holden Caulfield. (In fact, writing this piece makes me miss him and want to go read it again.) Like Salinger, I’m sure Alexie wouldn’t think his book was a “sex” book, but that’s part of what makes it so effective. By having a heroic (yet complex) character like Junior discussing topics matter-of-factly and in passing (like masturbation), it helps normalize healthy sexual behavior for the rest of us.
In Winger, Andrew Smith takes what would be the stock bad guy in a lot of teenage movies and turns him into the hero. Winger (aka Ryan Dean West) is, for lack of a better term, a natural womanizer who is in love/lust with just about every girl he sees. He does have one girl (Annie) he worships above the rest, but even when he begins dating her, he can’t stop seeing the girlfriend of his archenemy in secret. By expressing Ryan Dean’s angst/guilt/lust/love so well, Smith creates a sense of empathetic understanding for highly sexual boys where most stories take the easy way out and vilify them.
I originally picked this up because of my never-ending jealousy of visual artists. The illustrations alone make this book worth recommending. But Phoebe Gloeckner’s brilliance is far more reaching than that. Her writing is the closest thing I’ve ever read to Charles Bukowski, who I believe is one of the true masters of the written word. She blurs the line between what is fictional and what is autobiographical, but in the end the all-encompassing feeling of truth makes that line irrelevant. Gloeckner helps us explore the needful and destructive sides of sexuality from a teenager’s POV without ever burdening her work with adult moralizing. I’ll say it again: This book is brilliant.