Love & Sex in YA Lit: THE GOOD

Our friends, Em & Nora (who we like to call “Em & No”), recently launched a site for grown-ups about young adult literature called LoveYALit.com*, since (according to the New York Times) more and more people 18-and-over are enjoying books originally intended for the 18-and-under set. Of course, books about teens, the most hormonal among us, often deal with issues of first romantic relationships and sexual awakenings — and reading them as adults can emotionally transport us back to our own teenage years, when those things were really new and exciting, dramatic and traumatic. So we asked Em & Nora to give us a sampling of the good, the bad and the complicated of YA love and sex. First, the good (then tune in over the next two Thursdays for the bad and the complicated):


Proponents of abstinence-only education may not approve, but there are several literary examples of young adults having empowering, exciting, safe sex as well as healthy, loving relationships with their bodies and their partners.

  1. Forever… by Judy Blume (1975) — The Blume classic of a girl who discovers her sexuality and — get this — finds it pleasurable! Afterwards, there are no disturbing or negative consequences; she’s not punished in any way. She simply comes to the mature realization that high school relationships aren’t forever.  Amazingly (and unfortunately), there is nothing else like this in YA lit.
  2. Graceling by Kristin Cashore (2008) — Fantasy isn’t just about unicorns and fairies. In this feminist story, our protagonist Katsa kicks butt and takes names. Though she and love interest Po live in a patriarchal society, their relationship is on equal terms, with an understanding that Katsa does not intend to marry and Po will never ask that of her. Katsa even uses “seabane,” an herbal birth control that allows her to seek pleasure and connection with Po without the fear of motherhood (something she’s sure she’s not ready for now, if ever). Check out our full review of Graceling on LoveYALit.
  3. How Beautiful The Ordinary: Twelve Stories of Identity edited by Michael Cart (2009) — In this collection, the short story called “First Time” by Julie Anne Peters takes us inside the minds of two young women as they navigate their first time going all the way — with anyone — together. With an equal balance of sweet romance and consensual pleasure, this story offers some genuine lesbian love, that isn’t at all about titillation for men.
  4. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie (2007) — Arnold Spirit, a.k.a. Junior, masturbates without apology.  If you judge him for writing about it, well, it’s his diary, so why are you reading it anyway (aside from the fact that it is one of the best YA books ever written)? As he declares, “EVERYBODY does it and EVERYBODY likes it,” so lighten up!  Also, books give him both metaphorical and literal boners, which is a pretty solid (no pun intended) sales pitch for reading. This book is incredibly sex positive without being at all graphic.  Check out our full review of Part-Time Indian on LoveYALit.
  5. Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler (2009) — Frankie and Anna set off to have an awesome summer during which they will attempt to meet twenty boys in the hopes that one of these guys will help Anna lose her virginity. The trouble is that both girls are dealing with the loss of Frankie’s brother, who was also Anna’s first (and secret) love.  But, without having to get to twenty, Anna does eventually meet one super sweet boy who she has a fun summer romance with. It’s a little weird that the young women in this story refer to Anna finally having sex as “losing Anna’s Albatross,” but whatevs. At least she uses condoms and doesn’t get loads of sand in awkward, uncomfortable places in the process. Check out our full review of Twenty Boy Summer on LoveYALit.

*As adults writing about sexuality in YA, Em & Nora of LoveYALit.com want to make it clear that they believe if a young adult does have sex, it should be safe, sober and consensual with another young adult.

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  1. I have been hearing so many great reviews of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms recently and yours just really sold it! Thanks! Will be moving that one up my to read list.

  2. Another good one as far as fantasy goes is The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by N. K. Jemison, where not only does our teenage heroine enjoy sex without commitment, we have homosexual relationships that aren’t scorned, and, for once, racial diversity in a fantasy novel. It’s rather remarkable.

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