The Books That Taught Us About Sex

At some point in my early tweenhood, my mom ushered me into a room, just the two of us, away from my dad and younger brother, and presented me with a book.

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Y.A. for Grownups is a weekly series in which we talk about Y.A. literature—from the now nostalgia-infused stories we devoured as kids to more contemporary tomes being read by young people today.

At some point in my early tweenhood, my mom ushered me into a room, just the two of us, away from my dad and younger brother, and presented me with a book. At that time I was devouring biographies about real women—Clara Barton, Sacajawea, Harriet Beecher Stowe—as well as stories with fictionalized young female protagonists I could relate to but also aspire to become more like, and I looked at the gift eagerly as a new addition in my growing (still growing!) collection of books.

It was not what I expected, however. I think my mom's words as she handed the thick paperback to me were something along the lines of, "Things are changing. You should read this." (She's never been particularly voluble about this sort of thing, a trait that may have been handed down; I still tend to leave the room during movies featuring sex scenes if I happen to be viewing them with my parents.) Her lack of words was fine, though, even preferred, because the book said plenty on its own. It was called The What's Happening to My Body? Book for Girls, by a woman named Lynda Madaras; the edition I received looked like the one below at right, the long-skirted mother clutching her young daughter's face in her hands, though that was not something that happened in my experience. My family leaned toward jeans, and celebrated with pats on the back, passed books, and utterances of "Oh geez" instead of thowing cupcake parties to usher in puberty.

I read the book. Things were, indeed, changing. Holy crap, they were: This was a revelation! (As were the diagrams, wow.) I read the whole thing through more than once, occasionally talking through topics with friends, girls also on the verge of puberty. Ranging in scope from masturbation to menstruation to breasts to detailed explorations of female anatomy to what's happening with boys to sex and "making babies" and even zits, this book explained so much that no one had told me, stuff that no one was talking about in school, or even out of it, beyond the occasional article in Sassy. Today's parents may insist on having The Talk, but this book did it for me with fewer cringes than any direct parent-to-kid conversation would have been (as Madaras writes in her intro for parents, "It may work better in your particular situation for you to give the book to your daughter to read on her own"). Thanks, Mom.

But this was not the only book that paved the path into womanhood for me and thousands—more than 200,000 copies sold, says the title at right; a 2000 Amazon book description says it's more than 500,000—of other girls. An important role of Y.A. books, as author and former YALSA President Michael Cart wrote, is to show young people who they are, as reflected on their pages. It's also to show them who they're growing up to be. Thus, Y.A. themes tend to focus on the biggies; this is just one reason they resonate. They taught us how to think about death, divorce, bullying, risky behavior, friendships, abuse. And they also taught us about sex, from the scary to the enlightening.

Y.A. is not just fiction, keep in mind. The category also includes nonfiction, and as such, Lynda Madaras' book is a key tome in that arena. But there are others. In the canon for 12-year-old me, there were these, books that still resonate with the now-thirtysomething.

Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. Judy Blume's quintessential growing-up novel, from which we learned about practice kissing, about being "flat" vs. being "small-boned," about wearing bras, increasing our busts, liking boys, and, obviously, about getting our periods. The bra-shopping scene is something any girl (and woman) can relate to in all of its forever awkwardness, intimacy, and horror:

"Now dear [says the saleslady]—I suggest the Gro-Bra. It grows with you. You're not quite ready for a double A. Suppose you try them on and see which is most comfortable." She led us to a dressing room with a pink door that locked. My mother sat in the dressing room on a chair. I took off my dress. I wasn't wearing anything underneath but pants. I picked up the first bra and stuck my arms into the straps. I couldn't fasten it in the back. My mother had to help me. She adjusted the straps and felt the front of me, "How does it feel?" she asked.

"I don't know," I said. "Is it too tight?" "No." "Too loose?" "No." "Do you like it?" "I guess..." "Try on this one." 

She got me out of the first bra and into the next one. I wondered how I'd ever learn to do it by myself. Maybe my mother would have to dress me every day.

The Clan of the Cave Bear. Not technically Y.A., librarians would look at me askance when I checked this out, but my mom let me read it anyway. Jean M. Auel's book, the first in a series, tells the story of Ayla, an orphaned Cro-Magnon girl found in a state near death and adopted by the Neanderthal people of the Clan even though she, blonde and blue-eyed, looks nothing like them and is considered weird and even ugly. The story is historic and epic in scope, but also deals with sex (and more so throughout the series). In book one, Ayla is raped and impregnated by a character named Broud; later in the series, she falls in love with another character and experiences sex in a positive way, but, as Lizzie Skurnick writes in her analysis of teen classics, Shelf Discovery, there's more than just "sex" in these books, even if that's why we read them the first time: "On a fundamental level, it's about sex not for sex's sake but for how it interacts with our lives—how Ayla suffers to keep the baby that results from Broud's raping her and her status as hunter and medicine woman, and how, in the next few novels, she strives to find a partner not only of her own kind, but of her own kind—an equal partner that appreciates Ayla the species and Ayla the woman."

Flowers in the Attic. As with Clan, this series by V.C. Andrews was pretty adult, actually, as it dealt with incest and death, among other things. But it was engrossing. And dark; very, very dark. Chris and Cathy Dollanganger and their twin younger siblings are confined to an attic by a wealthy grandmother who considers them the spawn of the devil since they're incest children (mom married her half-uncle) themselves, to be hid from grandfather at all costs and abused in a variety of ways. So confined, Chris and Cathy fall in love, destined to continue the cycle...This, of course, is merely the first in a series, but it gave us plenty to consider—passion, sickness, love, incest, rape, desire—beyond the nonfiction fodder of the What's Happening to My Body? Book for Girls.

Go Ask AliceThis delved into the "dark" side of sex (as related to drugs and acquiring more drugs). Written in a diary form anonymously, the book chronicles the descent of our character—supposedly a real girl—into addiction, exploitation, homelessness, the world of teen runaways and hippies, drugs and more drugs...and her futile attempts to get back on the straight and narrow again. Part relatable teen fiction (especially the struggles with her parents) and maybe 95 percent cautionary slippery slope tale, this book showed us the dangers of going beyond our limits. If Flowers in the Attic was a "this will never happen to you" fantasy of the imagination, Go Ask Alice was a "this could happen to you, if you're not careful."

My Darling, My Hamburger. Here's another one about coupling and the dangers, and consequences, of having sex as teens. Published in 1969, Paul Zindel's book deals with two best friends, Liz and Maggie, who double date with two boys, Sean and Dennis, slowly (or more quickly in the case of the "madly in love" Liz and Sean) venturing down the path toward sexual activity. The title of the book alludes to an adult's advice of suggesting a hamburger to a boy who tries to "go all the way;" advice which Maggie takes. By the book's end, there's been a near rape, a pregnancy, a proposal, the breaking of that proposal, a missed prom, and an abortion. Liz, who's had sex and gotten a botched abortion, ends up not graduating with the rest of the class, her life forever altered and her regrets, presumably, to be dealt with for her adult life. "Some choices stay with you forever," reads the tagline on the front cover.

Forever. Another Judy Blume must-read, this one dealt not with puberty, like Are You There God?, but about the decision to have sex itself. Blume writes on her website that she wrote the book, first published in 1975, when her daughter requested a story about "two nice kids who have sex without either of them having to die" (the apparent prior norm if not death, see above, had involved at least a ruined life or two in fiction that dealt with teens having sex). Of those dire tales, though not Zindel's specifically, Blume writes, "Girls in these books had no sexual feelings and boys had no feelings other than sexual. Neither took responsibility for their actions. I wanted to present another kind of story—one in which two seniors in high school fall in love, decide together to have sex, and act responsibly." Forever tells the story of Katherine and Michael, who fall in love and have sex, intending it to be an act that seals a "forever" love. As these things go, it doesn't, but that doesn't mean it all ends in tragedy. How healthy and refreshing for teens as well as adults!

There are plenty of more recent books for teens that relate to sex in some way, including the Gossip Girl series, Stephen Chbosky's great The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series, which focuses on abstinence until marriage—and then lots of sex, and pregnancy, with the requisite vampire twist in the last novel in the quintet, Breaking Dawn. There's Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson, which deals with the topic of rape, and Sandpiper by Ellen Wittlinger, which discusses oral sex and slut-shaming. There are books with evocative sex scenes. Y.A. has also expanded to include offerings beyond the typical heterosexual teen story as well, with, for example, "The Letter Q: Queer Writers' Notes to Their Younger Selves," a nonfiction book from Scholastic. Where once there may have been a handful of great books for young adults growing up and figuring out what in the world was going on with their bodies, and each others', now there are likely hundreds, maybe more, and in many more varieties that those of us reading Blume and V.C. Andrews had to choose from. Sometimes these books are banned, and sometimes they're celebrated. (Most often, it's a little of both.) But either way, it's a certainty that they'll keep being written, and keep being read. It's difficult to imagine what I would have done without them.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.