Young adult books and sex: What we learned under the covers

Story highlights

For people of some generations, sex ed came from young adult literature

Books by Judy Blume and V.C. Andrews can still make grown women blush

A film based on Andrews' "Flowers in the Attic" debuts on Lifetime on Saturday

CNN  — 

When I was in seventh grade, my grandmother informed our extended family that I was a pervert. Mind you, I was as squeaky clean in thought and deed as you’d expect a badly permed, brace-faced, Catholic school spelling bee winner would be, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t curious about a few things.

I’d often give my bedroom over to visiting relatives, and this time, my grandmother had decided on a little light reading – in this case, my copy of Judy Blume’s “Then Again, Maybe I Won’t.” It might seem downright quaint in this age of instantly accessible porn and e-book readers, but an awful lot of ladies who came of age in the ’70s and ‘80s and into the ‘90s got a significant chunk of our sex education from young adult books.

More specifically, they were paperback books with cracked spines, decoy paper covers and pages dog-eared at the juicy bits. These weren’t even necessarily acts of depraved, wildebeestly humping and sexytime (V.C. Andrews novels aside) but rather some thoroughly non-judgmental plot points about the gross, weird, lusty wonder of puberty and adolescence.

In the pre-Amazon era, it was nearly impossible to just sidle into the local bookstore or library and nab one without fear of being branded a slut or a skank – labels that both intrigued and confused us, and which we hurled with ignorant abandon. We relied on someone’s cool aunt, older sister or slightly oblivious mom to get the goods and coordinated their circulation with military precision: “OK, Lisa gets ‘Deenie’ tonight, and she’ll hand off ‘Forever’ to Jenny B., who will give ‘Up in Seth’s Room’ to Jenny P.”

Woe was the girl who got caught flipping through the contraband in class, though. All blame and shame was on her, and it was understood that she’d have to get another copy into rotation. Because we were starving then, aching for information and affirmation that the feelings and odd body hairs were nothing out of the ordinary. Ordinary is all we wanted to be.

A brief history of young adult literature

Judy Blume’s Margaret Simon taught us the musts of bust expansion exercises and menstruation, while Deenie Fenner explored her “special place” during shower time. (Confession: It was years before I realized she was talking about masturbation, and I thought she had a ticklish spot in her underarm like I did.) Blume’s Tony Miglione (of the grandma-scandalizing “Then Again …”) had his first wet dreams and found increasingly baroque ways to hide his boners, and the much-banned virginity-busting “Forever” gave a generation of women a reason to giggle every time they met a man named Ralph.

Though Blume was the captain of the genre, plenty of other authors chummed the waters of teen girls’ curiosity about sex, often bumping up against boundaries of shame and fear. We were grateful to have those maps.

For me, that book that broke through was Bette Greene’s “Morning is a Long Time Coming,” the sequel to her classic “Summer of My German Soldier.” By eighth grade, I was roughly aware of the mechanics of the act, thanks to a bare-bones and thoroughly grudging syllabus laid out by my local Catholic diocese, teaching essentially: Don’t, and shame on you for even thinking about it without a wedding ring on your finger.

It was a relief and a revelation to see Greene’s protagonist, Patty Bergen, echo that struggle. She met a handsome young Frenchman, thought for a hot second about the preachers who’d made her feel like a filthy sinner all her untouched life and opted for pleasure over guilt. Though it would be some years until I came to that particular crossroads in my own life, having sex celebrated, rather than demonized, by an author I’d come to trust was tremendously freeing.

Washington-based writer Carol Blymire found a guidepost in “Go Ask Alice,” the “anonymous diary” of a drug-addicted runaway (later revealed to be the fictional work of novelist Beatrice Sparks), and veered from the course.

“I grew up in a family that didn’t talk about sex. Ever,” Blymire wrote in an e-mail. “Everything I learned about boys and sex, I learned from my older girl cousins, friends, friends’ moms, and books.”

One Sunday morning in sixth grade, Blymire swiped her older cousin’s copy of the book after hearing her go on and on about how cool it was.

“The drug stuff was way over my head. Didn’t bother me, didn’t scare me. The sex parts were totally intriguing, because she seemed so disconnected to it all. Having read ‘Forever’ around that same time, where it was all about Katherine and Michael’s love, the main character in ‘Go Ask Alice’ seemed a little more like me – weird, immature, not the kind of girl boys were interested in,” Blymire wrote.

“It made me think that sex was, at some point, something I was going to do – just to get it over with to see what it was like, and then decide if I was ever going to have it again or just be done with it. That it would be that easy to be disconnected from emotion.

“I’m glad I was wrong,” Blymire concluded.

The new names on the banned book list

And for all the care and caution of Blume, Greene and even “Anonymous,” there was the lurid, creepy abandon of V.C. Andrews’ 1979 “Flowers in the Attic.”

There’s no polite way to describe the plot, so I’ll just rip off the bandage. For various complicated reasons, four siblings (two older and two younger) are kept locked in an attic by their wealthy, sadistic grandmother, who slowly poisons them with arsenic-powdered doughnuts. The two eldest eventually do what a healthy, normal, well-adjusted brother and sister would never even dream of doing: they begin a sexual relationship.

Yes, it’s as disturbing as it sounds, an icky emulsion of lust, taboo, sexual violence and moral fervor. It’s also sold more than 40 million copies worldwide and spawned multiple sequels, a theatrical release and a made-for-television version that will air on the Lifetime network on Saturday. It was the single hottest ticket on the underground book swap when I was a freshman in high school.

We were not alone in this; many smart explorations have been made on the topic of “Flowers’” intense appeal to adolescent girls (though it was never strictly marketed to them). But if I had to venture a guess, I’d say it’s the one-two whammy of hormones and horror.

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    First, the overheated soap-opera plotting gave otherwise shy, book-loving girls an excuse to to talk to one another on a “literary” level (eventually getting down to the nitty gritty) and bond in a way they might never over “Call of the Wild.”

    Second, and perhaps even more significant, is the sharp relief into which it threw any real-life palpitations they might be experiencing. Made out with your lab partner under the bleachers or wondering if over-the-sweater is a base too far? At least you’re not sleeping with your brother.

    San Francisco-based author Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic found the descriptions of the couplings so disturbing, she admits it might have caused her to hang on to her virginity than she might have otherwise.

    The phrase from the novel that Lucianovic said was “quite the bucket of cold water on my teenage ardor” is (ahem): “It drove into my tight resisting flesh, which tore and bled.”

    In a written exchange, she admitted to some confusion, saying she “initially thought (for some reason) that it was her thigh flesh that tore and bled … but then I realized what it really meant. Either way, it made sex seem scary and painful and while I knew I wasn’t going to get raped by a brother while living in an attic surrounded by tempting arsenic-laced doughnuts, I carried with me the belief that sex (when it happened) was bound to be painful.”

    Painful or not, because of these battered, dog-eared, passed-around volumes, none of us had to go through the mess of adolescence solo. We had Margaret, Deenie, Patty, Tony, Anonymous and even ol’ Ralph alongside us to make us feel a little more normal in a hormone-frenzied world.

    And I find these days, reminiscing with women my age, that I have an urge to reunite with these fictional friends again. Maybe I will.

    Which YA books were you reading while nobody was looking? Share your memories in the comments, on Facebook or on Twitter @CNNLiving!