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That Was Then, This Is Now: Up in Seth’s Room by Norma Fox Mazer

When I first thought about starting this blog series, Up in Seth’s Room (c. 1979)  is the book I primarily had in mind. It’s an interesting book for me to re-read for a couple of reasons. First, I really loved it, read it many times, and can remember many, many details about it. I haven’t read it in a long time and am absolutely convinced I will still love it and that the story will totally hold up for today’s teens. The other reason this is an interesting book for me is that it brings up issues of sexuality in books and reading the right book at the right time.

The gist of the story is that a young teenage girl and an older teenage boy are attracted to each other. He is 19 and she is only 14 or 15. Seth lives by himself (or with his brother? definitely not with parents), which right there is a big deal. When the girl (whose name I don’t even remember! Laura?) spends time with him, they have many opportunities to “go all the way.” Her parents are really upset about this and don’t want her to date him. She feels that she can handle herself, but when she is with him and for the very first time discovering sexual feelings, she realizes that stopping may be difficult.

I read this book one summer when my older cousin had it and lent it to me. I read a lot and happily took it and read it. I was 10 or 11. And, as it turns out, totally not ready to read a book like that. It was the first time I had ever heard or read the phrase “to come” and had no idea what it meant. I asked my cousin and she told me to ask my mom, so I did. That’s probably a pretty safe way to learn about sexual experiences, and happily my mom was very frank and open and did her best to answer my questions. I can also vividly remember a scene in which Seth puts his hands down his girlfriend’s pants. I was pretty shocked by that, and now, at 40, I can still see the scene in my head. I mean, clearly it’s not that shocking (it was not described in any greater detail than the words I just used), but definitely images and phrases from the story made such an impact on me that I’ve never forgotten them.

I wonder, how I would feel about the book had I read it when I understood a little bit more about boys and girls and sex? This book was essentially my first experience with sex beyond the basic facts of reproduction and, as such, was completely eye-opening and personally significant. A very good example of the right book at the right time — not just how well a kid reads! It was not the right time for me! Now, before I delve into my tattered and aged copy, a couple of other notes: the cover is completely groovy and I thought perfectly conveyed the story. Also, her dad is a long distance truck driver, a detail that was so exotic to me that I loved every sentence given over to her dad. And here I go…

Well, I still really liked it. It had a lot more emotion to it than I had remembered, and all the racy sex scenes burned into my mind were actually … very few. I had basically remembered all of them and there just weren’t that many. One big thing that I had forgotten was that Finn’s (the main character) sister, Maggie, was practically disowned by their parents for living with her boyfriend when they were not married. The parents refused to talk to her or visit her as long as she was “living in sin.” Seth is Maggie’s boyfriend’s brother and that is another strike against him. Finn’s mother reasons that Seth will assume Finn is as loose as Maggie is. This was a huge part of the story and something that did stand out to me as dating the book (which was published in 1979. I’m sure there are still people who object to a couple living together before marriage, but it’s hard to see that as being a big issue.

There definitely was some dated language as well as details: Finn refers to herself as “a nit” after doing something foolish, Seth is wearing a denim shirt with a sun embroidered on the back, Finn wears a long velvet skirt and a buttoned up blouse to a teenage New Year’s Eve party, and so on. One thing that really stood out to me was when, during an argument about Seth, Finn’s father slaps her across the face. She’s angry and embarrassed and he’s upset about it too, but that does not become a big issue. I feel like in a book written today that would be a pretty big deal. Ditto Finn coming home from a party and giggling and her dad saying, “You smell like a party,” and her saying the punch was spiked. And they giggle about it and that’s it.

I had remembered fairly accurately the basic outline of the story: Finn meets Seth, they hit it off, her parents forbid her to see him, she does anyway, she doesn’t want to have sex yet, and she tells her parents the truth. What didn’t I remember? The end! I literally had no idea how the book ended. And without giving anything away I can say that it just ends fairly abruptly. In this book it’s all about Finn’s conflict of child/teenager, disagreeing with her parents, falling in love for the first time, and trying to stick to her choice to not have sex. I thought Finn’s emotions were very realistic and passionate and I thought her feelings about sex and love were ones that would ring true with many teens, regardless of what year it is. It was romantic and realistic.

If you can dig up a copy of this by all means go ahead and read it, but for some more recent titles, check out the 2008 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults list “Sex is…” Beyond that list, I’ll be honest: I can’t think of too many titles that are contemporary and have a similar vibe — not questioning sexual identity, just focused on falling in love and how far to take it. So tell me, what would you recommend? Please share your titles in the comments!

— Sarah Debraski, currently reading The Age of Miracles by Karen Walker

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Sarah Debraski

2 Comments

  1. Emily Calkins Emily Calkins

    I read and re-read The Queen of What-ifs by Norma Klein many times and although I haven’t read it in years, I think it had a similar vibe. I’d love to track it down for a re-read!

    • Emily, I adored all the Norma Klein books! I had many of the paperbacks (and still do) and read them many times.

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