February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month, which is an opportunity for libraries to highlight resources that can help teens identify the warning signs of problematic relationships and to see what healthy relationships can look like. These books can start conversations and perhaps even make a difference in the lives of teens.
Dating Violence, Rape, and Sexual Assault in Young Adult Literature
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (2000 Printz Honor Book)
This novel is a classic for a reason. Melinda, a freshman in high school, is a social outcast because of an incident that happened over the summer, and she doesn’t speak to anyone. Though fifteen years old, the story doesn’t at all feel dated, and many teens can relate to Melinda’s struggles with fitting in and finding her voice. With unflinching honesty, Anderson writes about the aftermath of rape.
All the Rage by Courtney Summers
Remy was a popular girl, until a boy she had a crush on—who happened to be the son of the Sheriff—raped her. When she accuses him, she’s relentlessly bullied, even more so because she doesn’t conform to what people expect of victims. This book is an indictment of rape culture.
Lily and Taylor by Elise Moser
There is a lot of truth in this novel that will make many readers uneasy and uncomfortable. Taylor has internalized abuse so deeply that she thinks she deserves it. Lily has become a keen observer of people so that she may anticipated and attempt to diffuse abusive situations. When they’re forced to go to a cabin with Taylor’s boyfriend and another boy who owes him a favor, they go into survival mode. This book pulls back the curtain on ways of living some would rather not have to see. The characters are living in poverty, on the margins, without a social safety net, but Moser has done a great job of depicting two reactions to a lifetime of abuse and how the cycle continues from generation to generation. Harrowing, but an excellent treatment of the topic.
Fault Line by Christa Desir
In this novel, Ben’s girlfriend attends a party without him — and she’s raped by multiple boys. There are lots of young adult novels that deal with the aftermaths of sexual assault from a survivor’s point of view, and many of them are excellent. Desir takes a different approach with Fault Line and tells the story from Ben’s first person perspective. Not only is his voice compelling and authentic, Desir’s portrayal of the pain and frustration of not knowing how to help someone you love work through their trauma and the guilt of believing you could have prevented it are heart-wrenching. While the writing makes for a quick read, the book raises questions that require thoughtful contemplation and could serve as the basis of discussion of slut shaming, rape culture, bullying, victim blaming, and other important issues. Desir’s expertise shows in her nuanced and realistic portrayal of rape and its aftermath.
Bitter End by Jennifer Brown (2012 Best Fiction for Young Adults)
Many of these novels depict the aftermath of dating violence or sexual assault, but this novel shows how a new relationship can seem so romantic at first, but escalate through the cycle of violence as the abuser becomes increasingly jealous, emotionally manipulative, and physically violent. Jennifer Brown is a popular author with fans of realistic YA and this novel is a solid choice for a discussion on dating violence and healthy relationships.
Inexcusable by Chris Lynch (2015 Popular Paperbacks)
This novel takes a unique approach, and is told from the assailant’s point of view. Keir’s a good guy, and he loves his girlfriend — he would never do anything to hurt her, right? This short book will appeal to reluctant readers and is a great starting off point for a discussion about consent.
Pointe by Brandy Colbert
Theo, an elite ballet dancer, copes with memories that resurface when her best friend, who was abducted years ago, returns. The story also explores issues of rape, consent, and healthy relationships. Theo’s voice is very authentic, and the novel tackles a myriad of issues without being didactic and is great fodder for discussion.
Breaking Beautiful by Jennifer Shaw Wolf
This novel blends a mystery into a story of teen dating violence. Allie survived a car accident that killed her boyfriend, Tripp. She doesn’t remember much about the crash, but isn’t all that sad about the death of her controlling, abusive boyfriend. When she’s finally able to piece together what happen, she’s surprised at the truth of what happened that night.
This epic fantasy is about a curse that has displaced half the people of Lumatere and left them without a homeland, while some are trapped inside the country, and Finnikin’s quest to find a way to break that curse and reunite his people with the help of a young novice, Evajalin. Although not a main plot point, a secondary character, Froi, attempts to assault Evajalin in one important scene that is crucial to his character arc. Froi’s story is the center of the two subsequent novels in the series, and his journey of redemption is compelling, The entire trilogy deals with issues of consent in important yet understated ways. While the setting may be fantastical, the concepts and conflicts are universal, with many parallels in real-life relationships and global conflicts.
Sex & Violence by Carrie Mesrobian (2014 Morris Award Honor Book)
Ethan likes sex, and he seeks out willing partners that don’t require emotional investment. When he hooks up with the wrong girl, he’s severely beaten by other young men. He spends his recovery at his family lake house to recover and spend time with his distant father, he meets a girl very different from his previous conquests, and begins to untangle the relationship between sex and violence. This novel is a very nuanced, character-driven study of teen sexuality. While not explicitly about dating violence, sexual assault, or rape, it serves as the foundation for lots of conversations about healthy relationships.
Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston
This forthcoming release is the story of Hermione, who is drugged and rape at an end of summer party at cheerleading camp. She can’t identify her attacker and goes through the painful medical and legal process to attempt to discover who it was, all the while questioning whether it was her boyfriend — who had been pressuring her to have sex — or another of her teammates. What separates this novel from others is that Hermione has supportive parents, a best friend, a therapist, and sensitive police and medical professionals. The way Hermione handles the situation, the response from others, and her relationship with her boyfriend and teammates would make great fodder for discussions on healthy relationships and consent.
Healthy Relationships in Young Adult Literature
As useful as it is to discuss books that contain depictions of teen dating violence, equally important are books that depict healthy teen relationships. These novels have positive examples of consent and teen couples who communicate with each other and respect one another.
I’ll Meet You There by Heather Demetrios
Skylar has grown up poor, but her artistic ability and hard work have won her a scholarship to art school in San Francisco, if she can just survive the summer in her small town. But when her single mom loses her job and falls apart, and Josh, a former co-worker and crush, comes back from Afghanistan missing a leg, she struggles with leaving everyone behind. When her and Josh do decide to have sex, they talk not only about the physical aspects, but also the emotional entanglements before taking their relationship to that level.
My Life Next Door by Huntley Fitzpatrick
Samantha and Jase have to keep their relationship a secret, since Samantha’s mother disapproves of Jase and his family, but with each other, they are very open and communicative about when they are ready to become physically involved.
Where the Stars Still Shine by Trish Doller
When Callie returns to her childhood home after years on the run with her mother, she struggles to navigate the unfamiliar terrain of loving, supporting family. After years of interactions with boys that make her feel empty and used, she doesn’t know what to made of a boy who makes her feel cherished and wants to give her pleasure, especially when her family would disapprove of the match. While her relationship with Alex isn’t a silver bullet to solve all of her issues, it does help her learn to trust people.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post by emily m. danforth (2013 Morris Award Honor Book)
When she first becomes friend with beautiful blonde cowgirl Coley, Cameron knows she’s gay. As she realizes she has romantic feelings for her, she pursues her cautiously, since Coley has a boyfriend. When they do become intimate, Cameron makes sure that Coley wants it every step of the way.
We’ll also share nonfiction resources on this topic, and at YALSAblog, there’s a post on ideas to partner with other community organizations to provide programs on teen dating violence prevention, consent, and healthy relationships for and with teens.
— Molly Wetta, currently reading More Happy than Not by Adam Silvera for The Hub’s Reading Challenge