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Talking Sex with Tanya

Let’s pay the toll for my dear friend and author, Tanya Lee Stone.



We can’t do anything until we talk about the title of your novel:  A Bad Boy Can Be Good For a Girl.  There has got to be a story behind that title!


There is, actually! The truth is, the thought of writing a novel had never entered my mind until that title came to me. I was listening to Michael Cart talk about the now-defunct journal Rush Hour. One theme was good girls. Another was bad boys. I took out my notebook and wrote: A bad boy can be good for a girl! Apologies to Mr. Cart, but I didn't hear the rest of the lecture. I was consumed by what the words I had just written meant to me, and Josie--the first girl in the book--was already tapping on my brain.


Juno has made consensual sex among young adults mainstream, but in fiction, it’s been in the news for years.  In Bad Boy, sex is more than part of the story.  Sex is really a character.  It’s the core of the novel.  Why is sex novel worthy? 


You're dead-on. Sex is a character in this book. I didn't want to mention it in passing or include a scene or two--I wanted the whole book to be about the choices girls make when it comes to sex. The boy represents sex; it's all he's about, really. He's not a monster or a rapist, though, he's simply an oversexed jerk with one thing on his mind. He stays the same so we can see how three totally different kinds of girls play off of him, so to speak.



Your novel is also told from the points of view of three different young women.  I loved seeing the Bad Boy with each of these girls.  It really illuminated the different emotional responses to sex.  Talk to me about these girls.  Do they represent different kinds of girls in our society? 


I love how the flow of one question leads to the next! I wouldn't say they represent particular types of girls, because I didn't create them that way, and there are infinite types of us out there, but I did want to look at how girls people might not view as particularly vulnerable to this type of guy still can be. That's the particular genius of the bad boy at that age--he's targeting girls who are not yet women, who do not yet know themselves well enough not to be taken in by his wiley ways. But yeah, let's talk about these girls! Although Josie is the youngest, she's the most level-headed. Nicolette doesn't know she's a bit confused about her sexual power, and Aviva is my hippie chick. I think if I were to put myself in the shoes of any of their mothers, I would be most obviously concerned about Nicolette. And of course Nicolette is the one who is the most sure she can't be hurt. I worry most about the Nicolette's out there and wish I could protect them all.


What have your readers said? 


Well, a lot of different things, depending upon who they most identify with, and what they've already been through. I was not prepared for the reader feedback, but it's overwhelming. Girls write to me in all kinds of different situations. They say the book helped them avoid a crisis, or they wish they had read it before they were blindsided, or they gave it to a best friend who needs to wake up. That kind of thing. I think when readers feel as though someone has been straight up with them and said, hey, listen up, this is what can happen if you're not paying attention, it's appreciated. Of course, there are others who wish I hadn't written it at all.


Have you received any challenges?  How have you dealt with them?


The most recent challenge was in Missouri and I must say that the system handled it beautifully. A committee was formed, everyone READ the book (how many challenges have you heard of where the challengee does not even bother to read the book?), they discussed it and decided that there was "too much good discussion to be gained" and that they were unwilling to take it off the shelves. Huzzah!! They also told me they would be discussing making it part of the 9th grade Health class. I personally think that's a fantastic idea, and would like to think my feeling on the matter would be the same even if it were someone else's book. 


It's so important to open the lines of communication. Talking is everything. I love one of my amazon customer comments from a Mom who said she has boys and she's planning on leaving it out on the coffee table to get the discussion started! 


Let’s also talk about finding the right book at the right time.  What do you say to people who fear this topic will find its way into the hands of girls not ready to read about sex?  How can parents use this book to discuss sex with their sons and daughters?


I think many of us in this field believe that kids are the best self censors. They don't generally read books they're not ready for. They open them and put them back on the shelves if it's not up their alley. Also, I was extremely careful about my language. There are scenes in which a girl who has not experienced what I'm talking about might miss some of the action, so to speak. That's intentional. The girl who needs to get it, will. And in terms of parents, or any adults trying to broach this subject--the great thing about fiction is that you can hand a book to a reader (or leave it lying around) and let them safely put themselves in someone else's shoes sans risk. They can play things out in their mind without actually having to do anything. Or, if they have already experienced the issue in question, they can reflect on it in a new way, through someone else's eyes.


I noticed that Tami Brown asked me some questions on your blog yesterday, so I thought I'd answer them right off the bat. If anyone else has other questions, fire away!


Tami said: As you wrote BAD BOY (as opposed to revising with your editor) did you consider your audience and their sensibilities or did you just write what you felt and deal with issues of "appropriateness" later?


That second thing you said. I did not think about audience at all when I was writing. For the record, I DO think it mattered that I had never done this before. I was a novel virgin. ;-p  Seriously, though, it might have been harder for me if I wasn't in that ignorance-is-bliss state.

Tami said: Do you believe these days there are any sexual boundaries that can't or shouldn't be crossed in books aimed at teen readers? Is it different for light "pop fiction" as opposed to more serious literary work? When does sex serve the plot and when does it become gratuitous?


Hey girl, I think that's more than one question! I'm not a big fan of literary boundaries, but I suppose there might be some. I guess it depends on how alternative one's imagination might be! I think my own basic rule of thumb is that if it is something that reflects the reality of teenage life, it's appropriate. And in terms of being gratuitous, my hunch is that every writer knows when they're being gratuitous. I personally don't put anything in for shock value. It all serves the plot. I cut a few things that, for me, crossed my own comfort line in terms of audience. In those cases, it wasn't because they were gratuitous, it was more because I forced myself to be a 14 year old and wondered: if I already know this, does it serve the plot/character AND do I not know this and would I like to keep it that way!

How much did writing about sex force you to become a free speech and/or sex ed advocate as opposed to just a YA writer?


Interesting question. Again, this was not something I set out to do. I didn't wake up one day and decide to write about sex. It snuck up on me and evolved very organically. Once I had done it, though, I felt very strongly about having the right to do so, and about defending other people's rights as well. Especially after the continual feedback from readers who crave honest input from sources they can relate to.


Like many writers, Tanya Lee Stone has been making up stories since she was a kid. Her writing improved as she studied English at Oberlin College. After graduation she moved to New York to be an editor and earned a Masters Degree in Education.

After 13 years as an editor, Tanya moved to Vermont and returned to writing. This award-winning author has written more than 80 books for young readers. Her most recent titles are a young adult novel, A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl (Wendy Lamb/Random House, 2006) and Amelia Earhart (DK, 2007). Forthcoming titles include Up Close: Ella Fitzgerald, picture books Elizabeth Leads the Way and Sandy's Circus, and Almost Astronauts: The True Story of the Mercury 13.

Got more questions for Tanya??????

Send them in.  We will post more answers on THURSDAY!


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 4th, 2008 10:43 pm (UTC)
Questions for Tanya
Hi there! I'm really excited you're having this discussion, not only because it's an important issue, but because I'm giving my Vermont College graduating lecture next July and my topic is Writing YA Sex Scenes. Now all I have to do is repeat what you've said here! (Okay - just kidding about that. Not about the lecture topic, though.)

I do have a couple of questions for Tanya. But I should begin by saying how much I love "A Bad Boy..." -- I wish it had been around when I was young. Anyway, first question -- regarding boundaries, you say: "my own basic rule of thumb is that if it is something that reflects the reality of teenage life, it's appropriate." I'm wondering if you think we, as writers, need to try to be tuned into what teens TODAY are doing, sexually. It seems to me that there's a lot of talk about trends - such as the recent increase in casual oral sex among pretty young teens. Do you feel that books should try to reflect things such as this?

Second, during a conversation we had in our VC forum about this topic, some of the male students expressed their difficulty writing YA sex scenes, because of their fear that it will seem "pervy" to eventual readers that they sat at a desk envisioning a naked teen girl (for example). Have you ever talked to a male YA writer who shared this concern? And, in general, do you have any thoughts about how writers can free themselves up from the anxiety that comes with envisioning people reading your sex scenes and thinking, "Oh my gosh! I can't believe she wrote that!"

Thanks for your thoughts!

(a fellow Oberlin grad)
Mar. 5th, 2008 12:33 pm (UTC)
Re: Questions for Tanya
Hi Marianna--an Obie-dobe! Heading there this May for my (gulp) 20th reunion! Brave topic for your lecture. On to your questions:

I think trends are fleeting. It's tempting to jump on them, but the truth is, there are few people who can act on them quickly enough for it to matter. Take the whole "friends with benefits" thing. Whether or not that attitude is still pervasive, I think the media impact of the term came and went fairly fast. I think one of the reasons I still get a steady stream of reader mail is that the themes in Bad Boy are pretty universal, which is what I tell teens who want to know--more politely than I'm about to say it--how a woman as old as I am could know so much about what's going on in their lives! The answer is simple--we've (nearly) all been vulnerable, had someone treat us badly, and rally in some way to be bettered by the experience. Love can hurt. Especially first love. Sex can be scary. Especially first sex. Nothing trendy about that.

For your second question: I understand how/why some of the male students might worry about being judged. But if a sex scene is honestly and carefully done, it should turn out fine in the end. Avoiding gratuity is extremely important. This is not the venue for bodice-ripping or random titillation, if you ask me. It needs to be done with sensitivity, putting yourself a bit in the shoes of a much younger person; seeing it through the eyes of someone without much experience. No shock factor. Only what the story and the characters need.

As to freeing up the anxiety when it comes to people reading your sex scenes? Good luck!! Personally, I put the blinders on until pub day and then let myself freak out a little bit anyway. As in, "oh my god, my FATHER is going to read this!!"
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )