The lovely Sara Zarr agreed to be interviewed by Lexi and I for this special month. Here are her thoughts.
What is the most important thing teens can learn regarding sexuality from novels?
Honestly, I don't think of novels as teaching tools, but one of the best things fiction can do for anyone is let them know they aren't alone. And reading about a character's feelings and experiences, if they're similar to yours, can help you identify and articulate complex emotions and then maybe provide a springboard for talking about those things with friends, parents, whoever.
Should sex education be mandatory?
In an ideal world, parents would be willing and able and equipped to talk to their teens about sex---the mechanics, the biology, and the emotional and spiritual stuff, too. But, we don't live in an ideal world, and there has to be a way to get at least the basic information to everyone. School is the easiest forum for making that happen efficiently. I do understand parents' reluctance to see their kids grow up, and concern over how sex ed curriculum is designed and communicated, but fear of information never leads anywhere good. All you have to do is look at the AIDS epidemic in Africa to see what happens when social and cultural taboos perpetuate misinformation (or no information).
How could someone work to remove the label of “slut”? Does your novel show this?
I have no idea! Whenever I write a book, I'm just trying to tell that one story, and I never know if/how that's going to apply or resonate to any other specific person. The thing about labels is that they almost always start from the outside. Someone outside of yourself labels you as slut, brain, dork, ugly, pretty, bitch, good girl, whatever. Just as we really can't control the labels other people give us, we can't control undoing that label, either. The hard part is when we internalize the labels, and believe them, and then start acting in self-destructive ways because of them. Like, "Everyone already thinks I'm a slut and no matter what I do they won't change their minds, so I might as well sleep around...at least it gives me an identity."
I think the key is really KNOWING your own identity, regardless of what other people say, and also having compassion for yourself when you make mistakes. That's hard. It's basically a lifelong project. I think the hope for Deanna in Story of a Girl is that even though she only has a couple of friends, she's chosen them wisely. She doesn't hang around people who put her down or reinforce a negative identity, and those relationships help her get through a hard time.
At what point is a book to smutty to be considered teen?
That's a question that readers, teachers, librarians, parents, publishers, and marketers have been trying to answer for years, and I certainly don't have any new insights. For me, whether it's a teen book or an adult book or a movie or whatever, it's all about context. Is the sex there just to turn people on and get notoriety? Or does it have an important purpose in the story? For me, whatever the smut factor is, or the language, or anything, it has to earn its right to be there by mattering for the story and characters.
Any last thoughts?
These are merely the opinions of a lowly writer who spends most of her time in a fantasy world, so take it all with a grain of salt!
Thanks for these wonderful answers Sara! Now I have a question for my readers... Where do you think the line should be drawn for books that are targeted at teens?