A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that September Girls takes us inside the mind of a 17-year-old boy anxious to lose his virginity. Issues surrounding sexuality are pervasive and very frank, and there's a fantasy element. There's frequent teen drinking and smoking. Marijuana comes up three or four times in a matter-of-fact way. Strong swear words like "f--k" and "s--t" are used too often to count, and slangy and sometimes derogatory terms are often used for body parts. There aren't a lot of great role models here, but Sam is a thoughtful young man whose attitudes mature over the course of a summer at the beach. Young women are depicted as sexual objects in competition with each other, who use their looks and sexuality as tools to get what they want. This message is somewhat tempered after we get to know a couple of individual Girls, as they're called, but the pervasive analogy of the Girls to a school of fish lingers even after Sam has his epiphany.
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What's the story?
Sam's father suddenly decides to take him and his brother Jeff to the beach for the summer. In the preceding year, Sam's mother just leaves the family without giving a reason, so Sam is glad to get away for a while. He immediately notices something strange about the young women in all the service jobs in town, who seem inexplicably attracted to him instead of his older, more outgoing, and confident brother. Eventually Sam and Jeff get to know two of the Girls, as they're referred to, and Sam finds himself falling for one, DeeDee. Where she came from, where she's going, and what she needs to become a free and fully realized person provide the framework for Sam's journey into manhood.
Is it any good?
SEPTEMBER GIRLS is beautifully written. Author Bennett Madison is a formidable talent. But the merits of his lyrical language as it matches the rhythm of the sea are dishearteningly undercut by a fairly sexist attitude toward women, bringing to mind Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. Older teens should be able to evaluate these issues and come to their own conclusions, but less sexually mature teens might need help with the advanced themes.
Sam's early, immature, sexist attitudes are unfortunately accepted and presented as the norm. This coupled with frequent, pervasive descriptions of women as sexual objects, sirens, and analogous to a school of fish undercut Sam's sexual and intellectual transformation into a thoughtful, caring adult. The climax is somewhat glossed over, diminishing its impact; maybe that's why some of the negatives are what stay with you instead of the positives.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about attraction. Do you think about people you're attracted to in the same way Sam does, especially at the beginning of September Girls? Looking at it from the other side, how does the idea of someone seeing you like that make you feel?
Why does the narration shift back and forth between italics? Would it be confusing if all the text was printed the same way?
How do you think the fantasy element works with the very real-world coming-of-age story?
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