September Girls



Lyrical coming-of-age tale undercut by iffy gender messages.

What parents need to know

Educational value

Meant to entertain, not educate. 

Positive messages

A teen on the cusp on manhood, Sam at the outset is ashamed of his lack of sexual experience and sees his successful groping of a classmate's chest as a triumph. All young women are portrayed as sexual objects. The Girls don't do much better among themselves:  They, too, refer to other women as "bitches," "hos," "skank," "slut," etc. DeeDee tells Sam that the Bible is full of "hos." The Girls use physical beauty and sexuality to get what they want and need, and refer to their beauty as a knife. Juvenile macho bravado is pervasive -- accommodating women in any way is seen as "pussification" and "queerification." Negativity toward women extends to Sam's mother, whom he understandably resents deeply (she abandoned the family) and so belittles her attempts at self-discovery and fulfillment. But finding love transforms Sam into a young man who understands that love is much more than sex; he's able to appreciate individual differences between women and even accepts, understands, and forgives his mother.

Positive role models

Sam is essentially an anti-hero. None of the characters, including him, are particularly likeable. Teens drink, smoke cigarettes and marijuana, and pursue sexual gratification with no consequences. But teen boys are likely to identify strongly with Sam, whose imperfections make him believable and easy to relate to. He's essentially a good kid navigating the moral ambiguities of adulthood. The only adults are Sam's parents, who are too self-absorbed to pay much attention to their kids, although they are loving and supportive.


In one incident Kristle slaps DeeDee hard.


Sexual themes are very advanced, and most are mentioned as a matter of course. Masturbation, nudity, "getting laid," and more occupy Sam's thoughts much of the time. One the central themes that propels Sam down the path to manhood is sacrificing his virginity. There are half a dozen or more incidents of kissing, two or three of which describe tongue kissing in some detail. Crotches are groped and erections mentioned. Kristle tries to seduce Sam, and the encounter, which doesn't lead to sex, is graphically described ("his fingers were inside her"). An incident of intercourse is mentioned but not described, but some of the foreplay leading to it is described briefly.


Swearing is pervasive, especially at the beginning when multiple instances, mostly of "f--k" and variations of it, occur on each page. But "ass" and variations on "s--t" are also too numerous to count. "Hell" is used less frequently. "Jesus Christ" is used once, and "Jesus f--k" is also used once. Derogatory language toward women is less frequent but nonetheless pervasive: "bitch," "slut," "ho," and so on. Body parts include "dick," "boobs," "ass," and "tits," each of which is used about a half dozen times.


The Girls smoke Gauloises cigarettes. Budweiser is frequently mentioned, and Malibu rum is mentioned two or three times -- Sam doesn't like it. Mama Celeste, Froot Loops, Coke, Paper Mate, Siri, Facebook, Beefeater, Starbucks, American Spirit, Topaz, and other products are mentioned infrequently and in an everyday context. A house is described as "Adderall blue." Girls named  after beauty products are mentioned: L'Oreal, Franzia, Tresemmé.

Drinking, drugs, & smoking

Teens drink frequently. The main characters Sam, his brother Jeff, and their girlfriends, Kristle and DeeDee, seem to do so fairly moderately, but others' binge behavior at parties and bars is mentioned. The main characters also enjoy different kinds of alcohol on the beach or while relaxing on the porch. They do so with, and are even served by, their parents. Sam mentions getting stoned in the past and assumes pretty much everyone gets stoned on occasion. At one party he shares a strong joint with Kristle. Kristle and DeeDee are almost always depicted smoking, and eventually Sam's mother and brother smoke, too. There are no negative consequences for any of these behaviors.

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.


Families can talk 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? 

Book details

Author:Bennett Madison
Genre:Coming of Age
Topics:Magic and fantasy, Brothers and sisters, Friendship
Book type:Fiction
Publication date:May 21, 2013
Number of pages:342
Publisher's recommended age(s):14 - 17
Available on:Nook, Hardback, iBooks, Kindle

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Learning ratings

  • Best: Really engaging; great learning approach.
  • Very Good: Engaging; good learning approach.
  • Good: Pretty engaging; good learning approach.
  • Fair: Somewhat engaging; OK learning approach.
  • Not for Learning: Not recommended for learning.
  • Not for Kids: Not age-appropriate for kids; not recommended for learning.

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