A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this book.
Meant to entertain, not educate.
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.
Violence & Scariness
In one incident Kristle slaps DeeDee hard.
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Sex, Romance & Nudity
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.
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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.
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Products & Purchases
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.
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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.
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.
Did we miss something on diversity?
Research shows a connection between kids' healthy self-esteem and positive portrayals in media. That's why we've added a new "Diverse Representations" section to our reviews that will be rolling out on an ongoing basis. You can help us help kids by suggesting a diversity update.