What We Saw

Book review by
Sandie Angulo Chen, Common Sense Media
What We Saw Book Poster Image
Thought-provoking story about consent and truth.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

What We Saw will launch a number of discussions about topics such as rape culture, how media only tells you part of a story, how gender stereotypes can play into how date rape is perceived, and how sports culture and class can taint the way people think about a crime. Parents and teachers may want to take the opportunity to discuss issues such as sexual violence, social media, "slut shaming," bullying, and violence against women.

Positive Messages

There are positive messages about helping others and standing up for the truth, even if it's difficult and has social and emotional costs. The story stresses the importance of not witnessing a crime in silence but doing everything you can to stop it. Kate's journey also relays how obstructive it is to cover up for friends. There are plenty of thought-provoking messages about the double standards imposed on girls vs. guys, especially when it comes to sexuality and appropriate behavior. Rape culture and sports culture are taken to task for being driven by misogyny and anti-feminism.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Kate is one of the most courageous characters in realistic YA fiction. She makes the right choice, even when it's the tough, heartbreaking one. She doesn't compromise her values so a friend will get off easy. She encourages a friend to own up to his part in a crime. She encourages her brother not to be like all the other boys who are rating and ranking girls' pictures. She wants her brother and her boyfriend to be better than that. She makes mature, responsible decisions and doesn't give in to groupthink about how "boys will be boys."

Violence

Graphic description of a rape. A young woman is fondled and then raped by three young men in a room filled with classmates, a few of whom taped and photographed the rape. Young men push and threaten a couple of classmates who dare to speak up against them.

Sex

A boy and girl kiss and make out a couple of times -- once horizontally with a dress half off -- until they finally have protected sex in a scene that's described from an emotional, not physical, perspective. Couples at a party make out. Friends discuss sex, virginity, how far is too far, what constitutes appropriate sexual behavior, and what will get someone labeled as a slut.

Language

Occasional strong language includes "f--k," "s--t," "whore," "slut," "a--hole," "white rash," "ho," "tramp," "bulls--t," "dicks," and so on.

Consumerism

Quick mentions of several brands, since a character is a coupon and shopping addict: Chevy Silverado, Ford Explorer, Gatorade, Smartwater, Right Guard, Powerade, Coke Zero, Diet Coke, Dairy Queen, iPhone, Dodge Ram, and so on.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

At the party in question, teens overconsume -- beer, tequila shots, and the like -- and main character is so drunk she's driven home by a friend. Some teens look or act stoned. A girl gets drunk at a party and is publicly sexually assaulted by two guys. An underage couple drinks a little rum and Coke during an unchaperoned date.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that author Aaron Hartzler's What We Saw is a serious issue book inspired by real events (the Steubenville High School rape case) that follows the story not from the perspective of the victim but from another young woman who left a party before the sexual assaults began. Protagonist Kate Weston asks the tough questions and is willing to stand up for the victim when no one else will -- even if the ugly truths compromise people she loves and indeed her entire hometown. The book will make readers think and hopefully discuss issues it raises about rape culture, such as the idea that "boys will be boys," that "some girls" are "asking for it," that covering up a crime is as bad as committing one, and that there are consequences for standing by and doing nothing to help or stop sexual violence. In addition to descriptions of the violence, there's a scene of romantic sex, some strong language (including "f--k," "s--t," "whore," and "slut"), and a subplot about a character's mother who has OCD tendencies with shopping, couponing, and working out. Despite the difficult subject matter, What We Saw is a powerful conversation starter that would make a good parent-teen read.

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What's the story?

WHAT WE SAW is a fictional twist on the real events of the 2012 Steubenville High School rape case in Ohio. Written by actor and memoirist Aaron Hartzler, this debut novel focuses not on a victim but on a young woman who was once her friend. Kate Weston lives in small-town Coral Sands, Iowa, and she remembers only bits and pieces from high school basketball star John Dooney's Spring Break rager. She got drunk on tequila shots, but luckily her neighbor, lifelong crush, and fellow basketball star Ben Cody grabs her keys and drives her home to safety. Back at school after break, rumors and images and even videos surface of "wasted" Stacey Stallard looking passed out and doing nasty things with Dooney and his best friend, Deacon Mills. When Stacey accuses the varsity ballplayers of raping her just before the state championships, everyone -- even the school administration -- is eager to call it a case of "slut's remorse." But Kate used to know Stacey, and she can't help but feel there's more to the story. One of the only people willing to come to Stacey's defense, Kate must ask herself whether she wants to know what really happened after she left the party and what her responsibility is if she finds out.

Is it any good?

Although it's not easy to finish a story about a rape at an unsupervised high school party in a town that's basically complicit in covering up the crime, this is a powerful, must-read book. In his first novel, Hartzler, a hilarious memoirist (Rapture Practice), tackles dozens of hot-button issues, from slut-shaming and cyberbullying to male privilege and sports culture, but it never feels too much or too preachy. Kate is genuinely outraged, but she's also authentically confused about what's the right thing to do in the situation. She bravely puts herself in Stacey's shoes in a way virtually no one else, even most girls, are willing to do. Everyone's too busy thinking about the poor boys' (also known as rapists) futures to give a girl with a loose reputation a second thought.

By making the main character Kate instead of Stacey, Hartzler allows readers to see how we're all accountable for what happens in our midst -- how standing by in silence is an act of complicity but how speaking the truth, even when it's costly and may brand you a whistle-blower or betrayer, is an act of courage. Kate isn't perfect. She occasionally yells or retreats when she should ask questions, and she makes a decision even many readers will consider extreme. But it's in her uncompromising support of Stacey, of humanizing the girl who was raped despite what she happened to drink or wear or say the night she was assaulted, that makes Kate such a laudable character. Hartzler does a fine job chronicling Kate and Ben's attraction, so perhaps his next book will be a romantic comedy. WHAT WE SAW may be tough to read, but it stays with you, and that's what a good issue book does.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the importance of "issue" books. Why are they helpful for teens to read, even if teens have never dealt with the particular issues in the books?

  • What does Kate mean that "not being able to say no isn't the same as saying yes"? Does a girl's reputation or how she dresses or how much she drinks equal consent?

  • How does the story implicate those who are witnesses? What's your responsibility if you witness a crime? When do you become an accessory to it?

  • Why does Kate think it could've been she who got assaulted?

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