A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
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?
- Author: Aaron Hartzler
- Genre: Contemporary Fiction
- Topics: Friendship, Great Girl Role Models, High School
- Book type: Fiction
- Publisher: HarperTeen
- Publication date: September 22, 2015
- Publisher's recommended age(s): 14 - 18
- Number of pages: 333
- Available on: Nook, Audiobook (unabridged), Hardback, iBooks, Kindle
- Last updated: October 12, 2018
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