Summer Close-Read Series: Sara Zarr’s STORY OF A GIRL

We really like Sara Zarr: both her writing and her human self. We like her honesty and her skepticism and her kindness. We especially appreciated her insight and advice on podcasting and are big fans of her This Creative Life show.

Story of a Girl is one of our favorite books. Clearly we’re not alone – it was a finalist many awards, including the National Book Award in 2007, and received many other accolades and honors as well.

In Story of a Girl, there is a scene that is so powerful and unforgettable that we’ve decided to honor it with our own analysis. The scene involves the main character, Deanna, and her older brother’s friend Tommy. This scene functions on so many levels, sending so many messages and revealing so many layers of both characters, that it rightly blows our minds whenever we read it. That it clocks in at around 600 words is all the more remarkable.

If you have not read Story of a Girl, this scene is not a spoiler. After the jump is a pdf with the scene in question and our comments in the margin. Feel free to leave your own comments on this post as well.



Continue reading

Episode #7: Writing Sex – A YA Fiction Craft Talk


Episode #7:  We discuss writing about sex from a fiction craft perspective.

Subscribe in iTunes here; listen via Stitcher here

Current Reads
Carrie: Lady Sings The Blues by Billie Holiday & William Dufty; Can’t Be Satisfied: The Life & Times of Muddy Waters by Robert Gordon
Christa: Simon Vs. The Homosapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli; The Vast Fields of Ordinary by Nick Burd

CORE BELIEFS ON WRITING SEX <———–*cue angelic music*

1) There is no trick and there are no rules. Writing sex doesn’t involve a kind of how-to recipe & moral authority holding a giant book of rules. The only rules that matter are the ones that govern the story you want to tell and the people you are depicting.

2) If you aren’t comfortable writing about sex, then don’t do it. YA doesn’t require sex in it. If you don’t want to write about that aspect of adolescence, that is okay. But if you write about romance, realize that there has been an historic imbalance in YA of swoon versus physicality, which is sort of disingenuous in lots of ways.

3) Sex scenes are some of the most closely-read prose ever produced. Kids who like to read and who are curious about sex will PORE over your sex scenes. They matter. 

4) Good sex writing comes directly from good character development. You must be solid in the latter for success in the former.  When asking, ‘what can I do in my YA book?’ you need to kick back the question to the character: “what does this character do?”

5) Writing sex scenes for teenagers is much different than writing them for adults.  Adults have completely different motivations, constraints & expectations for their sexual lives than adolescents. A lot of adolescents don’t even know what they want or need or like.

6) Whether or not teens are having sex should not dictate if books should include it or not. Emerging sexuality is part of adolescent development and lopping it off for political reasons is like removing religion (or lack of religion) from a character’s personality. Which is to say that understanding a teen character’s feelings about their own sexuality makes for more richly developed characters.

7) The biggest problem I’ve seen with sex scenes in YA books is the absolute unevenness of them with respect to other elements of the book. Authors will spend ten pages describing the inside of a castle but won’t spend ten words on what it feels like to have someone’s fingers inside them. In the romance world, you often see the opposite problem. There’s wall to wall sex details but so little plot or other dressing that it can feel like full-on porn.

References & Books
Carrie’s list of Romance Novel Words
Andrew Karre’s blog post on What Teen Readers Want To See Regarding Sex
What Is Graphic? – a post on using ‘graphic language’
Breathless by Jessica Warman
The Vagina Monologues script by Eve Ensler

Some Interesting Links on Writing Sex by Steve Almond:
“How To Write Sex Scenes – A 12-Step Program”  The Rumpus
“On the Enchantments & Uses of Bad Writing” in The Writer’s Chronicle
“What I Learned from Teaching a Sex-Writing Class” in Salon

“So? What did you think? Tell us yr thoughts: feedback AT theoralhistorypodcast DOT com

Writing Sex in YA Fiction: Some Thoughts

casual sex friday

I get asked lots of questions about sex and YA and writing sex and sex in general. Which is one reason Christa Desir & I started this Oral History podcast.

But recently a friend of mine in the Hamline MFAC program asked to pick my brain on Sex in YA Literature, as that is the topic her critical thesis paper (mine was, too!) and her creative thesis also features sexual content (again, same here!) We met for coffee and talked for a few hours, which was pretty cool. Then she emailed me some follow-up questions, as she was worried about what she was positing as the main stance of her thesis paper, as well as wondering if she was taking her own advice from the paper when it came to her own YA novel.

Below is an excerpt from that pep-talk email I sent her, in hopes it might help those writers out there who are thinking about these questions and choices:

Okay, a couple of thoughts here:

Lose the word “gratuitous.” From yr paper, from yr brain. Same goes for “as long as it serves the plot.” What serves plot is character. And fully developed characters, in my opinion, have layers that we must know as their creators: spiritual, physical, genealogical, mental, intellectual, emotional, sexual. SEXUAL. Many ppl don’t bother to learn their characters’ sexual layers bc we live in a society that won’t freak if they don’t know those details (though many LOVE to know those details.) This stupid, repressive & dismissive attitude is something that separates sex in YA that is illustrative, beautiful and truly unique to a character and his/her situation from sex in YA that is cliched, obvious, unclear & formulaic. Because we live in a culture that is so fearful of discussion of sex as it happens in reality (v. sex used to sell products) even seeing sex that is formulaic appears radical (which is why the romance industry makes billions for its authors)

There is a balance between writing a true-to-character story that includes sex and a story that includes sex just to shock or seem ‘edgy.’ But I don’t think there’s a tension in positing that there are a spectrum of considerations, actually. What lies between is the vast canyon of artistic expression and possibility.

I don’t think the writer decides ‘how much is too much.’ That is an editor decision. And maybe even a reader decision. But it’s too variable to let others take the wheel on, anyway. What is better to ask is, “Can a reader imagine this? Am I helping readers imagine this or am I getting in the way of their imagination?” What they think is “too much” or might find “unbelievable” is also a moving target. Everyone has their beliefs about adolescence that generally just happen to cohere with what happened to them as adolescents! (Funny how that works, huh?) So ppl who weren’t sexually active at that time might say, “That is Too Much!” While others, like me, will say, “This looks familiar.”

– The question of “where’s the line” and “how much is too much” will never offer a writer any useable data if we’re talking about sex or adolescent experience. Better questions might be “is this story balanced chronologically i.e. am I writing 50 pages about a sex scene with 10 pages about 3 months at summer camp?” or “how does this sex scene function in telling us about the characters or raising the stakes?”

The only source I can think of beyond my own big mouth would be Harmful To Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex by Judith Levine. Levine looks at the effect of sex education on kids, plus a whole lot more on sexuality and education. A lot of my thinking on sex has come from writers like Susie Bright and Dan Savage, but I can’t point you to a definitive book on that count (although Susie Bright published a mother-daughter sex advice book w/ her own daughter that I’ve heard great things about).

The last thing: on a personal level, for authors thinking about writing sex in YA or other kidlit – be ready for blowback and be brave about it. Because guess what: it’s coming. Own what you’re doing, believe in it, know that you’re advocating a natural human behavior, and be proud of what you’re writing. Sex scenes in YA are the most read prose you will ever, ever write. Kids will pore over those passages. I think of those stakes when I write my stories, not just the plot stakes. Give them something to lay their own sexual life beside and think about. Books can provide a great way to talk about difficult issues that are embarrassing (sex, drugs, mental health, etc.) so think about that when you write sex, not just about “positive representation.” You’re providing discussion and emotional cover for very tricky, complex problems. It’s one thing books can do that other media can’t. Be proud of that.

If I think of more, I will send! Let me know if this helped or if you need more. I think you’re fine, actually. 


Found this helpful? Have more questions? Leave a comment or send an email to us for our upcoming Oral History Podcast (feedback AT theoralhistorypodcast DOT com) and we’ll try to discuss it during our upcoming episode, Writing Sex: A Craft Talk.

Episode #6: The Greatest Love Of All

oral history podcast cover

Episode #6:  We discuss that most taboo sex act, the Greatest Love of All, masturbation.

Subscribe in iTunes here; listen via Stitcher here. 

Current Reads
– Christa: just finished The F-It List by Julie Halpern; now reading My True Love Gave To Me: Twelve Holiday Stories by Various YA Authors
– Carrie: just finished The Alex Crow by Andrew Smith & The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson; now reading By Its Cover by Donna Leon 


Dahlia, the Twitter reference = Dahlia Adler, YA/NA Author
– Betty Dodson’s main site w/ Carlin Ross, plus their YouTube channel and the video Carrie referenced where Betty draws the internal clitoral structure
– Jaclyn Friedman’s main site and podcast “Fucking While Feminist” & book What You Really  Really Want: The Smart Girls Shame-Free Guide to Sex & Safety
Susie Bright’s podcast: “In Bed with Susie Bright” (free episodes via iTunes; subscribe via Audible)

A Few Other Smart Women Who Write About Sex
– Carol Queen
– Chelsea G Summers
– Tristan Taormino

On Euphemisms & Masturbation 
– Euphemism Generator site
– Some slang for masturbation (FYI, this is a Reddit thread)
– Beautiful Agony Tumblr (masturbation images from the neck up)

Books Mentioned
Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
Push by Sapphire
Cunt: A Declaration of Independence by Inga Muscio
Woman: An Intimate Geography by Natalie Angier
If I Stay by Gayle Forman

YA Books That Feature Masturbation
The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson
Anatomy of a Boyfriend by Daria Snadowsky
The Alex Crow by Andrew Smith
Forget You by Jennifer Echols
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Fingerprints of You by Kristen-Paige Madonia 
Deenie by Judy Blume
Then Again, Maybe I Won’t by Judy Blume
Wildlife by Fiona Wood
Guyaholic by Carolyn Mackler
The F-It List by Julie Halpern
The Infinite Moment of Us by Lauren Myracle
Shade by Jeri Smith-Ready
Stealing Parker by Miranda Kenneally
Hello, Groin by Beth Goobie
The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily Danforth

dean flirting

That was pretty decent, huh? Tell us what you think! feedback AT theoralhistorypodcast DOT com

Become a Part of Oral History: Join Our Upcoming Giveaway

Let's make history together, baby.

Let’s make history together, baby.

Attention, YA Authors we’ve discussed on our podcast!

If you’ve got copies or ARCs of new titles you’re willing to give away, please contact us! We hope to do some giveaway love in the future and want to continue to support you and your books.

Wonder if we’ve talked about you on our show? Take a look:

Here is the list of books we’ve discussed in each show so far; a master list on BookLikes is also available here.

Questions? Hit us up at:  feedback AT theoralhistorypodcast DOT com

Thank you!

Episode #5: Kissing


Episode 5:  In this episode, we discuss kissing in all its fabulous and delightful iterations. 

Subscribe in iTunes here; listen via Stitcher here. 


Show Notes
– Christa’s current reads: Dreamland by Sarah Dessen and Kissing Ted Callahan by Amy Spalding
– Carrie’s current reads: The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson & Can’t Be Satisfied: The Life & Times of Muddy Waters by Robert Gordon
– A bit about jheri curls, in case you’re wondering
– what in the hell is PDA?

Recommended Books
Infandous by Elana K. Arnold
Kissing Ted Callahan by Amy Spalding
Anna & The French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins
The Carnival at Bray by Jessie Ann Foley
Just Listen by Sarah Dessen
Gabi, A Girl In Pieces by Isabel Quintero Flores


Got a good kissing story? Tell us in the comments or kick us an email: feedback AT theoralhistorypodcast DOT com

Got a good kissing story?  A really bad one? We’re down for anything! Leave a comment or kick us an email:
feedback AT theoralhistorypodcast DOT com

Episode #4: The LadyHead Seal of Approval


Episode #4:  We discuss the whys and wherefores of oral sex, in life and in YA fiction.

Subscribe in iTunes here.

Show Notes

Christa is currently reading The Alex Crow by Andrew Smith; just finished Bone Gap by Laura Ruby & The Boy in the Black Suit by Jason Reynolds
Carrie is currently reading Infandous by Elana K. Arnold; just finished There Was and There Was Not by Meline Toumani

On Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep and John Green’s Looking for Alaska
John Green on the Looking for Alaska blowjob scene
Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld
Looking for Alaska by John Green

Book Recommendations
Uses for Boys by Erica Lorraine Scheidt
Don’t Let Me Go by JH Trumble
The Piper’s Son by Melina Marchetta
poem referenced:  “Japan” by Billy Collins
Raw Blue by Kirsty Eagar


YA Books Featuring Oral Sex
The DUFF by Kody Keplinger
Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr
Starglass by Phoebe North
The Program by Suzanne Young
Kiss It by Erin Downing
About a Girl by Sarah McCarry

We love hearing from you! Tell us what you think: feedback AT theoralhistorypodcast DOT com

We love hearing from you! Tell us what you think:
feedback AT theoralhistorypodcast DOT com

Episode #2: First Times

oral history podcast cover

Episode #2:  We discuss what it’s like to have sex for the first time, in our lives and in YA fiction.

Subscribe in iTunes here; Sticher here.

Show Notes for Episode #2:

– What we’re reading: Christa: Bone Gap by Laura Ruby /  Carrie: The Winner’s Crime by Marie Rutkoski
– Christa mentioned our involvement in nonfiction anthology The V-Word, edited by Amber Keyser, editor (S&S/Beyond Words, spring of 2016)
– a great blog post that Christa references: An Open Letter to YA Authors About Sex by The Page Sage
– mention of girl character having an orgasm (on the page! yes!) in If I Stay by Gayle Forman
Scarleteen’s First Intercourse 101 – a list of considerations for those thinking/planning their first sex

A bunch of information on lubricants, because why the hell not
What You Need To Know About Lubricant
Mini-Guide: Lubricants
Men’s Health: Pick The Perfect Lube
How To Use Lubricant: A Guide from

Book Recommendations
The Summer I Found You by Jolene Perry
“Green Screen” by Andrew Smith, in Losing It, Keith Gray, ed.
“Sticky Fingers” by A.S. King in Losing It, Keith Gray, ed.
About A Girl by Sarah McCarry
Under The Wolf, Under The Dog by Adam Rapp
Under The Never Sky by Veronica Rossi
Freefall and Live Through This by Mindi Scott

First Time Questions. We used these as a tool think about the show content beforehand, so thought we’d share with you, as they make a great starting place for you and your friends to talk about First Times.

Where/When: time of day, location, your age
Who: Did you know the person? Were you in an established relationship? Like them? Love them? Kinda hate them?
How: Did you plan it? Did you use birth control or condoms? How did it work?
Did it hurt? How did you feel afterward?

That turned out pretty decent, didn't it? Tell us what you thought! feedback AT theoralhistorypodcast DOT com

Well. That turned out pretty decent, didn’t it?
Tell us what you thought!
feedback AT theoralhistorypodcast DOT com

Episode #1: Girl Talk

Episode #1:  We discuss how girls talk to each other about their own sexual behavior, in our lives and in YA fiction.

click here to subscribe in iTunes; here for Stitcher.

Show Notes for Episode #1

– Christa mentioned a website called Scarleteen, which features comprehensive sexuality information for teenagers
– Christa mentioned a film called Kids, directed by Larry Clark and a book called The Rules by Sherrie Schneider

Book Recommendations
The Truth About Alice by Jen Mathieu  — @jenmathieu
Love and Other Theories by Alexis Bass — @alexisbasswrite
How To Love by Katie Cotugno — @katiecotugno
Beautiful by Amy Reed — @amyreedfiction
Life By Committee by Corey Ann Haydu — @coreyannhaydu
Ten Things We Did (and Probably Shouldn’t Have) by Sarah Mlynowski — @sarahmlynowski
Wildlife by Fiona Wood — @f_i_o_n_a_w_

Figure 1. Girl talk, coming at you

Figure 2. Hey baby! Tell us what you thought!



"Get your fine self in here, baby."

“Get your fine self in here, baby.”

The Oral History Podcast is coming soon (yes, pun intended)!

It’s a simple concept, really: Christa and Carrie cover a topic somewhere in the realm of sex – or anything else we find fascinating – and recall our own personal issues with that topic. Then we recommend some books that discuss that same sex topic in an interesting manner.

We’ve already recorded our first episode! It’s called Girl Talk and we discuss how girls talk to each other about sex as well as books that feature this topic.

Stayed tuned here for details!