Go Ask Alice

Move over Harry Potter, this feisty heroine rivets young readers too

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Harry Potter may top the charts today, but back when I was 13, it was sex, not magic, that made me turn the pages. My friends and I were especially drawn to the novels of Judy Blume. Even if our parents didn't think we should be reading about naming penises (as in Forever) or the thrill of menstruation (Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret), we found ways to get her books and pass them around with pages earmarked for each other.

If I was 13 today, the novels burning a hole in my book bag would be by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, a controversial, award-winning author who writes about, among many other things, a girl named Alice. Alice is white and often portrayed as blond by cover illustrators, but she doesn't have the life you'd expect. Her family is poor—they don't have much furniture, and Alice is often embarrassed to invite friends over. Her mother died when Alice was young, so she lives in a single-parent household with her father and brother. Both men date (and her brother strings along at least two women at all times).

But in a series that Naylor has been writing for more than a decade, it's Alice herself who provides the biggest shocks. In Alice on the Outside (Atheneum, 1999), a 13-year-old Alice sleeps over at a new friend's house. When the friend admits she's attracted to Alice and says she's a lesbian, Alice isn't fazed. She graciously turns down the advance, inquires if the girl has told her mother, and then falls asleep in her friend's bed.

Which isn't to say that Alice isn't interested in sex. She and her friends talk about bringing themselves to orgasm by masturbating, they watch a bit of soft-core porn on TV, and they read aloud passages from an unexpurgated copy of The Arabian Nights. Alice's brother tells her about wet dreams and the amount of semen in an ejaculation. In one book, Alice asks her cousin Carol, "How does it feel when a man's penis goes inside you?" Carol counsels Alice that when she does start having sex, she'll need to speak up and tell her partner exactly how to please her.

Naylor says the only kind of writing about sex that's unfit for her audience is unrealistic writing. If a character has unprotected sex and there are no consequences, that would be unrealistic, she explains. But it would also be unrealistic if every time a character had unprotected sex, she either got pregnant or caught a sexually transmitted disease.

People who criticize Naylor's books say she's putting ideas in children's heads.

"What rot!" she exclaims. "Curiosity about sex is a big part of a teenager's life. Heck, it's a big part of an adult's life. Multiply this by 50 to understand what goes through a teenager's head."

In the latest book in the series, The Grooming of Alice (Atheneum, 2000), Alice's curiosity takes her to a workshop that requires her to look at her private parts with a hand mirror. That workshop reminded me of classes taught by the feminist sex educator Betty Dodson, who asks adult women who have never had orgasms first to look at themselves in a mirror before she shows them how to pleasure themselves. But Naylor had never heard of Dodson, she says.

"I just think that the more a girl or woman knows about herself and her body, the more empowering it is for her," she adds. "Everything is so close together down there. Men don't know how easy they've got it!"

The Alice novels are only a few of the more than 100 books that Naylor has written for younger readers (not to mention several books for adults). Born in 1933, she published her first novel in 1967. Her numerous awards include the Newbery medal for Shiloh (Yearling, 1992), a story about a boy who befriends and rescues a maltreated dog. In the course of her prolific career, she's also written books that touch on divorce, crib death, and other serious issues, along with a series of comic novels and a recent book of ghost stories.

Even the Alice books deal with concerns other than sex. In Alice on the Outside, Alice's teachers create Consciousness-Raising Week in response to racial incidents at neighboring schools. The students are divided into groups based not on skin color, but on hair color, and the fair-haired kids are forced to drink from certain fountains, eat last in the cafeteria, and obey other rules modeled after laws that have been used to discriminate against blacks and other minorities. As tensions climb and fights erupt, Alice comes to realize that her school does have problems.

"This is the kind of project I would do if I were teaching," says Naylor. "Only when students actually experience what it means to be in a minority group can they even get an inkling of what discrimination must be like."

How true. Time to check out the young adult section again, right?

Athena Douris is a contributing editor of Alice, a magazine about popular culture from a young, feminist perspective. From Alice (May-June 2000). Subscriptions: $25/yr. (6 issues) from Medusa Press, 41 Freitas Ct., Santa Rosa, CA 95407.