Go Ask Alice

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

| September-October 2000

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.

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