Thursday, 27 May 2010
Della Says...the M Word
Have I got a treat for you today! A guest post from Keris Stainton to mark the publication this month of her debut novel Della Says OMG a funny honest tale of a teenage girl's first love.
Everything seems to be going right for 17-year-old Della when she kisses her long term crush Dan at a party. But she's got an enemy, someone who has stolen her diary where she's long recorded her most secret thoughts. Soon Della's secrets are being broadcast on Facebook and by texts. Will her romance with Dan take the exposure? And who's doing this to Della?
This could have been a book all about the mystery - who took the diary and why? It isn't. It's a book about 21st century shame, about owning your own sexuality. Della has right-on parents who take it for granted tht their daughters will have sex lives. Her best friend has been having sex for ages. But she still feels utterly humiliated when her secrets become public.Underneath the breezy jokey style (a completely authentic teenage girl voice, down to the shoes 'which kill') there's a serious theme about girls and sex.
Sex has to be one of the most difficult and interesting things to write about in teen fiction. How do you get it right without scandalising the gate-keepers - parents, teachers,librarians..even publishers. I relied on euphemism and hints a lot - I suspect a 15 year old boy will read aspects of When I was Joe quite differently from an 11 year old girl.
To mark the publication of Della Says OMG, I'm giving away a signed copy - so please leave a cmment if you want to be in the draw. Thanks so much Keris for donating the copy and for writing this great post..
When I started writing Della, all I had was the idea of a missing diary. I worked out fairly quickly that the diary's content had to be pretty embarrassing in order for Della to be worried about someone having it (no flies on me) and I pretty much went straight to sex. Or rather, sexuality. Della's a teenager who's never had a boyfriend, never even been kissed and so I knew it would be something she worried about a lot. I knew she'd feel like her peers were more experienced than her. I knew she'd be concerned that everyone else was far more advanced than she was. And I knew she'd be afraid that people would find out how little experience she had. How did I know all this? Er. I used my imagination. Obviously. *coughs*
And once I'd decided to focus on Della's sexuality, it was very important to me that she mention masturbation. For a couple of reasons. Firstly, while male masturbation is part of our culture - from magazines like Zoo and Nuts to the casual bandying around of words like "tosser" and "wanker" - female masturbation is still so taboo. Even women don't tend to discuss it with each other the way men do. Although a few years ago I wrote an article about the first time you got a “funny feeling down there” and I got lots of really sweet and funny stories and great feedback from women who really identified with the piece. And, interestingly enough, so many first times took place when reading: Lace, Forever, The Thorn Birds and, er, The Fog were all mentioned.
Secondly, despite it being such an important step in learning about your own sexuality, it's rarely mentioned in teen fiction. A couple of years ago, I read a book called Everything I Needed to Know About Being a Girl I Learned From Judy Blume, which features an essay by Lara M Zeises called The M Word. The essay begins with Zeises, age 7, discovering that touching herself feels good, "sometimes good enough to help me fall asleep", and how she didn't know what she was doing until she read Judy Blume's 1973 novel, Deenie. Deenie also touches her "special place" when she has trouble falling asleep and later in the book she asks a teacher, in an anonymous note, "Do normal people touch their bodies before they go to sleep and is it all right to do that?" (The teacher explains that, yes, masturbation is "normal and harmless".)
Zeises goes on to say that "relatively precious few novels even allude to girls getting their groove on by themselves" adding that one notable exception is Meg Cabot's All-American Girl: Ready or Not. I've since read Pop! by Aury Wallington, which also features a bit of female DIY. (Incidentally, in both Ready or Not and Pop!, the deed is done by sliding down in the bath and lying under the "faucet". Not only does that sound physically challenging, but also - unless American plumbing is more sophisticated than ours - presents a terrible scalding risk, no?) So with all of the above in mind, I had one of Della's diary extracts refer to her touching herself. And then later in the book, she discusses female masturbation with her best friend.
A few weeks ago, I went to see the authors Melvyn Burgess and William Nicholson in conversation about sex in YA fiction. They talked about porn, about where they learned about sex when they were teens, even about *having* sex when they were teens. And they agreed that it is weird that there's so little actual sex in teen fiction, despite the fact that a) teens think about sex all the time and b) society - and other media - is so sexualised. I hadn't really thought about it from that perspective, but they were absolutely right. I didn't want Della to be an "issue" book. I didn't want to be controversial or sensationalist or shocking. I just think it's important to write about sex honestly, naturally, unapologetically so that's what I tried to do. I really hope I succeeded.