I didn’t get the internet at home until I was 13. Back then, chatting was what we know as social networking now, and most of my gaming/chatting was limited to a few writing forums on AOL and Neopets (anyone honest would admit to that sort of thing!). But today, most kids have had internet as part of their entire lives, and that’s the topic that Littman chooses to explore in her powerful and important new novel, Want to Go Private?
Abby Johnston is 14, and she’s been best friends with Faith since second grade. They do everything together. The thing is, Abby feels like she’s been growing away from Faith lately, as well as growing apart from her family and the support structures that have always been in her life. They’re beginning high school, and while Faith has taken this opportunity to explore who she is and what she looks like, Abby remains comfortable being the quiet, shy, unflashy girl. Unfortunately, though, this means that their friendship’s been a bit strained lately, and now Abby feels that the extent of her friendship with Faith now exists in their online chats through the new social networking site ChezTeen.
But unlike a lot of people who use these sites to meet new people, the two of them mostly keep to themselves and talk with one another. Abby knows she’s not supposed to talk to strangers, but all of those rules start to change when one guy — BlueSkyBoi (real name: Luke) — begins to take a shine to Abby on this website. He gets to know her through their private ChezTeen chats, and he offers her the sympathetic and understanding ear that no one else in Abby’s life seems to want to lend. Before she realizes it, she’s fallen into the belief that Luke really cares for her and that she knows him well enough to trust that meeting him in person might be a good idea.
But that’s not going to end up being a good idea.
Want to Go Private? is powerful and cautionary tale, perfect for middle and high school students. Although so much of what’s explored here feels like it’s fairly obvious, it’s not. Though today’s teens have grown up with the internet as an extension of themselves, the fact of the matter is so few have real experience with how to detach that digital world from the real, physical world. Moreover, many are unaware how dangerous taking things from the digital world to the physical world can be. Abby, who is going into high school, falls into what so many teens can easily fall into: trusting someone who says and does all the right things online and pursing an opportunity to meet him.
But this isn’t just about what happens when the online goes into the real world, this is about what happens when someone invests too much in their online world, too. Abby gets caught up in feeling very comfortable with Luke — so comfortable, she takes photos of herself without clothing and in vulnerable manners for his pleasure. She does it to please him and to feel like she belongs to someone. Like so many teens today who do things like this and who engage in sexting, Abby dives in with trust and with the belief that she is invincible. The problem is, of course, that she isn’t, and no one really is. And it’s here that Littman’s story becomes cautionary and scary.
Littman sets up her novel quite smartly. It’s told through Abby’s voice initially, and her voice is so likable and relatable, she is easy to immediately buy. I trusted her when she began talking with Luke, and like her, I thought Luke was a nice guy. My adult instincts kicked in, of course, when he began soliciting her for photos and then suggested meeting somewhere, but I could really understand why Abby wanted to do these things. She felt alone and vulnerable, and in talking with Luke, she felt understood and she felt valued, even if it wasn’t necessarily for the right reasons.
Then Littman shakes up the narrative. It’s not just Abby we hear from. We get the chance to hear the story through Faith’s voice, through the voice of Abby’s sister Lily, and through the voice of Billy, a boy from Abby’s school who has a true and genuine crush on her. This structure works well because it gives a great view into how something that seems innocent can have a huge impact on an entire network of people. I found all of the voices here well written and compelling, and they added a lot to Abby’s story. Whereas I believe the entire book could have been told from Abby’s point of view, getting the story from the other characters tightened up the story and provided an opportunity to may not feel entirely sympathetic for Abby. That’s not to say we don’t, but the trick in a story told through one perspective is that we only get that single story; getting it from a couple perspectives here works, since we can see something from a different, less biased eye.
Want to Go Private? is not an easy book to read, as it left me feeling creeped out more than once. Moreover, Abby is taken advantage of in a manner that is extremely difficult to read, and it happens more than once. The thing is, these scenes are absolutely vital to the story line; while they could have been done off page, they wouldn’t have the impact that they have on page. The beauty of this method is that those who are uncomfortable with reading the graphic scenes can skip over them and grasp the impact as much as someone who wants/needs to read them.
My one criticism of the book comes at the end of the story. Once Abby has been through hell and back, she’s been given the opportunity to become a spokesperson of sorts at her school (much in the way she becomes a bit of a spokesperson through the novel itself). In these moments, she feels almost a little too preachy, too experienced. Although her life changed in unimaginable ways and certainly she became an “adult” far before she was ready, I didn’t believe she’d talk to her peers in the manner she did. That said, I think younger readers won’t necessarily believe this is too preachy — it’s sort of the tone they’d expect to hear in a novel like this. Older teen readers, though, will likely not buy into some of the lessons. They picked them up throughout the story and don’t need them laid out so bluntly at the end.
Littman’s book would make a great addition to book discussions or classroom discussions, as there is so much to work with. When I presented this book as a potential title for my teen book group, they were extremely interested in reading it. There is a layer of appeal to this story because this story is one that is such a part of this age group’s lives.
Although there are some hard-to-read scenes, I wouldn’t have a problem selling this one to middle schoolers — I almost think the shock factors would be the lesson many sort of need to see played out to understand how important internet safety truly is. This is the kind of book anyone who wondered “what if” will appreciate. It’s a well paced book, and one that tackles a topic that’s been important for quite a while but not necessarily approached. It’s a title with quite a bit of staying power, as I think the storyline is something that will be relatable to teens for a long time to come. Bonus: Littman’s created an entire website, chezteen.com, to talk about the issues her book presents, and it’s approachable for teens, teachers, and other educators.
ARC picked up at Book Expo America.
Kelly Jensen is a former librarian turned editor for Book Riot. She's the author of IT HAPPENS: A Guide to Contemporary Realistic Fiction for the YA Reader and the forthcoming Feminism For The Real World (Algonquin Young Readers, Spring 2017).