A few weeks ago, I picked up and devoured Julie Halpern’s The F-It List. It’s a story about two girls who are best friends and how their relationship weathers everything. It starts with Becca sleeping with Alex’s boyfriend the day of Alex’s father’s funeral. The summer immediately following, the girls aren’t hanging out as much as they used to. Sure, Alex is angry and upset about what Becca did, but their reason for not hanging out has much more to do with Alex’s need to grieve losing her father than it does what Becca did or losing that boyfriend.
When the school year begins, Alex learns via another girl that something awful happened to Becca over the summer: she was diagnosed with cancer. Alex immediately runs to Becca’s side, and their friendship, while not perfectly patched up, is allowed to continue, and it’s through this agreement of continuing their relationship that Becca asks Alex for a favor. She needs to complete her f-word-rhymes-with-bucket list. Since Becca’s sick and worried a bit about what her future may hold, she wants Alex to do and experience a number of things that she’s always wanted to do but wonders if she’ll ever have the chance to do.
A number of items on the list have to do with sex. Becca wants Alex to masturbate, and she wants Alex to have sex with someone she can say I love you to and mean it. Other items on the list range from doing some silly prank-like stuff to more relationship-driven items. But it is those sexually-related items that Alex homes in on most and those are the items that come to signify not just a lot of what the relationship between the two girls is — blunt, honest, and unashamed — but also points where readers may either bristle or dig in for something deeper. In many ways, I thought the ways that both the sexually-related items and the friendship more broadly played out in the story were what made The F-It List knock out. It’s rare to see such positive portrayals of sex for girls. Both Becca and Alex enjoyed sex and both were very open and honest about liking it and sharing those positive experiences with one another.
But not everyone felt this to be the case. Here’s the review Halpern’s novel got in School Library Journal (you can click to make it larger):
I’ve read and reread this review many times, and every time, something new feels off in it. Keep in mind many trade reviewers review from advanced reader copies of books, meaning that not all of the kinks have been entirely worked out.
I note, too, that I also read The F-It List from an advanced reader copy.
Although I could dive into the notion that Alex performs the items on the f-it list out of guilt — an idea I disagree with entirely, as Alex begins to really embrace this as a commitment to her relationship with Becca — what I find fascinating is this line: “Both girls have casual, unprotected sex with all of their boyfriends without any thoughts of taking precautions.”
This line presumes a few things in it. The first is that it’s the responsibility of the girls to think about and carry out the actions necessary for protection during sex. While print space is limited and words have to be carefully selected in a trade review, the way this particular line is phrased, in conjunction with the line before it, casts a judgment upon the female characters in the story. They’re crass, with limited vocabulary, and they’re not taking responsibility for their own actions. These are the kinds of girls you don’t want to be role models for readers, since they’re not being “good girls.” They don’t arouse sympathy because what happens to them is all a matter of consequences and choices they make. They weren’t smart enough or thinking through things enough to protect themselves.
But what is worse in this line is that it’s factually incorrect.
Early in the book, Alex talks about the first time she’s had sex, as a means of thinking through Becca’s request that she have sex with someone she loves and cares about. The first person — and only person at that point — she’d slept with was a boy named Aleks, who was a foreign exchange student. Starting at page 76 in the advanced reader copy, Alex lays out the story as follows:
Becca was disappointed I hadn’t seen his penis yet and handed me a condom the next time I saw her. Two days later, armed with the Trojan, I followed Aleks back to his house again. […] Me in my underwear, him in blue boxers, we moved over to the bed. “Wait–” I told him, the first work spoken that afternoon. I found Becca’s condom in my backpack and brought it up to the bed. […] He slapped on the condom.
It’s pretty evident immediately that condoms play a role in not just Alex’s sex life, but in the discussions she and Becca have had as best friends about being sexually active. Alex got the condom from Becca, and Alex insisted that Aleks wear it when they slept together. Seems straightforward enough.
But there’s more.
Later on in the story, when Alex begins a relationship with Leo, the issue of the condom isn’t the only one that comes up before they take the plunge and have sex (they had a few intimate moments, but in each case, Leo stopped when Alex asked him to). She talks about why she wants to make sure there is protection. Starting on page 141 of the advanced reader copy:
His hands were gentler than I wanted, and I grabbed one and wrapped it around my breast. I let out a sigh, and Leo reciprocated with a sound of his own. “So you have a condom?” I asked. Life had been too cruel in the last year not to get me pregnant or diseased if I wasn’t careful. I couldn’t trust my body to do the right thing, and I didn’t want to have a conversation with Leo in the middle of this to talk past sexual partners. I didn’t want to know. I just needed it to happen.
Immediately after, Leo puts on a condom.
In both instances, Alex takes precaution. In both instances, it is Alex — the girl — who insists on using a condom before engaging in intercourse and in the second section, Alex lays out why it is she finds taking this precaution important. With everything going on in her life right now, she recognizes that not being careful would only lead to further problems. She didn’t want to saddler herself with that, nor did she want to get into it with Leo, either. It’s clear and evident that Alex thought about precautions prior to intercourse, and she’s not shy in laying that out there for readers, just as she’s not shy in laying out there what and how she comes to enjoy her budding sexuality.
I’m struck by that review line again because it seems to me the reviewer missed these things (reading too quickly? Not paying close enough attention to the details yet still bringing them up in the review?). But I’m further struck in thinking about whether or not we as readers need to be hit over the head with how careful our protagonists — females especially — need to express how they’re protecting themselves when they choose to engage in sex.
Did the reviewer find fault in the fact that Alex doesn’t tell us about condom use in subsequent sexual situations, despite the fact she’s made it clear she wouldn’t be crazy enough to have sex without a condom? Is it necessary for every instance of sex, whether on the page or fade to black, be explicit in its depiction of protection use? And if that’s the case, where is there a line drawn between telling the story and being faithful to how the characters are and positing an over-the-head message about safe sex? Do readers believe that if Alex doesn’t explain in every sexual moment that she’s making sure there’s a condom in place that she’s chosen instead to not protect herself? Because as a reader, I assume when it’s laid out there for me as openly as it is, that there will be a condom. That I don’t need to be reminded again and again.
Because when real people have sex and are resolute in their wanting to be protected against pregnancy and disease, it becomes a routine, rather than a point of conscious decision making. You always have that box of condoms or you’re faithful in taking birth control (or both or neither). The story isn’t in the routine; it’s in the break from the routine. In Alex’s case, the routine is protecting herself, and I think any more insertion of the condom lines through the story would have turned this from a book where Alex (and Becca) really come to embrace their ability to be sexual beings to a story where they become pawns for the Message of “make sure you use protection.”
Part of me wonders, too, whether the fact this is such a positive portrayal of girls embracing sex and doing so without apology and without holding back on being crude and, at times, obscene, is what will hold some readers back from seeing these smaller moments when Alex is very keen on keeping herself and Leo safe. Halpern hasn’t written an easy story here in any capacity. But I think it’s this complexity which makes The F-It List such a great, memorable read. Because it’s not about Becca’s diagnosis. It’s not about death or the fear of that. It’s about embracing life and relationships — friendly and romantic — to their fullest in whatever way you need to. It’s unfortunate, though, that a trade review in one of the largest, most well-respected library journals could be factually incorrect about the story. In doing so, this book might not end up in the hands of those readers — girls particularly — who would get so much out of it. Who would see themselves in Alex or in Becca. Who would see it’s perfectly okay to enjoy sex alone or with a partner.
And that yes, it’s important to take precautions for yourself and have solid reasons behind why.
I can’t help wonder, too, whether books that do similar things as Halpern’s but feature a male main character undergo the same scrutiny and character judgment.