Weird and Wonderful: 'September Girls' by Bennett Madison
Before I bought September Girls, I read complaints that it was “inappropriate” for a YA audience, which is usually a pretty good indicator that I’m going to love something. Mostly this is because I’m an adult, so I don’t have to worry about what’s inappropriate for teens. I can stay up late, eat ice cream for dinner and read books with profanity. Adulthood! But also, as you might remember because I talk about it all the time, I don’t think anything’s inappropriate for YA books. Teenagers are fully capable of reading about sex, real issues and upsetting topics and then deciding on their own how they feel about things. You know, like the human beings that they are.
I also figured I’d like September Girls because THAT COVER! It’s mysterious, creepy and romantic, which are basically the best three words you could use to describe anything (well, maybe not a sandwich…any book, I guess). And guess what? I was right. I straight-up loved September Girls, and I would marry this book if lady-to-book marriage was legal.
SG‘s protagonist Sam is spending his summer at the beach with his dad and his brother…and a town full of girls. They’re all blonde, they’re all beautiful and they all have crazy names (like Taffany, which is now burned in my brain forever). Also, they’re all inexplicably obsessed with Sam, who isn’t exactly used to being a heartthrob. As Sam gets to know one of the girls, DeeDee, he starts to notice that some things are a little off with her and her friends. All of this is interspersed with chapters told from the girls’ point of view, and it adds up to be one of the most compelling narratives I’ve read in awhile.
Although I didn’t give too many plot details (I don’t want to be accused of spoiling anything), the truth is that the plot was really secondary to my enjoyment of September Girls. For me, the book was more about tone and voice. Reading September Girls feels like being in a dream, but one of those dreams where you’re in your house with your mom but it’s not really your house and also your mom is played by RuPaul. Things are hazy, confusing and familiar-but-not-really. Although cell phones exist, there’s no service in the town, and Sam actually uses a payphone at one point. References to Beyonce and Prince coexist, giving everything a sort of timeless, other-worldly quality.
If you’ve read anything about September Girls online, you probably know that it’s a little bit controversial. Well, maybe controversial is a little too dramatic a word to use. Basically, some people think September Girls is misogynistic. By now, I hope you guys know that I would never recommend a book to you if I felt it had a sexist message. But I don’t think this book is offensive at all.
To be honest, I wonder if the people who found this book sexist read the same book I did. Because here’s the thing: the characters say sexist things, most of which are NSFHG (Not Safe For HelloGiggles). But just because a character says something doesn’t mean we’re supposed to agree with that character. The worst offenders in this regard are Sam’s brother and Sam’s best friend, neither of whom are held up as role models. And these viewpoints are what allow characters to grow, change and come to realizations throughout the book.
In my opinion, September Girls has a pretty explicitly feminist message. It doesn’t vilify sluts (something I always appreciate in YA), and it doesn’t present sexuality as a reflection of the characters’ morality. And with everyone (from his brother to his dad to Kristle, one of the girls) telling Sam to be a man, it’s pretty clear to me that we, as readers, are supposed to actually be thinking about masculinity and femininity and what those words mean, not assuming that the book itself is sexist just because some of the characters have truly crazy opinions about male-female relationships.
In case you couldn’t tell, I loved this book and I tore through it in a weekend. It’s definitely weird, but weird is good. I love that Bennett Madison is willing to go all out, to create characters who aren’t always likeable or sympathetic, to write books that aren’t like any other books. Oh, and did I mention there’s a Prince karaoke scene? Because there is. There are also some very specific references to a popular Disney movie that are a treat for the superfans (AKA me). I sincerely hope that some 12-year-old girl will stumble upon this book, secretly read it without her parents knowing, and have her mind totally blown.
What about you guys? Have you read September Girls, or Bennett Madison’s other (also weird and wonderful) book The Blonde of the Joke? Let me know in the comments! And, as always, I love to hear your suggestions for books to feature in Young Adult Education. Leave a comment, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or find me on Twitter @KerryAnn.