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The V-Word

v-wordThe V-Word: True Stories about First-Time Sex edited compiled by Amber J. Keyser
Simon Pulse, February 2016
Reviewed from final copy

So this year, I’m starting out with what I can only describe as the “out of left field contender of my heart.” I thought this would be a quick read that I’d be able to check off and move on from — maybe doubling it up with another title here. What can I say — I don’t always like stuff that’s shorter, and nonfiction is only sometimes my jam. And we’ve talked before about how it can be difficult to assess — and especially come to consensus on — anthologies and other mixed-author works. Working through each essay individually and then evaluating as a whole is hard enough on your own; persuading 10 other committee members to vote for an anthology can get tricky. So this is maybe also a shot-in-the-dark contender, but there’s so much that hits perfectly that I just can’t let it alone.  

This is a powerful read. The seventeen essays shared have some variety of experiences included — different ages, different interests, different histories from each author. By the nature of the stories shared, the book cultivates a deeply personal connection with the reader — there’s humor and honesty (Justina Ireland, I laughed AND cried — really), some pain and some anger, and always beating, living hearts in these pages. Readers can find relatable moments throughout the text, no matter where they are in their own sexual journey. Authors provide some fantastic reframing of ideas of sex, sexuality, virginity, and power. Carrie Mesrobian’s essay playing with ideas of “firsts” makes clear just how arbitrary and imprecise our language surrounding sex is. Other standouts include Kiersi Burkhart, Christa Desir, Chelsey Clammer, Kate Gray, Alex Meeks, Erica Lorraine Sheidt. There are of course the big moments — the fireworks, the naked bodies, the first orgasms. In a book about first-time sex, you have to expect that:

“They say in sex ed that virginity only happens one time. That once you break your hagfish-shaped hymen, that’s it.
You’re deflowered.
You’re officially in the club.
But it’s just not fucking true.”

“In this brand new world, I learned that even though my birth certificate says male, I didn’t have to be someone I’m not.”

But there are just as many quiet and contemplative moments, sentences that tell entire stories:

“Though I could rattle off the names of dozens of queer authors, I’d never met a queer person my age.”

“He came and I didn’t because my heart and mind weren’t connected to my body.”

“It takes years to recognize the loss and the gain, the rite of passage, the murky way my body expressed Want. It takes many years before I untie that braid and finally stand in front of a mirror to see my long, lean body, naked.”

There’s power in this reading experience, and delight and it feels a little like sitting around with friends, or people who might grow to be your friends, trading stories. Authentic, intimate writing that encourages readers to join the conversation (I wanted to start writing my own essay, just to extend this reading experience) that’s got to be a part of what we’re looking for at the Printz table.

And this may be the librarianest librarian moment I ever have, but the back matter is stand-out. Experts are consulted, resources are listed, librarians are interviewed. It makes me think about the Spectrum club that formed at my school last year. One of the first things students did with their time was create a vast, impressive, and wonderful list of resources.

That said, there were some things that could kick this out once Committee members start getting real. Some essays are stronger than others, and it might be hard to make the argument that this is consistently excellent reading. The interstitials were for me the weakest points.  The tone and the use of second person pushed from intimate and confessional writing to somewhat pedantic. Making the connections between stories so on-the-nose chopped up the flow and got in the way of the reader’s experience. (Or maybe I just really hate second person?)

And while there’s a variety of perspectives and experiences, I’d have loved to see more writers of color included.

But with the book that we have, the bones of the story are strong. The flow from one essay to the next — the pairing and juxtaposition of the essays — creates a captivating conversation. There is a huge amount of thoughtfulness in the pages. The sometimes explicit words, the insistence on naming and describing, are really effective, really powerful, and worth your reading time. It’s a read that nurtures the reader, that can make us feel seen and understood and not alone. It does this through story choice and placement, using honest language, and allowing real moments of vulnerability to come through. That’s not a small thing.

About Sarah Couri

Sarah Couri is a librarian at Grace Church School's High School Division, and has served on a number of YALSA committees, including Quick Picks, Great Graphic Novels, and (most pertinently!) the 2011 Printz Committee. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, GCS, YALSA, or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @scouri or e-mail her at scouri35 at gmail dot com.


  1. Karyn Silverman says

    Ordering this for my collection NOW.

  2. Michelle McCann says

    I was the editor for The V-Word and I just want to say that it came out of a desire to see more books with frank discussions about the realities of sex, especially first-time sex. I grew up with “Forever” and I now have teenage kids and I’m still giving them “Forever” because there just aren’t enough books out there that talk about what first-time sex is really like, what it means, how it changes you. These essays are beautiful and frank and funny–each of them. And Amber, the collector and brilliant author behind the book, researched and created the amazing back matter that is just as good as the essays. I know I’m biased, but every library should carry The V-Word. Teen girls need this book.

    • Sarah Couri says

      Apologies, Michelle! Changing my header to say “compiled by” so it’s accurate. Thank you.

      And related to your comment, I just read this interview from Booklist between Carrie Mesrobian and Christa Desir about writing about sex for teens.

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