April 26, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Two Librarians Weigh In On ‘The F-It List’ | SLJ Feedback


In December 2013, School Library Journal reviewed Julie Halpern’s The F-It List (Feiwel & Friends, 2013). Kelly Jensen, a blogger and former-YA librarian at Wisconsin’s Beloit Public Library, took issue with several of our reviewer’s criticisms of the novel. Reviewer Nancy Reeder responded to Jensen’s concerns in a subsequent letter.

After reading Julie Halpern’s The F-It List, I read SLJ’s review in hopes of seeing it highlight the book’s portrayal of female friendship and positive female sexuality. Unfortunately, the review left me cold.

In particular, I found the [reviewer’s] line “Both girls have casual, unprotected sex with all of their boyfriends without any thoughts of taking precautions” to be problematic. This is not only a judgment of the choices these girls make in terms of their own sexuality (it puts the responsibility for safe sex entirely on them, rather than as a shared responsibility between consenting partners), but it’s factually incorrect.

This is a sex-positive story of two girls figuring out their own sexuality that is encouraging of self-exploration and safe sex between consenting parties.

In at least two instances, Alex is clear that she not only has access to condoms, but she tells the boy she is with he needs to wear one. She explains, too, that given the bad luck she’s had in the past year, if she doesn’t use protection, she’d likely end up pregnant. Alex is empowered and vocal about how important protection is to her.

This review not only condemns choices made that fit with the story and characters, but it’s incorrect in the details it presents. Those who need reviews to purchase materials for their collection are done a disservice, but it’s the teen readers, who may need a story like Halpern’s, who really lose out.

—Kelly Jensen, a YA librarian and blogger

I disagree that this is a sex-positive story of two girls figuring out their own sexuality. It is a story of two girls having sex with multiple partners with whom they have no emotional attachment. When Leo, one of Alex’s partners, begins to show some affection toward her, her first thought is to break up with him, because she can’t handle being emotionally close to him.

Alex has sex a total of seven times, but the topic of safe sex is mentioned only twice. Becca admits to having sex three times before she was diagnosed with cancer, and when she is declared in remission, she begins having sex with the boy next door “most nights,” and there is no mention of her taking precautions. There are differing views on teens being sexually active and how those situations are represented in literature for teens; ultimately, librarians must choose the books they feel reflect the needs of their patrons.

—Nancy P. Reeder, Heathwood Hall
Episcopal School, Columbia, SC

This article was published in School Library Journal's June 2014 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.



  1. Sex positive doesn’t mean love is involved. Sex positivity is about affirming sexual choices and not assuming that every time someone has sex, there must be a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ way to do it.

    Sex doesn’t necessarily have a terminal point involving commitment, love & marriage. That doesn’t make its occurence, in life or fiction, any less valid or worthwhile. Putting conditions and fences around sexual behavior is not sex positive, in my mind.

    • Hear hear! Ms. Reeder, all you’re doing when you damn the girls for having sex without emotional attachments (which, again, isn’t even really true) is police teenagers and tell them they aren’t allowed to be sexual beings.

  2. Emily H says:

    I would think the DEFINITION of sex positive is teens (and adults!) making safe, informed decisions about sexual activity without being judged for a lack of emotional commitment or number of partners. It seems out of place in a professional review for the reviewer to pass personal judgement on the activities – sexual or otherwise – of the characters.

  3. My biggest issue here is the sourcing of the reviewers. I’m not condemning their right to publish, but to me a review with integrity is not a review that is speaking exclusively on the political or moral ramifications of a work of fiction, and it’s the publisher’s/editor’s job to keep things on point. If a reviewer’s commitment to a private institution prevents her from speaking well about any work of literature that can’t be accepted onto its shelves, then that’s a huge conflict of interest, right? Regarding this rebuttal to Ms. Jenson’s position, maybe a more in-depth disclaimer of affiliations is necessary if one’s day job is an insurmountable obstacle to contributing unbiased, independent criticism in a public forum. After reading the assertion that “ultimately, librarians must choose the books they feel reflect the needs of their patrons,” I just wonder about SLJ’s thinking in inviting this line of thought into a discussion about a book’s merit in the wider world. My impression is that Ms. Jenson was asking for an unbiased, literary-based review of a work of fiction, although she is a bit stuck now trying to balance the scales. SLJ’s response, it seems, is to pile on more of the same.

    • As one of the letter writers, I thought I’d respond to your comment, Kristy, by saying that I think in writing a review, noting something factual — “sex and sexuality are themes in this book” — would be a terrific way of noting that this book might NOT be for all institutions. It’s straight forward without being judgmental, and librarians are then aware and can make choices as their own institutions and sensibilities and professional experience deems necessary. In this case, I feel like there’s much more of a judgment of value and worth because of the content.

      • Kelly, that’s a good point. And, you know, I COMPLETELY misspoke. I was intending to refer to Ms. Reeder’s affiliation with an Episcopal institution. What you are saying makes perfect sense, and I agree wholeheartedly.

  4. Do teens have casual, unprotected sex? On planet Earth? Yes. Is it safe? No. Is it smart? No. Does it happen? Yes.

    Books do not exist merely to be an extension of the ceaseless lecture passed down from adults too far removed from adolescence to actually comprehend what teens are experiencing; they are also a record and a reflection of the real and often difficult decisions teens are making daily not only without guidance, but also often in spite of it.

    It bothers me a great deal when the people responsible for guiding youth are so focused on their own morality and beliefs that they make judgments on the morality of adolescent characters, rather than using the good and bad in a book to help their patrons understand their own choices. Authors are not the moral compass for society; they are the painters of truth.

  5. While I think it’s a great idea for SLJ to consider publishing more reviews and discussions like this when there is a book that prompts productive discussion, but Ms. Reeder’s response is not productive. It’s reductive and judgmental, and, like other commenters are noting, has nothing to do with the book as a piece of literature, which should be the point of the review. There are plenty of ways to tell a librarian about a book so that they can make a decision about whether a book is right for them without passing judgment on people who aren’t even real.

    It’s also absurd to expect that it would make sense in the logic of the story for the non-protagonist, when telling her best friend something about her life and her new boy, to repeatedly mention protection, especially when, as the characters in this book seem to be, that girl is someone who seems to consider protection an obvious choice. Novels are not guidebooks or rulebooks or bible stories with moral lessons, and they don’t need to include cautionary, extraneous material repeatedly just to satisfy a reviewer’s desire to control what teenagers do and feel. Her final sentence, “ultimately, librarians must choose the books they feel reflect the needs of their patrons,” is of course the right course of action, but that’s why her original review (and rebuttal) was unacceptable, inaccurate, and unfair. It was morally biased, not critical on a literary level, and did not give a good picture of the book that would offer librarians to make an educated choice.