In what my mother doesn't know, Sophie tells her story of being almost fifteen, liking boys, and trying to figure out how to live when "my mind / and my body / and my heart / just don't seem to be able to agree / on anything" (which is a pretty insightful, succinct description of what it's like to be a teenager). Sophie is neither popular nor unpopular, and the story opens with her dating her first boyfriend and trying to figure out how much she really likes him. Despite really liking Dylan, her first boyfriend, she finds herself thinking about other boys, too.
She eventually breaks up with Dylan, and as she gets ready for the Halloween dance at school, she just knows something good will happen to her that night. As she watches a mockingbird outside her window, she thinks about who she might meet at the dance:
And as I watch him,
I'm feeling a lot like him,
like a feathery creature
balancing on a wire,
trying on lots of different voices
to see which one works best
and every now and then,
doing a little twirl
out on the dance floor,
hoping the boy bird of my dreams
will fly by and notice me,
flutter down beside me
and ask me to dance.
Something good does happen at the dance, but she is most disturbed by the fact that she keeps thinking about Murphy (Robin), an unattractive, utterly unpopular boy who is the butt of all the jokes, collective and otherwise, at her school. Still, Sophie can't escape her attraction to Murphy, and they eventually find themselves pursuing a relationship. what my mother doesn't know ends with Sophie having to decide if she will tell her friends about her relationship with Robin (and accept certain outcastdom) or pretend nothing happened and break up with Robin to save face.
what my girlfriend doesn't know picks up where what my mother doesn't know ends and details Robin's worries about how Sophie is suffering on account of him, trying to figure out who he is and protect Sophie at the same time, and dealing with the constant onslaught of his hormones. I should probably confess right now that Robin is just the kind of boy that I wanted to date in high school: he is sweet, sensitive, smart, and truly loves Sophie in the best sense of the word.
There was never a doubt in my mind that Sophie and Robin did truly love each other, and these books would give someone who doesn't think teenage love was real love a run for their money. In fact, I would go so far as to say that these books present very real depictions of what true love is: there is romance, but Sophie and Robin also sacrifice for each other, put each other first, and truly see the good and the bad and everything in between. Sophie and Robin are not perfect by any means, and they make some mistakes that are fairly common when hormones are in abundance and common sense isn't, but these mistakes only make Sones's characters more real and her portrayal of their relationship more believable.
Robin explains that he loves many things about Sophie, but one of my favorite sections from both of the books comes near the beginning of what my girlfriend doesn't know:
are smiling into mine.
And it's amazing, really,
because all she has to do is look at me
and my lump of a nose
the muscles on my arms
start to sprout,
the circles fade
under my eyes,
my ears shrink down
to a normal person's size...
If only everyone else
what Sophie sees
when she looks at me.
Both Robin and Sophie are fifteen in the novels, but they seemed much older, much more mature than that, especially Robin. These books deal very honestly with the things that would be at the forefront of a fifteen-year-old's mind: who you like, who likes you, school, homework, parents, how to get someone to like you, sex, and how to just make it through your day with as little trauma as possible. I appreciated Sones' approach to all these issues; they felt very real, and both Sophie and Robin practically jumped off the page.
I really, really loved these books, but I can understand why parents might not want their fifteen-year-olds reading these books. I don't know that I would want my hypothetical fifteen-year-old reading these books, at least not at fifteen, and definitely not without us talking about them as they read. The reason? There is quite a bit of discussion about sexuality and when the time is right to have sex. Both topics need to be discussed openly, honestly, and without embarassment between teenagers, parents, and other trusted advocates in their lives, and when I eventually have teenagers, I will make sure that we have those discussions. There is very little in terms of whether it is right or wrong for a fifteen-year-old to be contemplating sex, which is very fitting since it is two fifteen-year-olds telling their own stories; Sophie does tell Robin no when she's not ready, and Robin respects her and doesn't make her feel bad about not wanting to have sex, but to be completely honest, the unspoken assumption that fifteen-year-olds would be having sex niggled at me a bit.
I am not naive enough to think that fifteen-year-olds aren't having sex, and I don't think that Young Adult literature should simply be a soap box that older, "wiser" people use to preach at teenagers. Literature (in any form) needs, on some level, to meet readers where they are at, and sometimes that place isn't always ideal. What I do know is how I feel about whether teenagers should be having sex, and that really was the only thing that made me hesitate before expressing unabashed love for these books. While there are so many things about these books that I would love for my students to experience and enjoy, I know that I, as their teacher, couldn't encourage them to seek these books out. If students are mature enough to choose the books on their own, I would gladly dialogue with them about the books, and I am most definitely NOT advocating removing these books from libraries or bookstores. What I am advocating is weighing exactly what I am recommending to my students and staying true to my integrity as a person and a teacher.
Bottom line: as a reader, I loved these books; as a teacher, I wouldn't necessarily recommend these books to my students, but I would gladly talk about them with my students. Wow. The last part of this review was a lot harder to write than I thought it would be, and I still don't know if I expressed myself very well. Let me know what you think.