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Teenage Tales: Sneaking Looks In Sexy Books

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Emily Danforth is the author of The Miseducation of Cameron Post.

I was at a garage sale with my grandmother when I found a paperback copy of Rita Mae Brown's Rubyfruit Jungle.

I was, without much enthusiasm, rummaging through a pile of books. And then I turned over a small paperback. There, on the back, was a reviewer praising this "account of what it's like growing up lesbian ..." I flinched — such a private word to place in such prominence on a book cover.

I scanned the rest of the blurb, and then I saw it: "women who love women." Now I had to have it.

I couldn't possibly ask my grandmother to buy it for me, because then she'd know this thing about me that I wasn't even sure I knew about myself. But I had to read it. So I stole it, and I read it in secret gulps, sneaking pages when I could.

The thing is: I wanted too much from Rubyfruit Jungle and its narrator, Molly Bolt. What I really wanted wasn't a novel at all, it was a "how to be a girl who likes girls even if you're from a small town in the middle of nowhere" manual, and that's just not what the book is.

Poor, provincial and made aware early on of her status as a "bastard," Molly outmaneuvers the judgments of her teachers and her family, simply through her own intelligence and determination (neither of which I had in junior high). She conquers grammar school, then high school, even wooing the head cheerleader, all the while showcasing her unique blend of wit and beauty (did I mention that she's gorgeous, too?).

Sure, she's kicked out of college when the (closeted) dean of students discovers her romantic relationship with her roommate. Sure, she ends up sleeping in a car on the streets of Manhattan, only $24.61 to her name. But you never really believe she's in trouble; she's too much the hero. If she was to be my model of lesbianism, I reasoned, I might as well give up now.

There was just so much that I didn't understand in the novel, references to structuralism and Susan Sontag, a discussion of butch-femme dynamics. I needed the CliffsNotes, or better yet, a teacher to give me context.

But I had no such teacher, and I was too far in the closet then to go looking for one, so instead I read the book in secret, in shame, sneaking looks at the sexy bits.

Those bits were what kept me coming back. Their frankness was alarming, but I knew that I was reading about women being intimate together, and that in at least some of those scenes there was great joy and no shame. So I read them until I didn't feel shamed by reading them, and for right then, at that age, that was more than enough.

What I know now that I couldn't have understood then is that Rubyfruit Jungle was important because of the countless ways it confused, frustrated and unsettled me.

This novel made me conceptualize just how many ways of being were available for a girl who liked girls — beyond my family, beyond my town. Eventually, I realized I didn't need to be Molly Bolt. What I could be, instead, was someone who understood her world — someone who understood her choices and actions.

And this is the novel that started me on my way to that place.

PG-13 is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Rose Friedman.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Now, the latest entry in our series for young teens, PG-13. It's during these early adolescent years that young readers really start to crave adult ideas. Author Emily Danforth remembers the age and the book that transformed her view of the world and of herself. It's called "Rubyfruit Jungle."

EMILY DANFORTH: I was at a garage sale when I found "Rubyfruit Jungle." I was there with my grandmother. She was looking at tablecloths. I was browsing books. Mostly, they were hardcover and boring, but then I found this little paperback with a funny title. And there it was, on the back, a reviewer praising this account of what it's like growing up lesbian in America. I think I flinched. I was 12 years old. Everything embarrassed me. But it was such a private word to put in such a public place, on the book cover.

I had to have it. I couldn't ask my grandmother to buy it for me because then she'd know this thing about me that I wasn't even sure I knew about myself. But I needed to read it. So I stole it. And I read it in secret gulps. I snuck bits of it whenever I could. The thing is I wanted too much from this book and its narrator, Molly. What I really wanted wasn't even a novel. It was more of a manual on how to be a girl who likes girls even if you're from a small town in the middle of nowhere. And that's just not what this book is.

Molly's circumstances aren't great. But she outmaneuvers people's judgments about her just by being smart and determined, neither of which I was in junior high. She conquers grammar school, then high school. She even seduces the head cheerleader, the whole time showing off her unique blend of wit and beauty. Oh, yeah, did I mention she's gorgeous too? Sure, she's kicked out of college when the dean discovers her romantic relationship with her roommate.

And sure, she ends up sleeping in a car on the streets of Manhattan. But you never really believe she's in trouble. She's too brash and feisty. If she's going to be my model of lesbianism, I figured I might as well give up now. She was just so unlike me. I didn't have that kind of confidence, and I didn't know where to look for it. What I know now that I couldn't have understood then is that "Rubyfruit Jungle" was important because it was confusing and frustrating.

It made me see that there were so many ways to be a girl who likes girls. Eventually, I even realized I didn't need to be Molly. What I could be was someone who understood her world, someone who understood her choices, and this is the novel that started me on my way to that place.

SIEGEL: Emily Danforth is the author of the coming-of-age novel "The Miseducation of Cameron Post." She recommended "Rubyfruit Jungle" by Rita Mae Brown. At our website, you can find more PG-13 recommendations as well as lists of summer reads from our critics and correspondents. That's all at nprbooks.org.

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