Note: FPC on Wednesday cancelled the committee review meeting scheduled for May 11. The school is not providing an explanation as to why, or whether the book is being arbitrarily banned.
Elana K. Arnold’s “What Girls Are Made Of” (Simon & Schuster, 2004) is among the 22 books so far this school year that a trio of individuals have sought to ban from high school library shelves. This title in particular is being challenged by Terri McDonald. A Flagler Palm Coast High School committee of faculty and community members meets at 3 p.m. Thursday afternoon at FPC to decide whether to retain or ban the book. The meeting is open to the public but not to public participation. The following review by FlaglerLive Editor Pierre Tristam is presented as a guide.
I suspect that a few readers concerned about Nina Faye flipped to the end of What Girls Are Made Of, Elana K. Arnold’s deconstruction of a 16-year-old girl’s being and nothingness, to make sure that she doesn’t kill herself.
She doesn’t. For all her neediness and self-abnegation, for all the things that “come out of her—actions and words and excretions—that offend and repulse,” as Arnold describes her first-person narrator in an author’s note at the end of the novel, Nina has the gift (or curse) of self-analysis. She is unsparing of herself. If Rousseau had once been a 16-year-old girl growing up in a wealthy Los Angeles suburb in the early 2000s, these would be his confessions.
Nina is a lot more likable and a lot less of a paranoid prig. She’s not asking for much: just unconditional love. That’s her journey. That’s the novel’s only plot line. It’s a mostly unsuccessful quest as if doomed by Nina’s self-absorbed and jaded mother, who seems to relish taking out on her daughter the spite she harbors over her own emptiness.
There is no such thing as unconditional love. The phrase recurs in one form or another a dozen times, starting with the novel’s opening lines: “When I was fourteen, my mother told me there was no such thing as unconditional love. ‘I could stop loving you at any time,’ my mother said.” With that little shattering menace hanging over her, Nina tries to grab hold of her incomprehensible adolescence without its most essential safety net.
She is an only child to an absent father and vaguely alcoholic, transactional mother who miscarries literally and figuratively for most of the novel. Nina lives in a sterile, loveless home–“an entombment of waste and space and emptiness”–a “mausoleum” where no one ever wants to be.
She’s empty inside, too, so she easily falls for Seth, a vapid dumbass of a boy with magnetic but entirely egotistical eroticism. His id squats on the tip of his cock. Seth’s only gift to Nina in their three months: a vibrator, because she’s never had an orgasm with him and he’s getting tired of trying. But she describes him the way the protagonist of Crank—another book on this year’s ban list in Flagler schools—describes the all-controlling monster of methamphetamines: “my desire for him overwhelms me at every turn, it fills my throat like an awful tumor, and I am powerless to define myself any other way.” Seth is meth.
He sets down conditions. She willingly follows them. They must have sex. She must never call him. They must never speak of Apollinia Corado, Seth’s once-and-future girlfriend. Apollinia is a Portuguese goddess of sorts that Nina reviles and once embarrassed at school so much and so scatologically that Nina is required to fulfill an untold number of community service hours somewhere as punishment.
She does so in a “high-kill shelter” for dogs, which proves to be her only refuge, her sentimental education:
Every time I’m there, I see the conditions under which people determine love.
Youth + symmetry + quietness = love
Young dogs find homes quickly. Old dogs are fucked. Dogs who are missing something—an eye, a leg? They lack symmetry. It’s lethal injection for them, almost all the time. Barkers. Dogs who make a fuss, who don’t wait patiently and virtuously, who don’t wag their little tails and perk up their ears. Dogs who cry for help. No one wants them, either.
She identifies with the dogs, the only creatures she knows who give unconditional love. (Odysseus’s dog, recall, is the only creature that recognized him upon his return from Troy.)
What Girls Are Made Of is a book of tangents and set pieces that dissect the burdens of being a girl–an object of desire and contempt–at times literally, at times metaphorically, sometimes combining both, as when Nina writes a story for her English class, in magical realism style, about a girl who grows vaginas all over her body. (In Looking for Alaska, yet another book on Flagler’s ban list, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez’s The General in His Labyrinth was the main characters’ literary lodestar. Here, a bit more obviously, it’s Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.)
Nina’s growing story collection, including graphically violent descriptions of the deaths of virgin martyr saints, are a window into the subconscious mind of a girl adrift but finding control in her own narratives. Instead of cutting herself she writes of virgin saints whose breasts and heads were cut off.
There is no magical realism in Nina’s life. Just realism. Blunt, clinical realism that at times feels as if Arnold, who likes to make you feel her seethes, is standing over your shoulder whispering, I dare you to read on. One of those set pieces is about the merciless machinery of euthanizing dogs, what happens to them during the killing, what happens to them after. I did not know that the dogs are boiled. “Yes, boiled,” Nina tells the disbelieving reader. “To separate the fat, which is sold through a bidding process to whoever can pay the most for it. The fat is used to make lipstick. Household cleaners. Dog food. Cat food. The bones are ground up, and they end up in pet food, too.”
She is writing of the disposability of life as an echo of the Dissected Graces, those Enlightenment-era, lifelike figures of wax–women–with their guts spilling out, a precursor to today’s popular “real bodies” exhibitions that began in Japan in 1995 and landed in the United States in 2004. Nina’s mother takes her to a museum to see the figures as they travel Italy when she’s 14. Nina compares the wax figures to expensive, customizable sex dolls she sees on a website called Wishbone Girls: “Exposed, flayed, placed on pedestals. Girls made of beeswax and latex and animal fat and gore. Of curiosity and desire and maybe hatred, too. Men made these girls—the saints, the Dissected Graces, the Wishbone Dolls. All of them, made by men.”
The scenes where Nina describes her pelvic exam, her medical abortion–at a time when that freedom is onerously conditional on laws made by men–or her bout with the vibrator (as the song “I wanna Be Your Dog” blares) are all written with forensic care and lucid prose enough to make you wish the book were required reading in health class from sixth or seventh grade and up, not just for girls.
So are the sex scenes. Yes, there are a few. Sex with Seth. Sex without Seth. The sex of sex dolls. The scenes are explicit. But it’s the explicitness of an Associated Press reporter, a who-what-0when-where-how of sex that may tell you what’s going in what hole, and even more what’s coming out of which, but that spurs not a flutter of eroticism. The reader is as put off as Nina, as when she describes, after unprotected bout of sex with Seth, the way “a runny path of semen, like egg whites, trails down my leg.”
Unfortunately those are also the very scenes that have kept this book on the ban list, not just because of the explicit sex, but because of lines like this: “that abortion was the kindest, best thing I have done for myself in as long as I can remember. It was probably the best decision I have ever made.” The line is absolutely believable and should be uncontroversial. But it’s 2023 on the official calendar only.
In most regards that this book touches on–sexuality, abortion, a girl’s place–it’s 1950 all over again in neo-Gileads like Flagler County and so many others. The current issue of The Economist, in a longish article about life under the Taliban, notes that “it is appalling to witness the freedoms of millions of Afghan women being asphyxiated.” I don’t know how a line that can be written so exclusively in the aftermath of Dobbs and the ongoing assault on the freedom to read. You don’t need the full-on sacking of a burqua to feel at least a few of its erasing threads. Nina’s story is an attempt to get out from asphyxiation, too.
But I have no doubt that What Girls Are Made Of will be banned in this county as easily as were Damsel, a book by the same author, or All Boys Aren’t Blue, with its equally AP-style sex scenes. Because if Nina is ultimately made of courage and a clear-eyed determination to find her own freedom, we, in Free Florida, are not.
The following questions in bold are reproduced here exactly as they appear on the Flagler County school district’s school-based Review Questionnaire for media advisory committees taking up book challenges–or attempts to ban books–at the school level. Committees fill in their answers as they reach a decision on each challenged book, after a lengthy committee discussion. The answers below are provided as an amendment to the preceding review, in the more focused context of the district’s question, and are of course only the reviewer’s own–in this case, FlaglerLive Editor Pierre Tristam. Committees may reach vastly different conclusions. Those will be appended below, once they are issued.
Title: What Girls Are Made Of.
Author or editor: Elana K. Arnold.
Publisher: Carolrhoda Lab, an imprint of the Lerner Publishing Group.
Basis of objection: “This book has several instances of explicit sex. The book normalizes abortion and gives accolades to Planned Parenthood.”
1. What is the purpose, theme or message of the material?
The novel explores the state of mind of an adolescent girl whose self-worth is entirely calibrated to the way she is perceived by her boyfriend, her mother or others, and her slow journey out of that toxic self-loathing.
2. Does the material support and/or enrich the curriculum?
Yes: though fictional, it is an exercise in autobiography no different, formally, than celebrated, searching autobiographies that seek to explore what may be at the root of a flawed personality.
3. Does the material stimulate growth in factual knowledge, literary appreciation, aesthetic values, and/or ethical values?
Yes to all: the novel is very well researched and provides girls, if not boys, crucial knowledge they often do not get at home about sexual health, self-care, abortion, and also provides a rich understanding of a form of art and history of female martyr saints.
4. Does the material enable students to make intelligent judgments in their daily lives?
Yes, by way of showing how poor choices can demolish a person. Nina Faye is a bundle of poor choices.
5. Does the title offer an opportunity to understand more of the human condition?
Yes. It is a deep, at times disturbing, always enlightening and candid exploration of the adolescent mind of a teen girl growing up in a materialist culture that objectifies women dangerously and mercilessly.
6. Does the material offer an opportunity to better understand an appreciate the aspirations, achievements and history of diverse groups of people?
No. There is no diversity here. This is by and about white middle class people, but it is no less universal in its reach.
1. Is the content timely and/or relevant?
Yes. Much as we would like to think that American society has evolved away from seeing women as Playboy bunnies, or that the #MeToo movement has made strides against that primitive attitude, Nina’s experiences are still very much of the moment in a society, and in a state–in a county–whose own school board members are regressing back to an idealized version of America where girls just look pretty and keep their mouths shut, and where abortion is criminalized.
2. Is the subject matter of importance to the students served?
Very much so. Girls (and boys) need to understand themselves, they need to know what to do and how to go about doing it when faced with a goon of a boyfriend (or its opposite), when faced with an unwanted pregnancy, when faced with a sterile, loveless home.
3. Is the writing of high quality?
Yes. It’s clear-eyed, a bit didactic here and there but not damagingly so. The prose is brisk, richly allusive, and uses numerous interesting literary devices, whether through weaving in some of the short stories Nina writes for her class or describing through set pieces what a pelvic exam is like, what a medical abortion is like, what getting one’s first period is like. In Rome.
4. Does the material have readability and popular appeal?
Yes. The book is very readable, and has been very popular.
5. Does the material come from a reputable publisher/producer?
Yes. The publisher is part of the Lerner Publishing Group, a nearly 60-year-old company with 13 imprints.
6. I presented as factual, is the content accurate?
Yes. The book includes well-researched descriptions of what takes place in a high-kill shelter for abandoned dogs, of abortion, and other factually-based realities.
7. If the text is informational, is the text comprehensive?
Not applicable: the factual parts of the book are designed to advance the narrative, without compromising the facts.
1. Does the material take in consideration the students’ varied interests, abilities and/or maturity levels?
Yes. Nothing a middle school or high school student will read here will seem alien, paradoxically reproducing a sense of recognition with the reader’s own sense of alienation from surroundings that can often be brutal and demeaning.
2. Does the material help provide any of the following:
- A resource that represents a level of difficulty accessible to readers at the school? Yes.
- Diversity of appeal? Yes.
- Representation of diverse points of view? No, but this isn’t a panel on diversity. The questions in this case are not fairly applicable to the intent of the book, anymore than the Odyssey does not represent diverse points of view, but is no less universal.
3. Does the material help to provide representation for various religious, ethnic, and/or cultural groups and the contribution of these groups to American heritage?
There are interesting segments about the lives of martyred saints, providing a deep look into the way Catholicism has contributed to the degradation of women–and to giving some women, some of the representative saints, a sense of fortitude that nevertheless does not seem wise to emulate in the face of similarly boorish behavior today.
4. Does this material provide representation to students based on race, color, religion, sex, gender, age, marital status, sexual orientation, disability, political or religious beliefs, national or ethnic origin, or genetic information?
No, but again, this is a silly question in this book’s context and answering in the negative should not be taken as a flaw of the book.
5. In a Yes or No answer only, do you feel the material has a purpose for a school library collection?
Comments specific to the objection:
That the objection specifies that the book “gives accolades to Planned Parenthood” says it all: the objection comes from a place of ignorance that seems to wish back-alley abortions on young girls. The objection would be pitiable if it weren’t so consequential.
The book is an important read not only for its intended audience–adolescent girls–but for boys of the same age, for their parents, and most of all, for those who wish to ban it: they know not what they do, especially since they have obviously not read the book, or read only its plagiarized sex passages.
Recommendation (retain, remove, other):
Retain in high school, add to middle school libraries.