Anna remembers a time before boys, when she was little and everything made sense. When she and her mom were a family, just the two of them against the world. But now her mom is gone most of the time, chasing the next marriage, bringing home the next stepfather. Anna is left on her own—until she discovers that she can make boys her family. From Desmond to Joey, Todd to Sam, Anna learns that if you give boys what they want, you can get what you need. But the price is high—the other kids make fun of her; the girls call her a slut. Anna’s new friend, Toy, seems to have found a way around the loneliness, but Toy has her own secrets that even Anna can’t know.
Then comes Sam. When Anna actually meets a boy who is more than just useful, whose family eats dinner together, laughs, and tells stories, the truth about love becomes clear. And she finally learns how it feels to have something to lose—and something to offer. Real, shocking, uplifting, and stunningly lyrical, Uses for Boys is a story of breaking down and growing up.
So while I was in line waiting for Stephanie Keuhn to sign my copy of Charm & Strange, I was handed a copy of this novel. The author was also there signing, so I took it even though the cover made it look like just another YA romance. I didn’t look at it again until I bought a new bookshelf and started arranging my ALA books on it. I looked up the reviews on Goodreads, and they were full of people feeling misled by the cover. That’s when I knew it was my kind of book. The romance readers were tricked! And I’m so glad I read this one. I usually associate the contemporary genre with romance (think Stephanie Perkins), but I’ve found some really great ones that have almost none at all, or, like this one, have a kind of detached romantic feel, like Anna’s reading her own story along with us. Anna is broken. Her mother is neglectful and spends all her time chasing after her next husband only to divorce him later. Anna’s mother is also broken. Anna doesn’t know what a family is or what love feels like, so she strikes out on her own, substituting sex for love. This starts when she’s a very young teenager and leads to her being bullied and dropping out of school. She is first exploited, then cared for, then raped. The rape scene is truly upsetting, because the whole time Anna is trying to figure out why this boy is hurting her. She doesn’t understand that he’s violating her body. For the remainder of the novel, she says she wishes he’d come back and apologize, say he didn’t mean it. He doesn’t. All he tells her is not to tell anyone else. She doesn’t.
Not even Toy, the girl she meets at a thrift store, the girl who has the kind of boyfriends Anna dreams about. Toy’s mother is very similar to Anna’s, but Toy’s is an alcoholic to boot. So Toy has her issues (as anyone named “Toy” is bound to have) and her secrets as well. Anna doesn’t discover them until nearly the end, but I had some idea about Toy’s dreamland. Toy and Anna both seek out escapes, just of a different kind. This is a story about love and how Anna finally discovers what’s real. She has an abortion. She experiences heartbreak. People call her a slut. Anna has to learn that her body is her own, that sex does not equal love, that an intimate touch does not equal caring. And she does, eventually, when she meets Sam. Sam has a real family, a close one, with parents still in love. He’s a high school senior and a virgin, and he teaches Anna that she has only herself and that that’s enough. Or really, she teaches herself those lessons. She learns to be more than just enough for someone. Anna makes a personal transformation.
And this book is about a lot more than just Anna’s journey. It’s about our culture at large and how we treat our young girls. It’s about slut-shaming and the nature of sex. It’s about rape and abuse. It’s about parental neglect and possible mental illness. I saw this novel as a critique of the status quo in addition to Anna’s coming of age. I love books that challenge the accepted “normal” worldview. It’s so important we teach kids to question what they hear and to think critically. Books like these help them do so. I look forward to whatever Scheidt has in store for us next.