Maddie Hawkins, the 16-year-old protagonist of Amanda Grace's "The Truth about You and Me," is smart for her age. Really smart. And as she tells us, "Smart girls aren't supposed to do stupid things."
So when Maddie starts taking college courses as part of a program for advanced high school students, no one foresees what's going to happen.
Maddie falls hard for her biology professor, Bennett Cartwright -- but it's not just an ordinary crush. Since this is college, Bennett is easily deceived into thinking that Maddie is 18. Though he's aware that romance with a student of any age is unethical, he finds it all too easy to start crossing lines.
And as they start seeing more of each other outside class, her parents are easily fooled into thinking Maddie's at the library or at a friend's house. Outwardly, after all, she's still the perfect student, the perfect daughter, who would never lie or disobey or get in trouble.
Until the night she inadvertently leaves her phone lying around, and everything falls apart.
"The Truth about You and Me" is told in the form of letters that Maddie writes to Bennett after they've been caught. Hoping that the police might read what she's writing, and that she can keep Bennett out of jail, she recounts every detail of their relationship, taking all the blame on herself.
This was where I saw a giant red flag. Anyone who's ever followed a statutory rape case knows that there's always someone who tries to blame the child or teen for leading the adult astray. It's an ugly side of human nature, one that's led to the silencing and shaming of countless victims, but unfortunately it's still a very common one.
In this light, Maddie's insistence that it's all her fault comes across as an irresponsible, even dangerous, tactic on the part of the author. It's true that Maddie behaves selfishly and deceitfully; as she repeats several times (this girl is really into repetition), she didn't fully think through the possible consequences for Bennett. But Bennett is still the adult here, and as the careful reader can see, his behavior is far from impeccable.
He tells Maddie they can't truly be together until after the semester ends, when he's no longer her teacher; Maddie, having secretly looked up the statutory rape laws in their state (where the age of consent is 16 unless "the older person is in a position of power"), agrees to this. And yet Bennett continues to spend every moment he can with her. He humiliates her in class to throw other students off the scent, gives her an A- that she hasn't earned, and asks her not to tell anyone he's given her his address. He even makes her hide in a closet, when his mother shows up unexpectedly while Maddie's at his house.
Additionally, Bennett has been informed, just like all the other professors at the college, that there are high school kids there, but it never even seems to occur to him that Maddie might be one of them.
Even Maddie has to admit at one point, "You were my professor, and so eager to hide our relationship. And that's how I was able to lie for so long. Because we'd agreed to the secret . . . even if you hadn't really known what you were agreeing to." Ironically, this one brief realization of his culpability is the point at which Maddie seems most mature. But it doesn't last. Later, when Bennett tells her, "You ruined me," she agrees.
The problem is, the target audience for this book is teenage girls, and many teens are still developing their reading and discernment skills. It isn't always easy for some of them to read between the lines, especially when the narrator is a girl of their own age, and it's her voice and perspective taking center stage. Of course, many teens are very smart, but then, so is Maddie, and her intelligence didn't give her wisdom.
It's worth noting, incidentally, that Amanda Grace (who also writes under her real name, Mandy Hubbard) has tackled controversial issues before. Her novel "But I Love Him" is the story of a teenage girl in an abusive relationship -- told backwards so that the reader gets a unique angle on how she came to be in the situation. It's a risky move in some respects, but it makes for an insightful story. But in "The Truth about You and Me," Grace lets her young narrator bear too much of the blame for a situation where she's increasingly in over her head. And it would be all too easy for young readers to see it the same way.
There are other problems with Grace's storytelling techniques as well. Maddie tells us again and again (and again and again and again) that her parents push her too hard, expecting academic perfection. One of her reasons for pursuing Bennett is that he's an escape from the rigors of her home and school life. But we actually see very little of this, and we see almost zero character development in the parents at all, even after their shattering discovery of what Maddie's involved in. Her mother, particularly, is almost a caricature. When the story keeps telling instead of showing, and the only fully fleshed-out characters are the narrator and the object of her desires, the book feels less like it's narrated by a teenager and more like it's written by one.
As for specific content issues, there's one sexual encounter between Maddie and Bennett, though it's not described in explicit detail. There's also a handful of curse words. But it's the overarching theme, and the way the story is told, that make this a deeply problematic book for young adults.
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