Isn't Everyone "Doing It"? - A Realistic Look into the Mind of Teenagers

Melvin Burgess. Doing It. New York: Henry Holt and Company. 2004.

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"You know what, when it comes to affairs of the heart we're all just about sixteen years old."(184) On the surface, Doing It may look like a book about sex and all the joys and pleasures that go along with having sex, but once you get into the book you learn that it is about so much more. It is, in fact, a remarkably realistic, yet incredibly funny story that almost every teenager can relate to in one way or another. It sends the message to teenagers that yes, sex feels good, but with it comes a wide variety of issues and problems that, before engaging in sex, may never have even occurred within the mind of the average, hormone driven teenager. This story also deals with issues of friendship, peer pressure, self-esteem, family/parental struggles, teenage rebellion, and suicide, along with others that teens reading this book can identify with.

Unlike many young adult books on this topic, this one is told primarily through the male perspective. Dino, Ben, and Johnathan, the three main male characters, are typical teenage boys with raging hormones who want more than anything to "do it."
Dino, the popular one with loads of self confidence and looks to match, is the type of boy that most would envy and long to be like; but once you read more about him you find that his life is far from perfect. He wants Jackie, the popular girl who is dating someone eight years older. "He was in love with her and he didn't even know it."(129) He wants desperately to win her over and shag her but this quest is met with many speed bumps and potholes; one of those being a girl named Zoe. Dino fails at juggling the two girls and ends up in an embarrassing shoplifting incident. In addition to his love turmoils, Dino discovers that his mother is having an affair and that his parents are separating.
Ben lives out every boy's fantasy and becomes involved in a sexual relationship with a young, good looking teacher named Miss Ali Young. But...reality isn't as wonderful as fantasy. "This. Has got. To stop...It's just porn with a pulse. I want to... you know. Well. I want to fall in love."(208-09) While part of him enjoys having sex with an older, more experienced woman, the other part of him longs to have a normal relationship with someone his own age without all the secrets, drama, and personal issues that come with along with Miss Young.
Johnathan's quest to "do it" leads him to the chubby girl with a big crush, Deborah. Johnathan is unsure of how to deal with his feelings for her and all the peer pressure and ridicule that comes along with dating "the fat girl." "Could it be that I've been kidding myself all the time, and that actually it's just that I'm ashamed to be seen with her?" (143) Johnathan also has a very embarrassing problem; he has a lump on his Mr. Knobby. He overcomes his fears and goes to the clinic to have Mr. Knobby checked out and is mortified when a beautiful female doctor enters his exam room (296-303).

Even though this book is told through the voices of Dino, Ben, and Johnathan, teenage girls can relate to this story as well. Struggles of heartache and decisions of whether or not to have sex are issues that both Jackie and Deborah share. Miss Young and Deborah both deal with self-esteem issues. Zoe is the typical rebellious teenager; looking for fun at any cost. All of these are feelings and emotions that many teenage girls experience at one point or another.

This book brings to light the issues, struggles, emotions, and fears that many experience during their teenage years making it very translatable to the average teenage reader. It doesn't mask the repercussions of behaviors or sex; it instead confronts them head on while still entertaining the reader and making them laugh along the way.

Recommendations for Teachers

Is there such a thing as a middle ground? A place where the ‘cool’ teacher and parent-friendly teacher exist? After all, how can a teacher remain on the parents’ and student’s good side; isn’t the students’ arch enemy the very people who raised them?

The novel Doing It by Melvin Burgess would be a really ‘cool’ suggested text for students. They would feel as though they are on your level and you treat them with respect and view them as an adult. Especially since the novel has graphic language and detailed sex scenes. But are they adults; and is it really appropriate material for teens?

The book is has genuinely relatable topics and heavy-weighted issues that teens struggle with daily. However, some may debate the novel is not suited as a “class read” and that the ‘cool’ teach could find themselves up against a wall due to parental concern about the nature of the book. I mean, sure, you (the teacher) might be aware of how the teens think and act—but, as for the stuffy parents that scandalous journey is a long time ago. Furthermore, how can one defend scenes of mock sex acts taking place by a football field before a dance, intimate student-teacher relations, descriptive sexual scenes and entire chapters discussing Mr. Knobby Knobster?

But, the ‘cool’ teacher can see the purpose of the novel and what its content offers young adolescents. You’ve decided you want to teach the book; what are the next steps? Due to its graphic nature, it would be best to inform the parents about the novel; this can be achieved by creating a preemptive letter which outlines themes, author information and academic purpose for making the book a class read. The letter can include a section about opting out of the novel. The key is remembering parents get a say in what the students learn, and if they—or the student—is uncomfortable reading Doing It, the choice should be available to not participate and find another suitable text.

Another activity to introduce controversial work is role playing. In our college class, we had the opportunity to act out a scene that frequently occurs regarding the challenge of a specific book. The class was divided up into roles of angry parents, defensive teachers and level-headed school board members. High school students could engage in the role playing to incorporate Wilhelm’s ideas of drama and bring the book’s issues out in the open. After all, the students might gain a better understanding or maturity to help them actively read and interpret the novel. Of course, you know what works best for your students. The general idea is to properly prepare and guide the students though the reading journey to address any problems or questions that may occur.

So, maybe it’s not the best book for a class read, or even on the highly suggested reading book list; but it is still there to offer. One can recommend the book to a mature student who has confided about similar kinds of struggles occurring in their life; or to a student who is reading other related, equally-provocative material. The book could even be suggest as a summer read, (they’re no longer your student, right?) Still, a conversation ‘warning’ or discussing the material of Doing It should occur to make sure the student is aware and well-informed about the basic content. Perhaps, a post-reading check-in is necessary to determine how the student reacted and felt about the reading.

The book maybe inappropriate due to the fact it could make students uncomfortable—it might contain too aggressive language and forward concepts. Students could find the content and description overwhelming, or offensive. Certainly most parents will not condone their teens reading such a sexually-charged book for school.

Nevertheless, Doing It is an engaging book; it demonstrates ordinary high school components with topics of peer pressure, levels of maturity, teen relationships, physical body changes and parental roles and involvement. The book will certainly captivate students and become a challenge to put down. Teens can learn there is the option to refuse sex, learn that being curious is part of being young, learn believed ‘fantasies’ can be versions of a living hell and, ultimately, everyone gets to decide their own path.

Luckily, there is still the ‘cool’ teacher option; it’s always there on the shelf, waiting for the next, student-specific recommendation; furthermore, one can maintain a positive reputation of ensuring students always have an optimistic, comfortable, active and challenging reading experience.

Teaching Controversial Topics This website is for teachers to help them when trying to teach their student a controversial topic.

Teen Sexuality A sexual education website for teenagers to inform them of the risk and of the precautions before having sexual intercourse.
Teen Help and Advice is a teen advice forum for teens to talk to other teens about issues they are going through.
Student-Teacher Relationships This website discusses the appropriate and inappropriate relationships between students and teachers.

About Melvin Burgess

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Melvin Burgess (born 25 April 1954) is a British author of children's fiction. His first book, The Cry of the Wolf, was published in 1990. He gained a certain amount of notoriety in 1996 with the publication of Junk, which was published in the shadow of the film of Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting, and dealt with the trendy and controversial idea of heroin-addicted teenagers. Junk soon became, at least in Britain, one of the best-known young adult books of the decade.
Burgess again courted predictable controversy in 2003, with the publication of Doing It, which delved into the minds of young men and the hormonal and emotional world of under aged sex. America created a show based on the book, Life As We Know It. In his other books, such as Bloodtide and The Ghost Behind the Wall, Burgess has dealt with less realist and sometimes fantastical themes. In 2001 Burgess wrote the novelisation of the film Billy Elliot, based on Lee Hall's screenplay.

Multimedia (Video or Audio)
This video is a preview from ABC's "Life as we Know it." The show included Kelly Osbourne in the cast who portrayed Deborah. "Life as we Know it" was based on Burgess' novel, but toned the controversial topics down a bit to stay on air.

Additional Resources:
Additional YA Books by Melvin Burgess This website allows you to find information on more books written by Burgess such as Smack, Loving April, and The Ghost Behind the Wall.
Banning "Doing It" in Arkansas? 20 Shocking Books in School Library in Fayetteville, Arkansas – Read why Doing It by Melvin Burgess is being challenged in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Life As We Know It This link will take you to TV Guide's summary of "Life As We Know It"; the show that was based on Doing It. Not only will you find a description but you can purchase the seasons and learn more about the cast and crew.
Melvin Burgess This website which gives you additional information about Melvin Burgess, his books, awards he has won, and many other topics.
Metapsychology Online Review This will take you to an interesting review of Doing It by Melvin Burgess.
More YA Books This link will direct you to a website which lists today's popular YA books and allows young adults to participate in book discussions.
"Sympathy for the Devil" - Melvin Burgess, the controversial writer Journal article from Children‘s Literature in Education entitled “Sympathy for the Devil” which discusses the controversial writer Melvin Burgess.

--Tiffany Callaghan, Katie Jesser, Kylie McCollum, and Tori Smith
-- Links to our other reviews: Lauren Myracle's Bliss