Sarah Darer Littman
Scholastic Press: 332 pp., $17.99, for older teens and mature readers
Despite words of warning in schools and cautionary talks with parents, more than half of U.S. teenagers have given out personal information to strangers online, according to a 2008 Harris Interactive-McAfee poll. Why they do it is the subject of "Want to Go Private?," a chillingly real young adult novel that tracks 14-year-old Abby Johnston from Internet chat room to abduction.
Inspired by author Sarah Darer Littman's experience of her own child befriending a stranger online, "Want to Go Private?" is a cautionary tale for teens, parents — anyone who's questioned how innocent kids from good families are so easily sucked into the sleazy underworld of Internet porn.
The book opens the day before Abby and best friend Faith start high school. Abby is a straight-A student who dreads the change to a larger pool of students and inevitable harassment by the Clique Queens. Faith, on the other hand, looks forward to it. So begins Abby's alienation.
Threatened by Faith's new friendships and interests, Abby strikes up a conversation with a guy she meets on a new social networking site that she and Faith recently joined — an older man calling himself BlueSkyBoi who quickly raises the stakes on their interactions, asking Abby to reveal her actual name, then send pictures of herself and, eventually, to meet.
"Want to Go Private?" is a young-adult title, but it's definitely for older teens and more mature readers, and not only because of its overarching plot. Peppered with faux and acronymic profanities, the dialogue is realistically coarse, and some of the subject matter is sexually graphic, especially once BlueSkyBoi has persuaded Abby to take off her clothes before a Web cam for a guy she doesn't really know.
The first half of the book is told from Abby's perspective, giving readers a bird's-eye view into the mind-set of a teen who's being "groomed" by an online predator. Abby's dad is a workaholic. Abby isn't close to her mother or sister, and she's feeling more and more distant from her best friend. BlueSkyBoi is the only person who seems to really listen to Abby's troubles. Even though Abby is intellectually aware that some of BlueSkyBoi's story doesn't add up, her emotional connection with him is so powerful it overrides her better judgment.
The book switches to an alternating cast of narrators once Abby goes missing. That event is marked with a black page and subliminally underscored with the start of Chapter 13, which begins an ominous new twist as the police piece together leads in an attempt to bring Abby home.
Littman worked with an FBI agent and a detective from her local Connecticut police department to research the finer points of online sexual predation. While that research lends a sort of gritty truthfulness to "Want to Go Private?," Littman isn't always successful at embedding those details in a manner that seems authentic in the context of the book's characters and action. Littman is occasionally heavy-handed in her explanations of how sexual predation works — from the computer servers located outside the country to the sexual abuse online predators often suffer themselves to the difficulty of stopping child porn once it's been created and distributed for download.
But she is unflinching in addressing the realities of the victim, walking readers through Abby's rape exam and, courageously, through reintegration with her family and back into school. Despite some small flaws, "Want to Go Private?" is a bold investigation of a potentially lethal, if common, mixture for teen girls: emotional immaturity, technology and emerging sexuality.