The New YA Novel That Every Health Teacher Should Read

Here are the top takeaways from the new novel What We Saw.


Based on the events of the Steubenville, Ohio, rape case in 2012, What We Saw provides a fictional account of a sexual assault case (involving star athletes and social media) that rocks a small-town high school. The School Library Journal called author Aaron Hartzler’s novel, “a gripping narrative that begs to be discussed,” and they were right.

While the book is recommended for ages 14 and up, anyone teaching students about sexual health and relationships in the digital age needs to pick a copy up right away. Here’s why:

1. It delivers a clear, multi-layered understanding of consent.

“Just because she didn’t say no, it doesn’t mean she said yes.”

A recent report’s finding that 1 in 4 women are sexually assaulted during their college years makes it clear that we haven’t been doing enough to teach kids about the meaning of consent.

Earlier this month, California became the first state to mandate that consent be added to existing health curriculum, so this book couldn’t have come at a better time.

What We Saw gives a definition of consent that is exactly what our students—boys and girls—need to hear. We can explain the concept to them, but they’ll get a much more relevant sense of what it means by reading the perspectives of so many different teenaged characters.

2. It provides a realistic look at the implications of underage drinking.

“What if she didn’t tell them no because she couldn’t?” Lindsay asks quietly. “What if she was too drunk to say anything?”

The book’s crime takes place on the night of a party when many students— including the victim, her attackers, and the majority of the bystanders—were drunk. The kids made some irreversible decisions, demonstrating what society’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on underage drinking can really cost our kids.

Teens are already at a disadvantage when it comes to decision-making, and alcohol blurs the lines between right and wrong. When adults and the media treat underage drinking as a “rite of passage,” it sets teens up to make choices that could put themselves or others in harm’s way. Sexual assault, drunk driving, fights, destruction of property. Many of the crimes that teenagers commit happen while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

3. It allows social media a leading, not supporting, role in the story.

“His Facebook page shows no posts on Saturday, and his Instagram account only has the selfie and the booze. He’s friends with his mom on Facebook, so I assume that’s why he didn’t put the picture of the bar at Dooney’s.”

In the story, the pieces of the case are put together through the digital footprints of all of the kids involved. Teens today don’t separate their digital lives from their real ones, making technology a decisive factor in the ways that they relate with each other and the world at large. 

Due to their still-developing pre-frontal cortex, teens have very little understanding of long-term consequence—but the Internet is written in pen, not pencil. We need to help them understand that sharing photos of themselves and each other online without permission can lead to a lifetime of regret. At the same time, we also need to emphasize the positive, and be respectful of how much they rely on social media to connect with each other and enhance their social health.

4. It gives teachers a better sense of the support their students need.

“Ms. Speck picks up a Kleenex box and offers me a tissue. I take two and use them as she waits. She doesn’t seem bored or annoyed or in a hurry. Her eyes are full of kindness.”

Since each of the adult characters in this book is viewed through the eyes of the teenage narrator, we as teachers get an inside look at which types of communication and support our students truly crave. For example, when the main character turns to the school guidance counselor for help, she notes that the woman isn’t distracted or dismissive, and is fully available to listen.

This really made me stop and think. If we expect our students to come to us with their concerns, we need to make sure we’re present enough to hear them.

You can access the School Library Journal’s full book review here.