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Book Review

What Girls Are Made of by Elana K. Arnold has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.

Positive Elements

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Violent Content

Crude or Profane Language

Drug and Alcohol Content

Other Negative Elements


Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

At age 14, Nina Faye accepted her mother’s assertion that there is no such thing as unconditional love. Mother went on to say she could stop loving Nina at any time, for any number of reasons. Comments like these — along with Mother’s stories about tortured virgins and her general anger at the way men have treated women through the ages — began to shape Nina’s views of life, womanhood and herself.

When Nina is 16, she drives herself to Planned Parenthood for a female exam so she can get birth control. Her boyfriend, Seth, has been urging her to get on the pill. Nina has figured out very specific ways to behave around Seth so she will remain in his favor. These include readily providing sexual favors, not calling him and playing games that leave him just a little hungry for her attention.

She admits to being a chameleon who changes herself completely with Seth’s moods. To some degree, she recognizes her actions are desperate and self-deprecating. But she’s convinced it is the only way to keep the boy she’s wanted for so long.

For their three-month anniversary, Seth buys her a vibrator. She’s disturbed and embarrassed by the gift, partly because Seth’s brother helped him come up with the idea. Nina is supposed to wait a week between starting on birth control pills and having sex. She waits a few days less than that.

Seth takes Nina for a long hike, and they see people bungie jumping from cliffs. When Nina doesn’t share Seth’s enthusiasm for the idea of cliff jumping, he becomes sullen. They hike back in silence for hours. The only way she knows to try to get back in his good graces is to give him oral sex just off of the trail in the woods. It still isn’t enough, and he breaks up with her.

Although Nina is primarily consumed with pleasing Seth, she feels a sense of purpose at the animal shelter where she’s working. The shelter, in a much seedier part of town than Nina’s posh neighborhood, has a high-kill rate. She likes her co-worker Bekah, and always hopes the dogs there will be adopted.

Nina started working there because she’s been forced to do community service. When Seth’s then-girlfriend accidentally failed to flush in the girls bathroom at school, Nina photographed the toilet full of her feces and menstrual blood and sent the photo to a friend. The picture made its way to a number of other people. Seth’s embarrassment over the incident was part of what made him break up with the girl. Nina got community service for her cruel act, but she also ended up getting Seth.

Nina lives in a huge house with her parents. They are rarely home, and everyone goes into separate rooms when they are. Sometimes, Nina feels overwhelmed by the emptiness. Her parents’ relationship is rocky. Nina’s mother always wanted to return to Italy, where she met Nina’s father. He was married to someone else at the time, and they had an affair.

Dad failed to follow through on a second honeymoon trip, so Mother took 14-year-old Nina instead. Nina recalls how she and her mother spent several weeks looking at museum after museum. Nina was disturbed and fascinated to learn about virgin martyrs who were tortured for their commitments of chastity to Christ.

Her mother shows her several pieces of art depicting women treated badly by men. One statue depicts a woman in holy ecstasy, but Nina’s mother explains that the woman was just having an orgasm. She relays many other negative beliefs about men, both in history and present day. She also gets Nina drunk, because she says Nina will get drunk at some point anyway.

Shortly after her breakup with Seth, Nina discovers she’s pregnant. She doesn’t even consider telling her distant parents and drives herself to Planned Parenthood. There, she receives an in-depth explanation of the different abortion processes. She chooses to take pills that will make her abort at home. Her nurse tells Nina that she doesn’t believe in God, but if she did, she would thank Him every day for both of her abortions. She also urges Nina to have someone with her for support during the process.

Nina knows her parents are both going to be out of town for a while, so they won’t even have to know. She decides to ask Bekah, even though they’re not close. Bekah brings the ingredients for soothing foods and stays overnight with Nina through the pain and bleeding until the abortion is complete. At Nina’s follow-up appointment with Planned Parenthood, she feels relieved to learn she’s no longer pregnant.

Although she says she has no desire to have sex with anyone, the nurse urges her to choose a type of birth control. The text provides details about the several options Nina is given. She finally chooses to get an implant so she’ll be safe for several years. Nina leaves feeling the abortion was the best and kindest decision she ever made for herself.

One night at the animal shelter, people bring in a dog that has been abused nearly to death. The people say a car hit it and leave before they can be questioned. Nina and the woman on duty are forced to put the dog out of its misery by giving it a euthanizing shot.

Distraught, Nina goes to find Seth. He’s back together with his old girlfriend and tells Nina to go home. The woman at the shelter tells Nina she does believe in unconditional love but that it is supremely dangerous. She says that when you love someone unconditionally, they are your god and you are their fool.

Nina writes a collection of magical realism stories about the martyred virgins and their tortures. She can’t bring herself to turn it in for a grade because it’s so personal. When she apologizes to Seth’s girlfriend, she gives her the stories. Nina talks to Bekah about love and abortion and her parents.

Bekah says lots of people don’t get good, loving parents. She says she believes service is more important than love, because you are doing something active rather than waiting around for someone to give you something. Nina is inspired by this idea and vows to be more than the sum of her family, history and mistakes. She takes a hike on her own and says the crisp air around her smells like baptism.

Christian Beliefs

Nina writes stories about young women with strong faith and a passion for the Lord. All are tortured for keeping their vows of chastity to Christ. They live happily ever after only once they are dead and with Jesus.

Other Belief Systems

Bekah says her mom’s family is full of right-wing Christian nut jobs who were upset when her mom converted to the Jewish faith.

Authority Roles

Nina’s mother is an angry feminist whose ideas negatively shape her daughter’s view of love, faith and herself. Nina’s father had an affair with Nina’s mother while married to another woman. Though still married and living under the same roof, her parents are physically and emotionally distant from Nina and each other. Nina feels completely separate from her mother, like she was an egg her mother laid and left behind. The Planned Parenthood nurses Nina consults with for sexual information encourage her to use birth control and praise abortion.


The Lord’s name is used in vain often, along with words including the f-word, s---, b--ch, c--t, crap, h---, d--k, slut, whore, p---, d--n, balls, douche and a--.

Nina has disturbing thoughts and conversations about dogs that are doomed to be killed at the shelter. Nina has to help euthanize a dog that has been beaten and tortured. She also discusses the ways in which the dogs’ bodies are taken apart and repurposed after they’re euthanized.

In Nina’s mother’s stories and Nina’s fictional accounts of the martyred virgins, the young women are brutally tortured by men for their refusal to deny their vows of chastity. Some of these accounts talk about women’s vagina’s being shredded. Many such stories include graphic details.


The text includes detailed descriptions and information about gynecological exams (including pap smears and breast exams), contraceptive choices and use, periods, STDs, foreplay, intercourse, oral sex, masturbation, vibrator use, orgasms, erections, emergency contraception (morning-after pill), pregnancy tests (at home and in a clinic), abortion (in-clinic and medical abortion at home with pills), pot smoking and wishbone dolls (sex toys). Body parts and bodily functions including labia, pubis, vulva, vagina, breasts, penis, nipples, cum, semen, hardness, erections and orgasms are mentioned frequently.

Nina engages in intercourse and oral sex with Seth regularly. She often offers oral sex so he won’t feel deprived when they can’t have intercourse, like when she is on her period. She has trouble having orgasms, so he gets her a vibrator for their three-month anniversary. Their foreplay and sexual interactions, as well as her self-pleasuring, are described in graphic detail.

She says she understands how important sex is to their relationship. Even though it hurt at first, she says it got better. Nina goes to Planned Parenthood on several occasions. She says the name is a big joke, because everyone knows no one planning a pregnancy goes there. It’s only those trying to unplan one.

She goes the first time for a gynecological exam that will allow her to get birth control. She goes again when she knows she’s pregnant and wants an abortion. The nurse tells Nina she’s had two abortions and she would thank God for them if she believed in Him. The nurse offers Nina a few minutes to think about her decision before starting the abortion medication, but Nina refuses. She’s sure she wants the medication.

The next day or so is bloody and painful for Nina, as she is losing the baby. Several times afterward, Nina says the abortion was the best and kindest thing she’s ever done for herself. Nina’s English teacher is gay. Nina recalls how a friend’s brother came outside to ogle the girls when they were practicing gymnastics. Another time, the same boy and his friend looked online for customizable sex dolls in Nina’s presence after getting high on pot. Nina spent a lot of time thinking about and looking at the dolls online later.

Nina reads a poem by a 13th-century mystic who talks about eating and drinking Jesus and doing with Him what she will. Nina says it’s obvious this woman wants to give Jesus oral sex. She says she understands, because she has the same passion for wanting to please and consume Seth.

Nina frequently ponders her mother’s stories about the men who tortured virgins and how their bodies have become men’s pieces of artwork. In Nina’s stories, men use instruments of torture to destroy women’s vaginas. One man lusts for his daughter and stabs her when she refuses to marry him. One grows vaginas all over her body that ooze blood. Men sever the virgins’ breasts and other body parts and disfigure the women out of spite and anger.

When Nina and her mother go to Italy, Mother shows her a number of statues and pieces of art depicting religious themes. She shows Nina a statue of St. Teresa, who is having a spasm of holy ecstasy after being visited by an angel. Mother says St. Theresa is having an orgasm. She goes on to say that when unexplainable things happen to people, they attribute them to magic or God. Her mother believes that everything reduces down to Eros and Thanatos (sex and death).

Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Drugs/Alcohol: While sleeping over with a friend, Nina sees her friend’s brother and his friend smoking pot and getting high. Nina’s friend gets drunk at a party. Nina’s mother gets Nina drunk in Italy on purpose, saying her first time might as well be with her mother. Nina later begins to believe her mother is an alcoholic.

Feminism: Nina’s mother often tells her love is conditional and talks about how men have caused much grief for women over the centuries. She tells of women whose vaginas were shredded with torture devices because men believed they had sex with Satan and “allowed” themselves to miscarry. Her mother, who has had a number of miscarriages, says that as long as there have been women, there have been men devising ways to punish them for being women. A school janitor is thought to have carved derogatory words about women into the toilet seats. Seth clearly values the sexual part of his relationship with Nina above all else.

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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book's review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

Episode Reviews



Readability Age Range

13 to 18


Elana K. Arnold






Record Label



Carolrhoda Lab, an imprint of Carolrhoda Books, a trademark of Lerner Publishing Group Inc.


On Video

Year Published



National Book Award Finalist for Young People’s Lit, 2017


We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

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