TV Review: Huge

Huge, ABC Family. Episodes: ABC Family, Hulu. Based on the book by Sasha Paley, Simon & Schuster.

The Plot: A summer at weight loss camp.

The Good: This is not about fat teens at a weight loss camp. This is about teens at summer camp.

Will is sarcastic and angry. She doesn’t want to be at weight loss camp and loudly declares her pride in her body.

Amber is cute and optimistic and fully embraces her camp experience, including losing weight. The two clash because their outlooks are so different.

I love Amber, because there is such a niceness and decency about her. She looks for the best and is full of hope and anticipation.

And I love Will, because so rarely are teenage girls allowed to be angry, to be loud and vocal in their anger. It can be damn unattractive, but it’s real. Two very different girls, but both very appealing as characters. I want Amber to achieve her desires. I want Will to be true to herself but to have her anger be constructive rather than destructive.

In addition to Amber and Will, the other teens are Becca, a bookworm and nerd who organizes a LARP event. Chloe, who wants a boyfriend and popularity no matter what the cost. Ian, a musician who is friends with Will but likes Amber. Alistair, who is awkward and struggling to be true to himself. Trent, the camp jock and cool guy who slowly reveals multiple dimensions. 

On the grown up side, there is the Camp Director, Dr. Rand, an alumni of camp who is rebuilding a relationship with the father who left her as a child. Her father, the camp cook, who is blunt but full of wisdom and makes one wonder, why did this seemingly nice (if gruff) guy abandon his family? George, the counselor who develops a crush on Amber even though he realizes it’s inappropriate.

Huge addresses issues that are true for any teen, no matter what weight. Does he like me? How do you tell a friend he smells? What if you don’t want to shower in front of strangers? It’s set at camp, so these teens do what all teens do at camp. They reinvent themselves. At home, they may not be cool. Here, at camp, they can be, if they want to be. The “she would be pretty if” girl becomes the camp hottie, with all the boys wanting her. Reinvention is not just about being in a new place with new people. It’s about not being around old people in an old place, so reinvention can be internal. The cool jock can embrace an inner artistic, softer side.

It is a weight loss camp, so there is a coach who pushes kids to play basketball and run; snacks are forbidden; the food is cooked to certain nutritional requirements. Amber puts up “thinspiration” pictures. Will counters with “fatspiration” pictures. Viewed in its entiriety, Huge is not about weight. Huge is about that huge moment in your life when you have the ability to recognize who you really are and change it if you want.

Huge could have been set in any type of summer camp. By setting itself in a weight loss camp, it allows for a more diverse cast. It’s a relief to watch a show featuring teens that are not all unrealistic size zeros and twos. Hayley Hasselhoff, who plays Amber, is gorgeous. So is Raven Goodwin who plays Becca. This is a cast of actors in a show where they can be the Musician, Popular, Mean, where on most other shows, they would be relegated to the role of Fat Friend. Each of these actors does a wonderful job of showing the layers and depth of their character. It’s a bit sad to think that on other shows, they wouldn’t get the chance to shine and to show their acting chops. For that reason alone — for giving these actors the opportunity to continue to show off just how good they are — I hope this show gets renewed.

Review: Hunger

Hunger by Jackie Morse Kessler. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Children’s Book Group. October 2010. Reviewed from ARC from ALA.

The Plot: Lisabeth Lewis, seventeen, has taken three of her mother’s Lexapro and intends to take more. A messenger knocks on the door, hands her Scales, informs her she is now Famine (as in one of the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse) and says “Thou art the Black Rider; go thee unto the world.”

Famine – an odd pick for someone with an eating disorder.

The Good: I confess, I picked this up at ALA thinking “oh, paranormal romance” because I didn’t read beyond the first sentence. Also, at 174 pages, I wanted a short book to balance the sagas.

Lisa has a boyfriend, James, who is concerned about her but cannot articulate it beyond saying he doesn’t like Lisa’s new friend, Tammy. Lisa is in awe of Tammy’s control – Tammy eats exactly what she wants and then can throw it up. Lisa has tried to be as good as Tammy but she cannot force herself to purge. Instead she listens to the Thin voice in her head, telling her she is fat, telling her the calories in a glass of orange juice and just how many hours of exercise it will take to work it off. Lisa refuses to talk to her friend Suzanne because Suzanne dared to call her “anorexic.” Lisa’s father is there, but distant, either working or relaxing with a drink or two or three while her mother travels for various causes.

Into Lisa’s complex relationship with food, with hunger, with others, comes the Four Horsemen: Death (who looks like a certain dead rock star), War (a woman who relishes the mayhem she brings), Pestilence (who looks like he has every disease out there because he does) and Famine. Lisa is now Famine and can cause hunger wherever she goes, making others feel the way she does. The first time she travels on Famine’s horse and causes a riot she is in awe of her power, and the resulting chaos, and scared that War is so delighted. Pestilence offers a hint to Lisa that all is not what it seems and that the power of the Horsemen is not all destruction.

Death, War, Pestilence and Famine are too real to call Hunger magic realism. Yet, because the supernatural is woven into Lisa’s basic needs and fears the story feels, well, real and I have a hard time saying, “this is a fantasy.”

Lisa is hungry yet refuses to eat; what happens when she sees the consequences of those who are hungry and have no food to eat? As Famine, she has power to impact others. Is that a power of a Horseman, or a power Lisa can find within herself? Using the supernatural as a metaphor is front and center in this story.

I want to call this book slim or thin; but that reminds me of the voice, the voice in Lisa’s head that just will not go away, telling her she is fat, pathetic, weak. Yes, there is supernatural in this story, but Kessler does not give Lisa an easy magical answer to her eating disorder, just like in real life such disorders aren’t something that just go away. Instead, Kessler shows us both Lisa as an ill person but also as a person who has inner strength, who has the choice to use her strength to recognize help is needed.

Kessler’s next book is Rage, where a girl who self mutilates becomes another one of the Four Horseman. Given the insightful, inventive, sensitive way that Lisa’s story is told, I’m looking forward to Rage.

Banned Books Week

ALA’s Banned Books Week is the one week in the year when we seek out books that we think other people shouldn’t read and think of ways to prevent them from reading those books.

Because one should always think of the children, it’s best to begin with books that other people’s children should not be reading. An excellent place to start is school libraries. See: SpeakLoudly and Wesley Scroggins.

Don’t forget to take things within a book out of context and highlight the “bad parts.” You don’t have to read the book yourself. There are websites that warn people what to look out for in books. If parents are being warned, why should the book be in any library? Act as if we all share the same common sense view of books, so of course everyone who has common sense and decency will agree to get rid of the filthy books. Just flip through the book looking for the words you don’t like. Ignore anything and everything that disagrees with you, whether it’s personal stories from people who actually read the book or professional reviews or blogs, or, well, anyone. People who agree with you are right, people who disagree are wrong.

Knowing what’s best for other people also extends to other adults and public libraries. See: Revolutionary Voices.

In putting up roadblocks to other people finding the books they need and want to read, be sure to always fall back on the following “but I’m not a book banner!” arguments:

It’s Still In The Public Library! Always a good argument when seeking the removal from schools. Even better if at the same time you are getting the book removed from school libraries, you are working at getting it removed from public libraries. See Revolutionary Voices.

It’s Still In The Bookstore! A perfect argument because hey, we’re not stopping you from BUYING the books! Go to the bookstore and buy it. What, your local bookstore doesn’t carry all books in and out of print? Go online and buy it. What, you cannot afford to buy every book you want to read? Not my problem. Get a job.

Wait, what?

Banned Books Week is about NOT banning books?

End sarcasm font.

Seriously speaking, being involved and being aware is important. Don’t think, this type of thing only happens in such and such a state. It happens locally. Speak up — let your libraries know how much you appreciate your library having a well-rounded collection with books for your entire community.

Review: The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove

The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove by Susan Gregg Gilmore. Crown, a division of Random House. 2010. Reviewed from uncorrected proof from publisher.

The Plot: As the title promises, the life of one Bezellia Louis Grove, starting with her birth announcement in 1951. Bezellia recounts her youth and teenage years as the daughter of one of the most prominent families in Nashville. Even though the Groves are slowly losing their social prestige, they still have the name, the house, the ancestry and the servants that marks them as part of a privileged class.

Raised more by the family’s African American servants than her own parents, Bezellia tries to figure out what she wants out of life. Is life just about getting the right man? Is her mother right that “there were only three things of value to look for in a man. One, he wears cashmere. Two, he drives a convertible. And three, he glides across the dance floor.”

The Good: Gilmore paints a world I know little about, a world where the housekeeper lives in a dark basement room and the chauffeur/handyman can be a father-figure to another person’s family. This is always Bezellia’s story, a story told years after it happens. After recounting an incident with her younger sister, Bezellia writes “I think that day Adelaide washed the mud and a whole lot of sadness right down the creek. All these years later, I can still hear her laughter ringing in my ears.” Later she says “now” she is an “old woman.”

While written “all these years later,” Bezellia stays true to the point of view of the child, then teen, then young woman she was. At the start,  her mother comes across as a socially insecure woman who treats her servants like children. While that remains true throughout the story, as Bezellia grows older more is revealed about her mother, painting a fuller and more sympathetic picture. Perhaps because Bezellia’s father dies while she is a teenager, we, like Bezellia, do not get a  chance to know more about her father. Yes, he inherited a name, a house, debts, and no money and became a respected doctor. He also was distant with his family. We never find out what family secrets and patterns shaped her father, the way we do with her mother.

Bezellia leaves many conclusions to the reader. Throughout the story, her family is slowly falling down the social ladder of Nashville. Part of it is that her mother was not born into the social circle she married into; part of it is her mother’s drinking; part of it is the loss of family money. Meanwhile, those around them are taking advantage of the social changes of the 1960s to move forward. Bezellia meets Ruddy Stemple, born to a poor white family. Instead of following in his father’s footsteps, as his father did before him, Ruddy dreams of a music career. Nathaniel, the family chauffeur/ handyman, has a son, Samuel, who goes to college and dreams of owning a big house by a river instead of working in such a house.

Bezellia’s dreams are different. She dreams of love, of being loved, the love she doesn’t get from her parents. She gets affection from Maizelle, the housekeeper, and Nathaniel. Perhaps because Bezellia is telling this tale as an old woman, both Maizelle and Nathaniel are at times a little too good to be true. They take care of Bezellia and Adelaide, showing more concern for the girls than their parents do. Maizelle sometimes get angry; she spits in the food of Bezellia’s mother and recounts a past of throwing stones and rocks and possible jail time. Maizelle always appears to be the perfect maternal figure that Bezellia’s mother is not. Later on in the book, Bezellia wonders about Maizelle’s nieces and nephews and the life she didn’t have because she took care of another’s family.

Nathaniel has a life outside his job, a life that Bezellia knows little about. “Nathaniel had three girls and a boy. He’d told me so. He talked about them every now and then, always with a brightness in his eyes. But for some reason, I’d never really believed they were real. Or maybe I didn’t want to.” Because Bezellia falls in love with his son Samuel, we meet and know Samuel. He is real to her. Nathaniel’s three other children do not get so much as a name. They continue to be people Bezellia does not want to believe. In these details, Gilmore shows that while Bezellia may fall in love with Samuel and dream of Samuel, she is still a product of her times. Even as she is kissing Samuel, she is denying Nathaniel’s full life outside his role of handyman. When an individual daughter is introduced, Bezellia does not give her a name, an identity, because to do so would risk admitting the truth that Nathaniel is a father to others. He is not her father.

Bezellia’s quest for love, or rather, being loved, leads her to fall for Samuel yet date others. “And in that moment, as I teetered on one foot, it seemed that all those thoughts about Samuel I’d been carrying around for so long were knocked to the back of my heart, just far enough to make room for one more boy.” She doesn’t want Samuel to know about the other boys, but it doesn’t stop her from dating them. I wonder (even thought Bezellia never does), is her love for Samuel real? Or is it Bezellia wanting love? Or is it an attempt to somehow be closer to Nathaniel, to create a pseudo-family relationship with him by being with his son? Likewise, does Samuel love Bezellia or does he love what she represents, the life he wants, the part of his father’s life hidden from him?

The book ends abruptly, with a years-later epilogue of sorts, Bezellia’s obituary. The final chapter is shattering, with Bezellia brutally confronted by the reality of not just her own times but also herself.  The leap from her final thoughts, to the obituary reflecting the life she leads after her epiphany, is a bit jarring. It is left to the reader just what Bezellia discovered, about herself and how that impacts her adult life. Me? I think after a book spent looking for love outside herself, she finally found it within.

Review: The Eternal Ones

The Eternal Ones: What if love refused to die? by Kirsten Miller. 2010. Razorbill, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group. Personal copy.

The Plot: Haven Moore, 17, is from tiny Snope City, Tennessee, but she dreams of New York City. No, really — she has dreams and flashbacks to New York City, a place where she has never been. In her visions, it’s ninety years earlier, her name is Constance, and she looks totally different. She’s in love with a man named Ethan. Haven’s grandmother and the local preacher have half-convinced Haven that she’s possessed by demons.

One day, Haven sees playboy Iain Morrow on television. He looks different than Ethan, but she knows: it’s Ethan. Now all Haven has to do is figure out how to get to New York City, meet Iain, ask him if he knew her in a past life — well, OK. The plan has some flaws. But nothing is going to get in the way of Haven and true love. Not her controlling grandmother. Not the impossibility of meeting an A-List celebrity like Iain. Not a secret society. Not her suspicions about how Constance and Ethan died. Well, OK, maybe her suspicions that Ethan had something to do with their deaths….

The Good: The first part of The Eternal Ones reads like something out of V.C. Andrews: mean grandmother, weak mother, extreme religion, possible mental illness, and did I mention the snake-handlers? Haven isn’t locked in an attic, but her grandmother does threaten to lock her up because of her visions.  Haven briefly gets a “happy ever after” in the middle of the book after she connects with Iain/Evan. The final third is Haven trying to figure out the truth about herself, Iain, Constance, Ethan, and other reincarnated people (present and past) with additional complications from the Ouroboros Society. The society is dedicated to the study of reincarnation, but there is something more, something hidden, something dark about it.

There are many barriers to Haven’s seeking the truth. Some are her own incomplete memories of Constance. Haven may recognize a building Constance was in but she has no idea what Constance’s last name was. Some problems arise from the “secret” part of secret societies. Others are from people not telling everything they know all at once. And really, what kind of story would that make? Can you imagine — “my name is Iain, we’ve been in love for centuries, and let me describe in detail my entire life, all the lives I remember, all I know about your past life, and oh yes, there’s this place called the Ouroboros society and did I mention I love you?”. The entire book would be Iain’s monologue. I’ll admit, it can be a bit frustrating as a reader when you’re thinking “if only Iain had said something earlier!” As one character says to Haven, “you know, if [Iain] really is your boyfriend, you guys should probably spend some time getting to know each other a little better.”

If one of Iain’s flaws is a reluctance to share with Haven things he thinks she’ll find unpleasant or threatening, Haven’s flaws are a mix of insecurity and jealousy about Iain/Ethan that leads her to  jump to conclusions about him. She also has a tendency to believe strangers for no good reason, or, rather, to believe them when they confirm her worst fears. Reincarnation in The Eternal Ones is not just about having memories, it’s also about retaining talents (art, design, science) and character traits (jealousy).

As with Miller’s Kiki Strike books, the setting of New York City is conveyed by using unique and lesser-known landmarks and history. Other writers may mention Central Park or the Brooklyn Bridge in their books, but how many include Washington Mews or The Rose House? I would love to go on a historical building tour of New York City with Miller!

Your Favorite YA Book Blogs

There are so many different types of Young Adult Book Blogs out in the book blogosphere!

Some are written by teenagers.

Some are written by people who are no longer teens.

Some are written by librarians, some by teachers, some by readers.

Some are about a personal reader reaction.

Some are about booktalking or handselling that book to other readers.

Some are reviews.

Some are critiques.

Some are book discussions.

Some hold contests to give away books.

Some interview young adult authors.

Some are by young adult authors.

Many blogs are a combination of things — part reader, part booktalking, part critique, part discussion.

Due, in part, to my recent forced migration to Google Reader, I am about to add more YA book blogs to my reading. So, what blogs do you recommend? And why? Please leave the blog name and a short “why this is a must read.” The URL, also, please (I think WordPress allows that); and also a Twitter handle, if they are on Twitter.

Yes, you can name your own blog. Yes, you can name more than one blog.

Yes, I will put all those blogs together in a post next month. If it’s a long list, I’ll do more than one post.

Review: Tales of the Madman Underground

Tales of the Madman Underground (An Historical Romance 1973) by John Barnes. Viking. 2009. Reviewed from ARC from a conference.

The Plot: Lightsburg, Ohio, 1973. Karl Shoemaker has a simple resolution for his senior year: don’t get the “ticket,” the slip of paper from school that sends him to group therapy during school hours. Instead, be normal for just this one year.

Normal? Is normal his mother, sometimes drunk, sometimes stoned, sometimes stealing his money, sometimes talking about her flying saucers and Nixon theories? Is normal his five jobs that earns him the money he hides in jars around his house to stop his mother from stealing? Is normal his dead father, whose legacy was several pages of “how to fix things” to keep their falling down house in some semblance of order? What about the cats who treat the entire house as a litter box? Then there’s Karl’s own drinking which he stopped doing last year and he is now the youngest person at AA meetings with, perhaps, the most boring story there. What is normal?

The Plot: I wasn’t so sure about Karl at first. Didn’t know what to make of him. Karl narrates the story, which takes place from Wednesday, September 5, 1973 to Monday, September 10, 1973. While the story takes place during only a handful of days, Karl also fills us in on his past. Karl is not so much an unreliable narrator as one who takes his time telling you things, and doesn’t do so in a linear fashion. The story and narrative all make sense, and ultimately all the pieces fit together to give you a picture of Karl, his friends, his family, his town.

I went in with very little knowledge of Karl; it’s a Printz Honor, but I remained unspoiled. The “madman underground” is the nickname given to themselves by the students in group therapy; some have lives and friendships outside the group, some do not. All have their own brand of horror story, sometimes because of something they did, or something someone did to them. Karl’s fellow madmen are in group therapy for “weird” behavior or for issues of disrespect, anger, violence; the friends know there is more to each of their stories, including abuse, alcoholism, incest.  Because they know each other’s true stories, and because they all believe the hell they know is better than the hell they don’t, their stories aren’t fully known by adults. Even when they are known, the adults look the other way, ignore it, pretend it isn’t true. Take, for instance, Karl. His dead father, one-time mayor and recovering alcoholic, was well known and respected in town. His mother’s drinking and his home life isn’t exactly a secret. Yet all those “good buddies” of his dad do little to help mother or son. No wonder Karl is angry – angry enough that he has earned the nickname “Psycho.”

What Karl did to be called “Psycho” is shocking, softened only by it being something that happened in his past. When, in the present, people believe him capable of certain acts because he is “Psycho Shoemaker,” part of me also wonders. What is Karl really capable of? Tales of the Madman Underground gives us an answer: Karl is capable of taking care of himself and taking care of others.

Abuse, alcoholism, psycho. Sounds pretty heavy – but this book is also funny. Sometimes funny in a black humor type of way, sometimes funny in a laugh out loud way. Karl on his math teacher: “Mrs. Hertz wasn’t really a pushover. No math teacher can be because they can see your bullshit too easy. But she was nice, and she hated to say “you’re wrong,” and best of all, she was as heavy a smoker as my mother, so between classes she was always charging down to the teachers’ lounge to suck down those nasty skinny brown almost-cigars, and it usually made her a couple minutes late to class, so there was more socializing and less math in my life.”

Karl is trying to take steps to create a life for himself. One of those steps? He’s a member of Alcoholics Anonymous. It’s a bit refreshing to have a book where the teen is in AA, and the story is not about being in AA. It’s just a part of who Karl is.

Longtime readers know I tend to question why a book is set in the past, especially the past that just so happens to be when the author was a teen. Cynically I wonder, is it because they feel they don’t know about teens today? If that is the answer, their book should be for adults, not teens. Is it a sort of navel-gazing, “this was important to me so it’s important to everyone”? If that is the answer, well, it’s a bit self centered.

For Tales of the Madman Underground, the answer was simple. It is a book for teens; it is a book that had to be set in the past. These teens are broken and have put themselves back together, either by themselves or with the help of their friends. They are each other’s family. If this had been set in today’s world, readers would scoff, “someone would have called the police,” “that would never be tolerated,” “someone would have done something.” 1973 allows the reader to believe, “oh, it’s different today. Teens today don’t have to suffer in silence.” But teenagers reading this? Will know that what was true in 1973 is true today.

Clean Books, Please

Believe it or not, I had this post drafted well before a certain someone said books about rape victims recovering from depression are “filthy.” I offer him profound thanks, for doing such a brilliant job of illustrating the problem with using “clean” and filthy” for describing the content of books.

Now, on with the post!

“I need a list of clean books!” Is the question. You know! The books without anything offensive. Ones that are about family values.

Honestly? I dislike all those terms for defining books.

If it’s not a “clean” book, what is it, dirty? How do I know what offends you? And whose family values?

Let’s start with one of the content issues that people usually mean by “clean.” Sex. And, again, thanks to he who must not be named for using Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler to illustrate his point. As I said in my review, “this isn’t some book version of a teen sex comedy. Anna’s internal struggle about her loyalty to Matt and her growing attraction to Sam, the summer boy, is respectfully portrayed. Anna and Sam are in many ways the perfect summer romance: teasing, hot, honest, lustful, fun, and any decisions Anna makes are based on what Anna wants, not what someone else pushes.” Readers may disagree with Anna’s choices; readers may decide that for themselves, sex should be saved for marriage; but to label Anna and her choices “filthy” because they are not your choices? No, no, no.

Sex is not dirty, yet by using “clean” to mean “no sex” the message is clear: sex is dirty! Doesn’t matter if it’s vaguely referred to or done in hot and heavy word by word descriptions, all sex is lumped together as dirty. Many people who champion saving sex for marriage agree that sex is not dirty, they just believe it’s so special and sacred (which, obviously, means “not dirty”) that it’s best saved for marriage.

As for “offensive,” some are offended not at sex in books but irresponsible sex. If the couple doesn’t use birth control? They’re offended. (I know! I wrote this before you-know-who picked on Twenty Boy Summer for the very reason many people embraced it! Instead of portraying “oops, sex just happens, hope I’m not pregnant,” Ockler shows teens who take responsibility for their choices, from beginning to end. Disagree with their choices if you want; but to say it would be better for Anna to risk pregnancy? That unprotected sex is somehow less filthy? I don’t get it.)

As for family values, GLBT families never seem to fall under that umbrella description. How many times does a “clean” book list included GLBT people?

Next on: language! The Guardian just did an entire write up on language in books for children and teens, The Curse of Swearing in Children’s Books. We can all agree that cursing is always “dirty”, right? No. Sometimes cursing in books is defended with, that’s how teens really talk and it needs to be authentic. I’ll see that and raise it: sometimes that is how the parents and those at home do talk. Yes, some parent’s say “for God’s sake” or “oh my God” and don’t see it as cursing. Ditto for using the “that sucks.” Note that the controversy about Lane Smith’s It’s A Book isn’t about a curse, it’s about a word with multiple usages and one, not in the book, is a curse. And before you start thinking, “oh frack, I’ll just use fug,” Todd Strasser points out that substitutions can be viewed as just as offensive as the real thing.

As for family values, this is usually code for 1950s families (two parents, two kids, standalone house), not families who are divorced or have same sex parents or single parents. It can also be code for 1950s gender roles; the original Calpurnia Tate review at Common Sense Media gave the book 2 out of 5 for “role model,” in part for her tomboyish ways. (Note: there is now a new review up, giving it 4 out of 5 and “tomboy” is not mentioned as a negative. Actually, Calpurnia is now praised for her spunk.)

Using and accepting “clean” or “family values” twists and turns perfectly good words. It assumes “we” all agree on x and it’s just the mysterious “others” who insist bad things belong in otherwise perfectly good books. No, we don’t all agree what those words mean when it comes to books.

The danger of using such code words is illustrated with the attack on Speak Speak is filthy for being about a depressed rape victim. Is it the loss of virginity that makes her filthy? Is it that she kissed a boy that makes her filthy? Is it that she was the victim of a crime? NOTHING about Speak, nothing about Melinda, is filthy. [Edited to correct Melinda’s name.]

I’m not the only one who has concerns about “Clean.” Jo Knowles asked, in “What Is The Opposite of “Clean”” Part II, “I know the people who make “CLEAN BOOKS” lists are well intentioned. This is not an attack or accusation. It’s a plea for all of us to think about the potential power of our words. Couldn’t we think of a better, more accurate term to describe books that don’t contain sex or swears? Because I am very worried that the message, whether intended or not, is that any book that does not fall in this category contains something dirty. So it must be bad. It must be wrong.” Note the “Part II”, because back in May 2007 Knowles challenged us to find a better word than “clean” to describe books. It’s still being used; on listservs, Twitter, blogs, I repeatedly see people ask for and casually use “clean” as short hand for books.

What do you think? How can we move beyond “clean books”?

Review: Efrain’s Secret

Efrain’s Secret by Sofia Quintero. Knopf Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Random House. 2010.

The Plot: It’s not a secret that high school senior Efrain Rodriguez takes his future seriously. He has a plan: Harvard. Maybe Yale. Ivy League, not New York City. The problem is he’s at a Bronx high school where Ivy League is considered an unrealistic dream. Efrain may be on track for valedictorian and may have the highest SAT score in the history of the school, but neither is good enough to get into a school like Harvard. Efrain cannot afford the SAT classes that will help his score. His parents cannot help. His father is with his new girlfriend and new baby. His mother works long hours just to pay the bills. Neither graduated college; neither really understands what he is going through. His mother supports his college dreams, but she has no idea how to help him get where he needs to go. And even if he does get in, what about the tuition?

Efrain’s a good kid. He has a plan for getting the money to pay for his SAT courses, college application fees, tuition, and even have some left over to help his mother and younger sister. If you’re doing the wrong thing for the right reasons, is it still wrong? If you’re selling drugs to people who already want them, who would be buying them from someone else if it wasn’t you on the street corner, is it still a crime?

The Good: I started this book a bit reluctant because I was afraid. Afraid of liking Efrain, afraid of getting angry as he took the wrong path, afraid of what would happen because these things never end well. I was right to be afraid; I liked Efrain, rooted for him, understand (but disagreed) with his choices, and was so caught up in his family and friendships that as Efrain’s Secret worked its way to the end, I was hesitant to read the final pages. One of the teen readers I know likes books that make her cry. I’ve found the perfect book to hand to her.

Each chapter begins with a SAT word. It emphasizes Efrain’s continuing efforts to increase his SAT scores, it connects to what happens in the chapter, and it brings the reader into Efrain’s world.  The frequent inclusion of Spanish and slang also create Efrain’s Bronx for the reader. Quintero does not explain what “Nuyorican” or “slinging” means; translations aren’t provided for the Spanish sentences. While those more familiar with Efrain’s world will understand references more than I do, my lack of  a deeper knowledge of slang, language, and pop culture did not negatively impact my reading experience. For example, I didn’t realize that the nickname (Chingy) of one of Efrain’s friend’s came from a real person, but I understood that it was from a famous person.

Efrain’s parents don’t know what to do to help Efrain achieve his goals. His mother explains, “your father and I were both raised to either save money for the things we wanted or just accept that we couldn’t afford them and learn to live without them. But we were wrong, Efrain.” Moms picks up a stack of blank forms and sifts through them. “Learn from our mistakes, honey, and set the right example for your sister. . . . Your education and your home are investments in your future. They’re the only things you’ll ever own and are worth going into a reasonable amount of debt to have.” This was so familiar. The refrain I heard growing up  was “your education is the only thing they cannot take away from you.” Later, Efrain learns that his college advisor/guidance counselor isn’t good for much beyond the basic needs of the typical student. His desires and goals are way beyond her skill set and knowledge. I found Efrain’s struggles both sympathetic and sadly realistic.

Quintero does not make the drug dealers the bad guys. Yes, there are some drug dealers who are bad guys. She doesn’t glamorize it but she also doesn’t demonize it. Nestor, Efrain’s friend, dropped out of school to deal drugs to take care of his mother and siblings. The friendship between Efrain and Nestor is both touching and fun. I laughed out loud at some of their exchanges. Many of the other young men dealing drugs are equally likable.Nestor is not a bad guy. Efrain approaches Nestor. Nestor does not make Efrain do anything. Nestor is dealing at the start of the book, and one of the great things about Efrain’s Secrets is that Nestor, Efrain, and Chingy, used to be best friends. Chingy is driven to do good and go to college, much like Efrain, except Chingy wants to go to a HBCU (Historically Black College). Chingy explains why he refuses to have anything to do with is former best friend. “But when Nes quit school and started slinging, Chingy wasn’t having it and cut him off. Me, I don’t like what Nes is doing either, but we all grew up together. I just couldn’t drop him like that.” I liked Nestor, but in this equation, I am more a Chingy than an Efrain. Efrain accuses Chingy of being righteous and judgmental, and I cheered as Chingy shot back: “You’re right, E. I am righteous. I am judgmental. I’m lots of things, some of which ain’t cool.” Quintero uses three teenager to show the three attitudes towards drug dealing: Nestor, charming and fully into the life; Chingy, who keeps himself removed from any temptation; and Efrain, tempted both by the money and the friendships. Yes, no, maybe.

Efrain’s girlfriend, Candace, is from New Orleans and survived Hurricane Katrina. Instead of the Katrina’s references overloading the story, Candace offers balance. Efrain seeks to escape his family to succeed, Candace wants to return to her roots. Efrain thinks he has to break the law to get by, and Candace is quick to point out the looting for food after the Hurricane was true survival. Going to an Ivy League school is hardly the same as starving people desperate for food. This is Efrain’s story, told by him, and the main focus is on Efrain, Nestor, and Chingy. The female supporting characters are just as fully drawn, to the point where I want books just about Gigi (a girl from Efrain’s school) and Efrain’s mother.

It cannot end well for Efrain. What I like about Efrain’s Secret, what I am thankful for,  is just how Quintero resolves Efrain’s dilemma without being melodramatic. It rings true, it is satisfying, and it breaks your heart. I was right to be afraid — but I was wrong to let that stop me from reading this book.

Is Your Review A Tool?

Laurie Halse Anderson‘s Speak is being attacked for being “filthy” and “soft porn” in an editorial in a Missouri paper, Filthy Books Demeaning to Republic Education. (Note: no, not Republican. Republic, it’s the name of a town.)

Here is the money quote: “In high school English classes, children are required to read and view material that should be classified as soft pornography. One such book is called “Speak.” They also watch the movie. This is a book about a very dysfunctional family. Schoolteachers are losers, adults are losers and the cheerleading squad scores more than the football team. They have sex on Saturday night and then are goddesses at church on Sunday morning. The cheer squad also gets their group-rate abortions at prom time. As the main character in the book is alone with a boy who is touching her female parts, she makes the statement that this is what high school is supposed to feel like. The boy then rapes her on the next page. Actually, the book and movie both contain two rape scenes.” Because Speak is not the only book being written about, click through to read the entire essay.

To learn more, check out Anderson’s blog post about this.

Pretty much anyone who has read Speak is now twitching over the misrepresentation of the book. Not to mention reading satire and sarcasm as factual presentations and, oh, I could go on forever.

Pretty much anyone who knows that rape and sex are two different things is twitching over the fact that rape is being characterized as soft pornography. Actually, that characterization scares the hell out of me.

I have no idea whether or not the author of this essay read the books or is relying on other sources. When someone wants to remove a book from a library or school, often the first question asked is “did you read the entire book?” Objections to the book are often not their own, but ones that, at best, are based on reading a few chapters or, at worst, based on something someone else said. Example: the objections are word for word what appears in PABBIS.

Pat Scales wrote about this in Booklist (Weighing In: Three Bombs, Two Lips & A Martini Glass). She also wrote (without naming the book): “While Common Sense Media isn’t censoring anything, it is providing a tool for censors. There is already a documented case in the Midwest where a book was removed from a school library based solely on a Common Sense review.” As a quick aside, Common Sense says that Speak is “iffy” for readers 13 and up, only “on” for those 17 and up, and yes, includes “rape” in it’s “lips” (AKA Sex) category. As a second quick aside, I’ve seen Common Sense revise a review quietly, taking it down and then reposting it a while later. Keep your eye on the Speak review; I bet within six months, these two things will be changed.

If you’ve read From Cover to Cover, you may recall how Horning cautions reviewers not to turn into censors or to provide tools for censors.

Here’s my question, bloggers. Like PABBIS and Common Sense Media, our reviews are online for anyone to read — and use. It’s entirely possible that a blog review could be used as “tool” — a tool that stops a librarian or teacher or bookseller from buying a book. Or a book banner may print out that review and march into their school or library saying, “this review says xxx,  so this book doesn’t belong here, get rid of it!”

Could your blog review be used as such a tool? What would you do if someone used your review as “proof” that a book shouldn’t be in a library or a classroom? How do you write your reviews to make sure that doesn’t happen?

Edited to clarify: I am not advocating self-censoring. I am advocating thinking about reviewing by “inform, not warn” (that was from Roger Sutton, stating the policy of the Horn Book.) For example, when talking about bullying in a book, is it by a “warning” to parents that this is “bad”? Or is by informing people what a book is about? Once you’ve said, “this is a moving story about a sixteen  year old dealing with bullying,” why add a “warning” to the review?

And frankly, I’m curious as to what one does when a review or conversation has been taken out of context. How to stay strong to not self censor; whether it’s even possible to fix the abuse.