Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Review of "Dear Bully"

I used to think I was bullied in middle school. 

In sixth grade, an eighth-grade boy on my bus used to threaten to rape me, and the bus driver would just laugh and shake his head. But that boy never touched me. Was it funny? No. Was it bullying? No. It was intimidation and stupid and harassment and even criminal today. But it wasn’t bullying. It wasn’t so persistent and relentless that I couldn’t eat or sleep or function or get through my day without biting my nails to nothing, imagining ways I could hurt him—or myself. I hated him, but I was never afraid of him.

In seventh grade, one group of eighth-grade girls hassled me on an almost daily basis, threatening to beat me up, leaving notes in the locker room about what they were going to do to me. But I never felt alone or ostracized. They never laid a hand on me, never cornered me in the halls. They hated me because the ex-boyfriend of one of their friends liked me. They were taking part in solidarity. I wasn’t a victim so much as a temporary target. It all ended when another eighth-grade girl who was only slightly more intimidating told them to lay off me. They did. The leader of that band sent me a friend request on Facebook last year. I accepted it. She seems to be a perfectly lovely person today, someone I might want to hug if we ever saw each other again. I mean that sincerely. 

By eighth grade, I was pretty clear on who my friends were, who my enemies were, and all the girls in between who had no feeling about me one way or another. High school was more of the same. JG was my arch enemy, though I couldn’t tell you why today. She said hateful things about me, but honestly, I didn’t treat her any better. I could say she started it—and she probably did. But it’s irrelevant now. I simply learned you can’t be friends with everyone. You’ll always rub someone the wrong way, tick them off, make them clench their jaws when you walk into a room. Them letting you and everyone else know exactly how they feel about you doesn’t make them bullies. It just makes them adolescents. 

This last point is one I’ve been trying to make clear to my kids recently, particularly my 12-year-old son, who is definitely an on-the-outskirts kind of kid and always has been. I suspect he always will be. He’s been bullied in the past, and the popular kids won’t be inviting him to hang out any time soon. But he has friends—really good, loyal, I’ve-got-your-back friends. He may not always like school, but he’s not afraid to be there.

I read Dear Bully this weekend. It’s a compilation of 70 YA authors’ personal stories about bullying—when they were either the target/victim or the one doing the bullying. Some of the stories were quite poignant (Laurie Faria Stolarz; I’ve never read her before, but I will now--plus, look at those covers!), but most were instances of authors calling apples oranges.

Having your best friend decide she isn’t your friend anymore? That sucks, but it’s not bullying.

Having the popular kids ostracize and ignore you when you were once part of their crowd? Again: not bullying.

Having a manipulative friend? Not bullying.

Being the subject of rumors? Not bullying.

Lauren Oliver (whom I have read, and I love) addresses this last issue in her chapter, in which she is speaking more to kids than to adult readers like me. She talks briefly about how she wasn’t bullied in high school, but she was the victim of rumors. She goes on to talk about the importance of embracing ambiguity and differentness not just in others, but in ourselves. I agree completely that if a child can accept himself, he won’t seek acceptance from others. How to get from A to B is the difficulty.

I think it’s vital that we not call every hardship between peers bullying, so I appreciate Oliver for making this disclaimer. Because once we do slap one label on all of it, we trivialize what so many children go through on a daily basis—the kids who are afraid to go to school, not just the ones who are uncomfortable there. No amount of self-acceptance can erase fear. No amount of saying, “I like who I am and I won’t change” will stop someone from shoving you against a locker or from kicking you when you’re on the ground after being tripped. And I know bullying extends beyond the physical. The name-calling and the well-planned and well-executed daily attacks can erode what thin wall of protection you’ve managed to build up around your fragile adolescent psyche.

Bullying is the strong preying on the weak and the weakened. So it’s those two groups—the weak and the weakened—that we need to focus on, because they’re the ones who lack the support necessary to get them through the hell years.

Sure, middle school was rough for me. It’s not much better than rough for most people. But to tell a child who feels painfully alone and vulnerable every single day that I understand what she’s going through is the equivalent of me telling someone with lung cancer that I know what they’re going through because I had bronchitis when I was younger.

Is this book worth a read? Some of the chapters are. But others are just reminders of how difficult empathy can be when our experiences provide no basis for comparison with others’.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Review of "Storm" by Brigid Kemmerer

Growing up in the 80s, I didn’t have access to “young adult” as a genre, let alone entire bookstore sections dedicated to teen readers. No, I had to rely on Stephen King and Piers Anthony to get me through my middle- and high-school years. 

So I feel I have a lot of catching up to do now that YA isn’t just available, but is so popular even we adults don’t have to be ashamed to be seen carrying around books (and book covers!) obviously geared toward our 14-year-old selves. 

I’ll spare you my extended reviews of the Twilight series (addictive like jelly beans but less nutritional) and of the Hunger Games trilogy (rich like a Cadbury Crème Egg but by the end, you feel like you’ve been eating the same piece of candy for 3 books, and the conclusion upsets your stomach a little) and of every other of the dozens and dozens of YA books I’ve read over the past several years, so many of them formulaic: A girl falls for a boy only to find out he’s a bad boy/fairy/vampire/angel, but along the way she discovers she’s a fairy/vampire/angel, and she’s sure she can turn the bad boy/fairy/vampire/angel into a good boy/fairy/vampire/angel, if only time doesn’t run out for them first. Oh. And only if the other boy/fairy/vampire/angel doesn’t prove to be too tempting to resist. 

I’m not trashing these YAs. Formulas are formulas—and not misguided mathematics—because they work. Just like clichés are clichés because they’re true, and little black dresses really do serve multiple purposes.
That being said, however, I love with an all-my-heart kind of love young-adult novels that break from “tradition.”  And here’s what it takes for me to find that kind of love (call it another formula if you like):

1.       An authentic voice. And I don’t mean an authentic YA voice. I mean an authentic teen voice. I mean the voice teens actually use and not the one teen characters use. 

2.       A plot outside of the romance. Yes, love stories are wonderful and have their place in literature. But “Romeo and Juliet” was done right the first time. Let’s move on and raise the stakes a little. Let’s have a storyline that would still be a great book even if the main characters weren’t falling in love.

3.       Good pacing. The reader shouldn’t be sweating or sleeping by the end of the story. A little heart-racing action is great. But just like the rest of us, the characters need to have time to breathe, have a snack, and then get back out there for the next round.

4.       Characters worth caring about. I watched “Contagion” the other night. This movie has an 84% on Rotten Tomatoes, and I don’t understand why. I didn’t care about any of the characters. Gwyneth Paltrow dies five minutes in, and flashbacks surrounding her don’t make her sympathetic. Matt Damon’s total minutes onscreen are well acted, but we know all along he and his daughter will be just fine, so I’m just supposed to mourn with him for his cheating wife?  The purpose of the film was to scare us. I get that. And, yes, the idea of a virus wiping out 25% of the people it infect is frightening, but it was frightening before Kate Winslet got sick and before Jude Law got angry. I want to feel involved with the people that make up the story, not just the story. 

5.       Believability. I know fairies and vampires and brooding teen angels don’t exist. But I’m willing to believe in them for 300+ pages if the author believes in them. I’m willing to believe in them if the world the author has created is so real and vivid and downright tangible that I find myself thinking, “I get it now! Of course!”

A book that has all five of these qualifications is rare, which is why I love with an all-my-heart kind of love Brigid Kemmerer’s Storm.

1.       Book reviewer Brodie on Eleusinian Mysteries said it best: “Is Brigid Kemmerer really a teenage boy in disguise? 5 times over? The dialogue and mannerisms and the way they express themselves... she nails it!” 

2.       My 15-year-old son read this as well. When he first picked it up, he rolled his eyes at the cover. But he’d finished the book two days later. He said he didn’t even notice the romance because he was caught up in the story. Now, I promise you there’s puh-lenty of romance in this book: four hot brothers who each control an element, and then an equally hot new and mysterious stranger comes to town, and soon all five of them are thrown off their game by Becca, the main character. It’s a story about controlling your own life. It’s about finding and defining yourself. It’s about SO much more than who hooks up with whom. 

3.       When the pacing is too fast in a book, you don’t get to know the characters well enough. You feel rushed. Too slow, and you wonder when Godot is going to show up. “Storm” takes you along for a buckle-up sort of ride, but it doesn’t give you whiplash along the way. 

4.       Brigid is a female. We’ve met. And she’s not a teenager, even if she is a good bit younger than I am. But she has created five male characters that are different and infuriating and sweet and arrogant and off-putting and insecure and stubborn and naïve and not always likable. But I still love every one of them because they make sense. As for Becca, she’s strong without being abrasive. She has weaknesses, but they’re what make her real and relatable. She’s not an action hero dressed in black leather with a whip at her side and enough lip gloss to polish the Statue of Liberty. She’s a normal girl who’s faced some really rough times and has learned to confront and deal with them. I cared about her. I cared about all of the characters. It’s impossible not to.

5.       Vampires, fairies and brooding teen angels don’t exist. Like I said: I know that. But I’m pretty sure Elementals who can control earth, air, fire, and water do. Brigid says so, she believes so, and I believe her.

Storm comes out on April 24. Spark (book 2) comes out in the fall. This series is refreshing and brilliant and exciting, and Brigid Kemmerer is an author well worth keeping an eye on for the foreseeable future.