Tag Archives: YA Literature

I Swear: Thoughts about Bullying, Lane Davis’ novel, and a New Year’s Resolution

In the past I have posted a booklist on the topic of bullying, reviewed The Bully, the Bullied and the Bystander by Barbara Coloroso, and shared my thoughts on how books can help to open up dialogue on this sensitive topic.

This year, with No Name Calling Week coming quickly (January 21-25), I am thinking yet more deeply about why the issue of bullying is something I take so seriously as an educator, a parent, and as a human being.  Some life lessons came hard and fast over the past couple months and I think I’m still reeling.   Between the experiences I’ve had and the reading I’ve done, cyberbullying, slut shaming and the limits of free speech are all on my mind.

Particularly when verbal bullying is involved—as I have learned firsthand—too many people, including teachers, school administrators and parents, are uncomfortable with the word “bullying.”  They are reluctant to identify problematic behaviors for what they are, downplaying the victims’ feelings, giving the perpetrators the benefit of the doubt and assuming that the victims are crying “wolf.”  In a culture in which people are so quick to defend their right to free speech, what happens to the rights of others to be free from verbal violence?

Last fall, I read I Swear, the debut novel from writer/actor Lane Davis.  Narrated alternately by four friends, the novel explores the fallout of a bullycide tragedy:  Leslie Gatlin, after enduring years of relentless bullying and systematic humiliation, kills herself in her parents’ garage.  Jake, perhaps Leslie’s only friend, is the last person to see her alive.  Jillian, Jake’s twin sister, is best friends with Macie Merrick, the mastermind behind the schemes, pranks, and cyberbullying that targeted Leslie. Katherine and Beth, Leslie’s classmates, each played her own part as well.  With Leslie’s parents pursuing a wrongful death suit, everyone is forced to confront an uncomfortable reality:  even if the truth comes to light, will it bring justice?

While all the expected characters round out the cast—the queen bee and her sidekicks, the wannabes, the love interest, and the bystander-turned-heroine—Davis does a remarkable job developing the standard players and in the right hands this fascinating novel could become a powerful screenplay.  As the events unfold, the narrators reflect on their reasons for going along with Macie’s cruelty to Leslie—what is it about Macie that compels both girls and guys to crave her approval?  How can any teenager be expected to find his or her own voice when so many others—peers’ and adults’—are quick to speak for them?

Unfortunately, some of the Macie Merricks we knew in high school are now adults who continue their vicious, brutal behavior in the workplace or other communities, always managing to come out on top because they’ve crushed the people in their way.  Recognizing this, Davis ends the story with all the complexity and ambiguity that suicide demands—and the novel is all the more successful for it.

As a teacher and parent, I swear, I will be vigilant in raising awareness of the realities of bullying.  To this end I’ve decided to study—concurrently with my library science work—character development.  I hope to integrate my background in morality and social justice and my extensive reading of young adult literature with strategies for teaching character and values.  I am excited to see what comes of it all.  My official New Year’s resolution is inspired by One, presented here by author Kathryn Otoshi:  I am only one educator, but one student, one classroom, one school at a time, I will help build communities that foster compassion and respect.

Upcoming:  a few more recommended titles on bullying.

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Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

One of the projects in my high school creative writing class was a photo journalism assignment with a twist:  after taking pictures of an event, we sifted through the images and selected one or two to serve as the inspiration for a short story.  The only caveat was that the story had to be completely removed from the actual event in the photo.

Reading Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, I kept thinking of that creative writing assignment and wondering if Riggs went through a similar process to come up with the plot and characters for this novel.   From authentic, vintage photographs culled from the personal archives of several special collectors comes an unexpected, well-plotted and highly unusual story peopled with fascinating characters.   This imaginative cross-over novel begs for a sequel.

When he was a child, Jacob believed the bizarre stories his Grandpa Portman told him about horrific monsters and he was enthralled with the strange photographs he shared of the levitating, invisible, and freakishly strong children with whom he’d once lived.  As time passes however, Jacob loses interest in fantastic tales and his family grows stronger in their opinion that Grandpa is losing his mind.  Then a shocking family tragedy occurs that sets Jacob on a path to visit the remote island where his grandfather once lived and uncover the secrets of the children’s home where the stories and photos originated.  Jacob’s discoveries will leave him doubting all he ever knew about his family history and believing in things he never dreamed possible.

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Chinese Handcuffs

by Chris Crutcher, 1989

Classification:  YA Fiction

Genre:  Realistic/Issues

Age Level:  14+

Subjects:  Suicide, high school sports, friendship, family

Reader’s Annotation:  Dillon Hemingway’s world is changed forever when he witnesses his brother’s suicide.

Main Characters:  Dillon Hemingway, a triathlete who aspires to be an Ironman
Preston Hemingway, Dillon’s brother who has committed suicide
Stacy Ryder, Preston’s girlfriend, friend of Dillon’s
Caulder Hemingway, Dillon & Preston’s father
Jen Lawless (aka J. Maddy), star basketball player, friend of Dillon’s
T.B. Martin, Jen’s stepfather
Coach Kathy Sherman, women’s basketball coach, teacher & mentor to Dillon

Summary:  Only a short while ago, Dillon Hemingway was dreaming of competing in a triathlon.  Now, in the aftermath of his brother’s suicide, Dillon is coping with his own grief and confusion, his parents’ separation, and his friends’ secrets.  Dillon begins writing letters to his brother Preston as a way of sorting out his feelings and he relies on the steady support of Coach Kathy Sherman.  As more and more secrets are revealed, Dillon is faced with difficult decisions involving safety, trust and the law.  Between a sinister biker gang and an unscrupulous lawyer, Dillon must think clearly and act fast to help those he cares about.

Controversial content:  violence, sexual abuse, killing of an animal, gang rape

Also by Chris Crutcher:  The Crazy Horse Electric Game, Running Loose, Staying Fat for Sarah Brynes, Stotan!

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The Crazy Horse Electric Game

by Chris Crutcher, 1987

Classification:  YA Fiction

Genre:  Realistic/Issues

Age Level:  14+

Subjects:  accident & aftermath, disappointment, friendship, family

Reader’s annotation:  When a near-drowning leaves him crippled, star athlete Willie Weaver is forced to confront a life much different from the one he thought he was supposed to live.

Main characters:  Willie Weaver—a gifted athlete and the formidable pitcher on his town’s baseball team
Big Will—Willie’s father who is deeply proud of his athletic son and who has always related to Willie through sports
Sandy Weaver—Willie’s mother who blames herself for the loss of baby Missy to SIDS
Johnny Rivers—Willie’s best friend who enjoys telling longwinded jokes that end in cheesy puns
Jenny Blackburn—Willie’s longtime best friend and new girlfriend, a star athlete in her own right who particularly excels in basketball

Summary: A near-drowning leaves star athlete Willie Weaver damaged, a devastating blow for the Weaver family who never healed from the death of baby Missy.  Willie is bewildered by his sudden handicap.  With his best friend/girlfriend drifting away and his father increasingly frustrated, Willie senses the need for a new environment in which he can sort out his new identity.  He boards a bus and ends up in Oakland where he finds an unlikely savior in a pimp named Lacey who sets Willie up at a school offering “One More Last Chance.” Can Willie, and the family and friends he’s left behind, ever recover from the tragedy?

Controversial Content: Racism

Also by Chris Crutcher:  Running Loose, Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, Stotan!

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Stotan!

by Chris Crutcher, 1986

Classification:  YA Fiction

Genre:  Realistic/Issues

Age Level:  14+

Subjects:  Friendship, teams, high school

Reader’s annotation:  Four high school swimmers volunteer for a grueling week of training in preparation for their final season as a team.

Main characters:  Walter Dupree (narrator), has older parents who are not much involved in his life
Nortie Wheeler, works with young kids at a daycare
Jeff Hawkins, formerly with the Marine reserves
Lionel “Lion” Serbousek, an orphan who lives alone in a run-down apartment
Max Il Song, swim coach, Korean
Elaine, also a swimmer, friend of the team
Devnee, Walker’s girlfriend
Marty O’Brian, a schoolmate who promotes a local newsletter called “Aryan Press”
Gail Stevens, school administrator

Summary:  Frost High School swimming coach Max Il Song devises a challenge for his four man team:  Stotan Week, in which each athlete will strive to become a cross between a Stoic and a Spartan.  Together, best friends and teammates Walker, Nortie, Jeff and Lion push themselves past their known limits and find not only a higher level of athletic performance but also a deeper understanding of life and friendship.

Controversial content:  Racism, violence, child abuse.

Also by Chris Crutcher:  Running Loose, Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes

 

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Running Loose

by Chris Crutcher, 1983

Classification:  YA Fiction

Genre:  Realistic/Issues

Age Level:  14+

Subjects:  Sportsmanship, love, death and friendship

Reader’s annotation:  In this coming of age story set in a small Idaho town, Louie Banks learns how lives are set by fleeting moments and seemingly simple decisions.

Main characters: Louie Banks, a football player

Carter, another football player, Louie’s best friend & role model

Coach Lednecky, the football coach who believes in winning no matter the cost

Boomer Cowans, a fellow football player who has no problem playing dirty

Becky Sanders, Louie’s long-time crush

Summary: Louie is a student athlete at Trout High School, a small town school with a student body of less than 125 students.  He is devoted to football until Coach Lednecky asks the team to carry out an illegal move that will injure Washington, the rival’s team best player who happens to be African American.  When Boomer follows through with the coach’s orders, Louie doesn’t hesitate to unmask Coach Lednecky, challenging the older man’s leadership and hinting at the deeper issue of racism.  But Louie’s concerns fall on deaf ears and win him no love with the rest of the team.  Convinced he did the right thing, Louie accepts the consequences of his actions.  In fact, when he’s kicked off the team, Louie manages just fine without football because he has Becky, a beautiful cheerleader and loyal friend, and a part-time job cleaning up at the Buckhorn, a local bar.  But when Louie’s life takes a tragic turn he must confront the reality that his actions have effects that he could never anticipate.

Controversial content: Underage drinking, sexuality, verbal and physical violence, strong language

Also by Chris Crutcher:  Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes

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Speech Team Memories & Bitter Melon

The first place trophy that came as such a surprise. (No, it doesn't live on my bookshelf anymore. I dug it out of a box in the garage specifically so I could post this photo.)

Many of my best memories of high school come from experiences on speech team.  There are the crystal clear memories:  scanning elimination lists, late-night dinners at Denny’s, my shock at winning my first ever tournament, and an incident mid-round involving my best friend/duo interpretation partner and a pair of pantyhose.  There are also the fuzzier images:  the judge with the pig tie, the record store near UC Berkley, the always cold classrooms.

Some years later, when I was a teacher, I chaperoned the speech team on a weekend invitational tournament.  That experience was not nearly as fun but my respect and admiration for my coach and moderator increased exponentially (Kristi Balleweg and Eileen DeBruno are forever my heroes!).

All these memories came back to me in a rush when I read Bitter Melon by Cara Chow.  The main character, Frances Ching, attends an all-girls prep school and joins the speech team at her teacher’s encouragement.  A former “speechie” herself, the author does an excellent job describing how it feels to enter an unfamiliar classroom, select a seat, size up the judge, psych out the competition.  Chow gets the roller coaster of nervousness and confidence just right.   And the trophy!  The brassy, hollow treasure that means both everything and nothing.

But Bitter Melon offers up more than just a glimpse into the geeky world of high school speech and debate.  The novel is as good as any Amy Tan book for its exploration of mother/daughter relationships and themes of loyalty to self and family.

Because the story is set in the 1989-1990 school year, there’s no internet or texting for these teens.  Frances and her peers pass notes on paper and share corded wall phones with their parents.  They also use AquaNet and the President Bush they refer to isn’t W.  The only period detail Chow is missing is the DJ spinning “My Prerogative” or “Straight Up” at one of the dances.  This is a great read for present day teens or for a child of the 80s.  Looking forward to more from this debut author!

Bitter Melon 

By Cara Chow

EgmontUSA, 2010

Classification:  YA Fiction

Genre:  Realistic

Age Level:   12+

Subjects: Mothers & daughters, Chinese Americans, high school, academics, speech & debate

Characters:

Fei Ting “Frances” Ching—hard-working, loyal daughter; a self-conscious loner

Gracie—a strict Chinese mom who wants her daughter to succeed in life

Theresa—Frances’ classmate, also Chinese

Nellie—Theresa’s mom and Gracie’s best friend

Ms. Taylor—a young, new teacher at Frances & Theresa’s school

Derek Collins—a boy Frances first meets at an SAT prep class who later turns out to be her biggest competition at speech tournaments

Summary:  Gracie Ching wants her only daughter, Frances, to attend UC Berkley and then go on to medical school.  Gracie works long hours at a low-paying job to afford tuition at a private girls school and she has Frances’ entire academic future planned out.  Now in her senior year, Frances has grown tired of her mother’s unrelenting pressure so when she accidentally enrolls in speech instead of AP Calculus, she doesn’t bother to change classes.  In fact, Frances kind of likes speech.  And her teacher, Ms. Taylor assures her she’s good at it.  At Ms. Taylor’s encouragement and with help on the homefront from fellow overachiever Theresa, Frances begins to find her own voice.  But will Gracie listen to what her daughter has to say?

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