June 2006

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

The High School Experience

When I look back at high school I am both amused and disappointed by how I spent the years between 14 and 17. There were a ton of things I wanted to do with my life back then, but pretty much none of them happened. I did have some good friends, but mostly I had a lot of embarrassing and pathetic moments. I did not change the world; I did not even figure out what part of the world I was interested in. I ended up graduating in 1986 and then going on to a college I was ill suited for and a degree that I had less than no interest in. When I consider how long it took me to figure out what I wanted to with my life, I know that a lot of wasted time happened at Eau Gallie High School. I wish I had a revelation or two back then, it might have made a lot of difference later. It’s that irresistible endless question: what might have been?

It did all work out in the end finally, (a long time later) and I’m certainly a happy camper now. I spend time thinking about high school these days only because a lot of young adult books deal with the high school experience. There are so many different kinds of teenagers, so many different perspectives to consider when looking at this time in a person’s life, and I am constantly impressed by how writers approach the same subject matter and manage to put their own unique stamp on what is nearly a universal American experience. I still wish my teen years had been different, but in reading the following books, I have gained some wisdom in how it was for the other kids that surrounded me in those hallways so long ago.

In Nothing But the Truth (And a Few White Lies) Patty Ho ends her freshman year convinced that she will never figure out her life. As someone who is half Taiwanese and half American, she faces not only confusion over a long absent father and strict conservative mother, but also a whole host of ethnic identity issues. Surrounded by the “China dolls” at family events, Patty finds herself towering over them with her pale skin and big feet. She doesn’t look Caucasian and she doesn’t look Asian, and much worse than that, she also doesn’t feel like either group. Patti is a teenager struggling with the most fundamental questions about personal identity and then, just to make things worse, her mother decides that she needs to go to math camp over the summer.

There are tons of kids who would love math camp, and even excel there (I recently read about one of them in the wonderful 1950s young adult novel, A Higher Geometry) but while Patti is pretty good in the subject it is not at all what she wants to immerse herself in for several weeks. But this kid does not defy her mother so soon enough she is off to Stanford University and a world she never imagined.

At Stanford Patti and her classmate, Anne, find themselves surrounded by math geeks, many of whom are not what Patti expected. First she has to absorb that Anne, who seemed like the classic academic overachiever back home, is secretly working on a teenage romance novel and then she meets her roommate Jasmine, a take charge teen who freeclimbs buildings for fun. Finally there is Stu who is about as gorgeous as it gets and thinks Patti’s pretty fabulous just as she is, smart, funny and “hapa,” half white and half Asian. All too quickly everything at camp seems perfect, but then Patti’s mother shows up, and nothing can stop Patti from being disappointed, or from realizing a lot of amazing truths about her family and herself that she never imagined. (And yes, Jasmine and Anne play a big part in all of this as well.)

When I was reading Nothing but the Truth I completely identified with Patti, which seems impossible because on the surface we have precious little in common. But Patti’s questions ring so true that they easily resonated with me. I was very impressed by how author Justine Chen Headley made Patti’s biracial experience a universal one -- an approach that is woefully underrepresented in young adult literature. As a teen straddling two wildly disparate cultures, Patti has a lot more questions than most when it comes to who she is and as the larger story of her family unfolds those issues only seem to grow with a force that threatens to overwhelm her. Jasmine and Anne prove to be the best of friends however and stand by Patti as she figures out just who she is and, more importantly, who she wants to be.

Nothing but the Truth is a witty family drama wrapped up in a lot of questions about identity, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Headley has another young adult title due out next year and certainly is a writer to watch.

I have been woefully lax in exploring sports titles because I have little frame of reference as a teen athlete. (I wore a band uniform in high school so I had my own issues to deal with and wasn’t too worried about what the football players were going through.) I picked up Open Ice by Pat Hughes because my father was a great hockey fan and I grew up on stories of the Montreal Canadians (the only team that matters). I quickly found myself drawn into the story of Nick Taglio and his struggle to cope with life off the ice. Reading the book made me realize how hard it must be to lose the thing you love to do more than anything, and how doubly tough that is when you are in high school.

Nick has life all figured out, and it pretty much hinges on his ability to play hockey. It is his role as a star athlete that has brought him popularity, his sexy girlfriend Devin and the chance of a college scholarship. Hockey is not just the center of Nick’s life; it is his life. But it’s also a very violent game, and in the beginning of Open Ice Nick takes yet another blow to the head giving him a severe concussion. This time getting back on the ice doesn’t look so easy.

Nick reacts to life without hockey as if he has suffered a death in the family and early on it becomes clear to the reader that in a lot of ways he has. Nick only knows how to be the guy who skates. When he loses his sport he finds himself not only with an uncertain future (and some very frightening ongoing medical problems) but also having to find out who else he can be. It is quickly clear who his real friends are and who just wanted a piece of the athlete/hero and even this is a shock to Nick. He has been popular for so long that he never realized that his whole school identity might have been only because of hockey. He thought the game was just part of who he was, he didn’t realize until it was gone that it was all he was.

In the end Nick does not do what everyone else wants him to do, in fact he acts a lot more like a teenager than a thoughtful adult -- go figure. I was disappointed by some of Nick’s choices, but then again I’m 37-years old. The point with Nick is that he doesn’t know better, and he’s going to act like a teenager even when you wish he would just figure it all out. In Open Ice Pat Hughes shows just how the process of growing up begins for one particular boy and how incredibly hard it can be to lose the high school limelight. I liked this book a lot, and it has certainly made me think about athletics and childhood and the best way to combine the two.

The sport in Dairy Queen is football, but the players are not who you would expect. In this very charming tale about taking stock of your life and finding strength enough to make some important changes, high school junior D.J. is used to doing what everyone else wants her do (something she has in common with Patti Ho). In D.J.’s case the family farm is in trouble due to her father’s recent surgery. As her two older brothers are away at college on football scholarships and her mother is working two jobs to make ends meet, it falls to D.J. and her little brother to milk the cows and take care of the fields. Even though D.J. isn’t happy with this arrangement, and her grades are suffering because of it, she doesn’t complain because nobody complains in her family. It is this silence that starts to eat away at D.J. as the story unfolds and makes her question just what she is doing with her life. When the quarterback for the neighboring high school football team shows up at her house at the request of a family friend, D.J. finds herself with some much needed help at the farm, and more importantly an interesting challenge. The twist for the book is that D.J. grew up playing football with her older brothers and Brian Nelson is a quarterback badly in need of training. As much as Brian annoys D.J., she can’t resist the chance to play again. She doesn’t plan to do anything more than practice over the summer, but as D.J. gets better and better she starts to think maybe there could be more for her than the farm and decides to finally take a chance on herself.

There is a lot about Dairy Queen to love, starting with D.J. and her confused and complicated family. There are no bad people here, just the typical American household where everybody has done the same things the same way for so long that the idea of even talking about something else (or admitting you like something else) doesn’t seem possible. By daring to step forward and bring attention to herself D.J. proves to be a very brave and endearing character and as for her and Brian, that was just perfect, and exactly what both of them needed. (And please, don’t think you know how this book ends for them, because trust me, you don’t!)

Okay, I saw Chicks with Sticks in a store and thought it looked like so much fun I couldn’t resist it. I was quite pleased to find that there is a very thoughtful story within this book about some girls rediscovering themselves at the same time they find a love for knitting. It seems like everybody and their third cousin is into knitting these days and it’s certainly a much worthier hobby than most (you get something out of it that keeps you warm!).

In a lot of ways Chicks with Sticks seems to be a traditional story about teenage girls trying to figure out who they are and finding that they have things in common with kids they barely even considered speaking to in the past. I was expecting more than a few clichés in the text but author Elizabeth Lenhard excels instead at throwing plot curves. Scottie is struggling with very busy and famous parents who don’t seem to be too interested in dealing with her seemingly trivial concerns. Her best friend Amanda is becoming popular in lots of ways that Scottie is mystified by -- and having suffered the exact same experience with my best friend Caryn when we were 14 I know all too well how easily this can happen. One minute the two of you can’t stop talking to each other and the next minute there is nothing but endless silence. Amanda has her own problems though, all of them centered around a hidden learning disability that is making her life, in spite of her popularity, incredibly tough. And her parents don’t seem to be much help at all. Adding to the mix are Bella and Tay, both of whom have their own reasons for looking for something to call their own. How all of these girls end up one night at KnitWit is both funny and believable. From then on, it is all miscommunication and misunderstandings and constant struggles to figure out just who they want to be individually (popular, tough or knitters?) and if they have what it takes to make an enduring friendship. The fact that nothing is easy (least of all understanding each other) made for a very compelling story. Scottie makes some mistakes but mostly they just have a really good time becoming friends.

I kept thinking about Maud Hart Lovelace and the old Betsy-Tacy books when I was reading Chicks with Sticks and I mean that as a very high compliment. Lenhard’s book was warm and deep and rich. No one had to run for their life or deal with drug addiction or face down a rapist. Chicks is about how to develop friendships and why those friendships are so very important -- how they can give you the kind of courage that sometimes you just don’t have on your own. With everybody so determined to prove themselves in our world, just having a moment to sit back and talk and knit seems like a dream. Hell, if more people knitted maybe the world would be a better place.

Shifting gears a bit, Patrick Jones’s Nailed is the story of Bret Hendricks who does not know how to conform to the “jockarchy” of Flint, Michigan’s Southwestern High School. He and his friends Alex and Sean have a punk rock band (“Radio-Free Flint”) and with his long streaked hair and thrift shop clothes, Bret is just too much for his father to deal with, let alone his conservative principal to understand. He’s an average student who excels only on the stage in drama club productions until miraculously he captures the attention of Kylee, a senior at a nearby school. With a foxy girl on his arm Bret thinks he can handle anything, even the daily verbal and physical abuse from a Southwestern ballplayer and bully. But then something happens, something fairly common in the world of high school but it cuts Bret to the core. And suddenly, as he starts to fall apart, he finds that his carefully constructed balancing act will not stand up to this new pressure and he doesn’t know who will catch him as he falls.

There were many things I loved about Nailed. Author Patrick Jones has done a great job of capturing the world of a kid who is on the edge of crossing the line; who has been pushed so hard that he just might do that unspeakable act of violence that will be the end of everything. What is particularly so exceptional about the book is that Jones doesn’t shy away from the real world events that Bret’s life seems to mimic. At one point, in a bold strike for every teenager everywhere that remains invisible and abused, Bret gives a speech against Southwestern’s jockarchy. As he tells his student audience why a school that allows privilege for only the athletic few is unfair, and why it should not be tolerated, he quotes Evan Todd, a popular football player at Columbine High School who gave this very real quote to Time magazine after the shooting there in 1999: “Columbine is a clean, good place except for those rejects. Sure we teased them. But what do you expect with kids who come to school with weird hairdos and horns on their hats? It’s not just jocks; the whole school’s disgusted with them. They’re a bunch of homos. If you want to get rid of someone, usually you tease ‘em. So the whole school would call them homos.”

“The enemy’s in this room,” says Bret at the end of his speech, “but we are not afraid to be ourselves. We are not afraid and we will not be victims any longer!” This is not a cry for violence, but an insistence that the way things are at Southwestern is wrong and students and adults who don’t see that are equally to blame. It is his shining moment, but the reader knows he is going to pay for it, just like he has been paying all of his life for not playing the popularity game.

At one point in the novel Bret asks Kylee if she knows what it’s like to be normal and she says she doesn’t care. “I think most everyone is normal,” she says, “and some of us, for whatever reason, choose to reject that and wear ruby slippers or old black hats.” Bret wears a Speed Racer t-shirt and acts in Bye Bye Birdie and is not the brand of normal that Southwestern High’s culture expects and demands. He is however not another Dylan Klebold or Eric Harris either but in Jones’s talented hands we see how easily he could be. For being brave enough to go down this road and humanize it so effectively, Jones deserves a lot of credit. His book also deserves a lot of sales, and I hope that readers everywhere embrace Bret and his teenage declaration of independence.

Finally, the new teenage classic, King Dork. I was first drawn to Frank Portman’s book by the inclusion of references to Catcher in the Rye, bands that will never be, and a kind of familiar domestic hilarity that is not threatening or scary but sweetly confused and complicated. Basically, the book and protagonist Tom Henderson sounded like a lot of fun.

Internet buzz started pretty early on Portman’s book and by the time I read it a couple of months ago everybody who was cool (or at least all the cool people I know) were blogging like crazy that King Dork was the second coming in high school literature and was going to take Catcher down. (Not that Portman wants to destroy the classic, he just wants to poke some much needed fun at school curriculums who depend a little too much on it and other classics.) As for me, I was liking the story just fine, liking Tom and his best friend Sam and his hippie mom and stepdad and the zippy way that Portman so effectively and sincerely channeled teenage angst everywhere. And then I got to page 94 where Tom considers his younger sister Amanda in such a mature and kind way that I was surprised. Brothers and sisters never get along in teen books, it’s one of my only disappointments with Nailed, that Patrick Jones couldn’t resist the cliché of a wanna be Clique little sister who makes dissing her brother a fulltime job. That’s not the way it is with Tom and Amanda and to prove it, Portman lets his narrator drop a couple of great names when it comes to sister comparisons: Harriet the Spy and Yoda. Yep, same girl, same paragraph, and he pulls the classic quirky girl detective in along with the ultimate Jedi fighter. And right then, I thought this guy has me; I am officially Frank Portman’s chick from this moment on.

So what’s the story about? Well, there’s a slight mystery surrounding the death several years earlier of Tom’s father. It’s not a burning mystery and it only comes into play when Tom finds several of his father’s old books, including Catcher, all of which have some rather cryptic messages on the pages. Mostly though King Dork is about Tom avoiding bullies and an idiotic member of the school administration. He also has to put up with some well intended but wildly off the mark parenting and falls victim to the manipulations of more than one overly dramatic and perpetually confused teenage girl. (Big surprise there.) It seems like a predictable story but Portman is relentless when it comes to witty dialog and outstanding plot pacing. (I kept thinking of film comparisons while I read -- the Road movies with Crosby and Hope, the Thin Man series with Myrna Loy and William Powell, His Girl Friday with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell; the list goes on and on.) Very slowly, the story creeps up on you until you realize that there is nothing typical about what is happening in King Dork, in fact the story is wholly and completely original which takes some getting used to since it takes place in a typical high school, with a typical kid, and a typical, albeit pleasantly funky, family. With passages like this though, Portman clearly is moving head and shoulders above a lot of other literature out there today:

Say you’re a kid in this field of rye. You try to find a quiet place where you can be by yourself, to invent a code based on the "The Star Spangled Banner," or to design the first four album covers of your next band, or to write a song about a sad girl, or to read a book once owned by your deceased father. Or just to stare off into space and be alone with your thoughts. But pretty soon someone comes along and starts throwing gum in your hair, and gluing gay porn to your helmet, and urinating on your funny little hat from St. Vincent de Paul, and hiring a psychiatrist to squeeze the individuality out of you, and making you box till first blood, and pouring Coke on your book, and beating you senseless in the boys’ bathroom, and ridiculing your balls, and holding you upside down till you fall out of your pants, and publicly charting your sexual unattractiveness, and confiscating your Stratego, and forcing you to read and copy out pages from the same three books over and over and over. So you think, who needs it? You get up and start walking. And just when you think you’ve found the edge of the field and are about to emerge from Rye Hell, this AP teacher or baby-boomer parent dressed as a beloved literary character scoops you up and throws you back into the pit of vipers. I mean the field of rye.

Sound good? I’m sorry, but I’m rooting for the kids and hoping they get out while they can. And as for you, Holden, old son: if you happen to meet my body coming through the rye, I’d really appreciate it if you’d just stand aside and get out of my fucking way.

It’s official Portman, you have made me love you. King Dork is for every kid in high school and every adult who ever spent time there. It’s funny and smart and sad and even sexy in an “oral sex feels good even when the girl is slightly crazy” kind of way. This book impressed the hell out of me on every single level as good writing and just as importantly, good storytelling. It’s a great book and I sincerely hope that it manages to find itself into lockers and backpacks and backseats everywhere. King Dork is the kind of read that can change the world, one pissed off teenager at a time. Here’s hoping Portman will give us more stories like it in the future because God knows we need them -- we need all the good relevant writing we can get.