September 2009

Kati Nolfi


Tricks by Ellen Hopkins

Young adult literature is a battleground for our anxieties about teens and desire. By studying teen novels, a reader may easily discern unease about the sexual teenage body, who is doing it, how and why they are doing it, and what will result from sexual activity. In young adult novels, teenage sexuality is monitored, limited, moralized, and shamed with few options and variations; a fast track from inexperience to intercourse. Unchecked, it is a site of trauma and tragedy.

Tricks is 640 pages of innocence destroyed by the danger of having nowhere to go, no one to trust, and the necessity of commoditizing one's young body when it is the only option for survival. Ellen Hopkins' verse tomes are popular with teens who crave books about sex, drugs, and abuse. These weighty problem novels purport to address social issues in a responsible and accessible way and yet they sensationalize complicated systemic problems. Tricks' five teen characters -- Eden, Seth, Whitney, Ginger, and Cody -- each sell their bodies to survive, ultimately intersecting with one another in Las Vegas. They come from the country, not the city, the typical origin of vice. Each teen tells her story in poetry, Ellen Hopkins' usual structure. The verse moves the story along and adds vividness and drama to an obvious narrative arc.

Hopkins wants to write responsibly about the sex trade and she wants to provide hope for the children affected. She points out the nature of love, the manipulation of children by adults, the causal connection between poverty and prostitution, and shows how repression can lead to harmful behavior.

Unfortunately, Hopkins seems to have started this book with a problem and not characters and a story. The five teens are a concerned adult's facile rendering of damaged youth. They are flashing neon cautionary signs: dopey, alienated, and shallow. Instead of evoking compassion from the reader Hopkins effectively creates the titillating suspense of watching our characters fall, witnessing their abuse and assault. This is all very grotesquely exciting, but not an honest and sensitive examination of sexual exploitation.

Tricks is an upsetting read. It creates a distorted and panicked view of the world as unnavigable and unsafe and does so in a sexy teensploitation style. Why must these particular five, indistinct characters destruct so tragically? Perhaps Hopkins wants us to wonder: is it family, culture, sex, drugs, religion, capitalism? Such imprecision adds up to a lot of scandal without much deeply examined and factual content.


Tricks by Ellen Hopkins
Margaret K. McElderry
ISBN: 1416950079
640 Pages

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