Review: Down to the Bone

(Cross-posted at We Read to Seek a Great Perhaps)

Down to the Bone book coverDown to the Bone
by Mayra Lazara Dole
Published by HarperTeen (HarperCollins), 2008
ISBN 9780060843106
Lexile 640
Pages: 351, plus glossary
Ages: Grades 9 and up
Awards: CCBC Choice Award, America’s Award Commended Title

I was excited when I found this book included in a list of YA books with LGBTQ themes. The majority of books I’d found had white, male protagonists and relationships; Down to the Bone was about a Cuban-American lesbian. As a teacher of Hispanic students from a variety of cultural backgrounds, I thought this book would be an excellent addition to my fledgling LGBTQ library. I put in an interlibrary loan request, and eagerly waited my turn to review it.

The first thing I have to say – as a lover of booky things – is that it’s a good-looking book. The edition I read was a petite hardcover, with stylistically-appropriate fun typography. I immediately had two issues with it, however. My first issue was that nothing about the front cover art (except, perhaps, the author’s name) flagged this book as being about Hispanic youth. I wished that they had chosen a more obviously Latina cover model – the girl they photographed could have been from anywhere in the world, and while I understand that this is good marketing, it doesn’t do much to draw in the target audience. Secondly, I felt uneasy about the back cover, which consists of two quotes by prominent authors of LGBTQ teen fiction. One quote includes the words “lesbian book” in bold, 48-point lettering – and I worry that many potential readers would step away from this book simply because they don’t necessarily want the world knowing what they’re reading about. (This seems like an especially strange production choice, given the attention the author pays to gay/lesbian teens’ common desire for secrecy or anonymity.)

I pay so much attention to the outside of the book primarily because the inside of Down to the Bone was disappointing. The awkward dialogue and stiff exposition turned me off within the first chapter:

“Until you tell me who you’ve been having indecent, immoral sex with in my house, you won’t be allowed to leave the house, bring friends over, or talk on the phone.” Her voice rises in a frightening tone. “I just got married to Osvaldo. Tomorrow we begin our honeymoon, the first vacation I’ve had in six years, and you do this me now? He better never find out or he’ll divorce me. A woman  needs a man, and I’ve started my life again. Don’t you dare ruin my chances of staying with him!”

It was several days before I returned to the book, determined to see if it would redeem itself. The verdict is… sorta. The story itself is interesting, and after a while I tuned out the clunky prose and focused on the unfolding telenovela – because this book is definitely a soap opera. The protagonist, a Cuban-American girl named Laura at the end of her junior year in a Catholic school, is outed, expelled from school, and kicked out of her home in one awful day and 22 rapid-fire pages. In the next 330 pages, Laura runs the gauntlet of teen (especially gay teen) drama: breakups, “cures,” workplace discrimination, stereotypes, doubt over sexual orientation, experimentation, drug use, STD scares, dating, drinking, clubbing, fights with parents, fights with friends, and the struggle to find one’s own voice.

All this makes Down to the Bone sound fairly sordid, which it is not. I wouldn’t hand it out to a class, but I wouldn’t hesitate to have it in my library (as far as content goes). Many of the issues are peculiar to Laura’s cultural surroundings, but the overall themes are much more widely applicable. LGBTQ teens will probably be especially interested in Laura’s attempts to date outside her “type” after breaking up with her girlfriend and subsequent realization that she can’t change her heart. The main theme of this book is acceptance – painted in broad strokes as Laura’s friends embrace her the way she is, and as her mother rejects her for being degenerada – and while Dole’s prose falls short, her message rings clear.

Another excellent feature of this book is the glossary at the back of the book, which provides translations for the terms and phrases the characters use throughout the book. Laura and other lesbians in the book are repeatedly described as tortilleras; I interpreted this as “lesbians” until the glossary clarified that it was a Cuban slang word for “disgusting dyke.” Whether intentional or not, I thought this was a wonderful and subtle lesson on the power of words – not understanding the connotation of the word caused me to misuse it, somewhat like students who use “gay” to mean “stupid,” and the characters’ adoption of the word simultaneously weakened its toxicity, just as the word “queer” has lost much of its sting after being adopted and used by the LGBTQ community.

Review: My Heartbeat

(Cross-posted at We Read to Seek a Great Perhaps)

My Heartbeat
by Garret Freymann-Weyr
Published by Penguin Group, 2002
ISBN 0142400661
Lexile: 700
Pages: 154
Ages: 12 and up (probably more appropriate for YA than ML)
Awards: Michael L. Printz Award Honor Book; ALA Best Book for Young Adults; Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year; Booklist Editors’ Choice Top of the List

When it comes to human sexuality, there are relatively few absolutes. According to the famous Kinsey Reports, all sexuality falls on a scale from 0-6, where a 0 indicates exclusively heterosexual feelings and experiences and a 6 indicates exclusively homosexual feelings and experiences; all people fall somewhere on that scale, and not necessarily at either end. Knowledge of the complexities and variances in sexual identity is helpful in understanding the characters in My Heartbeat, a quiet little book about complicated love.

The protagonist and narrator of My Heartbeat is fourteen-year-old Ellen, who has had a crush on her older brother’s best friend for as long as she can remember. Her brother, Link, is a precocious sixteen and a senior at their prestigious private school. His best friend, and the object of Ellen’s attention, is James – also a senior, but warm and artistic where Link is detached and mathematical. After she matriculates to the high school, Ellen’s classmates clue her in to the possibility that Link and James are more than just friends. This leads to hard times in her small world; Ellen wants nothing more than the security and companionship of their odd threesome, but her questions about James and Link’s relationship push Link away from his family and his friend.

Much of the book deals with Ellen’s gentle refusal to be absorbed into the mainstream, and with James’s equally gentle manner of helping her grow as a sister, thinker, artist, and – eventually – woman. Although Ellen is the voice of the novel, the story isn’t really about her; it’s about Link and James, and Link-and-James, and James-and-Ellen, and finally Ellen-and-Link. The back cover blurb calls it “an unexpected, thought-provoking love story,” which is accurate if you read that as a story about love rather than a romantic story. My Heartbeat isn’t romantic; it’s awkward, clever, and complicated.

As I read My Heartbeat, I couldn’t help but draw some parallels between Ellen and Link’s characters and another famous literary set of siblings. Something about Link’s personality called to my mind an older Jem Fitch, in a very different set of circumstances, trying simultaneously to impress his austere father and forge his own, unapproved path. Similarly, in Ellen I saw the curiosity, fearlessness, and innocence of Scout, as well as her inherently loving and trusting nature. Although it’s a stretch that might not occur to all readers, I think a classroom comparison of sibling relationships in Mockingbird and Heartbeat would render excellent discussion fodder!

While this book is written in a style that is appropriate for young readers, and is something that I would like to see made available to middle school students, it does have some – well, complicated adult situations that require a certain level of maturity in the reader. Direct references (but not depictions) of gay sex between a minor and an adult, and a frankly depicted straight sexual encounter between two minors – including discussion about birth control methods and STDs – are important components to this book. It’s tricky ground; the subject needs to be introduced in an honest and straightforward way, but it’s difficult or impossible to do so without delving deeper into details than deemed appropriate by many parents and administrators.

Tap Tap

Hello? Is this thing on?

I know that y’all are waiting with bated breath for something new to be posted here (okay, some of you might actually be getting annoyed waiting for the next chapter of Wyrd) so I thought I’d take a minute to check in. I’ve been taking two grad classes, but mostly I’ve just been being sick (ugh allergies!) and writing has been far from my mind. Or wheelhouse. Or something like that. What the heck is a wheelhouse, anyway?

I’m playing with a school project that might be interesting to some of you. More news later.

Oh, and I have a new hero. Her name is Allie, and she has a… well, it’s either a webcomic, or a graphically-oriented blog. And this is the best and saddest and funniest and truest thing ever written. In that medium, anyway.

Review: The Perks of Being a Wallflower

(Cross-posted at We Read to Seek a Great Perhaps)

The Perks of Being a Wallflower
by Stephen Chbosky
Published by MTV through Pocket Books (Simon & Schuster)
© 1999
ISBN 0671027344
Lexile 720
Pages: 213
Ages: Young Adult
Awards: ALA Best Books for Young Adults

This book has been on the shelves for over a decade, but the title kept coming up whenever I investigated books with LGBTQ interest, and it was a favorite among part of my social circle, so I wanted to check it out. It’s a slim epistolary novel, narrated by a highly intelligent high school freshman who calls himself Charlie. He’s writing letters to an unnamed stranger, chosen as his one-way penpal after he overheard someone say that this person “listens and understands and doesn’t try to sleep with people even if they could have.”

Perks isn’t a book about most teenagers, but it is a book about and for many young adults who feel like the world has gone insane and left them alone and behind – or perhaps the other way around. It’s a mild-mannered, bemused Catcher in the Rye for the MTV (and post-MTV) generation. The letters are the breadcrumbs along Charlie’s journey through high school, meeting with seemingly every known adolescent crisis along the way: girl problems, friendships, drinking, cliques, depression, drug experimentation, death of loved ones, alienation, date rape, intellectual discovery, and above all else, confusion.

Adults who don’t work with teens would probably like to believe that young people like Charlie don’t exist – but they do. Charlie appears to suffer from clinical depression, and while his introspection and other wallflower tendencies give him a powerful perspective on adolescent life, they are also visible tips of an iceberg threatening to destroy him. We learn late in the book that he was sexually abused when younger, and the repercussions of those repressed memories echo painfully in his awkward attempts at romance.

Despite its inclusion in many booklists and discussions about LGBTQ books for young adults, this also isn’t a book about gay teens. One of Charlie’s male friends is gay, and as Charlie struggles to determine his role in the world, he and the friend kiss. Charlie’s unblinking acceptance of all of his friends is a powerful unwritten message and an example of an increasingly realistic teen social scene

Perks is light to carry but heavy to read. It has been challenged and banned in many schools and libraries due to depictions of sexuality and drug use. In all honesty, I can’t imagine teaching it as a classroom text; at least one teacher, in Wisconsin, has done so and faced heavy criticism and challenges from the community. On the other hand, I absolutely believe it belongs in school and classroom libraries. It deals with these difficult topics, not only with fearlessness and honesty, but with a calm lack of hysteria and intelligence that young readers ought to experience. Anecdotally, the book has been a lifeboat for teens considering suicide; I can certainly see it being a valuable resource for young readers who feel all alone in a world that seems much darker than the bubblegum lives that their peers outwardly present.


English teachery note: I should mention that this book has a positive adult figure in Charlie’s English teacher, who tries to address what he perceives as Charlie’s genius with a personalized reading list. Throughout the course of the book, Charlie is presented with To Kill a Mockingbird, This Side of Paradise, Peter Pan, The Great Gatsby, A Separate Peace, The Catcher in the Rye, On the Road, Naked Lunch, Walden, Hamlet, The Stranger, and The Fountainhead. Students who have read any of these may enjoy comparing their reactions and insights to Charlie’s.