Week 10 – Cut by Patricia McCormick

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“Callie’s first-person account of her stay at Sea Pines, a mental-health facility, is poignant and compelling reading… McCormick’s first novel is powerfully written. Not for the squeamish, the young women’s stories avoid pathos and stereotypes. Shelley Stoehr’s Crosses (Bantam, 1991) and Steven Levenkron’s Luckiest Girl in the World (Viking, 1998) dealt with cutting, but Cut takes the issue one step further–to helping teens find solutions to problems” (Richmond, 2000).

While much shorter than Jennifer Niven’s All the Bright Places, this book deals with very similar themes: mental illness, self harm, and hope for recovery. The story focuses on a young woman named Callie, who has just entered a treatment facility known as Sea Pines (known to the patients as “Sick Minds”). While there, Callie meets a wide assortment of interesting characters: Tara and Becca, who suffer from anorexia and bulimia; Debbie, who over-eats; Sydney and Tiffany, who have problems with drugs; and finally Amanda, who self harms like Callie. Though Callie begins the story refusing to speak, she ends up opening up to her counselor (who she refers to in second person throughout the novel) and her new-found friends at the facility, proving that there is hope for recovery even in the darkest of places.

I was surprised, after reading this, to learn that Patricia McCormick had never self-harmed. Though I have never even considered self-harm myself, Callie’s thoughts and mindset seemed incredibly real to me, as if McCormick had crawled into the brain of a cutter in order to extract her thoughts. While this book was a little too short for my tastes, and moved far too quickly, I could definitely see this being a good fit for a reluctant reader. It’s very easy to read, and seems to really capture the mindset of sick teens without sensationalizing their illnesses. None of the characters seem perfect, and all have what seem like very complicated journeys on their road to recovery. Again, while I can’t attest to the accuracy of those journeys, the entire book felt very real and down-to-earth. I loved how, even though Callie refuses to speak for half of the novel, we are still allowed into her thoughts; she sees the world with a sort of dark humor that I really appreciated, and I found myself rooting for her as the book went on.

Much like Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, this novel deals with the concept of a character who is afraid to speak up about her issues and the things that are bothering her. In fact, Callie spends so long giving everyone the “silent treatment” that she is almost sent home in favor of someone who might actually show progress. Like with All the Bright Places, however, Callie’s illness is seen as being almost lesser than the asthma her brother suffers from. This can be seen throughout the novel, as Callie mentions feeling almost jealous of the attention her brother receives for having a visible illness. Her mother also mentions that their insurance will not “cover things that are self-inflicted” (McCormick, 2011, p. 17). This presents a sad truth about mental illness, one that I can personally attest to: our society tends to view mental illness as being lesser than “real” health issues, and something that is much easier to control.

I, personally, have faced this stigma myself, as I suffer from both anxiety and occasional bouts of depression. My insurance provider refused to pay for counseling after only a couple of visits, and my own family (though they try to understand) wonder why I can’t just “get over” feeling anxious or depressed. Though Callie’s family is supportive of her recovery process, they too seem to be confused by her self-harm, unable to understand why she does it and why it’s so hard to stop. For teens suffering from mental illness, this book provides a quick read full of characters for them to relate to, though none are quite as focused on as Callie herself. There are teens suffering from eating disorders, drug addiction, and self-harm, and all of them seem realistic and well-written. A teen facing similar issues would most likely be able to find a familiar face in at least one of these characters, which makes this a powerful book for reluctant readers who prefer realistic fiction.

If I were to recommend this book for library or classroom use, I think it would provide a great starting point for any discussion about mental illness or self-harm. A counselor might even be able to use this to help a patient connect to Callie’s story, thus allowing the teen to open up about his or her own experiences. As McCormick puts it in her author’s note at the end, books like Cut often give a voice to teens whose own experiences have been sealed away:

“The girls at S.A.F.E Alternatives gave me their blessing to publish the book. In fact, they were really pleased to see that their experience – something cloaked in secrecy and shame – would be put into words. With their own recoveries underway, they hoped the book would lead others struggling with self-injury to feel less alone and get help. By giving Callie a voice, they said, the book was giving them a voice” (McCormick, 2011, p. 157).

The fact that McCormick visited actual teenagers struggling with these issues in order to get their blessing to publish her book is, in my opinion, one of the many reasons I truly believe it could help someone facing similar struggles. McCormick mentions that the girls she visited were shocked (like I was) to learn that she had never had never self harmed, as Cut spoke so deeply about their own feelings. Though some parents or school officials might be reluctant to put this book in the hands of teenagers, I think it’s incredibly important for them to have these types of stories because it shows them that they are not alone.

More important than that, perhaps, is the fact that Cut portrays a journey to recovery; it does not glorify self-harm or make it seem like something that is “trendy” or “cool.” Though Callie’s road to recovery is by no means perfect, this book gives its readers hope that self-harm can be survived; it does not define a person, and it is something that can be healed from. This might not have been the best book in the world, but I appreciate the message it provides for teens (and anyone else, for that matter) who might feel helpless, ashamed, or afraid to speak up to someone else about the demons currently plaguing them.

References:

McCormick, P. (2011). Cut. New York: PUSH.

Richmond, G. (2000, December). Cut. School Library Journal, 46(12), 146.

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Week 10 – All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

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“Theodore Finch and Violet Markey meet properly for the first time in quite remarkable circumstances. They have been going to the same school for some time, and even though they have lessons together, sitting in the same class for U.S Geography, they have never really got to know each other. Suddenly they have a deep, dark secret in common, and Finch, ever the ‘freak’, sees a way to use it to his advantage. What begins as a flirtation on his part becomes something deeper and more substantial. Slowly their relationship develops and both characters who were feeling incredibly lost, can begin to find their own kind of happiness. In its simplest terms this book is a love story, however, it is so much more: a coming of age novel, an attempt to reach young people who experience mental health issues and an all American road trip tale. I simply find it a beautifully written novel, with characters so real and heart breaking that they played on my mind long after I had finished reading. Although Jennifer Niven has written in great depth about teenage suicide, this book does not preach and leaves the reader feeling uplifted and full of hope” (Dean, 2015).

This book is one that has been on my personal to-read list for over a year, and I’m so glad I finally took the time to read it. All the Bright Places is funny, thoughtful, tragic, and all-around uplifting, and I found myself unable to put it down. It focuses on the story of Violet Markey, a girl who has just suffered the unexpected loss of her older sister Eleanor. Grief-stricken and unable to cope, Violet finds herself on top of the school’s bell tower one morning, where she meets a rather unusual character: Theodore Finch, known simply as “Finch,” the school “freak” and a general mystery. As it turns out, Theodore is up on that bell tower for the very same reason, though he ends up talking them both down from the ledge and saving Violet’s life. The two realize that they have U.S Geography together, and that they must begin a new year-long project to “wander the sights” of their home state, Indiana. This begins a whirlwind adventure in which the two learn about love, friendship, and the little moments that make life (and living) worthwhile.

Where do I even begin with this book? For starters, it really reminded me of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, which I will be comparing it to throughout this review. Like The Fault in Our Stars, this book focuses on the love story between two teenage characters who share a common problem: in this case, mental illness. Finch, as the novel alludes, suffers from an undiagnosed case of bi-polar disorder, refusing to get it treated due to his hatred of labels and being looked at as “sick” or “broken.” Violet, on the other hand, is suffering from depression after the tragic death of her sister Eleanor in a car accident a year earlier. She begins the novel feeling extreme survivor’s guilt, leading her to abandon all of the activities (such as writing) that once made her feel joy. After only a few chapters, it’s very clear that this book is going to be about much more than a school project: it is an anthem for anyone who has ever suffered from mental illness. While I will admit that the teenagers in this book do not talk or sound much like real teenagers (which, to me, is very similar to the characters in The Fault in Our Stars), they deal with struggles and conflicts that many teens can easily relate to.

Near the beginning of the book, Finch brings up an extremely valid point, one that the author herself points out again in the author’s note:

“The fact is, I was sick, but not in an easily explained flu kind of way. It’s my experience that people are a lot more sympathetic if they can see you hurting, and for the millionth time in my life I wish for measles or smallpox or some other recognizable disease just to make it simple for me and also for them” (Niven, 2015, p. 16).

At the end of the book, Jennifer Niven explains her own history with suicide, stating that, “People rarely bring flowers to a suicide” (2015, p. 382). Both the novel and her insights shed light on a very important fact of society: we often tend to look down on those who commit suicide as being “selfish” and “deserving it.” Much like people who suffer from addiction, mental illness is a rather large taboo, and likely makes people nervous because they (as Finch puts it) cannot see the illness. As a society, we put a lot more weight on illnesses like cancer and heart disease, but seem to think very little of illnesses like depression and anxiety. As someone who suffers from both, I can’t even count the number of times I’ve been told to “Just be happy” or to “Get over it,” which to me sounds a lot like telling someone to, “Just get rid of the cancer” or “Heal that broken leg.”

There is, overall, a lot less sympathy for those who suffer from mental illness than there is for those who suffer from physical illnesses, and I’ve personally never understood why that is. The brain is an extremely complex organ, and one that very few of us even minimally understand, so it’s crazy to think there are those out there who believe it can’t attack us like any other organ. Finch, seen by his peers (and even his own family) as being a “freak,” seems to illustrate this societal issue perfectly. His own family tends to ignore his issues, playing them off as being “Just how he always is.” He is relentlessly bullied in school, and blamed for retaliating against this bullying. Even his counselor struggles to understand him, treating him more like he’s crazy than someone who simply needs help. The trouble is, Finch himself does not want help, and refuses to admit that he might need medication or therapy. He, like many people who suffer from mental illness, just wants to be “normal,” and to not walk through the halls and get funny looks from teachers and classmates.

While I do not want to spoil the ending, this book deals with very important themes, themes like coping with the loss of someone through suicide and dealing with depression. There are, I feel, teens who can relate both to Finch and to Violet, and the novel lets us see into both of their heads as we follow their journey together. The novel quite beautifully shows two somewhat broken people who are able to find healing and happiness with one another, if only for a brief moment, and I think it’s so important to have a book for young people that does this. I would gladly use this in either a classroom or a teen book group to help teens who might be struggling with suicidal thoughts, or who know someone that committed suicide.

While I cannot comment to the accuracy of Finch’s emotions or actions, I feel as if this book could show someone struggling with bi-polar disorder that they’re not alone, and that there is a way for them to seek help if they choose to. It could also be helpful in starting up a dialogue about survivors of suicide, both for those who have attempted it and those who have lost loved ones. Violet, throughout the novel, struggles with the guilt of her sister’s death, feeling as if it was her fault. This is a common reaction to death, especially sudden and unexpected death, and it might help teens to begin the healing process and forgive themselves for events they could not control. It also shows Violet’s healing process in its entirety, taking her from someone who is afraid to drive even a few miles out of town to someone willing to traverse the state on her own by the end of the novel. She is also able to “wake up”from her grief and depression, and soon begins to find joy in the activities she loved doing beforehand. This is so important for teens to see, as it shows that there is life after tragedy, no matter the circumstances behind it. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and I can easily see it becoming a classic that teens (and adults) can enjoy for generations to come.

References:

Dean, E. (2015, Spring). Niven, Jennifer: All the Bright Places. School Librarian, 63(1), 56.

Niven, J. (2015). All the Bright Places. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Week 9 – Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

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“After mining a summer party by calling the police, Melinda Sordino begins her freshman year as an outcast. The truth is she was raped, and because of the trauma, she barely speaks. The teen’s struggle to find acceptance and her voice is compelling and illustrates the cruelty of peer pressure and high school cliques”  (Ralston, 2003).

Speak tells the story of Melinda Sordino, a ninth grader with a dark, painful secret. After calling the cops at an end-of-summer party, Melinda has become a pariah at her new high school. Her old friends refuse to talk to her, her new friend constantly takes advantage of her, her grades are slipping, and her family is in complete turmoil. All of this stems from the events of one horrible night, when Melinda was raped by a boy she has taken to calling “IT.” Although the title of the novel is Speak, it seems that Melinda can do just the opposite; she keeps the memory of what happened to her bottled up, refusing to talk about it with anyone. Throughout the novel, Melinda is slowly able to find her own voice, and discovers the immense power that her words can hold. Speak is witty, humorous, and full of dark realism; it shows us the troubling realities that can often accompany high school.

I’m not going to lie; this book made me angry. It’s not that it was a bad book; on the contrary, I found it to be witty, thoughtful, and well-written. No, I think my anger towards this book came from the story itself. Though I have never personally had to deal with rape or sexual assault, the very concept that a woman could be forced into having sex (or engaging in unwanted sexual contact of any sort) against her will has always incited a blind rage inside me. Throughout the book, I felt so awful for Melinda, whose inability to speak meant that she had to lose the support of friends, family, and even school officials. I wanted so badly for her to stand up for herself, but I also know that doing so in real life often means being judged and called a “liar.” In today’s world, it’s more important than ever that we talk about these issues, as this continues to happen to real men and women on a daily basis. If we are silent or refuse to talk about it, the consequences could be devastating. This book not only tells an honest, heart-breaking story, but reminds its readers that speaking up is one of the only ways to address the issue and help prevent sexual assault from happening to more women in the future.

According to Michael Cart (2010), young men and women are often afraid to speak up about sexual violence because of the stigma that is often attached:

“Why the reluctance to go to authorities? Because the consequences of going to authority can sometimes be dire… When Anderson’s protagonist, incoming high school freshman Melinda, calls 911 to report that she has been raped at an end-of-summer party, she winds up a virtual outcast, because her assailant was one of the most popular boys in school” (p. 148).

Unfortunately, as Cart mentions, this is not only something that could happen in fiction; it happens almost every time a woman comes forward with rape accusations. Although this book was originally written in 1999, the issues she brings up in Speak are still entirely relevant today. Take, for example, Kesha, the popstar who recently came forward to accuse her producer, Dr. Luke, of repeatedly assaulting her. Though she garnered quite a bit of support from other women (celebrities included), she was unable to end her contract with her alleged rapist, showing that victim-blaming is still a real problem in our society. We tend to tell girls that it is their responsibility to cover up, and to avoid walking alone at night. We do not, however, teach boys that it’s not okay to rape, to the point where many young men and women do not understand the importance of consent. Because this is still such a huge problem, I absolutely think that this book should be shared in high school classrooms (and I’m happy to say that it is often taught in English classes to this day). While there are some who believe that rape is not something that should be discussed in high school classrooms, the fact that so many under-age girls and boys are sexually assaulted every year is proof that it’s something that needs to be talked about. This book opens up a dialogue about peer pressure, the importance of consent, and speaking up for your own rights. It does so with witticism and humor, speaking to teens on their own level rather than from an adult’s perspective.

There were many quotes in this book that I really enjoyed, but I think the most powerful quote comes at the very end of the book:

“IT happened. There’s no avoiding it, no forgetting. No running away, or flying, or burying, or hiding… I look at my homely sketch. It doesn’t need anything. Even through the river in my eyes I can see that. It isn’t perfect and that makes it just right” (Anderson, 1999, p. 197).

In this scene, Melinda is finally able to reflect on what happened to her and come to terms with it, something that allows her to begin the process of healing. I think this is so important for teens to understand, especially if they’ve had to endure something similar. They need to understand that it’s not their fault, and that they have nothing to be ashamed of. The imagery of the tree here (Melinda would probably hate that I’m calling it “imagery,” since she doesn’t see the point of analyzing books) represents that healing process; her drawing is not perfect, but it doesn’t need to be. This book’s message, in my opinion, is that our scars can strengthen us and make us more beautiful, both inside and out. Though nothing like what happened to Melinda should ever happen to anyone, the reality is that it happens all the time too far to many men and women. The most important thing we can do is start a conversation about these issues, letting teens know that consent is important and that rape and sexual assault are never okay, regardless of the situation. While Speak might not “speak” to everyone who reads it, it certainly spoke to me; I would gladly recommend it to anyone whose personal traumas have ever made him or her feel unworthy of love and understanding.

References:

Anderson, L. H. (1999). Speak. New York: Square Fish.

Cart, M. (2010). Young adult literature: From romance to realism. Chicago: ALA.

Ralston, J. (2003, October). Anderson, Laurie Halse. Speak. School Library Journal, 49(10), 99.

Week 9 – Infinite in Between by Carolyn Mackler

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“Spanning four years of high school, the stories of five teenagers–three girls and two boys–start when they are in a freshman orientation group together. In third-person chapters about each one, they experience romance, family problems, friendship, and loneliness as their lives start to overlap more and more. A great read filled with insights” (Odean, 2016).

While this book did not “wow” me like some of the others on this blog have, I have to say that I really enjoyed it. It was not profound like Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, nor heart-wrenching like John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, but I really appreciate the level of realism it accomplishes. The novel focuses on five teenagers as they’re beginning high school, and follows their journeys until graduation. The five teens are Gregor (a “band geek” whose main objective is to find love in high school), Whitney (a popular girl who is tired of being popular), Zoe (the daughter of a famous actress with an alcohol problem), Mia (a shy girl who wants to break out of her shell), and Jake (a boy struggling with coming out and developing feelings for his best friend). At the beginning of the novel, the five characters write notes to their future selves and tuck them away in a secret hiding place, vowing to open them upon graduation. The rest of the novel is told almost episodically, switching from character to character and organized by months.

One of my favorite aspects of this book, besides the realism, was the fact that there is literally a character for every reader to relate to. For me, personally, that character was Mia; I, too, grappled with crippling shyness in high school, though it took me much longer to break out of my shell than it did for her. Although I am no longer a teen, I can picture reading this as a high school student and feeling a connection to what the characters are going through. The novel deals with issues like teen pregnancy, drugs, and alcohol, but it does so without feeling preachy or like it’s trying to carry a message. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be a message for or against these at all; it’s just sharing the stories of five teenagers and their friends. It certainly doesn’t talk down to teenagers, but instead meets them on their level and talks to them as friends might. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that keeps it quite as real as this one does; although it’s in third person, you feel as if you’re reading the diaries of friends or people you might have actually known in high school, and that’s incredibly refreshing to me.

Perhaps my favorite quote in the book comes on the very last page, when the group is reflecting on their high school experience:

“When they had written those letters at the beginning of high school, it hadn’t seemed like much. But now that they were at the end, they were feeling how extraordinary it was. Not necessarily the beginning and not really the end, either. It was the infinite in between, all those miniscule and major moments when they’d dipped in and out of each other’s lives. That had been their journey and somehow, even though they hadn’t realized it, they’d been on it together” (Mackler, 2015, p. 462).

This, to me, represents exactly what high school feels like. At the time, it feels like the worst four years of your life, and you can’t wait to move on to college and better things. Many times, you’re often hiding part or all of yourself from others, and it’s only afterwards that you realize how silly it was to do so. Because I don’t want to spoil the book for anyone, I’ll say that there were many moments throughout the novel that explored this idea of “reinventing yourself,” and putting aside your fears to become who you really are (p. 302). The characters end the novel in very different places from where they began, and it shows their growth and maturity as the novel progresses. I thought this was extremely unique to see in a young adult novel, and I really appreciated the slice-of-life picture it presented.

If I were to recommend this book for classroom or library use, I would say that it would be perfect for reluctant readers, especially fans of realistic fiction. I would gladly put this in the hands of any high school student (or middle school student about to enter high school) who might feel out of place or weird. A book like this would’ve certainly helped me to build confidence at that age, as it shows that the best (and often hardest) part of growing up is learning to be true to yourself, and learning not to care what others think of you. While this is, again, not the best book I’ve ever read, I really appreciate it for what it does. It presents the journey of high school in a very realistic, no-nonsense light, and shows young adult readers that it’s okay to let go of your “image” and what people think of you in order to be who you really want to be.

References:

Mackler, C. (2015). Infinite in Between. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Odean, K. (2016). High school challenges. Teacher Librarian, 43(3), 34.

Week 8 – Fairest by Gail Carson Levine

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“In a world in which elegance, beauty, and singing ability are revered, Aza is bulky, awkward, and homely. Her saving grace is that she can sing and has a gift of voice manipulation that she calls ‘illusing.’ …The plot is fast-paced, and Aza’s growth and maturity are well crafted and believable. Readers will enjoy the fairy-tale setting while identifying with the real-life problems of living in an appearance-obsessed society. A distinguished addition to any collection” (Buron, 2006).

This was my first experience listening to the audio-book version of a book, and I have to say that (even though I really enjoyed the book itself) I had a hard time really enjoying it. Not only is it incredibly difficult to concentrate on an audio-book, but it’s incredibly difficult to pin-point and cite specific quotes. That being said, I absolutely loved this book! I’m a long-time fan of retold fairy tales (one of my favorite series is The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer), so this was right up my alley. I loved the message that it was trying to send, and the unique way it twisted the well-known fairy tale of Snow White.

The story focuses on young Aza, an inn-keeper’s daughter who hides her face because of what she considers to be her extreme ugliness. In Ayortha, the kingdom in which her family lives, singing is viewed as being the most important skill someone can possess. Fortunately for Aza, this is something she excels in. In fact, Aza is so talented that she even has the ability to project her voice from other places, imitating the voices of others as she does so. She calls this power “illusing,” and it is a power that brings her both a lot of attention and a lot of trouble. When she gets the unique opportunity to attend the wedding of Ayortha’s king, Aza finds herself wrapped up in a massive adventure involving romance, deceit, a magic mirror, and more than a few gnomes.

The best part of this book, in my opinion, is the message that there are some things that are far more important than one’s outer appearance. As someone who has always struggled with self-image and self-worth, this book was an anthem for me and ordinary girls everywhere. As the review from School Library Journal (shown above) states, we live in an extremely appearance-driven society. For women and young girls, especially, the pressure to be constantly perfect and beautiful is a monumental one, driving many to develop eating disorders and body image issues.

While I am fortunate enough to love my body now, there was a time when I felt a lot like Aza does at the beginning of the novel. This book is important because it speaks to those girls who might not feel themselves to be “the fairest,” and to those who might feel too heavy or too blotchy or not attractive enough. Throughout the story, Aza learns to love herself exactly the way she is, and to embrace her gift of singing as the thing that makes her unique and special. To me, that is a beautiful lesson to come from a book meant for children, and I definitely think that it’s one a younger (or even older) teen might appreciate. My favorite quote from the entire book can be found near the end, when Aza realizes that the prince sees her as beautiful:

“I had grandeur. I breathed in the cool night air. Perhaps I could learn to wear myself without apologies, with dignity. Perhaps I could become what Ijori already saw. Perhaps someday, I might even be able to smile at myself in a mirror. Not yet, but maybe someday” (Chapter 37, 2:25, Levine).

While Aza, arguably, should not have needed a prince’s affection to tell her this, I think it’s important that her character arc involved learning to love and accept herself for who she was. Many young girls need this affirmation, and to know that there are people out there who will look past their outward appearance to see what they have on the inside. After all, it is what’s on the inside that counts the most; Aza does not win everyone over because of her looks, but because of her beautiful voice and kind, caring nature. This may not be the most complicated or deep message, but it is an important message nevertheless.

That being said, I do think this book is best suited for younger girls. While the message is important for young boys to hear as well, I don’t think this title would necessarily appeal to them. Fairest is a small part of a developing genre known as the “re-told fairy tale” genre, and this genre is not usually marketed to teenage boys. The covers usually always feature a beautiful girl, or a traditionally feminine object like flowers or a mirror. While there are certainly many titles a teenage boy might enjoy in this genre, the covers and descriptions might deter many of them from reading a “girly” book. Regardless, I would gladly recommend this book (whether in a classroom or a library) to a young girl who either loves this genre, loves the other work by Gail Carson Levine, or who simply feels down on herself and needs an inspirational tale.

As far as re-told fairy tales go, this one does resemble Snow White, but might not be the best choice for someone who wants something closer to the classic fairy tale. A reader looking for an instant connection to the story of Snow White might be disappointed, as it takes over half the book for this tale to begin to look anything like the fairy tale from which it is borrowing. I, personally, find this to be a good thing, as I like seeing a fresh take on an old story, but those who prefer a more classic version of the fairy tale would be better off trying a book like Winter by Marissa Meyer. Fans of Ella Enchanted (also by Gail Carson Levine) will be pleased, however, as the story takes place in the same universe and features many nods to the other work. Overall, I was enchanted by this story, and think there’s a lot of worthy material to be found in this simple little book about a girl named Aza.

References:

Buron, M. C. (2006). Fairest. School Library Journal, 52(9), 209-210.

Levine, G. C., (2015). Fairest [Audio Book, Read by S. Nankin]. Charlotte Hall, MD: Recorded Books.

Week 7 – Feed by M. T. Anderson

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“In this strange, disturbing future world, teens travel to the moon for spring break, live in stacked-up neighborhoods with artificial blue sky, and are bombarded by a constant advertising and media blitz through their feeds. They live with a barrage of greed and superficiality, which only one teen, Violet, tries to fight. Intrigued by Violet’s uniqueness, Titus begins a relationship with her in spite of his peers’ objections. Yet even he cannot sustain the friendship as her feed malfunctions and she begins to shut down. “They” refuse to repair her feed because she is too perceptive and rebellious. This didactic, also very disturbing book plays on every negative teen stereotype. The young people are bored unthinking pawns of commercialism, speaking only in obnoxious slang, ignoring or disrespecting the few adults around. The future is vapid and without direction. Yet many teens will feel a haunting familiarity about this future universe. As a cautionary tale, the story works; it is less successful as YA literature” (Bradburn, 2002).

For me, the strongest and most poignant feeling that this book incited was rage. I am a huge fan of dystopian young adult fiction, but there are often times when I have to take a step back and realize the very true and horrific commentaries these novels are making on our own society. In Michael Cart’s book Young Adult Literature: From Romance to Realism, he discusses what makes dystopian fiction so alluring:

“One of the most interesting trends in recent speculative fiction is the rise of the dystopian novel, a literary form that imagines – sometimes satirically, sometimes somberly – a future world made even worse than the present one by the logical extension of current or threatened societal ills. In M. T. Anderson’s Feed, for example, the problem is consumerism gone mad…” (Cart, 2010, p. 103). 

This, as Cart mentions, is especially true of Feed, as it plays with the idea of what might happen if humans had small computers inserted into their brains. These computers, known in the novels as “feeds,” are constantly projecting information into the brains of their hosts, sharing everything from advertisements to popular TV shows. In today’s world, it can be argued that we are entirely too reliant on technology and media consumption. I, personally, find it hard to stay off of my phone and computer for more than a few hours, and it’s almost impossible for me to unplug entirely. Feed imagines a world in which you literally cannot be disconnected from technology, as it is the only thing keeping everyone your brain alive. The story focuses on a teenager named Titus, who meets a mysterious girl named Violet while vacationing on the moon (yes; in this world, teenagers celebrate Spring Break on the moon). After a hacker swoops in and disrupts the “feeds” of Titus and his friends, Violet soon begins a downward spiral as her feed begins to shut down. Filled with unique language, humor, and painfully relatable commentary, Feed examines how overexposure to advertising and technology could quickly destroy society as we know it today.

Overall, I enjoyed this book, but I can’t imagine too many teenagers getting into it. While it’s written very conversationally and informally (it literally sounds as if Titus is just talking to a friend), M. T. Anderson kind of thrusts you into this world with absolutely no explanation. The teens use an abundance of weird futuristic slang (such as “mal,” short for “malfunction,” which seems to be a futuristic drug that causes people to hallucinate). I have a great deal of reading experience under my belt, and even I had trouble following what was going on.I would definitely not recommend this to a reluctant or weak reader, as the language in the book is really hard to wrap your head around, making the plot hard to follow. This would, however, be really good for fans of dystopian novels who feel like they’ve read everything, as it uses dystopian tropes without them feeling tired or overdone (at least in my opinion). The weirdness of Anderson’s style was enough to keep me curious and invested in the story, so I think fans of this genre will appreciate it.

The character of Titus is incredibly annoying, and I found myself wanting to smack him quite a few times throughout the novel. His lack of sympathy or compassion for Violet disgusted me, and I couldn’t believe that anyone would treat the death of a friend so nonchalantly. To be fair, though, it seemed as if Titus was just an unfortunate product of the times in which he was raised, as many of his friends (and, at times, even his parents) act the same way. In the end, though, Titus does seem to show remorse for the way he treated Violet, showing that there might yet be hope for society to break out of the trance that advertising and exposure to media have put it in.

One of the most powerful quotes from the book can be found near the end, when Titus is talking to Violet’s dad: “‘We Americans,’ he said, ‘are interested only in the consumption of our products. We have no interest in how they were produced, or what happens to them” – he pointed at his daughter – “what happens to them once we discard them, once we throw them away'” (Anderson, 2002, p. 290). This, to me, is the ultimate commentary of this work; it is a cautionary tale, warning us about what might happen to our society if we allow ourselves to be consumed by media. Already, we can see evidence of an overload in the abundance of trash and reality TV shows. News outlets frequently skew the way we are exposed to news, subtly morphing our perceptions of the world until our ideas blend with what we see on TV. The thought that our world could end up like the world of M. T. Anderson’s Feed is a terrifying one, and Anderson’s message is one that should be heard by everyone who (like me) has an unhealthy attachment to technology and media.

References:

Anderson, M. T. (2002). Feed. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press.

Bradburn, F. (2002). Feed (Book). The Booklist, 99(4), 400.

Cart, M. (2010). Young adult literature: From romance to realism. Chicago: American Library Association.