Week 13 – Keeping the Moon by Sarah Dessen

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“While spending the summer at her eccentric artist aunt’s house, Colie reinvents herself with the help of two older girls who waitress with her, regaining the confidence she lost when she was overweight and picked on. Supporting characters tend to steal the show in this first-person novel, because the narrator is bland and timid by comparison, even after her transformation occurs” (The Horn Book Guide, 2000).

What better way to finish off this blog than to read another book for teen girls? I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised by this book. I’d never read Sarah Dessen’s work before, but I’d heard great things about her from the teens who frequented the bookstore where I used to work. I had always assumed that Dessen’s work was “chick lit: those often (though not always) humorous novels aimed at female readers in pursuit of romance and/or designer labels” (Cart, 2010, p. 89). Chick lit, as the name implies, is not a very flattering label: books marked as “chick lit” are usually seen as being shallow and lacking substance. While it is very clear that this book was marketed towards girls, however, I found it to be much neither shallow nor lacking in substance. I suppose this was a case of me judging a book by its cover, which I should have known better by now than to do!

Keeping the Moon focuses on the story of Nicole Sparks, known to her friends and family as “Colie.” Colie has recently lost a great deal of weight, all thanks to her mother’s new-found fame as Kiki Sparks, fitness instructor. When her mother chooses to go to Europe for the summer on a tour to promote her products, Colie is forced to live with her eccentric aunt – essentially her worst nightmare. What she discovers, however, are two new friends, a budding romance, and a new-found confidence that she didn’t know she possessed.

I’m going to start my critique of this book by comparing it to the first book that I read for this blog, Judy Blume’s Forever. Though both are written by women, and feature female protagonists, the two could not possibly be more different. While Forever focuses on a young teen navigating the tricky world of sex and dating, Keeping the Moon is much more about self-esteem and discovering oneself. At the beginning of the novel, Colie has just lost forty-five pounds. No longer overweight, she finds herself suddenly unsure of how to open up and let herself make friends. As Colie puts it, “the weight was like a force field, shielding me as I was plopped into one new school after another […] Now, almost fifty pounds lighter, I had nothing left to hide behind” (Dessen, 1999, pp. 5-6). Colie is naturally shy, perpetually afraid that the world will judge and mock her for who she is.

Despite the fact that I am now twenty-three years old, while Colie is fifteen, I found myself really relating to her struggle. I was bullied almost constantly in middle in high school, though less for my weight and more for my shy, awkward personality. I was never what anyone would call “popular;” in fact, I saw myself as a social outcast for much of my teenage life. Colie’s struggle to make friends was painfully familiar to me; it reminded me of the years I’d spent eating lunch alone and praying to remain invisible. Like Colie, however, I eventually found my way, though my transformation from a “caterpillar to a butterfly” (used as a metaphor for both losing weight and gaining self-confidence throughout the novel) did not happen until I was halfway through college (Dessen, 1999, pp. 98 – 99).

The theme of earning self-confidence is not a particularly heavy or controversial issue, as with the themes of sex and consent in Judy Blume’s Forever, but I could still see this book helping immensely for a young teenage girl who can see herself in Colie. While boys could certainly enjoy this book (as the themes of bullying and self-esteem are almost universal), I feel that this book would do best in the hands of either a shy teenage girl or one who might not be the strongest reader. The language is simple, the metaphors clearly identified, and yet the message is strong: it is incredibly important to stand up for and love yourself, as you are the only one who can transform yourself into the person you want to be. Colie’s lack of confidence and self-esteem almost cause her to miss out on the chance to find romance and friendship; it is only after she is comfortable being herself that she finds happiness. This is an important lesson for young girls to learn, especially with pop culture and media constantly telling them that they have to look and act a certain way.

I think the most important metaphor from the book can be found in the character of Colie’s aunt Mira, the eccentric artist who never lets the words of others get to her. Mira has a strange habit of collecting mismatched and slightly broken objects, leaving Colie to wonder why she doesn’t just use her inheritance money to buy things that actually work. Colie later realizes however, that this is all intentional; Mira sees untold value in the things that aren’t perfect: “For Mira, there were no lost causes. Everything, and everyone, had its purpose. The rest of the world, too often right, might have missed that” (1999, p. 119). As Mira herself states, “We’re all worth something” (p. 119). In fact, it takes Colie the entire novel to learn what her aunt knew all along; that nobody is perfect, and that everyone on earth holds worth despite that fact.

While this message is very different from that of Forever, both hold equally important value for teenage girls. I would absolutely recommend this to anyone struggling with issues of self-esteem, especially teenage girls. Navigating high school is hard enough without the constant pressure to be perfect, and I think Dessen hits the nail on the head with her portrayal of those insecurities we likely all held as teens. This is the absolute last time I will ever judge an author’s work before I get to know it; this book ended up being a rare gem that I would never have discovered if I hadn’t branched out to give it a shot.

References:

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

Dessen, S. (1999). Keeping the moon. New York: Viking.

Keeping the Moon. (2000, Spring). The Horn Book Guide, 11, 93.

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