|Spring 2013 Fierce Reads|
Quite a few readers (adult and teen alike) follow this program religiously. Although I can't quite claim that level of fanaticism - who has time for that? - I do like to keep an eye on the titles they feature. Over the past few weeks I managed to sit down and read two of the Fierce Reads titles. I wanted to see for myself just how fierce they really were.
Jennifer Mathieu's novel The Truth About Alice is the gritty story of what happens when one young teen (Alice Franklin) in one small, rural town (Healy, Texas) gets caught having sex in the backseat of a boy's car by her father and the entire town hears about it overnight. What happens is she is labeled Town Slut for the rest of her high school career. Stories of further slut actions abound - because what else is there to talk about in Healy, Texas? - and Alice Franklin soon becomes the girl who has, according to everyone who matters, slept with two boys in one night and was even responsible for the drunk-driving death of the town's high school football star.
The overriding theme here, of course, is slut-shaming and Mathieu is certainly effective at getting her point across. The defamation of Alice's character is absolute and complete. Told from various points of view, including those instigating the slut-shaming, we get a complete picture of how the incident spirals completely out of control. Alice finds unexpected refuge in the school nerd, Kurt Morelli, a stereo-typical uber-smart character who, of course, harbors a secret crush on Alice.
The question, of course, is how Mathieu wraps it all up. Is Alice's name cleared? Are the mean kids punished? Does the nerd win the girl? Well. I'll just say that it is a young adult novel and there are certain genre expectations as to feel-good endings. And sometimes, that's a shame in and of itself.
Ava Dellaira, a graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop, chose to tackle the dark subject of teen loss and grief in the form of an epistolary novel for her debut effort. High school student Laurel understands tumult and loss: her formerly stable home has disintegrated following her parent's divorce, her mother's decampment to California, and her beloved older sister's tragic and untimely death. In Love Letters to the Dead Laurel's first assignment at her new high school is to write a letter to a dead person. She chooses deceased rock star Kurt Cobain, remembering how her sister Meg used to worship Cobain's music. Thus begins an entire novel of letters to various dead celebrities with whom Laurel commiserates with, shares secrets, and generally treats as a daily dairy.
This is a novel that has received a lot of attention, most of it positive so it seems to be a hit with its intended teen audience. My own adult experience fell somewhat short. It frequently felt like Dellaira was trying too hard ("I especially like to watch this boy, whose name I figured out is Sky. He always wears a leather jacket, even though summer is barely over. He reminds me that the air isn't just something that's there. It's something you breathe in").
The letters written by Laurel aren't limited to just Kurt Cobain. She includes letters to everyone from River Phoenix to Judy Garland to Amelia Earhart to Elizabeth Bishop to Allan Lane. This technique might have been more effective had there been any rhyme or reason for Laurel to write to these people. Instead, it's frequently difficult to remember just who it is, in any given entry, Laurel is actually writing to at that moment because there is no connection between what Laurel is experiencing and that particular dead person. Similarly, if Dellaira had either limited her letter recipients to celebrities who died young of self-inflicted/induced deaths, we might have had a theme here. But Amelia Earhart, I can assure you, did not kill herself like other recipients of Laurel's letters. Nor did she have any fame-induced drug or alcohol flame-outs like many of the celebrities Laurel writes to. See? No cohesion. No theme. This bothered me and I couldn't let it go.
There were, however, several secondary characters that were quite well done. Several of Laurel's friends, including Natalie and Hannah who are secretly in love with each other, are far better drawn than Laurel or her love interest, Sky. As the book progresses, the juvenile and immature qualities of Laurel begin to improve as the story's tone darkens in tandem with secrets revealed about Laurel's venerated sister leading to "the big reveal."
Unlike The Truth About Alice, there isn't a big pretty bow put on this book, although there is resolution and hope. I always give big points for that. I would have like to have seen the letter portion of the novel changed to mere diary entries, or even letters addressed to one single dead celebrity (couldn't we just have stuck to Cobain and have been done with it?). Regardless of my nitpicking, the book is clearly appealing to the teen crowd --- it's a hot-ticket item right now. Adult readers will quickly spot the technical flaws, but that shouldn't stop them from taking a peek at what their kids are reading.
Overall, while Macmillan Teen's choices so far have been fierce topics, the execution has been less than inspirational. Here's hoping for a fiercer fall lineup.
Title: The Truth About Alice
Author: Jennifer Mathieu
Publisher: Roaring Book Press
Date: June 3, 2014
Title: Love Letters to the Dead
Author: Ava Dellaira
Publisher: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux
Date: April 1, 2014
Source: Review copy courtesy of publisher