Sloppy Firsts

cover image for Sloppy FirstsMcCafferty, Megan. (2001) Sloppy Firsts. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.

Plot Summary:

With her best friend Hope by her side, Jessica “Not-so” Darling can brave anything – even high school.  But when tragedy prompts Hope’s parents to move out of state, Jessica is left alone with friends she doesn’t really like, a sister who cares only about her upcoming wedding, a mother who wishes she was more like her sister, and a father who treats her like the son he had – and lost.  To make matters worse, she suddenly finds herself entangled with the boy that Hope’s parents blame for their son’s death.  Can Hope and Jessica’s friendship survive the distance and secrets?

Critical Evaluation:

Sloppy Firsts did not drive me quite as crazy as The Perks of Being a Wallflower did, largely owing to the better quality of writing and Jessica’s presence in her own life, but I had similar issues with it.  Why do we never see Hope’s letters back to Jessica? Or see Jessica mention them more than just a handful of times?  Jessica is at least more self-aware than Charlie was (to be fair, she is also older) and tries to take charge more often (although often in very passive aggressive ways) but she still lacks personality for much of the book (sarcasm is not a substitute for substance).  The story improved as it went on, but it feels like it could have been a bit shorter and still as interesting.

Reader’s Annotation:

Can Hope and Jessica’s friendship survive tragedy, distance, and secret boyfriends?

Author Information:

http://www.meganmccafferty.com/

http://www.facebook.com/pages/Megan-McCafferty/53129595664

@meganmccafferty

Genre:

Sex and Sexuality

Booktalking Ideas:

(bang my head against a wall that I have to booktalk this book?)

Since it’s not a good idea to booktalk books you don’t like or connect to, I would probably focus on the part I did like and connect to the most, which was Jessica’s use of running at night to find peace and her relationship with her parents, especially her father and how he communicated by focusing on her running.  I would likely start by asking teens to imagine sneaking out to run like she did.  I would then include enough of the rest of the plot so that potential readers don’t get the wrong impression about the book’s focus.

Reading Level/Target Age:

6th grade/15-24

Potential Controversy:

I’m not sure there is anything in this book that wouldn’t be controversial to someone, which is a large part of why it is often shelved with the adult fiction even though it will interest many teen readers.  Unfortunately, it may also be difficult to defend it’s placement in a teen collection, rather than adult collection, because of that precedent.

Reasons for Choosing This Title:

This is one of many crossover books that I have heard a lot of buzz about, but had never read.

Forever

cover image for ForeverBlume, Judy (1975) Forever.  New York, NY: Antheneum

Plot Summary:

Girl meets boy.  Boy and girl fall in love.  Girl goes to Planned Parenthood.  Girl and boy have sex.  Girl and boy are separated.  Girl falls in love with new boy.  Girl breaks up with old boy.  Boy is sad, but moves on.  Girl is sad, but happy with new boy.  At no point during the story does the girl get pregnant, catch a disease, or die.

Critical Evaluation:

This is perhaps the least inviting plot summary I have ever written, but to be perfectly honest Forever was one of the least interesting teen books I have ever read.  It is possible that at one point in time Katherine and Michael both felt real and modern, but that time is no longer.  Most of the prose is the opposite of compelling (“On Friday, right after school, I washed my hair.  I couldn’t eat any dinner.  My parents gave me a couple of funny looks…”) and what little personality comes through feels dated and forced. Without any emotional attachment or investment in either character, their romance and break-up failed to move me in any way.

I applaud Blume for her intentions and what she accomplished by writing a story about teens having responsible sex and not getting punished for it by fate or society.  Yet, as sad as it is that such a story was and still is groundbreaking, and as much as I would include it in a young adult collection, I must admit I would have a hard time recommending this novel to any teens.  It reads like a lecture; the fact that it is one I agree with does not by itself make it a pleasurable or worthwhile read.

Reader’s Annotation:

Katherine and Michael are in love, that part they know.  Now the question is: should they or shouldn’t they?

Booktalking Ideas:

I would never book talk this title if I could help it.  But if I absolutely had to, I would focus on the parts that make it revolutionary – the fact that the teens in the story decide to have sex and survive doing so.

Reading Level/Target Age:

4th grade/14 -19

Potential Controversy:

[Pardon me a moment while I wipe the tears of laughter from my eyes.]

Sadly, even unmarried adult women admitting to having sex is so controversial that public figures have no problem labeling law students “sluts” for speaking about birth control.  So, needless to say, a book about an unmarried teen girl deciding to have sex? And going to Planned Parenthood?  And not being punished for it?  And then being the dumper not the dumpee?  Yeah. This is the kind of title that has always been frequently challenged and sadly will continue to be challenged for quite some time.  While its age and the popularity and respectability of its author cushions it from some criticism, they are by no means an impenetrable armor.

The one positive thing about the dry tone of the book is that is hampers its popularity and therefore also how much of a priority people make to challenge it.  It also assists in combating accusations of luridness or obscenity.  (Which, to be fair, was likely part of the reason it was written they way that it was.)  When a challenge does come up, the best thing would be to focus on the fact that the teens in the story have responsible sex, that it is the right of individual parents to help their own children make reading choices, and that many parents and health professionals believe that it is extremely appropriate and useful for older teens to be reading stories about other teens sexual choices and exploring such ideas theoretically before making real life decisions about their own lives.

Reasons for Choosing This Title:

I have a bad habit of getting into arguments about Twilight.  (You know what it’s like when people are wrong on the internet.)  A lot of times people in these discussions say things like “kids should be reading Forever instead!”  Now that I have read it, my answer will be: NO.  Teens deserve books that have plots like Forever’s and yet are interesting reads and address desire like Twilight.  Until we have more (any?) books like that, I’m not going to judge any teen for reading either.

Weetzie Bat

cover images for Weetzie BatBlock, Francesca Lia. (1989) Weetzie Bat. New York, NY: HarperCollins Children’s Books.

Plot Summary:

Weetzie Bat is looking for love, friendship, and a place where she can be herself.  Luckily for her, Grandma Fifi gives her a magic lamp to make all her dreams come true – but wishes don’t always turn out in quite the way we expect them to.  From surviving high school to finding and losing love to becoming a mother of a child as unusual as herself, Weetzie Bat tells the story of a  young woman with a free spirit who creates a home that gives her just what she needs.

Critical Evaluation:

Groundbreaking when it was published, Weetzie Bat is not nearly as needed as it once was, but it is also not quite so dated as to be irrelevant.  It’s no longer unusual for characters to have close friends who are gay, and our current vice President does not wag his finger at fictional single mothers, but neither are these choices fully validated by mainstream culture. And, of course, there will always be kind, responsible young adults who nevertheless don’t quite fit the mold of what society expects.  Many teens will still find its within the pages a place that they, like Weetize Bat, can be themselves and make mistakes without being considered immoral.  The style is unusual but appropriate for the topic and characters; the words and story flit along from thought to thought like a butterfly – a sort of abbreviated third person stream of consciousness – which can come across either very fresh and satisfying or shallow and confusing, depending on the reader.

Reader’s Annotation:

Weetzie Bat is looking for love, friendship, and a place where she can be herself.  Luckily for her, Grandma Fifi gives her a magic lamp to make all her dreams come true – but wishes don’t always turn out in quite the way we expect them to.

Author Information:

Block is not quite as internet famous as John Green, Maureen Johnson, or Cassie Clare but she is very much present and accessible to her readers (unsurprisingly given the style and topics of the books she writes).

http://www.francescaliablock.com/

http://loveinthetimeofglobalwarming.blogspot.com/

http://www.myspace.com/francescalia

http://www.facebook.com/francescalia

@francescablock

Genre:

Classics

Booktalking Ideas:

I’d focus on how much Weetzie Bat does not feel like she belongs, as this is something that many teens can relate to, and try to use some of the language from the book since it is so unusual and potentially polarizing.  As much as I did not connect with this book, I think it’s an important one to booktalk.  As the multiple covers above suggest, using merely the book jacket to sell this title is problematic because what is considered edgy and fun in terms of visual style changes so quickly.

Reading Level/Target Age:

6th grade/15-19

(while the vocabulary is very low, creating lots of complaints about the reading level on Goodreads and the like, the style of writing would actually be difficult for anyone under 12 to follow)

Possible Controversy:

Dan Quayle may no longer be around to take notice of Weetzie Bat’s life choices, but plenty of other people are.  This slim novella validates many of the life choices that more conservative parents dislike and fear; the best defense is one that points to the title’s longstanding place in young adult canon and the difference between choosing for their child and choosing for all children.

Reasons for Choosing This Title:

I was left with mixed feelings of Block’s writing style after reading Beautiful Boys a couple of years ago and have been curious if I might like other titles any better.  I don’t really, but I think I understand better why these books are so well loved by many.

The Bermudez Triangle

cover image for The Bermudez TriangleJohnson, Maureen. (2004). The Bermudez Triangle. New York, NY: Razorbill.

Plot Summary:

While Nina is off at pre-college for the summer – taking leadership classes, falling in love, and dealing with an off-kilter roommate –  her two best friends, Mel and Avery, serve up meals in their town’s kitschy Irish-themed restaurant and fall in love themselves – with each other.  As the start of their senior year inches ever closer, the friends look forward to being reunited.  Only, how will they ever tell Nina what’s happened?

Critical Evaluation:

The drama and complexity of Johnson’s tale comes not just from the interlocking triangles of friendship and love, but from the girls’ varying degrees of certainty and doubt about not only their feelings but their sexuality as well.  Taking the story beyond simply one of grudging or newly found tolerance, Nina worries that “people would assume she was gay as well.  Not that there was anything wrong with it – but she wasn’t,”  Avery resists being labeled, and Mel’s experiences with intolerance manage to be memorable while staying safely away from after school special territory.  The girls’ reactions ring clear and true, however muddled they may feel at the time, and will be instantly recognizable to a great many readers.

This is not Johnson’s best work and it drags a bit at times, but it is a quick read that offers a more nuanced exploration of sexual identity than is usually presented to teens.

Reader’s Annotation:

Falling in love with your best friend is what everyone wants, right?

Author Information:

http://www.maureenjohnsonbooks.com/blog/

@maureenjohnson

Genre:

Sexuality and Gender

Booktalking Ideas:

Reading Level/Target Age:

5ht grade/13-19

Potential Controversy:

Girls kissing.  And fooling around.  As if it was perfectly ok for them to do so!  Yes, this is one of Johnson’s most frequently challenged books.  It will be difficult, but not impossible, to convince adults that believe homosexuality is a sin that (other parent’s kids) have a right to read such stories if they wish to.

Reasons for Choosing This Title:

I chose this because I was deliberately looking for a book about homosexuality and girls, not boys, and – despite Annie on My Mind being a classic, there are not as many out there.