How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr
In this novel, a young woman whose darkness has been a long time coming connects with a once happy family that has recently experienced the sudden and devastating death of the father. The widow has invited the pregnant un-wed 18 year-old into her home with the intent of adopting the baby when it is born. Her daughter, in her last year of high school, thinks her mother has lost it. All three are so busy trying to save themselves from their own grief that almost no communication takes place. Aptly named, this story follows to resolution the dictum, “The life you save may be your own.”
Told in alternating perspectives of the two teen girls—Mandy and Jill—both the main and the supporting characters gradually emerge as complex and appealing individuals. Mandy negotiates with herself as she tries to both ditch her unfortunate childhood and to make better decisions for the new life she will bring into the world. Jill uses hostility as best she can to shut out others in her quest to numb the loss of her father. They are as different as two teens can be; their only common ground is the mother’s generosity and sorrow that holds them in an embrace. The magic of this story is how the author slowly brings them together to resolve the underlying and yet most gripping conflict in the plot, which is the question of the quality of life that awaits the new baby.
Zarr’s books, while clearly targeted to the teen girl audience, also fit well into the category of “If it’s good enough for a teen to read, it’s also good enough for an adult to read.” In fact this is a great book for mother and daughter to share.
Impossible by Nancy Werlin
A good part of being a teenager is the uncovering of mysteries about one’s own self. Lucy has more of a task with this than most teenagers since she is the target of an ancient curse, one based on the song Scarborough Fair. In a contemporary teen setting, Lucy must first discover the nature of a curse that threatens to irrevocably determine an unacceptable fate. Then, with the help of foster parents and a loving boyfriend (as well as the modern advantage of technology) she must try to break the curse.
A little of the supernatural really makes this story of strength, courage, and love sparkle. The obstacles are powerful, the drive for resolution is intense, the strength of love is thrilling. Teenage girls in my eighth and ninth grade classes last year were thrilled with this book. While there is some violence and moderately inexplicit sex, including a slightly surreal rape scene, the overriding theme is the power of love and resolve in overcoming adversity.
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
I survived high school. I even look back on it fondly. Normally just unusual, it is a miracle considering that during the time I was there nine kids died in car accidents and an equal number (that I know of, I’m sure there were more) either had babies or abortions. These were not kids that I had just heard about. These were my good friends. In retrospect, I realize that my escaping alive and without at least one pregnancy under my belt is akin to running through a minefield unscathed. There were only 200 kids in our entire high school.
Perhaps that is why I am already bracing myself for my daughters turn to walk through that battlefield. However, yesterday I read a book that gave me a little hope. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson is exceptional. It is well written, engaging, funny and heartbreaking. But, most importantly I believe that it will save people’s lives. It is written as a journal of a freshman girl, Melinda, who is coping with the shame and burden of an acquaintance rape. That makes it sound grim, but it is not. It is so well written, and so perfectly captures the essence of high school, that you find yourself simultaneously laughing while desperately worrying about Melinda.
In the early chapters, I was alarmed at the prospect of my daughters reading this book. Then I glanced at the back where Ms. Anderson has a one page blurb about book censorship. She so articulately expressed the importance of having our children use books to learn and talk about the real challenges they face, that I felt enlightened. I realize this book will help, not just girls, but all kids learn to ‘Speak’ about some extremely difficult issues that no adult led discussion could. She says, “Our children cannot afford to have the truth of the world withheld from them.” I’m just grateful that she managed to express this very painful truth of the world in such an accessible and engaging way. I’m not going to give this book to my nine year old yet, but I will definitely have her read it before she enters high school. Laurie Halse Anderson is my new favorite author of all time, and she isn’t even writing books for me. I recommend this book to any adult who is not totally afraid of reliving a part of high school.
– Jessica Wheeler