Kids These Days (Twofer Book Review)

For any young people reading and experiencing bullying in the overall lameness that is high school, here’s my advice. If you don’t really fit in with any one clique – the Popular Girls, the Jocks, the Brains, the Geeks, the Goths, the Future Congresspeople, the Jesus Freaks, the Sk8ter Bois – go hang out with the Stoners. They have a lot more depth than they get credit for and they’ll be cool with anyone who’s cool with them first. You don’t even have to toke up.

Both of these YA books address bullying. The first additionally takes on the modern-day school issue of mass shootings, while the second brings up consent and victim-blaming.

Hate ListHate List by Jennifer Brown

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Bookshelves: teenage-flashback, ya, current-social issues

 

Top Ten Strategies for Handling Bullies:

1. Ignore them
2. Remember they’re miserable and they hate themselves more than they hate you
3. Join a club or take up a hobby
4. Make friends with the next new kid to your school
5. Try to talk with them calmly about how their behavior makes you feel
6. Eat right, exercise, get plenty of sleep, meditate, do yoga
7. See a therapist/get some Prozac
8. Report it to a teacher or the principal
9. Transfer schools
10. Kype your dad’s guns and shoot up the school (new option as of April 20, 1999)

Yes, bullying is bad. It damages people in very real ways. But here’s the thing. There have been bullies since there have been people coexisting in groups. Bullying is a worldwide phenomenon. School shootings, however, are a distinctly American phenomenon. I know that modern American culture is fucked up in a lot of ways–raising snowflake children, normalization of violence, lack of access to health care–but you will never convince me that the biggest factor in American mass shooting culture is not American gun culture.

This book does not look at school shootings with regard to guns or mental illness (or chemtrails, or autism, or bad parenting, or video games, or vaccinations, or death metal, or trench coats, or too many doors, or porn, or not knowing CPR, or thoughts and prayers). It focuses on the disconnect many teens experience, the bullying and crappy home lives of Valerie and her boyfriend Nick. Valerie is left coping with her own guilt after venting to her notebook, creating what she calls the Hate List, unwittingly providing Nick with a target list when he snaps and opens fire at their school.

It was a thought-provoking read with more than one trigger for me. I cried a little.

I was a target in junior high and high school as well, although I eventually developed the strategy of showing up for school so completely stoned that I honestly did not give the smallest shit what anyone said to or about me. Self-medication, yay! Unfortunately, I did not consider that an option when I was badly bullied much later in life, by a boss in the workplace when I was a grown woman. It is gratifying to read an account that genuinely reflects how demeaning and demoralizing it is to be so relentlessly humiliated by others. I appreciated that Brown took care to show Nick’s good side, the “Beloved Son” who also died that day. It still angers me that Nancy Lanza is not included as a victim of the Sandy Hook massacre.

So, food for thought. It’s facile to dismiss deeply troubled kids as merely evil. It’s also facile to self-righteously claim that no matter how bad we had it, we would never wish our tormentors to hurt like they hurt us. I admit I pretended I was a Haitian priestess one day and stuck a pin through the head of the yearbook picture of one girl who was an unrelenting hag to me for 5 years. The thought of her possibly suffering migraines because of my amateur voodoo bothers me not at all. The thought of that Cersei Lannister ex-boss of mine being dumped by her husband for another woman or being the subject of a RICO investigation gives me a twinge of angry satisfaction. And I don’t think that makes me evil; it makes me human.

But.

Would I feel differently if I actually saw something horrible happening to either of them? Saw them being mowed down by a pimply-faced malcontent with a confederate flag and an AR-15? God, I hope so.

Would I be able to find common ground with them after that? Or them with me, knowing I’d even idly wished them harm? Would any of us even want to? Would any of us be able to admit the parts we’d played?

That’s what this book is about.

Overall a much better read than this next one.

Some Girls AreSome Girls Are by Courtney Summers

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Bookshelves: teenage-flashback, ya, current-social issues, ugh

After her best friend’s boyfriend tries to rape her at a typically alcohol-flooded Friday night party and she confides in the wrong person, Regina shows up for school Monday morning the subject of a freeze-out.

It’s a good premise, that could have addressed the timely topics of consent/victim-blaming and bullying. Unfortunately, Summers stayed utterly superficial, using these heavy issues as setup for endless tit-for-tat that ultimately goes nowhere.

THE PROBLEMS:

1. Over-the-top-ness. The freeze-out is carried out by every single person in the school. Everybody is snickering and whispering. Nobody will let her sit next to them (except for the emo guy at the Garbage Table, which would be okay, but set against the “everybody hates me” backdrop it becomes incredibly hokey.) In Real People Land, the Popular Girls are not so powerful they can dictate the thoughts and actions of every single kid in the lunchroom. The vast majority of the non-popular kids at school are focused on their own lives and simply do not give a shit about the bathroom rumors about you. This book takes “everybody’s talking about it” and “everybody hates me” waaaaay too literally.

2. Caricatured, two-dimensional characters. Everybody has one personality trait, and that’s mostly just being an asshole.

2.1. I’m awarding an extra star because the main antagonist was named Anna. My high school tormentor was named Anna. I imagine these two Annas have exactly the same snotty smirk.

3. No Adults Syndrome. Regina cannot take any of her problems to her parents because they are “useless,” not having given her the latest iPhone with unlimited everything. Nobody else even has parents, except as a source of unsecured prescriptions and liquor and a house to trash with a party because said parents are never home. Teachers are merely walk-ons, there to orchestrate the agony of Picking Teams or to further humiliate a student by yelling at her because someone else spray-painted WHORE on her locker.

4. Utterly unlikable protagonist. I don’t have to adore the main character, and I even like antiheros, but they have to have some redeeming quality I can empathize with. Regina has none. She’s as nasty as the Mean Girls who have frozen her out, a whiny victim who experiences compassion only as a guise to get back on the good side of people she herself has bullied in the past. I spent most of the book wanting to knock her on her ass myself.

5. Prop overuse. Throughout the book, Regina pops antacids like they’re cocktail peanuts. No wonder she’s full of shit. Probably literally. Those things will constipate you big-time.

6. The ending. After all the back-and-forth revenge, it just fizzles out. No climax, no payoff. Nobody internalizes their experiences, no one learns anything, no one changes, no one grows. Just pffffft.

For my money, you’ll never find better YA fiction than S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders and That Was Then, This Is Now. They’re books about teenagers, written by a teenager, and are classics for a reason.

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Author: Deborah Lee

I like trees, dreaming, magic, books, paper, floating, dreaming, rhinos, rocks, stargazing, wine, dragonflies, trains, and silence to hear the world breathe.

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