Today I posted a review of a book for middle schoolers on Amazon.
The book is Almost Home by Joan Bauer. (What 5th grade girl wouldn't pick up a book with a cover like that?)
Here's my review...
It's very interesting to me that all of the reviews are positive for this book. And there are a lot of positives about it. Joan Bauer is a good writer and it's a well written book. The plot moves along, the characters are interesting, and it would resonate with a lot of kids. The cover conjures warm feelings and it makes you want to like the book. It tugs at your heart.
When I was teaching middle school English, I would have assigned this book to my class. I know I would have. There is very little character description, so readers will make their own minds up about what the characters look like. I had many students who lived through situations similar to what the girl in this story, Sugar, walks through.
But, as a homeschooling mom, I'm not going to assign this book to my children. There are a couple of reasons. Because I homeschool, I can shelter my kids and let them be kids. I know they have to tackle and understand the hard stuff of the world, but the big question I face is when and how. Books tackle difficult subjects differently. Some address the tough stuff of life. Some can plant ideas in kids heads (depending on who the kids is). Some are persuasive about life issues. Some are objective and simply tell a story--leaving the moral evaluation up to the reader. I did read this entire book. After the first half, I was willing to let my daughter read it. I knew I would need to process through it with her because there is a slew of difficult emotional issues in it--abandonment by a parent, neglect, poverty, homelessness, peer pressure, teasing, and death of a loved one. But, then I read two pages that it took it off the reading list for my kids. It was the discussion of depression and her mom's time in the hospital after she breaks down. She asks the question to herself of whether it could happen to her. For some kids, I think this could provoke discussion and help them identify with the character. For others who read this alone without anyone to talk to about it, it could plant some dangerous and fearful ideas. This book is recommended for grades 5 and up. I know it would devastate and weigh down my fifth grade daughter to read these pages. I don't even think she could get through them. (To help my children understand homelessness, I'm going to assign Paper Things by Jennifer Jacobson)
This book is particularly weighty to me though and there are some other things that bother me. I grew up in LA, where there is a large homeless population. (I looked up Chicago and its homeless population rivals LA and NYC) A year ago, I heard a twentysomething girl glamorize homelessness and I was floored. It's not ideal. I do understand why teens need to understand the truth about the difficulties of life. But, the way this author portrays homelessness and shelters was frustrating to me. Because Sugar is raising herself essentially and has to act like an adult, her perspective isn't always right. She sees her mom and others breaking the rules about alcohol in the shelter and thinks it's okay. It's not... When she talks about the other homeless people she knows, she talks as if they aren't responsible for the situations they're in. ... There was a homeless man in a dinner group I coordinated a few years ago. One day he came to the group and said he'd been fired because he didn't call for 3 days and didn't go to work because--he didn't want to. Many homeless people won't stay in shelters because they don't want to follow anyone's rules. Except, rules are a part life--wherever you go. Schools, workplaces, homes, and even public places all have their own rules. We live in a world where people don't want to take responsibility for their choices (and subsequent consequences). Paper Things addresses this in a way where both the children and adults come to understand their responsibilities and what they did right/wrong. But in this book, the only people who are ever really wrong are Sugar's deadbeat dad and her friend's dad who abandoned his family. Sugar's mom does grow, but Sugar still thinks at the end of the book that she has to act like an adult. If your child reads this book without being able to process it with you, they are going to come up with their own way of understanding how the world works—for better or for worse. There's just so much in this book that needs to be processed.
Another very subtle part of the story is that Sugar lies and is manipulative to get what she wants. But, she justifies it when it's for a good cause—like getting food for her puppy. She is nice to people on the outside—not understanding that as people, our hearts are just as important as our actions. She's nice to people to get what she wants many times. One could say, though, aren't we all? Well, that's not what I'm teaching my kids. We love others because God loves us.
So why would teachers have kids read this book? I've been asking myself this question because it is such a heavy book. As a former public school teacher, I know that the philosophy is that as long as kids are reading, it doesn't matter what they're reading. Teachers look for books that kids want to read. The priority is not on the question of whether or not a book is good for a student to read--whether or not it would be helpful? For kids who live in situations like Sugar's, I think it can help them make sense of their lives and not feel alone in what they're going through. It could give them hope that things will get better. But, the school in my county that I know read this is an upper middle class school with kids that are not in the situation Sugar is in. I tried to do some reading why kids would be drawn to this book and it sounded from a Time article like it's because they want emotionally provocative books--that will draw them in. They want to read about teens overcoming. Sugar does that. She has to be the adult in the book and she is. Do you want your teen to think they have to act like an adult (and essentially be one) or that they know more than you do as the parent?
Before you let your child read this book, I'd encourage you to read it yourself. Your child may be able to handle the emotional weight of this book. You may feel it is appropriate for him/her to read. Many people tell me all the time that a lot of what's in books goes over kids heads. I don't believe that. They take in a lot—and if they can't process it, there's a good chance they may end up misunderstanding a lot of what they read or coming to conclusions that you wish they wouldn't. This is a thought provoking book—but one that shouldn't be read by a student alone. And I definitely wouldn't recommend it for anyone younger than 7th grade.
That's it. That was my review.
A day later, I still feel weighted down by the book. I can't resolve in my head how twisted Sugar's thinking is about the world and how I don't want my kids to see the world the way she does. I read an article on Christianity Today by ND Wilson, who writes a lot of darker fiction for teens. He said that we need to give our kids examples of light and dark--examples of people being heroes and overcoming--and in order to overcome there must be darkness in the stories. But, as I read this book, it felt like there was an absence of morals. It felt like people were trying to fill in that hole themselves by telling themselves "I'm okay, You're okay." This isn't a story of truth and light vs. darkness. It is a story about sadness and the fallenness of man. I am still struggling to put my finger on why this book has upset me, but it has. Hopefully, I'll figure out soon.