Middler Books and More

This blog contains Bruce DuBoff's book reviews, info on other media, and related topics. It is a collaboration between the librarian and both the students of Pennsauken Intermediate School and Phifer Middle School in Pennsauken, NJ, and the general middler book reading community. The books featured here are appropriate for grades 5-8, though not all books reviewed here are appropriate for all of those ages.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Quick, Matthew. Sorta Like a Rock Star. Little, Brown and Co., 2010. 355 pages (3 stars out of 4). This novel contains a few isolated examples of potentially offensive language.

One notable element in the recently reviewed 8th Grade Superzero by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich is that at times, while working at the local homeless shelter, it is difficult to determine who is homeless and who is not. The novel reminded me that homelessness is a condition that can strike anyone at any time he or she receives a difficult blow. In his first YA novel, Matthew Quick paints homelessness with this brush, and his main character and her mother are products of bad luck and fate just as much as by their own actions and/or inactions. Whether or not a student behaves and quietly does her work is not so much a priority if that same child has not eaten for 24 hours or more, and acting out may not be totally inappropriate for someone wearing the same unwashed underwear for a week or more. We all feel compassion for those less fortunate than ourselves and we all want to help, but sometimes, the homeless will not let us into their worlds. I appreciate Mr. Quick for giving me a glimpse into homelessness that does not at all times feel realistic, but that clearly rings more true than false. He has also written a pretty good first YA novel, featuring (increasingly frequent in YA literature) positive Christian themes and a character who has a personal realtionship with God in the novel; several skillful examples of foreshadowing and suspense; and well-planned prose that meets the needs of the protagonist: stream-of-consciousness and rich when she is “on,” sparse and empty when she is down.

Amber Appleton is seventeen and a living contradiction. She lives in the school bus her mother drives that she calls Hello Yellow, but she has established many homes away from this temporary abode: she showers, changes, and sometimes eats at her autistic friend’s house, she spends afternoons either volunteering at a seniors’ home, teaching Korean women to sing soul songs in English at church, drinking tea with a haiku-writing, Zen-minded Vietnam Vet, or hanging out with her friends, the Franks Freak Force, a.k.a. The Five. Amazingly, Amber seems to keep it together, in spite of the tremendous odds stacked against her due to her condition, and her obvious and most influential handicap: an alcoholic mother who has almost completely given up on life. Amber seems to accept this fate with optimism sometimes, realism other times: “I mean, it’s a pretty pathetic story, and I’m not really all that proud to be my mom’s daughter right now. Homelessness reflects badly on both of us. True? True . . . [however] Mom is sure to come through one of these days” (8). Amber has role models in her life, and she dreams of attending Bryn Mawr College and Harvard Law School, but when an unexpected tragedy occurs, Amber must spend all of her energy just keeping herself from slipping into the same abyss that caused her homelessness. With a Nietzsche quote in mind, that people are particularly vulnerable when they spend all of their time on guard (like people who harbor a secret about being homeless), Amber must summon all of her energy to reinvent herself, or accept the same fate as her broken family.

Last year, I wrote about the increasing frequency of the theme of highly functional kids enduring highly dysfunctional parents in YA literature, exemplified by novels such as Lisa Yee’s Absolutely Maybe, in which the protagonist’s mother emotionally abandons her, and Linda Urban’s A Crooked Kind of Perfect, in which the protagonist’s father is autistic. Unlike some characters who are intentionally or blatantly abusive, neglectful, troublesome, or merely highly embarrassing (like the Elizabethan-era garb of Hamlet’s parents in the recently reviewed The Total Tragedy of a Girl Named Hamlet), Mom tries as hard as she can, which is not nearly enough because of her alcoholism, beaten-down spirit, lack of skills, attraction to toxic men, and bad luck. However, despite adverse conditions, her daughter is able to survive by planting roots not at her own nonexistent home but at the homes of others, from a Korean Catholic priest to a haiku-writing Vietnam vet to a seniors’ home to a little-respected Marketing teacher to a single-parent power attorney and her autistic son. Amber Appleton’s ability to form alliances, innovate, and charm the competition creates appeal across a wide spectrum of folks, and her mistakes and faults are felt across that spectrum as well. If it takes a village to raise a child, then despite some bumps and bruises, the Philly suburb of Childress does alright in raising Amber Appleton. The school scenes are sometimes unrealistic in the way Amber and her supporters treat the principal and school board, and some events are a little too convenient, making the story seem a bit contrived at times. But despite these minor flaws, easily forgiven for a new writer, I applaud Matthew Quick and his first YA novel Sorta Like a Rock Star for normalizing homelessness with humor; it reminds us that hardship we cannot even imagine is probably closer to our lives than we think, that mistakes bring us closer, and that a little human kindness goes a long way.

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