just listen

The first thing I did when I finished reading Just Listen, by Sarah Dessen, was to check out the Cybils website and make sure that this stellar young adult novel has been nominated for the YA fiction award. (It has.)

Dessen really gets it. Really understands that people who have been sexually assaulted are not cardboard victims, nor completely defined by their experience. I think a lot of teen readers will identify with her heroine Annabel Greene–not because she is a teen model (this threw me off at first)–but because she leads a full, complicated, problematic but also hopeful inner as well as outer life.


Here’s the jacket. (I’m working with a new blog editing package and haven’t figured out yet how to get larger-than-thumbnail images.)

The story is told through a series of flashbacks in the voice of Annabel, the youngest of the three Greene sisters all of whom have been child models. Each of the sisters has her own struggle and by the end of the novel the three have moved towards much more mature relationships with themselves, each other and their parents.

One of the rewards of the book is to watch as Annabel develops a relationship with Owen Armstrong, a boy who challenges her to be honest with herself. It’s a real struggle for this girl who has earned her popularity through superficial beauty and making nice. To her credit, Dessen makes Annabel a thoroughly likeable person even as she comes to see that she has built her life on socially acceptable lies.

If you like teen fiction and girl stories with depth, pick this one up.


On the other hand, I was very disappointed in Jumping the Scratch, by Sarah Weeks. It’s well written. Has engaging characters. Most of all, it’s a book for 10 and up–younger readers–in which a boy protagonist copes with an incident of sexual…well, this part is hard to define–harassment? assault?

Like Annabel, Jamie Reardon leads a life complicated by relatives. He and his mother are living with and trying to care for his Aunt Sapphy who has lost her short term memory. Jamie is actively stuffing the memory of something that happened between him and Old Gray, the man who runs the trailer park where Jamie and his family live. The portrayal of their lives and of Aunt Sapphy’s disability is textured and well realized.

The secret comes out when Jamie’s quirky friend “hypnotizes” him and Jaime remembers an assault that appears to be only a hug, although he’s clearly traumatized by it. What gives? Then he tells the secret to his aunt because she has no short term memory so won’t do anything about it. But–tada!–she gets her memory back just before he tells her the secret.

You see what I mean? The story resolution, the way things work out, just doesn’t ring true for me. It feels like outsider fiction in that Jamie is acted upon by others, he is not the author of his own life. The resolution relies heavily on coincidence. I think a ten-year-old reader would respond with “Hunh?”

Readers are left never understanding what happened between Jamie and Old Gray. And how it comes to our attention is awfully confusing. Hypnosis? By a ten-year-old playing magician? This part seems informed by the experiences of adults in therapy not by the realities of a boy living in the same trailer park as his perp.

Maybe I’m reacting to the pry-the-lid off aspect of the hypnosis, but it’s as if Jamie has to be tricked to move forward. I never see him as a person with strength to draw on or the ability to make things better for himself. Classic victim.

Maybe I am missing something here. Did you have a different reaction to this book? I’d love to hear about it.

the challenge

I do have some idea of what the author was up against in trying to publish a book for kids under twelve that addresses sexual abuse.

As an author, you try to tell a story that is honest and relevant to the lives of young readers. With difficult topics, you need to be clear and specific–but you don’t want to be so graphic as to traumatize a child new to the subject or retraumatize survivors. It is a delicate line to walk. Then there’s the whole maze of adults to deal with, the editors, publishers, marketing managers, reviewers, librarians, bookstore owners and parents who stand between a children’s author and her readers. Adults can get uneasy about things that kids can handle fine.
In 1985, I faced many of these challenges when I wrote Promise Not to Tell specifically for 7-10 year olds. Despite all my efforts, the two publishers marketed it for “12 and up” because they thought it would not be seen as appropriate for younger readers, even though we all knew how pervasive sexual abuse is among younger kids.

My hat is off to Sarah Weeks for writing for this age group. I just wish I could enthusiastically recommend her book.

By |2017-06-13T20:45:39+00:00December 2nd, 2006|books, writing|0 Comments

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