Sunday, March 28, 2010

Breaking Up is Hard to Do by Niki Burnham, Terri Clark, Ellen Hopkins, Lynda Sandoval

Breaking Up is Hard to Do
by Niki Burnham, Terri Clark, Ellen Hopkins, Lynda Sandoval

Everyone remembers their first crushing break-up, their first love, and even when one knows the relationship wasn’t meant to be, it’s still a confusing and painful time. And when it happens, one might do well to read about someone who has gone through the same, without any paranormal sparkles. With short stories aimed at younger teenagers, written from teenagers’ point-of-view, I started this book with a more forgiving attitude.

Once again, I found myself reading an advance copy from a bookstore giveaway, meaning that the manuscript was still subject to change. For the most part, the writing itself didn’t reveal this, but several formatting issues and typos did. Also, the character names mentioned on the back cover did not match any of the stories’ names, save one. They’re not even similar (Emmy instead of Dee, for example), and in the case of Ellen Hopkins, even her name is listed incorrectly inside the book. Copy edit fail.

The quality and authenticity of each story varied. In Niki Burnham’s “Last Stand,” Toby wrestles with the idea of losing his virginity to his high-maintenance girlfriend, Amber. He’s the nice, studious type who often put others’ needs in front of his own. When he rejects Amber’s advances, it leads to their break up.

Isn’t there something wrong with the idea that the decision of whether or not to have sex with someone hinges on bravery? Not that Amber would listen if I pointed that out.

Though I’ve never been equipped with a cautious teenage male brain, Toby’s way of telling the story didn’t feel too off base. He bounces back and forth from being completely honest (“She is also stacked”) to worrying about what people think of his honesty (“I understand that this is a totally sexist thing to say. So shoot me. They’re THERE. You can’t help but notice”).

Terri Clark’s “Don’t Mind Me” was the weakest story of the four. Goth kid Dee lands a popular boyfriend over the summer. She’s ready to get serious with him when they’re in a car crash. When she wakes up, she discovers she can hear his thoughts, and because of this, she knows that he was only dating her for “research.” He and a buddy are supposedly writing a book about getting any girl you want by being “who they want you to be.” She and other girls who have been wronged decide to take their revenge by means of public shaming.

The dialogue ranged from over dramatic to flat out trying too hard. Now, I understand that goth high schoolers might be prone to overdone declarations, but when Dee’s friend Pixie says things like, “By Bauhaus, I think we’ve got it,” I gotta roll my eyes. This is probably the first story I’ve ever read where pages of text are formatted around an IM conversation, slang and all. While that’s a very natural place for some important teenage conversations to occur, it still hurt to read.

Ellen Hopkins’ “Just Plain Lisa” was less a short story and more of a free verse poem, if my rusty poetry knowledge is accurate. As the title would imply, Lisa is a plain and quiet girl who works at the local Jumping Java during the summer before her senior year.

Early in the day, they’re mostly
guys in business suits, some of
them are def fine, despite a few
too many worries worn in delicate
webs at the corners of their eyes.

Lisa’s never had a boyfriend before, so when Chet asks her out, she hesitates for a moment. Is he her type? Does she even have a type? Figuring that not too many guys are calling at all, she decides to give him a chance and eventually falls in love. However, throughout their relationship, Chet says things like, “You would look good with red hair” or “Thought you should skip the souffle. It’s calorific.” When she starts to notice that much of his behavior is too controlling and that she’s changed herself too much to suit him, they break up after a drunken argument at a party.

Look, Lisa, asking you out was like
a tryout.
His voice is honest. Mean.
I needed to play Single A before
trying out for the majors, you know?

Reading that, it’s easy to say she should’ve just kneed him in the junk, but I suppose it’s natural that through her shock, she only tells him to get the hell away from her and finds her own way home. Her internal monologue is a bit trying when it goes on for too long — the insecurity can often turn into immaturity, more like a girl who is a few years younger.

Still, that’s why I get the feeling this book is aimed more at ages 13-15, purposely written with characters who are around 16 or 17. When I was just coming out of middle school, I didn’t want to read about kids my own age either. Then again, coming out of middle school, I’d already had a couple boyfriend implosions and was well on my way to a few more. Perhaps I’m not the best judge of who feels what when.

“Party Foul” by Lynda Sandoval is probably the strongest of the four stories. Mia has been dating Paige secretly throughout the summer. Paige is beautiful, popular and supposedly in love with her. Mia is out to her family and friends, but agrees to wait until school starts to reveal their relationship to others. However, right before the big end of summer bash, Paige suddenly says she doesn’t want to go to the party, that she’s “busy getting ready for school.” When Mia turns up at the party with her friend Allison, she sees Paige making out with football player Marcos. She confronts Paige in front of the crowd, and Paige outs her to everyone, saying some hurtful things in the process.

When Mia begins school, she encounters some expected teasing, but also support from other kids who feel different. Some fall within the GLBT acronym, but there are also Sunni Muslims, abstinence kids and others who are looking for a more comfortable community. To her surprise, Mia discovers that her classmate, a professional ballerina who spends a lot of time out of school performing, has also just suffered a break-up with a girlfriend. The two form a friendship and she tries to make sense of what happened with Paige.

Written in the style of a journal entry, there are a lot of asides and breaks for rationalizing and gushing, but it’s a cute story — a bit huggy and overly optimistic, but I get its intent. All four stories make the point that while we don’t often find happiness by the path we expected, it’s still possible. Because of that, I can forgive some of the sentimentality. It’s certainly not a perfect book, but your teenager could read far worse.

Book #20/52

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

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