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Thoughts on Alex: Caring is Creepy and Girlchild
Four of the ten 2013 Alex Award winners were not reviewed here on AB4T, for various reasons. Mark has already written about one of them: One Shot at Forever by Chris Ballard. Today I take on two more.
I’m not going to lie. Just looking at the cover and reading the description of Caring is Creepy turned me off. But it grew on me. First and foremost, there is the spot-on teen voice of Lynn, the 15-year-old who narrates her own story. She lives in rural Georgia with her Mom, who is not the best role model. In fact, Lynn seems smarter than most of the adults in her life – definitely all of the men. Too bad she makes such terrible choices.
Then there is the fact that traditional expectations are subverted in somewhat gruesome, somehow hilarious ways. We expect that two girls logging onto adult dating sites, faking their profiles, and playing (sometimes cruelly) with the men who flirt with them there are going to wind up in trouble. And the one who breaks all the rules and gives a man her real name & address, who calls him and meets him, alone? She’s not long for this world, right? Not so fast. Once Lynn hides Logan in the attic space behind her closet (long story), she starts to enjoy feeling in control. Sometimes caring does become creepy.
But that’s only part of the story. The other part involves Lynn’s mom, a hospital nurse who steals drugs for her dealer boyfriend, and her, well, creepy dealer boyfriend who loses said drugs before delivering them to his connection. All hell breaks loose. This part of the story is less engaging, and it especially goes south when the author decides to combine it with the Lynn & Logan story. Zimmerman gamely throws both stories into the blender for a climactic ending that is just way too much.
But teens will read this. Partly because it may seem to them like something they shouldn’t be allowed to read. Partly because Zimmerman really gets teens girls (albeit somewhat twisted ones with absolutely no parental guidance). What a shy girl might dream up on her own is nothing compared to a shy girl with a more outgoing friend (Dani, full of her own insecurities) who eggs her on. Who dares her.
By the way, “Caring is Creepy” is the name of an actual song by The Shins. “Dani had taken the title for a motto. She wouldn’t care until it killed her.”
Lynn has a few things in common with Rory, the Girlchild of Tupelo Hassman’s debut novel. They are both living with single mothers. They are both poor and vulnerable to the adults around them.
Rory lives with her mother in a 1972 Nobility on the Calle. ”Just north of Reno and just south of nowhere is a town full of trailers and the front doors of the dirtiest ones open onto the Calle.” Her Grandma lives nearby in her own 1964 Regal. Grandma is addicted to the slots; Mama works in a bar and often as not brings home a man for the night or drinks after her shift in one place or another. Rory tells her own story from age 8 to 16, sometimes in straight-forward prose, sometimes in the form of word problems (“Show all of your work”), sometimes in blacked-out sentences.
The experience of reading this novel was fascinating. I’m not sure I would have persevered past the first third if I hadn’t been reading it for this blog. Its short chapters are like sketches. Cumulatively they do eventually create a compelling picture of Rory’s life. However, only on second reading could I find any structure or direction to the novel. On first reading it was scattershot and confusing. At times, when Rory is deep into telling about the abuse she suffered at the hands of her babysitter Carol and Carol’s father the Hardware Man, I couldn’t tell what was going on. It isn’t exactly in chronological order, as the more mature Rory is telling about her younger experiences. She regresses into her 8-year-old self in some chapters. Which parts are looking back and which are the present? Some of this confusion is due to the abuse itself. It makes her literally mute. Years later, she can’t picture it; it’s like a blank spot in her memory. (At one point, she realizes that she knows her Grandpa never abused her–as he did her mother and her mother’s sisters–because there is no blank spot in her memory of the times he visited.)
By 2/3 of the way through, I found myself entranced. I learned to slow down my reading, to let Rory’s experiences wash over me. I stopped trying to interpret every sentence. I surrendered to the way Rory is puzzling through a life that has no structure other than the similarities between her Grandma’s life and her Mama’s life and now her own.
This is a familiar story told in an original way. The girl from the wrong side of the tracks has the potential to be the first in her family to break out of the cycle of abuse, teen pregnancy, poverty and addiction. Will circumstances allow it? Does she even want to?
I’m barely scratching the surface of this novel here (what’s the good in giving it all away??) but suffice it to say that I wish I had read it last year. It definitely deserves a place on a best of the year list. As for teen appeal, I’m sure that teens who read literary fiction would be fine with it. I wonder about reluctant readers. If they could be convinced to give it a try, they would find much to grab their attention. The short chapters, the subject matter, Rory’s voice, Rory’s mother and her struggle with dyslexia, would all be of interest. I think the complicated writing style, though, may ultimately be too much. Still, this is the kind of novel that could get the attention of a reader who thinks they don’t like books.
Filed under: Best of 2012
About Angela Carstensen
Angela Carstensen is Head Librarian and an Upper School Librarian at Convent of the Sacred Heart in New York City. Angela served on the Alex Awards committee for four years, chairing the 2008 committee, and chaired the first YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adult committee in 2009. Recently, she edited Outstanding Books for the College Bound: Titles and Programs for a New Generation (ALA Editions, 2011). Contact her via Twitter @AngeReads.
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