Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Kids Are Not Alright: Some Girls Are by Courtney Summers & Wringer by Jerry Spinelli

photo from http://www.flickr.com/photos/conspirator/
From the surface, these two books appear to have more differences than similarities.  Courtney Summers' Some Girls Are was published more recently and it focuses on the intense social world of high school girls while Jerry Spinelli's Wringer is a middle grade novel exploring boyhood and boys.  If I hadn't happened to read these novels within a week of each other, I likely would never have connected the them.  However, reading one after the other, I couldn't help be see a relationship between these two novels: both stories clearly explore gender and bullying behavior among children and young adults in different but equally disturbing ways.

Only a few days ago, Regina lived an ideal life.  She was second in command of the Fearsome Fivesome, the most popular and powerful girls at Hallowell High; she had a boyfriend Josh and a best friend, Anna--queen of the school.  Then one night, at a party she didn't even want to attend, something happens.  And on Monday, Regina finds that her whole life has fallen apart, shattered by nasty rumors about her and Anna's boyfriend.  Having her friends completely freeze her out of their lives is horrible enough.   But worst of all, the rumors about what happened at the party aren't true--in fact, they don't come anywhere close to the terrifying reality.  Suddenly Regina finds herself on the receiving end of the kind of relentless daily torture her former clique has perfected from years of practice.

This mean girls tale is a chilling and intense examination of high school power dynamics, especially the complex relationships between young women. Exploring themes similar to those woven through both the now ubiquitous film  Mean Girls and Lauren Oliver's popular novel Before I Fall, Some Girls Are stands out as a dark and starkly realistic demonstration of how delicate and poisonous the intense power structure within groups of girls can become.  Regina is the ideal character to demonstrate the anxious tightrope teens might walk to maintain power among their peers; she has been on both sides of the popularity line and she has a full knowledge of the torture in store for her as Anna's designated enemy--because she has been the torturer in the past.  She understands that the bullying will be carried out through strategic silence and cruel actions carried out by Anna's allies; she knows that she will be erased.  Regina's narration is key to the novel's intensity and emotional power;  her painfully clear perception and her realistically turbulent emotions immerse readers in her experience immediately and allow us to empathize with her, especially as she confronts her own mistakes and her inability to completely correct them.  In very positive ways, her voice reminds me of Melinda from Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak, another great novel dealing with some similar topics.   

In the small town of Waymar, the annual Family Fest's pigeon shooting contest is the highlight of the year and the day a boy turns ten years old is the greatest moment of his life.  Because when a boy reaches his tenth birthday, he can at last become a wringer--a boy trained to run onto the field and wring the neck of injured pigeons at the annual event.  Being a wringer is the ultimate honor and tradition of Waymar boyhood.  But unlike his classmates, Palmer LaRue views his approaching tenth birthday with intense dread.  Because Palmer has a secret: he absolutely does not want to become a wringer.

After being mostly immersed in the world of older teenage characters, entering the world of children on the verge of adolescence through Jerry Spinelli's skilled writing was a simultaneously exciting and heartbreaking experience.  As Courtney Summers is able to delve into the adolescent female experience with great clarity in Some Girls Are, so Spinelli provides the readers of Wringer with a painfully realistic window into the experience of children as they begin to understand the ways that gender affects their lives.  Palmer is both a very universally relatable kid and a unique boy.  He wants to be part of a group--to be a 'normal boy' with a solid and safe place in his social world.  Yet Palmer is also unique because he has begun to question the way the people in his town define boyhood.  He struggles to balance his internal disgust for the wringer tradition with the continuous external pressure from others (especially his 'gang') about joining the tradition.  Spinelli's focused third person narration gives Palmer a very genuine voice, intelligent and perceptive but still very much shaped by a child's developing understanding of the world.  The other characters are equally well crafted and Palmer's relationship with his parents is a particularly wonderful piece of the story.  Wringer is ideal middle grade literature--a meaningful story with great character development and very relevant themes told with an elegantly simple writing style.

While Regina and Palmer's stories differ in many key ways (their ages and genders, for example), their experiences have more in common that it might appear on the surface, especially when viewed side by side.  Both Regina and Palmer have worked hard to fit into powerful, gendered peer groups; Regina found safety within the Fearsome Fivesome while Palmer gains some form of acceptance within the local gang of boys.  Some Girls Are begins when Regina makes a fatal mistake--trusting another ambitious member of their clique--and leaves herself open to attack; she loses her place among the powerful girls and slides to the outer edges of the social hierarchy.  The novel depicts Regina's struggle to deal with her unwilling dislocation and carve a new place in the world.  Meanwhile Wringer mostly deals with the earlier phase of the toxic group dynamic, describing Palmer's attempt to gain and retain a place among the boys in the neighborhood before he moves towards a decision to voluntarily transgress the established social order.  Additionally, both characters act as aggressors towards weaker peers at certain times before finding themselves as victims of harassment or bullying.  Through emotional resonant and technically well crafted storytelling, both novels demonstrate the cycle of bullying and the ways in which our peers enforce rigid expectations (especially those related to gender roles and behavior).  

Both Some Girls Are and Wringer would be interesting books to use for discussions among teens in high school and middle school respectively;  they also might be fascinating discussion starters for faculty or youth services staff book groups.  

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