Bibliotheraphy for Youth Services: A Novel Round Up

I recently took a summer class on Bibliotherapy for Youth Services. If you’re not familiar with bibliotherapy (I wasn’t), it’s basically a way of using written material to address the concerns, fears, troubling situations, or life changes that an individual–in this case, a child–is going through. (There’s a pretty good Wikipedia article on it, here.)

Anyway, I read a great deal of picture books and children’s novels for this class, and thought I would post my reflections on the novels here. The reading list was interesting–a number of titles which were certainly good, but many which were either outdated or out of print. That got me wondering if the class’ reading list just needed to be updated, or if, perhaps,  bibliotherapy is not as common in today’s children’s literature. If anyone has thoughts on this–particularly any children’s librarians–I’d be interested to hear them.


(Books listed in order they were read.)

A Taste of Blackberries
By: Doris Buchanan Smith
Illustrated: Mike Wimmer
Harper Trophy, 1988

Doris Buchanan Smith’s A Taste of Blackberries starts with an idyllic childhood moment: two young friends rambling through a blackberry patch, checking to see if the fruit is ripe. The lazy summer day continues with races and some

mischievous apple thieving, and Jaime, the (unnamed) narrator’s friend, always vying for attention. Jaime is fun, but he’s also melodramatic and a bit of a show off, and his antics are sometimes too much for the narrator to take.

Everything changes when Jaime stirs up a bees nest that afternoon. Many of the neighborhood children get stung, including Jaime, who makes a big show of thrashing around on the ground and yelling. Or at least, everyone thinks it’s a big show, until they find out that Jaime was allergic to bee stings. And the one or two stings he received were actually enough to kill him.

Conveying the senselessness of a child’s death to young readers is difficult enough, but what makes A Taste of Blackberries even more tragic is the guilt that the narrator feels for ignoring his friend’s cries of pain. Smith handles both aspects of this troubling situation with grace and empathy, allowing the narrator to explore a whole range of emotions and mourn in his own way (he feels like he can’t eat until after Jaime’s funeral).

Equally important, Smith illustrates that caring adults are present everywhere in the narrator’s life. Not only his parents, but his neighbors, and even Jaime’s mother are there for him as he navigates this difficult time, ready to listen or even just sit quietly with him as he begins to heal. This is an important point for children to take away from such a story–that the adults in their lives are ready and able to be there for them during difficult and painful times.

Jessi’s Secret Language (The Babysitter’s Club)
Ann M. Martin
Apple Paperbacks, 1988

Jessi, one of the newest (and youngest) members of the Baby-sitter’s Club, gets a weekly job babysitting for a new family in town, the Braddocks. the Braddocks have two children–Haley and Matt. Matt is deaf, so Jessi begins to learn sign language to communicate with him.

Being one of the only black people in their town, Jessi understands how it feels to be different and isolated from the people around her. She begins to realize, however, that Matt’s deafness not only isolates him from children his age, but also Haley, who feels responsible for her brother, but sometimes wishes he could be “normal” like other kids. She has the idea to not only introduce the Braddock children to other kids their ages, but also teach the neighborhood children Matt’s “Secret Language.” Soon, all the babysitters are learning ‘Ameslan’ and teaching it to their charges.

Having always enjoyed this series when I was a kid, I was pleased to see how well it held up when I reread this title. Martin does a great job of instilling a sense of empathy in the story, and also drawing parallels between experiences that might not seem immediately similar to children who are reading the story. By this I mean not only the fact that Jessi relates to how Matt and Helen feel as outsiders in their community, but also the similarity she draws between dancing (“telling a story with your body”) and sign language. I think this encourages young readers to not only put themselves in the position of people who they don’t think (at first) that they can relate to, but also start to see that something that might not seem normal–like sign language–is actually very similar to something that is very familiar, like dancing.

The Alfred Summer
By Jan Slepian
Puffin Books, 1980

Four Brighton Beach teens–Lester, Alfred, Myron, and Claire–are all outcasts in some way. Lester has cerebral palsy and although he is smart, and witty, and insightful, all the people around him see is his physical disability. Alfred is learning disabled, a fact which leads many people to disregard his kind spirit and label him as a “retard” or “slow.” Myron is clumsy and overweight and spends his days being teased and pushed around by his mother and sisters, expected to fill the shoes of his deceased father, even though he’s only a teenager. And Claire is a champion runner on her track team, but she dresses like a boy, which many of her neighbors and peers find very disconcerting.

These four become unlikely friends, joining together to help Myron build a boat–The Getaway–which they hope will help them escape from their problems. What they find in the process is that with their new-found friendships, is that they no longer want to escape. Rather, spending time together, they discover the capacity to challenge not only the perceptions of people around them, but also the perceptions they have of themselves.

In Lester, Slepian has created a dynamic and unique voice–a smart, sarcastic, and cynical teen who has become resentful after years of being patronized by his parents, ignored by his peers, and unable to do the things he so wants to do. Although his experiences and feelings are very specific to those of an individual with cerebral palsy, many of his problems (an overbearing mother, a distant father) are common with teens and incredibly sympathetic. None of Slepian’s characters are pitiable, but rather, she shows them each to have their own strengths and gifts, failings and fears. As Lester’s father says in a rare show of attentiveness, “Sure people can be rotten. But at the same time people can be good. A little of both, son, a little of both…Just like me, Lester. And like your mother…and you,” (98).

This is a story which emphasizes the importance of taking charge of oneself, of learning how to cope with circumstances that are out of one’s control and making the best of them. This is not to say that The Alfred Summer is unrealistically optimistic or cheery. It’s actually anything but. Slepian acknowledges that these kids will face difficulties and prejudice and that sometimes, unpredictable, awful things happen to very good people. But her characters find strength within themselves to deal with the challenges that face them–they tap into Claire’s “Azzif Theory” and start to become the people that they want to be. It’s a great lesson for any child who feels alienated or without control in his/her own life.

Lester’s Turn
Jan Slepian

In Lester’s Turn, Jan Slepian returns to Brighton Beach, “the old neighborhood,” where The Alfred Summer took place. Although only a few years have passed, there have been many changes since we last saw Lester, Alfred, Myron, and Claire. For one, Myron and Claire have moved away. Even more difficult, however, is that Alfred’s mother has died. Alfred’s epilepsy has worsened and his father spends a lot of time away from home on business. So Alfred has to live in a special hospital, where, to Lester’s eyes, he’s wasting away.

Lonely without the friends he had finally made and struggling with the idea that he’ll be graduating from high school soon, Lester decides that he is going to quit school and take Alfred away from the hospital. He envisions his new life–working a full time job and caring for Alfie, just the two of them together. His plan becomes big news for Claire (who he still sees), and his new acquaintances–a mother and son who live upstairs from Claire in her new home, and Tillie Rose, a neighborhood teenager who works in Alfie’s hospital. But after a special weekend outing with Alfred, something terrible happens, and Lester must face his own insecurities and start planning for his own future.

Although darker in themes (and plot line) than The Alfred Summer, Lester’s Turn maintains the frank honesty and perceptive empathy of its predecessor. Lester’s fear of facing his own future and making plans for his life after graduation will be familiar to older teens who are struggling to make their own choices. Alfred’s death, though difficult, also emphasizes the importance of making the most of one’s life, no matter the circumstances, and considering the impact that anyone can have on other’s lives.

Lisa, Bright and Dark
John Neufeld
Signet, 1970

Lisa Shilling is an attractive, smart, and friendly girl from a comfortably middle class family in a small town in New York. She’s dating the most popular boy in her highschool, has lots of friends, and seems to have everything. But midway through her junior year of highschool, Lisa begins to notice that something is wrong.

She’s hearing voices, feeling isolated, has unpredictable mood swings and lashes out at her friends. She develops a cruel sense of humor, disappears from places unexpectedly, and even occasionally takes on an English accent and persona. And though her peers and close friends realize that something is wrong with Lisa, the adults in her life either pretend that nothing unusual is happening or refuse to take action. So three of Lisa’s friends take it upon themselves to buoy her up as best they can until they can convince an adult that Lisa isn’t acting out or faking it–she really does need professional help.

Lisa, Bright and Dark posits itself not only about a teen’s battle with mental illness, but also a sort of parable about the callousness and lack of responsibility that adults often take when dealing with young people. This is emphasized not only through Lisa’s neglectful parents, but also the counselor and teachers at her high school, who see that something is terribly wrong with one of their students, but are afraid of incurring the anger of her parents–of “interfering” with the way they raise their children. While certainly adults are often guilty of turning a blind eye to the problems and issues that their kids are going through–refusing to believe that their teens could be having sex, experimenting with drugs, etc.–I wonder if this book reflects attitudes that are still socially acceptable. It’s my feeling that if teachers, clergy members, and friends all noticed that a teen they knew was having mental health problems, a myriad of counselors and resources would be provided for her, even if the parents didn’t fully cooperate. It seems to me that it is now much more socially acceptable–and even socially mandated–to get involved when a teen shows signs of mental distress.

The fact that the book is narrated by one of Lisa’s less good friends, Betsy, works very well. Not only does Betsy’s bubbly voice balance out the harshness of Lisa’s story (peppered as it is with tangents about Paul Newman’s dreamy eyes, movie factoids, and high school social commentary), but it also provides a realistic window onto Lisa’s situation. It allows the reader to observe someone who is slowly descending into mental illness from an external point of view. This is probably a more empathetic position for most teens, but also makes the reader think about their own responsibilities to their friends and peers and the ways in which she might seek out help for a friend in a similar situation.

Light a Single Candle
By Beverly Butler
PocketBook, 1970 (original, 1962)

Cathy is a tomboyish, independent, and athletic teenager, who wants more than anything to become an artist. On her fourteenth birthday, Cathy–who has always had extremely poor eyesight–finds out that she will go blind before her next birthday. Although the transition to blindness is extremely difficult for Cathy, what makes it even more hard are the reactions she receives from those around her. No one will treat her like normal. After training with a guide dog named Trudy, however, Cathy finds that she can regain her independence and even return to a public high school.

A sweet story, which doesn’t romanticize blindness, but also doesn’t treat it as a condition to be pitied. A story which any teen who is struggling to learn (or earn) independence might benefit from.

Sixth Grade Can Really Kill You
Barthe DeClements
Puffin Books, 1985

Helen Nichols has a reputation for being one of the best pitchers, and worst readers, in the sixth grade. She’s also known as one of the biggest  troublemakers in school. At the start of the year, she’s assigned to the classroom of Mrs.Lobb–“Blob” to those who know her–a teacher with very little tolerance and a lot of rules. Although Helen works for hours after school every day with her mother on her homework, she can’t fake her way through reading assignments and tests all year, and soon she’s in danger of failing the sixth grade. With the sympathetic guidance of some understanding adults (her father, uncle, and new teacher, Mr. Marshall), Helen makes the difficult decision to start taking special ed classes in reading–even if it means getting made fun of by her classmates.

Although many of the references in the book are more than a little out of date–the students talk about playing Van Halen albums and use Pee Chee notebooks–DeClements does an excellent job of creating a relatable pre-teen world. Her sixth graders talk like sixth graders, and act like sixth graders, without ever lapsing into the sort of self consciously good behavior that makes it obvious that they were written by an adult. This is important, not only because it makes the characters believable, but because it is an honest portrayal of the sort of power struggles that kids at this age have with the adults around them. They’re not sure if they want to be treated like children or teenagers, and take a great deal of pride in pulling things over on adults (particularly their parents) when they can. Helen frequently does things at her friend’s house that she knows her mother wouldn’t allow–drive in her friend’s brother’s fiberglass car, go to a horror movie unchaperoned–and this seemed so wonderfully realistic to me.

DeClements also deals with Helen’s bad behavior and reading difficulties with the same sort of empathy and realism. It’s not difficult to see why she acts out so much, but the connection between her bad behavior and her disability is never belabored. Also, just because Helen decides to take special education classes doesn’t mean that she suddenly loses all of her self-deprecating negativity. “Face it, Helen,” she says in the next to last chapter. “You’re dumb in reading.”

Another facet of DeClement’s realism is that the adults in the novel have their problems and short-comings, too. Mrs. Lobb is certainly a beleagured teacher, but she’s also unable to find a way to connect with Helen and be a productive figure in her life. Helen’s mother also means well with her refusal to let Helen take special education classes, but her actions are mostly motivated by her pride, and Helen’s father even admits this to her. Adults aren’t perfect either, and I think that demonstrating that shows a lot of respect for young readers.

The other standout aspect of this book is that it really underscores the importance of taking responsibility for oneself and one’s actions. Helen not only decides of her own accord to pay back the school for her spray-painting vandalism, but also asks herself to be considered for special ed classes. Later in the book, she assures her mother that at twelve, she’s old enough–and responsible enough–to stay at home without supervision after school. Learning to be responsible helps Helen begin to feel better about herself as a person, and I think this is an applicable message for any young reader.


The Silver Kiss

When I started Annette Curtis Klause’s The Silver Kiss, I was definitely skeptical. The story starts awkwardly, with neither Zoe (the teen love interest), nor Simon (the terribly named vampire stalker cum pining boyfriend) seems entirely fleshed out in the first chapters, which jump back and forth between their respective narrations. Zoe over-articulates her struggles with her mother’s terminal illness in effort to get the backstory out, and Simon describes her from afar as “Pale as the milk of death, thin and sharp like pain,” which, well, is almost cutely dramatic, but mostly just sounds like the way vampires talk in really horrible movies. (Oh, and at one point he “mark[s] his territory like a wolf, and urinate[s] on the back steps” of Zoe’s house, later leaving a trinket for her which she picks up not so long after that we’ve forgotten the whole peeing there thing.) So no points at the beginning.

However, I have to admit, once the character/plot establishing is out of the way, the book vastly improves and I really started enjoying it. Klause actually utilizes vampire mythology, which I get a huge kick out of: her vampires are sensitive to light (yeah, we thought this was standard until they started sparkling), they are burned/blinded by crucifixes, can transfigure into mist and bats (and do this often), have to wait to be invited into someone’s home, and so on. Nicely enough, while Klause’s vampires can subsist on animal blood (as Simon does), they are all too admitting of the fact that they take pleasure from drinking human blood. Simon may be a “good” vampire (he doesn’t kill his human prey, and makes the experience pleasant for them–more on that anon), but there is still a darkness to him. He overpowers and attacks a group of teen hoodlums who jump him in a park, for instance. He gives Zoe the titular “Silver Kiss” and bites her the first time she lets him in her house.

Moreover, Simon has an ultra dramatic back story, fraught with sibling rivalry and matricide and haunts playgrounds and hangs around suburban neighborhoods stalking a vampire child (a la Interview with the Vampire) who is viciously murdering neighborhood women.

So suddenly we have a complicated, rather engaging plot to invest in. And, even better, an adorable little goth romance blooms between Zoe and Simon, as they bond over the pain of death and losing one’s mother. Consider a conversation they have on a bus on the way to see Zoe’s mother in the hospital:

“I didn’t mean to trivialize your mother’s death. I know it matters. Every death matters.”

They were silent for a while, as the bus lurched through the night.

“At first,” he finally said, “you think–no, hope–it might be a dream. That you’ll wake up, and it will have been just a nightmare.”

Zoe turned sharply to look at him. Was he mocking her? But his gaze was far away, not even on her.

“You think she’ll be there,” he continued, “pulling the curtains to let in the sun, wishing you good morning.”

“Yes, how did you know?”

His eyes snapped into focus, catching the light like broken glass. “What kind of son would I be, not to know?”

She blushed stupidly and couldn’t seem to find a natural position for her hands to settle in. He’d lost his mother, too. “Yes, of course.”

“You forgot,” he said in a gentler voice.

She nodded, embarrassed. “But I felt that way, too, or like maybe it was a cruel joke, and everyone would confess to it real soon.”

“And then the anger,” he said, as if it were inevitable. “Anger at her for going away.”

“For ruining our lives,” she joined in.

“At God,” he said.

“At everyone around, for not understanding, for not having it happen to them.”

It goes on from there, but you get the gist. The book’s main energy is derived in great part from the parallel between Zoe and Simon’s circumstances, their existential musings on death, and their eventual acceptance of it as a painful, but inevitable, part of life.

The other source of momentum here is obviously–and I know I always get back to this, but still–the book’s sexual tension. Zoe is a pretty innocent girl when the book starts–Klause makes a point of emphasizing her lack of interest in boys–but after meeting Simon, things start picking up, albeit still rather chastely. During a conversation about his past, Simon bites Zoe:

“…it was no good; she was too near, too inviting. The fangs slid from their sheaths…Then he kissed her with the sharp sleek kiss, the silver kiss, so swift and true, and razor sharp, and her warmth was flowing into him. He could feel it seeping through his body–warmth, sweet warmth.

She uttered a small, surprised cry and fought him for a second, but he stroked her hair and caressed her. I won’t hurt you, he thought…And he moaned and slipped her arms around him. It was the tender ecstasy of the kissed that he could send her with his touch. It throbbed through his fingers, through his chest, like the blood through her veins. It thrummed a rhythm in him that he shared with her. She sighed, her breath came harder, and he felt himself falling.”

If that doesn’t sound like teenage hormones, I don’t know what does. It’s actually the only seen of it’s kind, though. For most of the book, Simon and Zoe shyly exchange little pecks on the lips, “real kisses.”

Complaints: The plot resolves with an overly-complicated and almost cartoonish scheme, several of the references seem a little anachronistic for the 90s, when the book was written (record player, ashtray on the coffee table) and though it’s possible that it’s meant to take place in the 70s (they listen to the Ramones on the radio), this is never really made clear. Also, the vampire child’s cover story–that he’s an orphan albino living with a foster family–has some definite holes, in that he seems to go out in the afternoon a few times. This is explained a little midway through the book, but not to very good effect.

But the book ends well–bittersweetly, and without Zoe deciding to become Simon’s vamp companion for the rest of eternity. All in all, a somewhat flawed, but still very enjoyable entry in the YA vampire genre.


I read Monster as part of a week in my YA class focusing on “The Grim and The Bleak.” (Other suggested titles included Laure Halse Anderson’s Speak and Robert Cormier’s Tenderness.) This is my first Walter Dean Myers novel and knowing that his books are beloved by some of my particularly YA-Savvy friends, I was really looking forward to it. Plus, it received boat-loads of high praise from all sorts of trusted sources. So yes, I had high expectations.

Luckily, these expectations did not fall short. Myers created a dynamic and empathetic story here, but one which really resists a straightforward interpretation or overall moral. The story is written like a screenplay (the main character was taking a film class in high school) and therefore reads at a really quick pace. (Moreover, it occurred to me while reading the book that this sort of format would surely appeal to teens who are not only well-versed in film cues and language, and may also relate better to a more media-based format than they might to a traditional narrative. I bet that one could integrate some really interesting film-based exercises into a lesson plan with this book as the focal point.)

Anyway, in the book, 16 year-old Steve Harmon is being charged with felony murder–possible sentence of life imprisonment–for his role in the fatal shooting of a convenience store owner in his neighborhood. Now, Steve didn’t actually shoot the man, but he did act as a lookout, letting the guys holding up the convenience store know that the coast was clear and no cops were around. The fact that Steve is being charged with murder and may face a life in prison, automatically reads as frighteningly harsh, but that doesn’t really mean, as Steve contends, that he’s “innocent.” There’s a great piece of dialog to this effect between Steve and his lawyer. Steve tells her that he’s innocent, and she replies: “You should have said you didn’t do it.”

This is what it really comes down to–Steve didn’t kill the man, but his actions allowed that murder to take place. He begins to recognize this over the course of his trial–and tries to make sense of it afterward, to little effect. And the cause-and-effect/moral ambiguity is no more simple for the reader. For instance, a witness is put on the stand who testifies that she was in the convenience store when the guys robbing it began to get rough. She says that she sees this, gets scared, and leaves, but doesn’t say anything about calling the police. Isn’t she as much to blame as Steve for the man’s death? She saw more of how the situation was escalating than he did. There’s the other neighborhood kid whose job it was to obstruct police officers, should anyone try and stop the robbers once they’d left the store. He’s not on trial like Steve because he made a deal with the prosecution. The murder may only be the ‘fault’ of the man who actually shot him, but the complicity of many other people–besides Steve–allowed it to occur.

The Chocolate War

I’m almost unsure of what to write about The Chocolate War at this point, partly because I feel like it really surprised my expectations–but not in a particularly good or bad way. I’m not sure what I was expecting from this book, but I guess it wasn’t this. And yet…

The story–and Cormier’s approach–has a lot going for it. For one, there’s the fact that this anti-hero/non-conformist story is set in the mid-to-late 60s, which provides a nice background and context for the main action at Trinity school. There’s a sort of anxiety about the book–for instance, characters talk about ‘The Bomb’ being dropped a lot–without really overdoing the set piece. Jerry has one important interaction with an aggressive hippie who calls him ‘square boy,’ and this makes an impact on him, but it doesn’t overwhelm the story, which could just as easily be set in contemporary times. But I imagine that if one read this book while learning about Vietnam or the Civil Rights Movement in history class, it would carry a good deal of punch to it.

I mentioned Cormier’s approach before, and I mean this in a few ways. Firstly, there’s the fact that he uses multiple narrators. This does a few things. It provides a nice insight to the many character’s psychology and motivation, while at the same time not privileging anyone’s viewpoint. Now that’s not to say that Archie, for instance, doesn’t come off like a really demonic sort of manipulator, but all the same, he’s humanized in a way that was really refreshing. We’re shown his vulnerabilities and fears and misgivings the same as we’re shown Jerrry’s or The Goober’s. And in this way, we’re forced to consider the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ of his actions, as much his the actions themselves. He’s still a ‘bad guy,’ but he’s humanized.

The other thing about this book is that Cormier actually doesn’t really establish a final statement in the novel. He opens a door with the T.S. Elliot “Do I Dare Disturb the Universe?” quote and the whole ‘do your own thing’ motto pursued by Jerry, but his perspective on whether going against the grain is actually worth it is never really solidified. It’s obvious that he believes that society will destroy individualists and resort to mob mentality when confronted with someone who defies pack logic–and it even seems at the end that Jerry himself has come to believe that all of his ideals were for naught. (“He had to tell Goober to play ball…to sell whatever they wanted you to sell, to do whatever they wanted you to do…They tell you to do your own thing, but they don’t mean it. They don’t want you to do your own thing unless it happens to be their thing, too.”)

But all the same, it didn’t feel entirely clear to me whether Cormier was viewing this as a sort of noble sacrifice. They type of small gestures that bring about great change, even at the expense of the individual. There’s the threat at the end of the book that Archie will ‘get his’–that he’ll draw a white marble next time and have to enact his own assignment, that “another kid like Renault will come along” and challenge the powers that be again.

Not that this helps Jerry any, of course.


I’ve just started a class on Young Adult fiction and Forever, identified as a ‘classic,’ is one of the first assigned readings. This is, I believe, my first Judy Blume novel. I was aware of Are You There, God? and other Blume novels, but don’t think I ever actually read one. And I have to say, after reading this one, I kind of love Judy Blume. She’s so straightforward and educationally-minded, while still really getting the blushing, bursting, totally obsessive quality of teenage love, which she regards (very practically) as fleeting, but still treats in a completely endearing manner. Some highlights and observations:

1. Right off the bat: the male character (Michael) names his penis. Names it Ralph, to be precise. Both he and Katherine (the narrator) speak to it in the third person. This is endlessly amusing, if still a little creepy, but totally cracked me up while I was reading it on the train. For instance:

“Katherine…I’d like you to meet Ralph…Ralph, this is Katherine. She’s a very good friend of mine.” [scene continues, yada yada:] Katherine: “‘Did I do okay…considering my lack of experience?’ He laughed, then put his arms around me. ‘You did just fine…Ralph liked it a lot.'”

2. Judy Blume loves Planned Parenthood. Katherine’s grandmother is described as being “busy with politics and Planned Parenthood and NOW,” and there is a whole, extensive scene in which Katherine secretly (although not ashamedly–which is important) goes to a Planned Parenthood in New York City to get birth control after she has sex the first time. The whole scene is played very educationally and step-by-step. First, you make the appointment, then the nice lady on the phone confirms that you don’t need parental consent. Then you see a counselor, then you have your pelvic exam and the doctor shows you your cervix in a mirror because “it’s a good idea to become familiar with your body,” and then you leave with the pill. It’s frank, but encouraging, and feels much a scene that was written in the 1970s–which it was. The doctor doesn’t ask Katherine if she takes intravenous drugs, doesn’t tell her outright that she should get tested for gonorrhea because her boyfriend is cheating on her (as has recently happened to a friend of mine).

In other words, this is still the first real phase of optimistic sexual liberation and education, and, as Judy (we’ve just now gotten on a first name basis, she and I) points out in her updated author’s note, “When I wrote Forever in the mid-seventies, sexual responsibility meant preventing unwanted pregnancy. Today, sexual responsibility also means preventing sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS, which can kill you.”

3. Both Katherine and Michael seem to be rather flat as characters—you know things about them (she doesn’t like hot dogs, he is a qualified ski instructor)—without really knowing much about their motivations, goals, history, etc. But this actually seems to work in the book’s favor in two main ways. For one, these characters are teenagers and haven’t known each other for very long at all. It makes sense that they don’t actually know that much about each other, but rather, are aware of sort of broad qualities that the other person has. So this vagueness actually fits the age group rather well. Secondly, by leaving Katherine rather hazily drawn, the reader can more easily identify with one of them, putting herself in Katherine’s place and imagining how she might react herself.

4. One of the things that the book (through the voice of the adult characters) takes the most issue with is not the idea that Katherine is having sex, but rather that she has committed herself to one boyfriend. People talk of her being “tied down to one boy” and tell her that “forever’s one hell of a long time for a kid like you.” Katherine’s parents send her away to summer camp in part to separate her from Michael. I find this fascinating when you compare this stance with the one laid out in Twilight, for instance, which specifically creates an eternal love between the protagonist and her (eternal) boyfriend. I have not yet come to a conclusion about what this means about a change in adult/public attitudes towards teenage relationships and/or love, but again, it’s fascinating.

5. Minor irritant. The constant, perpetual ellipses. I know–these are even part of the book’s title (it’s actually Forever… but I’ve been to lazy to write it out). And I get that this both suggests a love without ending and also poses a question (Forever?). But seriously, these characters–of all ages, in all circumstances–cannot speak without trailing off at every given moment. The pages are literally peppered with ellipses and it’s visually annoying. If it were only during moments where characters feel awkward and confused, that would be one thing, but it’s seriously out of control. After awhile, I compulsively started reading them as “dot dot dot” in my head.

Anyway, I really got a kick out of this hippie, sexually responsible, doe-eyed romance that (gasp!) ends so soon after it begins, even though the characters have sworn up and down for many, many days, to love each other For-Ev-Er. I leave you with a quote:

“We kissed one more time and then he touched my face gently and said, ‘I love you, Katherine. I really mean it…I love you.’

I could have said it back to him right away. I was thinking it all along. I was thinking, I love you, Michael. But can you love someone you’ve seen just nineteen times in your life?”

Aw. I love you, Judy.