This book got one of my infrequent 5-star reviews. I am very stingy with my 5-star reviews. A book has to really be so well-written or so powerful thaThis book got one of my infrequent 5-star reviews. I am very stingy with my 5-star reviews. A book has to really be so well-written or so powerful that it deserves to be set apart from even other good books. I loved everything about this story. The Stewart that Nielsen created is possibly one of the most engaging, likable characters I have ever read. I wanted to hug him, high-five him, I wanted to put him in my pocket and take him home with me. He isn't perfect, which makes him all the more believable, but his sense of fairness, his loyalty, and his overall integrity made me wish he was a real person that we could clone and send out into the world to show the rest of us poor slobs how we should behave towards each other.
I did not love Ashley at first, but then, you're not supposed to. She makes the biggest changes in the book, and that's good, because the person she was at the beginning of the story was an entitled, mean-spirited brat. But as you read, you discover that much of her attitude is designed to cover-up her feelings of intellectual inadequacy, and her deep fear that if anyone at school knew her true self they would crucify her. She bought in 100% to the ridiculous notion that exists in teenage culture that popularity is everything, and that you need to achieve it at all costs. The consequences of that drive for the top started catching up with her, however, and she was forced to confront the fact that maybe there are more important things in life than being at the top of the social pecking order.
The story is told alternately from Stewart's and Ashley's perspectives, and while this has become a fairly standard practice in this case it really does add value to the story. Aside from the odd couple nature of the relationship between the two almost-step-siblings, the book deals with sexual assault (not graphic, and really and "almost" assault), teenage drinking, bullying, and coming out. It is a beautiful, emotionally impactful telling of two families becoming one.
Usually, I try not to use phrases like "full of heart" because they've become so cliche, but I have to for this book. It is full of heart, and if you can come away from reading it without feeling connected to these characters, and proud of the changes they make, then maybe you yourself have no heart!...more
I think I have a teacher crush on Kelly Gallagher (shhh...don't tell my wife!). Every time I read one of his books I want to simultaneously stand up aI think I have a teacher crush on Kelly Gallagher (shhh...don't tell my wife!). Every time I read one of his books I want to simultaneously stand up and cheer, get into a classroom and start doing everything he says, and hop on a plane to Anaheim to bask in his knowledge and pedagogical common sense.
As a long-time elementary teacher who is new to high school, I can say without reservation that I have witnessed every single one of the ineffective and damaging practices that he describes, and have committed more than a few of them myself. In my current role as the literacy coach at a mid-size suburban high school, I find myself in the position of trying to get teachers to move away from the very practices that have boosted their students' achievement on the ever-important ACT test. Because scores have gone up (slightly) since they implemented weekly practice passages and SUBEARCH PS and Cornell notes. And none of those things are bad in and of themselves, but ask any student how often they are engaged in choice reading, or higher-level, deeper thinking activities, or collaborative learning, and even our highest achieving students will say rarely. We are giving up the opportunity to foster creative, engaged, thoughtful readers and citizens in pursuit of the all-mighty test score. I just want to run into the teacher's lounge and scream, "We're doing it all wrong!", but recognize that would definitely be counter-productive. But maybe I know what book I am buying for all of my teachers for Christmas next year....more
Oh, Jodi Picoult! The author of "women's" fiction that some love to hate. Prolific, issues-driven, and earnest, every Picoult novel is a small exploraOh, Jodi Picoult! The author of "women's" fiction that some love to hate. Prolific, issues-driven, and earnest, every Picoult novel is a small exploration of some aspect of society, often with a ripped-from-the-headlines feel. Her emphasis on family, relationships, and feelings has been used by some supposedly "serious" authors to imply that what she writes is not "true literature". I think those literary snobs should take a long walk off a short pier, but it doesn't mean they don't have a point. Picoult makes sincere attempts to represent all sides of a topic, in ways that are thought-provoking and meant to encourage understanding and growth. Often those attempts work (My Sister's Keeper, Salem Falls, Plain Truth), and sometimes, well...
Small, Great Things is Picoult's BOOK ABOUT RACISM. Just like she has books about SEXUAL ASSAULT and RELIGION and MOTHERHOOD and SCHOOL SHOOTINGS. Small, Great Things is about a black OB nurse who is caring for the newborn of a white supremacist couple, who promptly insist that she not ever touch their son again. When the infant has a medical emergency while she is alone in the room with him, she hesitates to provide the life-saving care, and the boy dies. The white supremacists promptly demand her arrest, and legal mayhem ensues. The book is told from the alternating perspectives of the nurse, her white lawyer, and the white supremacist dad. I found all of them problematic as characters.
I'm going to just come clean now and say I did not finish the book. I got not quite half-way through and had to put it down. I also want to say up front that I appreciate what Picoult was trying to do by offering this story, and I was glad to see from the afterword that the book is well-researched, as are all of her books. But research is not a substitute for actual experiential knowledge and relationships, and it seems like Picoult could have benefitted from both before writing the novel. Her main character, Ruth, is a black woman who has done everything "right" to try to fit into "white" society. She doesn't see it that way, of course. She worked hard, got a good education, is always professional, and tries not to make waves in her predominately white workplace. Her sister, portrayed as the stereotypical "angry black woman", thinks she's a sell-out, and appears to be proven correct when Ruth's white employers and colleagues throw her under the bus once she is charged. But the way both she and her sister are portrayed leads me to believe that maybe Picoult doesn't actually know any black women, at least not well enough to realize how stereotypical her characters really are. Neither one of them felt authentic to me; they felt like shallow caricatures of real people. This is often a problem when an author tries to make one character represent an entire, diverse group of people. The truth is that issues of assimilation, respectability policing, classism, and interracial friendships are way more complex than they appear to be from this narrative.
The white lawyer was also problematic for me. She is clearly the character Picoult herself most identified with, and felt the most true-to-life. But by making the lawyer's transformation to "woke" status so central to the narrative, it felt like once again centering the experiences of white folks in regards to racism, rather than creating a more nuanced representation of the black experience.
What finally caused me to close the book for good, though, were the chapters written from the point of view of the white supremacist. As a white woman married to a black woman, I have a slough of black in-laws, nieces, and nephews. It was just too painful for me to read the chapters describing the man's experiences in the white nationalist movement, knowing that those people exist in the same world as my precious family. I know there is a benefit to us as a society by exploring white hate groups; you can't fight what you don't understand. But to be honest, I was not at all interested in reading the justifications for hatred and racial violence that made up the early chapters of this character's narrative. He seemed to be portrayed as some hapless dupe who fell into the movement due to a troubled past, and while that may be true of some who make up the white nationalist movement, the truth is that the leadership is invested in fomenting racial tension to manipulate their followers for their own enrichment and power. I could not find it in myself to see the man as a sympathetic character. Maybe that's my own character flaw, but there it is.
All of those criticisms aside, I know that Picoult was trying in her slightly inept way to bring light to important societal issues. I will probably read more of her books. I am a believer that a clumsy attempt at doing the right thing is better than no attempt at all. I just hope that Picoult continues to learn about the experiences of people of color in America, preferably by building relationships and listening to black voices, and comes to a more nuanced understanding than is evident here. ...more