In my former life, I was responsible for selecting materials (books) that would be made available to classrooms, usually to supplement Reading or EnglIn my former life, I was responsible for selecting materials (books) that would be made available to classrooms, usually to supplement Reading or English instruction, or to school libraries. As part of that job I got to/had to read a lot of Juvie titles, some much better than others, as well as any number of adult titles that were taught in HS English classrooms—it was grand—but when confronted with “why are you sitting on a plane reading a Judy Blume title and laughing like an idiot?” or “how can you read another in Paulsen’s endless cycle of Brian stories (beginning with Hatchet)?”—I could always just look up, smile, and say: It’s my professional reading.
That’s the long way around to saying, some Juvie titles and some YA titles are just fun—they’re often strongly plot-driven, they’re frequently very funny or, as often, an emotional train wreck, they can speak to a young reader in ways that an adult just can’t (regardless of the author’s age), and some of them, too few it sometimes seems, are written by authors who really care about the young people they write for and it shows. More power to them.
Brian Sloan’s Tale of Two Summers is such a novel. Hokey in some ways (e.g. it’s an epistolary novel but told using 21st-century media—alternating blog posts replete with LOLs, and OMGs, and WTFs, and the undecoded WURHD [WTF is that?], an emotional roller-coaster bouncing between hilarious foibles and heart-wrenching moments of young love and loss, and through it all, two friends retain and own their friendship, encourage each other when no one else does, and prod each other toward being better people.
Best friends for 10 of their 16 years, Hal and Chuck face their first extended period apart. Chuck, a straight, budding thespian is off to a summer arts program at a local university, while Hal, his gay buddy, remains in their hometown with only the prospects of a summer driving course and getting his driver’s license to look forward to. Chuck sets up a blog for them to share their summer experiences, naming the cite “Tale of Two Summers.”
Each have their summer romances, each have their highs and lows, each recognizes and reacts to changes in each other. Plenty of surprises, plenty of risk, moments of embarrassment that they can and do share with each other—they’re best summer together spent apart. These are the kinds of friends you’d wish for every kid.
This is the sort of book some school librarians love and hate—love it because it’s a good book that can speak to young people without being overly preachy, hate it because it’s explicit and a book-challenger’s dream come true. You’ve got to hand it to school librarians; they don’t get enough credit for what they do or the crap they have to put up with. This one is def for the more mature readers. Like most gay fiction in schools, it will appeal to girls (No chicks were harmed in the making of this novel) and the handful of gay kids who find their ways to it.
AND: there’s even a bonus, a nice little retro finish to the whole thing.
After recommending Target to a group of which I’m a member, I decided I should reread the novel to make sure it was what I remembered and that it hasAfter recommending Target to a group of which I’m a member, I decided I should reread the novel to make sure it was what I remembered and that it has held up over the six years or so since I read it originally. Target has held up very well and is particularly relevant at a time when there’s so much concern over the issues of bullying (more on that to follow). In some other ways, it is not the novel I remembered—my memory had revised the text, giving more prominence to its aspects I’d found most moving. I don’t like spoiler reviews, so I’ll try to keep anything of that sort out of what follows.
One of the great things about YA lit is it’s seemingly more timely than adult fiction. Without relevance, the YA audience can be lost very quickly. In the case of Target, the issue of bullying is taken to its extreme. It seems clear to me that sexual abuse exists on a continuum—with the snide and snarky remarks at one end and actual physical abuse of the sort the protagonist suffers at the other. The reactions and comments of the responding police officer, the hospital staff, the newspaper report, and Grady’s (the 16-year-old protagonist and rape victim) classmates occupy varying places on that continuum. Even his well-intentioned parents are negligent to the degree they allowed him to suffer without assistance of friends or professionals.
Crucial to a consideration of this novel is the role of Grady’s friends. It’s one of the things I’d ‘misremembered’ (to use the word of some contemporary politicians). An exchange between one of his friends from Before with his father long after the attack was particularly poignant, and I wish it had been longer—as it is, the friend’s frustration and grief is powerful.
Something Johnson does very well in Target is slip in and out of the consciousness of Grady, moving from straight forward narration to Grady’s own thoughts. Following the boy’s rape:
That Monday, obviously in no shape to go back to school, he stayed home. His mother offered to stay with him, but he mumbled No, and she looked relieved. He wanted to forget about his parents, forget about himself, forget about what had happened. He wanted to not move.
As soon as they left, he went into the bathroom. Taking hold of his mother’s tiny manicure scissors, he carefully, bit by bit, hacked off his hair till he was almost bald.
Then he went back to bed to finish not moving.
. More subtly, using what James Wood (and others—thank you, Mr. Wood, for bringing the technique to my attention and providing the name for it) has written so well about, free-indirect style or free indirect discourse, Johnson’s narrator says:
He reached into his pocket, pulled out the pen and pencil stuck there, fingered them. Better. He ran his thumb over the smooth wood of the pencil. They shiny yellow paint that coated it felt thick and comforting. He remembered the fat pencils he’d learned to write with in grade school, their cheerful sturdiness.
An attentive reader might stumble over the word ‘cheerful’ wondering whose word it is—who it belongs to. Unless the reader thinks Johnson is a clumsy, inept author, the only person that word can belong to is Grady himself, his own word for a time prior to his attack. Like everything in his life, things are either of Before or of After. The word works; it does double-duty. More importantly, perhaps, I like it, it involves me, it engages. But, enough about that.
Johnson doesn’t provide readers with a tidy ending; indeed, the ending might seem rather abrupt. And that’s, probably, as it should be. Victim reaction to violence of the kind Grady suffers is too varied, too individual, to resolve with a ‘happy ending’ or the all-too-common gloomy ending found in much YA fiction. Instead, it ends on a note that everyone can share—a note of hope. It's a shame this title is Out of Print; even a casual reading of Target could go a long way toward informing some of the more inane comments made in the great bullying debate that we've seen too much of recently.