Cassidy Fontana's Reviews > Keep Holding On

Keep Holding On by Susane Colasanti
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's review
Jun 11, 2012

it was amazing

Colasanti has published six books so far, and her latest feels as strong as her first books, When It Happens and Take Me There, possibly because bullying is such a personal topic for her, since she was bullied herself as a teenager. Keep Holding On is a bit of a departure from her previous novels because it focuses on Noelle's treatment at school and her damaging home life. While perhaps a third of the book revolves around Noelle's makeout partner Matt, who wants her to be his "secret girlfriend," as well as Noelle's crush on Julian, whom she feels is too good for her, romance does not drive the entire plotline.

Noelle settles for Matt's lack of respect because she genuinely doesn't think she can do any better, and feels lucky to have any kind of "boyfriend" at all. But deep down, she seems to realize he might be ashamed of her, due to her poor upbringing and the heavy bullying she endures from the other students at school. Colasanti captures high school bullying brilliantly, right down to teachers observing - and then ignoring - it, rather than helping the victims. Noelle is made fun of at lunch for eating lettuce sandwiches because her mother doesn't bring home many groceries once she uses up her allotted food stamps. A tough girl named Carly threatens Noelle - and her hair - in an intimidating scene with a paper cutter.

Some previous reviewers had difficulty getting on board with Noelle's entire situation, but in my opinion Colasanti does account for the questions raised. Noelle and her mother seem to have enough food when they receive new food stamps, but once they run out, her mother no longer seems to be able to supply many groceries. Noelle is not sheerly a victim, but feels so terrified of her bullies that she is not brave enough to help other kids that are also getting bullied. Her life has gotten to the point where she can't stomach any more, although she feels guilty about it. Likewise, she is AFRAID to take advantage of the school's free lunch option because it indicates her poverty level and she would have to walk all the way across the lunchroom, which would call attention to herself and escalate the students' harassment. Noelle thinks one of her teachers is unwise for wearing the same pair of pants in one week because she believes Mrs. Yuknis can afford to buy more, and she is concerned that the students laugh at the teacher behind her back. If Noelle had the money, she'd do whatever it took to make sure she didn't get bullied anymore, and I think that's what this passage expresses, more than her making fun of a teacher. Noelle is surprised it doesn't seem to *bother* Mrs. Yuknis, because it still bothers her.

One of the strongest parts of Keep Holding On is Noelle's relationship with mother, a typically proper noun that in this case is notably not capitalized. Noelle's mother can't let go of the "mistake" she made, getting pregnant and having a child before she was ready. Noelle's father abandoned the family, and mother tries to support them by working at Retail Rodeo, a dead-end discount store where she provides grumpy customer service. While I think mother's resentment at her situation is understandable, she doesn't seem to accept responsibility for it, and worse, she blames her daughter. There is no longer a positive side to their relationship at all, and mother fails to provide Noelle with basic necessities, which leads to embarrassing hygiene-related episodes at school, amping up the bullying to new heights. Their house is filled with anger and hostile negativity. One of the most powerful early scenes is when Noelle discovers that mother stole from her - in what capacity, I'll leave it up to the reader to find out.

Although she can't control everything around her, Noelle learns to make changes within her control. She decorates her sad little room through creative means, draping pieces of turquoise silk over her milk crate to make it look like a proper end table. She joins lit mag and becomes confident as a writer and editor. She begins to make real friends through a variety of avenues. She takes steps that help her get closer to the life she wants.

Colasanti challenges assumptions because Noelle doesn't "forgive" her mother for what she did, necessarily. She doesn't stop hating her, but begins to understand where mother got her perspective on life. One gets the impression that Noelle is going to move on, rather than reconcile with her mom, and that it's actually going to be a healthy choice for her.

While some readers may become frustrated with how helpless Noelle appears in the beginning of the novel, she does undergo a transformation, and more importantly, it's easy to criticize a character when you don't actually have to live through daily bullying and bad parenting. Although some are confident enough to rise above it from the start (as demonstrated by the Simon character), many kids only get to that point after years of torment. This is a quick read that even younger teens will enjoy, and the issues it deals with have been getting a lot of media attention recently, which makes the novel a nice tie-in for people who have connected with the bullying/outcast aspects of TV shows like Glee.

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