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Book Review: The Rules for Disappearing by Ashley Elston

Meg is not her real name.  In fact, Meg is the 6th name and identity she has had in the past year.  Her family can’t take it anymore.  She wants to find a way to stay, to make this identity her last.  In order to do that, she’ll have to figure out what they are running from.

When Meg shows up in Louisiana, unsure of what they are running from, her family is falling apart.  Her mother has become an alcoholic, barely able to get out of bed each day.  Her sister, Mary this time, has become sullen and withdrawn.  And this time, they have made Meg cut and dye her hair and put in colored contact lenses.  Something seems to keep gong wrong with their placement in the Witness Protection Program and Meg believes that finding out what they are running from may be the only way to help her family.

First though, she has to make it through yet another new school.  Following the rules that she has made for herself, she tries to keep herself on the fringe but not so much on the fringe that she becomes interesting.  Unfortunately for her, she has made an enemy: Emma.

Meg also has attracted the attention of a hottie named Ethan, who just won’t seem to leave her alone.  In his pursuit of her, he finds clues that she is someone different than what she says she is.  Although one of her biggest rules for disappearing is not to get attached, the suits could show up at any time and yank them out of there again, Meg is having a hard time deflecting Ethan’s questions, and his charms.

“He hugs me tight while I look behind him, scanning faces like I did a few seconds ago. And like I will do for the rest of my life.”  – The Rules for Disappearing

The Rules for Disappearing is a compulsively readable mystery/thriller about one girl’s search for the answers no matter what the cost.  There are high stakes in it for Meg and readers will be interested in finding out the answers.  It is also an interesting look at what life in the Witness Protection Plan would be like.

I have already written about one of the major parts of the story that concerned me, but I really didn’t like the way that Ethan kept pushing Meg to reveal her secrets, to trust him, to just give him a chance.  There is also a prolonged hog hunting scene that I personally could have done without, but two important pieces of the story come out of it so it is necessary.  The Rules for Disappearing is set in the South and captures some of those Southern charms while also placing our main character into a high stakes race for first truth and then the information she will need to set her family free from the looming threat that haunts them.  It is very interesting to see the difference between who Meg is today and who she once was.  There is also a nice cliffhanger twist at the end that will entice readers to come back for the next installment.  Mystery/thriller fans will like it.  4 out of 5 stars.

If I was going to join the Witness Protection Program and got to pick my name, it would totally be Marissa. What name would you pick? Tweet us at #WPname. 

Who Will Save You? Boundaries, Rescue and the Role of Adults in the Lives of Teens in YA Lit

Danger, Will Robinson, Danger! Eventually I will tell you what titles I am talking about and why and you will be minorly spoiled.  Not details of individual plots, but a general sense of what happens.  Read on after the jump understanding that. Consider that your spoiler alert.

The Set Up

The last three books I have read had an interesting underlying rhythm to them.  It goes something like this: A girl is in some type of a dangerous situation (abuse at home, in the witness protection plan) when a boy falls for them and tries to pursue them.  Even though the girl says no, saying it puts her (or the boy) in danger, the boy continues to pressure the girl (not for sex, just for a relationship).  She gives in but tries to hide it.  The situation escalates. Then, the boy saves her.   I want to talk about this for a moment. There are two issues that I think are worth discussion in these titles.

First, the disclaimers

Each of the books I am talking about are, in their own right, actually very well written and good reads.  I enjoyed them all and was very satisfied.  I recommend them. Highly actually.  In fact I would, or have, given each title 4 out of 5 stars or higher.

The books in question?

Flawed by Kate Avelynn (Entangled Teen 2012)
Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell (St. Martin’s Press 2013)
The Rules of Disappearing by Ashley Elston (Hyperion 2013)

A Brief Synopsis of Each Title

Note! Danger, Will Robinson, Danger! I will try to have this conversation at spoiler free as possible.  But honestly, don’t read on if you haven’t read the books.

Flawed is about a girl who has a very abusive home life.  She begins a relationship with her brother’s best friend that puts her in incredible danger.  He tries to save her.

Eleanor and Park is a beautiful love story.  Eleanor also has a very abusive home life.  Her relationship with Park puts her in increased incredible danger.  He tries to save her.

The Rules for Disappearing is about Meg, who is not really Meg.  She is in the witness protection program.  Ethan wants to be in a relationship with her but she keeps pushing him away, in part to save herself but also to protect him.  He tries to save her.

Issue 1: The But I Really, Really Want to Be With You Argument and I Promise It Will Be Okay

In each of these book, the girl in question clearly says to the boy in question at some point that she DOES NOT want to be in a relationship with them.  They clearly state, in most cases, that they CAN NOT be in a relationship with the boy because there is danger to them.  Instead of respecting those wishes, the boy persists, he pursues, he pressures her, he assures her that no really, it will be okay.  Even though they have no real understanding of what the problem is, they disregard the girls fear and feelings and words.

It’s important to note here that in each instance, the boy in question does seem to genuinely like the girl and they basically develop meaningful, substantive relationships, although those relationships come with a lot of secrets and angst and push and pull because of the outside circumstances.  So I’m not saying that the boys in question are in any way abusive.  I’m just not sure that it is okay to continue to pressure a girl into a relationship when she has not only said no, please leave me alone, but when she has said that she can’t because IT WOULD PUT HER IN DANGER.  Now obviously, it shouldn’t put her in danger, and that is definitely part of the issue.  But shouldn’t these boys be respecting the things that these girls are saying, and the boundaries that they are trying to establish?  If no means no, then it should mean no here too, right? Not just in sex, but in respecting all of another person’s boundaries.  Isn’t consent about more than just sexual boundaries, but about respecting people’s wishes?  And if we are teaching and talking about consent in any meaningful way, shouldn’t this be part of the discussion?

Finding Joy in the Midst of Chaos

And yet, in each instance, in truth the girl really does want to pursue a relationship with these boys – it just really is a serious threat to their situation.  The relationships are satisfying to their souls and emotional well being.  The relationships (and the boys) help them find a sense of self and peace.  But they don’t make them safe, at all. The thing is, when we are in true relationships, they can help us find that sense of center.  Does a girl need a man to feel whole, happy? No.  But can we find bliss and happiness in romantic relationships? Clearly, yes.

The romance in Eleanor and Park is one of the most organic, beautiful relationships I have ever read on the page.  It builds slowly, authentically.  It moves you.  Park accepts this truly difficult girl for who she is- wild carrot top hair, emotional swings, and all.  In many ways, he, out of all 3 characters, is in fact the one who most clearly understands the situation she is in and respects those boundaries (somewhat) by not coming to her home.  Eleanor and Park truly captures that desperation of teenage love, the ache to simply be near a person, the longing to spend all night on the phone so you can just hear their voice, the way the rest of the world can disappear when you make eye contact, those secret, knowing looks across the classroom.  I was not prepared for how beautiful this book was, or how heartbreaking Eleanor’s home life would be.

I liked Ethan, the young man in The Rules for Disappearing.  I liked Sam, the young man in Flawed.  I just felt really conflicted when each of them continued to press, to push, to insist when our heroine asked them not to.  I wanted them to respect that, to respect her wishes, and to let her come to them if, or when, she was ready.

Issue 2: Who Will Save My Soul?
In each of our titles, the boy ends up running in – often literally – to save the girl. To give credit where credit is due, in 2 out of the 3 cases the girl actually does initially attempt to save themselves with a half-cocked plan (born out of desperation).  But it is the boy who jumps in and saves the day.  In one of the titles there is an actual sense that the boy is saying, “really, that was your plan?”

While this is not intrinsically bad, girls in these types of situations often do need some type of outside help and intervention.  I simply just wish that sometimes the girl could save herself, and possibly with the help of a positive adult role model.  And truthfully, in the end, there are some positive adults in each of these titles.  But I wish sometimes that protoganists would go to a school counselor, teacher or trusted adult and that they would get help that way to let teens in crisis know that they can, in fact, get real help and save themselves.  And overall, I think we need more positive representations of good adults and positive adult/teen interactions in teen novels.

Ironically, in two recent titles (Period 8 by Chris Crutcher and Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick), the main protagonists (both male) do seek the help of a trusted teacher and I felt that in both cases, the teacher overstepped their legal bounds and put themselves at risk.  And in the case of Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, it ends up being in many ways truly ineffective and meaningless.  Although it is interesting that in the case of a male main character they ask for help but in the case of a female main character they are, in the end, “saved” by the romantic male lead.  Interpret that how you will.

But in the interest of full and complete analysis, I am reminded of Rotters by Daniel Kraus.  In this book, a troubled teen boy does not turn to any adults for help and does in fact try to take care of his own problems, though in very unconventional ways.  Every single adult, from CPS to teachers, basically fails this young man.

As an adult who works with teens, I read a book on two levels.  On the first level, I read for the pure enjoyment of it.  On the second level, I read and analyze what messages are repeatedly being sent to teen readers.  With each individual title it is not really an issue, but when you look at them collectively we seem to be repeatedly saying to teen readers: boys keep pursuing, girls you need rescuing. 

I think we are also reinforcing the notion that adults are the bad guys, that you can’t reach out to them in a crisis, that they won’t come through for you in meaningful ways.  And while this is sometimes true, I would like to see the message better balanced with some more caring adults who help teens, especially teen girls, save themselves in ya lit.

So now it is your turn, can you give me examples where the girl really and truly saves herself?  And how do we talk to teens about respecting other people’s wishes and personal boundaries? Also, it would be really nice if you didn’t flame me. Thanks.

Edited 5/17/2013 to include Tweet from Pauline Holdworth