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Sunday Reflections: That time I had to explain to The Tween why a kid at her school was beaten to death by a parent, reflections on violence

The Tween was in the second grade when she came home and told me about a Kindergartner at her school that had died. His father, she said, beat him to death. She said she heard the older kids talking about it at school so I searched online to find out if it was true. Sadly, it was. As she asked me about this, asked how it could happen, I didn’t have a lot of good answers. It was one of the hardest conversations I had to have with my daughter.

Three lives, all touched by abuse

When The Mr. and I first got married, like most young marrieds, we lived in an apartment. Sometimes at night I could hear what sounded like violence through the walls in the apartment next door. There was a young couple that lived there with two small children. After this happened a few times, one night, it was late and the sounds were scary, I called the police. I fretted over whether or not it was the right thing to do, I didn’t want to make things worse for this woman that I did not know, and I wasn’t 100% sure of what was going on, but I was young and scared for her and I couldn’t in good conscience just ignore what I feared may be happening. Months later that family moved away and the apartment complex manager told me what that newly empty apartment looked like inside with holes in walls and doors ripped off hinges.

I have a friend who has adopted four children from foster care. At 18 months old one of the children had 22 broken bones. Another had 24.

Tish reveals secrets in a school journal

Violence has been in the news a lot this week. Violence against a partner. Violence against children.

So much violence.

Years ago, NPR ran a piece about how Americans are so squeamish about sex but so accepting of violence. Sex will get you an R rating, but movies with incredibly high body counts are often only PG-13.

We want to protect our children from sex, so much so that we often don’t even give them the information they need to make healthy sexual decisions and to keep themselves safe.

But we start exposing them to violence at such a young age and with so little second thoughts, often pulling up chairs and handing out big bowls of popcorn with supersized sodas. Violence can flood our daily dose of family entertainment.

This phenomenon, however, is not new. Last night as I watched the movie Pompeii I was reminded of how ancient it all is, this idea of watching people kill each other for sport and entertainment. I was also reminded as I watched the Romans call the gladiators “savages” how much considering others as less than you is a part of the formula. It’s so much easier to abuse those that you consider somehow unworthy or less than you.

Caitlin dates a boy who turns out to be dangerous

We used to have a saying, “children should be seen and not heard.” It’s this idea that children are somehow less than adults, a nuisance. When people talk about taking care of children they talk about doing so because “one day they will be adults”, with the implication being that one day they will be adults and thus they will matter. And as the parent of a strong willed child, some of the parenting books talk about needing to “break the will” or “break the spirit” of these type of children. I don’t want to break my child, I want her to learn to respect and value who she is; to nurture all that makes her uniquely her, while also teaching her how to function in a society made of millions of people. We must learn to honor ourselves while honoring each other, that’s what living in society in all about.

It’s a journey we’re all on, learning to honor ourselves while honoring each other. Sometimes we all mess it up, and that’s okay. None of us are perfect. But most of us manage to mess it up without physically hurting another. It’s true, words can cause tremendous pain. Words can cut in ways that leave gaping, festering wounds. But living in constant fear of a flying fist if you say the wrong thing . . .

Matt & his sisters live w/an abusive mother

In the aftermath of the Ray Rice news, people asked over and over again why his wife would stay. The emotional and psychological dynamics of abuse are complex. And it’s important that we remember that one of the highest unemployed and underpaid groups are single mothers. The quickest path into poverty, and into social derision, is to be a single mom, which is one of the reasons why a lot of women choose to stay in abusive relationships. And as we become a world where more and more we pull the away social safety nets, it becomes harder and harder for those in dangerous situations to find shelter from the storm.

There is violence all around us behind closed doors that we never even know about. 1 in every 4 women will experience some kind of domestic violence in their lifetime. Men also are the victims of domestic violence. The United States has one of the worst rates of childhood abuse, with over 3 million reports involving over 6 million children filed year.

Later that year The Tween’s elementary school had a memorial service for that little 5-year-old who was beat to death by his dad. They planted a tree in his honor. They sang songs. They hugged and they cried. And every kid in that school was changed that year, because they learned that violence isn’t a cartoon cat hitting a cartoon mouse over the head with a sledgehammer only to keep playing their game of chase. No, they learned that violence is real, that children can die at the hands of the parents who are supposed to care for them, and that many of their friends went home to houses ruled by fear and anger.

I have been upset by some of the ways people have talked this week about domestic violence and childhood abuse in the same way it can be upsetting to talk about the victims of sexual violence. We still want to blame the victim, we still want to minimize the guilt of the person who loses control, we still want to find a way to make it easier for ourselves to live with the stark realities of this world. But there is nothing easy about violence and we are a nation that seems to be in mourning every day it seems for the violence of our lives. Maybe we should start talking honestly about that, maybe if we did we could change it. I think we could all agree that a less violence in our world is a good goal.

Take 5: I’m in a Bad Romance, books about abusive relationships

February is not just about romance, it is also a month dedicated to raising awareness about teen dating violence.  One study indicated that 25% of 8th and 9th graders reported that they had been victims of dating violence.  Here are some YA lit titles on the topic to help raise awareness and start discussions.

Bitter End by Jennifer Brown

Publisher’s Annotation: When Alex falls for the charming new boy at school, Cole — a handsome, funny, sports star who adores her — she can’t believe she’s finally found her soul mate . . . someone who truly loves and understands her.

At first, Alex is blissfully happy. Sure, Cole seems a little jealous of her relationship with her close friend Zack, but what guy would want his girlfriend spending all her time with another boy? As the months pass, though, Alex can no longer ignore Cole’s small put-downs, pinches, or increasingly violent threats.

As Alex struggles to come to terms with the sweet boyfriend she fell in love with and the boyfriend whose “love” she no longer recognizes, she is forced to choose — between her “true love” and herself.

Karen’s note: I don’t think you can ever go wrong with Jennifer Brown when it comes to thoughtful contemporary fiction that makes you think about current issues, and this is no exception. 

Dreamland by Sarah Dessen

Publisher’s Annotation: Wake up, Caitlin

Ever since she started going out with Rogerson Biscoe, Caitlin seems to have fallen into a semiconscious dreamland where nothing is quite real. Rogerson is different from anyone Caitlin has ever known. He’s magnetic. He’s compelling. He’s dangerous. Being with him makes Caitlin forget about everything else–her missing sister, her withdrawn mother, her lackluster life. But what happens when being with Rogerson becomes a larger problem than being without him?

Karen’s Thoughts: I am a huge fan of Sarah Dessen and this was the first book by her I read.  It is so well done.  I recently heard Dessen speak and she said that she has received mail from teen readers saying that they wished that she had kept Rogerson and Caitlin together, which is of course disturbing. 

Breathing Underwater by Alex Flinn

Publisher’s Annotation: Like father, like son.

Intelligent, popular, handsome, and wealthy, sixteen-year-old Nick Andreas is pretty much perfect — on the outside, at least. What no one knows — not even his best friend — is the terror that Nick faces every time he is alone with his father. Then he and Caitlin fall in love, and Nick thinks his problems are over. Caitlin is the one person who he can confide in. But when things start to spiral out of control, Nick must face the fact that he’s gotten more from his father than green eyes and money.

Karen’s note: This book is not an easy read, but it is an important one.  It really captures the emotions involved in the issues.

Rage: A Love Story by Julie Ann Peters

Publisher’s Annotation: Johanna is steadfast, patient, reliable; the go-to girl, the one everyone can count on. But always being there for others can’t give Johanna everything she needs—it can’t give her Reeve Hartt.

Reeve is fierce, beautiful, wounded, elusive; a flame that draws Johanna’s fluttering moth. Johanna is determined to get her, against all advice, and to help her, against all reason. But love isn’t always reasonable, right?

In the precarious place where attraction and need collide, a teenager experiences the dark side of a first love, and struggles to find her way into a new light 

Karen’s notes: Unfortunately, this is not a title I have read yet, but it appeared on a lot of recommended lists so I am including it.

Falling for You by Lisa Schroeder

Publisher’s Annotation: Rae’s always dreamed of dating a guy like Nathan. He’s nothing like her abusive stepfather—in other words, he’s sweet. But the closer they get, the more Nathan wants of her time, of her love, of her…and the less she wants to give.

As Rae’s affection for Nathan turns to fear, she leans on her friend Leo for support. With Leo, she feels lighter, happier. And possessive Nathan becomes jealous.

Then a tragedy lands Rae in the ICU. Now, hovering between life and death, Rae must find the light amid the darkness…and the strength to fight for life and the love she deserves.

Karen’s notes: You can read my review here

Have more titles to add to our list?  Please leave a comment.  We love book recommendations!

Girl Meets Boy, Boy Stalks Girl (Book Review: Falling for You by Lisa Schroeder)

This will not be your ordinary book review, because I need to talk to you about not only my thoughts as a librarian, but as a reader.  Read the whole review, because this was quite the reading journey and my initial reaction changed drastically as I read on.

If you follow me on Twitter (@tlt16), you know that I initially wanted to throw this book across the room and walk away.  You see, Falling for You is the story of Rae.  Rae comes from an extremely dysfunctional home but is presented as a strong, though guarded, young woman.  Then she meets Nathan, the new boy in school.  Nathan is intense, alarming. From day 1, Nathan sends alarm signals to those in the know; getting into a relationship with Nathan is a really bad idea – and Rae seems too smart for that (edited to add: please see the great discussion in the comments where I clarify this statement).  This was my initial Tweet:

The very next day, Nathan and Rae are eating pizza.  “A supreme?”, he asks.  But no, Rae doesn’t like onions.  “You can just pick them off,” Nathan replies.  He dominates the conversation.  He kisses. A lot.  He suggests she deletes all the other guys out of her cell phone.  He pressures her, often, to have sex in ways that are emotionally manipulative and sometimes terrifying.  I hated Nathan, but then you’re supposed to.  But more importantly, it didn’t seem like Rae was the type of girl to fall into this trap.  It seemed like really inconsistent character writing.

So, I was torn.  But then Heather, who is reviewing this title for Booklist so look for her review, told me to keep reading it.  I respect Heather, her opinion, so read on I did. And I AM SO GLAD THAT I LISTENED TO HER. Why?

See, Rae tells her friends that she is worried by Nathan’s behavior.  And, as it devolves into scary stalker soon to be abusive territory, her friends see it too and back her up.  For once, we have a strong though flawed teenage girl noticing the signs of an abusive relationship and trying to get herself out of the situation.  What a powerful message to girls, you can get out.  We know that statistically most girls will leave something like 7 times before they leave for the last time, Rae does slip at one point.  We also know that leaving an abusive relationship is one of the most dangerous times for women because these types of men don’t like losing control.  But that particular fact isn’t really shown in Rae’s relationship with Nathan, but in her mom’s relationship with her stepfather Dean.  An entirely different plot point, an equally heartbreaking.  Rae’s mom makes a revealation that very realistically depicts domestic violence.

A Rae of Sunshine

Although the cover sells it that way, Falling for You is not really simply a book about obsessive love.  Falling for You is really the story of Rae, a young girl trying to find herself and find happiness in a world that has definitely dealt her a crappy hand.  Rae is a realistic teenage girl; she is me, she is the girl you pass in the hallways at school. Even while her mother ignores her and her stepfather spirals out of control, there are people in her life that genuinely love and support her.  In fact, one of the closing themes of Falling for You is the idea of family: 

As I took it all in, three pairs of eyes reached out to me. And what I saw in my friends’ faces surprised me. . . And in that moment, I realized family isn’t necessarily who you live with. (page 339)

A Kindness Revolution with a Dab of Poetry

I won’t get into the details, but another significant part of the story are some random acts of kindness that an anonymous person sends Rae on through her job at a florist.  While making deliveries, Rae meets various strangers who touch her life in a variety of ways.  At the same time, Rae begins sharing her poetry in the school newspaper.  Although she does so at first anonymously, she eventually chooses to put her name on her poems and encourages her fellow students to be open about who they really are.  There is some great discussion here about how the social expectation has come to be that we must always be “on”, and in those moments of dishonesty, we rob ourselves of the chance to truly connect with one another.  The message is sometimes preachy, but it is spot on and important.

In the End, I Shed Tears

Falling for You turned out to be such an uplifting story, inspiring.  What at first seemed like inconsistent character issues turned out to be a compelling arc of a young woman coming into her own.  And I was thankful for those moments of insight that Rae shared, those moments where she recognized her neediness and questioned what she was doing.  Rae was strong but flawed, a very realistic depiction.  Rae is relateable.  Rae is real.

The Storytelling

I want to take a moment to share one other element that I think made this a strong story; because, although at the times the story gets preachy, it has a strong storytelling style that keeps you invested.  We begin with a very vague scene in the hospital, where you realize that something has happened to someone, something horrible and tragic.  Then the book itself is divided into sections: 5 months before, 4 months before, 3 months before, 1 month before, the day before.  In between each section is another ominous hospital scene.  You know something bad has happened, but you have no idea what.  At the same time, you see the elements of both Rae’s relationship with Nathan and her stepfather spiraling out of control.  Either one of them is a candidate for having done something to Rae, and you want to know what happened and who did it.  It is a very taut stortytelling mechanism, it keeps readers turning the page.

And Then There Was Leo

There are several rays of light in Rae’s life, but one of my favorites is her friend Leo.  Leo is, simply stated, a good guy.  He’s the type of guy you want your teens to date (if they must date – can’t they wait until they’re 30 LOL).  He isn’t shiny and dazzling and perfect.  He is real. A lot of times the boys in teen fiction are “hot” and “swoony”, setting some unrealistic expectations in readers and setting up guy readers to make unrealistic self comparisons.  I wonder often how these depictions of guys must make readers feel about themselves just like I wonder how some of the covers make girls feel about themselves.  And then there was Leo, the perfect guy not because he is in fact perfect, but because he is perfectly real and perfectly nice.

This was my final Tweet:

There are a lot of elements to this book, and in the end they come together to inspire.  I am pretty sure at the end my heart grew 3 sizes, Grinchlike.  And on a personal note, I loved Rae’s obsession with the Foo Fighters (who rock!), her love of poetry (there are poems scattered throughout), and the fact that books and libraries are mentioned in positive ways.  Falling for You is not perfect, but in the end it is perfectly heartwarming.  In the midst of the pages there is also a simply wonderful love story, it’s just a bumpy road for Rae to get there.  People online seem to be having very mixed and strong reactions, as I definitely did in the beginning, but your teens will LOVE this book.  I think this is a really important, inspiring books that we need in our collections.  And the cover rocks, teens will check it out. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Falling for You by Lisa Schroeder. Published in January 2013 by Simon Pulse. ISBN: 978-1-4424-6121-5.