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Sunday Reflections: Shelter from the Storm, a reflection on Torn Away by Jennifer Brown

Last night it stormed.

The real thunder and lightning kind of storm you don’t often get here in Texas. I knew it was coming because all of the sudden my dog had to come and sleep right on top of my head. That apparently is his safe place during a storm.

I forget what those storms can be like after just a couple of years here in Texas, but we had them all the time of course in Ohio. And since the flood of 2011, they still freak me out.

Even here in Texas. I keep waiting for the floods to come again, even though this dry, cracked land thirsts for the water something fierce.

In Ohio, after the flood, we all suffered a kind of post traumatic stress. Every storm that came we would brace ourselves: Will we flood again? I see it all the time on my Facebook feed when it starts to really rain in Ohio, my friends who remain start to post those worrying posts. My feed starts to fill up with reports of rain, the agitation begins as they wait to see if once again the rains will fill the streets and they’ll have to find a way to save themselves from those freezing, rushing waters. The memories haunt us.

In Torn Away by Jennifer Brown (which I recommend), a young girl – Jersey – loses her mother and sister in a tornado. She loses her home. She loses everything. And she is forced to go live with people she doesn’t know while she struggles to grieve losses that most of us as adults can’t even comprehend.

There are two compelling scenes where we realize just how traumatized Jersey has been by this storm. In one, she is shut in a dark basement by a couple of spoiled, bratty sisters and Jersey freaks out. The basement is where she hid when the sirens went off and she lost everything. It is not a safe space for her, it is a reminder. It is where she was when everything in her life changed.

Later in the story, a storm approaches again. The sirens go off. And Jersey is almost crippled by her fear. Long after the sirens go off she is still crouching in a sort of fetal position with her ears covered, screaming at the top of her lungs.

I understood all too well the fear that can grip you as you remember what has happened. I understood Jersey, and because I understood I can’t think of a book that has made me madder than this one in a long time. The way the adults acted in this book made me want to hurl the book across the room. I wanted them to give her the space and time to heal, to acknowledge her loss, to acknowledge her fear. I wanted them to be her shelter from the storm, but they didn’t always understand how to do that for her. And some of them were suffering their own very real losses. Finding emotional shelter can be just as harrowing a journey as Jersey’s attempt to find physical shelter after her town was demolished.

When the rains come, I can still feel that fear gripping me as I wonder how I’m going to get my kids out of a flooding house only to open my front door and see the waters raging by my front porch. They were 8 and 2. It was February 28th. The water was freezing. It was fast. It was a force of nature. And a good storm can put me right back into that moment. My girls, they mean everything to me and that moment when I did not know how I was going to get them to safety was the single most terrifying moment of my life. It haunts me. It will probably always haunt me.

No one died that day the flood came. But in our story, Jersey lost the only mother she’ll ever get. She lost a sister that loved the East Coast swing. And she lost that sense of safety that many kids get to keep for just a little bit longer, well the lucky ones do. Some of our teens are born into this life, into circumstances, that never let them develop that sense of safety and well being to lose. Some of them will spend their whole lives trying to find a shelter from the storm because of the situations they are born into.

In the years following the flooding of my town, there have been a lot of other storms. There was Superstorm Sandy. Far too many tornadoes. And just the other month there was flooding in Detroit. In the afterward author Jennifer Brown mentions that it was the tornadoes in Joplin that inspired Torn Away. I can’t help thinking, sometimes, that is seems like there are so many more severe, life taking storms lately. Or maybe I’m just more aware of them now because I look for them. Or maybe it’s both. But in that moment, I learned just how unsafe this world can be. Again. But as the community came together to clean up, I also learned that sometimes the darkest of moments can bring out the very best in us.

That night as I closed my front door and told my girls to get dressed a knock came. And there stood two men, asking if I needed help. Those men, a true miracle to me, carried my daughters through the cold, rushing waters to the top of a hill where we found safety. A friend from another town came and picked us up. Another friend let us stay with them for a week while our house was repaired. Other friends took up a donation to replace the food in our refrigerator. Small acts of kindness became our shelter from the storm.

The truth is, there are a lot of Jersey’s around us – haunted by a storm, a moment that changed everything. A moment that reminded us that mother nature is a force to be reckoned with and that you can lose everything in a moment. A moment that turns on our fear switch that we can never really ever find a way to turn back off so that with every drop of rain, we look in true awe inspiring fear wondering what the storm will take from us this time. Teens learn that the world is not a safe place in many ways and in their own time, but we also have to make sure that we are teaching them that there can be shelter from the storm in the people you love and the power of community. Because that’s what we all need, a little shelter from the storm and a little hope for the future.

Book Review: Thousdand Words by Jennifer Brown (and a look at Sexting)

The summer before Ashleigh’s boyfriend leaves for college, she fears she is going to lose him.  One night at a party, she sends him a picture.  Drunk and spurred on my a couple of friends at the party, she can’t believe she is doing this – but it is one of THOSE pictures, a nude selfie.  It was supposed to be for his eyes only, but when Kaleb an Ashleigh have a bad breakup, he gets revenge by forwarding the picture on, which is why he is facing jail time and Ashleigh finds herself doing community service.

Jennifer Brown is well known for her spot on realistic fiction that touches on current issues.  With The Hate List, she presented a richly emotionally tale of school shootings.  In Perfect Escape she shared the complex life of a young girl’s life who had been deeply touched by the struggles of a brother with OCD.  And in Thousand Words she is looking at the phenomenon of sexting, a very timely issue.

“Among 14- to 24-year-olds who admit to sexting, 29 percent send these messages to people they have never met, but know from the Internet.” – Do Something

According to the Do Something campaign, sexting is defined as “an act of sending sexually explicit materials through mobile phones.”  In an effort to send strong messages to teens regarding this topic, teenage girls who send pictures of themselves to boyfriends, like Ashleigh, are often charged with Child Pornography.  Because Kaleb, Ashleigh’s ex, is over the age of 18 when he forwards the picture, the chargest against him are more severe and it is possible that he will have to register for the rest of his life as a sex offender.  Thousand Words makes it very clear that there are serious consequences involved.

So let’s talk about Kaleb for a moment.  Although Kaleb is being charged and treated as an adult, it is very clear that he is just barely an adult.  He may have turned 18, but he is a college Freshman who gets caught up in a very emotional moment.  THINGS have happened to anger and embarrass him; these do not justify his actions, but they definitely give it context.  Throughout Thousand Words it is very clear that many of the teens involved view the event much differently than the adults, highlighting the very muddy waters that actual court cases are currently taking.  Lawmakers and courts are trying to figure out how to deal with this phenom and the opinions range from charging everyone involved to punishing it as a crime less than child pornography.  Thousand Words presents an interesting look at the various emotional and legal reactions, including the child pornography aspect.

“Nearly 40 percent of all teenagers have posted or sent sexually suggestive messages, but this practice is more common among boys than girls.” – Do Something

Soon the texts and emails start.  The whispers in the hallway; “slut” uttered under the breath, the lewd offers from boys she has never seen, the stares.  It is in the consequences – emotional and raw – that Brown excels in telling this story.  With a single click, Ashleigh’s world is forever changed.  And it’s not just Ashleigh, but the effects on her family are shown as well.  More than just shame and concern, Ashleigh’s parents face serious professional consequences as their community reacts to the picture being shared from teen to teen. 

Thousand Words is told by alternating the past and the present.  As we begin, Ashleigh shows up to community service where she is to put together an informational brochure and educational materials on the topic of sexting. We flash back and forth between the present and the past as we learn about the lead up to the picture, the day it was taken, and the days after the picture is shared.  It is an effective way to tell this particular story and keep the readers engaged.

“In the U.S., 8 states have enacted bills to protect minors from sexting, and an additional 14 states have proposed bills to legislation”. – Do Something

In community service, Ashleigh meets a wide variety of teens dealing with several issues: teen pregnancy, petty crimes, fighting.  Here she also meets Mack, who turns out to be the real shining star of this book.  He is supportive and encouraging to Ashleigh, never really responds or talks about the picture, and helps her finally to take back the power over her life. Forgiveness, empowerment, respect for self and others – these are just a few of the very discussable themes found within Thousand Words.

Overall, I felt that Brown wrote an interesting story about a timely issue without delving into after school special territory.  The issue became the thing rather than the characters, so the characters are less fully formed and compelling at times, though the consequences of the sexting are spot on and emotionally taut.  Thousand Words is timely and effectively deals with both the legal and emotional ramifications of sexting with some discussion of forgiveness, both forgiving self and others (or not as the case may be).  Pair this with Going Underground by Susan Vaught and Canary by Rachele Alpine for a more in depth look at sexting.  3 out of 5 stars. May 2013 from Little, Brown.  ISBN: 9780316209724.

Book Review: Perfect Escape by Jennifer Brown

I am a reader and a librarian, but I am also an aunt.  My sister-in-law has 4 boys, 3 of whom are autistic.  I remember once taking the “typical” sibling to a pizza place for dinner and he looked around in awe and wonder; it was almost like he had just entered Disneyland for the first time.  It was then that I realized that even though he was now in the 3rd grade, this was in fact the first time he had been to a pizza place because when you have 3 autistic siblings – your life is different.  I think often what it must be like to grow up in a home with a sibling (or siblings) that has any type of issues (in part because one of my children has some chronic digestive issues and food allergies).  And earlier this year, TLT teen reviewer Cuyler Creech wrote about his experience being the older sibling to a brother with Down’s Sydrome and Autism.  And this question, this idea of what it is like growing up in a home – under the shadow often – of a sibling with issues is the core of what Perfect Escape by Jennifer Brown is about, and she captures it perfectly.

We all knew what Grayson’s “Difficulties” were.
Grayson’s difficulties dominated his life.
and Mom’s and Dad’s. And mine.
Sometimes it felt like especially mine.
(Back jacket copy of Perfect Escape)

Kendra is in the middle of her junior year when her life begins to unravel in new and gloriously complicated ways.  It’s not like her life as ever been easy; how can it be when your older brother has OCD and a variety of anxiety disorders?  But the things that are happening to her now – well, they are entirely her fault.  She has always been the perfect child, trying to overcompensate for all of Grayson’s imperfections.  But what will happen when everyone finds out what she has been up to?
“We could, I thought. We could get away.  The two of us.  Neither of us could go home and pretend life was wonderful. Both of us knew it never would be, even if it was for entirely different reasons.”
(from Perfect Escape by Jennifer Brown)
In a split second decision, Kendra decides to take off with her brother across the country to California to see an old best friend, Zoe.  Years ago Grayson’s difficulties made Zoe’s family leave, but Zoe promised they would never forget one another.  Surely that promise still holds true, and Grayson always seemed the most at peace with Zoe.
As Kendra and Grayson set off across the country, Kendra comes to realize many truths about herself.  There are so many thoughtful discussions about family, sibling relationships, living in the shadow of a sibling – any sibling – and the expectations we put upon ourselves.  There are a couple of those glorious moments that you expect to find in a road trip novel, but this is road trip like no other because this one involves Grayson (more on this in a minute).
Along the way Kendra and Grayson pick up a teen mother named Rena, fleeing with her baby from an abusive older husband.  Like Zoe before, it sometimes seems as if Grayson is slightly better in the presence of Rena.  But none of them have any idea how gloriously Garyson can really melt down, until he finally does and Kendra is the only one around to help him.
Perfect Escape is a thought provoking, touching, well written contemporary novel that touches on some very basic themes.  It also does a tremendous job of providing insight into what it can be like to be the sibling of a person with mental health issues.  This is one of several books that I have read this year dealing with the topic of OCD (The Butterfly Clues by Kate Ellison, for example), although this is the only one that presents a sibling point of view. 
Perfect Escape takes the classic concept of the Road Trip, and puts a unique spin on it by adding all of Grayson’s quirky complications and rituals.  It is hard to drive across the country when you have to walk in and out of a door 36 times (always an even number) and your mind can imagine every health hazard that lays upon the hotel room beds.  It is even harder to have a road trip where you are trying to run away from your problems when those very problems seem to define every moment of who you are and how you have to live your life.  In the end, Kendra realizes that it is not so much that she can cure her brother or run from her own problems, but that she can learn to maybe accept who they both are and try to just go on from there.  Just like real life, there are no neat and tidy resolutions wrapped in pretty packaging and tied with a bow.
There are a couple of interesting things that happen here.  One, our main character, Kendra, is often not a likable character and is even aware on some levels that what she is doing is completely selfish and self destructive – but I found that I somehow cared.  But more importantly, throughout the course of the story she grows and often allows herself to be honest.  In those honest moments, you get a glimpse of just how difficult it has been for her.  It is interesting, too, to hear Grayson discuss that it has been equally hard for him growin up in his sister’s shadow, knowing that he was so completely imperfect and costing his family so much while she was the perfect child he could never hope to be.  The truth is, siblings, no matter who they are and how much they may love each other and be loved at home, can’t seem to escape the comparisons that come from being united by blood and parentage.  Sibling relationships are complicated in the most basic of situations and there is never any escaping the pain and glory that comes from having siblings, whoever they turn out to be.
Well written, emotionally raw, and completely honest, Perfect Escape is the road trip you didn’t know you wanted to take.  The characterization is spot on, the dialogue is sharp, witty and sometimes cuts to the quick like the conversation in most families, and the moments of insight are moving.  If you have a sibling that you haven’t talked to in a while, you will want to pick up the phone when you are done.  And maybe, just maybe, teen readers will take a look up from their book and pause for just a moment as they consider their own siblings.  4 out of 5 stars for the rich emotional journey that is Perfect Escape.
Topics discussed in Perfect Escape include OCD, siblings, cheating in school, loss of friendship, running away, teen moms and perfectionism.  Every library should purchase this book because it touches on important topics (OCD is often a co-diagnosis with Autism, both of which are growing in incidence among today’s youth) and presents an important POV, being the sibling of an individual with mental health issues.  Perfect Escape will be published in July by Little, Brown School (978-0-316-18557-8)