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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: Canary by Rachele Alpine

Staying quiet will destroy her, but speaking up will destroy everyone.

Earlier this year, the world was rocked by the Stuebenville case and it is like, somehow, Alpine knew it was happening and in her premonition wrote about it all, just changing the sport from football to basketball in her teen novel, Canary.  At the same time, we have spent the month of April speaking and Tweeting and blogging about things like Sexual Assault Awareness Month, consent, and the importance of teaching our teens to respect one another not only as sexual beings, but as people period. Canary is an important tool in that process.

Synopsis: It has been 2 years since the death of her mother from cancer has turned Kate Franklin’s home into a quietly desperate place of strangers who speak through post it notes, so when her father gets the coaching job at a prestigious private school Kate sees a chance to start over again.  She is immediately welcomed by the popular crowd, though at times she questions ther motives.  For a while, she is blinded by the glamour that comes from being star players boyfriend, the parties, the friends . . . but occasionally glimpses of the truth creeps in.

We’ve all heard the stories before, about sports stars (and sometimes cheerleading squads) that seem to rule the school to such a degree that even the adults in this world are willing to turn a blind eye to drinking, cheating, and barely passing grades.  Beacon is such a school and, for a while, Kate is a part of it all.  That all changes one night when one of the players attempts to rape her and she is suddenly labelled a slut and an outcast.  And just like the stories we have heard in the news lately, pictures are shared via cell phones, Kate is ostracized, and she is suddenly very desperately alone.

I am not going to lie, there is a little bit of everything thrown into Canary: grief, sexting, drinking, sex, drugs, attempted rape, parental alienation and even a little war anxiety.  It is a mega dose of the after school special, but done pretty effectively and, as we now know all too well, there are cases of this really happening in the world around us.  When even Kate’s father asks her to stay quiet, you know people’s priorities are really screwed up.  But don’t lose hope, Kate finally finds a way to stand up for herself and there is a definite theme of hope at the end.

There is so much to talk about in this book.  The way these teens all pressure each other to do things, like drinking and engaging in sexual activity, with little real care and concern for the actual person.  The bullying.  The slut shaming.  The rape culture.  The entitled sports culture.  All of it real and relevant.

The first part of Canary involves setting Kate up in her new world. There are parties, a new boyfriend, and that high one gets when you are suddenly on top of the world.  It also establishes the culture of Beacon, which can sometimes be a slow process but it essential to building up and then subtly revealing the layers of deceit and master manipulation involved.  The star basketball players hold all the cards, and they know it; the trick is too wield them without showing their hard, which they do quite successfully for a while.  Beacon is an example of a school that puts sports and profits over people and academics, it is disturbing and sinister in the “character” that it builds in these teenage athletes, more so because many of us can name places just like it in the real world.

Whereas Kate seems able to turn a blind eye for far too long, her brother Brett stands in as the voice of reason, reminding her that as his older brother he knows far too well this life she is living, how her friends may not be her real friends, and how he will always be there for her.  And even in the midst of his own personal grief and crisis, he comes through when she needs him most.  This is a sometimes strained but genuine sibling relationship, the shining beacon (no pun attended) in the life of these two teens who are suffering the loss of one parent quit literally while also dealing with the emotional abandonment of another.

Kate’s father, the basketball coach, is a disappointment.  He clearly is not dealing well with the grief of losing his wife and is failing as a parent.  His reaction to Kate’s admission of the sexual assault is so very disappointing. It is hard to imagine any father reacting the way he does, and it is troubling when you think that many parents often do in fact ask their children to keep these types of revelations quiet out of fear.

The way Kate eventually finds her voice is by publishing her online blog/diary, which has been revealed to us throughout the story in poetry form as it happens.  Some of these entries are cutting and poignant and spot on.  It is interesting, too, how Alpine uses current technology to have Kate keep her secrets and then make them public in an effort to save herself from the harassment she is receiving at school after the rumors about her start spreading.  There are definitely a lot ways that this book can be used to spark discussion about technology in the lives of teens, and again – there are some real relevant discussions to be had about sexting, privacy, the distribution of child pornography, etc.

Plot wise, there are no real surprises, but it is a compelling read all the same in part because it does seem like one of those ripped from the headlines episodes of Law & Order SVU and because of the addition of verse journal entries.  Canary helps teens put some emotional components in place with the current headlines they are hearing.  Real, relevant, and very discussable.  3.5 out of 5 stars. 

Canary by Rachele Alpine.  Published in August of 2013 by Medallion Press.  ISBN: 978-160542587-0.

More About Sexual Assault on TLT:
What It’s Like for a Girl: How Monstrous Beauty by Elizabeth Fama made me think about the politics of sexuality in the life of girls
Sexual Assault Awareness Month, talking to teens about consent and rape part 1 and part 2