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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.