Genre: Realistic Fiction
Description: Brett Miller is a member of the ruling class at Elkhead High School. He runs with the jocks and the pretty, popular girls. His life is pretty great. He has a great group of friends and his girlfriend, Jillia, is a star on the softball team. They’ve been dating for two years and he hopes to one day marry her. The thing is Brett and his friends happen to also be horrible bullies. They torment anyone different than them, especially the openly gay students who take part in an afterschool GSA. However, everything changes the day he starts his new art class (it’s supposedly easy credit) and meets a classmate he’s never seen before—Zach. Zach is an amazing artist and for some reason Brett gets all flustered around him. When he pressures Jillia to have sex with him and she breaks up with him he begins to wonder if there is something wrong with him. Could he be gay?
Opinion: This book is part of Saddleback’s Gravel Road series, which the publisher describes as “Sometimes we find ourselves on a gravel road, not sure of how we got there or where the road leads. Sharp stones pellet the unprotected and everyday wear and tear sears more deeply.” The books are considered award-winning urban teen fiction titles. They aren’t related in plots or anything. I really wanted to be on board with this story, especially since it sounded compelling. However, I have a number of problems with it. While it certainly is a quick read (under two hours), I feel in a way sometimes that the writing in such hi-low books are insulting to the readers we’re trying to reach with such works. The grammar, word choice, and sentence structure seems just so dumbed down that even struggling readers wouldn’t be interested in the stories. The writing just seems like something a beginning writing in junior high would write—short, choppy sentences with no descriptive words and lots of exclaiming. From the other titles in this “urban teen” series I figured that the character would be a minority (most of the other books center on black or Latino characters). I was really hoping I would know where the story took place and what race this main character was. The only indication was Jillia’s unusual name. I was hoping for a minority character because while there are some good GLBT titles out there now most of them are about white, middle class teens and I thought, “Awesome! A minority teen struggling with his sexuality!” However, Brett and Zach and all the other characters pretty much come off as white. So my hopes of finding a strong GLBT minority teen were dashed. The bullying of Brett and his friends on the other gay students was strongly described and very true to life. Brett’s reaction is the shocking sad but real, “If they don’t want to be picked on why don’t they stop flaunting their gayness?” He mistakenly thinks these boys can turn off a part of who they are to avoid the pain of bullying and doesn’t realize they don’t want to hide who they are from others. Another aspect of bullying was when Brett, angry at Nate for sending a bi-sexual friend of his to talk to him, takes a baseball bat to Nate’s car. He later apologizes and begins to turn over a new leaf as he discovers his new sexuality might make him loose his jock friends. Of course, such a complete transformation in such a short time is a contrivance for the story and, therefore, comes off as a little too convenient for the plot. While the story was alright, I was disappointed especially with how Brett reacts to his feelings toward Zach. He realizes, looking back on when he was younger, that he had feelings for other boys before (particularly one at a sleep away camp) but he is still madly in love with Jillia and attracted to girls. I think his inner thought about his confusion came off as a jock bully going, “I can’t be gay! That would mean something is wrong with me!” instead of a more meaningful inner reflection about who he is. I don’t think this was the author’s intent—I think it is more with the writing style of simple sentences that makes Brett’s vibe come off as condemning off the GLBT lifestyle. Overall, the book was readable but it missed the mark for being a really strong GLBT title.
Here's what one of my teens had to say:
*Thanks to Amber Dormanesh at Saddleback for providing an ARC of this title for the YA Galley Group project!*