Although not everyone reads, many people do, and books are such terribly influential objects–especially on teenagers. More and more nowadays fiction directed to the 12-18 year old population deals with intense issues, whether it’s a dystopian world and controlling government like that of The Hunger Games and the Uglies series, or neglect and teen pregnancy. As such, I have decided to make a foray into popular and/or lauded contemporary teen fiction, to see if what people think our young people should be reading is worth anything. Some books are obviously trash, others obviously B-rate, some spectacular. But many are of dubious value. Even if nothing objectionable is found in a book, is it worth reading? Does it have anything to say about human nature? Even some of the most “frivolous” fiction, if you will, conveys truth. Look at Agatha Christie’s work: nothing particularly groundbreaking literarily speaking, no specific message to spread, but she still accurately and truthfully portrays human nature. So, besides determining whether much of what is considered teen fiction is age appropriate, I will also be evaluating whether or not the book has any intrinsic, literary, grammatical and/or stylistic merit.
The book I will start with is called After by Amy Efaw. It sets forth the story of 15-year-old Devon Sky Davenport who, for reasons unknown, informed no one that she was pregnant, delivered her child at home, and subsequently threw the baby in a dumpster. She is subsequently arrested and put in juvie. Devon gets herself through a hearing to determine whether she should be tried as an adult or a juvenile. The book ends with the judge determining she should be tried as minor, but also with an additional twist.
The premise for this book is certainly horrific. A girl having a baby and throwing her in the dumpster? But actually reading it paints quite a different picture. As a reader, I was constantly frustrated with Devon. How could she possibly not know she was pregnant, as she claims? But then, we find out that Devon’s mother was a teenage mom who ran away from home. Men are always in and out of Devon’s house; often Devon is left to fend for herself–once, her mother left the girl alone in their apartment for days at a time, all to spend time with some jerk who eventually left. The only thing Devon feels that she can rely on in her life is soccer. She doesn’t want to be like her mother and likes to have everything under control, so she makes one big rule that she doesn’t break until she meets a young man from out of town. The two begin, essentially, to date, and one night things go too far. Their relationship, initially comfortable, becomes awkward, and though her would-be boyfriend continues to try and contact her, Devon never answers him or sees him after that. She becomes frantic with denial in the midst of her worries about pregnancy, and tries to convince herself that she never had sex, and/or that as long as she could function as she was used to doing, she couldn’t possibly be pregnant, or ‘have something wrong with her.’ When it comes time for her sports physical, she freaks out and lies to her mother and the doctor at the walk-in clinic–they can’t afford a family doc–about having started her period, when in fact she hadn’t had one for a while. After an accident on the soccer field and due to the greater obviousness of her pregnancy, Devon stops playing soccer and pushes all the people around her away, including her best friend. Eventually, she finds herself where we see her at the beginning of the book–having delivered her child at home, with no one else around, frantically wondering what to do, placing the baby in the sink, throwing other trash away, and finally depositing the trashbag, child inside, in a dumpster. She lies down on the sofa and attempts to staunch her hemorrhaging.
So, one can see that though Devon may have realized at the time what she was doing, it was not a premeditated act. In a way, it was likely something that stemmed from her denial of the fact that she had had sex. That doesn’t change the seriousness of what she did, but it shows that, as the judge determined, there was no reason for her to be tried in criminal court as an adult. Her mother’s blatant neglect and the dearth of a father psychologically affected Devon, and therefore explain and somewhat lessen the gravity of her offense. However, this trauma is, as I said, an explanation, not an apology, for her actions. She must still suffer their consequences. And this is where I especially like the book. Remember the twist I mentioned? Though Devon is going to be tried as a minor, she decides to plead guilty at her trial. She realizes that she should not have pushed everyone away from her, and that even her hapless mother would have understood and been willing to help her had she asked. It is amazing to see such an insight in a book for teens. Often enough, we set the example for our children to try and avoid consequences at all costs. But Devon doesn’t. She faces them head on.
The book is not a literary masterpiece, but it deals with themes that are now all too common, and does so in a way compassionate to all, with understanding but not license, and with a sense of how one is responsible for one’s actions.
Stylistically speaking, the book was interesting. Efaw appears to like commas–as do I–but I felt she used a bit too many clauses separated by commas. That may have been meant to add to the aura of the book, which is told from Devon’s point of view but in the third person, and therefore is inside Devon’s confused memories.The commas (and the style of the writing generally) give the impression of haziness, a weary tunneling back into a past that one cannot and does not wish to remember.
The only real cons in this book are two:
1) I think any description of sexual activity is unnecessary, especially for teenagers. What is in this book is, happily, slight, and easy enough to skip over.
2) I do not approve of Devon’s decision not to tell the juvie staff that Karma had taken a knife into her cell. It’s bad enough that Karma had such an uncaring father and was cutting herself: she could have died from cutting herself with that knife. Cutting oneself is never the answer, and no one should encourage another person to injure him or herself. There are other ways to relieve/endure pain.
My final verdict, then, is that though I would not expressly recommend this book, I say that it would not harm anyone to read it, and could promote some valuable, if vague, insights.
Other books in a similar vein but of more literary merit are Ruth by Elizabeth Gaskell, which concerns a young lady who becomes pregnant out of wedlock, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte, describing a young man’s pursuit of a mysterious young woman, Mrs. Helen Graham, who suddenly takes a house in his village, accompanied by her 2-year-old son.