Noelle has been bullied for what seems like forever. Every day is about making it through in one piece. She keeps a lot of her pain inside–her mom is neglectful, and Noelle feels shame about her life and keeps much of the worst of it from her best friend. When Julian Porter starts paying more attention to her, Noelle is torn: it’s easier to stay hidden than to stand out, but what if it means losing something that has the potential to be great?
It’s hard to write a critical review of a book whose intention is so good, but it’s not impossible. This is especially true when the book in question is such a total mess, which is the case with Susane Colasanti’s latest offering. Her preachy, overly-didactic, after-school special of a YA novel has some good stuff between its pages, but it gets lost in the book’s message, which is practically screaming at the reader in every sentence. The book is so earnest that it becomes almost hard to take it seriously.
Part of the problem that Colasanti tells, tells, tells. We’re never shown enough of Noelle’s life to really get a sense of her or of why her life is terrible. Sure, Noelle tells us how awful her mother is, and she tells us how awful school is. We get that Noelle’s life sucks–but we don’t know anything except for what she tells us.
Stock characters don’t help things in the authenticity camp. Noelle is okay, as far as protagonists go, but everyone else is so one-dimensional that it’s hard to care. Sherae, Noelle’s best friend, is dealing with the aftermath of sexual assault–and that’s all we’re given about her. Julian is sweet and cute and seems to like Noelle, but that’s about it. By far one of the most problematic characters is Noelle’s mom. She’s given virtually nothing to do except complain about how hard it is to be a single mom. This didn’t work for me for a number of reasons, most of all because we’re not given any context except for the fact that she complains a lot. All of it felt contrived to work within the constraints of the story.
There’s a manipulation in the narrative about three-quarters of the way through that’s supposed to act as Noelle’s impetus to change. Savvy readers will see the twist coming from a mile away and will likely be irritated by it. It’s too late in the game for Colasanti to expect readers to be shocked by what happens. What’s worse is that it doesn’t feel like it would be a real motivation for Noelle to change her situation. It’s a clunky plot device, and it’s as clunky as the rest of the book’s subject matter.
Sure, there’s some heart here somewhere, and it might work for young YA readers who are looking for reinforcement about the fact that It Gets Better. However, there are better options out there for kids looking to read books about bullying, and I think we’d be doing them a service by providing those resources to teens. Pass on this one.
Keep Holding On by Susane Colasanti. Viking Juvenile: 2012. Electronic galley accepted for review via NetGalley.