Thursday, February 19, 2009

Purge Book Review by ChristineMM

My Rating: 2 stars out of 5 = “I don’t like it”

Summary Statement: Story Flawed and Target Market Too Young

Title: Purge
Author: Sarah Darer Littman
Publication: Scholastic, April 1, 2009
Genre: Young Adult Fiction, Grades 7 and Up per publisher , Problem Novel
Format: Hardcover book
Full Retail Price: $16.99

Janie starts off the summer after her junior year in high school in an inpatient mental health facility for treatment (against her will). The plot, the main action of the story, is her recovery and the suspense in finding out the full and real reason why she was admitted there in the first place, which we don’t find out until near the end of the book (it is more serious than just being for bulemia). The story is told in the first person through her accounts of life in the facility, telling of group therapy sessions as well as her written journal entries (a non-mandatory recommended therapy).

The main character Janie has a sense of humor and is smart so hearing her story and life in the treatment facility through her eyes is interesting. It seems to me to be written on an easy reading level, perhaps a grade five reading level. The publisher (Scholastic) has the book flagged to be marketed to children in grade 7 and up (that is age 12 and up). That would be fine and well except for the issue that the book contains numerous serious, mature themes (each worth exploring on their own but the book doesn’t suffice to ‘cover them’). You see, the characters have serious problems and there is also good amount of profanity (yes I know teens that age talk that way, especially angry ones). There is a detailed sex scene (more on that later). Due to all that, I’m not sure that this book belongs in the hands of a 12 year old. Another issue with easy reading level books that have larger font, a fair amount of white space on the page and a short page count is it can result in readers younger than the publisher’s stated recommended reading age reading it (which would not be good). Also high school aged readers will probably feel this is a ‘too juvenile due to its simple story and its reading ease. (Actually this would probably translate well without much modification into a movie while books with more complex stories are often harder to make the transition to the big screen.)

The book with both girl and boy teenage eating disorder patients, I fear, will be recommended by well-meaning teachers who seek to discuss eating disorders and to enlighten both girls and boys about the issue when the book has a big problem: the kids have too many problems and nearly all of them are poorly dealt with in the story. Examples are characters we don’t know anything about and really have no emotional connection to are given problems and we readers don’t care enough about the character to feel empathy for their situation. Due to the high number of problems in the book the author did not really address them all (just barely mentioning them, and not addressing the suicide attempt or date rape well enough). The reader doesn’t see the issues through to a good conclusion. It would have been a better story if the problems of the main character were delved into deeply and not had the clutter of all the other issues in the story.

Another thing that surprised me was the level of detail about the main characters binging and purging techniques. It read like a how-to manual and for nearly the whole book the character insisted that her bulimia was a safe weight loss and weight maintenance strategy as well as an effective technique for relief of pent up stress and emotions. The idea that the various eating disorders including purging can be a lifelong weight maintenance strategy that doesn’t always receive professional treatment or recovered from is supported by the numerous stories of the patient’s mothers and fathers who have neither received treatment nor are cured from their disorders. I found that odd and problematic that the teens are institutionalized against their will by their parents to be treated for a disorder that a parent sometimes taught them to do (and is still doing). The author obviously wanted the reader to see that sometimes the unrealistic weight ideals of people in our culture and the bad strategies pass down from parent to child (blame the parents for their bad parenting!), but I wonder if the inclusion of that will confuse young readers to think that eating disorders in all cases may not really need to be treated and cured (after all the parents are fine, which is something the other patients struggle with but is unresolved.

The doctor asked the girl to write down why she is really in the hospital and to plan to read it aloud to the group. That entry included a sex scene which was too detailed, included alcohol drinking, and too much of a feeling-good thing before it turned bad. The details of that sexual encounter were unnecessary to tell the story. I feel it was also unrealistic for the character to share that level of detail, as any teenage girl wouldn’t write all those details knowing she would be reading them aloud to her therapy group of both boys and girls. Besides, up to that point she’d not told much personal information to at all due to wanting to retain her privacy. The in my opinion more serious and real reason that she was admitted to the facility was not due to just having bulimia but her fellow patients didn’t know that until she read them her journal entry.

I am a parent and care deeply about child readers being matched to well written books that responsibly handle the topics well, especially in the situation of realistic fiction ‘problem novels’. As I said before this book has too many problems and at one point when more and more problems appeared it started to be ludicrous. “Let’s see if we can put every hot topic teenage problem within the cover of one book to accurately show how messed up ever teen and every family really is!” is what I felt the author was thinking when she chose to do that. It seemed to me also that the issues were labeled and barely touched upon so that it could be a ‘talking point’ for discussion such as with a teacher and her class. “If we mention all these problems and inform the preteens we can prevent them from ever happening!” The problem and challenge of inserting so many issues in one story is they cannot be handled well within one story. Limited exposure to numerous topics dulls the reader’s emotions.

I am not for censorship of books, I would like to see authors acting responsibly by handling ‘hot topics’ and serious problems well. Writing is not an easy craft and creating complex stories that are written on a reading level appropriate to the target market that allow the reader to feel empathy and to be able to be moved by a book, changed and improved for having read it is not easy to do. I note the author is a member of an organization for authors (As If!) in which they discuss and complain about any person or organization that expresses a problem with content in books for children and young adults is a violation of "intellectual freedom" and state "if you are trying to get a young adult book removed from a school library due to concerns over "mature content", you are violating the First Amendment rights of the school's students" (quote from As If! site, here). So anyone who speaks up about a poorly written book or takes issue with the agenda being pushed in children’s fiction such as using a controversial book in a school classroom is labeled is negatively labeled as a censor.

With problem novels I think it is a best to have well-written stories that make the intended impact on the reader. A great book can emotionally impact a reader and often having read one excellent book on the topic is enough for one child or teenager. I think this book misses the mark. (I recall being moved greatly by “The Best Little Girl in the World” which horrified me when I was a young teen and I had no desire to ever read another story about eating disorders again, I ‘got the message’ that anorexia was a bad and serious thing.)

In my reviews I usually mention the hot topic issues in case parents want to know what the book is about before buying it for their child. Each parent should know what a book is about before putting it into the hands of a younger child (even one who is 12 years old). Here is a list of issues. I’ll keep details out to avoid plot spoilers but if you don’t want to know any of these issues stop reading now. They are:

anorexia, multiple girls

anorexia one boy

bulimia (binging and purging)

athletic wrestling jock who starves himself before weight-in’s and overeats after matches

lifetime poor eating habits and eating disorders of some of the parents

a boy who is homosexual then comes out of the closet to the patients and later his parents, then his father says he will divorce wife as he is angry of son’s homosexuality

other male makes negative remarks about the other boy's homosexuality and is labeled a homophobe

an incest victim

self-mutilation (cutting)

alcoholic father in AA treatment

some parents divorced

high achiever teens who are highly achieving but have low self-esteem

disconnected teens and parents with skewed perceptions of emotions (thinking a parent doesn’t like their passions when parent is very proud of them)

hard working father providing well financially for family eluded to as incompatible with being a good father

too much pressure to do well in school academically and stress over college
admissions (blaming parents for expecting academic success)

one patient is in her 40s and is divorced and a wreck after her husband cheats on her and leaves (this character seemed out of place in the book too)

losing one’s virginity to a date rape (condom used)

detailed sex scene

use of alcohol by teens including leading to sex and the date rape

casual sex unattached to emotions and sexual promiscuity

attempted suicide by overdose of parent’s anxiety medications

parents ignored plea that the suicide attempt teen was in danger and 12 year old calls 911 and saves sibling’s life per the doctor, if left to the parent's choice of action the teen would have died!

an anorexic patient dies due to cardiac failure while in treatment for her eating disorder

I think I remembered it all.

Now isn't that a bit much for a 240 page book that Scholastic is marketing to readers in grade 7?

One more thing in case anyone is wondering about religion. Religion is never mentioned in the book. Religious parents who wish to discuss this book with their children can find many examples of problems that could have been solved or approached differently if aspects of the family's religion was applied. No matter what a family's religion is there are things that take place in the book that could be discussed in a customized way in light of the family's own religious beliefs. Christians might say for example that a spiritually alive teenager who truly feels unconditionally loved by God may never find themselves in the position that some of the book's characters face.

Disclosure: I received an advance reading copy of this book through the Amazon Vine review program.

Note: This is a longer review than I am publishing on for the Amazon Vine program.

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1 comment:

Marbel said...

The more I read about Scholastic books the less impressed I am with them. I wouldn't want my kids to read this book, whether or not they were in the "target" age. I understand the use of books to educate and help kids understand and work through problems, but this seems like too much.