Saturday, December 29, 2012

Melissa's latest favorite

This book was actually published in 2011, but since I just discovered it (and it's still fairly new), I'm going to recommend it as my "best of 2012," hoping it is a discovery for others as well.

Holly Goldberg Sloan is a writer, producer, and director, including in her credits Made in America, Angels in the Outfield, and The Big Green. I'll Be There is her debut novel, written for young adults, and I'm hoping that this career shift is going to be permanent, because I love this book! Others apparently agree with me, because it was chosen this year by the Children's Literature Council of Southern California to receive the Peggy Miller Award for Young Adult Literature, which is how I discovered it. We do not, in fact, own this book at Burbank Public Library; I don't know how it was overlooked, but I have ordered a couple of copies and it's on its way. So you may have to wait awhile to read it, but definitely put it on your list! (I would recommend this for 9th grade and up.)

Although the story, the characters, and the writing are all compelling, the thing I like most about this book is how it so clearly illustrates a librarian concept. In library school we talked a lot about the "digital divide," which is defined on Wikipedia as follows:
A digital divide is an inequality between groups, broadly construed, in terms of access to, use of, or knowledge of information and communication technologies. The divide inside countries (such as in the United States) can refer to inequalities between individuals, households, businesses, and geographic areas at different socioeconomic and other demographic levels, while the global digital divide designates countries as the units of analysis and examines the divide between developing and developed countries on an international scale.
So let me break that down for you: What it's saying is that some people have computers (and cell phones, and e-book readers, and all the other digital devices you can name that are such a taken-for-granted part of contemporary society), while others do not, and this can create a Grand Canyon of difference between the haves and the have-nots in their perceptions about everyday life. We see this every day at the library, as a constant stream of people without computers come in to use ours; but many people never give it a second thought.

The thing that makes the characters in this book so interesting is that they are on opposite sides of the digital divide, and neither of them initially realizes that about the other. Sam (17) and his little brother Riddle were spirited away from home by their trainwreck of a father when they were very young, so they lead an idiosyncratic lifestyle. Because their father, a thief and a drifter, moves them from town to town on the whim of the voices he hears inside his head, they don't go to school (Sam completed the second grade, and Riddle has never attended), and they have little knowledge of television or even radio, no cell phone, no iPad, no modern "conveniences" that other teens their age take completely for granted. So when Sam encounters Emily, who comes from a regular suburban family, each is completely outside the other's experience, to the point where communication is almost impossible.

Shortly after they meet for the first time, before each knows anything about the other except that there is an attraction, the two have made a plan to meet at 7:00 in the evening at the local IHOP. Both are worried about making it to the meeting, but for reasons that are poles apart:
Sam could tell time. But it meant nothing to him. He didn't have a watch. He didn't have a cell phone or a computer or anything that even displayed time. The clock on the dashboard of the truck had been broken for years.... Time for Sam was about the position of the sun. It was about feeling hunger in his stomach. It was about the temperature just after dawn. Time wasn't measured in minutes or even hours.... All of a sudden, everything was getting so complicated.
One of the other complicating issues is that Sam needs to find a way to make enough money to buy some food at the restaurant and also to send Riddle to a movie for two hours while he's there, so he won't have to worry about leaving his brother alone with his psychotic father. (He ends up helping people unload trucks at the city dump.) Meanwhile, Emily is also thinking that things are complicated, because they picked someplace far away from her house to meet, and she doesn't drive:
Emily suddenly wished that they'd picked someplace closer. But what she really wished was that they'd exchanged cell phone numbers and email addresses and regular addresses. Because at this point, she couldn't call him or even find him online to change the plan. She could ride her bike out there [to the restaurant]...but she didn't have a way to tell him to ride there to meet her. She hoped he liked mountain bikes. She figured he wasn't someone who sat inside playing video games at all hours, because he looked weathered, and those kinds of kids looked pale and sort of fidgety. He probably did lots of sports.
Sam, of course, doesn't play sports; he's tan because he's virtually homeless and spends most of his days outdoors. Later, when they meet, he listens to Emily go on about calculus homework and AYSO (she figures maybe he will like her more if he knows that she, too, plays sports), and wonders what those are. Eventually, something happens to reveal the disconnect between their lifestyles, and from that point on the book gets sad, happy, exciting, frightening, tragic--almost every emotion you can imagine.

Lots of young adult books say, "and then everything was different," when they are referring to something not really all that earth-shattering--a crush on the new person at school or whatever. But in the case of these two, everything really was different as a result of their encounter, and it was also different for the reader. I love books like this that make you turn all your assumptions over and scrutinize them. I also make it a habit to revisit authors who make me fall for their characters and stories, so I'm hoping Holly Goldberg Sloan has another one in the works!

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