Published by Hodder Children's Books, 2008.
As I mentioned in my March reading wrap-up, this was actually a reread for me. I first read this book at the age of perhaps 11 or 12, and really didn't understand what all the fuss was about. Why? Well, I'd only been at secondary school for about ten minutes, had no knowledge of sexual violence, and thus didn't really appreciate the level of 'reading between the lines' that is required in order to catapult this book up to greatness.
This time around I absolutely loved it! On the surface it is the story of Melinda Sordino, a thirteen year-old girl starting high school for the first time. Unfortunately, Melinda has recently alienated her entire group of best friends - amongst others - by calling the police from a party over the summer. What her ex-friends don't know is why she called the police: she was raped at the party by the hottest boy in school. Which brings us to what's going on under the surface - because this isn't just some flighty Mean Girls novel about an unpopular girl in high school. It's really about a young woman slowly healing after a terrible experience, finding her voice, discovering her own strength, and finally being able to speak out about what happened to her. And what a beautifully evoked journey it is...
Not only is the writing deceptively simple and frequently gorgeous, but what really surprised me was how much humour runs through this book! I didn't remember that at all from my first reading, so I was delighted to discover that Anderson has a marvellous knack of combining sparkling wit with troubling themes to offer a reading experience that has it all - it's funny but truthful, sarcastic but airy, tongue-in-cheek but very moving.
One thing I absolutely loved was the idea of art as therapy. Early in the book, Melinda's unconventional and completely awesome art teacher allocates each student an object that will form the basis of their work that year, across as many media and styles as they care to try. Melinda's object is 'tree'. Not only does this offer a metaphor for Melinda's personal growth, strength and return to life as the novel goes on, but her artistic efforts, and Mr Freeman's enthusiastic mentoring, become the means for her to learn self-expression and explore her feelings in new ways. She keeps her work in a deserted janitor's closet (like a mini staffroom), which she cleans, personalises and adapts into her own little sanctuary.
I think these elements of the novel particularly struck a chord with me because I, albeit for different reasons, found similar refuge within my school environment as a teenager. Like Mr Freeman's art room, ours was light, bustling, relaxed, and always open to students during breaks and lunchtimes. I'd tag along with friends who were taking art and spend time doing homework, eating lunch, singing along to the radio, and ogling my crush, a shy boy from the year above who was also a proficient artist and could usually be found hiding away in the art room with his best friend. My 'janitor's closet' was an upstairs classroom, my Mr Freeman a history teacher who would quietly unlock the door for me and unceremoniously throw out any rowdier groups who dared to invade by pretending I was in detention! Like Melinda, I found that having somewhere peaceful to go made school more bearable.
In conclusion, this is a truly fantastic novel. Despite being published fifteen years ago (so around the time I first read it, rather scarily), it still has a wonderful blend of humour and truth, a school setting that is still relatable now, and a strong and inspiring message about sexual violence, self-expression, and having the confidence to speak UP and speak OUT against people who have hurt us and experiences no one should have to endure alone. This is definitely a story that will stick with me this time around - I may even buy my own copy to keep - and I can't wait to read Wintergirls, which is already installed on my TBR shelves!
- "Art without emotion is like chocolate cake without sugar. It makes you gag... The next time you work on your trees, don't think about trees. Think about love, or hate, or joy, or rage - whatever makes you feel something, makes your palms sweat or your toes curl. Focus on that feeling."
- "I try to read while eating alone, but the noise gets between my eyes and the page I can't see through it."
- "People say that winter lasts forever, but it's because they obsess over the thermometer. North in the mountains, the maple syrup is trickling. Brave geese punch through the thin ice left on the lake. Underground, pale seeds roll over in their sleep. Starting to get restless. Starting to dream green."
- "I crouch by the trunk, my fingers stroking the bark, seeking a Braille code, a clue, a message on how to come back to life after my long undersnow dormancy. I have survived. I am here. Confused, screwed up, but here. So, how can I find my way?... I dig my fingers into the dirt and squeeze. A small, clean part of me waits to warm and burst through the surface. Some quiet Melindagirl I haven't seen in months. That is the seed I will care for."
Source: I borrowed this book from my local library.
~ THE MOVIE (4.5*) ~
Starring Kristen Stewart and Steve Zahn. Directed by Jessica Sharzer, 2004.
I wanted to give a quick shout-out to the excellent TV movie, which I watched the day I finished the book. It stars Kristen Stewart as Melinda and (sorry Stewart-bashers) she's really great! It's a pretty faithful adaptation - a couple of detail tweaks, a little less friendship-drama and a slightly altered ending to her year as Mr Freeman's art student aside, it's spot on. Everything is beautifully played, from the giddiness of the party to the horror of rape, from the trauma of Melinda having to be around her attacker in the school environment to the slow process of self-expression in her art class.
I think my absolute favourite scene is between Melinda and Mr Freeman (played by Steve 'This place is a tomb... I'm going to The Nut Shop where it's fun!' Zahn, aka George from You've Got Mail) at the end of the school year. Unlike in the book, Mr Freeman leaves at the end of the movie, just not suited to following the no-radio no-freedom no-fun rules of the school board. To show him what a difference he's really made, Melinda takes him into her janitor's closet, which is now FULL of her art. All kinds of trees, studies of leaves, paintings, a sculpture and the most beautiful Picasso-esque chalk drawing. It's basically Melinda's entire emotional journey, and he can only look around in wonder, tears in his eyes, while she watches shyly. It's a beautiful moment, perfect and simple, and I'm not ashamed to admit that I had tears running down my face by the end.
Anyway, if you like the book, watch it. It's hard to find on DVD here in the UK, but you can watch it on YouTube or elsewhere online quite easily. Highly recommended - I might even cough up for the DVD now!