Ah, the contemporary issue book. These must be difficult to tackle–they have to be serious enough to merit the weight of the issue at hand, but not so melodramatic as to sound like an after school special or Lifetime original movie. Here’s an author that comes at these tough issues from interesting angles that you might not expect.
In Jennifer Brown’s Hate List, Valerie is dealing with the aftermath of a school shooting–and the stigma of being the girlfriend of the now deceased shooter. Rather than focus on the “issue” in this issue-driven story, Brown focuses on Val’s recovery process after the horrifying event at her school. Not only is Val dealing with PTSD from the shooting itself, she is being blamed for the event in Nick’s absence. Her parents aren’t really supportive, but she and her therapist have a very good relationship, which I thought was a cool inclusion in the story.
I found the way Brown handled Nick’s character to be very interesting. The shooter in this case is not a nameless, faceless evildoer; the shooter was Val’s boyfriend, someone with whom she was incredibly close. Any chance of one dimensionality that could have been is taken away when Brown gives the reader Nick’s horrible family history and Val’s memories of all the nice things he did for her. This makes things arguably harder for Valerie; she then had to deal with reconciling her image of Nick with the one that brought a gun to school.
Bitter End tackles the topic of abusive relationships. Alex’s relationship with Cole goes from codependent to emotionally abusive to physically abusive in a relatively short amount of time. The strongest aspect of the novel comes in the form of Alex’s relationships with her best friends, Bethany and Zack. With most of her family physically or emotionally absent, Alex relies on her friends as if they were family—making it all the worse when the situation with Cole starts to isolate her. As an attempt to not be labeled a victim, Alex hides the abuse, thinking that she and Cole would both be protected from the judgments of others. Brown explores the lasting damage Cole has on her friendships, showing that things don’t just bounce back to normal when someone that destructive is out of the picture. There is a long healing process for everyone involved.
Perfect Escape takes on several things: road tripping, intense pressure to be perfect, and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. When a cheating scandal threatens protagonist Kendra’s flawless reputation, she goes on a road trip with her unknowing, OCD-afflicted brother to get away from the turmoil that’s about to severely shake up her life. In addition to seeing Kendra’s fears and desire to be perfect to balance out her brother’s issues, the reader gets a full picture of what Grayson goes through on a daily basis through present story and Kendra’s memories, but the true focus is on the relationship between the siblings. The two share memories, experience, and frustration with one another as only siblings can. I love sibling stories, so I was happy that Brown chose to explore this topic through a familial relationship rather than a romantic one.
Jennifer Brown takes on tough topics in her books–be it school violence, abuse, or mental disorders–with slightly different focuses than you might find elsewhere. Thousand Words, her next novel due out this summer, will delve into the issues of sexting and cyberbullying. I’m curious to see her take on this rather timely subject!