Book Review: The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary

disturbed-girl_img2
Image from Carolrhoda Lab Books via readdisruptrepeat.

DISCLAIMER: I hesitated to write about this book because Ashley Hope Pérez has already written the perfect review, excerpted on the back cover: “I WANTED TO BURN DOWN THE WHOLE DAMN WORLD AND BUILD A NEW ONE WORTHY OF MACY. . . . UNFORGETTABLE.” But maybe you haven’t seen the book, let alone picked it up. In that case, allow me to introduce you to Nonieqa Ramos’s novel: The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary.

Be sure to fasten your seatbelt, because the Dictionary is a helluva ride.

FOR: Teens and up

SUMMARY: As the Library of Congress says, “Fifteen-year-old Macy, officially labeled ‘disturbed’ by her school, records her impressions of her rough neighborhood and home life as she tries to rescue her brother from Child Protective Services, win back her overachieving best friend after a fight, and figure out whether to tell her incarcerated father about her mother’s cheating.”

Whoa, right? This book goes straight to the jugular. This is not a tidy, predictable story about a troubled teenager, `a la ABC Afterschool Special. This is a raw and unsettling journey.

As you’ve probably gathered, the Dictionary is a page turner, but not a beach read. This book tackles many serious issues and themes: loyalty, neglect, hunger, education, sexual assault, foster care, friendship, prostitution, poverty, ADHD, kindness, and drug use. Somehow, in the midst of such hefty subject matter, there is also a great deal of humor. Kudos, Ms. Ramos.

FIVE THINGS THAT MAKE THIS NOVEL EXTRAORDINARY:

  1. It is a dictionary. Given the title, that should have been obvious, but when I read the words, “See H for Helmet,” it took me a while to realize that I could actually thumb through the book to find an entry entitled “Helmet.” (Among the H’s, no less.) But the words are defined on Macy’s terms. Macy has clearly had enough of the definitions forced upon her, like “disturbed.” This is our chance to see her actions from her perspective. Why does she steal from the grocery store, but refuse to eat what’s in the fridge? Why does she torment her history teacher and deface school property? Why does she give her mother’s coat to a prostitute? Or punch a boy in the jaw?
  2. The Dictionary is a diary as well. Macy (last name MYOFB) writes in it whenever she has time—e.g., outside the Principal’s office, waiting to be reprimanded, or in Homework Club with the supremely wonderful Miss Black. Macy’s opening entry is “ALWAYS/NEVER,” a linguistic combination that her history teacher considers grammatically flawed. Macy proves otherwise in the most poignant of ways. Have tissues handy.
  3. The chaos of the protagonist’s external and internal life is reflected in the structure of the book, which is arranged neither chronologically nor, technically, alphabetically. Mostly the entries are lumped like DVDs at the library: A-W-A-Y before AFRAID, MONSTERS before MAYBE, but then BURY comes after FIRELIGHT. Go figure. What is revealed—and when—depends on what Macy is moved to share at any given moment, so I recommend reading a hard copy to facilitate flipping back and forth between cross-references and entries.
  4. Nothing is cut and dried. The book raises a lot of questions and doesn’t pretend to have all of the answers. Is her brother better off in foster care? Why does Macy’s friend George wear a helmet? Even Macy doesn’t seem to know. That’s OK with me; I don’t need everything explained in essay form. As Macy explains, LIFE IS NEVER LIKE THAT anyway.
  5. Macy frequently breaks the fourth wall to address the reader directly—and with a great deal of irreverence and profanity. She calls the reader out for a myriad of grievances: for reading over her shoulder, for being surprised she has heard of Odysseus, for not knowing a thing about Agüeybaná. To give you a taste of her confrontational yet humorous style, here is the entry filed under “DEAR READER:”

You are the person that I’m going to hunt down and assassinate when I find out you took my dictionary. I will hit your head so hard against the sink you won’t remember anything I wrote. . .Yes, the sink. That way I can wash your blood off my hands so I don’t ruin my sweatshirt.

Luckily she didn’t catch me reading it.

You may be wondering, is this a perfect book? Close, but the answer is no. There were passages that I had to read and reread, a few bits and pieces that didn’t ring true. Since the narrator is openly struggling and unreliable, let’s assume that was intentional. In any event, it doesn’t matter. Macy burst into three dimensions and haunted me long after I finished the book. I can still see her sleeping in the tub, swallowing paper, sneaking books from the recycling, saving two m&ms. She is all too real.

I HEART Macy. My recommendation? Buckle up and get to know her.

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The Hate U Give

image credit: libro.fm

posted by: Beret

Wow. This book.

It’s hard to know where to start besides the obvious: READ THIS BOOK.

Quick Plot Summary: The Hate U Give is about a sixteen-year-old African American girl caught between the two worlds she inhabits: Garden City, the economically disadvantaged neighborhood where she lives, and Williamson Prep, the elite private school she attends in the suburbs. In her struggle to belong in both worlds, we see Starr constantly jockeying to make the transition between home and school appear seamless.

In and of itself, that alone could fill a book, but first-time novelist Angie Thomas has decided to take on an incendiary current issue besides. She puts Starr in a car with a childhood friend when he is pulled over by the police, shot, and killed. As the sole witness, Starr has to grapple with a difficult choice: whether to speak up on Khalil’s behalf, or maintain her safety and anonymity at the expense of justice. Continue reading “The Hate U Give”

Bullying: An ounce of prevention

posted by Beret

Just read Leslie Blanchard’s essay about her approach to the problem of bullying: making sure that her child sees outsiders as a human beings. I have pasted it here, but you can click here for the original link.

A note from Beret: In the comments section of the Ms. Blanchard’s article, I noticed that some folks interpreted the author’s intervention as “forcing a friendship.” By my reading, she was merely teaching her daughter the power of social capital, and insisting that she take the time to meet someone before deciding she didn’t like them. That seems reasonable and potentially life-changing for both sides of the bullying equation.

Continue reading “Bullying: An ounce of prevention”

On Barbies and Bodies and Beauty

body image
Image from Everything Under the Sun.

Posted by Beret.

Puberty is a wild ride; I must have forgotten. Or maybe–despite the hideously awkward classroom discussions and cheesy pamphlets–I just experienced puberty as my own ridiculously crazy life, rather than as a period of adjustment and development that everyone experiences.

Most even survive.

As the parent of two tweens, I get to relive plenty of adolescent drama and excitement, and this time around, I’m hyper-conscious about what I do and say that might impact the way my girls are thinking about their own health, beauty, and developing bodies. I want them to know that they are growing and changing in just the right way; that human beings are beautiful, and that each and every one deserves respect and kindness no matter what they look like.

Well, almost everyone.

I want to set my girls firmly on a path away from self-doubt and—I’ll be honest here, though it’s terrifying to do so–as far from self-loathing, eating disorders, cutting, binge drinking, and drug use as possible. I thought I’d start my campaign by addressing the issue of healthy body image. But how to tackle it? And am I far too late? Continue reading “On Barbies and Bodies and Beauty”

Misfit Lit: Counting by 7s

From http://www.us.penguingroup.com/
From http://www.us.penguingroup.com/

posted by Beret.

Age Range: Grades 5-8.

I’ve always had a soft spot for what I call “misfit lit.” Into this category I throw a few of the best books for young people I’ve read in the recent past: Loser, by Jerry Spinneli; Wonder, by R.J. Palacio; and A Mango-Shaped Space, by Wendy Mass. A major appeal of these books is that everyone feels like an alien at some point in their lives–often and particularly in middle school. Delving into the brain of an outsider and seeing how they experience and cope with difference can be both comforting and empowering. It could also encourage young people to look for what they might have in common with others, no matter how different they appear to be.

Counting by 7s is no exception. What is unique is that we spend a good deal of the book inside the head of Willow Chance–a girl with incredible intellectual gifts and a penchant for botany, medical texts, and the number seven. The author, Holly Goldberg Sloan, does not water down Willow’s vocabulary or personality in any way to make her character easier to swallow. In fact, it isn’t important for the reader to understand everything the main protagonist says or does throughout the novel in order to grasp her emotional turmoil and her desperate need to cope and connect. Continue reading “Misfit Lit: Counting by 7s”

Talking to Your Kids About Hate

posted by Gina

While today brought us a bright, shining, rainbow beacon of hope, we’ve been having a tough go of it. The world is proving a brutal place. How do we talk to our children about hatred? About violence? About racism? How do we answer their questions and how do we raise them to be a part of the solution?

I don’t know the answer. I wonder daily how to talk to my students. I’ve spent some time recently looking for advice and for resources, and thought I’d take this opportunity to share them with you.

Continue reading “Talking to Your Kids About Hate”

A Brief Discussion of Gratitude in a San Serif Style.

posted by Beret. To the two of you who also subscribe to my personal blog, Bad Parenting 101: apologies for today’s simulcast!

In honor of the upcoming holiday, I wanted to take a moment to think about gratitude.

If that sentence gave you the heebie jeebies, join the club. For some unknown reason, I have a deep-seated repulsion for Chicken Soup-y type aphorisms and daily meditations.

Perhaps it is accentuated by the cliché art and bad fonts which typically accompany such things.

From www.lancelang.com
From http://www.lancelang.com

Don’t get me wrong. I love sunsets. In fact, I would be thrilled to be present for the moment depicted above. But what’s great about the setting sun over the lake is definitely not the cloying overscript on a two-dimensional reproduction.

Moreover, just because I won’t hang that poster doesn’t mean I have a beef with fostering gratitude. On the contrary! Gratitude is essential. I’m working on this often, striving to be a better person, and I certainly don’t want my kids to grow up to be selfish brutes. So…presenting…

A brief discussion of gratitude in a sans serif style.

A memorial billboard for mca from www.freshnessmag.com.
A memorial billboard for Adam Yauch, aka MCA from http://www.freshnessmag.com.

Semi-recent articles in the Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post, the Atlantic Monthly, and Family Circle once again outline that teaching gratitude to your kids is important. Do it.

Why? Fostering gratitude doesn’t just make more tolerable people; it makes happier people. Jeffrey Froh (PsyD) did a study with middle schoolers. He asked one group to list up to five things for which they were grateful everyday for two weeks. Another group listed hassles, and the last group filled out surveys. The first group showed a marked jump in optimism and overall well-being that extended for a while, even after the study was completed. Those students also had a more positive attitude about school in general. Feeling grateful boosts happiness, gives people better perspective in life, and improves relationships at home, school, and work. (from Family Circle)

To sum up what I’ve learned…most experts recommend:

  • Model gratitude. Big surprise. Thank your kids. Thank your significant other. Thank friends, cashiers, relatives, teachers, baristas, maybe even the DMV clerk. After all, it must be a sucky job.
  • Give positive reinforcement. Even just “hey, thanks for noticing.” or “I appreciate your comment,” can help the set a pattern of behavior.
  • Give them less. Have kids work toward something they want, do chores, earn money. Let them know the value of an item. I could buy you those shoes, but then we can’t order pizza tonight. Lost a backpack? Help earn a new one. Talk about how work hours translate into garbage pick up, electricity, gasoline, vacation. Read aloud Farmer Boy, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. In addition to being a humorous and vivid story, it discusses hard work, chores, about wasting nothing. There is also a great discussion about the value of a silver dollar that Almanzo would like to spend at the fair. Another book recommendation: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter. If that doesn’t make you appreciate having heat and food on the table, I don’t know what will. Amazing.
  • Volunteer as a family. We’ve started very small. We collect our change and bring it to CoinStar periodically, which allows us to select a charity and send it electronically. What could be simpler? It teaches them that even pennies and nickels can add up to something significant. We’ve also baked cookies and given them out to homeless people, sold cupcakes to raise money for charities, and currently we foster kittens for the SPCA.
  • Coach when appropriate. I often have my kids make their own purchases, even when they are using my money. I remind them to say thank you (before or after the transaction, not during. I try to avoid barking at them while they are mid-transaction) and ask them to leave a tip when appropriate. They need little nudges along the way. “I was disappointed that you didn’t seem more grateful after I helped you with your homework. I could have been doing other things.” Reminding them of opportunities to be aware and thankful is not cheating.
  • Structure a moment of gratitude into the day. Practice, practice, practice! Gratitude is a muscle that needs exercising. Examining life for the positive helps lay new pathways in the brain, creating a positive mindset. That explains why Jeffrey Froh’s experiment had such an impact. This is big! I grew up saying grace at the table, so it feels natural to ask my kids, “What are you thankful about today?” when we sit down to eat dinner. I answer the question, too.

I highly recommend Shawn Achor’s TED talk on Happiness. Don’t be put off by its title: “The Happy Secret to Better Work.” It actually includes the happy secret to better life. There are amazing nuggets tucked in amongst some amusing anecdotes. Among them: “90% of your longterm happiness is predicted not by the external world, but by the way your brain processes the world.” In other words, by your MINDSET. Further study has shown that increasing positivity increases creativity, energy, and intelligence, because the dopamine released not only makes us feel happiness, it turns on the learning centers of our brains.

In the last two minutes of his talk, he outlines five quick and easy ways to increase happiness–based on research and not hopeful speculation. Guess what comes in at number one? Write down three new gratitudes each day for 21 days in a row. That is why I now have a gratitude journal, though I can’t call it that, of course. The phrase “Gratitude Journal” makes me gag a little. I have a crass name for it which I can’t repeat here, but which makes me laugh every time I take it out. I figure that makes me happier, too.