Thursday, April 23, 2009

Loving Hate List

For a little while, I'm back to reviewing YA books, and this is one I'm really glad to have the opportunity to write about.

I was sold on Hate List by Jennifer Brown (coming in September of 2009) the minute I heard about it at a recent preview at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. It starts four months after a school shooting. Hate List's narrator, Val, is an incoming senior. She is simultaneously a hero and a pariah, because although she saved a classmate's life during the shooting, she was dating the shooter, Nick, at the time of the incident. To further complicate Val's post-shooting life, the police found a notebook she and Nick shared, which contained the Hate List. The Hate List is, well, what it sounds like: a list of people who angered Nick and Val. What Val saw as a place to write down her rants, the police see as the list of people Nick and Val wanted to kill. Val is guilty in the eyes of the police, her family, and most of her classmates, but she knows that although a lot of her classmates pissed her off, she would never have killed them. She's been medicated and institutionalized, hit the lowest lows in her life, and now she's ready to go back to school. Though she tries to be invisible, all her classmates are deeply affected by the shooting and therefore deeply affected in the way they feel towards Val. In addition to her troubles at school, Val has trouble at home. Her parents fight a lot and neither one of them seems to see her as anything other than a threat to herself and society.

I've read a few other school-shooting books, and I have to say that this one really stands out in the crowd. Other books often try to sell the reader some kind of political or social platform, but Jennifer Brown is selling us a look at grief, closure, and how a crisis can change people. Val gives us a look at Nick that we wouldn't see in a third-person novel, and that is missed by almost everyone else. Nick is complex. Val is constantly overwhelmed and knocked down by trying to balance her feelings with everyone else's. Though Val keeps her friends at arm's length, we get a clear picture of what they think and who they are. Like all good YA first-person narrators, Val is self-centered and unable to judge others with any degree of wisdom. Her inward focus is what makes her story great. As an adult reader, I could see where the adults were coming from in regards to the way they treated Val, but I also wholly bought Val's heartbreak and path to healing. I did see a few minor flaws, but with its timely subject and writing that makes us empathize rather than react, this is a book that should have a home in most teen collections.

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