Testing The Testing: A Review

The Testing

Joelle Charbonneau

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The Story: From the backcover of my book: “The Seven Stages War left much of the planet a charred wasteland. The future belongs to the next generation’s chosen few, who must rebuild it. But to enter this elite group, candidates must first pass The Testing—their one chance at a college education and a rewarding career”

Cia has been dreaming of being chosen for The Testing and going to University, just like her father, her whole life. But when this dream is made a reality, her father’s chilling parting advice to trust no one is the first reveal that nothing is as it seems. Cia won’t only be competing for a spot in the university, but for her life.

What Wallace and I Think: The Testing is largely a paint-by-numbers YA dystopian novel that has striking similarities to The Hunger Games, Divergent and The Maze Runner. It has all the characteristics that are quickly becoming the markers of this genre: set in post-apocalyptic America (and spends some time in Chicago, which some of the other books I mentioned do, weird coincidence); society is divided into factions/districts/colonies and are characterized by what they produce; the main character(s) is separated from their family; there is a romance with a childhood friend, and this romance puts the main character in danger; a forced love triangle; a token “dark-skinned” character that is killed off early in the series[1]; and a corrupted government running whatever trials/tests/games the teenage character(s) must navigate.

However, what separates The Testing from other series is the potential relatability to readers. Yes, the final round of tests are eerily similar to the actual Hunger Games, but the first round of tests the university hopefuls must go through include four-four hour written tests on History, Math, Science and English. Sound familiar? These tests may seem tame compared to the last test, in which hopeful students are more than happy to kill one another to improve their chances at earning a spot at the University, but Charbonneau captures the stress written tests can bring (one competitor commits suicide after the written tests). Charbonneau takes the anxiety finals bring, especially those finals that will determine whether you get the grades you need to move on to post-secondary education, and turns it into a series.

This is what I find original and interesting about the series. The novel raises questions regarding the usefulness and consequences of this sort of testing in our own world. Sure, students in reality aren’t killing one another off to get ahead, but it is well known and documented that student suicide rates, in high school and post-secondary, are highest in December and April: finals season (what is called Dead Week at some universities). In my current dorm room, the windows can only be opened a few inches, and housing states this is for students’ safety, which we students all know and interpret as “so students can’t jump out of the windows.” The issues Charbonneau tackles may be closer to actual challenges and obstacles readers will face when compared to the other series I mentioned. Why does this matter? If you’re feeling the stress that school can bring, reading a series like this may help you to feel that you’re not alone. The academic side of me would put it like this: if someone is dealing with depression, a book like this could be an excellent resource to safely explore and workthrough emotions difficult to express, while also offering an escape from reality.

So while I didn’t find the novel overtly original, found some of the writing clumsy, and characters other than Cia were flat and underdeveloped, it’s engagement with an important issue makes it a worthwhile read, and I will be definitely be reading the second book in the series because I am intrigued to find what the university environment will be like.

If you love series like The Hunger Games, Divergent and Maze Runner AND want to read something very similar, this is the new series for you. I’d love to hear what you think.

[1] Case in point: Rue, Alby and in this novel Malachi. This is a pet peeve of mine. I appreciate that the authors are trying to introduce a more diverse cast of characters, but having the majority of the population as white in a post-apocalyptic world isn’t only troubling, but having these “diverse” characters firmly placed in the background/killed off early doesn’t actual do much to change the absence of non-white characters in YA and children’s literature. See an excellent article by Christopher Myers that calls this the Apartheid of children’s literature here, and another by Walter Dean Myers here

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Review of Stargirl

Stargirl (2002) by Jerry Spinelli

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The Story: A new student arrives at Mica Area High School, and the student body doesn’t know what to make of her. She wears costumes, dances in the rain, carries her rat Cinnamon with her everywhere, strums her ukulele and sings Happy Birthday to people she’s never met in the lunch room, and cheers for both the home and away teams. Once the students gets over their initial puzzlement, she inspires outbursts of individuality throughout the school, and she starts a rebellion: “a rebellion for rather than against. For ourselves” (40). However, when Stargirl’s antics become more than the students can tolerate her eccentric habits becomes disparaged rather than celebrated. Can Stargirl survive the overwhelming conformity of High School?

What Wallace and I Think: I recently discovered the work of Jerry Spinelli when one of my committee members put Report to the Principal’s Office on my comprehension reading list. Since then, I’ve been making my way through some more of Spinelli’s novels for my dissertation research, and while I have enjoyed everything I’ve read by Spinelli thus far, Stargirl is my favorite.

Stargirl is a fascinating character that takes time to accept. Initially everything she did I assumed was for show, to be the center of attention. This undercut the sincerity of her actions and made her weird behavior annoying rather than endearing. However, as I came to know her better through her relationship with the narrator Leo, it’s revealed that she is completely in earnest. One character muses that she is “a little more primitive than the rest of us, a little closer to our beginnings, a little more in touch with the stuff we’re made of” (177). Stargirl is also a flawed character, which makes her even more appealing. She is not completely immune to the desire of wanting to be accepted by her peers, which brings her story from a fantastic realm to reality. She does cave for a time and tires to fit in, and as a reader you do not criticize her for this, but sadly understand.

The narrator, Leo, is equally complex. He embodies the readers’ contradictory feelings for Stargirl: loving her, but not wanting her to get hurt, which means tempering her individuality. Leo is also an interesting character because he falls in love with Stargirl when she is Stargirl, not when she’s trying to fit in, and during a period when the entire school shuns her. He is dazzled by her, and though he is later influenced by the opinions of others, initially falls in love with Stargirl for herself. This is a positive message and frankly a refreshing depiction of a teenage boy in a young adult novel.

Spinelli does a wonderful job of telling a story that is largely a metaphor for the struggle of staying true to yourself in an environment that demands conformity to the norm. The high school he depicts is realistic, not a caricature, and I found myself wondering if I would have the courage to be myself to the extent that Stargirl is not only when I was in high school, but now. Spinelli gracefully captures the fear and risks of being an individual, but leaves us with hope at the end.

Though this story takes place in a high school, it’s a clean story, and I believe would be enjoyed by children twelve and up.

Review of Sweethearts

Sweethearts (2009)

By Sara Zarr

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Disclaimer: this novel contains some “implied” sexual encounters (though overall it’s pretty PG), as well as depicts physical and mental abuse. If you’re under 13, please check with your parents before reading.

The Story: During elementary school Jenna Vaughn’s childhood sweetheart, Cameron, disappears suddenly. Jenna hears rumours that Cameron has died, and finding no proof against these rumours, she believes them and mourns the loss of her best friend and only person who truly knew her. But Cameron mysteriously returns during Jenna’s senior year of high school, forcing her to confront a disturbing event they both shared, but have never spoken of, and compelling Jenna to determine who she really is.

What Wallace and I Think: I was largely underwhelmed by this novel. When Cameron does reappear, this results in a few page turning chapters because I was curious to find out what really happened to him, but otherwise the novel relies too heavy on shallow tensions that fail to add the urgency or drama the novel was striving for. Jenna is a difficult person to root for, for several reasons.

  1. First off, when Jenna knew Cameron in elementary school, she was unpopular and outcast with Cameron as her only friend. When Cameron disappears, and Jenna moves schools, she transforms herself into a popular girl, who by senior year has a close group of friends and a boyfriend. Jenna fears what will happen if her new friends discover what she was like in elementary school from Cameron. However, it is difficult to relate or believe this fear. I find it hard to believe that her friends of four years would stop hanging out with her, or think of her differently if they found out she didn’t have many friends, was teased, and was chubby in grade three. Why do I think this? BECAUSE IT HAPPENED IN GRADE THREE! I know it’s been a while since I was in high school, but if in grade twelve I found out my friend had been teased in elementary school and wasn’t very popular, I highly doubt I, or anyone for that matter, would respond with “What? You weren’t popular you’re whole life? Well, I can no longer be associated with you.” This fear of being “found out” by her friends is present through most of the text, and not much to my surprise, Jenna’s friends don’t care, at all, when they do find out, deflating whatever building tension there was.
  2. Jenna is very resentful of her mother. Until her mother remarried when Jenna was in Jr. High, it was just to two of them. Her mother put herself through nursing school while working a full-time job, leaving Jenna by herself a lot. I can understand that that would be tough on a kid, feeling like your mom isn’t around. But Jenna is now seventeen, and she is still angry at her now present mom for basically working hard to provide them with a different life. Jenna was alone a lot because her mom was putting herself through nursing school, so she could get a better job, and better provide for her daughter. You would think that a seventeen year old would at least be able to grasp this better than Jenna does, and cut her mom a little slack, and maybe even admire her for accomplishing so much as a single mother. Jenna’s inability to see beyond her own hurt undercuts her mom’s own accomplishment and struggle.
  3. When Cameron returns an unstable love triangle forms because Jenna has a boyfriend. The love triangle is unstable because Jenna is honest from the beginning that she doesn’t really have feelings for her boyfriend. So I continually found myself asking, as does one of Jenna’s girlfriends, WHY DON’T YOU JUST BREAK UP WITH YOUR BOYFRIEND (who Jenna doesn’t seem to like very much) AND JUST BE WITH CAMERON. Sorry for the all caps, but I found it very frustrating because, like my other two points, it seemed like a weak attempt to add drama to the novel.

Sweethearts wasn’t all deflated drama, and I will give props where they are due.

  1. Cameron’s personal story is much more heart wrenching than Jenna’s, and perhaps focusing more on him would have made for a better book. Cameron is a victim of child abuse, and the few scenes depicting his father are terrifying, and my heart did break for his and his siblings’ struggle. If you’re going to read this book, do it to meet Cameron.
  2. The depiction of Jenna’s stepfather is really beautiful and positive, which isn’t always the norm with step parents in children’s and YA literature. Alan, the stepfather, loves and supports Jenna, and is often the person Jenna chooses to go to first when she needs comfort. There’s a beautiful scene when Jenna finds herself unable to sleep at three am (I won’t spoil why), and wakes Alan with her crying. He comes into her room, and simply sits next to her with his hand on her ankle until her morning alarm goes off. Their relationship was one of the stronger points of the novel.

I would recommend the age range for this book to ages thirteen and older. I give Sweethearts a 3/5

Review of Dark Companion

Dark Companion

Marta Acosta

Published by Tor Teen in 2012

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Disclaimer: this novel involves sexual content, as well as drug use. Please consult with your parents before reading

I’ve been working on a project about the intertextuality of Jane Eyre in 21st Century children’s and YA lit, and yesterday I finally finished reading my primary sources (hurray). The last book I read for this project was Dark Companion by Marta Acosta. This YA book started as an online novel, and was so popular with readers that it was picked up by Tor Teen and published “officially” in print and ebook format. I spent yesterday reading all 350 pages, one because I had too, and two because it was a real page turner.

The Story: Jane was orphaned at eight, and has been hopping from foster home to foster home until finally landing in a group home run by the horrid Mrs. Prichard in the rough neighbourhood of Helmsdale (called Hellsdale by the residents). After working hard in school, Jane is accepted to the prestigious Birch Grove Academy on a full scholarship. Here Jane finds a new group of friends, enjoys her classes, loves her beautiful little cottage nestled in the woods, and even develops a serious crush on the headmistress’s son, Lucien. However, Birch Wood is too good to be true, and Jane begins to question the seemingly sinister activities taking place at the school: why did the school nurse, Mrs. Mason, kill herself? Why did the former scholarship student, whose place Jane has filled, abruptly leave? Why is Lucien so obsessed with Jane’s blood? As the back cover write-up states “As Jane begins to piece together the answers to the puzzle, she must find out why she was brought to Birch Grove—and what she would risk to stay there.”

What Wallace and I think: Since the promotional quote from the Kirkus Review on the front cover says that this book “gives vampires and their victims a long-overdue makeover” (really, is it long-overdue?! Has this reviewer been living under a rock?) I am not ruining the surprise by saying the book does deal with vampires. Because of this I immediately started making comparisons to Twilight, as I’m sure anyone reading a YA book about vampires would do. Because I feel this trend is overused, I wasn’t overtly hopeful. As well, though Twilight is somewhat of a guilty pleasure for me, and I can understand why it has been so popular, I find the abusive undertones and Bella’s passive acceptance of her treatment and utter devotion to both boys highly disturbing. There is nothing about Bella’s relationship with Edward or Jacob that young readers should wish for in their own romantic lives.

So though I was cautious when starting Dark Companion I was quickly won over, and was convinced by the end that THIS is the vampire book I could get behind.

  1. I found the “modern” update of vampires in Twilight very cheesy (ie. They sparkle…what?!). Acosta’s reimaging of the vampire myth I think does a better job of bringing the legend into the modern world. Acosta’s “vampires” are not the undead, they don’t have fangs, they don’t hunt people, and they are not immortal. Instead they are humans who have an enzyme deficiency caused by a recessive genetic disorder that causes a biological desire to replace their damage DNA by drinking blood. They drink animal blood, will eat red foods and drinks to trick the cravings, and will drink human blood when available.
  2. Jane is a strong and realistic flawed character who says no. She is often confused by her feelings for Lucien (of course she is, otherwise there wouldn’t be any drama), and it at times boarders into dangerous Bella and Edward like territory. But Jane ultimately is in control of her body and decides what she wants. Jane understands pain is not love, and says no. Jane saying no, and whoever she says no too stopping whatever they are doing when she says it, is important.
  3. I remember feeling uncomfortable and sad when watching the third Twilight The night before Bella’s wedding she is alone in her room, with only a quick goodnight from her dad, and Edward is out for a “stag” with his friends. It made me think back to my own “night-before-the-wedding” surrounded by my family and my best girlfriends. I felt supported and loved. My wedding day didn’t feel like just a celebration of mine and my husband’s love for one another, but of the love we shared with our whole community of family and friends. Bella didn’t have that because she isolated herself from her family and friends through her complete obsession with Edward. Jane connects with three girls in the novel, and grows close to them, leans on them, and is still standing with them at the end. Along with Jane’s saying no, Jane’s having true friends and not letting herself become completely sidetracked by a boy, I found refreshing.
  4. Acosta’s novel patriciates in Victorian gothic conventions, which I think she does well. I love that she opens each chapter with a quote from the very best gothic writers and works of the Victorian era like Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray; Charles Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood; Bram Stokers’ Dracula (obviously); Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; Edgar Allan Poe’s “Ligeia”; and John William Polidor “The Vampyre”. I appreciated this because it set the tone throughout the novel, and, as I always hope, could peak the interest of young readers to check out these texts for themselves. As well the novel is a reimagining of Jane Eyre in an imaginative and surprising way that I greatly enjoyed.

I give this novel a 4/5