Novel Latte Book Club: August, 2011
If you are a teen, parent, educator, or just a lover of powerful realistic fiction, you need to put down whatever book you're currently reading and go get your hands on a copy of Want to Go Private? by Sarah Darer Littman.* Read it. Share it. Discuss it. Pass it on.
As an educator of middle grade students on a campus with a one-to-one laptop program, I have the pleasure of witnessing firsthand the effect of the digital revolution on education and teen socialization. No longer are my students restricted to only the information and friends that can be found within the brick and mortar of our school building. These days, when they are curious about a topic or a person, they can access a wealth of relevant information within minutes. I often hear myself telling them, "You have the world at your fingertips, literally! Go look it up online, and tell me what you find." If, as Emily Dickinson wrote, "There is no frigate like a book," to what, I ask you, is the Internet analogous? A stealth jet? A space shuttle? The Internet, like literature, has the ability to transport learners to new worlds and and expose them to new people—worlds and people they may never have the opportunity to visit in person. As an educator, it is truly a beautiful journey to behold.
Beautiful, indeed. Yet, as with any type of travel, there are risks involved with Internet exploration. Namely, Internet predators. Sadly, many parents (and some educators) are unaware of the seriousness of the risks, while others fear these risks so greatly that they are unwilling to allow their children/students to navigate the online waters. Going back to my brick-and-mortar reference above, look at our school buildings: all doors and windows locked during school hours, metal detectors, security cameras. Visitors must check in at the office. Speakers, volunteers, and special guests must undergo criminal background checks. And how about after school? When kids return home for the evening, they remain safely inside the house with the doors locked, alarm activated, parents on patrol. We depend on our walls, locks, and precautions to keep them safe. Yet, they venture "out" of these safe spaces every time they log on to the Internet. Parental controls and monitoring diminish the dangers somewhat, but tech savvy kids will always find ways to "sneak outta the house," so to speak. So, how can we protect them from the dangers lurking in cyberspace? Knowledge. As the saying goes, "Knowledge is power." Endeavor to acquire it for yourself, then pass it on to your kids.
Where to begin in the quest for improving Internet safety knowledge for ourselves and our teens? School assemblies, conversations, helpful videos and websites are all excellent ways to get going. But, we all know that stories, real or fictional, are the learner-preferred and most powerful tool in knowledge acquisition. If we can love a character, if we become attached to that character, we live and learn vicariously through him or her. Enter: Mrs. Littman's newest novel. Over the weekend, a tweet (via @this_is_teen) linked to a Los Angeles Times book review titled, "Not Just for Kids: 'Want to Go Private'" caught my eye. After reading the article, I knew this was the book I'd been waiting for. This was to be the book I would read and share with my students and their parents. I could just feel it. Thirty minutes later I was at the bookstore. And now, after having read it, I'm happy to report that this book not only met my expectations but far exceeded them. I devoured it over the weekend, at one point staying up until almost 4am reading, refusing to sleep until I knew the outcome. It's. That. Good.
This is the story of Abby Johnston, a 14-year-old, smart, witty, young lady. Really, this girl has it "together" as we would say. The novel begins just as the summer is ending, and like many kids, Abby is dreading high school. Unfortunately, her fears are realized from the first day of class—her best friend since second grade seems to be drifting away from her, the popular kids are still just as cruel to her as they were in middle school, cute boys pay no attention to her (except to copy her math assignments). To top it all off, her parents have no clue what's really going on with her, and her little sister is driving her nuts. (Yep. Sounds like high school!) Luckily (or seemingly so), once she's at home and in the privacy of her own bedroom, she can open her laptop and escape to the newest online virtual hangout, chezteen.com. ChezTeen is more than just a typical online chat room. It's a really cool place where one's avatar can actually move about and visit cafes, go to concerts, etc. Here at ChezTeen, she meets Luke. Luke thinks she's funny. He understands her problems. He tells her she's smart and special. Initially, Abby knows it's silly to believe him since he doesn't even know her IRL (in real life), but she figures a little harmless chatting is okay if it eases her loneliness for a time. And yes, he's older than her, but that doesn't matter since she's never going to meet him anyway. Little does Abby know, Luke is grooming her to become his next victim, and she unknowingly plays the part to perfection.
From the moment Abby meets Luke, the book is terrifying. There are scenes within its pages that made me almost physically ill. Abby's behavior, her family's reactions, her friends' reactions, were all spot-on. Anyone who reads it will inevitably relate to one or more of the characters and begin to ask herself/himself questions such as, "How can she fall for this?", "What should Abby's parents be doing differently?", "Do I know an 'Abby'?", "If I were one of her parents/teachers/friends, what would I have done?", "What can I do in the future if one of my own beloved teens exhibits signs of Abby-ness?" Though the story itself reveals some possible answers to these questions as it unfolds, it leaves the reader wanting to do something, to take action in some way. (How's that for the power of a great book?) As for me, my action plan is to share this book with every parent, teacher, and student who is willing to read it. (I've already told my friend that I'll be leaving it in her mailbox this afternoon. I've (lovingly) insisted she read it and share it with her 14-year-old daughter.) I'll tweet about it, take part in book clubs, get copies for my classroom library and for friends, you name it. Why? Because Sarah Darer Littman's Abby became real to me. I grew attached to her and can't "look" at her without seeing my own students. I learned from her, and I intend to spread the message.
*Note: WTGP? has a release date of August 1. However, some Barnes & Noble locations have received early copies and have shelved them. If you are eager to get a copy before Aug. 1, be sure to check online or call ahead to verify availability.