My kids and I have been swapping books a lot lately – it’s been fun. A lot of the books I “give” them end up becoming our family read-aloud books. Yes, even though my kids can read on their own just fine we still read aloud together most nights because, well, because I like it. And until they ask me to stop, I’m going to keep doing it.
But lately they’ve been passing up their books when they finish them saying, “Oh, Mom, you just HAVE to read this one!”
Then, a few weeks ago my oldest handed up a book and said, “Mom, I need you to finish this one for me. It’s freaking me out and I need to know if I should keep reading it.”
It’s a book by one of her favorite authors – Jerry Spinelli, who wrote Jake and Lily, one of the first “You GOTTA read this!” hand-ups.
This one is called Jason and Marceline. I bought it for my kiddo at the used book store when I was stocking up on summer reading titles. The back copy made me think it was a next level growing up version of Jake and Lily. And, more or less, it is.
This one is written entirely from the boy’s point of view. And… It’s as close as I’ve come to finding a Forever… for boys.
I can totally see why it made my daughter nervous/squicky. She got about half way in before she handed it off to me. I made a point of putting it down when I reached her bookmark and just let those feelings wash over me, let myself remember those years of school, let all those battles over fitting in and staying true to myself come back.
Middle school was hard. Really hard. Brutal.
But at the same time, sitting there half way through the book, I felt hope – because reading this book allowed me to travel back in time and forgive some of the people who made it as hard as it was. It helped me understand them and what motivated them to do and say the things they did. If I was feeling pressure, they had it a hundred times worse – because they really cared what other people thought of them, they really thought if they didn’t keep up life would end.
I’ve been thinking a lot about a saying I read recently – “Other people’s judgement says more about them than it does about you.” This book really brought that into stark focus for me. All those people who had judged me – and the ways I judged them back… It was never about the other person, it was always about our own demons.
So, with that in mind, I plunged back into the book and finished it.
It’s a great book, really eye-opening. But… My daughter’s right, it’s not be the book she needs right now.
For now, the idea that every one of her male peers is only judging her based on her chest size is – squicky. It’s nervous making and lame and makes it hard for her to relax and be herself and experience the world with an open heart. And I don’t want that. I don’t want her to be self-conscious about her body, about her passions, about her smarts. I want her to keep being herself, without having to put on extra emotional armor before she walks out the door.
However… I do want her to get to the end, to see how being true to yourself changes the game completely.
This might not be the book for this summer, but I’m glad we have it on the shelf for when people around her start… changing. Because when I finished this book, the only thing I could think was, “Why wasn’t this required reading in 7th grade!?! It would have changed EVERYTHING!”
So – now, to the actual book.
It’s about this guy Jason, and his friends. It’s the last year of middle school, in this book that’s 9th grade. Over the summer, lots of the girls have started to develop. School for Jason and his pals is 90% about checking out the new growth. Commenting on it. And, discussing how to get some.
They rate the girls, and are astonished to discover that the best rack belongs not to a transfer student, but to a girl they’ve known forever but didn’t recognize.
“Did you look at her face?” Asks the guy who finally helps them identify this mystery girl. It turns out, they hadn’t bothered to look above the neck. (Scenes like this are what squicked out my girl who really doesn’t want to believe that a day will ever come when her guy friends won’t recognize her because they won’t be able to drag their eyes all the way to her face.)
Jason’s best friend is a girl, Marceline. But as 9th grade heats up, he realizes he wants to be more than friends. Even if Marceline is weird and doesn’t fit in – and WORST OF ALL – she doesn’t care that she doesn’t fit in. She doesn’t care what other people think of her.
Jason is different. He cares – A LOT – about what people think of him, what they say about him, how they look at him.
So, in the stairwell with the guys, he listens to their conquests, their crass comments and he thinks that he needs to be doing what they are doing in order to fit in. He has to make a move or be tossed out of the guy club and into dweebville.
This book is all about trickle down peer pressure – and the lies that we accept without question when we’re in the thick of it.
This is why this book is the perfect springboard for the class discussion I wish we’d had in 7th grade.
See, Jason thinks all his friends are getting some. He thinks the girl with the brand new chest is giving it out to everyone but him. He thinks that if he doesn’t keep up, he’ll never be a man. And that means he has to push, pressure, manipulate and badger his girl, who used to be his friend, into doing what everyone else is doing. Or at least what he thinks everyone else is doing.
He and his girl do kiss. She likes it, he likes it, they start kissing all the time. But, that’s not enough, because the other guys are getting and giving hickies, feeling boobs – and then, the bomb drops because someone does “It”. Goes “all the way.”
Meanwhile Jason and Marceline are stalled. She likes kissing, even french kissing, but she has a strict no hickies rule. And Jason can’t abide by that, if he’s not giving her hickies how will everyone else know that he’s keeping up? How will they know what a man he is?
Here’s what I love about this book – and why I want my daughter to read it.
Throughout the book – no matter how persistent Jason is, no matter how pushy he becomes, Marceline holds her personal line. She doesn’t judge others who have different lines, but she’s not willing to do anything that she’s uncomfortable with just because everyone else is, or just because her boyfriend thinks the world will end if they don’t keep up with the rumors.
And at one point, he even tries to use the rumors to pressure her, “Everyone already thinks we’re doing it, so we may as well.”
Marceline isn’t a prude, her character isn’t about being the gate-keeper of sexuality, it’s about being honest about what you want, and what you don’t want. Marceline doesn’t like hickies, she thinks they’re dumb. That is her line in the sand and she doesn’t care how many people show up at school with a hicky, she’s not joining that herd.
When she realizes that Jason is obsessed and won’t be happy until he has a girlfriend covered in hickies to show off, she lets him go. When she realizes that they’ve stopped being friends, that all they do is kiss and makeout and fight – she lets him go. She’s lost the things she loved about him anyway and she’s making him miserable because she isn’t the kind of girl he wants.
She’s honest. She’s thoughtful. She calls him on his crap.
She’s the kind of girl I see my girls growing up to be – honest, brave, true to herself. Even when it hurts. Because holding onto a lie hurts more.
I don’t want to spoil anything, so I’ll just say that – it turns out having someone stand up and be true to themselves no matter the consequences, tends to be inspiring, it tends to create space for people around them to do the same.
This is a great book about the pressure to fit in, the pressure to conform, and the strength it takes to stand up and be yourself – as well as the rewards that come when you light that path and take that leap.
I hope my daughter decides to finish it sometime this summer – as she gets ready to head into middle school. But even if she waits, I’m happy to know this book is in the world and on our shelves. Available for the kids who need a reminder that it’s not about keeping up and fitting in, even though it feels like the world will end if you don’t – it’s about being true to yourself and surrounding yourself with people who make you feel good and who like you – just the way you are.