Thursday, October 21, 2010

Listening to Music in the Car Wash*

I bought my battered copy of Just Listen, by Sarah Dessen, over two years ago at the wonderful McKay's, a used bookstore in my old home city. I had heard about it somewhere and figured it was worth the dollar listed as its price. I was trying to broaden my Young Adult library and figured Just Listen was as good a place to start as any.

This book could so easily have been one big cliche, but because of Dessen's skill as a writer and her sensitivity to her subject, her characters, and her audience, she pulls off, very successfully, what could have ended up as one big melodramatic mess. The book starts with Annabel trying to brace herself for her first day of eleventh grade. Dessen quickly flashes back to the fateful day that Annabel met Sophie. Sophie was new to town and was desperate to get Kristen, Annabel's older, cooler sister, to notice her at the pool. And the rest, as they say, is history, and Sophie and Annabel become best friends.

The book quickly fast forwards back to Annabel in the present, and it becomes clear just as quickly that something dreadful has happened to Annabel; whatever it is (and you don't find out until near the end of the novel) has fractured Annabel's friendship with Sophie and made her a social outcast. It was fairly obvious to me what kind of thing had happened to Annabel, but having my suspicions didn't ruin the book for me; if anything, it made me sympathize with and root for Annabel even more.

Due to her status as a social stigma, Annabel develops an unexpected friendship with Owen, a boy who recently returned to her high school after punching out a fellow student and being arrested the previous year. Surprisingly, Dessen gives Owen a refreshing (and amusing) wisdom, hard won from Anger Management, and the book becomes an examination of honesty, truth, friendship, and genuine love.

The title phrase, "just listen," takes on several significant meanings over the course of the novel: Annabel needs her mom to listen to her; Kristen needs her parents to listen to her so they can help Whitney (Annabel's and Kristen's other sister); Owen wants Annabel to listen to the music he gives her (there is even a burned CD titled "Just Listen"); most importantly, however, Annabel must learn how to listen to herself, and what she learns when she is finally able to do this is pretty powerful stuff.

I don't want to give away the ending, but I appreciated how Dessen dealt with some very pertinent issues facing teenagers today. I loved the characters that she created in Annabel and Owen, and I know many of my students who would benefit from reading this tribute to self-confidence, honesty, and what it really means to let other people help you.

*You have to read the book to find out what this means!

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