looks so scrimpy now.
It looked so big when I was a littler girl.
It was I was going to go to college
and get a job, get out of here
and not live with garbage and stink on my street
and nasty criminals in the neighborhood,
LaVaughn is fifteen years old and lives with her mother in a dangerous, dilapidated apartment complex. Sometimes gunshots wake them in the night, and shootings happen at her school, too. LaVaughn’s got a plan, though: she knows the only way to a safer, happier life is her education. However, her plan is really the only non-confusing thing in her life. Her best friends have changed, putting all their belief into a life that LaVaughn doesn’t want for herself. Her mother is dating a new man, all these years after her father died. Also, LaVaughn’s handsome neighbor Jody is back again, and she needs to sort out just how she feels about it all.
This novel is written in free verse, and you won’t believe it’s written by a grown-up. Virginia Euwer Wolff portrays the uncertainty and anxiety of being a teenager with stream-of-consciousness poetry, which reads just like you are listening to LaVaughn’s thoughts. Even though this is the second novel of a trilogy, the story is complete on its own and you won’t have any trouble following what is going on. Now, there are several special things about this book. First, I am often suspicious of stories like this, about inner-city teenagers trying to succeed against seemingly-insurmountable odds. I find that stories like this often seem to gloss over the obstacles in place, and suggest that anything can be achieved through sheer willpower. That seems unrealistic to me, and also didactic, as though it is telling us the magical formula for success, and implying that everyone who doesn’t succeed has simply not tried hard enough. But LaVaughn’s story isn’t like this at all; it doesn’t talk down to you or minimize the oppressive situation. Furthermore, Wolff’s portrayal of LaVaughn’s friends is compassionate, no matter what their situation. Also great: Jody. I can’t spoil anything, but Jody’s situation and the way it is treated is really outstanding, and definitely National Book Award-worthy. You’ll love this one!
Wolff, Virginia Euwer. True Believer. Simon Pulse: New York, 2001.264 pp. Ages 14-18.
Author’s website: http://www.virginiaeuwerwolff.com
This book is the second in the Make Lemonade trilogy, though it is perfectly okay to read it on its own. If you want to read the first one, it’s called Make Lemonade. The third one is This Full House. If you’d like to read other stories about young people struggling to finish school against the odds, you will probably like Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok. Home of the Brave is another verse novel, and is about a young refugee going to school in Minnesota, so while the plot is slightly different, the format is similar.