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The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

Wolff, Virginia Euwer True Believer. Atheneum, 2001. 264p
ISBN 0-689-82827-6   $17.00   Gr. 7-12

LaVaughn (narrator of Make Lemonade, BCCB 7/93) is a committed young woman, determined to break the tradition of her neighborhood and make it to college. She moves up to a fast-track science class, leaving old friends Myrtle and Annie behind, and commits to strict after-school sessions of Grammar Build-Up, taught by the inspiring Dr. Rose and using grammar as a focus for life lessons about standards and determination. Having babysat for young single mother of two Jolly, LaVaughn knows that fifteen is old enough to be diverted from one's life plans by a boy, but she doesn't understand how anyone could be so foolish as to let that happen. And then she finds Jody.

A childhood friend returned to the neighborhood, Jody shares LaVaughn's determination to leave this hard life behind and get to college; he is also so "gorgeous/ I can't look at you and talk to you at the same time." LaVaughn is head-over-heels in love, aching for reciprocity; Jody clearly enjoys LaVaughn's company, assenting to be her date for a school dance, but he's not stepping into the boyfriend role. When she slips into his apartment to deliver surprise cookies, the surprise is on her: "and I recognized Jody but not the other one,/ I only noticed it was a boy./ I stood ice-still and I saw their mouths go together and stay." Devastated at this mammoth blow to her dreams, LaVaughn shuts down in grief ("Everything is tragic./ Why didn't anybody ever tell me that before?") and endangers the rest of her future hopes in consequence.

The disappointment-in-romance plot will resonate with many readers, but that's not what the book is really about. While many YA books, explicitly or implicitly, treat the topic of growth and maturation, few capture it as vividly as this title. LaVaughn's world is riddled with change and newness: in addition to her interest in Jody, her path is diverging from that of Myrtle and Annie, who are finding meaning in a restrictive Christian group while LaVaughn finds it in academic ambition, and her long-widowed mother is dating again. LaVaughn is discovering her capabilities, her strengths, her pride, and she's also discovering their price (her old friends term her "uppity") and their down side (she's thoughtlessly condescending to the unglamorous but nice and devoted boy who's her lab partner). She also discovers genuine despair for the first time in her life, and she begins to realize how much strength living beyond such despair can take-and that she has such strength.

The free-verse text gets much accomplished in few words, making the pages airy and inviting to readers who might be daunted by the page count. The verse blends into the story, seeming natural and unforced, and LaVaughn's narration is eloquent but unmannered. The effect of the verse format is musing, a stream of struggling but insightful consciousness, and through it all shines Wolff's tenderness towards her characters and the world. LaVaughn is believable but heroic, with a wonder about life large and small that makes her thirst for knowledge and revel in its expansion; her mother is a familial hero of relentless discipline, stern integrity (her boyfriend becomes persona non grata when he suggests borrowing from LaVaughn's college fund for his unpaid phone bills), and an ample supply of love. LaVaughn's partners in Grammar Build-Up self-advancement are an appealing crew, and Patrick, her lab partner, is touching and sympathetic.

The book is firmly grounded in contemporary reality, and many teens will recognize LaVaughn's turmoil ("Dear God, will I ever understand anything?"). For LaVaughn, however, contemporary reality is the source of revelation. Not only is there a world of possibilities, good and bad, there is a world of choices she can make to have power over her own life. "We must make momentous decisions," says Dr. Rose, and LaVaughn realizes that her decisions are momentous: she chooses to accept the risk of hoping, to embrace those she loves as they are, and to believe in her future. At her sixteenth birthday, she says, "I think I can live with the way life is." Maybe she'll convince her readers that they can, too.

-- Deborah Stevenson, Associate Editor

Big
Picture Image
May's Bulletin cover illustration by Russell Gordon
from True Believer,
Copyright 2001. Used by permission of Atheneum Books for Young Readers.



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