I was driving in my very own neighborhood about a year ago when a car with two teenage boys drove past and instead of giving me the friendly neighbor wave, I got the finger. Yes, the middle finger.
I was shocked!
Why would someone stick up their middle finger like that at me? Was I driving poorly? Did they think I was someone else? A buddy, perhaps, who drives a Chevy Impala, too? Did they regret it afterwards? Or were they just mean, jerky boys?
As you can see, this moment stuck around long after the seconds it took for the boy to hold up the offending finger at me. And clearly, I’m not the only person who’s had a moment like this. In Jo Knowles novel, Read Between the Lines, she includes a dedication to “the man driving the station wagon who gave my family the finger in 2003 even though we didn’t deserve it.” Each chapter in the novel is voiced by a different character who encounters the finger during the course of a single day in a single town. Their reactions to the finger differ: one girl is shamed by it, a boy is emboldened by it, a father is at first stunned and then angered. Some find it liberating and others find it hurtful.
Knowles’s writing style is just right for this story – honest and heartfelt – young adults will be drawn to this, especially those who like books by Siobhan Vivian, Jenny Han, Carolyn Mackler, and David Levithan. I found the characters to be realistic and believable. They each seem to feel that there is something more to life than what they’ve been stuck with, but they don’t really know how to make their lives any better. A pretty cheerleader searches for meaningful conversations and friends who aren’t so shallow. A kid who is bullied – both by kids at school and his own father – searches for respect. A 19 year old man strives for a better job than the “temporary” one he has now at a fast food restaurant. A teenage boy wishes his friends would grow up and quit their mean pranks, yet also wishes they were still just kids again, enjoying summers in their tree house. Each character, who was briefly mentioned in a previous chapter, becomes more than what others see when they look at them. The only thing I disliked about this book was that the chapters never went back to the other characters to see how their lives turned out. Instead, we as readers have to imagine what will happen. Maybe getting “the finger” will inspire a change in their lives, or maybe it will simply fade from their memories as time passes.
While most of the characters are teenagers, the final chapter is narrated by a young, female teacher. I could definitely relate to many of her struggles and worries. She has taken the place of another teacher and hasn’t figured out how to gain her students’ trust. Teaching is just not what she thought it would be. She’s considering giving up, but in the final lines of the book, she states, “That just like there is more to her than what they see, there is more inside each one of them. What’s your story? she will wonder as she scans the room from face to face. And this time, when she pleads with them to read between the lines, she will try to do the same.” This is exactly what I tried to do with my students, and what we really need to do with each other: stop and consider what issues other people may be dealing with and be kind to one another. Read Between the Lines hasn’t received as much attention as other YA books, but it’s quietly compelling and worth the read.