Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez

Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez

Overall Rating: 4.5/5

Quality of Prose: 4/5

Quality of Story: 4.5/5

Quality of Characters: 5/5

Ability to Make the Audience Think/Feel Differently: 4.5/5

How Long It Took Me to Finish: 1 day

A 1 Sentence Summary

Out of Darkness follows four people (African-American teen Wash Fuller, Mexican-American teen Naomi Vargas, her little half-brother Beto “Robbie” Vargas Smith, and his father Henry Smith) in the months leading up to and the days following the 1937 New London School Explosion in New London, Texas, a place and time where racism, segregation, and gender inequality defined and dictated everyone’s lives (and deaths).

My Favorite Quotes

“The dead are not always right. The dead are not saints. But the dead are ours. We carry them with us, like it’s our job. And maybe it is.”

“He needs you, reader. All he asks is that you take the story up and carry it for awhile. This strange song, gathered out of darkness.”

out of darkness

What I Loved About It

Out of Darkness doesn’t feel like a YA novel. It’s gritty and real and deals with very adult subject matter (sexual abuse and rape, racism, murder, etc.) in a very mature way. And though my initial thoughts are that these qualities make it an “adult” book, the fact remains that teenagers and children dealt with these things in 1937 (2 of the central characters are teenagers and one is an 8 year old) and teenagers and children deal with these things today. The YA books that we recommend to them need to prepare them for it. I’m sure you can tell how much I love a good YA coming of age story or a fantasy or dystopian action novel just from the amount of posts on this blog about those kinds of books. And I think kids should read books like that. But I think too often we fall in love with exciting dystopian novels and forget about novels like this, novels that focus on the very dark and dim parts of history and of life.

But Ashley Hope Pérez doesn’t shy away from these dark parts of history and life. No, she shines a spotlight on them. Though many of the events and all of the characters that appear in this novel are fictional, all of them (the racist mob, the African-American scapegoat, the threat of lynching, the lack of autonomy women suffered, the unreachable and unfair gender expectations, the ongoing sexual abuse with no way out, no one to turn to for help) are things people experienced in America in the 1930s, are things people are still experiencing today. Though the characters Pérez has created live in a different time and suffer a tragedy the likes of which few of us will ever experience, they are unfailingly relatable and very human and real. Her ability to weave together a story featuring four central characters with very different motivations, struggles, and experiences in such an expert and well-fleshed out way is unparalleled and makes the story Pérez is telling that much more complex and important.

What My Students Could Learn From It

So. Freakin’. Much.

Out of Darkness opens a window for its readers into another time, another culture, another experience. This window would allow my students to understand a time that was different than ours admittedly and yet has so many similarities to our lives today. This window would allow my students to understand that despite a difference in appearance, all people have the same hurts and fears and experiences, and all people deserve to be treated like people at all times. These lessons might seem simple and yet are so misunderstood and unknown among the youth (and way too many adults) today.

This novel could also teach students about history and give them a glimpse of a historical time period that a textbook could never provide. It could teach my students to never allow this shameful piece of history to be repeated in our time today.

It’s also a complex story containing complex characters in a complex structure and can teach students a lot about text structure and point-of-view and how these elements can shape a text.

I could go on and on for ages about all the ways this novel is good for teens to read, but I have way too much work to do for my Master’s classes to go on any more. I’ll just leave it at this: read this book and tell your students to read it too!

Speaking of my Master’s classes! I’m so busy this summer with school that I’ve asked a (brilliant) friend and co-worker, Savannah Mansour, to do some of my blogging for me. Her blog post(s) should be coming soon! I’m sorry to be off the blog for awhile and will definitely miss it (and you, dear readers!), but you’re gonna love her posts (and her)!

 

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Words on Bathroom Walls by Julia Walton

Words on Bathroom Walls by Julia Walton

Overall Rating: 3.5/5

Quality of Prose: 3/5

Quality of Story: 3/5

Quality of Characters: 3.5/5

Ability to Make the Audience Think/Feel Differently: 4.5/5

How Long It Took Me to Finish: 3 days

A 1 Sentence Summary

Adam Petrazelli, a teenager suffering from schizophrenia and the loneliness that comes with having a mental illness other people don’t understand, begins participating in a clinical trial for a medicine he hopes will change his life, starts his junior year at a new school, makes new friends, and tries his best to keep his illness from them.

My Favorite Quotes

“I don’t think I’ll ever forget that feeling, when I learned what someone would say if they knew my secret. What they really thought about people with my condition. Not the fake comforting words they’d give that other people would hear. The real words in their heart. If they knew I was a threat, they’d tell me to kill myself. They’d think I was a monster.”

“It’s hard to let someone find you in all the dark and twisty places inside, but eventually, you have to hope that they do, because that’s the beginning of everything.”

“Cancer Kid has the Make-A-Wish Foundation because Cancer Kid will eventually die, and that’s sad. Schizophrenia Kid will also eventually die, but before he does, he will be overmedicated with a plethora of drugs, he will alienate everyone he’s ever really cared about, and he will most likely wind up on the street, living with a cat that will eat him when he dies. That is also sad, but nobody gives him a wish, because he isn’t actively dying. It is abundantly clear that we only care about sick people who are dying tragic, time-sensitive deaths.”

words on bathroom walls

What I Loved About It

I loved that this book gave me, and all its other readers, a brief glimpse into what it’s like to live with a stigmatized and feared mental illness as a teenager. There are a ton of YA books out there about suicide and depression that focus on what life is like for those who loved or knew the person who took their life (and those books are very important), but I haven’t found many YA books out there about protagonists who are living and currently suffering from a mental illness.

Though the main character, Adam, falls in love, this book is not at all a romance or even a traditional coming-of-age book really. It simply tells the story of a teenaged boy suffering from a disease that other people fear, while still dealing with all the normal reasons for teenage angst like family problems, friendships, and relationships.  Life is hard enough as a healthy teenager, but to add in serious mental illness and the fear that people will discover that you have that mental illness, it’s almost unbearable. And Julia Walton expertly conveys that in this novel. She has created a very likable and very troubled protagonist in Adam.  I didn’t care a ton about any of the other characters in the novel (like Adam’s girlfriend Maya or the mean guy at school), but I think Adam, his therapist, and his mother and step-father and the dynamics Adam has with each of those characters are really interesting and well-written parts of the story.

What My Students Could Learn From It

In Words on Bathroom Walls, the protagonist allows readers to walk in the shoes of someone with a misunderstood and feared mental illness. This is something all of my students could benefit from–those who suffer from mental illnesses themselves can certainly relate (and could use a novel with a protagonist they can relate to!) and those who don’t could really use some empathy and understanding with regards to mental health.

The main thing I love about this book is that Walton explores so many common misconceptions and fears people have about mental health through it. By setting the novel in 2012, Walton was able to discuss the Sandy Hook shooting and the hatred, distrust, and fear people around the country who had schizophrenia were faced with after that shooting. Adam’s school almost kicks him out after the shooting because the shooter at Sandy Hook also had schizophrenia, and they didn’t want Adam to do something like that at his school. The pain Adam feels at being viewed this way truly effected me and my own views on mental health and school shootings. Reading this book would make my students think about these things differently too.

I’ve said over and over again on this blog that the main thing I want to teach my students is empathy. In our society today, too many people are without empathy when it comes to mental illness. This book can change that.