book review: The Alternatives by Patrick Jones
Darby Creek/Lerner Books 2014
Based upon information on his website, I can tell you that Patrick Jones is a white male, a former teen librarian turned author who is extremely passionate about reluctant teen readers, for whom he’s written over 20 books. He’s received lifetime achievement awards from both the Catholic Library Association, and the American Library Association. He released the Alternatives series mid 2014. Each book features a different teen who transfers to Rondo Alternative High School. Outburst feels like the first book in the series because it does the most to introduce the school and its staff, but the books really can be read in any order. Characters flow in and out of the separate books, bringing readers a sense of familiarity to the story.
Outburst features Jada, an African American female who has anger issues. She punched her mother after she told Jada that she (Jada) never changes. To stay out of the court system, Jada has to change her habits, her friends and her thoughts.
Rachel provides the narrative voice in Controlled. She’s an upper middle class white female on the track to college and suddenly, in the middle of her senior year, her cousin shows up on her family’s doorstep. They take
Misty in, and all the turmoil that comes with her. Misty attends Rondo.
Bridge is the story of José, an undocumented immigrant who works two jobs and does all the translating for his family. (I’m just realizing I didn’t read this one!)
Frankie belongs to the Dakota Nation and just moved from the Riverwood
Reservation to Minneapolis. His cousins, members of the First Nation Mafia, find Frankie as quickly as trouble finds him at school. He transfers to Rondo and his story is Target.
Jessica is a biracial teen with social anxiety disorder. The staff at Rondo can help her special needs better than other schools. Jessica transfers so that she can develop skills necessary to communicate with others. Barrier is her book.
These books average just over 100 pages in length and are fairly quick, smooth reads. They have just enough grit to appeal to teens with challenging lives, yet the stories are pat and perfect. Teens from lower income families leave their homes and go to Rondo, listen to the cast of sage adults and their lives are made better. Yes, it is necessary to give teens hope, and adults will often have answers, simple answers to help teens live easier lives. But the adults providing the answers here fit just one
more stereotype that abound in these books: the noble sage.
Jessica’s story is a unique to YA lit: a biracial teen with an emotional disorder. Yet, the crux of her biracial identity hinges upon her “nightmare” hair (and we don’t see out of control hair on the cover!). Frankie, Indian name Brave Eagle, is struggling to live a good life but he’s continually confronted by both his cousins and his father to give into the gang life. When it gets particularly tough, he goes home to his wise old grandfather where he visits sweat lodges while local women pray to Ojibwan ancestors to guide their children. Why didn’t other teens go to their faith for strength?
Of course Jada is an angry black female. Here, she’s sizing up the girls at her school.
Jada buried her smile. She’d wanted to hit somebody up for a phone since she had started at Rondo, but she couldn’t get a read on most people. Like at all schools, there were cliques, and none of them seemed open to her. The Hispanic girls went their own way. The other black girls talked too much and too loud for Jada’s taste, but the queen bee, Yvette, was the worst. Every morning at breakfast, she jumped to the front of the line. Today Jada had pushed back – and pushed herself out of any chance of joining up with Yvette’s group. Some of the white girls seems okay, but Jada could tell most were troubled – and trouble- except maybe Jessica. No doubt she was troubled too, but it seemed like she meant no harm to anyone else. Like me, Jada thought. (Outburst, p. 38)
Jones explains his research process in most of the books. He admits Outburst is not meant to be a single story of African American females teens and that he had three African American female teens proofread his manuscript. He conducted his own research for Target (I’m not sure what that means) and talked with Brent Chartier with whom he has previously co-authored books. Chartier’s expertise on Native American ceremonies comes from his “time working at an American Indian health clinic in Michigan.” (Target, p.118)
Jones delivered cohesive stories, but failed in their cultural delivery. They failed to honor from where these young people came both in terms or race, nationality and class. If he’d gotten that right, these could have been very powerful books.