Tomorrow is the Young Readers Festival in Flagstaff, a breakout event of the Northern Arizona Book Festival. One of the headliners is Erin Jade Lange, an award-winning author of contemporary young adult novels. In this month’s Southwest Book Review, Mary Sojourner takes a look at Lange’s latest work, "Rebel, Bully, Geek, Pariah." It’s a compelling—and frightening—story about friendship, bullying and trust.
Her grade school classmates called her Worms. Her real name is Sam, and the worms are burn scars caused by an accident with her drug addict mother’s attempt to cook meth. Sam is alone—as only an adolescent can be. Her mother is perilously in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction, and Sam has become the high school pariah. She responds to her isolation by making herself even more cut off. Then, in a night of terror, she becomes far less along. Sam, along with York, the high school football jock-bully; his classic nerd brother, Boston; and Andi, a former Barbie Doll teen queen who now wears Medusa-like dreadlocks find themselves companions in what at first seems to be a horror movie, but they learn is real life.
Erin Jade Lange writes teen dialogue that is pitch perfect. She develops her characters seamlessly. The reader never asks, “Where did that personality quirk come from?” She understands how hurt kids develop connections—clumsily, fearfully and with great intensity, and she writes those connections with humor and deep respect. Lange writes, too, about familial disconnection, about missing mothers and parents who are present physically, but light years away emotionally. Remarkably, she writes those absences without judgment. The reader understands how little control we humans have—whether we are teens or parent, cops or criminals, drug addicts or dealers.
“Rebel, Bully, Geek, Pariah” is the perfect read for anyone who brought themselves through a hard childhood; or knew the icy world of the high school outcast; or grew up having to be the grownup in the family. And, it is an even more powerful read for adolescents living those brutal stories today. The book takes place—and is taking place—everywhere in America, especially where troubled kids learn they can find comfort in learning to trust—and in each other.
There was no Young Adult Fiction when I was growing up. If there had been, “Rebel, Bully, Geek, Pariah” might have been my trail map, a guide to knowing that I was not alone—and that I had value.