readergirlz is a literacy and social media project for teens, awarded the National Book Foundation's Innovations in Reading Prize. The rgz blog serves as a depot for news and YA reviews from industry professionals and teens. As volunteers return full force to their own YA writing, the organization continues to hold one initiative a year to impact teen literacy. All are welcome to "like" us on Facebook!

Thursday, June 4, 2009

June: Sweethearts Roundtable!

Every month, Little Willow rounds up divas and postergirlz for a roundtable discussion of the spotlighted title. This month we were excited to have a chance to talk about Sara Zarr's wonderful novel, Sweethearts. Without further ado, here's Little Willow to start us off!


I cherish the book Sweethearts, I really do. Sara Zarr's sophomore novel gently captures both the innocence of youth and the point at which it is shattered. The friendship between a fragile girl and a tormented boy changes dramatically when they are children, and evolves further when they are teenagers and the long-lost boy returns unexpectedly.

Last August, the postergirlz selected this book as one of our of the recommended reads within that month's issue of readergirlz. Now, Sweethearts is our main pick for June , the book of the month for our book group. Five of us - Little Willow, Miss Erin, Lorie Ann Grover, Melissa Walker, and Holly Cupala - set up an online meeting to discuss the book at length. Here's what we had to say.

Little Willow: What words come to mind when you think of Jenna, the main character in Sweethearts?

Miss Erin: Lost, buried, caught, hidden, confused, bruised, neglected.

Melissa Walker: Hiding, scared.

Little Willow: I second "hiding" and "confused." Also: Fragile, lonely, searching, nostalgic, torn.

Holly Cupala: Questioning identity, hidden truths, self-punishment, longing for acceptance.

Lorie Ann Grover: Self-doubt, lost, confused, pained, hungry for peace and acceptance from others and herself.

Little Willow: When she slipped back into her binging habits, I wanted so badly to help her.

Lorie Ann: I know, LW! It pained me when she stole and binged. Pained me!

Holly: My heart went out to her. We've all been in places where we've felt misunderstood and helpless and have tried to soothe ourselves in unhealthy ways, whether physical or emotional. Sometimes we have to reach bottom before we can start the journey back up.

Little Willow: By the time she got to high school, Jennifer shed the weight and (some of) the shyness of her elementary school self. She also changed her name to Jenna. What did you think of her transformation?

Miss Erin: Reinventing yourself can be a good thing, but in Jennifer's case I think it was more harmful than helpful. She wasn't doing it for the right reasons, per se--she was doing it to try to run away from her past. Your past isn't something you can run away from and still be perfectly content/at peace/happy. Jenna certainly wasn't.

Melissa: I thought it was another way for her to hide from a past she was unsure about, a time that brought her pain to remember.

Lorie Ann: I have a different perspective. I admired that she redefined herself. I found her journey in Sweethearts to be about meshing the new image authentically with who she really was. And what a surprise: her authentic self was even greater than she hoped. She was liked, loved, and courageous.

Holly: She worked so hard to hide from the people who were hurting her that she also hid from herself. Most heartbreakingly, she hid her own strength. She couldn't even see it because it was wrapped up in all that pain. I admired her most when she was able to have compassion and admiration for her earlier self.

Little Willow: The friendship between Jennifer (Jenna) and Cameron was so believable, their ties so strong, that I envied it (though not the events that tested those ties!) I liked how important their friendship was when they were kids, then important in a different way when they reunited as young adults. Their relationship was always platonic, yet it was so deep. I feel that the title is accurate, but in a surprising way, as this is not the romance that title might imply. Instead, it's about the innocence of children, what happens when that innocence is lost, and what it truly means to have a forever friend. I am always happy when a story (be it a book, a film, anything) permits a girl and a guy to have a platonic relationship. Just because people are opposite genders and approximately the same age doesn't mean they should date. That societal assumption really bothers me. The connection that Jenna and Cameron had was strong because it was built on so many layers.

Miss Erin: Yeah, it was believable. I'm so used to not reading about deep-yet-platonic relationships between the main character and her guy friend, that at first it through me for a loop and I kept wait for a romance to blossom. It was refreshing, really, to find a friendship like theirs...meaningful yet without any romantic complications.

Melissa: Good point, Miss Erin! I loved the depth of friendship, and that physical/romantic things didn't get in the way. They were just . . . close. The scene with Jenna and Cameron just lying on the grass together had a big emotional wallop for me.

Holly: I agree! I was waiting for a romantic development, but it didn't feel wrong when it didn't come. It made me think of childhood friendships, and how they have changed over the years, or my memory of them has. I had a crush on a guy when I was a pre-teen, then ran into him again in college, and it just felt . . . weird. I don't think I could have ever thought of him that way.

Lorie Ann: Okay, I hear you each, BUT I wanted a kiss! I still want a kiss! In my next chapter they kiss. :~)

Little Willow: The scene in her room also stayed with me - and, of course, the flashbacks.

Holly: Yes! Those shared memories - and how each of them perceived them in both similar and very different ways.

Little Willow: Let's discuss what happened to them as kids. Did you see it coming? Did you think it was handled well and/or revealed well? Your reactions to the truth, once we readers knew for certain what had happened?

Melissa: I was glad that it wasn't a huge, dramatic event in the sense that it might have been. An almost-happened moment can be just as confusing and scary as a "happened" moment sometimes, and I think that was the case here. I hope that's clear.

Lorie Ann: I think it's more universal to be an almost event, one that many people can imagine and understand without further horrific specifics. However, it demands more of the reader. A cursory reading would leave the reader unsympathetic with what the children experienced.

Holly: I was so relieved when it was an almost-moment, even though it shook both of them. It only served to highlight what was going on with Cameron behind closed doors - Jennifer only got the tiniest hint of what his life was like, and it changed her forever. That was powerful.

Little Willow: What did you think of the writing? Of the storytelling method, with the past revealed in pieces here and there?

Miss Erin: The storytelling method made it very difficult for me to put the book down, because I was so concerned about what happened. I needed to keep reading, but at the same time I was a little afraid to. I ended up reading the book in one sitting because of the constant wanting to make sure they were going to be okay.

Holly: I couldn't put it down because of the emotional tension and slow reveal. My writer-brain was on alert: "How is she doing this??" I learn a lot from Sara!

Little Willow: Sweethearts was a compulsive read. Zarr handled the tension quite well: she drew the readers in right from the start, then kept that tension nice and tight throughout the entire story. She kept the characters acting and sounding their ages, especially in the childhood flashbacks. Contemporary Jenna never sounded like an overly wise and nostalgic adult, considering her childhood days at length with distance, but instead she communicated her confusion and the events in her past and present as she experienced them.

Melissa: I loved it. I thought the reader was kept uneasy, much like Jenna and Cameron were uneasy in their lives. We felt their shakiness chapter by chapter, and we weren't sure why. I think they weren't either, and we were all finding out what things meant together at the same time.

Miss Erin: Well said, Melissa.

Lorie Ann: Yes, Miss Erin. It also echoed memories being captured. It was easier to experience this vicariously with Jenna through the structure.

Little Willow: Sweethearts was Sara Zarr's second novel. I also really enjoyed her first book, Story of a Girl, which also felt very realistic. Did any of you read that Story?

Holly: Yes. I loved that book, and I loved how well Sara has brought both very different girls to life, even though they are both in some ways defined by events in their past and must heal friendships and family relationships.

Lorie Ann: I did and absolutely admired Sara's realism. She is such an honest writer and acute observer of people. What subtle and powerful writing she has given us! It's been too long since I read Story of a Girl to compare and contrast Jenna and Deanna. (Although they both have "e" "nn" and "a" in their names.) And now I will have to reread it!

Little Willow: I think it's interesting to note that, in Sweethearts, Jenna's hiding a secret, while everyone knows (or thinks that they know) what Deanna did in Story of a Girl. Both protagonists are covered with shadows from their past. Can they escape these shadows?

Holly: I think they both do, though perhaps not in the ways they set out to. Both are overshadowed by the idea that other people hold them captive with their past secrets, and to escape, they both come to a place of recognizing the truth of themselves, their own strength, outside of other peoples' views. I admired them both so much for that.

Little Willow: It's clear that I think Sweethearts is a great pick for readergirlz. Why do you feel people should read this book?

Lorie Ann: It's such a great example of defining yourself. This is something that every person does. So how do you do that in the face of people who have acted against you in the past, who you are now, and who you want to become. Most dear to me was the healing between Jenna and her mother. What a great warning that one neglect to communicate can alter relationships forever. Thank you, Sara!

Holly: I think Jenna's story will resonate with readergirlz of all ages. So much of growing up is about finding who you are, where you are going, and who you want to take with you. After struggles, heartbreak, and a second chance, Jenna comes away knowing all of these things. A beautiful book.

Melissa: I love that Jenna comes to be at peace with many different parts of herself, as we all must do. She isn't just one thing -- just Jennifer or Jenna -- she's a combination of all that she's experienced and seen and learned. And that's a beautiful thing.

Lorie Ann: I am so happy to be hosting Sara this month at rgz. It's our honor to have her participation. Let the month begin!

Hey there, roundtable readers! What did you think of Sweethearts? Please join our discussions of the book here at the readergirlz blog and check out the June issue of readergirlz!


Little Willow said...

We could have discussed this book for days! Many thanks to the participants. :)

I think Sweethearts is a really strong selection for readergirlz, and for any book group. I really hope that readers (hi, you - yes, you, person reading this comment right here and now!) respond and really get into our discussions this month!

holly cupala said...

I second that! This is a great book for further discussions. Readergirlz - beg, borrow or buy this book! ;)

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