Publisher: Random House Children's Books
Lurlene McDaniel packs an emotional punch in her young adult novel, Red Heart Tattoo, which begins with a random act of violence at a high school and explores the resulting devastation and loss, as well as the ultimate healing that takes place.
At 7:45 a.m. on the day before Thanksgiving break, a bomb goes off at Edison High. Nine people die instantly. Fifteen are critically injured. Twenty-two suffer less severe injuries. And one is blinded. Those who survive, struggle to cope with the loss and destruction. All must find new meaning for their lives as a result of something they may never understand.
Lurlene McDaniel's signature expertise and finesse in dealing with issues of violence, death, and physical as well as emotional trauma in the lives of teens is immediate and heartrending.
To me, Red Heart Tattoo was the book equivalent of that friend's mom/new teacher/random adult who was trying so hard to relate to the teens around them that they never stopped to look around and actually see who the teens were. Lurlene McDaniel tackles some pretty hefty issues in this book, but the reality of these issues seem to just pass her by. Since the 'issues' seem to be such a focus in the book, I will review in a list of issues that I found most problematic:
Okay, I realize that there is still some debate, BUT most scientific studies agree that playing video games does not make kids violent! And the studies that say they do? Most of them suffer from serious methodological deficiencies and don't provide sufficient evidence to establish a causal relationship. If they did, I am sure Linda Sanders would have made bank after Columbine. According to the National Institute on Media and the Family, as of 2001, roughly 79 percent of America's youth play video games, many of them for at least eight hours a week - that a whole lot of kids not shooting or blowing up their schools. Also, according to FBI statistics, youth violence has declined in recent years as computer and video game popularity soared. (And, not to let the cat out of the bag here, Elvis' gyrating hips won't make your daughter promiscuous! Who knew?!) In Red Heart Tattoo we are given two teens who come from ostensibly upper middle class homes with no references to family strife or bullying. All we are given is that during lunch they sit by themselves, they sneak a drink of a parent's wiskey once, and that they play video games every time they get together. They even call each other by their avatar names. Also, this:
The bedroom was like a cave. The walls were painted black, with black lights in two lamps and a lava lamp on the dresser. Gaming posters of death and destruction, of war and carnage hung on the walls, slapped up haphazardly. The rumpled bed was wrapped in black sheets that glowed purple under the black lights.
And, as well all know, if liking video games doesn't say you're homicidal, liking black sure does! This willful misunderstanding and oversimplification of a very serious and complex issue really frustrates me. In order to have meaningful discourse about why kids are moved to do things like this, we have to stop looking for easy answers and actually examine the kids who are doing it! Just because all rats are mammals does not mean all mammals are rats!
I actually think this is the issue which McDaniel handled best. I appreciate that, while the pregnant girl was a cheerleader, at least she didn't make her a slutty cheerleader, but rather a girl in a committed relationship. It is nice that she shows it can happen to anyone who is having sex - whether it be seldom or regularly, with one guy or a lot of guys. Getting pregnant is not a punishment for being a 'slut;' it is the natural outcome of a biological process. We don't see that reality portrayed enough when people talk about teen pregnancies. I don't, however, like how she 'resolves' the issue. Having a child at a young age definitely makes life harder, but it doesn't make it stop. You can still go to college, have a successful career, and have a happy and balanced life. It may require more work, but it is still within the realm of possibility. I think that McDaniel's handling of the subject within Red Heart Tattoo implies that having any sort of positive future is almost impossible without adoption or abortion (but at least she included the possibility of the latter!)
Oh, my goodness! I almost don't even know where to start here. The portrayal of the town's grief, as a whole, was pretty much the only part of this that in any way felt authentic. When it came to individual characters, though, there wasn't any! Trying to avoid spoilers will make this a little harder, but in the simplest terms, Morgan has two rather debilitating results of her grief. We are told this, but never really show this. Even while suffering from these...problems...she is starting up her relationship with Roth. Any person who so grief stricken that they had those particular issues would not be dating someone within a matter of weeks - or even months. That allows no time for the regular grieving process - not to mention the very probable PTSD and survivor's guilt that most of the kids who were there would have been feeling! However, at least Morgan showed some grief. Everyone else seemed to be too caught up in how the tragedy had affected their schedule, or how it had impacted their own personal goals, to be thinking about the classmates who had died.
I will be brief here. Two different characters come out of this with a disability. Different people handle sudden disability (and lifelong disability, for that matter) in different ways. While there are people who quickly and calmly accept it, that is rare. It is also rare for an individual to uniformly accept disability (even disability they have been born with!) in such a way. It offended me that McDaniel seems to censure the character who had the most realistic reaction. Take it from a person who knows, our world is not set up to be a friendly place for individuals with disabilities. Even the most gracious and accepting of people who are disabled will at times become intensely frustrated, and that is okay.
Image vs. Personality:
This is the part where I really wish that McDaniel would listen to her own message. She wants us to be outraged that Roth is the primary suspect simply because he has a bunch of tattoos and a history of being a prankster. However, again with the vagueness to avoid spoilers, she expressly tries to shed doubt on another character by highlighting their tattoos, funky hair and slightly troubled past. This character is redeemed after they cover the tats, grow out the hair dye, and get a job. Also, the 'good' character only gets a discrete tattoo in a place that is very personal. Hypocrite much?
Beauty vs. Worth:
For this issue I will start with a quote:
Why did the jocks always get the pretty girls? And why did the pretty girls flock to the jocks?
I get so very tired of this in YA. Let me break this down: we have a person looking at a 'pretty' girl asking 'why doesn't she want me? She's so superficial to always go after the good looking guys.' This goes both ways. 'Plain' girls in books often ask why the 'hot' guys only go after 'pretty' girls instead of giving them a chance. This is JUST AS SUPERFICIAL! They know nothing about the person they are pining for other than that they are attractive. They are precisely what they are accusing their object of being. They are objectifying someone. It would be better if they asked of themselves, 'why don't I get to know that guy/girl who sits next to me every day in band/math club/chess club/whatever?' Chances are the cheerleader and the jock are dating - not because they are superficially trying to concentrate the hotness in one place - but because they attend a lot of the same events, spend a lot of time together, and have quite a few things in common. They know each other!
To sum it up, I think that The Red Heart Tattoo was not a frank or honest look at anything. Every character, relationship, and interaction felt staged and contrived; puppets being pulled through the motions to get to the issues. It felt like an out-of-date after-school special about what adults think kids are going through. I imagine there will be some adults who find this book meaningful and insightful, but I think actual teens will be rolling their eyes.
ARC provided by Random House Children's Books
Review also appears on Goodreads