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24 November 2002 FRICTION by E.R. Frank, Richard Jackson/Atheneum, May 2003


" ' I only told you because you're someone I can trust,' she says, crossing her arms and then crossing them the other way. She's standing in front of my part of the mural: A girl kicking a soccer ball. One leg looks like a bat, and the hair looks like a bell. I'm a crappy artist. 'I can trust you, can't I?' Stacy says, crossing her arms the other way, for the millionth time. I only wait for a second, thinking about how hard it will be not telling Tim, or Simon, about Stacy's father. Especially Tim. I tell him everything.


" ' You can trust me,' I finally say. Because when people tell you a secret, it's like a gift. You don't just give it away to someone else, even if you never asked for it in the first place." --from FRICTION


Back in the spring of 1999, working as a Children's Buyer, I read an advance copy of Laurie Halse Anderson's SPEAK. I am pleased to be able to say that my reaction to reading the book was to order a shelf-full for each of the stores. I wrote at the time that SPEAK should be required reading for all eighth-graders, both guys and girls.


Now, after reading SPEAK aloud to a couple of years' worth of eighth-grade English students, I can readily articulate some of its lessons:


We learn, of course, that Melinda shouldn't have put herself in danger by getting drunk in the dark with a bunch of older strangers. But then, after having gotten drunk and having been raped, we also know that Melinda could have avoided or mitigated that nightmare of a freshman year if either:

(1) She had spoken to adults she trusted about what had happened to her.

(2) Her friends and schoolmates had reacted to her unusual behavior (calling the cops, inconsistency in her physical appearance, skipping school, not speaking) by talking to Melinda or speaking about her to adults they trusted.


It is a totally different story, yet a very similar lesson that is encountered in FRICTION, an extraordinarily gripping tale designed for sixth, seventh, and eighth-graders.


FRICTION is written by E. R. (Emily) Frank, a young star who is ascending rapidly on the Y.A. horizon. As with reading SPEAK (for the first through the twelfth time), FRICTION left me misty-eyed as I finished it yesterday, perched on a chair in an Atlanta hotel lobby where I had repeatedly retreated between events in order to learn the story's resolution. (Don't ask me how I got off the train at the right stop while reading yesterday morning--it was nothing more than dumb luck.)


In FRICTION, an innocent young girl's budding sexuality contributes to the terrible confusion--and, ultimately, to the tragic consequences--when Stacy, a new (and older) classmate begins what appears to be an insidious campaign to portray their young and very popular teacher, Simon, as a "pervert."


Alex, the seventh-grade soccer-playing girl, narrates the story of what happens after Stacy arrives at the progressive private school attended by Alex and Tim. Stacy is the girl with secrets who knows how to make an entrance:


"She's got shiny black hair down to her behind and gray eyes that take up her whole face, and she's as

skinny as I am. She's wearing a purple-and-black turtleneck and jeans that look brand-new, and she grins at everybody like she's totally psyched to meet us. She's got a gap between her two front teeth.

" ' Hi,' she goes. 'I'm Stacy.' I see a flash of silver in her mouth. A tongue ring. 'Let's get this party started.'

"And that's how it begins."


Stacy's behavior and her unrelenting proclamations to the students about what's going on threatens the life-long friendship that Alex has with Tim. Alex becomes more and more uncertain in her own mind as to what the truth really is:


"I want things to make sense now, but...the things I need to figure out don't have rules. Like why Stacy wants it to be true that Simon and I like each other in that certain way. Like why I've been scared lately that maybe she's right. What if Simon does look at me?"


As with SPEAK, things spiral out of control because of the failure--by every one of the students--to confide in an adult. The events result in Alex's loss of that innocent childhood image of Simon as a teacher; she instead begins to see him as a man.


(And, so here we go again...)


Many educators apparently get weak-kneed about teaching SPEAK to eighth graders--preferring to ignore its value to those eighth-graders who could well wind up in Melinda's position. Fearing the "mature" content (or fearing other adults who haven't even read the book), they pass off all responsibility to high school teachers, thus diminishing the possibility that its vital message will be heard in time by students at risk. (Melinda notes sarcastically in SPEAK how they don't get around to learning about sex at Merryweather until eleventh grade.)


Similarly, with teaching FRICTION, I could hear the tension start building about five paragraphs back: "SIXTH GRADE!!! Discuss WHAT?!!! BUDDING SEXUALITY?!!! IMPROPER PHYSICAL CONTACT AND SEXUAL ABUSE?!!!"


That's right, let's all procrastinate until an age that it's all ridiculously beside the point. Sorry. If it were me, I'd willingly take on a thousand irate parents/administrators/school board members if it meant that I could save one kid from going through the trauma Melinda faces in SPEAK or that Alex, Tim, Stacy, and Simon all face in FRICTION.


This will be a book you'll be hearing plenty about in the coming year.


Richie Partington




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