Jessie Hatcher launches into her story with, “I guess my life was crazy even before the day it really lost its mind.” You can say that again.
Jessie, the 15-year-old heroine of Nancy Rue’s Motorcycles, Sushi & One Strange Book, has more on her plate than any teenager should. Her single mother’s mental illness is raging out of control, and Jessie herself is struggling with a case of ADHD that’s like having a “hamster wheel” constantly spinning in her head. For all intents and purposes, she’s raising herself—until the day her presumed-dead father shows up.
Motorcycles won the 2011 Christy Award for best Young Adult novel, and it’s easy to see why. Even while she deals frankly with the difficult realities of Jessie’s life, Rue makes her young heroine feisty, funny, and a pleasure to read about. She does a wonderful job of getting into Jessie’s head, hamster wheel and all.
When her mom has to go to the hospital and her dad, a reformed alcoholic, takes her in, we watch Jessie gradually change from an insecure girl hiding behind a tough front, into a confident, mature young woman. But first she has to learn to trust her dad, her new friends—and one very strange book.
Similar tales play out in the next three books in Rue’s Real Life series: A young girl dealing with both external and internal struggles finds that same strange book—a book that speaks directly to her situation and her needs.
It happens for Bryn, whose boyfriend has abused her and whose “friends” are turning against her. It happens for Cassidy, a star basketball player who’s suddenly derailed by a bad injury and an accusation of taking steroids. And it happens for Tyler, who’s nominated for prom queen as a joke, then becomes determined to turn the joke into something that will help her whole school.
These are girls from different races, backgrounds, and family structures, with different interests and ideals. But all four girls find something in that mysterious book—a modern paraphrase of the Bible that has a disconcerting habit of addressing each of them directly—that starts to transform their character and raise them above their circumstances.
All the Real Life books are very well-written (see a sample chapter from Motorcycleshere) and realistic about the lives of 21st-century girls. There are, as I’ve said, high-pressure situations, tough issues, and occasionally dangerous characters, but nothing explicit or gross.
None of the girls in this series is perfect, but that’s precisely why it’s so fascinating and exciting to watch as they start to change through learning about and following Christ. Rue is never didactic or preachy, but at the same time, she never shies away from talking about the tough stuff in Scripture and about what following Jesus requires of us—especially the need to take bold steps of faith when we can’t see the road ahead.
Because of some of the subject matter, these are books that parents may very well want to read and discuss with their teens, but I found hardly anything to cause genuine concern. Cassidy in Tournaments, Cocoa & One Wrong Move gravitates toward a guy, Rafe, who’s something of a “bad boy”; though he turns out be not all that bad, I would have liked to see a little more growth in his character, to match hers. (His incessant teasing of classmates, which sometimes comes close to bullying, wanes over time, but he never seems to be really sorry about it as far as I can tell.)
And I confess I winced a bit at some of the modern language in the Bible paraphrase—especially the disciples being called Pete, Jimmy, and Jon—but that’s more a personal taste than anything. It’s been quite a long time since I was a teenage girl, after all. For most readers who are actual teenage girls, it will probably go down just fine.
But these were minor issues in what was overall a highly positive reading experience. Frankly, I was delighted to discover these books, which strike a great balance between dealing with real-world pressures and demonstrating what it looks like to live a real life of faith. I hope and believe that many teenage girls and their parents will enjoy them just as much as I did.
Image copyright Zondervan. Review copies obtained from the publisher and the reviewer's local library.
Gina Dalfonzo is editor of BreakPoint.org and Dickensblog.
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