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Anthem

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
Anthem Book Poster Image
Ambitious story of teens' eye-opening road trip in 1969.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

It's more a bombardment than a lesson plan, but there's a lot here, from a parade of characters who exist mainly as mouthpieces for the many political, social, and cultural viewpoints/forces warring with each other in 1969, to opportunities to geek out on endless detail about Top 40 charts, classic rock bands, and musical gear, as the two lead characters are obsessive fans. Includes an extensive list of suggestions for further reading.

Positive Messages

Positive -- and conflicting -- messages about everything from kindness and community to patriotism, courage, and being true to yourself in a crazy world pummel both protagonists, who have to figure out how to make up their own minds about it all.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Molly and Norman (14 and 17) are relatably vulnerable teens from fairly dysfunctional families, forced into a coming-of-age road trip in an attempt to help her brother. Characters they meet along the way are quirky saints, space cadets, war casualties, manipulators, lost souls, and just plain jerks. They meet a startling roster of musical and countercultural luminaries (Duane Allman! Elvis Presley! Wavy Gravy!) who dispense helpful counsel and advice. The ghost of a long-dead-naturalist comes to their rescue. Teen main characters are white. There's one biracial hippie couple -- African American guy, white woman -- who have a baby. There are numerous numerous incidental Afircan American characters along the way, some based on real life.

Violence

The Vietnam war looms over the story as an ever-present threat to the characters and a never-ending source of bitter division. Several characters the teens meet are traumatized by their war experiences. A character is scarred from being attacked for helping register people to vote in the South as a kid. A creepy guy at a gas station is threatening to the teens (who escape). The visual media that accompany the story deal with violence related to war atrocities, street protests, racial hatred, and more of the events of the time.

Sex

Norman's father has ditched his family and is now living with "the floozie." A 14-year-old flirts innocently with a teen musician. A girl pretends to be in love with another teen so he'll take her along to a place she wants to go, and then she goes off with another guy. Two unmarried adult hippies in a relationship have a baby. The teen characters are shocked when she pulls up her shirt to nurse the baby and urge her to cover up. A pregnant teen turns up. A couple brief kisses between teens.

Language
Consumerism

Occasional scene-setting mention of real products, such as Coca-Cola (sometimes called "Co-Cola"). Florsheim shoes become a bit of a theme. Each chapter begins with the credits for the recording of a song that has something to do with the chapter.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Adults drink alcohol. Adults and teens smoke cigarettes. Despite it being 1969, there are no drugs in the story. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Anthem is the third and final volume in the Sixties Trilogy, author Deborah Wiles' series of "documentary novels" that intersperse collages of photos, newspaper articles, and graphics from the '60s with stories that put teens in the midst of events. Here, it's 1969 and a 14-year-old girl from South Carolina is sent on a road trip to San Francisco with her 17-year-old cousin to find her runaway brother, who's just gotten his draft notice. As the road trip brings them to a Forrest Gump-like series of interactions with legendary musicians and other iconic cultural figures, they also encounter a steady stream of characters who serve mainly to embody particular viewpoints on pressing issues of the day (civil rights, spiritual seeking, the Vietnam War, the impending moon launch), as they struggle to come to terms with it all and deal with their family drama. While the publisher suggests this book for readers 8-12, the sheer bombardment of issues and viewpoints, as well as the tendency to geek out on Top 40 charts and musical instruments, calls for an older audience with a strong interest in the era, its political issues, or classic rock. The visual media that accompany the story deal with violence related to war atrocities, street protests, racial hatred, and more of the events of the time. Sexual content is limited to flirting and a couple brief kisses, but unmarried adult hippies have a baby, and a pregnant teen turns up in the story. There's no strong language. Adults drink alcohol and adults and teens smoke cigarettes, but there's no drug use. 

 

 

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What's the story?

As ANTHEM opens, it's June 1969. Fourteen-year-old Molly has been emotionally shut down for the past year, ever since her beloved 18-year-old brother, Barry, left home (with much shouting) rather than obey his father, enlist in the Army, and go to Vietnam. They haven't heard from him since, and things are about to get worse: His notice to report for his draft physical just arrived, and they've got no idea how to reach him. Their frantic mom decides that Molly and her 17-year-old cousin, Norman, should drive across the country to San Francisco, where they think Barry is, and bring him home. They know that's insane, but off they go, starting with a stop at the Atlanta home of their elderly, dementia-ridden aunts, where they find two hippie teens living with the old ladies and pretending to be Molly and Norman. This is not the last of the unsettling events they must cope with as the story continues.

Is it any good?

Deborah Wiles' Sixties Trilogy finale successfully gives readers the deer-in-the-headlights feeling of being a Southern suburban teen in 1969 bombarded with new perspectives and cultural change. Anthem is packed with collages of news stories and visuals, dysfunctional family dramas, tons of detail about music of the era (each chapter starts with a credits listing for a song, and paragraphs are devoted to the fine points of cymbals), and an unlikely parade of legendary figures like Duane Allman and Elvis Presley met along the way. It's all a bit much, and somewhat less than the sum of its parts. But readers with a strong interest in one of those parts, such as the Vietnam War, hippie culture, Vietnam vets, civil rights, and/or '60s rock, will find plenty to keep them reading.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how the Vietnam War is portrayed in Anthem. How did it affect families in that era? Do you see anything similarly divisive going on today? How is it affecting you and your loved ones?

  • Have you ever gone to a lot of trouble to help someone who turned out to not be the least bit grateful? How did it make you feel?

  • Several characters in the story are dealing with being abandoned by their loved ones, especially parents. Do you know any kids who are dealing with this? How do they cope?

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