A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this book.
Aspen loves examining the meanings of words. Some dictionary definitions are included for words that are meaningful to her, such as "accident," "pedestrian," "normal," "kinetic," and "electron."
There are messages about empathy, friendship, and finding romance.
Positive Role Models
Aspen's therapist, Dr. Brenda, is very patient with Aspen, even when she's being stubborn or when she shuts down, whereas Aspen's mom is irresponsible and incapable of caring for her. The accident that Aspen was engaged in draws a lot of sympathy from kids at school. She gets a surprising amount of support, even though she's an outcast.
Violence & Scariness
Aspen is haunted by Katelyn's ghost, which screams and appears to bleed. The details of the car accident are described in bloody detail. Self-harm and suicide are themes. Teens play a video game in which people and aliens are shot and killed.
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Sex, Romance & Nudity
Teens refer to body parts and having sex, but details of actual sex are kept to a minimum. More disturbing is Aspen's mother having sex on the dining room table with her boyfriend, plus the fact that she has no regard for Aspen's boundaries when she brings men home. Aspen shrugs because she's used to her mom's "sexcapades."
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Everything under the sun appears, and with frequency, including "s--t" and its variations, "f--k" and its variations, and "ass," "balls," "bitch," "c--k," "piss," "damn," "hell," "douche," and "goddamn." Aspen's mom also curses at times.
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Products & Purchases
Though there's not as much focus on having things, there are many references to name brands, including VW, TLC, Six Flags, Disney, Pandora, GameStop, a video game called Extermination, Doritos, Bath & Body Works, Victoria's Secret, the Cherry Creek mall, Cherry Garcia ice cream, Whole Foods, Mountain Dew, Domino's, and Starbucks. Various bands also are mentioned, such as the Grateful Dead, Widespread Panic, Phish, Bob Dylan, and Metallica.
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
Everyone and his mother smokes pot in this book -- literally. Aspen's mom can't get through a day without getting high -- she tried once on Christmas but had to run to her boyfriend's for a fix. Aspen gets really high off hash brownies, and kids are stoned at school all day. There's lots of teenage drinking, drunkenness, vomiting, and bad behavior. "I'm ready to get drunk," Kim announces. "Katelyn was the best drunk," a friend says of a deceased girl. Aspen's mom serves the teens red wine at dinner, and they gulp it down, but she refuses to let them drive drunk. Aspen says of her mother's advice, "Ninny's right. Being high is awesome." But when she comes down she decides she'll never smoke pot again.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that Aspen is the story of a teen girl in Colorado named Aspen who's in a car accident in which a popular high school girl dies and then appears to Aspen as a ghost. Aspen's single mom, Ninny, is a model of irresponsible behavior. She smokes a lot of pot, has sex with guys while Aspen is in hearing distance -- including on the dining room table -- and leaves her daughter for weeks at a time. But she's generally forgiven, and Aspen tolerates her behavior. Kids in this book are very comfortable with stoner culture, teen drinking, and drunkenness. Frequent cursing, especially the word "f--k," and references to lewd acts pepper the dialogue. Kids have sex and talk about "getting laid," but scenes are not graphic. Some violent images and references to self-harm and suicide provide an edge to an otherwise breezy story.
Is It Any Good?
ASPEN is an attention-grabber. Its conversational, witty tone will be sure to charm teen readers. The drug use is perhaps realistic to some but will be over-the-top to many who don't live in a college town in a state where marijuana is legal. Aspen's mom's sexcapades and stoner flubs are interesting in terms of choices a character makes, but the fact that Aspen is the caregiver who shrugs when her mom goes out to Whole Foods to cruise "organic meat" is a little unbelievable. Still, the teen romance is fun, the mysterious subplot is effective, and Aspen herself is lovable.
However, the book is overwritten at times as well as a bit too reliant on stoner idioms, cartooning some serious issues such as neglect, teen parenting, drug addiction, teen drinking, and suicide. The dark side could have been a tad darker, the light side a bit more subtle, and the serious problems taken more seriously. Other than that, this is a fun summer read for those who aren't bothered by any of this.
Did we miss something on diversity?
Research shows a connection between kids' healthy self-esteem and positive portrayals in media. That's why we've added a new "Diverse Representations" section to our reviews that will be rolling out on an ongoing basis. You can help us help kids by suggesting a diversity update.