A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
What 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.
What's the story?
Aspen Yellow-Sunrise Taylor, daughter of a teen mom, lives in Boulder, Colo. She's involved in a car accident that kills one of the most popular girls in her school, Katelyn Ryan. Aspen begins seeing Katelyn's ghost in the corner of her room, on the campus at school, and in her dreams. "Who am I to judge [anybody]?" she quips. "I see a dead girl." Her mom is irresponsible to the point that she's late getting to the hospital after the accident because she's so stoned, so Aspen can't rely on her for help recovering from her trauma. Moreover, Aspen's perceptions are skewed by a head injury. Plus everyone at school is being nice to her -- a little too nice, by her estimation. Even Katelyn's former boyfriend Ben is being sweet. But something about the accident rubs Aspen the wrong way, and it takes some sleuthing on her part to figure out what was really going on when Katelyn died.
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.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about books featuring ghosts. Why do you think they're so popular with teens? What others have you read? How does Aspen compare?
Aspen implies that she was in an accident because she was texting while driving. Do you text while you drive? How can you resist the temptation to use the phone at all times?
Marijuana is legal in some states, and it's part of everyday life for lots of people. What's your opinion about legalization? How does Ninny's drug use affect Aspen? How would you feel if your parents were using drugs every day?
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