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A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Belzhar, by Meg Wolitzer, is a coming-of age novel about teens who've experienced trauma: A character's friend accidentally sets fire to a barn, killing all the goats inside; a girl is paralyzed when her drunk mom drives into a wall; a girl’s younger brother is abducted; and protagonist Jam reveals to her new friends that her boyfriend died suddenly. There's some kissing and talk of sex. Jam's friend's boyfriend carries around a condom in his pocket; at a party, Jam walks in on a couple hooking up and another group playing strip poker; and Jam's roommate has a girlfriend, much to her girlfriend's mother's dismay. One of the boys in Jam's English class says that he saw a porn tape of his father having sex with another woman. There's some swearing, drinking, and marijuana smoking. In the end, Jam slowly starts to find reasons to participate in life, including helping friends, looking after her younger brother, and even trying to love again. Belzhar offers a positive message about the possibility of working through trauma with the support of friends and tools such as journal writing.
What's the story?
Jam's parents send her to a school for "fragile" students so she can recover from a trauma. She tells her new friends only that she had a boyfriend who suddenly died. At the Wooden Barn, she ends up in an exclusive English class with four other deeply troubled students. where she is told she will read The Bell Jar and also write in a journal. But when she starts writing in the journal her teacher gave her, something miraculous happens: She's transported to a mysterious place where she can be with Reeve again and relive their moments together. But, as their journals start to fill up, Jam and the other students wonder whether they'll ever be able to visit the place they call Belzhar (named to sound somewhat like "the bell jar") or be their unscathed selves ever again.
Is it any good?
Written in the same vein as books such as The Perks of Being a Wallflower, BELZHAR deals beautifully with sensitive teens trying to cope with traumas that have left them forever altered. Beautifully written with great significant details, it will inspire great empathy in readers who will care deeply about the teen characters who have to face the realities of what happened to them (versus the stories they've told themselves) and accept the new realities of their lives.
Last-minute plot twists will surprise readers and force them to rethink the protagonist's tragedy in a whole new way. Many readers will want to read the book one more time once they finish, and it's rich enough to deserve that second read. Though Belzhar has fantasy elements, this is a better choice for realistic fiction lovers; the magical elements are never fully explained.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the fantasy elements here. What do you think happens to the characters in Belzhar? Is it a place you would like to go?
The fragile students in Jam's English class are surprised to read something as dark as Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, which deals with depression and suicidal thoughts. What do you think? Are dark books hurtful or helpful to teens in pain?
Jam says, "People are always saying these things about how there's no need to read literature anymore -- that it won't help the world." What do you think? Do words matter anymore?
- Author: Meg Wolitzer
- Genre: Coming of Age
- Topics: Magic and Fantasy, Friendship, High School, Misfits and Underdogs
- Book type: Fiction
- Publisher: Dutton Books
- Publication date: September 30, 2014
- Publisher's recommended age(s): 14 - 18
- Number of pages: 272
- Available on: Nook, Audiobook (unabridged), Hardback, iBooks, Kindle
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Common Sense Media's unbiased ratings are created by expert reviewers and aren't influenced by the product's creators or by any of our funders, affiliates, or partners.