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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 this is a compelling story about bullying, fear, and violence. Written from the perspective of a victim of domestic violence and school bullying, the novel walks a thin line between creating a sympathetic character and condoning his resulting act of aggression. The narrative is nearly relentless in portraying Cameron's sense of helplessness (adult intervention just makes the situation worse; when the bully is expelled, Cameron still insists, "He runs the school") to the point where teens in similar situations may wonder if there really is any hope. The idea of being gay -- or "acting the fag" -- is portrayed in a negative way. Cameron feels powerful and even joyful when lighting fire. The character's desperation and lack of remorse make this a choice for older teens, and one that's worth discussing.
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What's the story?
High school is a dangerous place for 14-year-old Cameron, a slightly built freshman who is emotionally and physically tormented by a bigger, older football player and his cronies. Cameron, already a child of a dysfunctional family, copes with his anger by burning himself with matches. A final assault by the bullies pushes Cameron to the point where his own actions blur with the violence against him.
Is it any good?
Phillips adeptly gets into Cameron's head, effectively conveying the "can't-do-anything-about-it hopelessness building inside him" as school bullies step up their assaults. Adult readers will certainly hope no school allows this sort of violence, but Phillips doesn't offer many solutions to her grim situation. Teachers, parents, and counselors are ineffectual, if not dismissive of the gravity of the abuse.
It's a morally troubling book; readers want to sympathize with Cameron even as he becomes more and more emotionally disturbed. Secondary characters aren't well developed; perhaps this is intentional to emphasize Cameron's isolated perspective. When Cameron physically lashes out at another teen, the author seems inclined to forgive Cameron, with questionably little account for his victim. His guilt, in the eyes of the court, lies in his intention. Readers will have to decide if they agree that is justice or not.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about bullying at school and possible ways students can protect themselves. Cameron says there are no second chances in high school -- do teens believe this is true? Should Cameron have asked to change high schools? An adult insists that "it is humanly impossible, at the age of 14, to know the complete ramifications of an act that was spontaneous and defensive in nature." What do teens think? Do teens agree with the sentence the judge gives Cameron?