Sway

Book review by
Kate Pavao, Common Sense Media
Sway Book Poster Image
Complicated teen boy learns to feel again in edgy tale.

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A lot or a little?

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

Educational Value

Parents and teachers could use Sway to start a debate about Jesse's character: Is he ultimately a good or a bad person? Do you like him? How do you think he changes at the end? 

Positive Messages

Jesse learns to start caring about people again, from his strong feelings for Bridget, to the friendships he forms with her brother and the kids at the center where she volunteers. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

Bridget really tries to do the right thing and is truly happy helping others. And, although Jesse is certainly not a perfect character, he does learn something about taking responsibility for his actions and expressing his feelings. 

Violence

Jesse's mother commits suicide. A man makes a sexual advance on a teen girl, and Jesse arranges to have him beaten up. In the opener, Jesse is beaten up outside of school, and in another scene Jesse is beaten into unconsciousness after angering a drug dealer. Jesse punches a disabled teen in the face. 

Sex

Jesse tells lies and manipulates situations to hook guys at school up with girls, from dates to a threesome that "fooled around" at a party. He wakes up next to a girl after a college party, unable to really remember what happened. A character wonders about a girl's virginity. Some discussion of masturbation and oral sex. Jesse and Bridget share a kiss. College cheerleaders wear skimpy outfits to a car wash fundraiser. 

Language

Lots of swearing, including many uses of "a--hole," "bitch, "damn," "douche bag," "f--k," "prick," and  "s--t."  

Consumerism

A few references to things -- many mentioned derisively -- such as red Solo cups, Chuck Taylors, Applebee's, Chrysler, Taylor Swift, Maroon 5, Dancing with the Stars, and Sons of Anarchy

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Jesse provides alcohol and drugs to teens at parties; he also does business with marijuana and Ecstasy dealers. He wakes up drunk next to a girl after a college party. A man uses Oxycontin. Jesse's mom killed herself by taking too many pills. His father is an alcoholic. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Sway is a coming-of-age story set in high school with a Cyrano de Bergerac theme. Protagonist and narrator Jesse, a high school senior, is hired to help mean popular boy Ken get a date with Bridget. Jesse tells lies and manipulates situations to hook guys at school up with girls, from dates to a threesome that "fooled around" at a party. There's an anti-Semitic character, drug dealers, and an alcoholic (Jesse's dad).  Also Jesse makes some disparaging remarks toward children with disabilities. Jesse's mother committed suicide by taking too many pills. There are several beatings, and Jesse ends up unconscious after being hit. Although Jesse is certainly not a perfect character, he does learn something about taking responsibility for his actions and expressing his feelings. Parents and teachers could use Sway to start a debate about Jesse's character: Is he ultimately a good or a bad person? Do you like him? How do you think he changes at the end?   

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What's the story?

High school senior Jesse is nicknamed "Sway" because he uses his influence to get students what they want: essays, alcohol, and party drugs. In fact, the principal even employs him to help get a troublemaker expelled from school. But when a mean popular boy hires him to get a date with truly nice Bridget, things get complicated: Jesse -- who claims his mother's mental illness and suicide left him emotionally numb -- finds himself falling for Bridget and forming a surprising friendship with her younger brother, who has cerebral palsy.

Is it any good?

SWAY is a great fit for sophisticated teens. Though it's filled with all sorts of crazy storylines that may initially draw in readers -- Jesse sells drugs at parties and clubs and can use his "sway" to get a cool DJ to come to a school fundraiser -- the protagonist's evolution is carefully constructed, and it's what ultimately makes this such a satisfying book.

Even though Jess often makes poor choices, he's a tragic character and readers will empathize with his sad past and depressing present living with an alcoholic and mostly absent father. Jesse's initial descriptions of Bridget are a bit cheesy ("she shone gold, warmth and light radiating from her like she was an angel backlit by the heavens"), but the chemistry between them is convincing, as is his journey to being someone willing and able to once again connect with people he cares about.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about Jesse. In the end, is he a good guy? Do you like him?

  • Jesse lies, sells drugs, and even frames a kid, getting him expelled. Can you think of other heroes from books or movies that are as morally complicated?

  • How does Jesse change from the beginning to the end? Are there other characters who change, too?

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