A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this is very gritty, raw, uncensored, and disturbing. It is leavened with humor, but the terror of being a child or teen who is locked out by your own abusive or neglectful parents without knowing when you might eat again is searing. The "Madmen" are kids who have been "sentenced" to group therapy at school; some of them because they have been abused and/or have emotional problems, some of them because they are mentally ill. It is rough to read, but many teens may find it compelling. The cursing is nonstop. Still, Karl's explosive rage and his history of torturing small animals, the psychotic sexual acting out of Darla, and Paul's cruising may be as disturbing for sophisticated teens as it is for adult readers. Although this won a Printz Honor, it's not for everyone. The point is frequently made that these very troubled teens are sitting next to very normal, more fortunate classmates who do not realize the horrors their friends and peers are living. That's a valid point, and teens should be aware, but parents may want to think about whether this book is the right tool for delivering that message.
What's the story?
Seventeen-year-old Karl Shoemaker starts his senior year of high school aiming to survive, have sex, and maybe fool people into thinking he's normal. Years of required weekly therapy at school have formed an unbreakable bond for Karl and other assigned students, who call themselves the MADMAN underground. Karl thinks he is willing to turn his back on them to be popular, but whenever one of them is threatened, Karl can't help but come to their rescue. He goes to AA, works four or five jobs, sneaks food and shelter to his friends when they need it, and tries to hide money so his mother can't spend it on pot. School dances, football, and reading assignments compete for time with his jobs and his chores. His anger issues, addictive tendencies, a psychotic cheerleader, and self-destructive gay best friend almost overwhelm him before a couple of positive guys finally step in to help.
Is it any good?
This is high school in hell, but Karl keeps his sense of humor and hope; the book is frenetic, fast-paced, funny, and painfully revealing about the kids that society lets slip through the cracks. They're the ones who would rather hide from their parents and go hungry than get sent to foster care or detention homes. Some of them are driven to abusive and self-destructive behavior by their parents' abuse, but a few of them are just mentally unstable themselves. Thrown together by teachers who think they are helping, these kids form a volatile group who help each other survive.
The main character is luckily a very resilient young man who can't turn his back on his friends, or hardly anyone else. Karl's history of mutilating small animals and the self-destructive tendencies of his friends are nearly as difficult to read about as the adults in this small town who turn their backs on these kids, even though they know what is going on behind closed doors. Brutally sad, but ultimately hopeful, this book is only for older, mature teens, and not even all of them.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about Karl's contradictions. He holds down several jobs, goes to school, and is a good friend, and yet he has committed some violent acts. Are Karl's actions normal?
Karl has a complicated relationship with his mother. Many of the "Madmen" have abusive parents. If you had a friend in that situation, how would you help them?
The Madmen are get counseling at school, yet they seem to have the same problems year after year. What part of the system is failing them?
This story is set in the 1970s. What did you notice was different in lifestyles for teens between then and now? Do you think it was easier or harder to be a teenager then?
Were you surprised at the ending? Were you hopeful?
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