The Tragedy Paper

 
Thoughtful story about a tragedy teen boy brings on himself.

What parents need to know

Educational value

The Irving seniors' focus on writing their Tragedy Paper invites reflection on the nature of tragedies, both personal and literary. 

Positive messages

Personal accountability and redemption are key themes. Tim has a good heart but often makes poor choices, and Duncan consciously chooses a different path. Tim tries to extract some good from the experience by passing his story -- and some useful secrets -- on to Duncan.

Positive role models

Tim is plagued by self-doubt, but he has good intentions. He breaks school rules to nurse Vanessa when she's sick, and later sticks with school tradition and bucks peer pressure when it's time to choose a leader for the next class. The adults -- even those with reputations for being strict -- are uniformly patient and kind.

Violence

Vanessa's boyfriend threatens Tim and has a menacing character. A character is badly hurt in a bloody accident.

Sex

Several characters kiss, and there are opportunities for "fooling around" that they don't pursue. One boy is observed sliding his hands up a girl's shirt.

Language
Not applicable
Consumerism

A few brand names are mentioned, and Vanessa's style -- including her Converse All-Star shoes -- is emphasized.

Drinking, drugs, & smoking

Students occasionally sneak alcohol in their dorm rooms and at a party. A girl overdoses on Xanax, apparently by accident. A teen sneaks into the nurse's office and helps himself to medication.

Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that The Tragedy Paper has some of the hallmarks of boarding school tales: There's a little drinking, some kissing, a fair amount of social stratification, and a lot of breaking school rules. But it's a pretty gentle book overall, and the much-hyped tragedy revealed at the book's end is more thought-provoking than shocking.

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What's the story?

As an albino, Tim Macbeth is used to rude stares, but he still cringes inside. He transfers to Irving School his senior year and grows obsessed with Vanessa, a popular girl who seems to like him ... but only when no one is watching. Tim's crush and his self-doubt set him on a path toward disaster. Exactly what happened, and why, is revealed in a series of CDs he recorded and left in his old dorm room for its next resident, Duncan, who returns to Irving still tortured by last year's events. Duncan is trying to move on: He's pursuing the girl of his dreams and tackling his senior project -- writing the legendary Tragedy Paper. He'd like to ignore Tim's story, but can't resist the lure of learning the truth about Tim and Vanessa.

Is it any good?

QUALITY
 

The twin narrative -- alternating between Duncan's experiences and Tim's flashback -- lends drama to the thoughtfully spun out story. Tim and Vanessa get off to a promising start, and their first encounter nicely captures the awkwardness and earnestness of teens on the brink of adulthood.

THE TRAGEDY PAPER is a decent debut novel, but author Elizabeth LaBan stirs up a lot of material that doesn't seem to go anywhere. Is Patrick really such a bad guy? Is Vanessa befriending Tim or toying with him? Adult authority figures described as strict or aloof turn out to be rather blandly kind. LaBan layers on the ominous foreshadowing, and the reader braces for grim ending a la Ethan Frome. But the climactic event isn't much of a shock and the menace ultimately lacks teeth. The real tragedy is quieter and should resonate with teens: how Tim let his self-consciousness and desire to be accepted get in the way of his better judgment, and how he brought suffering upon himself.

Families can talk about...

  • Families can talk about tragedy. At Irving, students focus on the classic tragedies of Shakespeare while a very real tragedy unfolds around them. What contemporary books have you read that you'd consider tragedies?

  • Vanessa seeks out opportunities to see Tim alone, encouraging his interest, but keeps their relationship hidden. And despite her complaints, she stays with Patrick. Do you think she's a sympathetic character? Is she a good friend?

  • Readers can write their own Tragedy Paper, perhaps a short story. Try using a report on the news or in the paper to get started -- or perhaps tell the story of Tim and Vanessa from Vanessa's viewpoint. 

Book details

Author:Elizabeth LaBan
Genre:Coming of Age
Topics:Friendship, High school, Misfits and underdogs
Book type:Fiction
Publisher:Random House Children's Books
Publication date:January 8, 2013
Number of pages:320
Publisher's recommended age(s):12 - 17
Available on:Nook, Audiobook (unabridged), Hardback, iBooks, Kindle

This review of The Tragedy Paper was written by

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  • Good: Pretty engaging; good learning approach.
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  • Not for Learning: Not recommended for learning.
  • Not for Kids: Not age-appropriate for kids; not recommended for learning.

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