Author: Sara Zarr
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Release Date: January 10, 2007
Reviewer: Kevin English
Summary (From Goodreads):
When she is caught in the backseat of a car with her older brother’s best friend—Deanna Lambert’s teenage life is changed forever. Struggling to overcome the lasting repercussions and the stifling role of “school slut,” she longs to escape a life defined by her past. With subtle grace, complicated wisdom and striking emotion, Story of a Girl reminds us of our human capacity for resilience, epiphany and redemption.
Sara Zarr’s Story of a Girl details Deanna Lambert’s life after her father catches her having sex in the back of her brother’s friend’s car. Within the first few pages, you quickly learn that this is a story that every teenager faces. It reminded me of Alex Finn’s Breathing Underwater, which is another book that needs to be in a classroom library. I found myself pausing a lot while reading. This book is more than just a recounting of a teenager’s mistake. It is, instead, an attempt to reclaim one’s identity and reputation in the eyes of those that matter most.
For starters, readers get into the mind of Deanna and so many teenagers’ minds—and I want to emphasize that the minds aren’t just males—when they stumble across this line: “It was knowing someone else thought about me for more than one second, maybe even thought about me when I wasn’t there” (65). As Deanna’s thoughts reveal, all teenagers—and even adults—engage in behavior that they will question, and possibly regret, later. As the saying goes, hindsight is 20/20! But this line pushes us to think deeper about the motivations behind Deanna’s actions. She didn’t want unfettered attention; she wanted someone to think about her. Is that really too much to ask? And she brings it up again here: “Or how sometimes you might think you wanted to do it and then halfway through or afterward realize no, you just wanted the company, really; you wanted someone to choose you, and the sex part itself was like a trade-off, something you felt like you had to give to get to the other part” (79).
As a result of her actions, she received more negative attention than she deserved, which I feel comfortable saying probably happens all too often in every high school across the country. And again this draws attention to how problematic the dominant narrative is where males are privileged for promiscuity while females are essentially shunned. And it isn’t even just the insults she faces from her peers in the hallway. This book sheds light on the ostracizing that can occur within families as well. It was during this portion of the book that I found myself stopping and thinking about how I navigate this circumstance as a future father: “See, he talked about me that way even when he thought I couldn’t hear. It wasn’t just something he did when I was around so that he could make me feel like crap, punish me, or whatever. If I needed proof about what he really thought, here it was” (69). And it’s here where Zarr shows us in relevant ways how powerful our words can be, whether we intend for others to hear them or not.
Again, this book encourages readers to reconsider the dominant narrative. It’s like the debate ensuing around college campuses around the country right now. Things are always more complicated and complex than they seem, and we can’t possibly know what young adults are thinking when they engage in behavior we might consider reckless. It’s all the more reason that we need to engage in conversation with them, not at them. That’s the only way that we can possibly begin to understand and then hopefully help.
As a male, stories from female protagonists’ perspectives always intrigue me. It’s part of the reason why I try to read a variety of literature. For a few hours or days, I get to be someone else and live vicariously through them. I get to experience what they experience, think what they think, and feel what they feel. And I think that I walk away a better, more understanding person for doing so. This is also a reason why I plan to share this book with as many students as possible this year, so that they can think about how people’s reactions to the decisions others make can serve as painful reminders of regrettable choices.
This book deserved to win the National Book Award, not just be a finalist. I’m proud that it will be on my shelf this year.
Kevin English is entering his third year of teaching in southeast Michigan and is a teacher consultant for the Eastern Michigan Writing Project. He’s an avid reader that’s continuously working to fill his “reading gaps.” Since beginning his career, he can’t recall a day when he he hasn’t tripped over a to-read pile in his house.