So now that’s why I’m sitting here, because I have to be alone to try and figure out two things that are getting on my nerves, bad. One of them is what do I do to stay out of fights at least for the next seven years until I’m done with high school because I’m supposed to graduate and my aunt Eva will kill me if I don’t, but everybody’s always wanting to fight and then you get suspended and kicked out and all that mess. And then the other thing is what do I do if I don’t want my brother, Nick, to be touching on my privacy every night and he comes and does it anyway?
Life Is Funny by E. R. Frank is about eleven teens and spans seven years. The cover says that it’s a novel by E. R. Frank, which is an interesting marketing technique, especially considering that it’s a series of interrelated short stories. I’m not saying it’s not a novel because it most certainly has a clear beginning, middle, and, end (and I like the linear progression of the story, but that’s a discussion for a different bullet point), but, you know, it’s really a collection of short stories.
What I Liked
– I love the way the book is set up. Lots of times, interrelated stories connect in obvious ways or just have one connecting element like the same high school or whatever. But in this book, it’s the relationships that drive the connections. The kids’ lives overlap in seemingly innocuous, but usually heartbreaking ways, and the progression for characters is easily followed even when they kind of drop out of the picture because their stories are over. But that’s the thing. Their stories are never over. They continue.
– The breakout quote above highlights one of my favorite things about the book. Frank deftly shows how kids’ concerns all run together, from the seemingly inane to the completely, devastatingly serious. At the same time, Frank shows how serious everything is when you’re that age. A bathroom fight can lead to a serious stress about friendship, but the real issue is a dark family secret.
I also chose that quote because it hit me in the gut. It made me suck in my breath and reread it several times to make sure I read it right. And while there are other things that happen to the different characters, that was the first moment I knew the book isn’t just about how teens see things from different perspectives, but that it’s about how they deal with the different levels of pain in their lives.
– I’m making the book sound maudlin, but it’s not. There’s a lot of humor in this book, and, as tends to happen with YA lit, hopefulness. It’s not a bleak read. If anything, it does show that life is funny–both funny ha-ha and funny weird/strange/unpredictable.
– The characters are fantastic, and, like I said, even within the short story format, they are allowed to grow and change. They’re also all likable or have something good about them to cling to. Which may be the point Frank, a clinical social worker, may be trying to make.
Since I have no real complaints about the book, here is where I talk instead about the fact that it’s one of the top 100 challenged books of the past decade, a fact I learned when I signed up for Nikki’s 2010 Banned Books Week Challenge. According to the ALA website, the top three reasons books are challenged are because they are deemed sexually explicit, have offensive language, and are unsuitable to age group. And I gotta say this book has sexually explicit and offensive language. Which, I guess, makes it unsuitable to age group–or at least to middle school students, since this a book that was actually removed from a middle school library because of a sex scene.
I know it is a little crazy to think that teens have sex and/or talk about it using dirty words instead of referring to it as “making love” and such. And it is really, really, REALLY crazy to think that middle schoolers are not familiar with any of these terms or ideas. I mean, I know when I was in middle school, we didn’t even know that sex was called anything but “making whoopee” (oh, The Newlywed Game, how sly you were) and that Lucy and Ricky made a baby sleeping in separate twin beds.
(That was sarcasm, by the way.)
I have to say, I do not think this book is appropriate for my sixth grader, and I would tell her as much. What I would not do is tell an entire school full of children, some of whom are probably 14, that they shouldn’t read it or have access to it because it has sex in it. Especially if I read the whole book and not just a passage taken out of context and understood that this book may offer hope to a girl who has been molested that she can have a positive sexual experience. Or that I understood this is just two teens’ experiences out of many, several of which don’t focus on sex, and many of which focus on recovery from trauma.
So what have the children from that school missed out on, seeing that at least one of the challenges on this book was successful? An opportunity to think about what’s really going on with the boy or girl in their class and trying to understand that they all have different experiences. But more importantly, an opportunity to know that THEY ARE NOT ALONE. There is someone else out there who feels stupid but isn’t, who has messed up parents, who has great friends, who has lost friends, who can find a great boyfriend or girlfriend in spite of his or her other experiences, who doesn’t have money but goes to college, who loves his or her parents, who hates his or her parents, who doesn’t have parents and on and on.
It’s no accident that the book starts with the characters aged eleven and twelve years old.
POC Challenge: 20/15; YA Reading Challenge: 29/75
REREAD: OCT 20, 2023
I am reading interlinked short story collections (short story cycles) as part of my sabbatical research.
My review from before still stands. I don’t have much to add except that in Frank’s updated bio, it says she’s a psychotherapist with a specialty in trauma, which makes even more sense for why she wanted to tell the stories she did in the way she did.
I also appreciate that the book starts and ends with kids who are well loved and have relatively healthy/functional families, though they have their own kind of grief. They’re nice bookends to the other stories that are more about trauma inflicted by adults or other family members.