Reframing “Pieces” in Three YA Novels: Gabi, Girl in Pieces, Girl in Pieces, All in Pieces by Sarah J. Donovan

As I scroll through the nearly two hundred poems and comments teens wrote today, I know that I am at once reading into pieces of their existence and all of who they are in the moments they composed the verse. They are at once complete and partial. Some would say such pieces are the nature of adolescence – they’re becoming adults and deciding which piece to keep and which to discard. However, others would say that seeing a teen as less than complete is to dehumanize their being. After teaching over a decade, I am of the mind that our teens are fully formed human beings who are making sense of their world just like the older human beings in their lives. So in this review, I would like to “piece together” three young adult novels with fierce female characters who are complete in their own way, telling their story to readers who want to bear witness to their being. The pieces do not imply teens are broken and need fixing; the pieces imply complexity.

 

Gabi, Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero 2014

Gabriella Hernandez is Gabi. Gabi keeps a diary. When I was in high school, I kept a diary. It was where I spoke my truth, my innermost thoughts, but also where I wrote poems to boys who didn’t even know I existed and dreams for my life beyond the dungeon of my suburban basement and ten siblings. Gabi, a senior in high school, writes in her diary, too, and Isabel Quintero introduces us to this smart, sassy, compassionate, curious, poetic girl as she makes sense of her life and imagines who she will become within and beyond Santa Maria de Los Rosales High School. Gabi tells stories of the pieces of her life: her father’s addiction, her friend’s pregnancy, and her gay friend rejected by his father. These stories were not central; Quintero did not create a spectacle for readers nor try to necessarily “teach” readers about these subjects.  I got lost in Gabi’s stories of crushes and kisses (and beyond).Growing up Catholic, her stories about her self-righteous tia, who had some discoveries of her own in this book, resonated with me. I cried listening to the poems Gabi wrote to and about her father. For a few hours each day, Gabi was my bff, and when the book was over, I missed her — all of her.

 

Girl in Pieces by Kathleen Glasgow 2016

Charlotte Davis is Charlie. She’s seventeen and uses piece of broken glass to forget pieces of her past. Can we carve out pieces of our self and still be? How do we integrate the pieces of hurt, shame, and guilt? How do we love all the pieces? Kathleen Glasgow writes Charlotte’s sorrow and strength with a rhythm that reads like a verse novel, which makes sense given the title and the narrator’s process of assembling her pieces to recognize her wholeness, so parts read fractured and abrupt and even distorted at times, which is purposeful and even helpful in stimulating discomfort and empathy in the reader.

I appreciate the story-line extending beyond the treatment center because recovery is anything but finished at that point. As a former social worker, I witnessed relapse after relapse, how families with the best intentions enabled, and how lives with “friends” or “loves” become so enmeshed that the self was indistinguishable from the other. This book captured all of that without giving up hope.

 

All in Pieces by Suzanne Young 2016

Savannah Sutton is Savvy. She has “anger-management issues” evidenced by the fact she stabbed her ex-boyfriend’s hand with a pencil, but I think she is just tough and stands up for her principles with action as so many teens do (not to minimize the violence).  Her treatment-punishment is group therapy at an alternative high school, but these are just pieces of her story.

Savvy has to parent her brother since her mom left and her dad is an alcoholic. Her brother, who is on the autism spectrum, is her world. Savvy is struggling to raise herself and her brother on her own; their life together is fragile. She needs help, but that would mean trusting someone else, accepting help. And that’s where Cameron comes in. Savvy refuses to let herself trust him. After all, Cameron wouldn’t be in an alternative school if he didn’t have some complex pieces himself. Trust is a slow, deliberate process, and Suzanne Young does not rush this budding relationship as Savvy gradually discovers life is easier with a little help; a home can be safe; family can love; all the pieces are important.

To begin National Poetry Month, I asked students to write about their best part. Here are a few pieces of note:  “Sense of humor: my laugh is contagious”; “I see the good in people; I call it forgiveness”: “I have this disease; I hate seeing people sad”; “My height; I can see through the crowds”; “My heart: my heart opens and reaches out.”  All these phrases speak to the pieces that make us unique and  whole. There is no need to fix, no need to pick up the pieces, but we should take time to examine and ponder all the pieces that make us whole. Quintero, Glasgow, and Young invite readers to bear witness to the complexity that is Gabi, Charlie, and Savvy. I hope you and your students meet them.

 

Sarah J. Donovan, PhD is a junior high ELA teacher in Palatine Illinois and  an adjunct at DePaul University, Chicago where she teaches courses in adolescent development.  She is the author on a really expensive book about reading genocide literature alongside teens, reads #bookaday, writes on the struggle and beauty of teaching on Ethical ELA, and hosts a 30 Poem celebration with teens each April. You can connect with her on Twitter and Facebook.