Wednesday, November 14, 2007

National Book Award Finalist: Story of a Girl by Sara Zarr

In observation of Children's Book Week, today's post honors another of the five finalists for the National Book Award for Young People's Literature to be awarded November 14.

It begins like a lot of teen stories--a young girl with a callous older guy, an angry father catching them together. The story doesn't continue with a pregnancy or a shotgun wedding, but in a long, sullen silence between father and daughter in a family whose life together is as drab and sad as their stained green shag carpet.

Laid off from his decent manufacturing job, Deanna's father feels diminished in his new job as an auto parts clerk; her older brother Darren is living in the basement of their rundown house with his girlfriend Stacy and baby April; and her mother seems lost in the futile role of peace-keeper in a household where no one seems ever to look at each other. Deana feels isolated at school, where she's spent her freshman and sophomore years suffering under her reputation as school slut earned as an eighth grader with 17-year-old Tommy. The only good things in her life are her close relationship with Darren and Stacy, her fondness for little April, and her closeness with old friend Jason and her girlfriend Lee, who have just become a couple, leaving Deanna feeling like a fifth wheel.

Determined to escape her depressing home life, Deanna takes the only summer job she can find, waiting tables at a dingy beachfront pizza shop where she finds herself forced to work with Tommy, whose smirking grin reminds her of the one mistake which has damaged her whole family. Deanna toughs it out there, holding on to the hope that with her financial help Darren and Stacy will be able to move into a place with room for her as well.

There is no dramatic breakthrough for Deanna, no flash of light, no sudden epiphany that changes her life. The moments of change are small--a conversation with Tommy in which he makes an oblique apology for using her, a look and an awkward attempt by her father to make contact with her over the abyss of his anger and disappointment, a loving touch from her mom which Deanna is finally able to accept, and acts of understanding from her two friends--through which Deanna is able to forgive and be forgiven and begin again.

Sara Zarr's storytelling is a slice of life so intimate and heartfelt that one reviewer has called it "realistic writing at its best." Real life is messy and sometimes as mismatched as the yellow tile and pink paint of Deanna's family kitchen, and in her portrayal Zarr nails the day-to-day life of a resilient girl who refuses to be defined by one event in her life.

Sometimes a good work of fiction has the power to reveal the human heart in a way which offers a new understanding of self and of others. Story of a Girl is one of those.



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