Review of the Day: Jawbreaker by Christina Wyman
I do not like bully books. I didn’t like them when I was a kid. I didn’t like them when I was a teen. And I CERTAINLY do not like them as an adult. They’re cheap. An easy way to earn a reader’s sympathy. All you have to do is take your hero, regardless of any personality you’ve bestowed upon them, and make them the victim. Bingo! Instant empathy! For this reason, I avoid bully books for kids like the plague. I make it my mission to skew around them, whenever they’re headed in my direction. If 12-year-old me knew anything, it was that misery on the page wasn’t worth it. No way. No how.
Except . . .
I mean, there’s an exception to every rule, isn’t there? The world is full of complications. One cannot wipe out a whole genre of literature when each and every book has its own peculiarities and personalities, right? I say this because in spite of my own personal dictates, I somehow ended up reading (and greatly enjoying) a copy of Jawbreaker by Christina Wyman. I blame my local independent booksellers for this. They were the ones who told me that the book was good. Who talked it up. Who convinced me that in spite of the fact that it is the bullyingest bully book that ever bullied a bully, I would like it. And doggone it, they were right. In spite of myself, Christina Wyman’s writing is enough to coax a sourpuss like myself (or, more importantly, a former 12-year-old sourpuss who eschews such a fare) into liking what’s on the page. Jawbreaker may strike you initially as the quintessential bully book, but what’s in this story is a lot smarter, deeper, and interesting than anything you’ll find out there today.
Imagine that your teeth are bad. How bad, you ask? So bad that a surgeon would have to physically saw your jaw in half to realign them into the proper position. THAT bad, my friends! Such is the case of Max. Through no fault of her own she finds herself in possession of a mouth that refuses to adhere to the rules. Having teeth that may require surgery is pretty bad. I mean, now Max has to literally wear headgear to realign her jaw anytime she’s not in school. But what’s worse is … well … everything else in her life. Her mom is mean and ignores the fact that Max’s little sister has recently become her worst bully. Her dad is always out, and when he’s not he stinks of alcohol. School is terrible because of two bullies there that have made it their mission in life to wreck havoc with Max. Even her best friend is distracted, and this is all before Max discovers that there’s a chance to apply for a prize to work as an intern for her favorite TV journalist. Trouble is, you have send in a video application, and Max doesn’t have the ready technology (or the guts?) to do this. But when your life essentially sucks, sometimes reaching for your dreams is the least you can do. Christina Wyman constructs a story where hard living yields exceptional rewards, with a little chutzpah and a little skill along the way.
I feel like I need to tell you why precisely I was never a fan of bully books. It wasn’t that I was bullied much myself as a kid. Honestly, I wasn’t. But I remember from a young age avoiding any middle grade novels that contained discomforting themes. As a result I missed out on a lot of great books, like Bridge to Terabithia. What’s so interesting about Jawbreaker is, partly, how its publisher is selling it. If you were to look at the original cover, you might be forgiven for thinking it was selling a graphic novel. Honestly, I feel like this choice was rather inspired. There’s something friendly and inviting about this cover. It sustains you through the early pages where Max suffers just as much bullying as you might fear for her. But once you get past those initial scenes, Wyman evens the keel of the narrative. Yes, the bullies are entirely two-dimensional. The author hints at them having personal family issues or interior depths that are never explored, and that’s a pity. But on the plus side, she reinforces Max’s economic limitations, and that (for me anyway) made everything on the page a lot more interesting. So as a bully book, I’d say that Jawbreaker was fairly commonplace, but as a story about personal discovery and honesty about contemporary economics for kids, this novel is filled to the brim with bravery.
Let me tell you a little story. My husband once developed cancer. Upon discovering his diagnosis, he went to a friend of his, a doctor, and asked for advice. His friend thought, and then immediately gave my husband some of the smartest advice he ever received. He told him that when he meets his doctors and his nurses, he must immediately distinguish himself. He needed to tell his story, get them on his side, and get them to root for him. It’s not that healthcare workers are heartless. It’s just that they see so many patients that they all run together. But if you can use the power of story to distinguish your case from that of so many other people, that can only be a help to you. I mention this because in this book Max, inadvertently, takes this advice. When the book starts she’s just another kid with a difficult mouth to her orthodontist. Now watch, if you will, the moment when Max’s relationship to Dr. Watson changes. There’s a distinct point where Max moves from becoming a patient to someone that Dr. Watson cares about. It’s when she starts asking her orthodontist about her own life and experiences. It’s subtle, but you can see the relationship between the two change in that instant. As someone who has seen this happen in real life, I truly appreciated Wyman’s ability to understand that to reach a human being who is locked into a certain job or occupation, the best weapon you have is to be human yourself. And that is marvelously illustrated by this book.
Normally when I’m handed an advance reader’s copy of a book (a pre-publication title given to reviewers that has no monetary value) I’ll dog-ear any pages that I think might aid me when I review it online. Returning to Jawbreaker just now, I was surprised to find that I dog-eared only one page. But when I turned to it, I realized why I’d highlighted that particular section. Look. I’ve read a lot of middle grade novels and graphic novels for kids about economic hardships. The problem with children’s books is that when you’re talking about any level of poverty at all, the inclination is to simplify. Kids’ books, for all their charms, are not custom built for complexity. And I get that when you’re talking about picture books, but I have a twelve-year-old living in my home and she probably understands more about economic instability at 12 than I did at 21. Kids today are often well-informed on a range of different issues (to which I credit children’s literature, quite frankly). So if I were to hand a kid her age a book that dealt with, say, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory levels of simplicity when it comes to poverty, she’d call that book out immediately. Jawbreaker, in comparison, doesn’t shy away from a little complexity. And at one point in the novel Max’s mom and dad have a fascinating conversation about economic equity and what kids in school are or are not owed. During the course of this talk the author manages to show two sides to an issue without vilifying anyone. Yet, at the same time, I think a kid reading this portion of the book would understand where to fall on some of the issues being raised. I appreciate children’s authors that respect the intelligence of their young readers. Christina Wyman clearly falls into that category.
The obvious comparison folks are going to make to this book immediately is Smile by Raina Telgemeier. But honestly, aside from the fact that both books involve teeth, the tone is entirely different. I’d encourage folks to think a little differently. To me, Jawbreaker felt a lot more like Wink by Rob Harell. In both cases you’ve a lightly fictionalized middle grade novel about a kid dealing with some serious physical issues. But even so, Christina Wyman has layered her particular book with levels of complexity. The initial bully storyline may catch your attention, but it falls away throughout the course of the book, and that’s what makes this such an interesting story. Wyman is unafraid to treat her readership like intelligent human beings capable of contemplating a complex story full of self-doubt, bullying, economic disparities, justice, and equity. Jawbreaker may initially strike you as a one-issue novel, but scratch even a little bit below the surface and you’ll discover a multifaceted bit of storytelling that lures in its young readers even as it informs and instructs them. Plus it’s horribly difficult to put down! I dare you to read even two chapters and not be engulfed in the narrative. Smart and savvy, Jawbreaker is the novel you wish you had read as a kid and are grateful that kids get to read today.
On shelves October 24th.
Source: Galley borrowed from bookseller friend.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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