I’m going to start this post off by saying I read this book in one sitting and I cried the entire time. There was not a break from the tears, even when this book was not stabbing your heart with sadness.
When Shawna was 7 years old, her mother left without a word for another woman, Fran and Shawna has never been able to forgive her. But now, her mother has died of a stroke, and suddenly Fran and her two sons have a much bigger part in her life than ever before. Shawna, always perfect and always doing the right thing, doesn’t quite know how to handle all of this and everyone starts to see sides of Shawna that have never made it out into the open before. To top it all off, her dad is extremely controlling and can’t stand to see this side of his perfect daughter.
This book has so many wonderful things about it, I’m finding it difficult to know where to start. First there is Shawna, who puts on this perfect face but as a narrator hides absolutely nothing. She says things she shouldn’t, she does things she shouldn’t and she is so realistic it felt like I was talking to a good friend. I was honestly sad that when I closed the book after reading it, I was never going to get to talk to Shawna again. I loved loved loved her. Even when she did terrible things. Even she made huge mistakes.
My life is completely different from Shawna’s and was when I was in high school, and I’ve never had to go through a lot of what Shawna had to deal with, but I really connected with everything that happened. There were moments when Shawna would explain a feeling or do something and I would just think, “YES that is exactly how I would think!” Or, “That’s exactly what I would do!” Garsee does such a remarkable making this book not about all of the terrible things that happen in Shawna’s life but about Shawna and how she reacts to them.
I feel like when we talk about YA, we often talk about the “issues” or what “issues” a book deals with. So, Say the Word tackles homosexuality and how society makes that difficult. That’s fine, but that’s not all this book talks about. It also deals with body image (hello! Shawna’s best friend LeeLee? Size 14. I love LeeLee, I want to be best friends with LeeLee. LeeLee is amazing), racism, sexual assault and verbal abuse. It’s done artfully and the book never feels like it is a vehicle for talking about issues, but just a story. A story that happens to include all of these things, just like life.
If I had any complaints, sometimes it felt like so many terrible things were happening in Shawna’s life that it was almost unbelievable. I must highlight the almost because it did not cross that line, though it came close. The ending was satisfying and there was hope for the future. My next concern really brings up a much larger debate about what I want my YA to do: do I want my YA to be realistic? Or do I want my YA to be more than that? Do I also want it to be a vehicle for education? Is it too much for it to do both and maintain its realism?
So, the first issue in the book that really concerned me was that Shawna drinks and drives. As for reality points, yes, I know this happens. I know people often have a drink or two and then drive somewhere and no one gets hurt and no one gets caught. For me, though, I had a really hard time with the fact that this was never mentioned as being bad. Now, when Shawna is driving and drinking at the same time, it is very clearly a BAD THING, but when Shawna drinks and then drives home not too long after? No big deal. Not even mentioned. Not even a concern. She’s not even worried about it. Should my YA take a stand on something like that? I would have liked it to, yes. I’m not saying take up much room, just a line or two. She doesn’t have to get in trouble, because that wouldn’t necessarily be realistic, but at least something to show that it’s not okay.
The following paragraph is going to contain minor spoilers. It won’t ruin the book if you continue to read, but if you’re a purist about these kind of things, skip to the next paragraph. After the drinking and driving, the next part that really bothered me about this novel was how a sexual assault and later a rape are dealt with by Shawna. I know it is very realistic that she wouldn’t tell anyone about what happened (both did not happen directly to Shawna, but she was involved), but should Say the Word have taken a stand on this too? At least shouldn’t it have explored why Shawna didn’t tell anyone? Should the novel have to become a vehicle for that discussion, simply because it happens in the story?
So what’s my answer? I don’t know. I would never question an adult book for not dealing with an issue like this, but do authors have more responsibility when they’re writing for teenagers? I am so totally of two minds about this, that I have no idea to what the right answer is. I think that sometimes yes, sometimes a book intended for teenagers does have that responsibility, but I would never want an author to sacrifice story, plot or character for the issue. So these two things really do not change how I felt about the book overall, though I would have liked to see more exploration of the situations or they shouldn’t have been included in the novel.
The biggest strength of Say the Word, above all the others, is its honesty. Nothing about this book was easy. I absolutely loved the journey Shawna went on, because it was realistic – fueled by her mother’s betrayal, Shawna has deep prejudices that she finally begins to explore throughout the course of the novel. Fortunately she has people in her life who are able to turn those prejudices around. Even if people aren’t as fortunate as Shawna, maybe Say the Word will be what changes their perceptions and consequently their prejudices.
I’m reviewing Say the Word as part of Nerds Heart YA. Check back this afternoon for a review of the second book I’m reviewing – Once You Go Back by Douglas A. Martin. Then come back around 8 pm for my decision!