Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Review: Speak

Anderson, L. (1999). Speak.  New York, NY: Square Fish.


Laurie Halse Anderson’s book, Speak, is about the social and emotional recovery of a female high school student, Melinda Sordino, after she is raped at a party.  Melinda and her friends go to a party where everyone is drinking alcohol. Melinda steps outside to get some fresh air and then gets seduced, taken away, and raped by an upperclassman named Andy Evans. Melinda calls the police to get help, but everyone thinks she called the police to snitch on the party. Because everyone thinks she reported the party, Melinda is ostracized by her peers and former friends. Throughout the next school year, she carries the pain of her social isolation along with the emotional pain of the rape itself. During this time, she becomes selectively mute and increasingly isolated as she processes her pain.  Her increasingly negative grades and behaviors are interpreted by her parents and teachers as signs of delinquency and mental illness. Through Melinda’s yearlong friendship with David Petrakis and her ongoing art project for Mr. Freeman, she is able to work through her pain and regain her desire to speak. After Melinda sees her former best friend (i.e. Rachel) dating her former rapist (i.e. Andy), Melinda decides it’s time to tell her and others the truth about the reason she called the police at the party: she was raped. In the end, Melinda finds her voice and says, “Let me tell you about it” (198).


Anderson’s book would fit into the category of Contemporary Realistic Fiction.  The book offers a realistic depiction of a narrative that is all-too-true for too many women in high school and college. Within this genre, Speak would be placed into the subcategory of the “problem novel.” It would be considered a problem novel because the story deals with the trauma of rape and the resulting physical and emotional pain of rape.  The story also describes the social isolation that goes with the shame and secrecy of working through the emotional aftermath of rape. While the protagonist is able to overcome her inability to speak up about the rape, she will obviously live with that pain for her entire life. However, by the end of the book, the author leaves the impression that the protagonist has found some emotional healing and renewed social connection. Even though there is still some pain, it is no longer allowed to control her life. Melinda reclaims her life by regaining her voice.

Essential Issues

Anderson’s book focuses on a variety of central issues in the lives of adolescents. First, rape is an unfortunate reality in the lives of all-too-many young women. In fact, 91% of rape victims are female, 25% of college-aged women report experiencing rape since age 14, and 44% of all rape victims of under the age of 18 (US Justice Department). These are significant statistics because they indicate a disturbing pattern in the lives of young women and men. Plus, behind these statistics are real women who are raped and experience pain that is similar to the pain described by Anderson in Speak. The importance of this book is that it would provide an opportunity to discuss the prevalence and impact of sexual assault with students of both genders. For female students, this book could serve not only as a story of warning, but also a story of empowerment since Melinda is able to find her voice at the end. For male students, this book could help them to better understand the long-lasting effects of rape as well as the seriousness of sexual assault. As Anderson discussed in her interview at the end of the book, some boys don’t understand the reason a woman would be so upset about being raped (204). It’s important to help young men to understand the impact of rape so they can act in sexually appropriate and respectful ways. Moreover, this book might also provide a message of hope for young women who have experienced rape themselves. While teacher would need to address this topic carefully, it’s an important issue in the lives of adolescents.  Second, this book explores the issue of parental relationships during the adolescent years. This is often an awkward time when teenagers are split between dependency on their parents and a growing sense of independence. During this stage of life, parents are often seen as sources of love but parents are also seen as hopelessly out-of-touch with life. It can be difficult to know how and when to share something as personal as a sexual assault at any time with one’s parents, but it’s probably especially awkward during adolescence.  Plus, it’s at this point in life when teenagers really begin to see and interpret their parents’ problems. Anderson’s book would help provide an opportunity to discuss these perennial parental issues through Melinda’s relationship with her own parents who are an amalgamation of loving, imperfect, and misunderstanding. Melinda’s parents show love by giving her a charcoal set after they notice her drawing (Anderson, 72), but they also misunderstand her by saying that “suicide is for cowards” (Anderson, 88). These two examples from Melinda’s complicated relationship with her parents highlight the rich content this book would provide for discussing parental relationships with teens. Third, relationships with teachers are another complicated dynamic for teenagers. Like parents, teachers can simultaneously be role models and antiheroes for teens. The teacher-student dynamic could be explored with great nuance with this book. There are three main teachers in Speak. Mr. Neck is a cranky authoritarian, Hairwoman is a withdrawn weirdo, and Mr. Freeman is a neo-hippy muse. Melinda has a very different relationship with each of them. Since these teachers are so different, they provide fodder to discuss the different kinds of teachers and the subsequently different kinds of relationships that students have with different teachers. Most significantly, it would be interesting to discuss the ways in which Mr. Freeman helped Melinda regain her voice through art and then ask students to reflect on the ways in which teachers have been helpful in their own lives.    

Cultural Contexts

Young adult readers of this book would gain insights into the cultural context of being a survivor of sexual assault. The book focuses on the life a young woman who is raped and has to process the pain, shame, and social isolation as a result of that rape. Melinda’s rapist, Andy, starts out as a “gorgeous cover-model guy” and “Greek God” who makes her feel good by flirting with her (134). But then Andy turns out to have a malicious intent: sex at any cost. Despite Melinda’s physical and verbal attempt to stop him, Andy silences and overpowers her. The Greek God now “smells like beer and mean” (Anderson, 135) and after he rapes her he “zips his jeans and smiles” (136). The smile could imply many things: he enjoyed it, he assumed she enjoyed it, he was proud of getting his way, he was glad he raped her, etc. In any case, the smile makes Andy into “IT” – the monster who destroyed a part of Melinda’s life and happiness. Later in the book, Andy even tries to justify the rape after Melinda speaks out: “You know it’s a lie. I never raped anybody. I don’t have to. You wanted it just as bad as I did” (193). This is a common theme in rape culture. The woman is assumed to be guilty of crying foul because of hurt feelings instead of bringing forth a legitimate claim of sexual assault. The assumption is that the woman wanted to have sex but claimed to be raped in order to seek revenge after the guy hurt her feelings. This sexist mindset adds insult to injury to individual women – and it offers a blanket and malicious justification for rape on a societal level. Melinda not only has to deal with the physical and emotional pain from the rape, but she also has to make a serious accusation in a society that is likely to disbelieve her. This book does a good job of describing the difficulty of that task. It’s the reason that Melinda doesn’t speak. She won’t be believed anyway.  So she struggles through the entire next year of school with this secret. And with that secret, she held another secret: she didn’t call the cops on her friends because they were drinking; she called the cops because she’d been raped. But because she kept her secret, everyone in school, including her good friends, think she is an enemy. In one pointed scene, Melinda is at a pep rally and feels the brunt of this social estrangement: “The girl pokes me harder.  ‘Aren’t you the one who called the cops at Kyle’s party at the end of the summer?’ A block of ice freezes our section of the bleachers. Heads snap in my direction with the sound of a hundred paparazzi cameras. I can’t feel my fingers. I shake my head. Another girl chimes in. ‘My brother got arrested at that party. He got fired because of the arrest. I can’t believe you did that. Asshole”’ (28). Unfortunately, there is no way for Melinda to correct this misunderstanding without telling the entire school that she had been raped. This part of the story would help students understand part of the social isolation of being a survivor of rape. It would also help them to understand the how difficult it is for a survivor of rape to make her accusation in a public way. Survivors of rape have to tell police, their parents, and, in Melinda’s case, her entire school about being raped. It’s important to help students understand that it’s difficult, courageous, and important to tell the truth about rape so it doesn’t happen to other people. And that is ultimately what Melinda decides to do. Melinda finally speaks up after working on an art project that helps her process her pain and see her growth (symbolized in the narrative as a tree); befriending a guy who models the power of speaking up and encourages her to do speak up to Mr. Neck (i.e. David Patrakis); and seeing Andy dating her ex-best friend (i.e. Rachel). In the end, Melinda just couldn’t allow Andy to hurt Rachel. Melinda then bravely tells Rachel the truth about why she called the police: Andy raped her (183-185). This is a visceral, realistic scene that would be relatable for students yet also illustrate the courage that it took Melinda to speak up. Another ex-friend, Ivy, listens to Melinda and, most importantly, believes Melinda about the rape (185). After Melinda’s conversations with Rachel and Ivy, the truth gets spread throughout the school. In one of the bathroom stalls, women begin writing the bad experiences they’ve had with Andy. Melinda sees the notes and feels better: “Different pens, different handwriting, conversations between some writers, arrows to longer paragraphs. It’s better than taking out a billboard. I feel like I can fly” (186). It’s at this moment when Melinda begins to regain her good reputation and Andy loses his. At this point in the narrative, students would be able to see justice being served and a silenced woman come to voice. It’s important for students to see success in Melinda’s brave act of speaking up so that other young women who are survivors of rape can be empowered, too. In the end of the book, Andy confronts Melinda in an ugly way yet gets caught by the women’s lacrosse team. The clear implication is that Andy’s days as a secret rapist are over.  From that point on, Melinda gains friends and becomes popular again. Plus she finds healing. In the end, Melinda explains what it’s like to be a survivor of sexual assault: “IT happened. There is no avoiding it, no forgetting. No running away, or flying, or burying, or hiding. Andy Evans raped me in August when I was drunk and too young to know what was happening. It wasn’t my fault. He hurt me. It wasn’t my fault. And I’m not going to let it kill me. I can grow” (198). While this entire book describes the cultural context of being survivor of rape, this paragraph in particular is a helpful way to help students understand the importance of the survival aspect of that context. Growth is possible. It’s hard work, but it’s possible.  


The protagonist in the story, Melinda, is a character to which adolescents could easily connect. She is a typical teenager who has a complex relationship with her parents and teachers. She has faithful friends and gets good grades. But everything changes after she gets raped at a party and then calls the police. She suddenly becomes socially isolated, depressed, and angry. Her internal dialogue about her darker thoughts and feelings is very believable. Students who have faced a really difficult time in life would particularly relate to Melinda. Students who have been raped, struggled with a big secret, experienced depression, etc. may find Melinda to be a kindred spirit. But that doesn’t mean that other students wouldn’t relate to her. Anderson made Melinda so realistic and believable as a character that I think many students would connect with her.  Plus, in the end, Melinda showed great courage and resolve when she spoke out. While this book would be classified a problem novel, the character of Melinda also makes the story about healing and empowerment. Many students like to read a story about overcoming the odds. This is definitely a story about a character who managed to survive and thrive despite the trauma that wounded her.
Melinda’s parents were complex and multidimensional. On one hand, they were loving and supportive of Melinda. Her parents encourage her to improve her grades, they try to get her to talk with them, and they give Melinda a charcoal set as a gift after they noticed her interest in art. On the other hand, they misunderstand her and occasionally make things worse. Melinda’s parents chastise her for not talking more, they yell at her over her grades, and they coldly say “suicide is for cowards” after they notice scratches on her arm (88). In the end, Melinda’s parents are like many parents in young adult literature: they are flawed. But that reflects reality. Parents are going through their own challenges and stages of life. Like all people, parents are imperfect as they navigate the ebbs and flows of life. Their imperfection just makes them all the more believable as characters – especially for teenagers who have complex relationships with their own imperfect parents.
Melinda’s teachers in the story were complex and diverse. As described above, Mr. Neck is a cranky authoritarian, Hairwoman is a withdrawn weirdo, and Mr. Freeman is a neo-hippy muse. Most students would relate to having different experiences and relationships with the different kinds of teachers in their school. Plus, the teachers didn’t remain flat throughout the story. Hairwoman got a haircut and became more outgoing. Mr. Freeman’s neo-hippy mindset allowed him to use his class as more than an academic exercise, which allowed him to help Melinda work through her pain through her art. Mr. Neck, however, did remain more flat but this probably added to the believability of his character. He remains strict throughout the entire book.
Melinda’s friends are also complex. First, David is an exciting character. He successfully stands up to Mr. Neck. This dramatic scene includes him saying the following to Mr. Neck: “The Constitution does not recognize different cases of citizenship based on time spent living in the country. I am a citizen, with the same rights as your son, or you. As a citizen, and as a student, I am protesting the tone of this lesson as racist, intolerant, and xenophobic” (56). This act of speaking up and standing up forces the school to monitor Mr. Neck’s lessons, which subsequently causes David to be a hero to Melinda (68). Later in the story, David encourages Melinda to speak out by saying: “…don’t expect to make a difference unless you speak up for yourself” (159).  Clearly, David is the modeler and encourager of speaking out for Melinda. Second, Heather is outgoing and quickly befriends Melinda after Heather moved to town, but then she de-friends Melinda after she discovers Melinda’s sadness. In fact she says: “You’re the most depressed person I’ve ever met, and excuse me for saying this, but you are no fun to be around and I think you need professional help” (105). Heather, while usually very friendly, ends up abandoning Melinda when she needs a friend the most. Third, Rachel is Melinda’s best friend who turns against her when she thinks Melinda reported the party to the police. It’s understandable that she would get mad at Melinda given the information that she has. However, it seems extreme that she would hold a grudge against someone for so long. It’s also understandable that Rachel wouldn’t believe that her new boyfriend Andy had raped Melinda. While she doesn’t believe Melinda right away, she does end up breaking up with Andy and burning everything he gave to her. So, in the end, Rachel was a complex character who went beyond a stereotypical teenager with an axe to grind.
Andy, the rapist, is a creep. An attractive, popular, and manipulative creep. And because of that complexity, he is a well-sketched character.

Choices, Challenges, and Resolution

Melinda has to wrestle with a variety of difficult choices. First, Melinda has to decide if she’s going to tell the truth about the reason she called the police at the party. Second, Melinda has to decide who she’s going to tell about the rape. Third, Melinda has to decide when she’s going to tell someone about the rape. Fourth, Melinda has to decide if she is going to tell her ex-best friend that her new boyfriend is a rapist. Fifth, Melinda has to decide if she wants to come out of her closet of isolation, despair, secrecy, and shame (literally and metaphorically). Sixth, Melinda has decide if the trees that she is drawing can get better (symbolically representing her own life and healing). Finally, Melinda has to decide to speak.
There is one major, overarching challenge that shows the strength of an adolescent. Melinda dealt with the trauma of rape while also being ostracized by her classmates and friends for calling the police at the party.  She feels angry and hurt because of being raped and she feels angry and hurt for being abandoned by her friends. Yet she knows that her friends have abandoned her because they don’t know the truth about the reason she called the police. So she struggles with whether to speak up about the rape itself while also struggling with whether to tell her friends that she didn’t call the police on them. It was a secret within a secret. And it was holding her in her moratorium of pain, anger, and depression. With the help of Mr. Freeman’s art project and David’s modeling of the importance of speaking up, she was able to begin the healing process and consider the possibility of speaking up about the rape. Then, when she saw Rachel was dating Andy, she summoned the courage to begin speaking out. She couldn’t bear the thought of her ex-best friend being raped, too.
The end of the book featured Melinda speaking up and telling the truth about the events at the party. And from that point on, her tree project (symbolically representing her life and healing) just kept getting better.  She had to remove the dead parts of the tree so that new life could grow (186-188). In the end, Melinda found healing, spoke up, stopped a rapist, and reconnected with her friends. Her assessment of her project summarizes the resolution of the story well: “My tree is definitely breathing…The new growth is the best part” (196).  

Student Appeal

Anderson’s book is a story that adolescents would choose and enjoy for a variety of reasons. First, it talks about a real issue that teenagers experience. Second, the book provides a story of hope and healing after a major trauma. Third, the author uses dialogue and scenarios that seem authentic to the life of teenagers. Fourth, the book would promote conversation about evils of sexual assault and the importance of healthy sexuality. Fifth, the plot is non-linear yet connected enough to be easily followed and understood. For all of these reasons, this book would likely be appealing to many adolescents. My only reservation with giving it a full endorsement of broad student appeal is that I am afraid that some young men would avoid reading it because it’s about “women’s issues.” I hope I am wrong about this last part of my assessment.   

Literary Merit

Laurie Halse Anderson’s book, Speak, has a low lexile rating (i.e. 690) yet manages to be of high interest. Sometimes these books are termed “hi-lo” (i.e. high interest and lower lexile). Hi-lo books are obviously meant for readers who can’t read at their peers’ grade level and/or are reluctant readers. Speak is an excellent example of a hi-lo book for high school students. The story and characters are complex enough to make it realistic, engaging, and relatable, yet not so complex that it’s difficult to understand and follow. Plus, the author uses dialogue and scenarios that are authentic, relevant, and appropriate for a story about a girl who heals from the trauma of rape. These elements make the story life-like and convincing, which helps the author keep the reader’s attention, interest, and investment. Finally, the author effectively and realistically deals with real issues in this story (rape, parental relationships, relational aggression, etc.). It’s incredibly important to have books like Speak, which talk about such important topics in effective ways. Students who receive special education services deserve to read high quality books just as much as anyone else. I am not alone in being complementary of the literary merit of this book. In fact, Speak won many awards such as the American Library Association’s Best books for Young Adults, Young Adult Library Services Association’s Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers, and National Book Award Finalist.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Review: Openly Straight

Konigsberg, B. (2013). Openly Straight.  New York, NY: Arthur A. Levine Books.


Bill Konigsberg’s book, Openly Straight, is about the desire of a gay high school student, Rafe Goldberg, to transcend his gay identity and live a “label-free life” (4).  Rafe lives happily as an openly gay teenager liberal Boulder, Colorado and is widely supported by his parents, friends, classmates, and community. He even became a public speaker on issues related to being a gay teen for an advocacy group called “Speak Out” (41). But Rafe eventually got tired of being identified so exclusively as “the GAY kid” (133). He decided to move to Natick, Massachusetts to attend a conservative all-boys school to experience life as a heterosexual who doesn’t carry such an all-consuming label. His mission: live openly straight. Immediately Rafe is befriended by some jocks at Natick, which helps propel his image of being straight. However, Rafe fell in love with a strong, sensitive jock named Ben. Through the year at Natick, a “bromance” turned into a sexual relationship between Rafe and Ben (185). As the relationship intensified, Rafe decided he couldn’t keep his feelings or his identity masked any longer. He came out to Ben, his friends, and eventually the wider community of Natick. While the revelation of Rafe’s sexual orientation mortally wounded his relationship with Ben, Rafe built new relationships with other people around him.  In the end, Rafe realized that living openly straight was a lie, and that lie created more problems for him than living openly gay.  His lie hurt his friend and lover, Ben. His lie limited his friendships at Natick. His lie confused his friends and family in Boulder. His lie “created a barrier way worse than the original [barrier of being identified as gay]” (298). So Rafe learned the importance of honesty. 


Konigsberg’s book would fit into the category of Contemporary Realistic Fiction.  The book offered a realistic portrayal of a teenager who explored his identity as he simultaneously wanted to reject the labels that get assigned with identities.

Essential Issues

Konigsberg’s book, Openly Straight, focused on a variety of central issues in the lives of adolescents. First, developing gay pride is a complex and difficult process in a heteronormative world. Many things make being gay uniquely challenging: homophobic comments, same-gender community showers, pressure for guys to have a girlfriend, nonverbal expressions of negative judgment from others, assumptions that gay people know other gay people, etc. Even in progressive communities, heteronormativity gets embodied through the over-emphasizing of gay people as gay to the exclusion of all the other labels for which a person might be identified. Rafe encountered all of these challenges in the book, Openly Straight. It’s important for gay teens to have books to which they can relate to their own experiences. This book is especially helpful   since it presents a variety of different representations of gay characters that all have different experiences with being gay. This diversity provides various points of experiential access to gay students. Moreover, through Rafe’s pride and comfort in his sexuality, this book could help gay teens to overcome some of their own internalized prejudice. This book is also important for heterosexual teens because it would help them recognize the unique experiences and challenges of being a gay teen. Plus the narrative and characters would help heterosexual teens to develop greater empathy and understanding for their gay classmates. For example, all-too-many heterosexual teens don’t understand the need to develop gay pride and the need to attend gay pride events. This book would help them to deconstruct heteronormativity and recognize the important role of developing gay pride. With the disproportionately high number of gay teens being bullied, beaten, and/or committing suicide, a careful discussion of the experience of gay teens is both relevant and life-saving to teens in all kinds of schools.  Second, Konigsberg’s book explored the fact that people see things differently because of the different lenses through which they see the world. As Ben says: “[Lenses] shift your perspective on everything you see. They create what’s real for you, and unlike glasses, you can never take them off and see what normal people see” (220). This part of the book would provide an excellent opportunity to discuss the ways in which people see things from different perspectives (African American vs. European American, introvert vs. extrovert, homosexual vs. heterosexual, etc.). One way to engage students in this task is to consider the story from the perspective of various characters. Within the context of Openly Straight, students could explore the perspectives of characters such as Ben (student who comes from a conservative background yet explores his sexuality), Olivia (student who is a friendly and outgoing female), Bryce (student who is African American and depressed), etc. This activity could help students see and appreciate different interpretations of the story. Such a discussion could help students to become more civil, open-minded, and culturally competent citizens. Third, Openly Straight allows readers to explore the powerful influence of a person’s family of origin. Ben might have been gay or bisexual, but he doesn’t allow himself to entertain that idea due to his parents’ opposition to homosexuality. Ben knew his parents would reject him for being gay (242). Since he was beholden to “his parents’ way of thinking” (249), he concluded that he had to “be straight” (285). If Ben is gay or bisexual, he will live a life that is emotionally inauthentic and limited due to pressure from his parents. Ben’s character provides an excellent opportunity for teens to reflect on parental expectations and how those expectations sometimes come into conflict with one’s own life. His character also helps teens to understand the reason that it can be difficult to diverge from parental expectations, whether it’s sexual orientation, vocational goals, or extracurricular interest. It’s important for teens to discuss the ways in which discovering one’s true identity can sometimes be profoundly influenced by one’s parents.  Fourth, Konigsberg uses the book to discuss the important differences between the tolerance (i.e. endure a difference), acceptance (i.e. allow something that is different), and celebration (i.e. honor differences in a pluralistic way) of human diversity. Some students assume that tolerance and acceptance are positive attributes. While these approaches to diversity are more positive than overt oppression, they still imply the need for non-normative groups/students to assimilate into the dominant group. Through the character of Mr. Scarborough, the author promotes the idea of celebrating human difference over and above tolerance and acceptance (140-142).  At the end of his lecture, Mr. Scarborough said: “It’s hard to be different…And perhaps the best answer is not to tolerate differences, not event to accept them. But to celebrate them. Maybe then those who are different could feel more loved and less, well, tolerated” (142). This part of the book would help students to explore the ways that they react to the diversity in their lives. Plus, on an ethical level, it promotes the idea of pluralism as a celebration of diversity. Fifth, this novel promotes the importance of being honest. When Rafe moved to Natick to live a “label-free life” (4), he realized that he had to lie about his sexual orientation. He also had to ask his parents and friends from Boulder to colluding with his lie when they encountered people from Natick. Rafe’s choice to lie about his homosexuality confused his parents and best friend, who had been supporters and advocates of him in Boulder. His lie also limited what could have been a helpful friendship with Toby, the gay best friend of Rafe’s roommate. Plus, Rafe had to lie about his sexual orientation to the guy with whom he was falling in love. Ben had falsely assumed they were both “going through the same thing” (288). When Rafe finally told Ben the truth, Ben said that Rafe was “fundamentally dishonest” (291) and “broke [his] heart” (313). Due to this lie, Rafe and Ben broke up as friends and lovers. In the end, Rafe’s effort to live label-free required him to spin a lie that hurt and confused everyone he knew. Attempting to break down the gay-straight barrier created a barrier that separated him from everyone he cared about (298). The ends definitely didn’t justify the means. So Rafe learned that honesty is vitally important even when a lie is told for a “good” reason. This part of the narrative could be used to discuss experiences when students have lied or have been lied to for “good” reasons and how those lies affected them. Since everyone had probably experienced such dishonesty in their lives, everyone will be able to relate to this discussion.   

Cultural Contexts

Young adult readers of Openly Straight would gain insights into the cultural context of being a gay teen. Unlike some books that focus on the tragedies of being gay (e.g. getting bullied, going through a difficult time of discovering one’s homosexuality, coming out of the closet in an unaccepting environment, etc.), this book explored the unique challenges of being gay in an accepting environment. Openly Straight focused on the life a high school guy who struggles with the fact that his identity is almost entirely wrapped up in his label of being “the GAY kid” (133). In his liberal community of Boulder, he is able to live openly gay in an accepting and caring community. But he gets tired of one aspect of his life eclipsing all the other aspects of his life. He is a gay kid first and foremost. Only on a secondary or tertiary level, Rafe is also a son, friend, student, male, introvert, soccer player, etc.  Konigsberg emphasized Rafe’s perspective on this labeling problem through Rafe’s self-reflection: “One day I woke up and I looked in the mirror, and this is what I saw: “GAY GAY GAY RAFE GAY GAY GAY…Where had Rafe gone? Where was I? The image I saw was so two-dimensional that I couldn’t recognize myself in it. I was as invisible in the mirror as I was in the headline the Boulder Daily Camera has run a month earlier: Gay High School Student Speaks Out” (3). Clearly Rafe thinks he has become a two-dimensional person without the nuanced characteristics that most people are afforded.  In an effort to become a more three-dimensional person, Rafe develops the idea of moving to a new school and attempting to live a “label-free life” (4). He just wanted to be one of the guys without all the extra baggage that went with being identified as gay. It wasn’t that Rafe was ashamed of being gay. He just didn’t want his sexual orientation to be the defining characteristic of his entire personhood. Rafe’s struggle to be a regular-yet-gay guy in a heteronormative world is an important part of his cultural context as a gay teen. The fact is that Rafe can’t just be a regular guy in a heteronormative culture any more than Barack Obama can be a regular guy in a white dominated culture. The difference is the thing that gets noticed and emphasized. Some people react to that difference through homophobic comments, physical aggression, judgmental glances, etc. Some people react to that difference through tokenism, paternalism, assimilationism, etc. And some people react with compassion, support, advocacy, etc. In all of these cases the gay person still feels different. In the end of the book, Rafe realized that he has to be open and honest about his sexual orientation even though he has to deal with some of the baggage associated with being different. It’s important for students to understand this cultural context since gay students are at disproportionally higher risk for being bullied, suffering from depression, and committing suicide.  It’s important for homosexual students to understand that they are not alone and that things often improve after high school. It’s important for heterosexual students to understand the unique challenges that gay students face so they can be more empathetic to the challenges of being gay. Through a narrative set in a high school context, this book does an excellent job of exploring issues related to sexual orientation in a nuanced and relatable way for teens. Rafe helps students see a teen who is supported yet still faces challenges because he’s gay. Ben shows students an example of what can happen when a teenager is overly bound to the mindset of his/her parents.  Clare demonstrates the ways in which a heterosexual teen can be an ally for a gay teen. Opal and Gavin (i.e. Rafe’s parents) show the positive impact that supportive parents can have on teens who are homosexual. Mr. Scarborough exhibits the benefits that a supportive teacher can have on the lives of gay teens. In sum, the characters and narrative of Openly Straight would all be a helpful resource to help teenagers to understand the cultural context of homosexuality from a nuanced and empathetic perspective.  The book would also expand their worldview by showing issues related to gay teens from a positive, three-dimensional perspective. This shouldn’t be considered controversial for classrooms. Demonstrating the humanity of gay teens is simply compassion and justice in action.


The protagonist in the story, Rafe, is a very relatable character for teens. He is a typical teen who enjoys sports, sex, humor, and discovering his identity as an emerging adult. He also has a complex relationship with his parents. On one hand, Rafe appreciates his parents for their love and support for him (e.g. his mom became the president of PFLAG). On the other hand, Rafe is embarrassed by some of their behaviors (e.g. his dad’s rapping and his mom’s naked yoga). Rafe is also witty, insightful, and smart. He’s a regular teen in many respects. One difference from the typical teen is that Rafe is gay. He likes guys in the same way that many gays like girls. But he doesn’t want that one aspect about himself to define his humanity. Students who have dealt with similar identity challenges may relate especially well to Rafe (e.g. African Americans, disabled students, introverts, etc.). But his story of simultaneously seeking acceptance and individuality is a rather universal story to which most students would connect. Like the character David Fisher on the TV show Six Feet Under, Rafe is a regular guy who happens to be gay – even though he isn’t treated that way. For all of these reasons, students should be able to relate to and connect with Rafe whether they are gay or not. Plus, in the end, this story is about the universal journey to find love, self-acceptance, and peer-acceptance.

Rafe’s parents were interesting, complex characters. His mom, Opal, was an emotion-expressing, Prius-driving, naked-yoga-doing neo-hippy. She was also an ardent supporter of Rafe and became the president of PFLAG. Rafe’s dad, Gavin, was a college-teaching, karaoke-rapping, sensitive-male-type neo-hippy. He was also very supportive of Rafe. Both of his parents simultaneously embarrassed and impressed Rafe. They were painted so fascinatingly as characters that they could have a book or TV show that focused just on them.

Ben was Rafe’s love interest at Natick. Ben was a muscular jock, caring friend, wise philosopher, and all around attractive guy. He was anything but typical for a guy at Natick. Ben was the son of a lower-income farmer while many of the other guys came from wealthy families. He was the most athletic of all the guys but he was also deeply sensitive and empathic. Ben didn’t like labels or homophobia yet he didn’t want to be gay himself due to pressure from his parents.  Plus, Ben, as a straight guy, started to explore his affection and sexuality with Rafe. The two became increasingly close until Rafe revealed that he had lied to Ben about his sexual orientation. At the end of the story, Ben broke off their relationship due to his broken heart over Rafe’s dishonesty. He, as the sensitive guy, was too hurt by Rafe to continue their relationship. Obviously Ben is a combination of many positive attributes that tend not to come together. By the end of the story it’s clear that Ben is meant to be the one that got away.

Clare was Rafe’s best friend in Boulder. She was outgoing, friendly, and a bit egocentric. But she was also a faithful friend and ardent supporter of Rafe. In many ways, she was the typical best friend in teen novels and movies. Of all the main characters, she was probably the flattest. The author didn’t draw the reader into her life and make her character worth caring a lot about. Her character seemed to operate as a tool to propel Rafe’s narrative and character forward.

Mr. Scarborough was Rafe’s teacher at Natick. He was also the advisor of the Gay Straight Alliance (GSA). While his personality wasn’t very well sketched by the author, his role in Rafe’s life at Natick was pivotal. Mr. Scarborough was the first person that Rafe told about his label-free experiment, which inspired Mr. Scarborough to give Rafe a journal writing assignment about his experience. Through this journal, the reader got insights into and reflections upon Rafe’s life at Boulder and at Natick. Like Claire, Mr. Scarborough’s character is more of a tool to support Rafe’s character and story.

Toby and Albie were Rafe’s friends at Natick. They were both long-time friends with one another and had a lot of insight jokes and stories.  Toby and Albie were not the so-called cool kids, but were cool in their own way. Their banter among themselves and their banter with Rafe gave the book an occasional sit-com flavor. For being non-central characters, they were well developed and quite funny.

Choices, Challenges, and Resolution

Rafe has to wrestle with a variety of difficult choices. First, Rafe has to decide how he’s going to live openly straight at Natick. Second, Rafe has to decide how he’s going to mask his homosexuality. Third, Rafe has to decide how long he can lie to his friends and boyfriend at Natick. Fourth, Rafe has to decide how he’s going to explain his plan to his parents and best friend in Boulder. Fifth, Rafe has to decide how to keep his life at Natick separate from his life in Boulder. Sixth, Rafe has to decide what to do when he comes out at Natick. Finally, Rafe has to decide if his experiment worked. For all of these decisions, Rafe sticks with the value of attempting to live life in a label-free way. In the end, he regretted some of those decisions and eventually came to a place of contentment with his label.   

There is one major, overarching challenge that shows the strength of an adolescent. Rafe moved from the liberal safe haven of Boulder, Colorado across the country to conservative danger zone of Natick, Massachusetts in order to try his experiment of living label-free. This journey is a bold decision with no assurances of success. Rafe just makes the commitment to try his experiment and then does it. It would take a tremendous amount of strength and resiliency to engage in such an experiment. He moved away from friends and family who were supportive and loving to a place he knew was going to be more hostile to gay teens. Yet he did it anyway. Rafe may have made his decision and transition hasty manor, but he stuck with his plan and played it out until the end of the year. By the end, Rafe was reflective enough to realize his dishonesty created more problems solutions.  

The end of the novel featured Rafe reflecting on the importance of accepting his label as a part of who he is as a person. He’s gay. If people want to make a big deal out of that label, it’s their choice. But he cannot deny his label out of a desire to avoid those moments. After he came out at Natick and joined the GSA, Rafe said: “I stopped worrying about how I looked to anyone else or what they were thinking. I was smiling and not worried if I had food stuck to my teeth. I was laughing and not wondering what it sounded like. Along with my times with Ben, and some of the time with Albie and Toby, this was the happiest I’d been since coming to Natick. I realized I wanted more of that” (309-310). Rafe had found happiness with his label because he had found happiness with living openly gay in a label-laden world. By the end of the book, it’s easy to picture Rafe repeat the famous words of Martin Luther: “Here I stand. I can do no other.” Rafe is gay. And happy. Like him or not.

Student Appeal

Konigsberg’s book was a story that adolescents would read for a variety of reasons. First, it talked about a homosexuality, a real thing that teenagers experience for themselves or through others. Second, the book provided a story of adventure as a teenager explored his identity. Third, the author used witty dialogue and relatable situations that were authentic to adolescents. Fourth, the book would promote conversation about the problems with heteronormativity and the importance of celebrating homosexuality. Fifth, the plot was linear yet included a journal that allowed for easy-to-understand reflection on current and past events. For all of these reasons, this book would likely be appealing to many adolescents. While it would be tempting to assume that this book would have broad student appeal, it’s possible that some students would avoid reading it because it’s about “gay issues.” Hopefully students could be convinced that gay issues are actually human issues.   

Literary Merit

Bill Konigsberg’s book, Openly Straight, is a well-crafted book for many reasons. First, the dialogue and characters are very realistic and complex. Second, the narrative explores homosexuality in regular-guy kind of way that makes the book more genuine. Third, the author brings up many topics that could inspire fruitful discussion with students (e.g. gay pride, labels, lenses, etc.).  Fourth, the story remains interesting despite the assumption that Rafe’s lie is going to implode under its own weight. Fifth, despite the fact that this book explores many topics that could be considered controversial, the narrative is also appropriately witty and funny. Sixth, the plot is complex enough to make it convincing and engaging yet not so complex that it’s difficult to appreciate and comprehend. Seventh, the book uses modern lingo (e.g. bromance) while simultaneously discussing important issues (e.g. interpretive lenses), which helps draw readers into the book and it’s topics.  Finally, Openly Straight has received external recognition for its literary merit. In fact, Openly Straight gained recognition such as the following: Young Adult Library Services Association’s (YALSA) Best Books of 2013, Booklist’s Top Ten Romance Fiction for Youth for 2013, a starred review from Booklist, a starred review from the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books (BCCB), and a positive review in the New York Times. It’s unknown if Openly Straight will win major literary awards since there haven't been any major awards for which it's been eligible yet. So far Openly Straight has shown significant promise when it comes to gaining positive recognition.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Recharge: 20 hours of worship, music, and conversation

Recharge will feature:

- Krista Tippitt talking about civility
- Music by Richard Bruxvoort Colligan
- Music by Sara Kay
- Workshops about worship, music, spiritual writing, the Psalms, etc.
- More details soon

Come to Ames, Iowa this summer to Recharge!

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Pope Francis sides with Jesus over Capitalism

Pope Francis criticized the extremes of capitalism. Some people were offended. But some people didn't like the message of Jesus, either! Here's a cartoon from the Miami Herald that describes the situation well:

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Open Letter to the UCC Concerning Clergy Killers

Dear Rev. Rich Pleva and Rev. Jonna Jensen -

Thank you for your ministry and dedication to the Church in general and the Iowa Conference of the UCC in particular. Your work is difficult and your hours are long. Like all clergy, you deserve more appreciation, compensation, and time off. Yet, like all clergy, your dedication to the Church fuels your dedication to the ministry without these external rewards. Please know your work is seen and appreciated.

However, there is one imperative issue that has been overlooked in many parts of the Church, including the Iowa Conference: clergy killers. These are people who create social toxicity in congregations and/or bully pastors into leaving or following specific demands. I have seen and experienced this phenomenon myself - and have talked with many other clergy who have also experienced it. In fact, a friend of mine (who is a CPE supervisor) told me that the UCC is especially prone to this problem because of our polity and historic inaction. Another clergy friend (who is retiring after a long career) said you can't just mentor clergy through it, but instead the conference staff needs to engage in more proactive activity. I could go on and on with examples of other clergy who have talked about the problem of clergy killers. For example, according to former pastors of [censored] Church (including myself) and current colleagues in Iowa, [censored] Church has a few classic examples of clergy killers. Clearly something needs to be done on a denominational level, state-wide level, and congregational level to address this problem. It destroys congregations, ministries, clergy, and the marriages of clergy.

In order to explore the phenomenon of clergy killers, I implore you to budget the time to watch the film "Betrayed." The film features Rev. Dr. Lloyd Rediger. He was the man who wrote books such as "Clergy Killers." Rev. Rediger was a gracious and compassionate man. His dedication to Christian ministry was inspiriting. Plus he spent his life bringing healing and reconciliation to congregations around the USA and Canada through counseling, sermons, books, workshops, etc. He was a trusted expert in many denominations. The film, along with insights from Rev. Rediger, will help to highlight the pressing nature of addressing clergy killers. After you watch the film, please carefully and prayerfully explore some effective strategies to address this issue. Finally, and most importantly, please engage in effective strategies to overcome this destructive problem within our denomination and churches. The UCC is loosing good pastors and it does too little to help the pastors who remain in congregational ministry. The time for inaction, stagnation, and passivity is over. The moral imperative for proactive action is here. The actions that you take (or don't take) will shape the future of the UCC and determine your legacy on this pressing issue. I will be watching. And so will others. 

Thank you for your serious attention and consideration.


Former Congregational Pastor
Dr. Rediger In Memoriam from US Films Private on Vimeo.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Parable of the Good Samaritan: A Response to The Acquittal of George Zimmerman

The lectionary reading for today is the Good Samaritan story from Luke 10:25-37. Here is a re-telling of that story in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the man who killed Trayvon Martin:

A lawyer stood up to challenge Jesus. "Teacher," he said, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus said to him, "What is written in the law? What do you read there?" The lawyer answered, "You shall love God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." Jesus said to him, "You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live."

But wanting to justify himself, the lawyer asked Jesus, "Who is my neighbor?" Jesus replied, "A black teenager was walking down the street after buying some Skittles. He was stalked, beaten, and then killed. The judicial system didn't bring his killer to justice. Now by chance there was a Christian preacher watching the verdict on TV; when he heard the killer get acquitted, he shrugged his shoulders. So likewise a social worker, when she heard the verdict, she shrugged her shoulders. But a grandmother saw the news on her iPhone; and when she heard the news, she was moved with sadness and anger. She organized her local community and took immediate action to ensure this never happened again. Then she organized groups across the county, state, and nation; and they all took action to change the judicial system. The next day, she took out some money, gave it to her granddaughter, and said, 'This money is for law school. Take care of him; take care of injustice against kids like him, and you will be repaid through the fostering of a better world.' Which of these three people do you think was a neighbor to the black kid who was killed?" The lawyer said, "The one who took action." Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."

Thursday, July 4, 2013

It Gets Better Prayer

Holy One, we recall the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis. Joseph was a teenager who was bullied, beaten, thrown into a pit, and sold into slavery. He knew what it was like to be knocked down by everyone in his world. And, thankfully, life got much better for him. So we pray that life does, indeed, get better for every young person who faces difficulty, harassment, or violence.

May life get better for the young people in our community. The young people who are intimidated and recruited by gangs. The young people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered. The young people with disabilities or mental illness. The young people who are pregnant – and have to think about adoption, abortion, and other decisions that are way too heavy for someone so young – yet they have to make these decisions even as they feel ostracized. May life truly get better for all young people, no matter what they face. Being a teenager is hard enough without all the extra “stuff.” The tough stuff. So, we pray that life gets better for all of them.

Caring God, don’t let this prayer simply be an empty platitude to make us feel better. Things don’t always easily get better. Sometimes these teens are given more than they can handle by the world. And they need our help. So, we pray for you to help us, to help them.

Help us to build a world that is more inclusive of, and accessible for, young people who need our help. For some of us, this is easy. For others, it’s not. When we don’t know what to say or do, inspire us with words and actions that can help bring smiles and remove stigma. In everything we do, may we empower and love them like every other child.

Help us to provide a sense of community, belonging, and safety for young people, so they aren’t intimidated by or recruited into violence. This will take creativity in our community, as we witness an upsurge in violent acts. So, we pray to you, Creative Creator, to help us find a way to make our streets safer and children happier.

Help us to overcome the religious stigma against LGBT youth. Prejudice in the name of Christianity is a strong force in our world. So we, as Christians, have a special role in overturning this discrimination in the church and wider society. Give us the wisdom to listen to, stand beside, and support LGBT communities. And give us the courage to be a public witness to your love for each and every one of your perfectly designed lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered children.

Help us to offer a welcoming and safe place for youth with disabilities and mental illness. Not to feel sorry for them, or to treat them like helpless children, but to empower them to achieve their greatest potential despite their difficulties. May these young people, like all young people, know they are loved and created by you – and will be loved and cared for by us.

Help us to offer empathic ears and welcoming arms to pregnant teenagers. May we support them during their difficult decisions, and help them to find organizations like United Action for Youth, Faith Aloud, and Avoid the Stork. Plus, Holy God, may our schools offer our youth comprehensive sex education so that they can be empowered to make judicious decisions with the best information available. In the end, we pray for a dramatic drop in teen pregnancy – an end of teen pregnancy – so that every family can be started at a time that makes sense for them.

Holy God, may all the young people who face difficulties, like Joseph, find that life truly does get better. For every single one of them. No more prejudice. No more bullying. No more beatings. No more suicide. Just better. Every day. Because of you. And because of us. And because it’s the right thing to do for kids. May there be more fun. More smiles. More inclusivity. And more empowerment.

Like Joseph and his family, help to make life better for all of us, Gracious God. Amen.

This prayer was inspired by the It Gets Better Project.