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Young adult book reviews for ages 12 and up - middle school and high school students

*The Order of the Poison Oak* by Brent Hartinger - young adult book review

The Order of the Poison Oak
by Brent Hartinger
Young adult 240 pages HarperTempest March 2005 Hardcover    

Sixteen-year-old Russel Middlebrook is looking forward to getting away from school. He's had a tough time the last few months, after coming out at school when he formed the Goodkind High School Gay-Straight Alliance. Since then, he has been called names and been constantly picked on. Russel is so comfortable in his own skin that he seems to take most of this in his stride, but there are always those fires surrounding him.

Russel is now at the age where sticks and stones may break his bones but names are not supposed to hurt him. But the fires that threaten him are the fires of hatred and suspicion that flicker in the eyes of his classmates. Russel even says that “sticks and stones” is a really stupid adage, because any hurtful words might be a pretty good indication that the real sticks and stones are on the way. "Let's face it: being openly gay at age sixteen really, really sucks."

So when Russel gets a job as a summer camp counselor in the mountains, it sounds like the perfect getaway. He'll work with his two best friends, Min and Gunnar. Even better, he'll be a good fifty miles from everyone who knows he's gay. He's pretty sure that the three of them will have a magical summer at the lake.

But things don't work out quite as planned with his first campers are a group of ten-year-old burn survivors. He's initially taken back by their injuries, and he wants to sympathize with them. But when they start to misbehave, he gets angry and has to learn how to exercise authority over them. Part of Russel's growth and his gift to the boys is that he must impart to them how names can never hurt them.

Russel tells them about the rainbow crow, part of a mystical Indian legend that says you need to have thick skin - magic skin - and the longer you have scars, the thicker the rest of your skin becomes. It won't protect you from the physical stuff, but it does protect you from words. "And when someone says something nasty about you, calls you a freak, the words can't get through that skin, it can't hurt you underneath."

Author Brent Hartinger imbues Russel with such a definite moral center that it's impossible not to like him, and there is a lot to learn from this funny and frank young man. He has in inner strength and a sureness about himself that is reflected in Hartinger's beautifully simple but emotional prose. Although the story is told in the first person through Russel's eyes, we never feel that he is looking down at his group of boys or even lecturing the reader. The story is all about love, friendship, acceptance, and being true to one's self.

Written primarily for teenagers but also suitable for adults, the novel is narrated by a remarkably trustworthy, comfortable, well-adjusted gay protagonist. It is wonderful that Hartinger is writing such material for gay and lesbian teens. Reading this book, I found myself wishing that there were stories like this around when I was growing up. If only we could all have been lucky enough to have a pal like Russel, someone to deftly and skillfully help us navigate through those angry, hate-fuelled fires of adolescence.
Young adult book reviews for ages 12 and up - middle school and high school students

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  Michael Leonard/2005 for curled up with a good kid's book  

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