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

Teach Me
by R.A. Nelson
Young adult 272 pages Razorbill August 2005 Hardcover    

With prose on fire, R. A. Nelson writes about what happens when a not-quite-adult woman experiences a very adult relationship with her senior high school English teacher.

Nine (Carolina mispronounced) is a teenager in the old tradition – she’s an intellectual, peppering her intense conversation with references to Greek literature, quantum physics, astronomy, and, as a result of Mr. Mann’s English class, poetry. Far beyond her peers in both intelligence and interests, Nine has only one friend, Schuyler, a boy with his own set of awkward talents. Like chess. One of their games: making obscure quotes the other has only moments to identify.

Their closeness shatters when Nine’s crush on her English teacher evolves into a mutual love affair complete with sexual intercourse (but only after her eighteenth birthday). Nine has never felt this way before: in love, open to other people, happy. She leaves her best friend behind in favor of a passionate, enigmatic romance that first drives her crazy in a good way and then drives her crazy in a bad way. Because, of course, it ends, roughly, and suddenly Nine needs resources she does not yet have, she needs detachment and acceptance and reason beyond her desire. Being eighteen and protected by a traditional family in a small Southern town, she has not had a chance to develop these assets. Or maybe they’re not assets but a lack; perhaps we would all be better off experiencing to the ultimate degree, maybe then we’d have enough energy to make the world a better place.

Nine’s reaction to the demise of her first romantic relationship is perhaps more extreme than many of the rest of us have experienced, but not only because of her age. She refers to a sucking sensation that afflicts her occasionally even before she meets Mr. Mann, a whining sense that she is meant for more than the stained classrooms and dull-eyed classmates that surround her. She’s a sensitive, intense person – part of what draws Mr. Mann to her.

While many critics label this a story about molestation, I believe the crux of the book lies in Nine’s relationship with Schuyler, and with her parents. They are the ones watching while she sinks rapidly into a state of active despair, they are the ones who try to help her in their own ineffective way. They are the ones standing by when Nine makes her final self-rescue. Nine is not truly molested beyond the technical details: teacher sleeps with student. The balance of power does not tip to Mr. Mann because of his status as teacher, but because of his status as male, because he is the one with the most to lose, and he bails first. And in the end, Nine is the one wielding the weapon to convince her teacher, her lover, to give her what he wants the most: a reason. A gifted scientist, she only really wants the truth behind the reason he left her.

Nelson’s strength lies in pushing through the superficial shock value of his plot. Instead of getting stuck on reaction and repercussions for the community, school, and society, Nelson delves deeper into Nine’s character and reveals a young woman with a huge range of emotion and ability, not someone who garners much sympathy. Nine has no use for our sympathy. She wants our attention, she wants the reader to judge her by her actions and motives, not by her age or status as a high school student. Nelson has managed to write a character that transcends the boundaries of logistics. I appreciate these layers. Nine is one of those characters I wish I could know in real life, someone I wish, sometimes, I could have been.
Young adult book reviews for ages 12 and up - middle school and high school students

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  Andi Diehn/2005 for curled up with a good kid's book  

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