Book Review: The Downside of Being Charlie by Jenny Torres Sanchez
|Jenny Torres Sanchez at ALA Midwinter in Dallas|
Ser en dip i ty – [noun] the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way.
Occasionally, the universe comes together in a moment of total serendipity. At ALA Midwinter I stumbled upon a booth that was setting up to have an author signing for a debut ya author. That author was Jenny Torres Sanchez. I was there first in line and Jenny was kind enough to take a moment to talk to me while they were setting up (she’s very nice). I was there handing out cards and posters trying to promote The 2012 Project and she mentioned that the main character in her novel, Charlie, uses photography to help deal with the things happening in his life. I kinda mentioned maybe we could do a tie-in project since both of our projects involved photography and she said sure and . . . well, I am being bold this year so I contacted her via e-mail and she very graciously said yes, she would love to work with me to promote The 2012 Project. Then I had a moment of panic and thought: I better read this book, what if I hate it? So, thankfully, I am here to tell you that The Downside of Being Charlie by Jenny Torres Sanchez is a really well written, thought provoking contemporary ya novel that reminds me of one of my favorite authors, Chris Crutcher.
Charlie Grisner has just returned from fat camp and is about to start his senior year of high school. His mother has disappeared, again, and there is a deep chasm between him and his father full of unspoken things. Despite being a slimmer version of himself, most of the people at school are still calling him “Chunks”. And this year he lost the locker lottery and has to share with school pariah, Tanya Bate. He kinda, sorta has a thing going with Charlotte Vanderkleaton, but it is so confusing it is driving him to the brink – which in his case isn’t far. In fact, the only real bright spot in Charlie’s life is his spastic best friend, Ahmed, a Rat Pack obsessed daddy-o who at least drives a car; an embarrassing car, but it’s still a car.
First lines: I don’t know how you can see something before it’s actually there, but you can. I guess it’s the signs, right? Like little pieces of a gigantic invisible puzzle, all coming together, but you don’t see what you’re supposed to see, don’t know what there is to know, until they’re all attached and you step back to look at it. And then you think, I should have known. But the thing is, you already did.
As the novel progresses, Charlie develops an eating disorder (bulimia) and his mother attempts suicide. You wouldn’t think that so much could go wrong in one teens life and yet, as those of us who work with teens know, many teens are in fact living emotionally complex lives and they are barely making it through each day. Thankfully, Jenny writes with wit and insight to help you along the journey that is The Downside of Being Charlie.
Charlie is a likable main character that readers will feel empathy for. At one point I was so angry with Jenny for what she was putting poor Charlie through; I just wanted there to be a light at the end of his tunnel. Although there may (or may not) be that proverbial light at the end, Charlie matures and gains some self awareness that really leaves you with a sense of hope for Charlie. And along the way Charlie and this cohort of characters offer some meaningful discussion about the main themes that teens grapple with: identity, bullying, self acceptance, independence, etc.
Like the works of Chris Crutcher and other contemporary YA authors, Charlie is a relatable and discussable read. And like those authors, Sanchez creates realistic teen characters, which in this case includes some harsh (though authentic) language and one bullying incident that involves marijuana. This is a great debut novel and I look forward to reading more by Sanchez; she really captured the lives of teens and wrote a story that is compelling and moving. She used to be a high school teacher which really shows in her writing – she gets teens.
I love the way Sanchez incorporated photography into this work. Charlie is a photography student and is given the assignment to create a portfolio. How Charlie does this becomes the final part of the book and it is a great use of art in a work of fiction. Throughout the book the idea of bringing things into focus is used to organize the elements. It becomes a good unifying device and a great example of how teens use art every day to express themselves.
The ya market has beend dominated by fantasy and paranormal romance these last few years (which I don’t mind at all), but this year it seems like there is a real renaissance of the cotenmporary ya novel. The year kicked off with the wonderful The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, and I believe this will be one of those contemporary novels that will be a part of the renaissance. Fans of Chris Crutcher, Sarah Dessen and John Green will appreciate The Downside of Being Charlie. Highly recommended.
What they are saying on the Internet: “Realistically edgy and humorously dysfunctional”. I agree wholeheartedly.
She was right, this novel is a good tie in for The 2012 Project. Join us in April as we offer you the opportunity to join The 2012 Project and make a statement for teens and libraries while giving you the chance to win an amazing Book Club Kit for your school or public library. This Book Club Kit will include 20 copies of The Downside of Being Charlie, a Skype visit with Jenny Torres Sanchez so that your teens can talk to a debut author and learn about her journey in getting published, and some other swag that Jenny says she is going to throw in. More details will be coming as we get closer to April. The contest will run through the month of April and the school or public library that submits the most 2012 Project pics will win this amazing Book Club Kit.
You can learn more about Jenny Torres Sanchez at her website, http://www.jennytorressanchez.com/.
Sanchez writes a letter to her teenage self as a part of the Dear Teen Me project which you can read here. And keep looking here for updates, an author Q&A and more.
Filed under: Book Reviews
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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