Books for Young Readers: Characters wrestle with real-life problems in Sharon Flake's 'Pinned'

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Pittsburgh author Sharon Flake has done it again. Her new novel, "Pinned" (Scholastic Press, $17.99, ages 14 and up), delivers a plot with a punch. As always, she makes readers laugh and cry with her true-to-life characters. And once again she offers African-American teens the chance to see their lives reflected in fiction, something that is unfortunately still relatively rare.

"Pinned," like many of Ms. Flake's earlier works, is set in an urban high school. Her characters live in an unspecified city and struggle with real-life issues like poverty, disability and low literacy. Despite the gritty realism, however, readers will find humor and hope as well as engaging characters and an involving story.

Autumn has so many things going for her. She has tons of friends. She's quick to smile and laugh and talk to anyone around her. She's fit and trim and has plenty of admirers at school. People actually pay her to cook for them. Her dream is to open a restaurant one day with her best friend.

With all of these accomplishments, Autumn is most proud of her status as a star athlete. She is the only girl on her high school wrestling team. But her natural talent for wrestling isn't all she needs to attain such a high status.

She works hard. Disciplined, she watches what she eats so she can make weight. She drills. Push-ups, sit-ups and running make her strong.

Her effort pays off on the mat. The local newspaper reports on her successes. Little girls look up to her as a role model.

Ms. Flake keeps Autumn from seeming too perfect by also exposing her weaknesses. Autumn is a poor reader. So poor that she is 21/2 grade levels behind.

This kind of struggle is not new to her family. Both her parents dropped out of high school and both are poor readers.

When Autumn was young, the family moved around a lot in order to stay employed. The constant moves meant Autumn missed a lot of school. Not surprisingly, she kept falling further and further behind. It was only after her parents earned their GEDs, concentrating on school work late into the night, that the family settled down in one place.

By that time Autumn was in sixth grade. And she was too far behind to catch up. Thankfully, she found her strength -- wrestling. And that became her focus, instead of reading. Understandable, but unfortunate because it makes schoolwork, and life, a big challenge.

Autumn's classmate (and crush) Adonis has a lot going for him, too. He is handsome and intelligent. His teachers look to him as a leader.

He is even asked to be a tutor, to speak in front of the student body, in front of classes his peers are having difficulty in. But, like Autumn, he isn't perfect.

Adonis was born without knees, calves or feet and uses a wheel chair to get around. He is proud and self-sufficient, but he's not unaffected by his disability.

Adonis does not return Autumn's feelings. He, in fact, says he hates her: her "exceptionally low" IQ, her muscles. He prefers girls who are tall, intelligent, statuesque, quiet. He avoids her at all costs. She waits for him where his ride drops him off for school, when he's waiting for the elevator to get to class. He brushes her off.

But Autumn does not get the hint. So you can imagine his confusion when she continually appears in his dreams. Sitting on his lap. Kissing him.

When Autumn's grades begin to affect her wrestling career, she begins to seriously think about school, about her future. She begins to realize what Adonis' actions have been trying to communicate, just as he begins to realize the truth that lies within his dreams.

These two so effectively realized characters trade off perspectives from chapter to chapter. Their inner dialogue seems to be plucked from the minds of real high school students. And because Ms. Flake takes care to respect her characters and present them as fully rounded human beings, readers will find themselves rooting for Adonis and Autumn rather than pitying them.

There are many scenes in the novel that will make an impression on the minds of the reader. Autumn sitting at the dining room table with her parents, the three of them sharing in the battle of trying to read aloud and comprehend a novel. Adonis flailing in a pond after school bullies throw him in and walk away.

Many of us have wrestled with our own strengths and weaknesses and those of our loved ones. Some of us have been lucky enough to have experienced the power behind others' believing in our abilities.

We will all find something to take away from Ms. Flake's realistic and memorable new work, "Pinned."

bookreviews

LeeAnn Anna is coordinator, teen services, at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.


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