Sunday, January 20, 2008

Sweethearts by Sara Zarr

Young Adult Pick of the Week:

Sweethearts by Sara Zarr

Nine year olds Jennifer and Cameron are the outcasts at their school. Jennifer is overweight, shy, and withdrawn, and Cameron, who comes from an abusive home is just well—different. Both are endlessly teased, and they somehow find each other and form a deep connection. Until one day Cameron doesn’t show up at school, and the teacher says he moved. To say Jennifer is hurt because he didn’t say goodbye is an understatement. She’s crushed and just doesn't understand. Then one day the bullies at recess tell her that Cameron died. When her own mother doesn’t tell her differently, Jennifer is devastated and decides that the only way she can survive is to bury the person she is with him.

Eight years later, Jennifer is now Jenna, and she’s completely reinvented herself. She’s in great shape, goes to a different school, and has lots of friends, including a boyfriend Ethan, the handsomest boy in school. Externally, she seems happy and seems to have the perfect life. Internally, she struggles to keep “Jennifer” inside and is haunted by a terrifying experience that occurred at Cameron’s house on her ninth birthday. On her seventeenth birthday, she discovers that Cameron did not die and that he’s in her town. Memories and suppressed feelings come flooding back as she struggles to cope with this news.

Has their connection remained strong after all these years? Why didn’t he try to contact her before? Why didn’t her mother tell her the truth? What exactly happened at Cameron’s house so many years ago? Do Jenna and Cameron still have such a strong connection after all these years? Will Jenna leave Ethan for Cameron? Can she keep Jennifer inside? Sara Zarr’s second novel Sweethearts answers all these questions through a profound and gut-wrenching story.

Zarr does an exceptional job of drawing you in and make you FEEL Jenna’s emotions. As I was reading, I felt a lump in the pitt of my stomach as Jenna relived the horrifying day at Cameron’s house. I felt anger, confusion, heartache, and fear as Jenna struggles with Cameron’s return and all of the emotions that come flooding in with it.

From the very first chapter I was hooked as I read the following passage:

“Other memories stick, no matter how much you wish they wouldn’t. They’re like a song you hate but can’t ever get completely out of your head, and this song becomes the background noise of your entire life, snippets of lyrics, and lines of music floating up and then receding, a crazy kind of tide that never stops.” (p. 5, Advanced Reader Copy).

In addition to resounding passages like this one, Zarr is careful not to make Jenna “too adult.” She expertly reminds us that Jenna is seventeen through carefully crafted scenarios that take us inside the head of a teenager. Jenna grapples with friendships, her weight and self-image, boyfriends, the pressure to have sex, the pressure to drink—things that many young adults can identify with.

It’s evident that Sara Zarr poured her heart and soul into this book, and I can’t even remember the last time I read a book that resonated with me as much as Sweethearts did. If you liked Story of a Girl,you will love Sweethearts.

Note: Sweethearts goes on sale February 1, 2008. I got the exciting opportunity to interview Sara Zarr about this book, so look for this interview on February 4th as I take part in the Sweethearts blog tour.

Sara Zarr is also going on a mini-tour to promote Sweethearts. If you live near San Francisco, Salt Lake City, or Phoenix/Tempe, visit her blog for dates and locations!

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