Monday, October 10, 2011

Leverage by Joshua Cohen, or There's No Way this Book Doesn't Feature Roid Rage

Which is totally true, by the way. Lots of steroids, and all the ways that drug can destroy things in high school.

The three football captains are the king of the school, and no one, no matter how talented in any other sport is excused from their bullying. Especially not the gymnastics team. Danny has a real chance at eventually qualifying for the Olympics in gymnastics and Kurt is a stuttering hulk who’s new to the school and the football team. Neither of them like the bullying, and they forge an unlikely friendship that is in jeopardy after they both witness a graphic attack that has tragic consequences. Leverage has some of the most awesome sports writing I’ve ever read, but this is also the most intense and possibly disturbing book I have ever read, so I recommend it to more mature readers.

Kurt is damaged going into the story. He's a foster kid, and in his last placement he experienced treatment that will scar him for his entire life. This is told in flashback in slow and desperate reveals, and the memories send him into a red rage. Danny and his teammates have been trying to hold their ground, retain their dignity, and fight the football team for access to the weight room, something they all know they need to be able to truly compete on the level they aspire to. But every which way they turn, they keep running into the immovable bulk of the impossibly large football team.

Characters are flawed, even broken. Some come into the tale that way, others will fall apart right before your eyes. You will hold your breath and read faster to get through the dark, drastic, brutal parts, most likely wiping tears of fury or sadness away as you turn the pages. They make huge mistakes out of fear and shame and pain. They suffer consequences that will haunt them.

I wish I could say that these kids experience abuse and bullying so brutal that it is unbelievable, but sadly, we all know that isn't true. And that's one reason I think that this book is important. Maybe it will help some kid out there find his voice and stop the cycle. Get help. It's a solidly upper high school read, unless you know, or have an inkling, that it's something an 8th or 9th grader may have had some experience with. Or the kid's just a fan of A Child Called It (I jest, don't give it to those 5/6th graders).

The horrible thing is that it is all so frighteningly believable. Until you get to the Hollywood ending, where you witness a shift from bleak to a resolution that doesn't match the tone of the rest of the book. Which, while satisfying, doesn't ring true, because despite the honesty in which the rest of the novel was handled, this was just a little too neat. A little too grand. A little too unrealistic. That's not how these stories ever end in real life. Fine, usually, for most novels. But not when nary a punch was withheld during the previous 270-ish pages.

I will admit that I booktalked this (along with around 30 other titles) this past June for 7-10 graders. I did so ONLY with a strong emphasis on the graphic nature of the story, and encouraged the teens to self-censor if they didn't think they were ready for it, but that I thought that it was an important story because this level of abuse and bullying does happen. I had warned the school librarians and teachers of the title before I talked it, and after hearing about it, I had specific requests from a few teachers to be sure to share it with some classes, which I found very interesting. Of the 875 holds I placed for students after my June visits, there were 25 for this title.

Recommend for older fans of:
Ellen Hopkins. Patricia McCormick. Compulsion by Ayarbe. Courtney Summers. Dirty Little Secrets by Omololu. Laurie Halse Anderson. Anything brutal.


Kelly Jensen said...

I think one of the things that struck me about this book was Kurt's character -- we know how flawed he is, but he admits and even embraces it himself. Cohen could have gone the stereotypical football hulk route and yet he doesn't do it here. He goes quite the opposite, and I think that choice makes the violence and abuse more powerful throughout.

I talked this one to 9th graders, and it was hugely popular. It has not stayed on our shelves.

tanita✿davis said...

I'm a little traumatized by the veins, honey. Just sayin'.

Jackie Parker said...

Oh, Tanita, they are TOTALLY scary! And totally why I read the book. The book is just as intense as the cover suggests.

John said...

I just finished reading this book. It is powerful and well written, though not flawless. As a male survivor of rape as a young teen, I can tell you that if I had been required to read this book in high school and possibly discuss it in class, I probably would have had a breakdown. Be warned that this book would be very triggering for a boy who was sexually abused / raped. If you are a teacher and considering assigning this book to read and discuss, be prepared to deal with the consequences.

Penelope Sanchez said...

Leverage isn’t a novel for the faint of heart, because like Kelly told me, it will devastate you. And while much of the novel is dismal, I knew there would be some hope towards the end. Although the ending itself, I’m not so sure about. Parts of it didn’t feel very believable to me, but that might depend on the reader. If you decide to read Leverage, be prepared for an intense reading experience and an emotional connection to the characters. Leverage is a story about bullying to the extreme, and it’s one that I highly recommend.

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Kevin Elwood said...

The characters and their behaviors are dead on accurate. The depiction of high school is realistic and brutal at times. It is heart-breaking and thought-provoking. I couldn't put it down, even as tears rolled down my face. I feel every counselor, educator, parent, and high school student should read Leverage. It will break your heart even as it opens your eyes.