Forget cutting class and mouthing off: for a kid who doesn’t fit in, just surviving high school may be the gutsiest act of all. Still struggling with her family’s move from the city to the cookie-cutter suburbs, Dante Griffin hasn’t managed to make more than one friend at Glen Ridge Secondary School – and that one just moved away. Plus, her independent thinking (which often involves taunting her bully of an English teacher) is landing Dante in the principal’s office with increasing frequency. And then there’s her constant, painful heartbreak over Beth, the lost friend, something she can barely admit to herself, let alone her homophobic peers.
Into her confusing life strides Parker, a girl with penetrating eyes and a love of chaos. She and her gang of high school dropouts are bent on challenging society’s power structures, starting with the soul-crushing schools themselves. Soon Dante is skipping class to join them on their protest missions, but it isn’t long before she starts to wonder how far they’ll go to make their point (and what, exactly, that point is).
In her sixth book for young adults, Robin Stevenson’s writing is sharp and her plot tidy and briskly paced, making for a quick, engaging read. Even her integration of the tough themes of relationship abuse and the alienation of queer teens is seamless – not to mention free of heavy-handed lessons. Smart and sarcastic, Dante is a convincing narrator, and Parker and her friends are equally well-drawn, though authority figures don’t get the same nuanced development.
Driving the action is both the escalating plans of the countercultural clique and the emerging backstories of the central characters. But while Stevenson details their difficult family lives and social pressures, she avoids a connect-the-dots approach to teen behaviour, laying responsibility for the actions of even her most deeply troubled characters at their own feet.
In the end, this emphasis on personal responsibility isn’t a vehicle for blame. Rather, for Dante it becomes an empowering invitation to effect change, even in suburbia – a place where doing things differently can seem impossible.