Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Extraordinarily Epic Ellen

I subscribe to Good Reads and peruse the book reviews of my writing peeps, but honestly, the best recommendations for books—come from my kids. One of my high school students raved about how Twilight converted her into a voracious reader. I picked up the saga. Didn’t talk to a soul for two weeks. Another slapped the entire House of Night series on my desk and exclaimed, “You have to read these. NOW.” So I did. And I am on pins and needles awaiting the next installment.

I used to call my third period Algebra II Honors class my book club because they could simplify a complex fraction and banter about the most fabuloso books at the same time. And when one of my favs tossed Ellen Hopkins’ Crank at me for a pleasure read over spring break, I thought, “Sure… why not?”

Holy epic explosion.

While sitting at a dance competition in the middle of nowhere awaiting my daughter’s performance, I pulled the purse friendly Crank out and started to read. And read. And read some more. Thirty minutes later, I finished a third of the book and I think I missed my daughter’s number (just kidding – I unburied my nose for two minutes). Three hours later, I finished the book and sat breathless in my hotel room, determined I was going to read me some more Ellen ASAP.

Ellen Hopkins writes compelling, RAW, realistic, edgy YA fiction. And she does it all in free verse. Just like Crank, her stories are ADDICTIVE and I haven’t bought one yet that I haven’t been able to devour in under six hours. She’d been a poet and primarily non-fiction writer until her daughter danced with the monster and inspired a story about crystal meth—and the deep, dark road that leads so many teens into an unrelenting, unforgiving spiral of dismality, an addiction that’s so easy to fall into—yet nearly impossible to climb out of. Here’s an excerpt of her fabulosity:

Just Before The Drop

You know how you
stand and stand and stand
in line for the most
gigantic incredible roller
you’ve ever dared attempt.

Anticipation swelling,
minute by minute by minute,
you choose to wait even
longer, to ride in the front
and finally it’s your turn.

They buckle you in, lock the
safety bar with a jolting clunk!
Hook engaged, the chain jerks
you forward. You start to

Cresting the top, time
moves into overtime
as you wait for that scant
hesitation, just before you

You know how you feel
at that instant? Well, that’s
exactly how it feels when you
shake hands with the

Hoo boy.

My personal favorite in my Hopkins library is Identical, a story about Kaeleigh and Raeanne, 16-year old twins sharing a life in perfect California suburbia. Mom’s running for Congress and dad’s a district court judge, and at press conferences, photographers encapsulate their idealistic family in tidy, sparkling pictures. But life for the Gardella family reeks of dysfunction. With absentee mom pursuing a politician dream, dad turns his drunken attention to Kaeleigh—since she was nine, he’s molested her on a regular basis. Kaeleigh, always the good girl, strives to feel normal, even it means cutting herself or purging her latest binge. Raeanne reacts to dad’s ostensible favoritism of Kaeleigh by turning to her own addictions, seeking escape in drugs and brazen sex.

In Identical, Hopkins slams the reader with a surfeit of REAL teen issues—sexual abuse, date rape, drug abuse, eating disorders, and self-mutilation. She gives distinct voice to both Kaeleigh and Raeanne yet connects the twins through an incredibly poignant inner dialogue that eats at your gut as you watch them spiral through their self-destruction and search to find normalcy and love in a bleak reality.

And this is what she does with all her books. Hopkins creates these characters who, despite their gritty, dismal and sometimes graphic reality, get under your skin and you just have to keep turning the page to see if things will get better—or worse. Just FYI—her stories are not warm and fuzzy; in fact, I personally bawled for an hour after reading Burned. But I leave her stories mourning the loss of someone who became one of my own. I exit out wanting to correct the injustice of the world. Or sometimes I close the book, breathless, fervently flipping back through the pages because Hopkins just delivered another one of her shocking and highly unexpected endings.

It’s no wonder teens claim that Ellen Hopkins is “the only one that gets me”.

On Tuesday, the newest in Hopkins epic fabulousness arrives at bookstores. Fallout is the third installment in the Crank saga so if you’ve not read Crank or its sequel Glass, uh… what are you waiting for?

And if you’re a writer, check out her website: Not only does she include excerpts and synops of her edgy fantastical novels as well as her poetry, but she also dishes out the most amazing advice for writers. So check it out. And pick up one of her books. I recommend starting with Crank.

After all, that’s where the extraordinary epicness began.

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