By: Rebecca Slocum
My Sister’s Keeper. The Pact. Keeping Faith. Mercy. Plain Truth. Salem Falls. Perfect Match. Vanishing Acts. The Tenth Circle. Between the Lines. Sing You Home. The Storyteller. Nineteen Minutes. Handle with Care.
What do these books have in common? They, along with almost a dozen others, are all written by award winning author Jodi Picoult.
A few years ago, I went through an intense Jodi Picoult phase. The titles I listed above are the ones I’ve read, and I read them all in about six months. Back to back. Each time I read one, I asked myself, “What makes her books so compelling?” It could be her writing, with its fast-paced plot lines peppered with thoroughly researched details. It could be the twist endings, which keep me on edge as I read up until the very last page. But mostly, I think it’s the way she fearlessly tackles difficult, hard-to-grasp topics: abortion, teen suicide, faith, rape, euthanasia, racism, school shootings, LGBTQ+ rights. These issues have made headlines over and over in the last five years, the last five months, even the last five weeks. And yet, Picoult has been thoughtfully examining what makes our society tick for almost 30 years.
Picoult was born on May 19, 1966 in Long Island, New York. She received her bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing from Princeton and a master’s degree in Education from Harvard. She has held myriad jobs over the years, from textbook editing to teaching 8th grade English. Picoult had been writing since she was a child, and in 1992, Atria Books published her first novel, Songs of a Humpback Whale. Since then, she has gone on to write 26 o
ther full-length novels, including the bestselling My Sister’s Keeper, which was made into a feature film in 2009 starring Abigail Breslin and Cameron Diaz. It’s likely no coincidence that it made ALA’s Top Ten Most Challenged Books list that same year, even though it was published in 2003.
I think what is most notable about Picoult’s books is the lens through which she studies these controversial issues. She never portrays a scene in black and white. In Nineteen Minutes, her novel about a small town school shooting, she does not just examine how the people of the town are affected by such a tragedy; she dives deeper and examines how the local judge feels about trying the case when the shooter was her daughter’s former childhood friend. In Handle with Care, Picoult’s novel about a family with a young daughter born with severe osteogenesis imperfecta, she does not just observe how financially, physically, and emotionally difficult it can be to care for a disable child; she poses the question of how far a mother will go to care for a child, even to the point of betraying a friend, and to what consequences that depth of love might lead (and that ending, y’all. I think I’m still traumatized from it.)
Picoult studies all of these issues through the lens of family, love, and relationships. She scrutinizes multiple viewpoints and how each person processes and handles the situation very differently based on their own cultural understanding, age, race, ect. She does not attempt to offer a solution to the issue; rather, she challenges us to examine our own views, and what they might look like if we were in any of the “shades of gray” positions in which her characters find themselves.
Her books make me uncomfortable, and I think that’s the point. It’s not supposed to be easy to consider these important issues with the thoughtfulness and nuance they require. These discussions require and deserve a deep dive into our own personal biases, our own cultural understanding, our own considerations for how we want to shape our society. Picoult’s books model for us ways in which we should have (and also ways in which we shouldn’t have) these conversations about such relevant topics. And in today’s tumultuous word, those types of books are necessary.
Thank you, Ms. Picoult, for your vulnerability in considering your own views and biases to write these difficult books, and for challenging us with your words and characters to better understand the world around us.
Happy Birthday, Jodi Picoult!
Rebecca Slocum has worked in education as a teacher and library consultant for the last 5 years and is a recent MLIS graduate student from the University of North Texas. She is interested in issues involving intellectual freedom, censorship, and collection development in school libraries. In her spare time, Rebecca enjoys reading, writing, running, and roaming the world. Currently, she stays at home caring for her son and writes at her blog, The Dewey Decimator. Find her on Twitter