By: Ross Sempek
The pitch-length plot of Suggested Reading was enough to hook me: A high-schooler in the southern US repurposes her locker into a banned-book library. Immediately on board. But like any good book (good to me, at least), the entirety of the story arc goes beyond its pithy distillation to the point where, considered as a whole, it’s not really about that at all. Dave Connis’ YA novel is one of those books, and I’m convinced that anyone who picks it up will be pleasantly surprised.
Our protagon-ista, Clara Evans, is a bookish yet endearingly piquant senior at Lupton Academy: a prestigious private high-school in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She has a sense of belonging with her few close friends, and her extra-curricular book club that meets at a taqueria. But beyond this she feels worlds away from her peers. Her impecunious upbringing juxtaposes sharply with her well-to-do classmates – she affords Lupton by the grace of her scholarship. And her intellectual interests don’t jive with the school’s strict academics, or the student-body’s unexplainable fervor for sports-ball. As such, Clara wears her black-sheep status as a badge of honor; a pejorative that gives her strength and makes her unique.
These disparities manifest themselves on none other than Clara’s first day of school. Running on fumes after pulling an all-nighter to read her favorite author’s new book, Don’t Tread on Me, Clara’s inaugural day as a senior is as nebulous as her mind-state. Perhaps this explains why she channels her boorish barn-animal nature to espy, then peruse her school librarian’s open email while volunteering in the library workroom. In said email, the perfectly-hateable Principal Walsh itemizes what he declares as prohibited media, and charges the librarian, Mr. Caywell, with the removal of these books from the library. Bemused and indignant, Clara lapses on her schedule is tardy for her first (and most beloved) class: honors lit.
While it’s bitingly ironic that Clara’s crusade against censorship begins with a privacy violation, it aptly mirrors the myriad motifs in this novel whose smooth prose and breezy dialog belies its layered complexity. It is at once a love-letter to banned-books, a book about a fake book about a civil-war library, and ultimately a transformative book about the transformative power of books. These dense concepts are fleshed-out by Clara’s established and budding relationships, missteps, unseen contradictions, epiphanies, and personal growth through conflict. All consolidating into a character-driven page-turner that reads easy and is peppered with poetic gems. To boot, Connis’ clever wordplay augments his novel’s dynamism wile supporting its major themes.
One theme is Clara’s senior year as her awakening. Learning about the banned-books list catalyzes her maturity and snowballs into something much greater than she could have ever imagined. Lupton Academy’s politics and machinations get injected into her life; her contrarian black-sheep status is nullified by an earnest exploration of her classmates she once thought anathema to her existence; and her ere-spotless record gets sullied by her clandestine operation of her locker-libraries. Her actions and assumptions create a ripple effect that she can’t escape nor deny, and she later has no other choice but to face her problems.
I must admit that it was hard to find flaws in this book. The narrative is so fluid it almost obviates a critical consideration of its structure. However this very fluidity can read as formulaic as the plot beats follow a well-worn path. But ironically, or maybe appropriately, it is this very structure that also lends it strength. It works – ‘nuff said. And this pre-fab scaffolding is bolstered by uniqueness in unexpected areas. Clara’s parents are archetypically absent, but they aren’t the stereotypical brow-beaters. In their scant appearances, they impart wisdom, humor, and support. They act to ground Clara in her eddies of emotion and provide guidance.
The uber-message communicated by this novel is apt for high-schoolers, but also for all of us: Our differences are minuscule compared to what we have in common, including and especially pain. Focusing on our shared humanity makes us better humans, but unfortunately, people can become archetypes for whom we fill in the blanks with our biases. This fallacious path often leads to calamity; an unnecessary destination that can be avoided by an openness to the stories of those unknown to you. Fiction is a great way to arrive at this place, and Suggested Reading proves why.
Ross Sempek is a recent MLIS graduate and a Library Assistant at the Happy Valley Public Library just outside of Portland, Oregon. He comes from a blue-collar family that values art, literature, and an even consideration for all world-views. This informs his passion for intellectual freedom, which he considers to be the bedrock for blooming to one’s fullest potential. It defines this country’s unique freedoms and allows an unfettered fulfillment of one’s purpose in life. When he is not actively championing librarianship, he loves lounging with his cat, cycling, and doing crossword puzzles – He’s even written a handful of puzzles himself.