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January 1, 2011

What They Always Tell Us

What They Always Tell Us

Author: Martin Wilson

Page Length: 288

Reading Level: 4.8

Genre: Realistic Fiction

Career Connection: None

PLOT SUMMARY: James and Alex have grown up together as close siblings. People often considered them twins because they were similar in many ways. James and Alex are one grade level apart. The book takes the reader through an entire year of high school – James’ senior year and Alex’s junior year.

The school year begins with a big party at which time Alex chugs down a bottle of Pine Sol. He is rushed to the hospital where he fortunately recovers. However no one, not even his once close brother, knows why Alex attempted suicide.

Alex’s beginning junior year is filled with studying, visits to his therapist, and avoidance from former friends such as Tyler. Alex becomes an isolated homebody, a recluse.

James’ beginning senior year is filled with questions about his brother’s suicide attempt and daily “weird” behavior.

When James’ friend, Nathen, befriends Alex, Nathen encourages Alex to try out for the cross-country team. To prepare, Nathen and Alex begin a training workout together and develop a close friendship. At first, James is glad that his brother is out of the house and doing something “normal”. However, little does he know that the side activities that Nathen and Alex engage in are more intimate than mere cross-country teammates.

REVIEW: This is a beautifully written coming-of-age story for both Alex and James – two brothers that were once close and have now grown apart due to lack of communication. The reader will discover the character of Alex as one who is caught in the confusing maturation process during high school – cut off from his friends because he is “not acting like them” – not dating, not chasing girls. Alex’s cry for attention during his suicide attempt backfires for him as he experiences increased bullying from former friends. However, once James realizes his brother’s “true feelings”, the two grow closer together once more.

This is a great story of brotherly bonding. The story works because this is the central theme of the story – not the supplemental gay themes. However, both are intertwined. The gay relationship and intimate scenes between Nathen and Alex are maturely written in context of the plot.

Any male who has a brother struggling with a part of themselves as they mature will understand this story. This story contains characters with fresh voices. It is a book that is calmly written and one that will take many readers with siblings on a trip down memory lane.  

There is also an intriguing subplot in this story that deals with a young boy named Henry in search of his real father.

This book is written in third-person point-of-view. Odd-numbered chapters focus on Alex while even-numbered chapters focus on James.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: characterization, text to world, compare/contrast, prediction

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: there are several pages that list words such as “gay, faggot, queer”, a few scenes depict intimate scenes between two teenage males, and page 120 depicts one of those scenes

RELATED BOOKS: Crush by Carrie Mac, Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan, Big Guy by Robin Stevenson, Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher, Jumpstart the World by Catherine Ryan Hyde, Rage: A Love Story by Julie Anne Peters

RELATED WEBSITES: (GLBTQ book discussion guide) (author’s website) (podcast)

REVIEWED BY: K. Stratton


September 28, 2009

The Burn Journals

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The Burn Journals

Author: Brent Runyon

Page Length: 327

Reading Level: 6

Genre: Memoir

PLOT SUMMARY: This is the true story of Brent Runyon – a 14 year old comical class clown whose mental state is all too dark. One day, he enters his bathroom shower wearing a robe, douses himself in gasoline, and then lights himself on fire! This story is told through the eyes of Brent himself years after his recovery from his suicide attempt.

Brent’s suicide attempt resulted in 3rd degree burns over 85% of his body and months of hospitalization and rehabilitation. During this time, Brent does not seriously question the motives of his suicidal thoughts and actions. Rather his mind is on healing his body and moving on to a better life. However, those around him struggle to maintain their composure and offer as much love as they can to Brent.

REVIEW: The story, even though written years after the author’s teenage years, reflects the voice of a young person struggling with his identity and place in the world. Teenage humor, sadness, immaturity, depression, and sarcasm are all present in this memoir. In the early stages of recovery, the author describes his time in the hospital in great detail – the feeling of bathing his wounds, the relief of eating ice cream, the annoyances by the staff psychologist, and the attraction towards nurses and therapists. Because it is a memoir, it is hard to judge the quality of the work because it is all true to the author.

There is no usual sense of closure to this story – only the fact that the author does physically recover from his injuries. I do not feel all students should read this book due to the sensitive subject matter. There are several passages which would make for good writing topics and discussion points.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: the art of the memoir, writing, voice, dialogue

TOUCHY AREAS: the subject of suicidal thoughts and actions, cursing, sexual references

RELATED BOOKS: Running with Scissors, Girl Interrupted

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: “Girl, Interrupted” (1999)

RELATED WEBSITES: (reader’s guide with discussion questions)

REVIEWED BY: Kevin Stratton

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