Children's Literature - Debbie Levy
Sixteen-year-old Brit Hemphill has magenta streaks in her hair, calls her stepmother the "Stepmonster," has decorated herself with tattoos, and plays guitar in a punk rock band. Okay, so this rebel is not every parent's dream child, but she is hardly a sociopath. Her father sees things differently, however, and so on Labor Day weekend before Brit's junior year in high school, he drives her to a "boarding school" called Red Rock Academy in the middle of nowhere, Utah, and leaves her there, as he says, "for your own good." Red Rock is a boot-camp-style treatment center that specializes in taking the rebel out of rebellious girls. Its approach is to demean and demonize its charges. Unqualified counselors belittle, confront, and inflict punishments as part of a strategy of breaking the girls down. It is harsh, non-therapeutic, and downright harmful. Little by little, Brit finds V, Bebe, Martha, and Cassie, four other "inmates" who help each other cope, and, as things at Red Rock go from bad to worse, the girls figure out a way to expose the facility for the bogus, dangerous institution it is and uncover some of their own hidden truths in the process. As an author's note acknowledges, the fictional Red Rock is rather more oppressive than actual behavioral modification boot camps that she has investigated, but the place, characters, and story are well-drawn and believable. This suspenseful novel is full of heart. Reviewer: Debbie Levy
Sixteen-year-old Brit Hemphill's mother disappeared six years earlier after slowly going crazy, a reality with which Brit must deal. Brit lives with her father and stepmother and plays guitar in a band until her dad drops her off at Red Rock, a school for unmanageable girls that intimidates the attendees and rewards them for telling on each other. Group therapy consists of forming a circle around a girl and screaming insults at her. Treated like a prisoner, Brit earns privileges by working her way through levels imposed by the instructors. She feels isolated until she becomes friends with a group of girls who dub themselves "Sisters in Sanity." The girls meet secretly late at night to plot shutting down the entire institution. As they devise a plan that will work, each must face her biggest fear. The chapters are short and the plot gripping. Although the situation seems unreal, the book is based on the author's research and interviews with girls who attended behavior modification camps like the fictional Red Rock. Reading the book is like gazing at an accident and being glad not to be the one there. Readers can understand why parents might believe these camps are a good idea, but they can also see that they cause more damage than help. Some of the action is heavy-handed, with a clear message, but readers will care enough about the characters to want to know what happens to them. Reviewer: Cindy Faughnan
School Library Journal
Gr 7 Up
Already unhappy at being forced to go on a family vacation and missing the chance to play with her punk band at a music festival, 16-year-old Brit is horrified when her father drops her off at Red Rock Academy, a "boot camp" in Utah. Dragged away from him by muscular guards, a sobbing Brit passes an unhappy night before being strip-searched and presented to a therapist the next morning. She is diagnosed as having oppositional defiance disorder and is introduced to the Red Rock reward levels: Level 1-you remain indoors in isolation, emerging only for individual therapy or to use the bathroom; Level 2-you get your shoes back, can leave your room for meals and group therapy, and can receive mail from family members; and so on. In this prison-camp atmosphere, Brit eventually makes four supportive friends with whom she is able to expose the bogus treatment being administered by Red Rock's unqualified staff, one of whom has a record of abusive behavior. Along the way, she escapes for a night and begins a romance with an older bandmate. Although Forman does a good job of capturing teen friendship and angst, the book is not strong on character development. For example, though Brit believes that her stepmother wants her out of the way, readers never gain a true understanding of the father's motivation for committing his daughter, an omission that may be frightening for teens.
Ginny GustinCopyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Read an Excerpt
Sisters in Sanity
It was supposed to be a trip to the Grand Canyon, a trip I didn't want to take. In the middle of summer it was like five thousand degrees in the desert—there's no way I could survive that and two days in the car with my dad and the Stepmonster. All the Stepmonster ever wants to do is rag on me about everything. My hair—magenta with black streaks or black with magenta streaks, depending on your perspective. My tattoos—a Celtic armband, a daisy chain on my ankle, and a heart somewhere the Stepmonster will never see. And what a bad influence I am on Billy, my half brother—who's only a baby for Chrissakes, and who probably thinks my tattoos are cartoons if he even notices them.
On top of it all, it was Labor Day weekend, the last days of freedom before junior year. It was gonna be a big hurrah. I play guitar in this band, Clod, and we were supposed to be in this Indian Summer music festival in Olympia with a bunch of really serious bands, the kind with record contracts. It was the best gig we'd ever gotten and a giant step up from the house parties and cafés we usually played. Of course, Stepmonster wouldn't get that. She thinks punk rock is some kind of devil worship and made me stop practicing in the basement once Billy was born, lest I derange his baby soul. Now I can only practice in Jed's basement, which Stepmonster also doesn't like because Jed is nineteen and lives—gasp—with a bunch of people, none of whom are his parents.
So, I politely declined. Okay, maybe not so politely. Maybe my precise words were "I'd rather eat glass," which only caused her toflounce off to Dad, who asked me in that weary way of his why I'd been so rude. I told him about the show. Once upon a time he had cared about things like music, but he just took off his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose and said it wasn't up for discussion. We were going as a family. I wasn't about to give up that easily. I tried all my tricks: crying, silent treatment, plate throwing. None of it worked. Stepmonster refused to discuss it, so it was just me vs. Dad, and I've never been good at giving him grief, so I had to give in.
I broke the news to my band. Erik, our stoner of a drummer, was just like, "Dude, bummer," but Denise and Jed were really upset. "We've worked so hard—you've worked so hard," Jed said, totally breaking my heart with his disappointment. It was true. Three years ago I didn't know a C chord from an F, and now I was booked for a major gig, or should have been. Clod would be playing the Indian Summer Festival as a trio. I was completely crushed I'd be missing it—although it was kind of nice that Jed seemed sad about it.
I should've figured something was fishy when that Friday morning it was just Dad packing up the turdmobile, the hideous brown minivan Stepmonster insisted they buy when Billy was born. Meanwhile, Stepmonster and Billy were nowhere to be found.
"God, she's always late. You know it's a form of control?"
"Thank you for the psychoanalysis, Brit, but your mom's not driving with us."
"She's not my mom, and what's the deal? You said it was a family vacation, which is why I had to go, had to miss Indian Summer. If they got out of it, I'm not going."
"It is a family vacation," Dad told me, shoving my suitcase into the back. "But two days in a car is too much for Billy. They're going to fly down and meet us."
I really should've known something was way fishy when we approached Las Vegas and Dad suggested we stop. Back when Mom was around, this was precisely the kind of thing we'd do. Jump in the car at a moment's notice and drive to Vegas or San Francisco. I remember one night during a heat wave when none of us could sleep; at one in the morning we threw our sleeping bags into the car and drove into the mountains, where there was a perfect breeze. It had been ages since Dad had been cool like that. The Stepmonster had him convinced that spontaneity equaled irresponsibility.
Dad bought me lunch at the fake canals of the Bellagio and even smiled a little when I made fun of some of the fanny-packed tourists. Then we went to a cheesy casino downtown. He said no one would care that I was only sixteen and he gave me twenty bucks to plug into the slot machines. Our little trip was shaping up to be not so bad after all. But when I spied Dad watching me play the slots I couldn't help thinking that he looked, well, empty, like someone had taken a vacuum cleaner and sucked out his soul or something. He didn't even get excited when I won thirty-five bucks, and he insisted on pocketing the money to keep it safe for me. Again, a red flag I didn't notice. Idiot-moron me, for the first time in ages, was just having fun with the Dad I'd been missing for years.
When we left Vegas, he turned quiet and broody, just like he was after everything happened with Mom. I could tell he was squeezing the steering wheel hard, and the whole thing was just so weird and perplexing. I got a little preoccupied with trying to figure out what was up with him, so I didn't notice that we were no longer driving east toward the Grand Canyon, but had turned north into Utah. All I saw out the window was rust-colored clay cliffs, and they seemed Grand Canyon-y enough to me. When we pulled off at some small town just . . . Sisters in Sanity. Copyright © by Gayle Forman. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.