This Song Will Save Your Lifeby Leila Sales
Making friends has never been Elise Dembowski's strong suit. All throughout her life, she's been the butt of every joke and the outsider in every conversation. When a final attempt at popularity fails, Elise nearly gives up. Then she stumbles upon a warehouse party where she meets Vicky, a girl in a band who accepts her; Char, a cute, yet mysterious disc jockey;… See more details below
Making friends has never been Elise Dembowski's strong suit. All throughout her life, she's been the butt of every joke and the outsider in every conversation. When a final attempt at popularity fails, Elise nearly gives up. Then she stumbles upon a warehouse party where she meets Vicky, a girl in a band who accepts her; Char, a cute, yet mysterious disc jockey; Pippa, a carefree spirit from England; and most importantly, a love for DJing.
Told in a refreshingly genuine and laugh-out-loud funny voice, Leila Sales' THIS SONG WILL SAVE YOUR LIFE is an exuberant novel about identity, friendship, and the power of music to bring people together.
Gr 9 Up—A razor-sharp and honest view of a misfit trying to find her place in the world. For most of her life, Elise has tried to make friends, but nothing ever seemed to work and she always finds herself on the outside of everything. The summer before her sophomore year, she studies up on current trends and fashion in one last-ditch effort to be accepted. But when it goes horribly wrong, she attempts suicide but realizes that she isn't serious about it. When she has trouble sleeping, she goes on long walks, and one night she happens upon a hidden dance club. An avid music lover, Elise feels that she has finally found a place to fit in with the kids in the club and the DJ playing the music. But her road to acceptance and freedom isn't smooth, and through the bumps along the way she finally finds who she's meant to be. Elise is smart and funny and very relatable. Her love of music is a huge part of her story, and there are many references to bands and songs throughout, so some teens will take to this book and love it. Others might not be interested enough to follow Elise on her journey of self-acceptance.—Necia Blundy, formerly at Marlborough Public Library, MA
*What sets this apart from so many problem novels is how honestly and deeply Sales probes the life of a miserable 16-year-old, from her cringe-worthy attempt at "learning" how to be popular to the observational, rather than emotional, look at what it feels like to be with a guy.
The emotional resonance of Elise's journey . . . feels very much of the moment.
Read an Excerpt
This Song Will Save Your Life
By Leila Sales
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2013 Leila Sales
All rights reserved.
You think it's so easy to change yourself.
You think it's so easy, but it's not.
What do you think it takes to reinvent yourself as an all-new person, a person who makes sense, who belongs? Do you change your clothes, your hair, your face? Go on, then. Do it. Pierce your ears, trim your bangs, buy a new purse. They will still see past that, see you, the girl who is still too scared, still too smart for her own good, still a beat behind, still, always, wrong. Change all you want; you can't change that.
I know because I tried.
I was born to be unpopular. There was no other way it could have gone. If there were just one place where it first fell apart, I could dream of going back in time and finding myself and saying, "Listen, ten-year-old Elise, just don't wear that oversize bright red sweater with the tufts of yarn sticking out of it like pom-poms. I know it is your favorite, because it looks so special, but don't do it. Don't be special."
That's what I would say to my younger self if I could pinpoint the moment when I went astray. But there was no one moment. I was always astray.
I've gone to school with the same kids since kindergarten. And they knew what I was long before I did. I was uncool by fourth grade. How is it even possible to be an uncool fourth grader? Didn't we all just string together friendship bracelets and daydream about horses and pretend to solve mysteries back then?
But somehow, even in fourth grade, they knew. A new girl moved to our town that year, from Michigan. She and I used to sit outside together during recess while the other girls played don't-touch-the-ground tag, and we'd talk about the witches' coven I wanted to form, because I'd read a chapter book about a witches' coven and my dad had given me some incense that I thought we could use. And then one day on the playground, Lizzie Reardon came over and casually said to my new friend, "Don't spend too much time with Elise. She might rub off on you." I was sitting right there. It wasn't a secret. I was a social liability.
This was fourth grade.
We went to a middle school twice the size of our elementary school, and then we went to a high school twice the size of our middle school. But somehow all those new kids, every one of them, immediately found out about me. Somehow it was that obvious.
When I was little my mom used to schedule my playdates with different girls: Kelly, Raquel, Bernadette. Then in fifth grade, Kelly moved to Delaware, Raquel invited every girl except me to her roller-skating birthday party, and Bernadette sent me a note to let me know that she only hung out with me because her parents said she had to.
I used to hang out with the neighborhood boys, too, when I was a kid. We would build forts in the summer and snowmen in the winter. But around the time we went to middle school, everyone started thinking about dating, which meant that no boy would be caught dead playing in the snow with me anymore lest someone see us and think he had a crush on me. Because obviously, having a crush on Elise Dembowski would be just about the lamest thing an eleven-year-old boy could do.
So by the end of seventh grade, I had no one. Okay, I still had kids who I splashed around with at my mom's summer lake house. I had my parents' friends' children, none of them quite my age, who would sometimes come over for family dinners. But I had no one who was really mine.
Last summer, after freshman year, I decided I couldn't go on like this anymore. I just could not. It's not like I wanted to be Lizzie Reardon, captain of the soccer team; or Emily Wallace, part-time teen model; or Brooke Feldstein, who could (and did) hook up with every guy in school. I didn't need to be the most exciting, beautiful, beloved girl in the world. I just needed not to be me anymore.
You think it's so easy to change yourself. It would be just like a movie makeover montage, pop music scoring the ugly girl's transformation from bespectacled duckling to cheerleader swan. You think it's so easy, but it was a whole summer's worth of work. It was watching TV constantly, like I was doing homework, taking notes on who all these characters were, making charts of who came from which shows. It was reading gossip magazines and women's magazines every week, testing myself when I was in the drugstore checkout line: "Who is that woman pictured on the cover of Marie Claire ? Which reality TV show was she in?" It was hours of sunshine every day thrown away in favor of hunching over a computer, reading fashion blogs and celebrity blogs and perfume blogs. Did you even know that perfume Web sites exist? What is the point?
The one thing I couldn't bring myself to do was listen to the music. I tried, for nearly an hour. Then I gave up. It was bad. Not even interesting-bad, like the movies I went to see alone, taking note of which lines in a romantic comedy made the audience laugh. The popular music wasn't interesting-bad, it was bad-bad. Auto-Tuned vocalists who couldn't really sing; offensively simplistic instrumentation; grating melodies. Like they thought we were stupid.
I would have given almost anything to change myself, but I wouldn't give in to that. I hated that music more than I hated having to be myself every day. So I just read about popular musicians online and made flash cards about them until I felt prepared to talk about them. But not to listen to them.
All summer I spent on this. Ten weeks, uninterrupted, except for the time I spent record shopping, and the weekend I spent trying to repair my dad's computer, and a week that I had to spend at the lake house, where there is no TV or Internet. So, okay, I guess there were some interruptions, but still, you have to believe me when I tell you that the rest of the time I was working really hard on becoming cool.
This should have been a red flag, I realize in retrospect. Working really hard on anything is, by definition, not cool.
The week before school began, I went shopping. Not only did I go shopping, I went to the mall. I was ready. I knew what I was supposed to wear—I had read so many issues of Seventeen by that point, I could rattle off the five best mascara brands without even thinking about it.
So I knew what I was supposed to do, but I couldn't bring myself to do it. I wasn't going to spend $150 on a pair of jeans. I wasn't going to drop $300 on a purse. Come on, Kate Spade, you can't fool me—it's a bag. The Sierra Club regularly mails me bags for free. Or, okay, for a $25 donation, but really, that pays for saving forests, not for manufacturing tote bags, which I can't imagine costs more than a dollar or two.
Both my parents gave me some money for back-to-school clothes, and I had some money saved up, but I resented spending it all on clothes that I didn't really want. I mean, yes, I wanted to look like a cool person, but I didn't want to become impoverished in the process.
It's probably different for girls who have always been cool. Probably when they go shopping, they just have to fill in with a new pair of sneakers here or a new belt there. But I was inventing myself from scratch.
I went through every item in my closet. Which of these could I bring with me into my new life? Not the sweatpants, not the sweatshirts. These jeans, maybe, though the cuffs are wrong. This sweater, maybe, if it had a different neckline.
I thought all my clothes were fine. I liked them, even. They made a statement. The Indian sari that I had tailored into a summer dress. The Ramones shirt I got at a thrift store on Thayer Street, so threadbare that it just had to be an authentic relic of the seventies. The white boots with unicorns printed on them because, even though I'm fifteen, I still think the unicorn would be the world's greatest animal.
But that is the problem with me. That, right there. Not just that I owned these clothes but that I liked them. That after ten weeks of learning what real people did, I still liked my wrong, wrong clothes.
So I threw my wrong, wrong clothes into garbage bags and tied them shut as tight as I could, as if my unicorn boots might try to stage an escape. I hid the bags in the attic of my mom's house. Then I went on a shopping spree at Target for every knockoff Seventeen -style garment that I could find. Even then, the total wound up being way more than I had ever spent on clothes in any one of my thrift-store trips. It made me sick to look at the receipt.
But can you put a price on happiness? Really, if that's what it costs to make you glad to be yourself, then isn't it worth it?
* * *
On the first day of sophomore year, a Thursday, I sprang out of bed at six a.m. It takes time to make yourself look like a cool person. You can't just roll out of bed looking cool, or at least I can't.
So I got up. I washed and conditioned my hair. I shaved my legs, which is something I didn't know you were supposed to do until an ill-fated all-class pool party at the end of eighth grade. I put on my first-day-of-school outfit, which I had tried on a zillion times already: loafers, fitted jeans, a T-shirt without any writing or patterns on it, a headband. Headbands are back, you know. I read it in a magazine.
"I'm going to school," I announced to Dad.
He blinked at me over his newspaper. "No breakfast?"
"No breakfast." My stomach felt tight and jittery; breakfast was the last thing I wanted.
Dad's gaze drifted to the table, which was piled high with bread rolls, jam, bananas, milk, a pitcher of orange juice, and boxes of cereal that he had obviously set out for me. "You want breakfast like a monkey?"
"Dad, please." I never have to go through this routine at my mom's house.
He picked up a banana. "What do monkeys say?"
When I was a kid, I was really into bananas. I still like them, but when I was in elementary school I basically subsisted on them. My dad thought it was hilarious to make me ask for them by scratching at my armpits, jumping up and down, and saying, "Ooh ooh ahh ahh." You know. Like a monkey. So I thought it was hilarious as well. Anything that was proven to make my dad laugh made me laugh, too.
Sometime during middle school, it occurred to me that the monkey act might be stupid. But my dad never got over it.
"Ooh ooh ahh ahh?" He tossed the banana from hand to hand.
"I have to go, Dad." I opened the door.
"All right, kiddo. Knock 'em dead." He put down the banana and stood up to give me a hug. "You look great."
And I guess that should have been a warning sign, too, because dads do not have the same taste as teenagers in what looks great.
I walked to the corner to wait for the school bus. Usually I'm running to catch the bus just before it pulls away because I'm cherishing every last moment in my house, where it's safe, before I have to go face the next eight hours.
But that morning, I made it to the bus stop with minutes to spare. I'm never early to anything, so I didn't know what to do with myself. I watched cars driving past and people coming out of their duplexes in business suits, off to work. I fought the pounding urge to put on my headphones. All I wanted was to listen to music, but wearing headphones makes you look cut off from the rest of the world, antisocial. I wasn't going to be antisocial this year. I was decidedly pro-social.
A few other kids showed up at the bus stop, too, but none of them spoke to me. It was so early, though. Who wants to have a conversation so early in the morning?
The school bus finally pulled up, and we all got on. I did not sit in the front. The front is where the losers sit, and I was not a loser anymore. Instead I sat in the middle of the bus, which is a relatively cool place to sit, even though I didn't feel cool about it. I felt panicked and nauseated about it, but I did it anyway. The bus drove off, while I sat on the peeling olive-green upholstery, taking deep breaths and trying not to think about what happened the other time I sat in the middle of the school bus.
It was last April, and for whatever reason I wasn't sitting in the very first row, like usual. Chuck Boening and Jordan DiCecca suddenly sat down next to me, and I had been so excited, even though I had to press my body against the window to make room for them both.
It's not like I was so excited because they are so hot, even though they are. It was just because they were talking to me, looking at me, like I was a real person. They were asking me what I was listening to on my iPod. They seemed genuinely interested. And I lost my head.
"I always see you with your headphones on," Jordan said, leaning in close, and that was flattering, that anyone cared about me enough to recognize that I always did something.
"Yes," I said, and did not elaborate that I always had my headphones on so I wouldn't always have to hear the world around me.
"What are you listening to?" Chuck asked.
"The Cure," I said.
Jordan nodded. "Oh, cool. I like them."
And that was exciting, too, that this suntanned soccer champ and I liked the same eighties goth band. I believe that a person's taste in music tells you a lot about them. In some cases, it tells you everything you need to know. I thought, in that moment, that if Jordan liked the Cure, then he wasn't the cookie-cutter preppy boy I'd always assumed. And I imagined that he thought, in that moment, that if I liked the Cure, then I wasn't the tragic loser he had always assumed. We were both more than our labels, and maybe we could be friends and go to concerts together.
So when Jordan went on to say, "Let me see," I handed him my iPod.
Why? Why did I believe he had to see my iPod to know what I was listening to? I told you, it's the Cure! You want to know more, I'll tell you the title of the song! You want to know more, I'll tell you how many minutes and seconds into it I am! But shouldn't I have wondered why he needed to actually hold my iPod?
I handed it to him, and he grabbed it and ran off to the back of the bus with it, and with Chuck, and with everyone else on the bus cheering them on.
Was it really everyone else on the bus? Or was that just how I recalled it now, five months later? Some people on that bus must have had something else going on in their lives. Some girl must have recently broken up with her boyfriend. Someone must have been worrying about his bio test. Really, could every single person on that bus have just been caught up in the thrill of seeing my iPod stolen? Really?
It seemed like it, yes.
So what do you think I did? Did I go charging down the aisle of that bus, eyes ablaze, and demand that Jordan and Chuck return my iPod, because it did not belong to them, because they did not deserve to listen to the Cure under any circumstances, let alone under these? Did I use my righteous indignation to reclaim my iPod, and did I emerge from this struggle triumphant, with everyone else on the bus now cheering for me?
No. Instead, I let them run to the back of the bus with my iPod. I let them go. And then I leaned my head against the window and I cried.
Does this seem weak to you? Could you have done better? Fine, by all means, do better. But you don't understand this: sometimes when you are worn down, day after day, relentlessly, with no reprieve for years piled on years, sometimes you lose everything but the ability to cry.
I got my iPod back eventually. I told my homeroom teacher, and she told the vice principal, Mr. Witt, and he made the boys return my iPod and write letters of apology. Mr. Witt also told the bus driver, who somehow didn't know—or acted like he didn't know—what had happened on his bus, captured in his rearview mirror. The bus driver was annoyed with me, because it was my fault he got in trouble, and he barked at me, "From now on, sit up front, where I can keep an eye on you." Which I did for the last month and a half of freshman year.
So now, on the first day of sophomore year, when I sat near the middle of the bus—to the front of the middle, but still—I felt my whole body trembling, because I knew how big a risk I was taking. The knot in my stomach had tightened, and as the school bus rounded a corner, I seriously worried that I might throw up. Fortunately, I swallowed it down, which is good because vomiting on the first day of school is not cool. Also not cool is rocking back and forth as you sit in a school bus, breathing loudly, and wiping your sweaty palms on your new knockoff designer jeans. But even that is cooler than vomit.
Because my stop is one of the first on the bus's route, nearly all the seats were empty. They filled up fast, though. New kids got on at every stop, shrieking with excitement over new haircuts, new book bags, new manicures. Chuck and Jordan and their crew were nowhere to be seen, thank God, which implied to me that either they had all been expelled or their families had been relocated to prison camps. Or they just knew someone who had gotten a license and a car.
Excerpted from This Song Will Save Your Life by Leila Sales. Copyright © 2013 Leila Sales. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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