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Character, Driven is a powerful and hilarious coming-of-age novel for young adults by acclaimed author David Lubar.
With only one year left of high school, seventeen-year-old Cliff Sparks is desperate to find a girlfriend and "come of age." But he's never had much luck with girls. So when he falls for Jillian, a new classmate, at first sight, all he can do is worship her from afar. At the same time, Cliff has to figure out what to do with the rest of his life, since he's pretty sure his unemployed father plans to kick him out of the house the minute he turns eighteen. Time is running out. Cliff is at the edge, on the verge, danglingand holding on for dear life.
"Readers will giggle and guffaw at Lubar’s trademark humor, while their heartstrings are tugged and feelings are tied in knots. This exquisitely crafted coming-of-age novel gets down and dirtyand even rebelliouswithout sacrificing honesty, thoughtfulness, or respect." Booklist, starred review
"Readers will relish clever wordplay, fantasies, and a major secret. In a genre full of barely likable teenage protagonists, Cliff is a charmer, and readers will be cheering him on to finally come of age. Cliff is a character driven to fulfill his quest, and readers will be with him every step of the way." Kirkus Reviews, starred review
"Filled with wordplay and moments of wry observation and revelation, this contemporary coming-of-age-novel follows the trials of a big-hearted teen who suffers some hard knocks. . . . Cliff’s humorous perspective on his predicaments doesn’t lessen their sharp impact." Publishers Weekly, starred review
“At the center of this hilarious offering is an adorably awkward protagonist. Cliff’s first-person and sometimes second-person narration, rendered in an affable, funny, and talkative tone, will suck readers into his life story immediately… Cliff breaks the fourth wall often, adding rich layers to this creative work of metafiction. Lubar plays with tropes expertly, crafting a deeply relatable young man whom readers won’t soon forget. VERDICT A fascinating and inspired novel for sophisticated readers.” School Library Journal, starred review
About the Author
DAVID LUBAR created a sensation with his debut novel, Hidden Talents, an ALA Best Book for Young Adults. He is also the author of True Talents, Flip, Extremities, the popular Weenies short story collections, and the Nathan Abercrombie, Accidental Zombie series, which has been optioned for TV. He lives in Nazareth, Pennsylvania.
Read an Excerpt
By David Lubar
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2016 David Lubar
All rights reserved.
She Walks In, Beauty
VENUS IS THE morning star.
As is Jillian.
Let me explain. My school day starts with Calculus, which is a form of math designed to convince people they want to be History majors in college. Our teacher, Mr. Yuler, doesn't talk much. He'll write a problem on the board, then sip coffee from his ever-present mug and walk the aisles while we work at our desks. If you're stuck, he'll uncap his pen and circle something he feels you should contemplate. It's not a bad way to start the day, since, between my after-school jobs and my crazy idea that I should make at least a half-assed effort to do a half-decent job on my homework (which multiplies out to a quarter-decent-ass-job), I generally get less sleep than I need. It would be hard to keep my eyes open for a lecture during first period.
So there we sat, twenty-eight zombified students, all good enough with numbers to have taken the college-prep track through math. I was eventually college bound, I hoped. But I needed to take a year off and save up before I could do anything more than catch some classes at County. Dad lost his job again last year, and Mom had her hours cut at the Maple Lane Bakery. She'd worked there since the first time Dad lost his job. We were keeping our expenses low until things turned around.
But let's get back to Calculus. I think, somehow, I felt Jillian's presence before I heard her footsteps or saw her appear in the doorway, where she stood clutching a slip of paper and looking very new to the world of Rismore High School.
There are some things that stab each of us in the heart: a perfect sunset, a flag-draped casket, an unexpected encounter with a favorite childhood toy. Each — the beautiful, the tragic, the nostalgic — grabs part of our spirit in some way.
Jillian had been assembled from a kit of parts labeled WHAT CLIFF LOVES. To describe her, to even hint at the color of her hair or the curve of her lip, would be to reveal too much of my soul. Instead, I'll let you craft your own Jillian. Think of the kit you've labeled WHAT I LOVE. Make her, or him, in that image, breathe life into her form, and place her here at the classroom entrance, inspired. Take your time.
Got it? Great. Let's move on.
I sat, entranced, as Jillian entered the classroom. I stole glances, and risked several longer stares in her direction after she'd taken her seat. But I knew the reality. She'd never notice me unless I had the misfortune to suffer a memorable death in her presence. Something involving spontaneous flames would do the trick. For the moment, I wasn't tempted to pursue that approach — or departure. I really didn't want my encounter with her to be a short story, or a long obituary.
Jillian took the only available seat, three rows to my right, and one row ahead. Most of the guys were staring at her, either boldly or through a series of covert glances. As were the girls.
Nola Lackmore, who sat immediately to my left, cast an appraising eye in Jillian's direction. I would have loved to hear her thoughts. Do pretty girls — and that was Nola for sure — think bad thoughts about gorgeous girls? Abbie Striver shot an escalating sequence of disapproving glares toward Jillian, as if it were a transgression to be attractive.
Both my best friends were in this class. Robert, two seats to my right, shook his hand in the universal gesture of someone who has touched a hot surface. I couldn't see the reaction, if any, from Butch, who sat in the left rear corner.
Lucas Delshanon, directly to my right, let out a half-sighed half-muttered, "Whoa ..." I couldn't think of a better word.
Ahead of us, Jillian seemed unaware of the attention. Or maybe she was used to it and chose not to admit awareness.
That was the moment when I spotted an opportunity. Mr. Yuler opened the door of the small closet in the back of the room. He rummaged inside for a minor interval, like someone trying to find the last nub of pepperoni in an overstuffed deli drawer. Then he closed the door and let his shoulders slump in defeat.
I knew exactly what had just happened. Jillian needed a textbook. But the cupboard was bare. I raised my hand in anticipation of Mr. Yuler selecting someone to run over to the other Calculus teacher's classroom for a copy. The instant he noticed me, I said, "Want me to check with Ms. Percivel?"
He didn't seem surprised that I was a half step ahead of him. In reality, I was a whole journey ahead. When I returned from my quest, I'd get the chance to weave my way through the crowded room and give the book directly to Jillian. She'd thank me. Our fingers would touch. I'd flash her a smile, letting her see my great teeth up close, and say something classy like, No prob.
No. Too slangy. No problem?
Yeah. That was better.
"Thanks," Mr. Yuler said.
"No problem." I flinched as I realized I had just fired my one silver-tongued bullet. I couldn't repeat myself. That would make me seem shallow or unimaginative. No problem. I'd think of a better reply by the time I got back. It was a long hall.
I headed down that hall, past the cafeteria, which was just beginning to emit aromatic hints about the species of today's fried protein, and along the new wing, toward Ms. Percivel's classroom. Happily, despite my fears of learning otherwise and being forced to return empty-handed, she had an extra copy of the Calculus textbook.
What to say? I ran possibilities through my mind, testing them in a full fantasy enactment of the moment when I gave Jillian the book and she thanked me.
My pleasure ...
Not bad. Slightly too refined. I was sure I could do better. The pleasure is all mine. ... No. Too wordy. Unless she was a fan of old Jane Austen stuff.
I held up the book and searched the front cover for inspiration. It showed a broad ethnic diversity of students at undiversified desks, hunched over papers, happily solving the problems of integration. No inspiration there.
Maybe I could make a clever calculus reference? I could say, Aaaaaaaaaaaugh!
I did say, "Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaugh!"
It wasn't clever, and it had nothing to do with Calculus, but it was pretty much the response that's hard-wired into most of us when we plummet unexpectedly. My right foot had just come down not on solid flooring, but on the edge of the steps leading into "the Pit."
Yeah, there's a fucking pit in the open area on the other side of the hall from the cafeteria. It's used as a gathering place for small-group activities, and as a death trap for the unobservant. It has two steep steps that also serve as seats, running along all four sides. I was so busy staring at the book cover and trying to think of what to say to impress Jillian, I'd walked at an angle along the corridor, right into the Pit.
I came down hard. The book went flying. My right hand smacked the floor of the Pit, breaking my fall. It felt like I'd also come close to breaking my hand. I lay there, taking stock of my injuries. I'd smacked my right knee pretty hard on the edge of the bottom step. And my chin. I ran my tongue across the back of my teeth, hoping not to find anything loose. There was a slight metallic taste of blood in my mouth, but nothing felt chipped or broken. I seemed to have escaped with less damage than a fall like that deserved. Lucky me.
I looked around as I crawled to my feet. Nobody had seen me. That was good. The fallen get mocked. It's the law.
Have a wonderful trip!
Nice of you to drop in!
Down goes Cliff!
Crap. I hurt all over. Knees. Hands. Elbows. Chin. Pride. I retrieved the book and limped back to class, my palms throbbing as the numbness of impact gave way to the sting of injury. I winced in pain as I opened the door and hobbled across the room.
"Here," I said, handing the book to Jillian.
"Thanks." She flashed a smile that should have melted away all my pain.
"Uhhhh ... welcome. Problem. I mean, no."
Great. I had the articulate wit of a bear coming out of hibernation after bingeing on fermented fruit. I clamped my mouth shut before it could spew more nonsense.
"Yeowch!" I eased the clamp as pain shot through my bruised jaw.
Jillian's smile morphed into a puzzled stare.
It seemed like a good time to retreat. I slipped back into my seat, which, between the crowded classroom and the stiffening of my injured joints, wasn't easy.
I already fell for you.
Damn, that would be a totally perfect line, if she'd known about the fall. Witty. Charming. Especially if delivered with a bit of a self-effacing grin. It would have been awesome.
No. It sucked. All my lines sucked. I had no game. As I sat there, drowning in the flood of lost opportunity and imagining the various shades of blue, green, and purple that would soon blossom on my palm, my past dating life flashed before my eyes. It made me want to fall off something much higher than the Pit, or find a pit much deeper.CHAPTER 2
Maddie, 'Bout You
MY DATING EXPERIENCE (I almost need a specifically singular form of "experience" to capture the scarcity of it) began in seventh grade. Actually, back then, I guess I was predating. I mean, "pre-dating," not being a predator. Though, on second thought, I guess "predator" sort of describes my strategy. On third thought, maybe I should just tell what happened and let you categorize it.
I'd had a crush on Maddie all through middle school. I think it started, or solidified, the time she yawned. She was sitting next to me in Algebra. It was a large and leisurely yawn. She arched her back and raised her arms in the sort of posture one would use while putting on heavy headphones. But it wasn't her back or arms or even her gaping mouth that ensorcelled me. It was her breasts. As her back arched, those breasts seemed to lag slightly behind the rest of the parade, following her movement but telling the world they had their own free will to do what they wanted as they pressed against the pale brown fabric of her button-down shirt. I could picture her bra cradling them. Coaxing them with gentle upward tugs. Come on, we're all moving together. Don't be nonconformists.
This was not an image conducive to balancing equations. The breasts continued their public display of uncivil disobedience during Maddie's return from the extreme edge of lumbar contortion. Eventually, her whole body was realigned in an erect posture. As was part of mine. I waited breathlessly for the next round trip along mammary lane. I even let out an exaggerated yawn of my own, in hopes of priming the pump. And I told myself I had to make Maddie my girlfriend. Breasts that breathtaking needed authorized admiration.
I plotted. I schemed. Maddie was in an Episcopal youth group. I joined it, even though I wasn't an Episcopalian. It was fun. We sang a lot of folk songs and gathered cans of food for the hungry. None of the activities allowed me to catch Maddie's attention. But there were other opportunities to pursue her. She belonged to the Y. I got a membership. She acknowledged my existence when we crossed paths during open swim or coed volleyball, and actually didn't try to flee when I engaged her in conversation. I grew bolder. I decided to ask her out on a date. I didn't phrase it that way, of course. It was more like, "You wanna get something at the diner?"
Looking back at the actual event, I can now see that she spent most of her time scanning the area, as if hoping to spot someone more interesting who might take her on a real adventure, or at least sport her off to a better restaurant and better conversation. It was sort of like having a meal with an owl.
I muddled my way through seventh grade, managing two more pseudo-dates. I didn't see Maddie over the summer, but I saw her every night, in my fantasies. In early August, a friend, Charles Araby, invited me to go down the shore with him. His aunt had a place. It wasn't near the ocean. It was on an inland waterway. But one night, in the middle of our week there, we took a bus, and then another bus, which delivered us to the boardwalk.
Like most Jersey boys, I was no stranger to the boardwalk. But I'd never been there without my parents. I was especially eager to try my luck at the games, because my dad would never let me play them. He said it was like throwing away money.
I skipped the milk can toss and the basketball game. I could tell those were pretty hard. Then I saw a game I figured I could win. It had stuffed cats that you knocked down with baseballs. In retrospect, the cats were 90 percent fur. Picture a pencil made much wider by the addition of six inches of insubstantial fuzz on each side. Now think about trying to hit it dead center with a misshapen baseball from ten feet away.
The rules were simple: Knock down three cats with three throws, and you win a stuffed animal. There were bears and dogs among the prizes. There were fish. And, lining one side wall, hanging by their tails in all their four-foot velveteen glory, were rows of snakes dyed in bruiselike shades of green, blue, and purple.
I want to win a snake for Maddie.
I can't explain the origin of the obsession. I'm sure the bears and dogs were cuter. I'm sure the fish were more whimsical. Maybe my young mind saw something symbolic in the snake. Maybe I'll drop the serpentine search for symbolism and get back to the boardwalk.
I paid for the three balls. My first throw missed. So did my second. In a world where mercy is an actual component, in a kind and caring universe that doesn't want to see fragile middle schoolers snared in the sticky web of false hope, I would have missed my third and final throw, as well, and skulked off toward the roller coasters. But the universe took a dump on me and had a giant laugh. My third throw hit a cat and knocked it down.
Knock one down, you win nothing. Knock two down, you still win nothing. Knock three down, you win Maddie's heart. And maybe her breasts.
I tried again for the trifecta.
I was like a lab rat pressing a lever for a jolt of sugar water. I'd hit one cat out of three. Or maybe two, separated by a miss. But never three. Far too soon, I went through everything I'd brought, except for a scattering of pocket change. My entire vacation fund was lying in the bulging pocket of a game barker's change apron.
I handed over my last dollar, in the form of two quarters, four dimes, and two nickels, and took possession of the three baseballs. I hit a cat on my first throw. I hit one on my second throw. I gripped the final ball, knowing I was destined to miss, because when the universe takes a dump on you, it doesn't follow up the fecal splatter with a hug and a kiss. It follows through with a steaming stream of piss. I looked at Charley. He was a ball player. I looked at the guy running the game. He was disinterested.
"Can I let my friend throw the last one?" I asked.
"Nope," the guy said.
Had it happened three or four years later, when I was less daunted by authority figures, I would have been capable of presenting a variety of arguments to support my request. The only signs on display were for NO LEANING and DEFLECTED BALLS DON'T COUNT. There was not a word about the illegality of sharing. But I didn't have the courage to argue.
Knowing I was about to be both broke and humiliated, I threw the third ball.
And I hit the damn cat dead center, knocking it flat on its back to complete the trio of prostrate felines.
I had my snake. It was a stunningly cheap carnival creation, colored a shade of blue that doesn't appear anywhere in nature, or even in good art. It was stuffed, by the feel of it, with straw and gravel. None of that mattered. I had my snake and I had my fantasies of presenting it to Maddie.
I won this for you. Nah — it was easy. Glad you like it. Yawn ...
There wasn't much point in staying on the boardwalk. I was broke. Charley was nice enough to offer to pay my bus fare.
It started raining during the first part of the ride back. It started pouring before we got off the bus. There was an old shelter at the bus stop. It was a concrete building with a single wooden bench inside, barely lit well enough to keep us from stumbling into one of the walls.
Excerpted from Character, Driven by David Lubar. Copyright © 2016 David Lubar. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Intro [duction | spection | version],
She Walks In, Beauty,
Maddie, 'Bout You,
Parm for the Course,
The Art of Self-Deception,
Acting in Concert,
When You Need a Lift,
Do It, Your Shelf,
A Band, End All Hope,
Courage in Profiles,
Out of Concert,
Doing Nothing Well,
Sextets and the Single Girl,
[Ab | Pro | Se] duction,
Coming of Age,
Coming of Rage,
Bed, and the Rest,
Reading and Activity Guide,
About the Author,
Tor Teen Books by David Lubar,
Reading Group Guide
About this guide
The questions and activities that follow are intended to enhance your reading of Character, Driven. The material is aligned with Common Core State Standards for Literacy in English and Language Arts (www.corestandards.org), however please feel free to adapt this content to suit the needs and interests of your students or reading group participants.
About Character, Driven
Character, Driven is a powerful and hilarious coming-of-age novel for young adults by acclaimed author David Lubar.
With only one year left of high school, seventeen-year-old Cliff Sparks is desperate to “come of age”a.k.a., find a girlfriend. But he’s never had much luck with girls. So when he falls for Jillian, a new classmate, at first sight, all he can do is worship her from afar. At the same time, Cliff has to figure out what to do with the rest of his life, since he’s pretty sure his unemployed father plans to kick him out of the house the minute he turns eighteen. Time is running out. Cliff is at the edge, on the verge, danglingand holding on for dear life.
• Character, Driven is written in first-person point-of-view, meaning that the narrator is also a character in the story. Have students share titles of other novels featuring first-person narrators. Then create a brainstorm list of things a first-person narrator can and cannot understand or share with readers.
• Ask each student to write a one-page essay describing another novel they have read which is written from a first-person viewpoint. Have them include the title and genre of the novel; a very brief (2-4 sentence) plot summary; and an observation of something the reader discovers or understands particularly well because of the first-person viewpoint.
Supports Common Core State Standards:
W.8.3, W.9-10.3, W.11-12.3;
and SL.8.1, SL.9-10.1, SL.11-12.1
Developing Reading & Discussion Skills
• In the opening chapter, readers realize that Cliff is aware that he is writing his words to the reader. What insights into novel-writing does Cliff reference? What do you think he is trying to tell readers when he notes that “…not every book tells a story” (p. 13)?
• Describe Cliff’s family’s financial situation. How does this effect his home life?
• Who is Jillian? What past experiences with girls make Cliff uncertain (or even afraid) to approach her?
• Describe the assumptions Cliff admits to making when starting to read a novel, and the concerns this raises for him about his own narrative (the book you are reading) in the chapter “INTER LEWD” (p. 63).
• Describe Cliff’s relationships with Lucas and Nola. What happens to each of these characters as the story progresses? What type of language does Cliff use to explain these outcomes? Does he seem to feel a sense of responsibility, empathy, or another type of emotional connection to these characters? Explain your answers.
• Why does Cliff think Ms. Ryder is a good teacher? Do you think Cliff is an especially good judge of teaching ability? Why or why not? Which teachers have an important impact on Cliff? What do you think Cliff would list as the three most valuable attributes of a good teacher?
• Cliff enjoys art classes. Is he a good artist? Does it matter? What other talents seem to emerge as he considers creating new paintings? Why is discussing art dangerous in the Sparks household?
• Do you think there is a relationship between the wordplay Cliff employs throughout the story and the visual arts compositions he and Jillian paint? Why or why not? How might these creative outlets relate to the emotional journeys of the characters?
• By the end of the story, Cliff has realized that he has a quality circle of friends. Name at least three of these characters and explain how each of them give Cliff strength to face the challenges to come in the final chapters.
• As well as struggling with his painful home life, Cliff is trying to sort out what he will do after high schoolwhat he wants to learn and who he wants to become. How do his plans and dreams evolve over the course of the story? Has Cliff’s journey provided you with any insight into your own thoughts about life after high school? Explain your answer.
• Write a paragraph arguing that Character, Driven is an exploration of the relationship between how the stories we tell enable us to endure, manage, and possibly even change the trajectory of our real lives.
• Early in the novel, Cliff struggles with the issue of describing himself to the reader because, “…the truth is, nobody sees himself clearly in a mirror or photo.” (p. 31). Then, in the final chapter, he admits to buying a car, but that “[T]o describe it, to even hint at the color of the body…would be to reveal too much of my soul…Instead, I’ll let you craft your own wheels.” (p. 289). What is the relationship between these two statements? What might Cliff (or David Lubar) be encouraging readers to do with respect to their own lives?
• Do you think the narrator’s name is really “Cliff Sparks”? Why or why not?
• Could the theme of Character, Driven be reflected in the cliché “you can’t judge a book by its cover”? How might this common expression be applied to Butch, Nicky, Jimby, Jillian, and ultimately, Cliff himself?
Supports Common Core State Standards:
RL.8.1-4, 9-10.1-5, 11-12.1-6;
and SL.8.1, 3, 4; SL.9-10.1, 3, 4; SL.11-12.1, 3, 4.
Developing Research & Writing Skills
Beyond being written from a first-person viewpoint, by the end of the novel, readers come to realize that Cliff has been an unreliable narrator. Go to the library or online to research the literary term “unreliable narrator.” With friends or classmates, create a reading list of famous novels featuring unreliable narrators. Divide into two groups to debate the following topic: One cannot be a reliable narrator of one’s own life.
Character, Driven is written as a series of flashbacks and even-further flashbacks. Make a list of the novel’s chapter titles. Beside each title, note the time in which the chapter takes place (e.g., “present,” “last April,” “sometime last year”). Note any patterns you detect in terms of the relationship between content, timeframe, and the non-linear style of the story.
From chapter titles to the body of the text, the novel is filled with wordplay, such as puns and double entendres. As Cliff, write an essay explaining how and/or why you came up with your chapter titles.
THE GIFT OF BOOKS
Throughout the novel, Mr. Piccaro quietly gives Cliff books to read. Using a library website or other online resources, create an annotated list of the titles Mr. Piccaro shares. Then, write a one-page essay about the relationships, if any, you observe between the titles and Cliff’s own journey.
FIRST PERSON, DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVES
Cliff second-guesses the ways that he didn’t get to know Lucas or Nola better. Perhaps Cliff’s friends feel similarly about him. From the viewpoint of Butch, Nicky, or Jimby, write a journal-style essay discussing your friendship with Cliff; any concerns or suspicions you may have about his home situation; and the way your own home or family life influences the way you handle your potential knowledge about Cliff.
Character, Driven tells the story of Cliff’s journey from mere survival to escape from an abusive situation. Sadly, child abuse is not fiction, and teens suffering abuse may not see a way out. But conversation and awareness can help. Learn more about this serious issue (teens.webmd.com and kidshealth.org/teen are good starting points for research), including warning signs, appropriate ways to offer your support, and resources for victims. Compile your research into a multi-media presentation to share with friends or classmates.
Individually or in small groups, imagine you are creating a film or television adaptation of Character, Driven. Write a promotional paragraph and the script or storyboard for the first fifteen minutes of your film. If desired, create a video trailer for your movie.
From Jimby’s story, to Jillian’s paintings, to a performance of Romeo & Juliet, Character, Driven is a story in which the creative arts perform many valuable functions. Individually, or with friends or classmates, create a poster, mural, or image/word collage depicting the many levels at which art entertains, informs, and does more in the noveland in life.
If you were going to write about the last two months of your life any way you wanted, what tale would you spin? In first-person, with the reader in mind, write a chapter title and the first five pages of your story.
Supports Common Core State Standards:
RL.8.1-4, 9-10.1-5, 11-12.1-6;
SL.8.1, 4; SL.9-10.1, 4; SL.11-12.1, 4;
and W.8.1-4, W.8.6, W.9-10.1-4, W.9-10.6, W.11-12.1-4, W.11-12.6