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In pop culture, YADA-YADA usually means "blah, blah, blah" or "more of the same." For this blog, YADA-YADA is an acronym meaning "Young Adult Discussions About Young Adult-Designed Art." Check out my summaries and reviews of teen media. Chime in and let me know what you think!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Blog No. 11--Identical by Ellen Hopkins


Title: Identical
Author: Ellen Hopkins

Bibliographic Information:
Margaret K. McElderry, August 2008
Hardcover, 576 pages
ISBN-10: 1416950052
ISBN-13: 9781416950059
Ages: 14 and up
Grades: 9 and up

New York Times® Bestseller
ALA Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers
NYPL "Books for the Teen Age"
Pacific Northwest Young Reader's Choice Award Master List
YALSA Teens Top Ten (TTT)

Reader’s Annotation:
Appearances can be deceiving—especially when it comes to seemingly perfect and privileged lives and beautiful identical twin girls. Kayleigh and Raeanne, named after Dad Ray, a high-profile judge and Mom Kay, a career-possessed woman running for Congress. Inside, these twins are different as night and day: Raeanne is the wild one, desperately seeking Dad’s attention by getting sexually involved with the baddest boys in town; Kayleigh, the quiet one, gets all of Dad’s attention in the darkest possible way, but craves the love of an absent mom; together, the girls forge an unforgettable bond as one sister steps up to help the other.

Plot Summary:
Ellen Hopkins fifth book, Identical, follows twins Kaeleigh and Raeanne Gardella—pretentiously named after self-absorbed, troubled parents who are on the fast-track to unequalled success and hell at the same time. Raeanne is named after her father, Ray—a well respected district court judge who brings his “absolute” courtroom authority into their high-end household. He is demanding, controlling, authoritarian, abusive, alcoholic and does everything he can to stifle the growth and independence of his girls. Kaeleigh is the quiet “beautiful flower,” named after her mother Kay, who is a ruthless, inattentive women more concerned with appearances and with shattering the glass ceiling than to even notice what is going on with her children—especially her namesake, who is suffering in the most horrific ways.

Raeanne is a wild child who sees everything that is gong on in their dysfunctional household, but still craves the love of her sick and twisted father. Raeanne has been witness to the most horrible thing one can witness—the sexual abuse of a child by a parent—in this case, her sister, Kaeleigh. Raeanne does everything she can to protect her sister, yet at the same time is subconsciously jealous of the attention Kaeleigh gets from her father. To cope, Raeanne abuses pot and sex with unseemly young men as a way to escape—gradually advancing to prescription drugs, booze and sadistic sex to make her escape grander.

Kaeleigh is the pleaser in the family, a role commonly afforded to the sensitive one in any family dynamic, particularly a family as dysfunctional as the Gardellas. Her coping mechanism is food—she eats monstrous amounts in an effort to deal with the abuse she receives—abuse that she, for the longest time saw as love—and then purges herself to avoid going into “double-digit sizes” something her father would never allow. Kaeleigh wants to experience real love with Ian, an upstanding, highly patient young man who has been in love with Kaeleigh forever. Both have been case in the high school play as lovers, and they each feel the heat between them, but something always prevents Kaeleigh from trusting Ian completely. He knows that something is up with her, but he doesn’t know to what extent. In addition to purging, Kaeleigh also cuts—something that Ian notices and wants to prevent.

Part of the arena of the story includes a tragic accident that happened years ago. Dad Ray was driving, but throughout the book we never know what exactly happened—at least not until the very end. It was this event that was the straw that broke the family’s back, so to speak, although it is clear through the story that there were many other dysfunctions that led to the current state of the Gardellas. In addition, Daddy Ray has a lot of baggage: an absentee mother who left him when he was very small, and a blue-collar father whom he does not completely respect. He has broken contact with both of them.

Mom Kay is running for Congress, and is obsessed with winning. Details about her are fleeting in the story—she is absent physically and emotionally to her girls, and to her husband, with whom she has a marriage in name only. Hints are given throughout that Kay seems to know what is going on in her household, but she ignores things for the sake of their respective careers.

The ending is a shocker, exposing not only dysfunction, but acute mental illness, and will keep readers guessing to the last few pages.

Critical Evaluation:
Identical is Hopkins’ first attempt at dual poetic narration. Although she successful weaves multiple voices in her other novels, Identical is different. Each of the stories here are about two different characters, but they reside in the same family, and to an extent, experience similar things as a result. However, the way Kaeleigh and Raeanne see the same events are quite different, and these “identical” but distinct experiences serve to provide a multi-faceted look at a dysfunctional American family.

What is compelling about Identical is the fact that Hopkins choose to explore a family that seems to have it all—the stereotypical American success story. Most adults understand that severe dysfunction knows no socio-economic borders—and in this story Hopkins throws them all in for good measure (drug and alcohol abuse, sexual abuse, sadistic sex, incest, cutting, bulimia, dissociative identity disorder, abandonment and so on). However, it is likely that some adolescents think that these problems only happen to “poor” people. However, this choice also distances the readers from the characters at the story’s start. It is hard to feel sorry for kids who have it all. But the two narratives are given equal weight, and soon readers clearly realize that dysfunction can be—and often is—a part of some of societies leading families.

That said, I found the dual narrative to be confusing at times, and in some critical moments I found myself wondering who really was speaking—Raeanne or Kaeleigh. As the story progressed, however, I began to see that this was intentional, so that the book could be plotted to its unbelievable conclusion. At times, it was a bit like the ABC soap operas—well written, yet unbelievable. How much could these twins go through and still survive?

Perhaps that is the central question in this book. The human drive to continue on, despite having to contend with the worst that the world has to offer, is not only worth of hope, but of applause. Despite its highly graphic depictions of the worst imaginable (and I definitely do not recommend this book for the faint-hearted or anyone under 16) it is an important book for some teens to read, and to understand that they too can rise above the most horrific experiences with help and the desire to hold on.

Reading level/Interest Age:
This was the most difficult of all Hopkins’ books for me, as an adult to read. I feel that the graphic sex portrayed in this novel, while important not only to the story, but to shed light on the subject of incest, makes this book not for anyone under the age of seventeen, not sixteen as the publisher suggests. All adolescents will find this book disturbing, but it can be especially so for teens who have been sexually abused—or know someone who has. This is a perfect book for abused teens to read with their therapist. Some teens will not at all relate to this book. One of my library teaching assistants (a very mature honors student) read this book, and told me that it “held her interest only somewhat.” She thought the ending was contrived, and while she felt empathy for the twins, she could not relate to the story at all. However, as Hopkins’ books in my view are geared toward the reluctant reader, I am not surprised at my TAs’ reaction. In any event, this book is not for everyone, particularly the very sensitive.

Information about the Author:
No one should be surprised that Ellen Hopkins started out as a poet, since each of her young adult novels is written in the broken lines of both rhymed and unrhymed verse. Hopkins herself says “that in a previous life, I was a freelance writer, nonfiction author and, then and now, a poet” (Hopkins in Red Room, 2009).

Compared to many other YA authors, there is not much biographical information on Ellen Hopkins outside of her own website, although she is probably one of the more fan-accessible writers today. Married to John Hopkins for a lot of years, Ellen Hopkins has three grown children—two daughters and one son—as well as a twelve-year-old son at home in Carson City, Nevada. Her own webpage contains the most information available about her—especially in the FAQ section, where she answers readers’ questions about her life. She wrote twenty nonfiction books before becoming a YA author, but those titles are not available.

According to her website, http://www.ellenhopkins.com/ , Ms. Hopkins was born in 1955, but was adopted by a much older couple. Her adoptive dad and mom Albert and Valeria Wagner were 72 and 42 years old respectively, at the time of her birth. She grew up in the Palm Springs area surrounded by many of the rich and famous like Elvis Presley and Bob Hope. Her father, a hard-working man with a sixth grade education, made most of his money during World War Two in the steel industry. She had her first child, Jason at 21, followed by Cristal in 1978. Cristal is the real-life Kristina in the books Crank and Glass and the upcoming Fallout, scheduled for release in 2010. Her daughter Kelly is from a “rebound relationship” that happened after her divorce from Jason and Cristal’s father. Hopkins has been writing her entire life, but didn’t begin writing “for money” until the 1990s when she moved to the Carson City area. She met her current husband, John Hopkins around 1985, and they married in 1991. He is her best friend and her “forever love” (Hopkins, 2010).

Curriculum Ties: None.
Booktalking Ideas:
None. Because this is a book about incest, I would not choose it for booktalking pusposes. I would hold it up as another Ellen Hopkins novel, but the only talking I would do is to warn teens of some very upsetting material. I think it is an important book, but it is not one I would feel comfortable talking about.

Challenge Issues:
Incest and graphic sex. How to overcome challenges: discuss that the library is designed to reach a wide variety of readers, and that this book is designed to help reluctant readers read. This book might actually help some teens who have experienced sexual abuse, or develop empathy and understanding for those who have.

Why I Included This Book:
All of Ellen Hopkins’ novels seem to disappear from our library shelves. This one departs from her usual narrative style a bit, and gives Hopkins fans yet another gritty world to explore.

Cover image and awards courtesy of http://books.simonandschuster.com/Identical/Ellen-Hopkins/9781416950059

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