Thursday, April 23, 2009
Haters by Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez. Little, Brown. 2006.
A new girl in school. She's a regular kid, thrown into a sea of rich kids. Did I mention she's moved to Orange County, California? She wants to have friends, a cute boy likes her.
Think you've read this before? Have watched it before?
Yes, it's an old concept, but it's one that teens like; it’s about being new, it's about trying to make your way in a new place, it's a look at the lives of the rich that most people don't have outside of magazines and TV shows. Haters takes this old idea of "new kid at a rich school" and makes it fresh. The new girl is Pasquala (Paski) Rumalda Quintana de Archuleta. She's of Mexican descent; and her new school, which is very, very rich, is also very diverse. So diverse that it's not even a big deal; what matters to these kids is not the skin color or where parents came from, but how much money they have. Paski is on one of the lower social rungs not because she's Hispanic but because she lives in an apartment building.
One of the first things Paski does in her new town is to take her mountain bike and attack the streets, sidewalks, hills and mountains. This isn't Miss Marple sightseeing; this is fast and gutsy and sweaty. Chris, the cute, popular boy notices Paski not because she's pretty (which she is) but because of her aggressive riding. It gets better – Jessica, the alpha girl, the Queen B, she who rules the school? Is also an athlete. Being athletic and competitive is valued. Jessica Nguyen isn't just any athlete; she is a champion at motocross. Motocross! How many books have a girl competing at motocross, let alone have that girl be most popular because of it? Being athletic is a part of her Paski's character and the story resolution involves Paski and a motocross event. It's not just a detail about Paski; it's who she is.
As the title indicates, Haters is about the cliques Paski encounters at her new school. It's not Gossip Girl; it's about a girl looking in at the Gossip Girl types and wanting to be their friend. Paski, new in school, popular at her old school, sees the cool kids and wants to go to their parties, hang out with them at school. And, of course, she wants Chris. She's also hiding something; while she's proud of her heritage, her father, and her biking, she's not so proud of something she inherited from her grandmother. Paski is a little bit psychic; something Paski tries to ignore, because it's not exactly something that helps you fit in. She's going to find out it can be dangerous to yourself and others when you try to hide who you are.
The diversity in this book goes beyond who is at the school; it's also about jobs and careers. Jess is the Paris Hilton of her school; and part of her power is not that she's a teen celebrity because of money, looks, or last name; yes, her parents are wealthy, but her attention is earned by her own motocross achievements and related endorsements. (Before I go any further, let me be clear; Jess is also the bad girl. And guess who she is dating? Remember that cute, popular boy who Paski likes?) Even in my beloved Veronica Mars, the rich African Americans are rich because of either sports or hip hop music. These stereotypes are avoided in Haters. Take Paski's father, an artist whose comic strip is going to be turned into a movie (hence the move to the OC.) While not many kids will see themselves in Haters because the school is so ultra rich, they will see that the world is diverse in a way that includes careers.
Before any fifth grade parent gets all excited about this being suitable for their child because it's not a Gossip Girl book but it's in that type of world but with a better role model, please note: this isn't for your child. There is frank talk about sex; Paski is a virgin, but who is having sex is something she and her friends talk about. And did I mention Chris, the cute, cool boy? Trust me; this is for older kids.
This book is a must have for YA sections and high school libraries; it's a counter to the shallowness of the mean girl books and it shows a world of possibility and options for all teens. It's nice to have a Hispanic teen in a book that is not about poverty, prejudice, and economic struggles. But there are some downsides to this book. Triangles can be hard to write, especially when the boy is torn between the good girl (Paski) and the mean girl (Jess), because the worse the mean girl gets, the worse the boy looks for ever having been with her. And let me tell you: Jess gets pretty bad. Jess and friends can be so cruel (hence the title, Haters) that it never quite makes sense why Paski wants to be part of the popular crew.
Originally appeared at The Edge of the Forest, September 2006.
© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy