Review of the Day: Shug
Nope. I didn’t want to read, “Shug”. I just didn’t. I took one look at its cool cover and thought it was a piece of YA literature. By and large, as a children’s librarian I tend to avoid teen books. It was only when fellow children’s librarians (4 or so) insisted that this book would be beloved by kids too that I caved in and picked it up. If ever the world of librarianship is further subdivided into Children’s Librarians, YA Librarians, and Tween Librarians, I can tell you right here and now that “Shug” will belong firmly to the latter. Covering everything from a girl’s first kiss to getting her period to dealing with the separation of boys and girls once they're hit by the puberty stick, this book is a summarization of adolescence that smacks of truth.
Annemarie a.k.a. Shug, just realized something while sitting on her front porch with her oldest friend, Mark. She loves him. This is a little strange when she considers that she’s known the guy practically all her life. Still, there’s no denying her current feelings. They just couldn’t have come at a worse point in their lives. Once this summer is over, Mark and Annemarie will be entering Junior High for the very first time. Now Annemarie will have to deal with the various school cliques and cruelties. She’ll have to face up to the fact that her often drunk mother and too absent father may be having more than their regular marital difficulties. She’ll accept that her best friend Elaine has more on her mind these days than regular girl problems. And she’ll need to figure out what exactly she’s going to do, if anything, about the Mark situation.
It sounds trite. It sounds like its been done before. But the remarkable thing about “Shug” is that it reads like nothing I’ve ever read. What I can’t figure out is how author Jenny Han has found a way to capture with pinpoint accuracy what it feels like to be twelve. Shug is twelve incarnate and Han knows how to zero in on the deadly seriousness with which every adolescent thinks they are entitled. The pain of a crush becomes, “I never know love felt like cancer of the throat”. And then, of course, there’s the sudden difference between how you’ve dealt with boys in the past and how you’re dealing with them now. Shug goes to hang out with Mark and his friends and suddenly everything that was once simple becomes complicated. She can’t be herself or even join in with their conversation. “They take everything and breathe up all the air in the room”.
I loved Han’s writing too. She has a sense of humor, saving the book from the overearnest drama inherent in tween narratives. For example, when Shug attempts to describe her “perfect” older sister, she mentions that, “She is smaller than me, the kind of small that boys want to scoop up and hold on to real tight”. In comparison, our heroine feels that she has, “no womanly curves to speak of. I can’t fill a pudding cup with what I’ve got”. And with this writing Han is able to put into words the moral uncertainty that comes with subverting yourself to fit into middle school society. When Shug unceremoniously dumps a girl named Sherilyn as a friend, she notes, not without a little sorrow, that, “I know I could be cool if I didn’t have Sherilyn hanging on to me. It’s like trying to shimmy up a rope with a moose tied to your ankles. You’ve just gotta cut that moose loose”. Kudos to Han for not ending the book with Shug learning an “important lesson” about the true meaning of friendship blah blah blah. You may feel sorry for Sherilyn, but be honest with yourself. Would YOU have been friends with her in middle school? After all, when invited to a sleepover you know that, “She’s the one the mom has to befriend”. So true it literally stings when you read it.
Characters. Want ‘em? You got ‘em. In fact the most alarming and complex character comes in the form of Shug’s alternately beloved and loathed mother. Mrs. Wilcox was born in Clementon, left, returned with an education, and has lived in contempt of her contemporaries ever since. She’s the kind of woman who names her daughters after Alice Walker novels. Who can’t cook but lets her children know that their one job in life is to get out of Clementon someday. She also drinks to excess and is a fairly bad mother. Still, you sympathize with her, even when you shouldn’t. Whole novels could be based on Mrs. Wilcox. In her, Han finds the ideal mother, villain, and anti-hero. Other characters fare just as well. There’s Jack, a boy that Shug has to tutor and who has always been her nemesis. Adults reading the book will recognize the role he’ll play right from the start. Kids will find it more of a surprise.
The fact that the title character’s name comes from a character from “The Color Purple” was kind of amusing. I mean, we’re in whitebread country here. The only person of color in this entire book is the title character’s best friend Elaine who happens to be American born Korean. Now the book takes place in a town named Clementon in the South, but Clementon is never really ever pinpointed on a map. It’s a small town with all the good and the bad that comes with such a place. And the bad, I suspect, is directly tied into the lack of any race other than that of whitey.
When I was sixteen I fell desperately in love with a boy with whom I was the best of friends. The fact that he once literally said I was “like a sister to him” didn’t prove to be the deterrent I’m sure he’d hoped it would. So when fellow author Gigi Amateau wrote the book blurb, “From the first page, Jenny Han transported me back to a time when I loved a boy with all my heart and held my breath for him to love me, too”, I couldn’t have said it better myself. This is all the pain and brief pleasure a person feels when they first begin to get serious crushes. Honest, open, beautiful, and concise. In “Shug” readers (oh fine... GIRL readers) will discover an author that truly understands what they’re going through and that it is survivable. This is early adolescence synthesized in a single perfect novel.
Notes On the Cover: Although I cannot fault the classy presentation (the white background with a single red Popsicle is very post-GAP commercial), I do have to say that the cover more than a touch misleading. Anyone who looks at this puppy is going to think one thing: Teen book. This is more than little unfair when you consider how perfectly the book balances between child and teen. This is a transitional title. It should have been given a slightly more transitional cover. Maybe if the almost-impossible-to-see words “Shug” that riddle the white were easier to see it might work better. But all in all it's a gorgeous image. Lord knows why they chose to change it for the paperback edition.