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You Don't Know Me - David Klass

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Hardcover: 280 pages / Publisher: Longman / Published: 1 Mar 2004

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      31.10.2012 09:39
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      Anger + humour = an engaging YA novel about relationships

      Klass is an American screenwriter (for adults) and novelist (for teens). This book focuses on the difficulties of a 14 year old boy, John, who is abused at home and drifts through school. I read this book because I was given the opportunity to teach it to a group of 13-14 year olds.

      == The premise ==

      John is angry. His mother is too caught up in the man-who-is-not-his-father to see how miserable his life is. This man also beats him when his mother is not around. School is not much better: he has a crush on a seemingly unattainable girl and his best friend is an eggroll thief. His other friend cannot speak to girls, algebra is gobblydegook and music practice is an on-going battle with a frog pretending to be a tuba. John normally copes by applying lashings of irony and some fantasy to his situation, but in a dramatic turn of events he dares to ask out the girl of his dreams. Could things be about to change for the better?

      == My thoughts ==

      John's anger is immediately and powerfully in evidence from the opening lines of the first chapter. He insists repeatedly that 'you don't know me', and although it gradually becomes clear that he is talking to his mother, the reader is likely to feel a little under attack in the first few pages. I felt that this device worked well to ensure that readers are immediately pulled into John's world and his way of thinking. We quickly learn about all the key elements of John's life and this prepares us well for the story to follow.

      Writing that the book deals with John's anger makes the book sound heavy-going, but in fact it is written in a very humorous tone which means that although the reader feels the weight of John's bitterness, it doesn't weigh them down. In particular, frequent reference is made to the Lahasha Palulu, a fictitious tribe who have interesting ways of dealing with the situations that John finds himself in. I felt that Klass did well to create this kind of levity and that teens would respond well to the style of writing and John's desire for things to be different.

      This is not a ground-breaking story. John's crush is, predictably, not worthy of his attention, and he completely fails to notice the more suitable, pleasant girl who is in his orbit. However, the characters are handled well: Gloria (known to John in his imagination as Glory Hallelujah) is convincingly airheaded and Violet is pleasingly practical. It is interesting that someone as open to irony as John does not 'see through' Gloria earlier on and one of the things I liked about teaching this book was that young readers have to learn to detach themselves from the narrative perspective - which can be quite challenging in a story with first-person narration - and form their own opinions about the other characters. This is a good skill for young people to be developing.

      There is plenty of plot to keep young readers interested but it never overwhelms the strong narrative voice and the characters behave in believable, although gradually more melodramatic, ways as the tension ratchets up. The last section of the story is perhaps rather over-the-top and the final events are a little predictable for an adult reader, but most of my teenage readers did not accurately predict the ending and felt that the story was still convincing. Personally, I would have liked a little less melodrama and action, but I think the views of the intended audience are probably more important here than mine!

      What I did like about the ending of the story is that I felt it promoted a good morality and would help to encourage young people who were being abused to speak out. I think that this is important and that Klass has handled a difficult topic very well.

      Descriptions of the abuse within the book are not graphically gory or extensive, but are present at a couple of key points. I am very squeamish and was able to read these accounts of violence without difficulty, so I do not think this would present a problem to other readers. Perhaps similarly, the youth of the characters means that there are only limited references to sexual experience, and this becomes more a focus for comedy than anything a parent might rather their child wasn't reading. Pleasingly for a teen book there are no diversions into alcohol or drug abuse. (This definitely isn't 'Skins'!) There is some bad language but it is not excessive and is used in a way that is relevant to the plot.

      == Conclusions ==

      This is a great YA book that deals effectively with a difficult topic and could even encourage teenagers who are suffering abuse to want to seek help. Certainly it encourages readers to develop their empathy for others and to be wary of simply accepting other people's story of themselves. John's character is convincing and Klass gives him a strong narrative voice that grips readers throughout. The other characters are suitably developed, although an adult reader might feel that a couple border on being mere caricatures. The ending is perhaps a little melodramatic and predictable for very mature teens, but is a suitable ending thematically and is likely to please as it is very heart-warming.

      This story would be particularly well-suited to 13-16 year olds (girls and boys). Although I found it a pleasant enough read, it is not a crossover book that adults are also likely to enjoy. This is certainly not a criticism of this book, which the majority of my class really enjoyed reading. Recommended.

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