Friday, July 26, 2013

Thousand Words by Jennifer Brown

In Thousand Words, well known author, Jennifer Brown, takes on the controversial subject of sexting.The novel opens in the present, with seventeen year old Ashleigh Maynard relating her current situation of doing 60 hours of community work, while telling in flashbacks, how she came to send her older boyfriend a picture of herself and what happened after.

The story of how this happened opens with Ashleigh going to her best friend, Vonnie's, annual end-of-summer party. For the past year Ashleigh has been dating a senior, Kaleb Coats. Their relationship has not been a sexual one but has consisted mainly of talking, doing things together with friends. But this summer, Kaleb and his friends last one together, he has been preoccupied with hanging out with his friends, playing baseball. Kaleb tells Ashleigh they will be together forever, but Ashleigh wonders how their relationship can continue once Kaleb is in college. How will Kaleb view Ashleigh after being with college girls?

When Vonnie pressures Ashleigh about Kaylebs in her life, another friend, Rachel suggests she send Kaleb a nude picture of herself. Feeling insecure about her place in their relationship and worried that she will lose Kaleb once he goes to college, Ashleigh decides to do it. At first there appear to be no repercussions. Kaleb goes off to college and becomes involved in life on campus, while Ashleigh returns to high school as an upperclassman. Although Ashleigh accepts Kayleb decision to break up with her, her friends think he's wronged her and set out to even the score. But it doesn't end there because Kaleb decides to share Ashleigh's picture, bringing humiliation, chaos, and a crisis of astronomical proportions into both their lives.

Thousand Words is a very timely novel considering the recent incidents in both the United States and Canada involving teens who sexted, then were bullied and eventually driven to commit suicide. The title takes its name from the adage, "A picture is a thousand words."  Brown deftly creates the situation that leads Ashleigh to sext her boyfriend and then shows her readers the consequences of this act. Ashleigh is suspended, kicked off the cross country team and is charged with creating and sharing child pornography. Her actions not only affect her and Kaleb, but the many students in the school who receive and pass along the image. Even her parents are affected as her father almost loses his job and her mother who works with children at a preschool, see her business affected.

The characters in Thousand Words. are for the most part, believable. Ashleigh is a typical teenager - immature and unaware of the consequences that follow risky behaviour. Infatuated with her first boyfriend, she wants to please him but is insecure in the relationship. As teenagers are apt to not do, she doesn't think through the consequences of sending a nude picture of herself to Kaleb. Of course a big part of the problem is that she is drunk when she makes her decision to take the picture. Ashleigh trusts him to keep the picture private, never dreaming he might someday use it to hurt her. Like many young women who have their first boyfriend in high school, Ashleigh believes that she and Kaleb will be together forever. Naively she believes Kaleb when he tells her this but doesn't pick up on how his actions demonstrate otherwise. She is shocked and deeply hurt when he breaks up with her but humiliated, angered and feeling betrayed when he shares the picture.
"I'd never have us back, not the way we used to be. It wouldn't be possible after everything that had happened. I wanted to have that innocence back -- the kind of innocence where I would never believe that a boy I loved would hurt me."

Ashleigh grows throughout the story. At first she can see only the wrong done to her by Kaleb, but eventually she begins to accept that many people were responsible for what happened including herself. She takes responsibility for what she has done and decides that she will no longer be a victim, but will try to move on in her life.

Kaleb too is quite immature and a very typical teenager, but he seems much different from Ashleigh. He recognizes that his actions have harmed people, but mostly he seems self-centered and concerned about trying to mitigate the consequences, which are more severe for him. In this regard, Ashleigh finds she cannot accept his apology because she feels it was insincere.

Mack is the true hero of the story because even though he has suffered tremendous loss in his young life, he is not wrapped up in himself and he doesn't judge Ashleigh for what she's done. His quiet, steady ways allow Ashleigh to reach out and befriend him. The fact that he didn't look at her picture gives her hope. And allows her to begin to heal.  He listens to her story and helps her realize that no matter how Kaleb apologizes that won't change a thing. Mack is most responsible for Ashleigh taking the long road towards healing.

This was a reasonably good effort at tackling a difficult subject but sometimes the characters lacked the intensity required for certain situations. Ashleigh's experiences in school post-sexting seemed quite tame and her parents response when they learned of her involvement in the sexting incident were surprisingly subdued.

Nevertheless, Jennifer Brown has a knack for taking a difficult issue and showing a bit of both sides. This allows her readers to think critically about the issue. Thousand Words is a well-written novel that does just that. There's a short Author's Note at the back of the novel, along with the transcript of an interview with Jennifer Brown.

Book Details:
Thousand Words by Jennifer Brown
 New York:  Little, Brown and Company     2013
276 pp.

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