Expanding “The Usual”

Everyone who finished the 2012 Best of the Best Reading Challenge by reading 25 titles from the 2012 Best of the Best list was invited to create a reader response to one of the books they read. This is one of those responses.

I often tell my students they need to reach outside of their comfort zones, whether we are talking about how they approach their homework, taking part in a travel program, or choosing a book. I revel in the devout fantasy reader who looks at me askance when I hand him a Sarah Vowell book with the challenge, “Trust me.” By taking on the Best of the Best challenge, I realized that I do not often practice what I preach when it comes to my own reading. Even the girl at the circ desk at my public library realized it, double-checking one day that she had the right books on hold for me because, “these aren’t your usual books.”

One that really got me was Here Lies Bridget. It was at the top of my list because other participants had written good things about it. When I saw Harlequin Teen as the publisher on the back of the book, I rolled my eyes. I don’t read “Harlequin”-type books (yes, I’m a book snob). But I was close to the end of the challenge and a book in hand is better than one on hold, so I went home and started reading.

This is why you step outside of your comfort zone. Paige Harbison’s story about Bridget Duke, a Queen Bee Mean Girl who is made to stand in the shoes of those around her, charmed my socks off. Bridget definitely stands as one of the more horrible, rhymes-with-witchy characters I’ve come across lately. At times her antics seemed irredeemably, over-the-top nasty. But Harbison gives her a thoughtful comeuppance, requiring Bridget to experience the aftermath of her exploits.

This isn’t a wildly original story. I’ve seen a version of it on screen as Defending Your Life. I read it last year as Before I Fall. But Harbison won me over. While I do not subscribe to the idea that YA fiction is too dark, I do personally sometimes tire of dystopias and general dark themes. There is a lightness at the heart of Bridget. Her story ends well, if not entirely happily, and she gets there through reflection and empathy, not simply a forced change of heart.

Like Bridget, this challenge gave me a chance to reflect on my choices, or lack thereof, in reading. Next time a student wrinkles his nose at a book I’m offering, I can at least back up my insistence that he try something new. Sometimes you can surprise yourself with what you like.

— Amy Gillespie, currently listening to Zombies vs. Unicorns and reading Wild by Cheryl Strayed