The summer before school starts, Sam's friend and classmate Morgan Mallen kills herself. Morgan had been bullied. Maybe she kissed the wrong boy. Or said the wrong thing. What about that selfie that made the rounds? Morgan was this, and Morgan was that. But who really knows what happened? As Sam explores the events leading up to the tragedy in journal format, he must face a difficult and life-changing question: Why did he keep his friendship with Morgan a secret? And could he have done something-anything-to prevent her final actions? From James Preller, the author of Bystander, another unflinching book about bullying and its fallout.
* Read for the 2017 Anti-Bully Readathon week: November 13th-19th
>> TRIGGER WARNING: Topic of suicide addressed in this story. One character commits suicide while others contemplate going through with it.
Morgan Mallen is something of a social pariah in her high school. Athena Luikin, your stereotypical popular HS girl (perfect body, lips, face, flawless skin... and, no surprise, blonde), has a secret game with her clique. Every so often, without warning, someone within the clique gets a laminated "tag" card slipped into their locker. If you get the card you know it's your turn to go online and anonymously post mean, troll-ish comments on Morgan's social media. There's an understanding within the group that either you do it or risk being the group's next target.
One member within the group is Sam Proctor. While he agrees to play the game and post comments, his turn up at bat happens to come at right about the same time as life puts him and Morgan together in real life in a situation that forces them to truly get to know one another. And whaddya know, Sam discovers he kinda likes the girl! Awkwardly, Sam tries to play both sides of the HS social scene, still participating in online bullying with his friends, while also having conversations with Morgan about how despicable internet trolls are.
Members within the clique get competitive about how creative they can get with their online insults. To them, it's just a game of one-upmanship. That is, until the day Morgan decides to throw herself off the town's water tower. Having just barely developed a friendship with Morgan, Sam is understandably shaken. A social worker contracted with the high school suggests to Sam to journal his thoughts and emotions through the grieving process, which is the format (journal style, that is) that the entire novel is presented to the reader.
Don't get the idea this journal will be some kind of complete document where you learn "her story" or even "my story". There are holes in this leaky ship. We could all drown together.
Written sometimes in standard diary entries, sometimes in verse form, Sam shares some pretty honest, revealing observations about not only getting to know Morgan but also the topic of bullying and poser behavior in high school in general. When he thinks back on the first few times he saw Morgan, his initial memory was that she wasn't super pretty and maybe even a little on the heavy side, but the more he remembers the more he realizes his eyes were always drawn to her, how he was always intrigued by her in various ways... and what a waste it was that he wasn't a better friend to someone so special. When he compares a girl like Morgan to the likes of popular girl Athena, he comes away with the realization, "maybe everyone gives 'pretty' too much credit."
...And that was it. The last time we talked. It's amazing how little we ever said, as if we didn't know the same language. She was a bird up in a tree, singing a mournful song. And I was just a dog, barking at the clouds.
Sam also notes how sickened he is by what he sees as fake grief going around the school. Crowds of people who either never gave Morgan the time of day or made her life hell with bullying, yet now that she's gone everyone is falling all over each other in puddles of tears like a family member just got murdered. I also enjoyed the chapter "Slogans on Shirts" which shines a spotlight on the hypocrisy that can sometimes be found behind these school campaigns -- the very people that cheer the loudest at anti-bullying campaigns / rallies can sometimes be the same people who are the worst problems!
Not only is Preller's writing style itself incredibly engaging, but he addresses this theme in an honest, unvarnished way. No after-school high gloss on this story, but also not unnecessarily vulgar. He manages to do it just right. The students all had an appreciable realness to them and Sam asks himself plenty of the right questions for emotional growth.
I'm all for checking out more of Preller's work in the future!
* Book includes supplemental materials at the back of the book which include author interview, a list of discussion questions, and prompts for writing exercises.