When I was a kid, the word “bully” wasn’t given the weight it is today. “Boys will be boys” was more the phrase of the hour – I heard it more than once from well-meaning teachers and defensive parents, even after I was assaulted by a group of classmates in junior high. To borrow a phrase from Dan Savage, it got better for me. Still hurts to remember.Keep Holding On is Susane Colasanti’s sixth contemporary YA novel, and her most serious. Through the eyes of high school junior Noelle, Colasanti observes the raw pain of being excluded and the constant state of fear experienced by so many who don’t quite fit the mold. For some, life will improve. For others, life becomes too much. Keep Holding On captures the life of a victim so exquisitely that it was often difficult for me to read. It’s the only Colasanti book I probably won’t revisit – but I can only hope it reaches the ones who need it most.
Noelle is counting the days until summer. Trapped in a countrified suburb, she’s severely neglected by her bitter mother and tormented by classmates because of her lower socioeconomic status. She’s not the only outcast but worries that reaching out to others will make her even more of a target. Noelle’s best friend, Sherae, is wealthy, generous and kind – but Sherae’s dealing with issues of her own. And meanwhile, Noelle’s pseudo-boyfriend, Matt, refuses to go public with their relationship, confident and unique Simon is pressuring her to get more involved in the school literary magazine, and sweet Julian keeps hanging around, even though Noelle insists she’s not good enough for him.
If this sounds like an after-school special, trust me, it’s not. Colasanti’s depictions of bullying are vivid and brutal, particularly one scene in which Noelle’s morning walk to school goes horribly awry. My days as a bully victim are long over, but certain chapters brought back that constant low-level dread, when making it to three o’clock without incident was a major accomplishment. Noelle’s journey toward self-confidence is a slow one, but that’s real, too. And there’s no big anti-bullying assembly or group hug at the end.
I met Colasanti last year at a book signing (I was the oldest person there who didn’t have a child). I’d interviewed her and reviewed her books, and we’d corresponded by email. Still, I wasn’t expecting her to see me, go “You’re Lauren, aren’t you? Hi!” and envelop me in a hug. Keep Holding On represents everything Colasanti’s got: years of teaching experience in the New York City public school system and a past as a neglected victim herself, wrapped up in a warm, authentic voice. She knows it gets better. I know it gets better. Out there are scores of kids who need to hear it gets better – and hopefully, they’ll find their way to Keep Holding On.