Jumping Off Swings

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Jumping Off Swings
Jo Knowles
Candlewick Press
230 pages.

The age-old story of sexual exploration and its shifting allegiances and emotions comes alive through the voices of four 16-year-old friends who have known each other since childhood. There’s Ellie, who hopes to find love by going along with the boys who want to have sex with her. There’s Josh, who believes locker-room assurances that Ellie expects “no strings” – until he sees her face as he leaves her. There’s Caleb, whose unrequited crush on Ellie makes him furious with his buddy Josh for wounding her. And there’s Corinne, Ellie’s steadfast best friend who ultimately discovers love with Caleb.

Parents’ roles are crucial. Ellie’s mother expects her daughter to be as perfect as her own housekeeping. Josh’s mother works long hours at a nursing home to avoid his drunken dad. Caleb’s single mom Liz, an artist, helps Caleb understand his friends’ behavior. Corrine’s supportive family includes her older sister, who advises Corinne to tell guys “what you want and don’t want.”

Starting with the September party where Josh and Ellie hook up, the story chronicles the school year’s events from each perspective. Traumatized by Josh’s abandonment – her fourth – Ellie clings to Corinne. Josh is ashamed of boasting about his conquest, admitting to Caleb how terrible he feels about Ellie.

By December, Ellie knows she is pregnant with Josh’s baby – she had realized the condom had broken – but feels paralyzed by indecision. Corrine and Ellie find refuge and understanding at Caleb’s house as they get to know his mother Liz, but Ellie refuses to ask Liz for help. When Liz guesses and offers support, Ellie agrees to an appointment for an abortion, but leaves the clinic without going through with it. While trying to help their friends, Caleb and Corinne grow closer.

In March, everyone knows. The school counselor urges Ellie to be homeschooled until the baby is born, so she won’t give “the other girls any ideas.” Someone scratches “SLUT” on Ellie’s locker – which describes how Ellie feels. What’s the point of staying home with her weeping mother?

As they share a few beers, Caleb listens to Josh choke up about being a father, “but not a father.” When Josh gets home, his father says he’s heard Josh is in “trouble with a girl” and is glad she’s not involving Josh in having the child. Suddenly Josh realizes, “I’m the reason my mom married my father.”

In June, Ellie memorizes her son’s face as she holds him for the first and last time before she give him up for adoption. After dreaming of chasing the nurse to get him back, she wakes to accept her mother’s hand.

Josh says goodbye to a tiny boy in the hospital nursery, unsure if he’s the right baby. Caleb and Corinne exchange their first words of love.

Throughout the years, the swings in their small-town park bear silent witness: The day after the September party, Ellie rediscovers childish abandon, jumping off the swings and rolling around on the ground, giggling with Corinne. Later Caleb and Corinne share their first kiss on the swings. And it’s on the swings that Josh maintains a lonely midnight vigil as he waits to leave for senior year in another school.

In this pitch-perfect novel aimed at teenagers of 14 and older, Jo Knowles channels authentic young voices to expose our culture’s mixed messages about teen sexual activity. Acutely aware of the disconnect between their parents’ actions and admonitions, these young people seek approval from their peers in a complex web of relationships. Through risky behavior, the male code of sexual bravado and the female hunger for male validation are enacted. Without inner compasses guided by parents’ support, Ellie and Josh fumble. Yet their loss forges resiliency – and wakeup calls to their self-absorbed parents. Meanwhile Caleb, Corinne and Liz model how it’s supposed to be.

Knowles vividly conveys how each generation re-enacts its own version of the struggle to connect. Ellie – who is stronger than she knows – demonstrates why she’s among the 1 percent of teen mothers who can bear to give their babies up for adoption. By showing how and why teenagers take such risks, Knowles’ novel is more immediate than advice in self-help manuals. Teens vicariously experience these dilemmas by identifying with the characters. This American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults could spark illuminating intergenerational discussion. (800) 733-3000, www.candlewick.com.