By Susane Colasanti
Available now from Viking (Penguin)
The core of KEEP HOLDING ON on is solid. Noelle is being bullied because she eats and wears the wrong things because she's poor. She needs an adult to get involved or to find a way to stand up herself to stop the bullies. Reading about the bullying is pretty brutal and you can tell why Noelle is reluctant to trust people.
Meanwhile, the only thing she really enjoys is making out with Matt and hanging with her best friend Sherae. But Matt keeps her secret and Sherae has her own boy problems. (I feel like Sherae's issue, which is serious, gets glossed over in favor of Noelle's issues. KEEP HOLDING ON is a very short book that could've been much bigger to cover its ambitions.)
The central romance isn't really there. Noelle starts the book crushing on Julian, and he's clearly into her, but she thinks she isn't good enough for him. That's basically it for their interaction until Noelle is ready to give Julian a chance. The romance is a way to keep track of Noelle's character growth rather than a plot in its own right.
But my biggest problem with the book is Noelle herself. "I qualify for free lunch, but there's no way I'd subject myself to that kind of humiliation[,]" she says (4, ARC). But people make fun of her anyway, for eating things like a lettuce sandwich or a mayo and mustard sandwich that clearly indicate she has nothing else to bring. "I try to hide my sad sandwich under the table. That just makes them laugh harder (5)." If she's already humiliated by her lunches, then the free lunch isn't a big deal.
But it's one of the repeated complaints she makes about and to her mother. "Do you realize I have to make mayonnaise and mustard sandwiches for lunch? Do you have any idea how humiliating that is? (159)" No, she doesn't have to eat that for lunch. Her mother doesn't buy lunch stuff because she gets free lunch. Not to mention the federal free lunch program includes breakfast. Noelle could be eating two good meals a day. And the stuff she complains about at home - spaghetti with prepackaged garlic bread, McDonald's, hot dogs and frozen fries - are the same things many people without much money eat. Yes, it's low in fruits and vegetables, but it's what's cheap and easy to put on the table after working all day. Poor people tend to be bigger because the food they have access to has poor nutrition.
Perhaps this really annoyed me because I attended a school far less affluent than Noelle's. For many of my friends, the free breakfast and lunch was their food for the day. If they got hungry at night, they'd have to do something like heat up a can of tomato sauce. But Noelle has actual meals in front of her and acts like its a huge imposition to eat prepackaged garlic bread.
I could maybe ignore this, but Noelle also annoys me because she acts hypocritically. Noelle's other big complaint is that no one ever steps in to stop the bullying. She's been isolated from her peers and understands that that is one of the bullies' most powerful weapons. Yet, Noelle repeatedly sees her friend Ali bullied and not only doesn't step in, she rebuffs Ali's gestures of further friendship to avoid being tainted by association.
I don't expect a high school character to be perfect, especially not one who has had her self-esteem beaten down. But Noelle's constant complaints, when she was manufacturing one of her biggest problems, were kind of hard to take. I was happy that things got better for her, but I was also happy the book was over so that I could get out of her head. Noelle might not grate on someone else the way she did me. And, as I said at the beginning, the central message of KEEP HOLDING ON is solid. I think teens struggling with being bullied will connect with the story.