June 16, 2012

Review: Keep Holding On

Book Cover By Susane Colasanti
Available now from Viking (Penguin)
Review copy

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.


  1. This sounds like a book that would drive me a bit nuts. I appreciate the overall message of bullying too, but everything you've pointed on are things that would drive me a bit much too. Maybe if Noelle changed in the book or she didn't complain AS much, it would be okay. But yeah, the whole free lunch thing is definitely nothing to be embarrased about...or not nearly as embarrasing as the food she has to bring.


    1. You might give it a try anyway. Most reviewers I've seen liked the book quite a bit.

  2. Liviania, these are really interesting (and thought-provoking) objections, particularly as they relate to material wealth and financial stability. It sounds like you might have accepted certain limitations of the character development if the reality of Noelle's situation had felt more authentic. I wonder if the author or her editor felt that readers needed more commonplace complaints from the mc (i.e. McDonald's food, etc.) in order to relate to her, that perhaps the readership wouldn't connect to her status? I don't know...just speculating.

    1. Some of my disconnect may come from the difference in our backgrounds. Noelle is poor in an extremely affluent area which probably affects her perception of the baseline. I grew up middle class in an area with a decent-sized population living below the poverty line and a minority of well-off kids. No one ever really felt shame about not having money for something.

      I think the McDonald's aspect felt like an adult concern rather than a teen one. There's a push back now against those restaurants to provide people with healthy options because that's what the kids need and haven't been getting. But that push isn't coming from the kids.

      I don't know. I admire Colasanti for writing about class issues and the difficulty of making ends meet on welfare and food stamps. It's tough for teens, who can maybe make a small change in their standard of living through a minimum wage job, but mostly have to rely on their parents to budget. Noelle didn't come across as authentic to me, but Colasanti based the book on her own experiences. She could be the character someone else needs to read about.

  3. Ummm yeah, I'm finding it very hard to feel sorry for Noelle. Even if she has self-esteem issues, she clearly has her priorities out of place. It just doesn't make sense that she would willingly suffer through a greater humiliation than simply accept the free food. From my understanding, schools try to make the process as humbling as possible by having the students who pay and those who get the free food, use the same type of card to swipe though the lunch line. And even if they didn't, she can't be the only person in the school who uses the services. Geez!

    I think I'll be skipping this one for now. I think it would make me too angry. LOL

    1. I did feel sorry for Noelle. No one deserves to be bullied for any reason. But I couldn't stand her blaming everyone else.

      (In the story, paying kids have blue cards and free lunch kids have orange. Which, not how it was at my school.)

  4. You bring up a really interesting point in this review. I hadn't thought about the issue of free lunches, but I know that if I was hungry enough that my stomach was growling like that, I would have subjected myself to just about anything in order to eat (then again, I am very food motivated...). I think you're right in that she has created part of that problem for herself.

    On another note, I had the hardest time finishing the book because Noelle was clearly and horribly depressed. Her thought patterns reminded me of some of my worst moments, and while I identified, I did not feel the 'hope' that was meant to shine through at the end of this book. The beginning and middle did too much to bring the reader DOWN and the ending, despite its conclusion, didn't do enough to find UP. That was my main thought.

    Anyway, awesome review!

    1. Good point about the depression. I'm not sure that the ending doesn't find enough up, just that it's very abrupt. Things change for the better quite suddenly. There is a catalyst, but it's not entirely convincing.


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