Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Peeled: Getting to the Core of the Truth

Peeled by Joan Bauer
3.5Q, 3P; Audience: J/S

Banesville, NY has a problem. But not everyone agrees on what that problem is. Some people think it's the hard economic times the town is going through after two bad harvests in a row. Some people think it's the strange things happening in and around the old Ludlow mansion. And some people think it's the way the town newspaper, The Bee, is using those events to create a climate of fear and unease in the community. Hildy Biddle is in the latter camp.

Hildy is a reporter for the school newspaper, The Core, and she and her fellow reporters are disgusted by The Bee. A newspaper is supposed to be about facts, not about fear-mongering. But the Bee seems fixed on the latter rather than the former. Someone is posting signs saying things like "Danger to all ye who enter" and "You Didn't Think It Was Safe, Did You ?" on the old Ludlow House property. Instead of trying to get to the bottom of who is posting them and why, The Bee is writing about ghosts, haunted houses, and how they're making property values decline. When the body of a man is found in a grove of trees on the Ludlow property, the Bee proclaims it a murder, though the police have refused to comment or confirm that. By the time the truth comes out, fear has gripped the community. People are afraid to leave their homes at night, they're looking over their shoulders during the day, and some are even talking about moving out of town.

Hildy's only in high school, and she has better journalism skills than the Bee's reporters. Where are their facts? Who are their sources? Why aren't they investigating and finding out what's really going on? Well, if they won't do it, then she and the other Core reporters will have to. With the acerbic help of Baker Polton, a former reporter and managing editor of a respected newspaper, they go after the story. They get the facts, and they report them. People begin to listen. There's definitely more going on in Banesville than meets the eye. But some adults don't take kindly to the idea of teens showing them up. The principal shuts The Core down, saying the school system can't afford the lawsuits The Bee and others are threatening. Hildy is incensed and discouraged. What happened to freedom of the press? But what can they do? They're only teens. They have no power. Or do they? Maybe a school-run paper isn't the only way to get the real story out there.

Joan Bauer is noted for her strong female characters and her ability to write with humor about serious subjects. This book is no different in that regard. While many books for teens focus on the main character's social life, Bauer's main characters usually have their eyes on the wider world as well. Hildy is certainly interested in her friends and boys, but they have to ride shotgun while she focuses on protecting the First Amendment and ensuring that the citizens of Banesville get the truth, not manipulated. Hildy won't be fobbed off with a glib answer. An equally strong aspect of Bauer's writing is her ability to create dynamic, believable relationships between characters. In particular, scenes with Baker Polton crackle with energy. Her scenes with her cousin are much lower key, but the affection and understanding between them, despite their very different personalities, is clear in every one of them. The growth of her relationship with Zach is sweetly delineated, and Minska is every bit as inspiring to the reader as she is to Hildy.

So, with all of those positives, why am not giving this book a glowing review? As good as Bauer is in creating three dimensional main characters, others are far less believable, having little or no shading. And in a realistic fiction book, is it realistic that only a handful of teens and senior citizens are suspicious and willing to look beyond the surface, while most of the rest of the population is so easily frightened by tales of ghostly sightings and sensationalistic reporting? I found it hard to swallow that most of the adult population in town is so gullible and/or quick to cave in to bullying behavior, and I think teen readers will be equally skeptical. There's a fine line between making teens the heroes of a story and making them superheroes, and I think this time Bauer stepped a bit over that line. Hope Was Here did a better job finding the balance point, showing teens playing a very important role in galvanizing a community without making it seem as though they were pretty much the only ones aware that it needed galvanizing in the first place. I think a few more Bakers and Minskas were needed in this one, for believability's sake.

(This post was begun a month ago and finished today. If it gets buried beneath my more recently written posts, that's why.)

No comments:

Post a Comment

Agree? Disagree? Something you'd like to say in response? Feedback is welcome! Just keep it on topic, please. And if you found one of my booktalks and used it, I'd love to know how it worked for you.