1977. Elmira, New York: All Madeline wants to do is forget her life. She’d give anything to be like the popular cheerleaders at her high school. But she isn’t. She’s fat and homely. Her mother is a drunk. Music is the only thing that keeps her sane and food is the only thing that helps her forget how how empty she feels and how starved she is for just a little bit of affection. Living on Welfare, Madeline tries to keep her head down, hide her savings and look toward graduating and getting the hell away from her mother. At least until a counter boy at McDonald’s looks at her, really looks at her, the way no one, not even her own mother, ever has.
1993. Johnson City, New York: Desiree doesn’t really have plans for her future. She’ll probably graduate high school and then maybe she’ll move in with her boyfriend Jeremy. They can live next door to Carol Ann and Eric and everything will be chill. Beyond that the future is hazy. Except for one thing: Desiree knows she’ll be the best mom ever. She won’t be an asshole like her own mother. She won’t have a boyfriend like her mom’s who keeps leering at her and trying to get her alone. Des won’t let anything happen to her little girl. Not like what happened to her.
2009. Poughkeepsie, New York: Ariel is pretty ordinary. Good grades, lots of AP classes and getting ready for the college crunch in her senior year. Sure her dad is in prison for murder and her mom works really hard. But those aren’t things she talks about. Still, none of that matters because Shane didn’t notice any of the other, prettier, girls at school. He noticed her. And yes it’s a lot of work remembering to wear clothes he’ll like and make time for him and keep him happy. But he’s worth it, isn’t he? At least, Ariel thinks he is. When her mother announces a sudden trip to see the sick grandmother Ariel has never met things suddenly start to seem a lot different not just with Shane but with her whole family in Blue Plate Special (2009) by Michelle D. Kwasney.
Blue Plate Special alternates each chapter between the three narrators (Madeline, Desiree and Ariel). Each heroine has her own unique voice and the characters all really stand out as individual people. Madeline and Ariel have their own distinct style of narration while Desiree’s sections are written in verse. All of the girls’ stories are compelling and poignant. The entire book is very well-written and Kwasney is clearly a very talented writer with a bright future.
That said, Blue Plate Special was a very hard book to read. It was extremely depressing partly because these are characters with hard, painful lives but also because a lot of their tragedies cannot be undone and, by the time the story is being told, redemption might be too far off to grab. The air of desperation that hangs around all of the characters was also a little hard to take. Parts of the story felt heavy handed, especially in Ariel’s sections, but the whole book was hard to take because it was so sad which may have played a part there as well.
Blue Plate Special is a good, literary book. It’s well-written and has a strong plot with context, subtext, emotion and a lot of substance. It’s the kind of young adult book one might easily recommend to a person who looks down their nose at young adult literature for being somehow less than when compared to “adult” literature.
Possible Pairings: Sleepless by Cyn Balog, How to (un)Cage a Girl by Francesca Lia Block, The Secret Life of Prince Charming by Deb Caletti, How to Love by Katie Cotugno, Stealing Henry by Carolyn MacCullough, Confessions of the Sullivan Sisters by Natalie Standiford, Ariel by Sylvia Plath, The Mystery of Hollow Places by Rebecca Podos, Absolutely Maybe by Lisa Yee
Exclusive Bonus Content: Although it totally belies the crazy depressing story in some ways, I really like the cover design for this book because it speaks well to the upheaval and chaos so many of the characters experience. Amy E. Achaibou designed the jacket and it’s really quite clever. While the dust jacket shows a broken plate, the front of the actual book beneath the dust jacket (and the back flap beneath the author bio) show the plate intact. I could explain the elaborate metaphor this might be . . . but I won’t because catching that is part of the fun of reading this one.