Thursday, October 21, 2010

Tutored by Allison Whittenberg

Reading level: Young Adult
Hardcover: 192 pages
Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers (December 14, 2010)

Book summary: Wendy Anderson and Hakiam Powell are at opposite ends of the spectrum—the social spectrum, the financial spectrum, the opportunity spectrum, you name it. Wendy lives in an all-white suburb of Philadelphia, where she’s always felt like the only chip in the cookie. Her dad, who fought his way out of the ghetto, doesn’t want her mingling with “those people.” In fact, all Wendy’s life, her father has told her how terrible “those people” are. He even objects to Wendy’s plan to attend a historically black college. But Wendy feels that her race is more than just the color of her skin, and she takes a job tutoring at an inner-city community center to get a more diverse perspective on life.

Hakiam has never lived in one place for more than a couple of years. When he aged out of foster care in Ohio, he hopped a bus to Philly to start over, but now he’s broke, stuck taking care of his cousin’s premature baby for no pay, and finding it harder than ever to stay out of trouble. When he meets Wendy at the tutoring center, he thinks she’s an uppity snob—she can’t possibly understand his life. But as he gets to know her better, he sees a softer side. And eventually—much to the chagrin of Wendy’s father and Hakiam’s cousin—they begin a rocky, but ultimately enlightening, romance.

This edgy story about a star-crossed couple features strong African American characters and sparkles with smart, quirky dialogue and fresh observations on social pressures and black-on-black prejudice.

My review: Tutored is a quick, powerful read. Whittenberg may be sparse with her words but they're taut and hit home in this multi-layered story. There is the rich girl/poor boy/opposites attract layer and underneath we see once the social class stigma is removed, Wendy and Hakiam aren't really all that different. The story also offers rich and timely commentaries on the jaded views of older generations--based on their own similar upbringings, they desire to rise above their childhoods and aspire to better themselves and their kids. Then there is also the opposite view of some that since we live in America we're all entitled to whatever "the system" can give us. 

Wendy's dad grew up poor and made a life for himself, his now deceased wife and only child. Hakiam left Cincinnati and the foster care system to get away from a life of misery. He meets Wendy when he seeks a tutor and she's a volunteer at a local organization. From their initial meeting there's an attraction, even if they may not initially like each other. Over time they let go of their preconceived notions, talk, then go out for coffee.

All they have to do next is tell their families. Not so easy when Wendy's widower father already has her future mapped out for her, including which "types" of guys she should date and the colleges she should apply to. Hakaim isn't worried about dealing with his uncaring cousin but she is very quick to voice her own opinions about Wendy. 

Tutored is also about want and desire. By staying with a cousin determined to get what she can from "the system," Hakaim learns the life he's living isn't what he wants. While Wendy helps Hakaim figure out what he wants for the future, she is able to stand up to her own dad for what she wants. I found their story interesting, a bit dry at times, but involving. This novel reminded me of a contemporary version of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice and I enjoyed reading it. I found the dialog and situations realistic. The characters and issues Whittenberg covers in Tutored was refreshing and a needed change (at least for me) from the otherwise crowded array of mostly white characters in the contemporary YA market.

Rating: +++1/2

Favorite excerpt: From page 114, ARC, scene between Hakiam and his cousin, Leesa:

Hakiam held up his hand to halt her words.

Leesa kept right on talking. "I tell you why she's going out with you. She's curious. She justs wants to see how the other half lives. You're a science experiment to her."

Broiling, he let his cousin keep talking just to see where she would go. "Is that right?" he asked.

"Yeah, that's right. She's not interested in Malikia, and she sure as hell ain't interested in you."

"You know everything, Leesa."

She nodded and stuffed the check back into its envelope. "How could she be, Hakiam? You ain't her kind. You ain't going nowhere. You ain't about nothing. She can't take you around Mommy and Daddy. Beyond satifying her curiosity, you're worthless to her."

That was taking it too far. Hakiam wondered if Leesa realized the irony in what she was saying. She had said all this staring at him like he was a germ or something under a microscope, and she had room to criticize Wendy? Where did she get off?"

Cover comment: I found the cover dull and dark. Considering the serious commentaries and lessons learned in this story, the heart-shaped pages were too cute. Couldn't we see an inkling of Wendy and Hakiam on the cover? Or is that too much to ask considering some of the past controversies of book covers?

Book source: Around the World tours

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