BookDragon Books for the Diverse Reader

Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger

Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger on BookDragonThese days, too many young folks know little of life before smart phones enabled virtual instant access. Last century – in the 1990s, that is – something called ‘zines’ gave voice to angry young voices … albeit writing, designing, and actually printing these self-productions took much longer and required considerably more effort than the immediate gratification of today’s blogs, vlogs, updates, snap chats, instagrams, and the like.

Way back then, high school junior John Galardi expresses the anger and frustration he can’t show at home or school into a zine filled with the misunderstandings he faces daily as the only child of dysfunctional divorced parents. His weekends are supposed to be spent with a father who can barely get through a Friday night pizza with him. His mother is still reeling from abandonment, even as she’s about to marry someone else; in the five years she lost her husband, she’s been unable to even touch her only child.

For everything he can’t say, John creates Bananafish – a nod to his “Bible,” J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories in which “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” exposes the hypocrisy of adults. Someday, John hopes his “homemade and weird” efforts can be more like Escape Velocity, the zine of his dreams, written by a 17-year-old self-described “Puerto Rican Cuban Yankee lesbian.” By the time he tracks down Marisol at the Boston Tower Records (blast from the past for us oldsters!) where she drops her latest installments, he’s already becoming someone else; he introduces himself as Giovanni, never mind his Italian roots are six generations removed. Theirs is a fraught but quickly bonded friendship, made fragile for all the lies they tell each other – and to their own selves. As their relationship reaches breaking point, both will learn lessons about hard love … of all kinds, between parents, parents and children, friends, impossible lovers, and lovers-to-be.

Ellen Wittlinger’s author website lists almost two dozen awards and honors for Hard Love, including a 1999 Lamda Literary Award and 2000 Michael L. Printz Honor. That plethora of recognition is surely well-deserved. While the techno-details (or lack thereof) might initially make Love seem dated for today’s 21st-century, plugged-in audience, reading onward will be worth every head-scratching effort. Emotions – especially the hormonally-overcharged variety – remain timeless.

For added urgency and immediacy, you might choose to go aural; narrator Mark Webber has just the right angry young man intonations to give voice to Gio’s angst-filled, frightened but arrogant, teenage soul. Carefully, authentically, Wittlinger manages to balance desperation with hope, resentment with communication, and heartbreak with options. Hard love was never about easy answers, anyway.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 1999


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