Book Review: ‘Freak’
EAGLE COUNTY, COLORADO Middle school is definitely in the running for a place in the top three most traumatic experiences in life. As if it werent bad enough that you were expected to do more work, you also had to deal with the major implications of puberty, the forming of new cliques and the utterly baffling overnight identity changes. Mash these up and all of a sudden you land back in the acne-scarred, humiliation imbued, parallel universe that Miriam Fisher and most everyone knew as seventh grade.
In poet/teacher Marcella Pixleys first novel Freak, the pains and joys of middle school fly off the pages, giving swift kicks (and occasionally kisses) to the reader, inviting them to remember just what it was like to feel different, and to think you were the only one who was. Pixley takes time to introduce Miriam, the poetry-writing, self-conscious protagonist affectionately known as Shakespeare to the few people she lets close enough to know her. It is this build-up which allows for the reader to immediately be taken with how lifelike and reminiscent she is of either ourselves as pre-teens or someone we knew. This can clearly be credited to Pixleys having taught middle school English for the past 11 years, which has given her a daily window into the actions (and the thought-processes) of middle schoolers. Miriam Fisher is, in many ways, every person. She doesnt like her looks and constantly measures herself up against those around her. She doesnt understand why people around her change, while she herself changes all the time. She is just plain old confused and has a really hard time dealing with it. Miriams problems are also very recognizable and it takes very little to empathize with her. Having fallen in love with an older boy (who reads Chilean poetry, nonetheless), she struggles to accept that hes unattainable. She also struggles with the loss of her best friend to popularity and faces relentless harassment at the hands of those students who are more popular than she is. While far from being obvious, Pixley does fall into some common traps, reminding readers of some recent classics (most notably Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson and Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli) and although it would be a misnomer to imply she has lifted ideas from those (and others), their influence is undeniable. Being compared style-wise to some of the greats only means that Pixley is on the right path. What is most impressive about Freak, though, is what is different. The infusion of poetry as a means to express feeling, rather than just through writing is a strength of Pixleys. In addition, there is a solid attempt to let the reader know that whether you are popular or a freak, we are all struggling with something we just react differently. Pixley is going to have to take a page out of Miriams life, though. She needs to find her own way, find her own Clyde, find her own unique and wonderful voice. Lets just hope it wont be another 10 years of teaching middle schoolers before she lets that voice out. Andrew Fersch writes weekly book reviews for the Vail Daily. E-mail comments about this review to firstname.lastname@example.org. This book is available for purchase at the Bookworm in Edwards.
By Lilli SammanDaily Correspondent Vail Daily: How does it feel to be a published author?Marcella Pixley: It feels wonderful. This is something I have wanted since I was in middle school. In fact, I remember having a heart-to-heart with my eighth grade English teacher, telling him that all I really wanted was to become a real writer and publish a book one day. I remember asking him if he thought it would ever happen. He said you are talented enough — and if you keep trying it will happen. I recently got in touch with that teacher to thank him. Maybe I wouldnt have tried so hard if he had not given me that advice. I feel lucky and humble and very, very happy. VD: How long did it take you to write this book?MP: You had to ask that question!! Too long. Too many years. I kept getting bad advice from editors which I almost always took thats how badly I wanted to get published. But finally, I met my agent Sally Brady and my editor Melanie Kroupa and they both helped me to comb through all the tangles made by those editors and uncover the heart of the story that was still beating underneath. All in all, between all of the revisions and revisions, it took about 10 years. VD: What was your writing process like?MP: I have a pretty peculiar writing style. First of all, I always write very late at night or very early in the morning. I can only write when it is silent in the house, and there are no noises of speaking or movement. I want to be able to hear the voices of my characters. So I sit at my computer in my little office and I speak out the words I want to write. I write three or four sentences and then I say them out loud several times to see if they sound right, to see if they ring the right way in the room. If they ring, I move on. If they fall flat, I go back tinker with the sounds, the rhythms, the words until I know Ive got it right. So my process is pretty slow, but I think the musicality of the book the poetry is there because of this method of speaking out loud. VD: Are there any specific moments in the book that are based on your life?MP: I was Miriam in many ways. I was awkward, self-conscious, and brainy. I wrote endless poetry. I was intense and judgmental. I was hurt easily. The relationship between Miriam and her tormentor Jenny was a relationship that I experienced in 7th grade. The girl who tormented me knew how to make me feel worthless and she knew how to make every classroom into a space that did not feel safe for me. Much of what Jenny says to Miriam, my tormentor said to me. While Miriams troubles are somewhat more intense than mine were, the emotions are all mine. VD: Can you relate to any of the characters?MP: I can relate to all of them. I have been all of them at one time or another. And my hope is that the reader can relate to all of them as well. Havent we all felt like the outsider? Havent we all been cruel? I want my readers to realize that it is part of the human experience to feel like a freak. I always want them to see that all human beings have the ability to be hurtful and vicious. I hope this book sensitizes people so that they can feel empathy for each other. VD: Are you planning a sequel?MP: Do you think I should? Right now, I feel like moving on. I have been living with Miriams story for a long time. Now I want to create a new voice and explore some new issues. So at the moment I would say no. There will be a second book, but probably not another book about Miriam. VD: What would you tell kids who are having the same problems? Is there a certain message? MP: If it was a student in one of my classes, my message would be dont keep it to yourself. Miriam is so alone in her pain. There are no adults that understand what she is going through. Her teachers and parents are clueless about how difficult social issues have become for her. I would hope that if there was a kid in one of my classes that was experiencing bullying or social isolation, they would feel an invitation to come and talk to a person who understands what it feels like.
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