the best friends you’ll never have

Confession time: I have always wanted to read Slam Book. It has an intriguing title. What is even more intriguing is that it is missing from Ann’s Wikipedia page. Having now read the book, it’s really not surprising that this is a book Ann would rather you forget she wrote. While it is now available as an official ebook, it is definitely not a book I can see getting a rerelease from Scholastic. The overall message of the book is very out of step with contemporary attitudes toward bullying.

At the center of the book is, of course, the titular Slam Book. Anna is introduced to them by her cousin, and decides that, as a freshman seeking popularity, it is her ticket to achieving that goal. So she begins one, and she and her friends–Paige, the troubled rich girl whose parents are never around; Randy, her black friend who is feeling confused after a stint in Chicago because everything is okay when you’re the only black kid in an all-white town apparently; and Jessie, who has a drug-addicted brother and parents who fight all the time–start a Slam Book.

Obviously, this does not end well at all. It ends even far darker than you would imagine from a book by Ann. There is this whole thing where Paige uses the slam book to get her crush to break up with his girlfriend, but Gooz (that is his name, not even joking) likes Anna instead, and they start going out. Obviously, Anna and Paige stop being friends at this point, and Anna decides to make Paige’s life miserable by using the slam book to make Cheryl Sutphin, an unpopular and poor girl in their grade, think that Paige wants to be her friend. Cheryl Sutphin’s life is just sad all around, and she kills herself. Paige spirals into alcohol use, and calls Anna to tell her that she is drunk and has taken half a bottle of Valium in a suicide attempt.

My issue with the book, though, isn’t even that it is so dramatic. It may be the worst possible outcome for a slam book incident, but it does happen. What bothered me about the book was mainly Anna’s parents. Their reaction to their daughter having an instrumental role in two suicide attempts, one successful, is this:

Anna dissolved into tears again, but quite unexpectedly her mother took her firmly by the shoulders and shook her once to get her attention. “I want you to understand something, young lady,” she said. “What you did was wrong. It was unforgivable. But you did not kill Cheryl, and you did not force Paige to swallow vodka and Valium this afternoon. Both of those girls were very troubled to begin with, or they wouldn’t have reacted the way they did. Do you really think that if you had pulled the dating trick on Randy, that she would have slit her wrists?”

Now, in a way, this is true. Most people would not kill themselves over something like that. But this fact does not absolve Anna of guilt and blame. I don’t even know what you would say to your teenage kid, though, whose actions have such consequences. What do you do when your kid is basically Rhoda from The Bad Seed?

Apparently, it’s make some vague noises about making her see a counselor, because they would be an “unbiased” adult.

Paige freaks out when Cheryl kills herself and goes into a downward spiral and also attempts suicide. This is an understandable, human response to having played a role in such a tragic event. And this is how Anna comforts her when she goes to visit Paige in the hospital:

“Look,” Anna said finally. “I came over here to tell you what happened. I wanted you to know about Cheryl, and I don’t think either of us is to blame. I shouldn’t have played the joke on her, and you shouldn’t have yelled at her, but we didn’t kill her. I’ve played jokes on plenty of people who haven’t committed suicide, and I bet you’ve yelled at plenty of people who haven’t committed suicide.”

So the lesson here, for Anna, seems to be, you know, don’t play mean awful jokes on people and yell at them unless they can take it and won’t commit suicide. It’s hard to know what we’re supposed to get out of this book. Can we take it as the early years of a boy-and-popularity-obsessed sociopath? Should we read it as a treatise on how to raise a terrible child? Or did Ann believe the things she wrote above, that Anna isn’t a terrible person who should shoulder the blame for Cheryl’s suicide? The way Anna used Cheryl as a pawn in her game was actually confusing to me as I was reading it, because she is just so heartless. I didn’t even understand at first that the whole thing was to humiliate Paige. Like, I thought she was writing in the slam book that a boy liked Cheryl in a misguided attempt to raise Cheryl’s self-esteem, like Stacey’s fake letters to Claudia that she wrote pretending to be a Jason Priestley lookalike in Claudia and the Perfect Boy. It was as if she had no idea that Cheryl was a person with feelings that would end up hurt at the end of all this.

This book also got me thinking about how this would work in today’s society, and how the Internet and social media seems to be just one giant slam book. People can write things on instagram and and wherever (apparently Facebook isn’t cool among teens), and it works in much the same way. Here’s a recent article on a slam book-type app. Also, what makes it all worse is that with the ubiquity of it all and with constant connection to one another via cell phones, home is not an escape–you can always be reached.

I actually wish this book ended up with some kind of moral. Anna ends up with the guy she likes and writes for the school newspaper and has “calmed down.” Her older sister has a baby and names it Anna, and Anna daydreams about introducing her to books like Charlotte’s Web and Doctor Doolittle, because slam books are a Pandora’s box and those books are safe. Okay. It also helps when you’re not a terrible person.

Random thoughts:

  • Jessie’s brother alludes to smoking crack. I believe this is the first, and only, mention of “crack” in Ann’s work. From his actions, though, he seems more like he’s on speed or meth.
  • Anna’s mother warns them to stay out of the arcade, but in the world of this book, video games are so passé.
  • Once again, freshmen are lipsticked on the first day of school (you know, like in Dawn, Diary One where the upperclassmen write an “8″ in lipstick on people’s foreheads). I guess this happened at Ann’s school.
  • The school hottie’s name is Griswald Drumfield, aka “Gooz”. Worst name for a crush object in all of YA y/n? It sounds like a name spammers use.
  • Lanz nightgown alert! I don’t know what Ann’s obsession with these things is.
  • Ann uses her accent/dialetic transcription skills in this book for drunk speak.
  • Cheryl Sutphin is made fun of for buying her clothes at the Salvation Army. When I was in high school, this was a cool thing to do, but perhaps it’s only cool if it’s not out of necessity. Like, Cheryl would rather wear an altered old housecoat of her deceased mother than something from a thrift store it’s so verboten in this town.
  • Gooz and Anna have to do a history report together, and Anna rejects doing it on concentration camps because that’s too cliché. Without reading the rest of the book, I think this tells you everything you need to know about Anna.
  • She is also shocked that Jessie has been melancholy ever since her mother deserted the family.
  • There is a Marx Brothers festival at the library, which I believe also happened in a BSC book.
  • There is a group called PT and the Uptown Boys, and they have released a five-record album.
  • Sign this book is old: when Anna and her parents go to the hospital to see Paige and ask for her at the desk, the woman on duty says, “Oh, the overdose.” No HIPAA laws!
  • This book has basically everything except sexual assault/violence: divorce, alcoholism, drug addiction, race issues, class issues, bullying, suicide… Ann really packed it all in.

    External links:
    Kirkus Reviews from October 15th, 1987
    Are You There, Youth? It’s Me, Nikki‘s review
    Why the BSC Never Made It to High School: A Recap of Slam Book on BSC Snark by alula_auburn

    Next week is Just a Summer Romance. I have read a snark of it, so I know it’s terrible, but in a way that does not involve anyone dying, so I am looking forward to it.

  • 2 Responses To This Post

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    Elizabeth said, May 22nd, 2014 at 9:12 pm

    I’ve read this book twice, both times in the last three years, and am never sure how I feel about it/the ending/the lack of a lesson. I think I would have been offended as a kid if an adult told me that books should end with the morally correct lesson — some books are fun when they are just a story. But NO lesson is different from a BAD lesson, which (I think) is what we have here. “Just don’t read about/try/experience these things and everything will be fine” seems like a really ostrichy thing for Anna or anyone to learn from this experience. I wonder how I would have reacted to this book if I had read it as a kid (as an adult, I feel about it the same way I feel about Kristy and the Copycat).

    The exclusion of Slam Book on AMM’s Wikipedia page might be my fault, since I reorganized most of her bibliography a while ago, but I don’t think it was intentional. It may have just been that I was looking through the old “about the authors” and that was one they stopped mentioning early on.

    greer said, May 23rd, 2014 at 9:01 am

    @Elizabeth: I definitely remember reading about Slam Book in her about the author, but I don’t have my books here to check when they stopped. I did look at her about the author in the most recent Family Tree, and the only earlyish non-BSC book they mention is 10 Kids, No Pets–and the BSC is called “generation-defining.” I’m pretty sure Scholastic rereleased 10 Kids, No Pets last year, so that’s probably why it’s the only one that made it in there.

    Yeah, I definitely don’t think every kids’ book should end with a moral, but a book that ends with two suicides should definitely have something a little more substantial than “people kill themselves because they already had something wrong with them, not because you’re a crappy person and everything will be OK if you just stick to Dr. Doolittle and Charlotte’s Web.”

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