Messed Up by Janet Nichols Lynch
Reading Level: Ages 12 and up
Release Date: March 1, 2009
Publisher: Holiday House
Pages: 250 pages
Source: Copy from Publisher
Reviewed By:Kate McMurry
R.D. is a fifteen-year-old Mexican-American boy with Cheyenne ancestry who's had a very rough life. His father abandoned him. His mother is in prison. His grandmother has recently deserted him. And to top it all off, his grandmother's longtime boyfriend, Earl, who has continued to care for R.D. after her departure, suddenly drops dead. To avoid being sent to a group home, R.D. pretends his grandmother is still around to care for him and struggles to take care of himself, supporting himself by forging Earl's signature on his Social Security and pension checks.
I've read multiple young-adult novels with the premise of a teen pretending he or she has not been abandoned in order to avoid foster care, but what makes this story unique is R.D. He's a very strong and sympathetic protagonist. It's clear he feels the harshness of his life deeply, but he never surrenders to despair. It's fascinating reading about how he learns how to take care of himself, and in the process gets a handle on how to deal with school and making himself into a person who has a chance to succeed in life, in spite of terrible odds in a world filled with gangs, drugs and violence.
This book is written in a clear, uncluttered style that never intrudes on the moving story. It's in first-person point of view, and R.D.'s personality leaps off the page in his thoughts, his reactions to the dark world around him, and the particular language he uses, such as "sez" for "says," "cept" for "except," and slang like "homies" and "saggin-and-baggin."
From page one there is a strong sense of what a basically decent person R.D. is. He clearly wants to stand back from life and be an observer, to survive by staying uninvolved in the terrible situations around him, but his heart won't let him. This is vividly illustrated when he sees a small girl getting beat up by a much larger girl, and he can't refrain from stepping in and stopping the fight when he imagines in his mind, "the little girl's head cracked open, blood streaming over the sidewalk." The death scene with his caretaker Earl is macabre and horrifying, but rather than crumbling from the strain of losing yet one more caretaker, R.D.'s response is to find a way to take care of himself--while at the same time feeling guilty that his need to survive is stronger than his grief.
It is always great to see a YA novel with a male protagonist, but especially welcome that this author has created a compelling hero so vividly alive he becomes a dear friend by the end of the book.
I rate this book as follows: