Friday, February 22, 2013: Kids' Maximum Shelf: Panic
by Sharon M. Draper
Sharon Draper (Out of My Mind) takes us into the heart of a closely knit dance troupe and the ways in which its members band together when two of them face a crisis. The author balances a suspenseful plot and the emotional growth of her characters with ease and grace.
Draper gives us a window into the bond that develops from working together toward a shared vision and passion. The dancers exude the kind of confidence that results from doing something well, and achieving excellence through practice. She allows readers to be a fly on the wall in the studio and in the dancers' homes, and readers will quickly feel as if they know these characters. They also seem to have been spared the image hang-ups that haunt many driven dancers. Miss Ginger, who runs the studio, cares about her students, and they know it.
The story unfolds through four alternating narrators: Justin, the 16-year-old lead male dancer with a crush on Layla Ridgewood; Layla, a sophomore and the leading female dancer, who's dating 16-year-old Cadillac-driving Donovan Beaudry; Diamond Landers, a sophomore with a tight family; and Diamond's best friend, Mercedes Ford, who wishes she drove a Mercedes, but in fact drives a Ford.
Diamond and Mercedes go on an afternoon run to the mall to buy tights for their dance showcase that evening. The author portrays the girls as responsible and sensible. But when Diamond goes on ahead to buy two slices of pizza, she meets a handsome 40-something man who tells her he's holding auditions for a film starring two of Diamond's idols, and that she'd be great for the role of the dancer. She leaves the mall with him. The man, Thane English, earns Diamond's trust through details she finds convincing: he and his family are new to the area, his daughter, Chloe, attends Broadway High School, just like Diamond, and Chloe was supposed to meet him in the food court, but Thane and his wife got their "wires crossed." The situation is all the more chilling for how well Thane has done his homework, and how easily Diamond makes the decision to go with him.
Draper never shows explicitly what goes on during Diamond's captivity, but readers discover what kind of film Thane does plan to make with Diamond, how he drugs her to get her to cooperate, and the strange men she remembers seeing enter the room.
The author gives only enough information to demonstrate that Diamond's innocence is gone, and she is forever changed. By alternating among the narrators, Draper allows readers to see the reactions of Diamond's friends and family and the progress of the investigation into her disappearance, and gives us a break from the intensity of Diamond's situation.
Meanwhile, Draper sets up a rather chilling parallel through the relationship between Layla and Donovan. He holds her on a tight leash. Donovan is jealous of the time she spends at the dance studio and especially of the attentions that Justin shows Layla, as the two lead dancers. Donovan's physical and emotional abuse turns into revenge when he e-mails some topless pictures he persuaded Layla to pose for in a tender moment, and they go viral on the Web. Draper effectively holds up a mirror between Diamond's and Layla's exploitation--one against her will, and the other willingly.
The author creates a counterpoint between the dynamics of these two situations with examples of healthy relationships, between Mercedes and her boyfriend, Steven (who brings candy to the studio for his "favorite chocolate bunny"), and several of the dancers' parents. Miss Ginger acts as another loving presence in the lives of these young people, and serves as confidante to Layla when Donovan turns on her.
The author begins each chapter with a quote from J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan that will likely prompt teens to see the classic in a whole new light--as a testament to the dangers of leaving reality behind for an elusive fantasy. She ends her tale on a realistic note, with room for hope that Diamond and Layla can repair their lives, but with readers' knowledge that these young women are forever changed. Her book may well prompt teens to be more circumspect about the promises people make to them, and their own responsibility in the decisions they make. --Jennifer M. Brown
Sharon Draper: A Cautionary Tale
Over the years, Sharon Draper has visited hundreds of schools, and she knows her readers. She knows how they talk and dress and how much they want to be a part of something. Two story lines came to her--about a teenager taken against her will, and another who submitted herself willingly. In her novel, Panic, they are both dancers. She says it's "a little edgier than anything I've written, but I think it could save a life."
Where did you get the idea for this book? Did it start with the dancers?
My daughter owns a dance studio, and I've watched some of her students grow up from toddlers to teenagers. I wanted to set this book outside the classroom, and I thought of the importance of music and movement in the life of a child. The power of dance transforms these kids. I've seen it again and again. If you've had a fight with your mother, you can come to the dance studio and work it out. You can talk it out with the dance teacher.
Miss Ginger, their dance teacher, becomes the confidante for several of these young people.
Teenagers often need another person to talk to. I'll get e-mails from teens who are in real trouble, because I'm a stranger and they're used to communicating online. I always say, "If you can't talk to your mother, look around and find that teacher or librarian or a person you can trust. You cannot deal with this by yourself, and I'm too far away. Think about a minister, a counselor, someone who can help you."
How did you develop the idea of a teen being lured away by the possibility of fame?
That came through a couple of news articles. One was about two 12-year-old girls right here in Ohio. They went down the street to get ice cream at the ice cream truck. They disappeared. They'd been taken to truck stops. It was six months before those girls were able to escape. The girls had no means of communicating with their families. They had no choice but to cooperate. The men who came to the truck stops knew where to line up, and where these girls would be. That stayed with me.
We tell our six-year-olds not to talk to strangers, not to talk to a man with a nice dog. We don't tell our teens anything. They think they're smart enough and mature enough to tell the difference between a nice guy and a bad guy. No one knew about this ring that was taking kids to truck stops until that child escaped. I wanted to write a cautionary tale.
Diamond is a sensible girl, but Thane succeeds in getting her to trust him because he knows so much about her.
Thane has targeted Diamond. Young people put way too much information on their Facebook page. They'll say, "I'm on my way to the mall to meet my bestie." When I go to schools, I tell them an example of a guy with a clipboard who says, "We're about to do a music video with Beyoncé. All you have to do is fill out this piece of paper and sit right here in this van." I ask, "How many of you would do it?" More than half raise their hands. I ask them, "Did you see Beyoncé? You saw a guy with a clipboard, and you are trapped in a van with a stranger."
Tell us about Layla's storyline with Donovan.
I visit hundreds of schools, and talk to thousands of young people, and this is something I've encountered again and again--girls doing things with boys and because of boys in order to be successful [with their peers]. Diamond was controlled against her will; Layla is controlled voluntarily. There are a lot of girls like Layla, happy to be with the cute boy in school, the most popular guy, and they want to keep him happy.
How did you come up with the structure for the book--shifting among the characters' perspectives?
Gradually. I started with Diamond's story. I realized very early on that I could not have just Diamond. Then I expanded it to Justin. A male dancer is an unusual character. They are picked on, but the male dancers I know are happy. I put Layla in there next. Mercedes was the last one who was layered in. Think of a thick braid of hair on a girl, going down her back. If her hair's hanging loose, it's just strands. When you braid it together, you have something beautiful and strong, but you can't see the strands. You can only see that it's woven together into something that is beautiful and very different from where it started. I try to braid characters and plot into a coherent whole.
Ballet dancers so often end up with skewed body images, but the dancers you portray all get such joy from dancing that their body images all seem quite healthy, with the possible exception of Layla being influenced by Donovan's insults.
These dancers are not overly obsessed with their bodies, like the girls they call "the skinny bunheads"--the girls that don’t eat, and keep their buns 24/7. These are real kids who love to dance. The girls who go to this dance studio are all sizes. This is the only place they can go where they can feel loved and appreciated and equal to the other dancers. They are accepted. Their body images are accepted. Miss Ginger teaches them about nutrition and good health. The kids who go to my daughter's studio will recognize Miss Ginger's studio. In her café, she has no Coke, no sweet rolls or candy. Just water and 7-Up, granola and popcorn.
This is the first novel I can think of that used sexting as a plot element. What's so potent about the situation you describe is that someone Layla once trusted turns on her.
I hope readers get that, that they think about how accessible photo images can be. Even if everybody that received those photos of Layla deleted them, they would be online forever. That electronic footprint never goes away. Diamond's stuff would go into that vast, vast underground of porn. Authorities would not even know where to find it.
How do the Peter Pan chapter headings fit in?
I have seen 9,000 versions of Peter Pan. I was with my daughter, and we were watching the Cincinnati Ballet dance Peter Pan, and she's enraptured, because that what she does, and I'm thinking, "When is it over? This is horrible." He steals those children. And when the parents come back--I don't know why they left the dog in charge--they're devastated because their children are gone. Someone comes in, and the children leave voluntarily. Everyone looks at the children having a wonderful time in Neverland, and I'm thinking of that mother, sitting by the window waiting for the children to return. --Jennifer M. Brown