Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Monday, June 14, 2021

Monday, June 14, 2021: YA Maximum Shelf: On the Hook

Scholastic Press: On the Hook by Francisco X Stork

Scholastic Press: On the Hook by Francisco X Stork

Scholastic Press: On the Hook by Francisco X Stork

Scholastic Press: On the Hook by Francisco X Stork

On the Hook

by Francisco X. Stork

In On the Hook, Francisco X. Stork (Marcelo in the Real World) details the surprising and thoroughly engrossing transformation of Hector Robles, a quiet, chess-loving high school student who becomes a reform school inmate pursuing justice on his own terms. This novel is an adaptation of Behind the Eyes, the author's first book, and a deeper dive into the experiences of one particular character: Hector. The teen's travails offer much to think about regarding empathy, revenge and cowardice. It is a story that is sometimes amusing, sometimes difficult, but always heartfelt and riveting.

Ever since his father died, 16-year-old Hector has lived in the "stupid, miserable housing projects" of El Paso, Tex., with his mom and older brother, Fili. His best friend and chess club teammate, Azarakhsh Pourmohammadi (Azi), lives there too. Hector and Azi have big plans for the future that begin with getting scholarships so they can go to college, Azi to become a doctor and Hector an engineer. Chess team captain tryouts are coming up and Azi insists Hector would make a better captain for next year's team than she would, encouraging him to try out even though she teases him that she is "smarter than [him] in most ways."

But Hector is shy and thinks he's no leader. When classmate Joey and Joey's older brother, Chavo ("their local drug dealer"), begin singling out Hector with "hostile stares and belligerent gestures," Azi isn't fazed. Hector, on the other hand, tries desperately to avoid the dangerous pair, believing his actions to be those of "a scared rabbit." Joey corners him at work and Hector, frozen in fear, fails to stop him as Joey uses Hector's own boxcutter to carve a "C"--for "cobarde"--into Hector's chest. What hurts the most is that Hector, terrified and humiliated, is sure he truly is a coward and the proof of it is now branded on his chest. Compounding the shame is Hector's memory of his own father facing imminent death with courage; Hector believes that when he was confronted, he acted like a "gusano"--a worm.

Then Fili tells Hector he's dating Chavo's ex-girlfriend, Gloria. Hector's sense of imminent danger overshadows any happiness he feels for his "clueless" brother. Hector's terror increases until the day he's scheduled to read a deeply personal essay about his father to the Lion's Club. He breaks down in tears before finishing, overcome with shame; Fili and Gloria offer to drive him home. When Fili stops the truck in a church parking lot so the couple can tell Hector that they are engaged, Chavo and Joey suddenly appear. Fili gets out to talk with Chavo "man to man," but during the ensuing fight, Joey grabs a baseball bat and bashes in Fili's head. Hector, galvanized by love for Fili, "is finally able to move": he puts the truck in gear and runs Chavo down.

In this moment, everything changes for Hector. All his previous problems are irrelevant. This "new" Hector is consumed with rage and single-minded in his determination to avenge his brother's death. Hector, who has good grades and recommendations from teachers, friends and family, is given the opportunity to stay out of reform school if he tells the judge he didn't mean to step on the gas--that it was all an unfortunate accident. But now that he's taken action, Hector refuses to go back to "his old coward self"--the new Hector is "hard and sharp like an ax," and he will make Joey pay, even if that means following his brother's murderer to reform school.

When Joey swings his bat and Fili topples, Hector's choices seem to move him farther from the person Azi, his family and he himself have always expected him to be and all his decisions seem to run counter to his own best interests. However, Hector feels he needs to do something about the disgust he feels for himself before he can leave the reform school and go home. To his credit, Hector never stops thinking, never stops learning and always tries to figure out what it means to act with courage. He takes his cues from his own deep understanding of chess, deciding that "courage [is] doing what need[s] to be done, even when you [are] afraid."

A note from the author explains that this book is "a new novel, but it contains some bones from an earlier novel," Behind the Eyes. About a year after that first YA novel of Stork's came out, he "visited a reformatory school... where the students were reading the book." On his way home, Stork writes, "I was filled with the sense that the book had not given the students all that it could have given them. The young men in the school had not fully seen themselves in Hector's fears and hopes and moral decisions." And so, Stork returned to Hector. On the Hook is not always an emotionally easy read but it is a captivating and significant work of literature. Stork masterfully balances the constructive aspects of Hector's struggle to find his own truth with the former good kid's caustic need for revenge, and contrasts them both with Joey's positive growth at the reform school. Tension mounts palpably through Stork's third-person narration, culminating in the story's powerful conclusion. This return to an earlier work is a glimpse into a tough, sometimes violent world that ultimately serves plenty of hope; in showing this, Stork has created a thought-provoking, thoroughly essential novel. --Lynn Becker

Scholastic Press, $17.99, hardcover, 304p., ages 12-up, 9781338692150, May 2021

Scholastic Press: More powerful stories from the award-winning author

Francisco X. Stork: On Creating Courage, Empathy and Hope

Francisco X. Stork is the author of Marcelo in the Real World, a recipient of the Schneider Award. The Last Summer of the Death Warriors received the Elizabeth Walden Award. The Memory of Light received four starred reviews and the Tomás Rivera Award. His novel Disappeared is the 2018 recipient of the Best Young Adult Award from the Texas Institute of Letters and a Walter Dean Myers Award Honor Book. Illegal, the sequel to Disappeared, received the In the Margins Book Award and the 2020 Best Young Adult Book from the Texas Institute of Letters. Here he discusses his new book, On the Hook (Scholastic), how he adapted it from an earlier work and the audience he is hoping to reach. He lives outside of Boston with his wife, with whom he has two children and four grandchildren.

Would you tell us about the process of revisiting/rewriting your first novel to create On the Hook?

I guess it started with the sense, after the earlier work came out, that I had not fully tapped the potential of the story and the characters. Years later, when the opportunity presented itself, I jumped at the opportunity to create a totally new story but still using the same setting and the names of the old characters. It was a little like writing fan fiction, only the characters from the previous work had to become more vibrant and complex.

Why do you think your story is so different this time around?

I wanted to create a new story that took into account how the world has changed in the past 15 years. The emotion we call hatred, which in its pure form is basically the desire to kill or hurt another human being, seems more prevalent, more intense, more acceptable today. It is something that has become okay to carry within us so long as we don't act it out. But, of course, we do end up acting hatred out in ways that are hurtful to others and to ourselves. The hatred that Hector is hooked on reflects the hatred that has so comfortably made its way into our hearts. The newness of the story reflects the fact that I have written eight other books since then and I know more about the craft of writing for young readers than I knew then. Hopefully, I am also a little bit wiser.

Hector changes a lot over the course of the novel. Can you talk about his choices and his growth as a character?

Hector does grow in the novel, but his growth is a kind of one step forward and five steps backward. Hector, the A-student, the brilliant chess player, the engineer-to-be, decides to become a badass in order to avenge his brother's death at the hands of Joey. Hector does all he can to become evil. He makes one bad choice after another, while Joey, the real evil character in the novel, begins to make choices that are good for him. Hector has to reach a kind of rock bottom of evil, before he can grow into someone who is aware of who he is and that he is responsible for what he does.

Why does it take catastrophe and a desire for revenge to motivate Hector to act? 

I think of growth and maturity as the decision to create the person we want to be. This is a very scary thing to do and most of us would rather be whatever else others want us to be. It happens that sometimes life sends us a catastrophe, like it did in Hector's case, in order for us to wake up and start becoming who we are meant to be. Hector thinks of himself as incapable of courage, as a coward, until he is so disgusted with himself that he must act. The actions he takes are clumsy and more hurtful than helpful, but he has set in motion the kind of agency that will eventually take him to the courage of being his ordinary self.

Would you say empathy and justice are fairly central to all of your work? if so, why?

Yes. Empathy is a goal in the sense that my characters are usually marginalized youth. I write so that young readers begin to understand what it is to live with the social or mental barriers that create marginalization. But I have to be careful with the concept of empathy because, despite their marginalization, I want my characters to serve as role models and to be admired rather than to invoke sympathy, or worse, pity. To want to have my characters admired doesn't mean that they are all good. Rather, I want them to be admired for their hope, for their struggle against difficult circumstances, for their effort at becoming free human beings who choose their destiny. The portrayal of justice in my work realistically and without judgment presents the barriers that are preventing my young characters from being free and from growing. If I want to write about how we become human, then I must also write about the systems, the laws, the social attitudes that are keeping my characters, and us, from becoming human.

What do you hope your readers will take away from this story?

When I was writing On the Hook, I kept in my mind's eye a young boy who was at risk of getting swallowed in a cycle of violence. I wanted to write a book that was real to him. A book that he found meaningful and that maybe made him look inside of himself and see the incredible courage that is needed to live a life that is responsible to self and others. 

Is there anything else you'd like readers to know about On the Hook?

It's a serious book, as you can see from the questions and answers above. But it is also an action-packed, funny and hopeful book that gave me a lot of joy to write. I hope that in addition to the seriousness, you also find the joy. --Lynn Becker

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