The cover of Jo Knowles' sixth novel sports a clever visual double entendre. A hand displays three fingers, the middle one's nail emblazoned with a smiley sticker, while the title advises us to Read Between the Lines. As we'll learn in the book's final chapter (if we haven't already figured it out), that particular combination of words and gesture is a genteel way of giving someone the finger.
Knowles lives in the Upper Valley and delivered a warmly received keynote address at last month's conference of the New England Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators. She doesn't seem like the type to give readers the finger — nor is she. But this thoughtful young adult novel does explore some of the possible motives for that rude, attention-grabbing gesture, from cruelty to defiance to anger to attraction. In the process, Knowles offers a subtle plea for empathy that's as relevant to adult readers as to teens.
The novel's structure is as bold as its cover. Read Between the Lines consists of 10 chapters, each told from a different point of view (all but one are first-person, present-tense narratives). Most of the narrators attend the same high school. All their stories unfold over the course of the same day. And all of them give, receive or witness the giving of a one-finger salute.
But in other respects, these perspectives differ sharply — and not just in the ways we've seen in every teen flick since The Breakfast Club. Yes, there are cheerleaders and preening varsity lettermen here. There are bullied smart kids and bullies and "bad girls." But one of those athletes is in love with another boy, and his overachieving cheerleader girlfriend is in denial. Another cheerleader, who doesn't fit the svelte stereotype, wonders if she joined the squad for the wrong reasons. Bullies and bullied alike put on tough exteriors to hide unmentionable problems at home. Even kids with model upbringings find themselves drawn into thoughtless cruelty by peer pressure and inertia — 'til something wakes them up.
The teens tell their stories in simple language. While Knowles doesn't strain too hard to distinguish their voices, she does use rhythm and repetition to evoke the patterns that structure their lives. Occasionally her messages can be too pat, as when a half-hearted delinquent wonders, "How do we lose ourselves like that and still somehow manage to find our way back to caring?" But in general, the book shies away from easy answers.
And it dares to suggest that, while there's power in the refrain "It gets better," growing up isn't always the answer. Knowles diverges from YA norms by devoting two chapters to the perspectives of adult characters: Dewey, a 19-year-old high school grad working a fast-food job; and Ms. Lindsay, an idealistic young teacher struggling to reach her students.
Dewey is the sort of character who doesn't get a lot of love in fiction, perhaps because someone like him tormented so many nascent writers. He's a fan of pumping iron and muscle cars, sneers at "sensitive" types and revels in the petty tyranny of his managerial job. And, we learn, he's miserable — angered anew every day by the memory of a teacher who told him, "You'll never amount to anything."
That teacher no doubt had his own demons, since he recently committed suicide — casting a pall over Ms. Lindsay, who has taken his place. In one of the novel's most poignant passages, the young teacher wishes the administration hadn't forbidden public discussion of the suicide in the interest of preventing copycats. "They want to talk about it together," she reflects of her students. "But rules are rules."
Indeed. And when well-meaning rules or tender egos or social pecking orders make it impossible for people to say what they feel, eloquent gestures sometimes fill the gap. Knowles looks beyond the rudeness of that upraised middle finger and encourages us all to read between the lines.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Quick Lit: A YA Author Explores the One-Finger Salute"