Book Review: The Future of Us

the future of us

Asher, Jay, and Carolyn Mackler. The Future of Us. Simon & Schuster Books, 2011.

I wouldn’t call myself a shopaholic, but there are a few items I will purchase somewhat impulsively: donuts, office supplies, and gently used bargain books. I especially enjoy stocking up on cheap YA paperbacks before school starts, trying to make my shelves look as full and varied as possible.

It’s easy, then, to forget individual purchases. I was perusing my shelves before summer break and discovered a copy of Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler’s The Future of Us. As Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why has become a Netflix sensation and a popular read among my students, I was surprised that I never tackled The Future of Us. Recently, I decided to remedy that.

In the time of dial-up internet and the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal, Josh and Emma are neighbors and best friends. The relationship is on the cusp of blossoming into something more, but frightened Emma puts an immediate stop to it. Amid the awkwardness that follows, Josh brings Emma a copy of AOL to install on her new computer. As Emma gets to work creating her first e-mail address and setting up instant messenger, she discovers an interesting website. Called Facebook, the website contains photos and strange, stream-of-consciousness statements from a woman in her mid-thirties. Emma is startled to discover that the woman is her in the future, seemingly unhappily married to a stranger.

Puzzled and frightened of a computer virus, Emma invites Josh over to examine Facebook. They find an account for Josh as well, and are in shock as he seems to be married to one of the most attractive and popular girls in school. While Josh is desperate for his future to pan out just as Facebook says it will, Emma is determined to change the present, creating ripple effects that will give her the happy life she wants. How will Emma’s actions impact both their futures? Will Josh work up the courage to speak to his future wife? And will Josh and Emma ever resolve their feelings for one another?

Older readers will smile at the bits of nostalgia found in Asher and Mackler’s novel: the necessity of logging off the internet when another household member needs to use the phone, and the use of Walkmans, cassette tapes, pagers, and pay phones. The premise, too, is intriguing. Who could resist catching a glimpse of their future, especially if they knew they could change it?

Although I was certainly drawn in to The Future of Us, I found Josh and Emma’s relationship problematic. Emma spurned Josh’s affections until other girls began to find him interesting, making Emma something of an unsympathetic character. It would be difficult, too, to maintain the timeliness and relevancy of the book. Although students are still familiar with and use Facebook, social media is constantly changing and evolving.

The idea of the butterfly effect—found in time travel fiction and related to the decisions human beings make every day—has been a topic of conversation in my classroom this year. I could see excerpts from this novel strengthening my students’ understanding of the concept and encouraging them to think more seriously about the many ways their present impacts their future.

Book Review: The Burn Journals

burn journals cover

Runyon, Brent. The Burn Journals. New York: Vintage, 2005. Print.

If you work with or parent teens, you’ve likely heard of the Netflix sensation 13 Reasons Why.

You might also know that the series is based on a YA novel by Jay Asher and centers around some tough topics—bullying, sexual assault, and suicide. Having taught the novel to high school juniors, I was anxious (and a little nervous) to see the adaptation. I enjoyed it overall, though some parts were downright painful to watch. I thought a few of the scenes might even be triggering to young people struggling with depression or other mental health issues.

This presents a conundrum. Many of us in the education field encounter students struggling with suicidal thoughts or self-harming behaviors. What books and media, then, can we bring into our classroom that will handle these topics in a sensitive and helpful manner?

I was searching for a non-fiction YA book (a rarity—I am certainly open to suggestions!) when I came across Brent Runyon’s The Burn Journals. Reviews and key words revealed the book was about the attempted suicide of an adolescent boy. I purchased the memoir and steeled myself for what was to come.

Brent Runyon is fourteen-years-old and often acts impulsively. This behavior culminates in Brent tossing a lit book of matches into a gym locker, setting a t-shirt ablaze. After being told that the perpetrator of this crime will be in serious trouble, Brent feels trapped, especially in light of some earlier offenses. Brent comes home from school, douses his robe and body in gasoline, climbs into his shower, and lights a match. Writhing in pain, Brent eventually turns on the shower and then yells to his brother for help.

After being airlifted, Brent regains consciousness in a children’s hospital. Now he must face his new reality: he is severely burned, and will require multiple surgeries, skin grafts, and physical therapy before he can return to a “normal” life. Although various psychologists attempt to delve into the reasons why, Brent remains guarded and unsure of his own motivations. Will Brent tell his family about his previous suicide attempts? Will he grow accustomed to his new scars and limitations? Will he be able to recuperate and go back to school?

This book brilliantly places readers in the mindset of a teenage boy. The conversations between Brent and his friends are crass and nonsensical. His feelings of unexplainable sadness are stated plainly. The most revealing part, for me, were Brent’s thoughts regarding his out of control behavior. When Brent lights the locker on fire, for example, he says: “I don’t know why, but I grabbed them and lit one of them on fire and then, because I thought it would be funny to see everybody’s reaction, I set the whole pack on fire.” Descriptions like these—rash actions with no logical reason behind them—add to the chaos of the story.

Like most memoirs, there are moments in The Burn Journals where the action and pacing feel slow and certain anecdotes seem unnecessary. For example, Brent meets and speaks with a few celebrities during his hospitalization and recovery. These are usually short meetings, but Brent rarely has many thoughts to share afterward. This, I thought, was a missed opportunity for Brent to possibly comment on his conflicting emotions of excitement and shame or the coddling of children with serious afflictions.

Just as I would not show the television series 13 Reasons Why in my classroom, I would likewise not make The Burn Journals required reading. There’s simply too much objectionable material—language and sexuality—even though some of the themes are redemptive. Even so, I would not dissuade my students from independently reading Runyon’s memoir. In fact, I urge educators and parents to seek this book out immediately. I came away from Runyon’s story understanding more about the psyche of the children in my classroom, and that was certainly valuable information.