Four ninth-graders navigate demanding teachers, family conflicts, and new relationships in a debut novel for young teens.
It’s the first day of school for four ninth-graders. Introvert Luke dreads it. Cocky athlete Marcus can’t wait to make his mark in a football game. Well-to-do Elly and hardworking Mia are eager to excel. The lives of the teens intersect in first period Honors English, and as the year progresses, all four narrate their own journeys through the highs and lows of teachers, family, friendships, and dates. Elly, a white girl, fears that she’ll never have a boyfriend because she thinks she’s “chubby.” When a first, clandestine date ends in a sloppy kiss, she worries she’ll never find real romance. Luke, also white, has internalized the low expectations of those who see only his poverty and dysfunctional family. His English teacher recognizes his potential; a science instructor makes him a target of ridicule. (Ingram, a high school English teacher, doesn’t sugarcoat the fact that some instructors don’t belong in the profession.) Black teen Marcus, from a well-off family, is used to being admired on and off the football field and doesn’t understand why his self-absorption is a turnoff. Mia, a second-generation Mexican-American, has faced prejudice and is determined to prove “I belong here.” A sweetly blossoming relationship between Luke, whose father is a bigot, and Mia, whose dad distrusts whites, seems destined to make them the Romeo and Juliet of the group. Ingram approaches this territory with a knowing and sympathetic eye, giving each teen an authentic voice expressed in a lively flow of alternating, journal-style chapters. (At one point Marcus muses: “I can’t believe Joshua’s attitude, it’s like he’s given up on pro football. It seems like everybody I was around last week had a negative attitude.”) For gritty content, readers should look elsewhere—no sex, drugs, or binge-drinking here. But these teens’ everyday interactions, doubts, and triumphs ring true, and readers should want to find out what happens to them next in Ingram’s upcoming second novel, Tenth Grade Angst.
An author deftly mines his own experiences as a teacher to create diverse and relatable characters facing their first year in high school.