This is what happens when you don’t pay attention to what’s behind the change in someone.
Publisher: Evolved Publishing
Age: Young Adult
First Published: 7th July 2013
Date Reviewed: 29th July 2013
Please note that due to the nature of this book it was inevitable that some spoilers would be included. These details were impossible not to explore but should, if anything, add to the review and the recommendation, rather than detract from it.
Chelle is thirteen, soon to be fourteen, and has a bad home life. Her parents are neglectful – her mother is a workaholic who doesn’t pay her much attention and her father is an alcoholic – and it’s had an affect on every other aspect of Chelle’s life. She has few friends (though the number includes the new guy, who she loves), smokes, couldn’t care less about school work, and takes full advantage of the only person who seems to care, her male history teacher – who cares just that bit too much.
White Chalk is a story of what happens to young people who are in bad situations, and shows just how oblivious everyone can be to the needs of those in their care. It shows that whilst, for example, school is incredibly important, teachers need to be attentive to what lies beneath a facade (or in Chelle’s case a not-so-hidden upset that is repeatedly missed) and provides a particular lesson of the kind that most books turn away from. It is hard-hitting, shocking, but needed.
What is poignant about the book in general is the relative calm in Chelle’s situation when compared to the stereotype, those favoured by the media and propaganda at large. Chelle is neglected, but not abused by her family (at least not as much as the stereotype), she is developing a poor school record but is not noted as a problem overall, and whilst she does smoke and hang out with older students there isn’t that air of angst to her that other characters in stories possess. To be sure there is a lot of angst in this book and Chelle turns to cutting herself to relieve pain, but it is the atmosphere as a whole that marks Tyler’s book as so important. Because on the surface Chelle seems less at-risk than many other people, but that doesn’t mean that’s actually the case. Tyler’s book speaks of the people who are overlooked, people whose situation does not align with the commonly-held idea of problematic.
And yet Chelle’s reality is incredibly bad and is indeed problematic. Her relationship with her teacher is wrong, but she views it as a good aspect of her life, never imagining how her teacher truly views her or what his motives are. This relationship, which started prior to the book’s beginning, looks at the complex situation from the mind of the teenager. There is no true appreciation of the age difference or the appropriateness of it, because to Chelle what matters is that she is wanted. And, because she is young and naïve (for all the smoking and her mature command of English) she sees little else. Chelle would likely defend Mr Harris (to some extent of course, dependant on latter knowledge) and say she made the decision to stay with him. But if it is a look at consent, then it is a look at how little consent a minor can truly give when they don’t understand what is really happening.
In addition to this there are relationships with other men that to Chelle, and maybe even to her friends, are easily forgotten, but even a slightly older reader will read the flaws in her plans. Yes, Chelle is fourteen, and that does indeed affect her decisions (or lack of). One will see a future for her that is bleak unless help arrives soon.
It is both Chelle’s silence and people’s lack of attention that results in the devastation that is the story. There is actually a section where Chelle returns to school after an accident that leaves her with large bruises to her face and the only people that notice are her mother (who leaves for work after Chelle tells her she’s fine) and Chelle’s friend. No teacher notices. Indeed Chelle ends up in the principal’s office due to her anger at another student and the woman behind the desk doesn’t even bat an eyelid about the bruises, nowhere is it mentioned. Interestingly it takes a while to work this one out – at first it appears as though Tyler has forgotten to include something paramount. But then it all comes together. In the silence of the adults Tyler is again showing how oblivious people can be, and albeit that in reality the teacher likely would’ve noticed, it demonstrates that agendas are still first and foremost. To the teacher, Chelle’s grades are most important, because Chelle needs to be able to get into college. To Chelle, of course, there are far more important things in life, but to the teacher who cannot see why, everything else is invisible and Chelle is but a bad kid.
At the end, the reader will turn the page for the next chapter and be shocked that there isn’t one. Other authors who write about this subject like to include particular lessons, to illustrate how people can avoid disasters, to educate their readers in this way. Tyler looks at the situation more realistically, she doesn’t end her book happily with the subtext of “remember to be nice”, she reminds you that being nice isn’t an option because in these situations, in reality, there is no more time to be nice. The beauty of the ending, if such a description can be used, is that Tyler doesn’t give in to all those who want to see redemption, happiness, an education to adults and younger readers. Instead she tells you very harshly that it’s too late for lessons, that hindsight is pointless, and action has to be taken now rather than later.
White Chalk demonstrates that age is just a number when it comes to self-harm, depression, anger, and so forth. Indeed the older students point out a few times the age of Chelle, which even the reader may forget on occasion. It demonstrates how little we should expect young people to be aware of their situation, and its silence during times when any reader will say ‘Tyler really needed to add such and such’ speaks volumes about what the author is trying to get across. Anything left out of this story is not by accident, and instead of the usual situation, where the book would be considered not yet ready for publication and the author perhaps in the wrong field, becomes the extreme opposite here.
Everyone needs taking care of and no matter that it looks like they’re making do in a bad situation, the truth may be that that is only surface dressing. In addition, people view situations differently and the context of the person living it makes the difference as to whether or not it’s something to watch out for.
With White Chalk, you don’t realise just how hard a book it is until you’ve finished it. But it is, and its importance is vast.
I received this book for review from PixelPr Tours.
August 12, 2013, 2:47 pm
Thank you so much for taking the time to review White Chalk. I agree, much of the point here was in the reality of Chelle’s situation. When i read books with the lessons like you cited i often find myself saying “Bullshit, what about the OTHER girls?” I had to write their story because no one else did.
August 14, 2013, 3:02 pm
This is an amazing review! You pointed out so many things that left me speechless.
August 16, 2013, 12:49 pm
Pavarti: You’re welcome. As much as it can be said, considering the subject, I enjoyed it. Yes, there’s a whole other subsection, as it were, that just doesn’t get commented on. And needs to be, so I’m glad you’ve addressed it and hope White Chalk does well because it’s a story that needs to be out there.
Amina: Thanks. The more I wrote, the more I realised I couldn’t write a regular review, too much of importance would be missed. I’m very glad you sent me the information about this book :)