Sunday, May 20, 2012

Double Dutch, by Sharon Draper (2002)

Delia and Randy have a secret. Delia can't read, and Randy's father has been missing for six weeks. I can relate. To adults, it seems silly for young teens to keep such secrets from other adults, but from the perspective of the teen, it's a different story. They're afraid of what others will think, so it's easier to say nothing. When I was in fifth grade I had a secret. I discovered it after my brother began struggling with the same problem: near-sightedness. To me, being unable to see was less humiliating than having to wear glasses. I decided to test whether I really was near-sighted after my brother had an eye exam. I took a seat across from the eye chart and tried to read it; but I found I couldn't read a single letter from the bottom row. Nonetheless I stood up and tried to act nonchalant. This didn't fool my parents or the eye doctor, and I have worn glasses ever since. Double Dutch is about the reluctance of two teenagers to admit a weakness, a reluctance, I imagine, shared by many of us.

Delia's inability to read causes problems for her at school, but she uses her ingenuity to keep her grades up. Whenever a class is assigned a novel, she watches the movie version and listens carefully to group discussions. She relies on non-essay assignments as well to boost her grades, and her teachers, as a result, don't suspect she has a problem. However, ingenuity will do nothing to help Delia pass the upcoming state tests. A poor performance on the tests means she can't continue double dutch. Only her closest friend, Yolanda, knows her secret, and Yolanda promises to help her out.

Randy has a much bigger problem. His father is a truck driver and occasionally must leave Randy alone for days at a time, but he hasn't shown up for six weeks. Randy worries that his father has abandoned him like his mother did. Or worse - that he's dead. Afraid that going to the authorities might get his father in trouble, Randy does his best to pretend that nothing is wrong. He uses the little money his father had stashed in the apartment to pay off bills and buy food for him and the cat. But as the electric company starts calling about a late bill, it becomes increasingly difficult for Randy. The novel takes place mostly from Delia's point of view, but a few chapters are from Randy's perspective, and his, I think, are the most effective. A twelve-year old boy shouldn't have to take care of himself, and there's also the cat to worry about. He naively hopes his father will be there in the morning when he wakes up or in the evening when he comes home from school, and it's crushing the way he begs food off his friends and is forced to feed the cat bits of hot dog while pretending nothing is wrong.

A third major plot point involves the Tolliver twins, Tabu and Titan. These are two big, mean-looking kids, and everyone is terrified of them, including the teachers, such as Miss Benson, who is in her first year on the job. To make things worse, they were featured on a show about terrible teenagers. The early parts of the novel are at times a little too preoccupied with the twins. More experienced readers will realize right away how this conflict will resolve. Draper handles this resolution very well, though, by avoiding any cliche and abrupt personality changes. Once the rest of the characters realize what us readers know all along, the Tollivers still remain as they always were.

It is in its depictions of double dutch that the novel shines. Double dutch is a popular sport where two girls (or boys) swing two ropes while a third (and sometimes a fourth) jump in the middle. There are several different ways to compete. One is to jump successfully as many times in a minute as you can. Another is freestyle, where the jumper(s) and turners perform spectacular tricks while keeping the ropes moving. In the novel, the World Double Dutch Championships are held in Ohio, which if this is true it is a testament to the sport's worldwide popularity. The students of the Cincinnati school district where Delia attends are particularly diligent. Children from the third grade to the eighth grade get together several times a week and fill up the gym for practice. It is this sport that holds the novel together and connects each of its characters.

This is the second novel by Sharon Draper that I have read, the other being Romiette and Julio, and it is the better of the two. An English teacher for twenty-five years, Draper is an African American author who now writes young adult literature. She writes in a simple style for easier reading. One might suspect her target audience is young teens who have trouble reading. She writes a lot of dialogue and action, with very little concrete details that might bore readers. The dialogue is energetic and clever, sometimes a little too energetic and clever, but I imagine young teens will find it amusing.

The novel, overall, is pretty good. Young teens or pre-teens will most likely enjoy it, and many might grow interested in the sport of double dutch. Adults will find it lacking in substance, however. Draper, especially in Double Dutch, seems reluctant to portray anybody as truly mean. Her meanest characters earn their distinction by appearing to be mean, but not by their actions. The teachers, the coach, the students, the parents: none have a mean bone in their body. When Miss Benson loses a few kids after a tornado strikes the school, the parents of the missing kids sympathize with her rather than grow angry. Even the tornado has the decency not to take any lives. It's all a little too sweet, a little too nice, a little too much of a fantasy. You'd be hard-pressed to find many readers today who will believe there's not a single problem child in the entire school.

Still, it's a nice fantasy.

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