Review of “Keep Holding On” by Susane Colasanti

Noelle is one of those lonely, abused, neglected teenagers you read about in newspaper reports.  Every single day, school attendance is torture.  Being bullied by a psychopath named Carly, enduring food smacks and taunts from well-to-do Warner, and enduring the hatred of a neglectful mother are the tip of the pain iceberg for Noelle.  People discriminate against her because she’s very, very poor.  The only bright spots of happiness in her life, the things she lives on when she’s hungry or humiliated, are her self-made mobiles, her love for art, her best friend Sherae, and her crush on cool Julian Porter.  But you can never escape reality.  No matter how much you cling to your unlimited imagination or your talents, it’s so hard sometimes to keep holding on.  And when the quality of her reality reaches a “horrocious” level of unbearable, Noelle has to make the ultimate choice: quit for good or trudge on forever.

One of the truly amazing things about Susane Colasanti’s writing is how she always, always comes up with original, bright characters who surprise me.  They are so life-like.  Keep Holding On is no exception.  Noelle is the author’s latest heroine, and despite being out of high school for a while now, I understand 100% about her teenage problems.  Which, actually, can be anyone’s problems, in spite of age or situation.

The pain, the soul-wrenching hurts, the way you feel you’re totally alone even when you’re surrounded by people.  I went to public high school for one year and I remember when I considered applying for government-issued lunches.  And believe me, Noelle made the right choice.  I saw those…those…disreputable ideas of food.  And I decided then and there that I’d rather go hungry myself than eat that trash.  Mayo and mustard sandwiches…they’re pretty horrible.  I avoid the mayo, but my substitute is artificial cheese with no protein.  If you eat enough of these “sandwiches,” your stomach will be satisfied…to a point.  As far as bullying is concerned, I’ve experienced it too.  All those confrontations with Carly, especially the hair cutting scene, made me cringe.  Really.  When Noelle got the nasty “staircut” and she was constantly ignored and neglected by her mom…  Luckily, I have an awesome mom.  But the thought that this character, this astounding girl, didn’t even have a sympathetic parent to run to when she was bullied or hurt…my heart went out to Noelle.  And Ali.  Poor, poor Ali.  I would have been friends with Ali and smacked Carly.  However, one thing I was a little perplexed about was how no one did anything to help Noelle and her mother if they were the only poor inhabitants of this richie no-man’s-land.  Colasanti’s right: rich people can be such SNOBS.  With a capital, extra-bold “S.”

Like so many other of Colasanti’s heroines, Noelle’s very lovable.  You want to follow her story and step in and punch the people who cause her pain.  You want to meet-and-greet her best friends.  And for the record, Sherae, Simon, and Julian are three very cool best friends and special characters.  I couldn’t really get past the whole affair with Matt, though, because being involved with such a (obviously) lousy guy and crying after him is beyond what I’ve seen of Noelle’s personality and what attracts her.  Still, the themes of Keep Holding On are unlike any I’ve seen in any young adult book I’ve read so far.

For the first time, I’m reading about the provocations behind suicidal thoughts, depression, and hopelessness.  And I’m completely empathizing.  Here I see an author say what I’m thinking: that depression and suicide and gloominess are caused by problems.  Problems in one’s life, one’s circumstances, one’s course or direction.  I’ve said this again and again: depression is not going to go away until all or most of the problems are remedied.  Unless you fix what’s wrong in your life, the cause of your sadness, you’re not going to stop being depressed.  Instead, your sadness and anger and unhappiness will take root in your mind and soul and grow there, getting larger and larger.  If more dreadful things happen or something changes for the worse…well, that’s the water that’s fueling your plant of pain to keep growing.  And when it’s full-grown…you’ll snap, sooner or later.  You’ll be pushed farther then you can endure, and then…the pain’s so massive you’ll be having thoughts like Noelle admits to having.  Anyway, Noelle stops letting the plant (a weed) grow when she decides to be done with it….her pain and all those obstacles preventing her from reaching her dreams.  She stands up to the bullying, finds a genuine interest to motivate her, and even manages to make peace with her mother.  She pulls herself up and over.

Noelle’s mother, on the other hand, takes the prize for Worst Mother of the Century.  No matter what any parent says, they choose to have kids when they take that infamous risk for pregnancy by copying “the birds and the bees.”  There is no excuse, NO excuse for being a bad parent.  If you have a child, you’re an adult already and you’re automatically responsible for an innocent being’s welfare.  If you screw up and that child’s as neglected and abused as Noelle, I’m glaring at you right now.  Even virtually.  I can’t stand the way adults and young adults become whiny about this subject of parenthood.  Abstinence and chastity are effective.  Consider them.  And don’t ever tell me that you can’t control yourself in that way.  Colasanti touches on these subjects, and I agree with her: children deserve decent, responsible parents.  If you’re not ready to have kids, then…abstinence and chastity are tangible options.

So, what are the themes of Keep Holding On?  Death, pain, bullying, neglect, abuse, poverty.  Even though this list makes the novel sound like a tear-breaker, Keep Holding On is so much more.  It’s an all-in-one package of hope.  Meeting characters like Noelle makes me believe again that I should keep holding on and never give up.  That I’m not alone.

Natalie Gorna

 {Keep Holding On by Susane Colasanti will be released on May 31, 2012}


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