Published by UQP, September 2021 | Young Adult, Australian, Fiction
I picked up How to Repaint a Life by Steven Herrick without realising its intended audience is young adults.
I've since learnt Herrick is the award-winning author of more than 25 books for children and young adults - and a pioneer of the verse-novel genre for young adults - so it should have been obvious.
But I ploughed in without a clue (sadly I fell out of the intended audience bracket a good two decades ago!), and I must admit it took quite a few chapters before the penny dropped.
Herrick uses an easy, light style to tell the story of two teens finding their own path, but rumbling just beneath the surface is an exploration of some big issues, including domestic violence, youth homelessness, toxic masculinity and sexual consent.
The book centres around seventeen year old Isaac, who is running away from his violent home, with just a backpack of clothes and enough money to catch a bus as far away as possible from his abusive father. His mother had already escaped five years earlier, vanishing from Isaac’s life.
When he steps off the bus at a small town, homeless and hungry, the kindness of a local café owner offers him a chance for a new start, free from the suffocating fear of the past.
He meets Sophie, the same age but with a home life that couldn’t be more different - loving, fun parents, surrounded by music and poetry, with her eyes firmly set on art college after school.
Sophie is disenchanted with the male teens in her town - who she describes as having “all the appeal of a milkshake without malt” - so is immediately drawn to kind, sensitive Isaac, and their relationship blossoms.
In essence, it's a story about the power of kindness over bullying, of rising above life’s challenges and resisting peer pressure - all positive messages for teenagers at any time, and perhaps moreso today given the additional challenges brought by social media and climate change.
The story’s lead characters are well formed. I‘m sure most readers will like Sophie’s father, Gerry, as much as I did: a poet at heart with a loose, non-hypocritical parenting style, who deals with the mundanity of working at the local council by joyously breaking the rules.
My criticism of Herrick’s narrative - which probably reflects that I'm not his intended audience - is the plausibility of Isaac so quickly landing on his feet and diving into deep relationships. It seems, one day he is homeless and destitute, the next he is being left in charge of running a café, has a girlfriend and a finds a ‘bestie’ in her dad Gerry.
A few more obstacles and tension may have seemed more realistic.
Despite this criticism, I can see the value of this novel as a useful discussion starter in high school classrooms - particularly among male teens - as a way of teasing out and exploring different approaches to navigating complex, contemporary issues they face.
Kudos to Steven Herrick for not shying away from these issues.
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