CM . . .
. Volume XX Number 7. . . .October 18, 2013
It’s prom night in small town USA, or maybe Canada. It doesn’t matter. We know every street corner in this town, along with every hangout, and many of the characters too. Cape Breton Island author Tom Ryan seems to have purposefully set his second YA novel in a world where we will not only recognize all the street corners and hangouts but also most of the characters. On his web page, Ryan explains that the inspiration behind the book was his love for “teen movies, from the 80s, 90s and early 2000s”. The influence of movies like Risky Business and The Breakfast Club on Ryan is quite clear.
In The Breakfast Club, it was, “Five strangers with nothing in common, except each other”. In Ryan’s version, it is four mismatched teenagers - virtual strangers until now, who find themselves together during a long night of misadventure and mishap. Hijinks, as they say, ensue. The four have been brought together by unrelated and unhappy circumstances, and the range of these circumstances does make for interesting reading. Each chapter is told from the perspective of one of the four teens.
The first teen is Andrea who has been grounded by her overly engaged mother. Andrea has escaped out her bedroom window, but now she’s not dressed for the prom and won’t have a chance to make an impression on the boy of her dreams. Meanwhile, Paul has stood up his girlfriend and prom date (Guess who? The hottest girl in school, of course!), due to a recurring panic attack that he doubts his image conscious girlfriend will understand. In another part of town, Roemi’s prom dream of “stealing the show as the lights dimmed and the crowed parted, and then we’d totally fall in love in the middle of the dance floor” is dashed when his new online gay friend loses his nerve and stands Roemi up. And finally meet Candace, a tagger with an antiauthoritarian attitude and a love for street art, who, on this night, is being chased by a cop.
Being liberated from their usual constraints and social concerns also frees the four to respond in new ways to the events that unfold. Paul suddenly finds himself helping Candace evade the cop, and Andrea realizes that she’s already in so deep she may as well tag along and see where the night takes her. As the action ramps up, the novel moves into its strongest act. The verbal assault of Roemi by Paul’s drunken, homophobic friend is a watershed moment for the group. As each of the four struggle to understand their own reactions, each must decide where they stand and what they truly want. It is interesting that it is not until they stop focusing on their own problems and turn to help another member of their “breakfast club” that any self understanding occurs.
Ryan must be given lots of points for style. And a lot of those points come when Roemi is talking. Here’s Romei’s description of an online conversation with John, the boy who stands him up:
Ryan’s ear is less well tuned to Andrea and Candace. But Paul’s struggle with anxiety and the choices he’s made are dealt with in a tender, insightful manner. Ryan also must be given his due for creating four interesting characters readers will grow to care about and cheer for.
Some of the support characters are less interesting and seem to come from central casting. Take for example Roemi’s parents. In this scene, Paul has returned to make amends to Roemi after betraying him. Paul’s plan involves borrowing Roemi’s father’s car.
Not exactly a realistic conversation but a fun fantasy nonetheless.
All roads lead to the prom in this teen drama. The four teens, now deeply sympathetic and loyal to one another, have become the hero in someone else’s story. Altruism frees each of the characters to step away from their own problems, and this distance ultimately provides the perspective each teen needs to move forward. Things wrap up as neatly as they do quickly with everyone getting their just desserts in a satisfying “the world is ok” kind of way.
Remember this tag line from Breakfast Club: “They were five total strangers, with nothing in common, meeting for the first time. … Before the day was over, they broke the rules. Bared their souls and touched each other in a way they never dreamed possible.” This could also be the theme statement of Tag Along. The thing is that this familiarity might be entirely the point. This is an Orca Book publication whose target audience is struggling and reluctant readers. For many of these students, familiarity is exactly what a reading clinician would recommend. This sort of reader is often not looking for great insight or alternative perspectives. Instead, this reader requires the supported reading experience of a predictable plot and well-loved themes. If this is Tom Ryan’s goal, then he has more than succeeded with Tag Along. Junior high teachers who put this fun and entertaining novel in the hands of reluctant and struggling readers are sure to be thanked by their students.
Charlotte Duggan is a teacher-librarian in Winnipeg, MB.
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