Tag Archives: Southern literature

When Variables Unbalance the Equations of Teenage Love & Life: My Life as a Rhombus by Varian Johnson

Image courtesy of Google Images

Image courtesy of Google Images

If I could only rearrange and eliminate

the variables of hit-and-miss relationships

to achieve the perfect balance.

–By Alexandra Caselle

Image courtesy of Google Images

Image courtesy of Google Images

Like a moth to a flame

Burned by the fire

My love is blind

Can’t you see my desire?

That’s the way love goes

–“That’s the Way Love Goes” by Janet Jackson

Image Courtesy of Google Images

Image Courtesy of Google Images

First love is like a Goody’s powder:

All that ails you goes away,

giddiness bubbles up inside,

the calm before the storm.

Then the effects wear off.

–By Alexandra Caselle


rhombus 2     My Life as a Rhombus by Varian Johnson. 2007, Woodbury, MN:  Flux. ISBN13:  978-0-7387-1160-7.

Teen angst involves Mother Nature’s cruel joke of puberty:

Gangly arms grazing against the ground.  Boys’ voices echoing in alternating crescendos of thunder booming and frogs croaking after a summer rain. Fitting rooms brimming over with World War III battles of the hems between mothers and daughters.

Then Mother Nature wanted to add hormones to the mix.

Falling in love for the first time derails and disrupts.

If adolescents only knew that the first relationship creates a lens in which they will view every future, intimate connection.  It will propel them like caterpillars into a cocoon where they will eventually break out and transform into a monarch butterfly—each tear, each experience, each emotional, mental, and spiritual scar imprinted on the mosaic of their wings.

The next significant other bound by the coordinates on the x(ex)-y axis.

With Rhonda, she chooses to rely on the “comfort in the exactness of math and the precision of science (pg. 33)” to prevent future heartbreaks.  The whirlwind of fun, fumbling sex and the flowing legato of game ends when Rhonda gets pregnant.  Christopher’s choir boy image risks the chance of being marred not only socially, but physically by his father’s pummeling fists.

Rhonda’s dad decides to take her to Atlanta to end her pregnancy.  Rhonda returns home to focus her energies on studying and tutoring in the local college’s program. It isn’t until one of the most popular girls waltzes in with trig problems and baby issues of her own that Rhonda realizes that she may not have been totally sure of her father’s decision.

So the overlapping of Sarah’s problems into Rhonda’s life blurs the lines of order. Having a crush on Sarah’s brother, David, does not help the situation.

David is the inverse of Christopher, but Rhonda continuously wants to label him as a jerk like her ex, Christopher. She can’t deny the way she feels.  She soon realizes that she must see herself through a different angle before she can explore all of the contours of real love that David can offer.

There is an element of surprise when the father of Sarah’s baby is revealed. This climactic event also places David in conflict with Christopher.

Johnson’s writing style really draws the reader in. Throughout my reading of the novel, I thought Varian Johnson was a female.  He depicts each character with such deft detail, especially the way he is able to place himself inside the thoughts and emotions of a teenage girl in a predicament like Rhonda’s.  The reader can actually feel the steely personality of Rhonda and Christopher’s mother, Judge Gamble.  Forget about Miranda on The Devil Wears Prada and the mother in Mommie Dearest.

Dare I say, that this writer who has always been plagued by math anxiety thoroughly enjoyed the blend of math and literature.  Some areas of his book helped me, the mathematically challenged, understand some concepts through his writing.

And those adolescents who love numbers like writers love words (those extraordinary individuals affectionately dubbed as “blerds” or “nerds” by today’s social media communities) will enjoy Johnson’s use of word problems, graphs, Venn diagrams, geometry, and other mathematic functions to describe the complexities of Rhonda’s, Sarah’s, and David’s lives as the plot advances.

Johnson also dispels the stereotype that boys excel in math and sciences. Here, he portrays a young, African American girl who loves these subjects and plans to study a major.  Adolescent girls need to read about Rhonda so they can be motivated to enter those fields.

Through the language of mathematics, Rhonda breaks down the language of recovery: healing from the past, manipulating the variables of relationships between parents and children, and discovering new postulates of friendship and romance through Sarah and David Gamble.  She draws new boundaries of intersecting life lines.

The rhombus also becomes a significant symbol because of the way Rhonda negatively boxes her identity into it, but she inverts its meaning into something more defining and beautiful.

This book would be a great read-aloud for English/ reading classes and all levels of math classes.  It provides many opportunities for interdisciplinary teaching. Math teachers could also use the problems in the book to simplify the concepts behind the actual mathematical functions.  English teachers can show how mathematics can be used to tell stories mathematically and figuratively. It also will fit nicely into a Southern literature unit, high school or college-level, since Johnson sets the story in South Carolina.  Teachers can discuss how the characters and the themes/topics challenge or confirm Southern mores and how they compare to today’s Southern culture.

Since My Life as a Rhombus deals with handling different types of math, people and situations, teachers can bring the kinesthetic into the classroom and make the reading of this novel more concrete by participating in “The Marshmallow Challenge:”http://www.productivemindset.com/problem-solving/team-building-with-the-marshmallow-challenge/.

I participated in this activity in a team-building training. It challenged my perspective on how our imagination and thinking processes change as we progress from kindergarteners to adults.

My Life as a Rhombus will also challenge readers’ perceptions of mathematics, romance, and tough decisions.

Text-to-Text Connections— Romance & Relationships in African American Young Adult Literature (YAL)

jason and kyra   Jason & Kyra by Dana Davidson

played   Played by Dana Davidson

a teenage love affair  Teenage Love Affair  by Ni-Ni Simone

boyfriend diaries  The Break-Up Diaries by Ni-Ni Simone and Kelli London

breakup diaries   The Break-Up Diaries Vol. 2  by Nikki Carter & Kevin Elliott

chasing romeo  Chasing Romeo  by A. J. Byrd

kelli london  Boyfriend Season by Kelli London

love on 145th street  What They Found on 145th Street  by Walter Dean Myers

romietteRomiette and Julio by Sharon Draper

born Born Blue by Han Nolan

woodsonIf You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson

Can you suggest any other YAL romances that can be paired with this book?

COMING UP IN BOOK REVIEWS (Yes, Virginia, there are African-American YAL paranormal books. They do exist!):  Ninth Ward  by Jewel Parker Rhodes, Asleep by Wendy Raven McNair, & Orleans by Sherri L. Smith


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When Pipe Dreams Hold You Hostage: Beneath a Meth Moon by Jacqueline Woodson

Picture found on Google Images (FanPop)

Picture found on Google Images (FanPop)

A geyser spewing water up in the air

A rollercoaster hitting a low point 75 mph

A bubble popping in midair

A river raging against a dam

A soul finally seeing the brink of a horizon

A musician crooning out a high note

A woman clenching her man in a tight embrace and gazing

at him like he is the most beautiful thing she has ever seen.

A drug addict twitching and grabbing his thigh after a fix

Multiply those images by 100 and divide them by infinity.

Then you will understand how a high feels to me.

Then you will understand why I can’t let it go.

–By Alexandra Caselle

51ItTFMjorL__SL160_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-dp,TopRight,12,-18_SH30_OU01_AA160_Woodson, Jacqueline. Beneath a Meth Moon. $16.99 (hardcover price). Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin Young Readers Group: 2012. 978-0-399-25250-1.   

When tragedy strikes, you feel like all of life’s anchors have unhitched and you are floating in limbo.  Reality disintegrates into white tufts of dandelions in mid-flight. Your feet are in motion on top of terra firma; to you, it feels like nothing is grounding you.

Your past becomes an old friend, walking hand-in-hand with you.  It has certain images set on instant replay, a gag reel of moments you want to go back to and retouch or edit, but you can’t and you are not laughing.  You search for a way out, even though you are already free from harm’s way, though, in your mind, it is as real and fresh as an open wound.

Traumatic events are like that.  They fracture your inner core and you are left with the pieces.  You try to put them back together, but some of the edges won’t fit into their original places. Your only solace is a coping mechanism that only deepens the dissension.

Laurel is a teenage girl who is dealing with this type of situation in Jacqueline Woodson’s novel, Beneath a Meth Moon.  Although Hurricane Katrina displaced bodies, the mind, unfortunately, was left behind.  Laurel struggles with the memories of this natural disaster and the loss of her mother and grandmother.  She relocates to another city and begins a new life. Her boyfriend, T-Boom, introduces her to the “moon,” and the drug provides an escape.

Woodson’s use of italics to enter Laurel’s mind transcends her experience to the reader.  The reader does not see her as just a meth addict.  He or she establishes an emotional connection and becomes overwhelmed with the urge to enter the story and grab her by the arms and save her from herself.  The reader can also connect to the father’s anguish as he witnesses Laurel’s decline.

Adolescent girls can also connect to Laurel’s relationship with T-Boom.  Often, they face a situation in which they must deal with someone trying to exert control over them.  They may not know how to handle it and stay where they are.

As you follow Laurel’s journey and discover if she succumbs to the allure of the meth moon, you will come to understand the true meaning of the phrase of not judging someone until you have walked a mile in her shoes.

Text-to-Text Connections

Product DetailsThe Girl Who Fell From the Sky by Heidi Durrow.   Rachel Morse is a  young survivor of a family tragedy.  Her traumatic experience is not a natural disaster, but she and Laurel definitely have similar journeys in trying to cope with life-altering experiences through different ways.  Not only does Rachel has to deal with trauma, but she also has to face issues involved with being biracial.  It is another book in which the author’s writing style draws you into the characters’ experiences and hooks your emotions.

Product DetailsThe Battle of Jericho by Sharon M. Draper  This young adult novel deals with the issue of death by hazing.  Jericho and his cousin undergo the ritual of being initiated into the high school band.  One of the events results in the death of Jericho’s cousin.  Jericho has to cope with the aftereffects of his cousin’s death.  Draper’s book, along with Beneath the Meth Moon, offers an opportunity to bring real-life events from the media into the discussion of this narrative.

Product DetailsGo Ask Alice by Anonymous  This book is an account of an adolescent’s experiences as a drug addict.  Its eye-opening portrayal submerges the reader into what it is like to struggle with addiction.

Product DetailsLike Trees, Walking by Ravi Howard  Even though this novel looks at the tragedy of lynching through a historical lens, the common bond between it and Beneath the Meth Moon is the effects of trauma on those who are left behind, mainly young people who are intricately connected to the victims.

Product DetailsCome Hell or High Water by Michael Eric Dyson  This nonfiction book examines Hurricane Katrina through a critical and sociological lens.  It connects to the Laurel’s narrative because it provides an intimate look into the natural disaster and its effects through the social constructs of race and class.  Through Laurel’s eyes, the reader delves into the personal, psychological, and emotional effects of the hurricane.

What other books or stories that deal with traumatic experiences, natural disasters, or drug use can you suggest?

In what other ways can traumatic experiences affect an individual, a family, a community, or a nation?

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