This book has been reviewed by Focus on the Family Thriving Family, a marriage and parenting magazine. It is the second book in the "Hazelwood High Trilogy" series.
Crude or Profane Language
Drug and Alcohol Content
Other Negative Elements
At age 3, Gerald Nickelby fears his mother, Monique. She physically abuses and neglects him — leaving him home alone, failing to change diapers, burning him with her cigarette lighter, slapping or hitting him with belts and shoes, and inflicting other horrific punishments. Drugs and alcohol often fuel her rage and cause her to disappear for a time. One day when she's stepped out to get drugs, Gerald plays with her cigarette lighter and accidentally sets the apartment on fire. Gerald ends up in the hospital, and Monique goes to jail.
The next six years of Gerald's life are joyful ones. He goes to live with Aunt Queen, who dotes on him and provides for him despite her own physical and financial hardships. On his 10th birthday, after she's given him the brand new bike he desperately wanted, Aunt Queen presents another surprise. Monique, who has been out of prison for a year, is coming for breakfast. Gerald is further shocked to learn that Monique has remarried a surly, scary man named Jordan Sparks and has a kindergarten-age daughter named Angel. Monique asks Gerald to come live with them, and he refuses. Aunt Queen assures him he doesn't have to, right before she has a heart attack and dies. Left without an option, Gerald returns to Monique.
Gerald and Angel hit it off from the beginning, and Gerald quickly grows protective of his half-sister. Life at Gerald's new home is difficult. Jordan is mean and physically abusive, especially when he's drunk. Monique, afraid and in awe of him, is always apologizing, and she scurries around the house to make things perfect for the man she loves. Gerald puts up with the physical abuse, but things change when he learns Jordan is touching Angel inappropriately.
Gerald begins rearranging his schedule so he never leaves Angel alone with Jordan, and he finally tells his friend Rob Washington's dad about the molestation. Mr. Washington helps him call the police, who are able to catch Jordan in the act. He is tried and sent to prison for six years. Monique calls the kids liars, refusing to admit her beloved husband could have committed such crimes.
Life improves for the kids with Jordan out of the picture. Angel begins taking dance classes and thrives in lead roles in her programs. Gerald plays basketball on his high school team and makes several good friends. Monique continues to struggle with keeping a job, buying groceries and paying rent. They move four times in five years as a result. She remains drug-free but takes up drinking whiskey. Mr. Washington continues to check in on the kids every few months to see how things are going.
Jordan returns home when his prison time is over, despite the kids' objections. He is on his best behavior, but Gerald is still nervous and watchful. Angel's anxiety has returned, and she frequently throws up because of it. One night, before Jordan is home, Monique goes out to get him some cigarettes. A taxi hits her, putting her in the hospital in serious condition. Jordan doesn't visit. Monique comes home a few days later, very distant and disconnected. She watches TV most of the time. When her prescription pain medicine is gone, Jordan gets her street drugs, which she washes down with beer. The children secretly begin to flush her pills down the toilet until her condition improves some. Jordan comes home angry one night and begins hitting Monique and Gerald. For the first time, Monique admits Jordan's abuse to the children. This gives them hope that she eventually will kick Jordan out of their home.
Gerald is heartbroken when he learns several of his friends are in a crash because of their drinking and driving. His friend Rob is the only passenger who dies. Gerald and Angel go to the Washingtons' home to grieve with the people who walked with them through so many difficult situations.
Later, Angel finds herself alone in the apartment with Jordan. After so many years, he makes another attempt to molest her. The food she was cooking boils over on the stove, starting a fire. Gerald sees the smoke and rushes in to save his sister, fighting Jordan in the process. Jordan dies in the fire. Monique finally sheds tears, realizing all that her children have gone through at Jordan's hands. Together, the three ride to the hospital in an ambulance. The kids are injured but hopeful about the future.
Aunt Queen hums old hymns to Gerald, filling up the empty spaces in his heart. She prays for strength before Gerald's reunion with his mom. She also says a prayer before breakfast on the day of the reunion. She asks Jordan to pray, but he refuses.
Other Belief Systems
The Lord's name is used in vain a few times. Gerald calls Jordan a perverted b--tard when he catches him trying to hurt Angel. Monique and Jordan are repeatedly abusive. They slap, beat and punch, but the descriptions of their behavior are not gory or gratuitously graphic.
At age 3, Gerald knows never to wake his mother, especially when she has someone in bed with her. When Gerald moves in with Monique years later, he learns Jordan is "messing with" his little sister. The book doesn't get too specific about Jordan's behavior. It mentions his making Angel take off her shirt as he examines her chicken pox in a somewhat sensual way. Readers see him sitting Angel on his lap, telling her that touching is good and telling is bad. He sneaks into and out of her room, where Gerald finds her crying afterward. Jordan makes comments about how much he's missed being with Angel and how he just wants to talk to her. He also threatens her, saying he'll make her live in the snow alone or kill her cat if she tells. When he's on trial for his crimes, prosecutors give Angel a doll and ask her to point out where Jordan touched her. Again, readers aren't given specifics. For years after he's out of prison and supposedly rehabilitated, Jordan doesn't touch Angel. He makes another attempt when she is 13, but Gerald stops him. Jordan has always claimed Angel is his daughter. As he's attempting to molest her near the end, she tells him a daddy shouldn't do that. He tells Angel her mom had a lot of boyfriends, and she wasn't his child.
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Other negative behavior: Gerald and four of his friends decide they want food one evening. They pool their money and buy two meals at a buffet restaurant, then all five eat as much as they want.
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Readability Age Range
12 and up
Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing Division
Coretta Scott King Book Award, 1998; ALA Best Fiction for Young Adults, 1997; Parents' Choice Award, 1997