Ashleigh’s boyfriend Kaleb is going to college at the end of summer, leaving her behind to get through two more years of high school. She’s worried, though, his leaving means he’ll be suddenly interested in other girls. More mature girls. Girls who will distract Kaleb and tear him away from her.
It’s at a party when Ashleigh’s friends convince her to send him a nude photo. No way would Kaleb forget her then. But when that photo gets around, Ashleigh finds she’s going to lose more than just her boyfriend.
Thousand Words by Jennifer Brown explores sexting and the consequences thereof. It reminded me a lot of Susan Vaught’s Going Underground (reviewed here) and for sure, it’s a very contemporary topic with very real consequences for today’s teens.
Brown’s novel alternates in its timeline. It’s set in the present during Ashleigh’s court-required community service, and between these chapters are those set as flashbacks to when she chooses to send the message and how it transports through the school. Through to getting her in trouble, too. Brown masterfully weaves the backstory in with the current time and she does so while building tension in the story. It never feels like information dropping but instead, the backstory informs the place Ashleigh is in now. It’s also clear early on that the romance is long gone, and it was worthwhile to see how the relationship between Ashleigh and Kaleb ended through this storytelling method, rather than getting something short and snipped about it being over.
Ashleigh’s punishment is for her to do a set number of hours of research on the issue of sexting and develop pamphlets and posters to educate other students about the consequences of it. Even though it’s a creative punishment and allows for Brown to offer a pat conclusion to the story, it’s also sort of boring and unrealistic. See, Ashleigh has quite a bit of privilege, even if it’s not acknowledged through the story. This privilege is a double-edged sword though. Her dad is a superintendant in the school distract she attends, so when the news breaks about the sexting issue, suddenly, her father’s job is in jeopardy. There’s a subplot about whether or not the community will push for her father to resign, but I think because of his position, Ashleigh’s punishment is less severe than it could have been (and thus, less interesting to read about). Maybe that’s an unfair assessment, but because this plot has been done before and done quite well in Vaught’s book, there’s been a standard set.
There is, of course, a budding romance in this novel, and it happens between Ashleigh and another teen who is spending time in community service. Except, Mack won’t let on why he’s doing time in service. Eventually he does let Ashleigh in, but even that feels a little underwhelming in execution. He offers Ashleigh a way to reconsider her position and even forces her to check her privilege, which was what she needed in order to carry on with her life. It hadn’t been easy to go back to school and deal with being called a slut and a whore, of course.
Thousand Words certainly has appeal and it’s well-written. It’s another addition to the shelf of quality books tackling important and everyday challenges of being a teen which readers have come to expect of Jennifer Brown. That said, it didn’t have quite the sparkle to it that Susan Vaught’s title did, and maybe it comes down to the fact that Ashleigh never quite had a voice of her own. It’s not that she’s dependent upon the actions of everyone else in the book — she’s not — but rather, she’s not entirely memorable as a character. All we know of her is that she runs periodically, that she spends time in thrift stores once in a while, that she’s an athlete, and that, yeah, she’s the girl who send a naked photo of herself to her boyfriend. Beyond that, we don’t get to know her on a deeper level, nor do we come away with a bigger picture of what her future may hold, other than she’s willing to stand up for herself. In the end, I wanted a better sense of who this girl was, but instead, I was left with a little bit of a didactic message about how one mistake doesn’t ruin your life. Also, of course, the message about how many teens participate in sexting and how it’s going to be an issue infiltrating teen lives as long as cell phones with camera capabilities exist.
Thousand Words is available now from Little, Brown. Review copy received from the publisher.