Book Reviews: Joan Bauer and Teen Work Ethic

Then I mentioned the part about being ignored for my age and put in a word for teenagers everywhere.

“It happens a lot, Mrs. Gladstone. Our money is just as good as an adult’s, sometimes we’ve had to work longer and harder for it. Kids deserve respect when they go into a store.”

I recently reread Hope Was Here (HWH) and Rules of the Road (ROTR), both by Joan Bauer. Hope Was Here because I wanted to read a feel-good book and Rules of the Road because the book specifically mentions Al-Anon, and, well, that’s the kind of mood I was in. To be honest, though, I had forgotten I read Rules of the Road before (though it felt really familiar) until I went to rate it on Goodreads and saw that I’d already given it a rating. Okay, then!

In brief: HWH is an allegory about the positive impact teens can have on politics, while ROTR is about a girl (Jenna) who becomes an elderly woman’s personal driver after Jenna’s alcoholic father comes back into her life. They’re both good books with relatable main characters. They are also unrelentingly positive (even though both deal with heavy issues), which I really appreciate because I can get overwhelmed by reading too many super heavy books. Mainly, though, I want to talk about how Bauer features teenagers and work in both of these novels.

Jenna (ROTR) and Hope (HWH) both have jobs, and both girls enjoy and take pride in their work. The most surprising factor, though, is that neither of them have particularly glamorous jobs. Hope is a diner waitress, and Jenna sells shoes. Both jobs are in the customer service sector and are typically equated with low pay and grunt work. These are also the types of jobs I think of kids taking because they can’t get anything else and then, you know, complaining about the jobs. (Remember in High School Musical 2 when the kids all just wanted/needed summer jobs, got jobs, and then immediately talked about how much they hated working? Yeah, like that.) Not so with Jenna and Hope. They are both extremely good at their jobs and know it.

Jenna: “I am a shoe professional” (pg. 1).

Hope: “It was my fourteenth birthday, and I took to waitressing like a hungry trucker tackles a T-bone. That job was the biggest birthday present I’d ever gotten” (pg. 2).

So not only are both girls customer service aficionados (they want and can make their customers happy), but their characters are defined by the work they do and how good they are at it. The very first nuggets of character development the reader gets is all about the jobs the girls do and how well they do them.

Bauer’s message is clear: Do not underestimate teenagers, and do not think they are lazy or selfish or looking for a short cut.

These girls work hard for their money, and–more importantly–they want to be taken seriously, so they are. They have to prove themselves again and again (to customers and other employees), and each time, they deliver. Because they are serious about their work and they care about it.

That’s not all, though. Both girls get their skills (waitressing and salesmanship) from an absentee parent. Hope’s mom is a terrible mother but an excellent waitress, and almost everything Hope knows about being a waitress, she learned from her mother. Jenna’s father is an alcoholic who couldn’t keep a sales job because of his drinking, but when he was sober and working, he delivered every time. So the girls get the best parts of their parents and maintain a connection to them while still acknowledging that their parents aren’t that great at being parents. So even though their parents are not good, they do give the girls something useful: skills that allow them to take care of themselves.

I think this is an excellent way to show that almost everyone has some good in them without having to make it about the parents. Bauer doesn’t spend a lot of time having to explain that although the parents screwed up, at least the kids have good skills. The characters are able to acknowledge it, the reader is able to understand it, and the narrative doesn’t slow down or become preachy. It’s really smart writing and character development.

I enjoy Bauer’s work for a lot of reasons, but that she doesn’t underestimate teenagers and highlights that they’re hard workers are a couple of the main ones.

Other notes:

  • Addie from HWH is totally my people.
  • Jenna drives a Cadillac all summer. A Cadillac is totally my dream car. (I want an SRX. That is the dream.)
  • I love that Jenna has attended Al-Anon meetings, but I wish Bauer had included some scenes of her actually attending the meetings or talking to someone in the program (though I do understand that wouldn’t have really fit the narrative). I also wonder why no mention of Alateen is made.
  • Old people are the best, and they feature heavily in both novels (moreso in ROTR). Teens + old people = my favorite combo, for real.
  • I love that you can see Jenna’s red hair blowing in the wind on the ROTR cover. So cute!
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