The House of Tomorrow by Peter Bognanni
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This was a great character driven story. The main character is a teenager, Sebastian, who lives with his grandmother in a geodesic dome (think Epcot, just house sized) in Iowa.
Sebastian's parents died when he was young and his intelligent, but very quirky, grandmother became his guardian and raised him in the literal shelter of the dome and figuratively sheltered from outside influences. The outside world finds Sebastian when his grandmother suffers a stroke while a woman (Janice Whitcomb) and her angst filled punk rock teenage son (Jared) are visiting the dome as local tourists.
The Whitcombs' take Sebastian's grandmother to the hospital and he is introduced to soda (e.g. the description of his first taste of it is priceless) and punk rock music. During his grandmother's recovery Sebastian has freedom to explore the outside world, first by using the previously filtered internet and next as secret diversions from errands. Sebastian starts an email discussion with Jared to ask questions about punk rock and he is adopted as Jared's only friend. Jared had a recent heart transplant and is fragile in every way but attitude. Sebastian's guide to the outside world during the book is primarily Jared as he extols his punk rock world view. This is juxtaposed against the sheltered futurist theories of his grandmother - which Sebastian uses throughout the book to compare to the new things he is experiencing. Sebastian also develops relationships with Jared's mother, who sees him as someone in need of guidance and help, and Jared's sister Meredith whom he finds "beguiling."
The book took me back to my own teenage years and the familiar feeling of trying to find my own place in the world. Teenagers get advice from their friends, parents, and the media they choose to consume. Sebastian's only worldview was his grandmother's until the stroke and the reader gets to watch him explore, accept, interpret and/or disregard the information he receives. It is an interesting way of presenting an outsider view on a typically troubled suburban family. The parents are separated, Jared is very ill, Meredith is promiscuous and disrespectful to everyone. Despite the dysfunctionality it is clear they all do care for each other and are just struggling with how to show that and not have it ruin them. The characters, even the supporting ones, are very well developed and have their own struggles that, as a reader, were very interesting. I always appreciate it when an author spends as much time developing the supporting characters as the main character.
This week, while I was reading The House of Tomorrow, a friend of mine from high school posted about a debate regarding what is appropriate content for Young Adult novels. Her discussion resulted in a subsequent counterpoint about details raised in the comments section of her blog. The basic question was how much of the dark topics that exist in our world are appropriate for the reading material of the teenage audience of young adult novels.
As I read the discussion, and the comments in reaction to the discussion, I kept thinking about Sebastian. This book did not have the dark topics like suicide, rape, cutting, or other things that were used as the most serious offensive material. It wasn't completely clean either (e.g. Sebastian steals a bass guitar to play in a punk band with Jared). Sebastain's grandmother expressed the same justifications for her sheltering of him as some of the commenters in the blog discussion. Most of them claimed that "kids" can't understand the darker topics in their books so they shouldn't be exposed to it or their parents should screen their children's reading material for any inappropriate topics.
There are things I wouldn't want my kids to read or see, but I know that it is futile to try and keep them away from everything - probably anything. The best option, in my opinion, is to let them have the freedom to read what interests them - even if I don't like it - and make sure I'm involved in the discussion while they read. Commenters seemed universally in favor of parent involvement in some form, it was the degree of parental censorship that seemed to vary.
At the end of the story Sebastian is a better person for having lived in the Whitcomb's somewhat broken household, having experienced things that are less than wholesome, and having pushed the limits of acceptability to find where his own personal creed both begins and ends. I think this is a necessary part of growing up and helps kids set their own limits. Which are the only limits they actually follow when Mom and Dad aren't watching.