Life Lessons: Important Topics But May Have Collateral Damage

Wiess, Sarah. Such a Pretty Girl. New York, New York: Pocket Books, 2007.

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Discussing tough issues in the classroom has always been somewhat difficult for teachers and students. Talking about topics such as divorce, death, abuse, and rape can make unpleasant memories resurface and discomfort arise, however, these subjects should not be simply swept under the rug. One important reason for teaching is to prepare students to participate in society and to help them realize that not everything in life is black and white; life is difficult and challenging. It is through education, guidance, and support that students develop into well rounded adults. Although some of these topics would be difficult to address to an entire class, it is still important to have the materials available for students who would like to learn more about real life issues such as coping with sexual assault.

In Such a Pretty Girl the main character, Meredith, learns that her father is being released early from jail after being incarcerated for multiple counts of sexual assault and rape of minors, including his own daughter. Not only must she deal with the fact that he is no longer safely behind bars, but she must also deal with her mother who wants him to come home for good. Meredith's mother is actually excited to have him back in the house so they can be a "family" again. Terrified but determined, Meredith must now protect herself from the man she used to look up to and learn who she can trust. When Meredith's father calmly asks her where that daddy's loving girl went, she simply replies, "You killed her, and now you have to deal with me because I'm what's left.”

Even though the book does not include vulgar, grotesque content, Such a Pretty Girl is strongly suggested to not be taught in the classroom as it could cause a resurfacing of memories or emotional distress in some students and discomfort in others. This book, however, should be made available to students as an independent or alternative reading because it brings up important topics to be addressed, such as rape, life morals, and relationships. It is a great platform to discuss morality in American society.

Recommendations for Teachers

The Effects of Rape & What to Do:
Any student who is reading this book would be able to benefit from the main theme of rape. Many teenagers either know someone or have personally experienced a situation involving abuse or rape, so the book could be used as a way to reach out to readers. Although it’s unfortunate, students may relate to this book, so it could show them that they are not alone. Whether or not they have some sort of experience with this issue, students become aware of the effects of rape. Meredith says, “…I know how bad the odds are for girls like me. We wait to be rescued, but for whatever reason, no one comes. We figure that if no one protects us then we must not be worth protecting so we become prey and are easily picked off. Our wounded, kicked-puppy gazes attract sly predators and we sell ourselves for clearance sale prices, mistaking screwing for caring. We binge, purge, sleep around. We drink too much and get too high, anything to blot out the past. We accept and endure beatings and humiliations because our fathers, our uncles, and our mothers’ twisted boyfriends said they loved us, too, right before they broke our bones and tore our tissue, right before they made us receive them.”

Not only do they become aware of the effects, they also realize the importance of telling someone so they do not become another statistic. As Meredith plots out her plan to catch her father in the act, she says, “I do want to get him in trouble. I should have told all the first time instead of worrying that my mother would hate me. That she wouldn’t love me anymore. Now I know better…I will not take the blame for his perversion. If I can stay sane, I can send him to prison for life or at least until I turn eighteen, which will give me three more years of peace. I will save other kids from my father and hopefully I will save myself, too…These are my vows” (185-186).

Teachers can have students make a list of things they would do in Meredith’s situation, or they could have them list out the positive effects of telling a trustworthy adult. Teachers could even have students write a paper addressing the statistics of teen rape and its outcomes.

Meredith's survival would not have been the same without the people who cared about her. She has a safe place to go when things get ugly, and she has people she can trust for support and shelter. Although it was only three years ago that her father was locked up, Meredith found it in her heart to open up to someone; her friend Andy who also has history with her father. Together Andy and Meredith struggle to gain control of their lives with Meredith's father back in town.

Although there is an age difference between Andy and Meredith the reader can see that the characters are falling for each other. Have students journal about one or more of the topics listed below then discuss in groups or as a class the answers given:
1. How do you feel about the age difference between Meredith and Andy? Should they be together?
2. How would you feel about dating someone in a wheelchair?
3. What resources do friends provide that parents or teachers cannot?
4. What would you have done in Meredith's situation? At the beginning? In the middle? At the end?

Loss of Innocence:
Meredith's story could be used to discuss the topic of innocence. There are three big ways into which it can be discussed.
  1. What is innocence? Is it a characteristic or a state of being? Is it the same or different from the law term "innocent"?
  2. When is it lost? examples.
  3. Do people fully lose innocence? Why or why not?
After discussing those questions, the class can talk about Meredith's innocence (Andy's as well) and how it changed throughout the book.
This could also be a jumping point into a narrative writing of their own "Coming of Age" story.

About Laura Wiess

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Laura Wiess was born and raised in a small city called Milltown, which is located next to the Jersey Turnpike. Her personality is a mix of calmness and chaos. According to her website, "She claims she inherited her patience, imagination, and love of books from her mother, and her impatience, determination, and passion for land from her father. Her stubbornness, however, she blames on the combined mega-whammy of genetics, birth order and astrological sign, as that pretty much lets her off the hook for the whole deal."

Below is an interview with Laura Wiess about her character development and plot line in her books

Additional Resources:
Local resources in Grand Rapids for many types of tough situations are provided by Family Futures
Specific links are found here: click here

Support site for teens who have experienced rape:
click here

For more information about this topic and how to help a friend or loved one visit Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN):
Click here

How to deal with sexual assault:
click here

Surviving sexual assault:
click here

Teens dealing with sexual assault:
click here

For more information about Laura Wiess and her books:
Click here

Books with similar themes:
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
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Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
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--Tricia Haggerty
--Alexis Brady
--Liz Juarez