High school is a trying time for anyone. Cliff “Neanderthal” Hubbard stands out at 6’6” and 250 pounds, but he is also a loner and his brother killed himself a year earlier. The jocks pick on him regularly and, as if that wasn’t enough, his father picks on him physically and mentally at home. On the complete flip side is school golden boy Aaron Zimmerman. He seems to get everything he wants while also constantly ridiculing those “beneath” him. Then there is a boating accident and Aaron winds up in a coma. When he comes to, he has decided that he has “seen G-d” and has been given a list of things to do to make Happy Valley High School suck less. He has also been told that in order to accomplish this, he must team up with Cliff Hubbard.
This is kind of a ludicrous beginning to a story, but it completely works. Cliff has nothing to lose, and Aaron uses a few key phrases that makes him feel a connection to his brother in order to get him to participate. But the list is not going to be easy: get Niko, the meanest bully, to change his ways, help an angry English teacher remember why he became a teacher, help a gang of drug dealers to realize the error in their ways, stop a vindictive computer hacker, and break up the “Jesus Teens,” a bizarrely un-Christian group trying to rule the school. Everyone thinks that they are crazy, but Aaron is on a mission and Cliff feels a purpose to life for the first time in a year.
That the two become friends is not surprising, but the power that happens when they both open their eyes to the school that they have been going to for years, is amazing. The fact that Niko bullies partly because no one actually takes the time to get to know him makes sense. The reasoning behind Mr. Spinelli’s change from teacher of the year to snoozefest opens their eyes to the fact that we don’t know how others might be suffering. I loved Cliff’s relationship with Tegan, though I couldn’t stand when she said “prolly” instead of probably.
In order to win the “sermon showdown,” which is the ultimate battle against the JTs, Aaron and Cliff have to cross all labeled boundary lines. If they want to make HVHS better, they have to make it a place where labels don’t completely define you. They have to actually see the people that go to the school instead of existing in their own little bubbles.
“But life is more than just existing. And it’s more than just a door with death and nothingness on the other side. Life is a series of doors. Every moment, every decision, is a door. And by opening them and stepping into the unknown, we are expanding and illuminating a world that we never knew existed. But if we don’t open those doors? If we stay put? We’ll be living in a world of walls.”
Put this into the ever growing list of really great YA realistic fiction titles. It is definitely worth reading.