by Ellen Wittlinger
About the book:
John’s life is an emotional shipwreck. His mom never touches him since his parents divorced and his dad would rather be anywhere than spending weekends with his son. John takes comfort in writing his zine and reading other zines like Escape Velocity by Marisol, a self-proclaimed “Puerto Rican Cuban Yankee Lesbian.” As their friendship develops, John’s protective shell cracks and he allows himself to admit his feelings about his parents and eventually for Marisol.
About the guide:
This guide includes discussion questions and projects appropriate for book clubs, literature circles, and classroom discussions. It is intended to provoke thought and insight into the themes of this novel which include family expectations, self-identity, escape, relationships, friendship, love and truth.
How did you become interested in zines? How have they changed since the publication of the novel?
My daughter’s friend, Colette, had a zine when she was 15 (and still puts out issues sporatically now, even though she’s almost 10 years older!) As soon as I saw her issues I was intrigued with this method of putting your writing (and your feelings) out into the world. It was a phenomenon that was new to me, but Colette put me in touch with other zine writers too and I wrote to them to see what had driven them to produce their zines. It seemed like a natural fit for a YA novel. There are still many paper zines around today–if you search the Net you’ll find lots of sources for them. Factsheet 5 is no longer available, and many zines are now e-zines, but the zine movement is still very alive.
What inspired John and Marisol’s story?
I had always wanted to write a story in which a gay or lesbian teen character was already out of the closet and comfortable with his or her sexuality. Up until that point, most books for YAs with gay protagonists were about their coming out. I wanted to write the NEXT chapter. Both Marisol and John sprang full-blown into my imagination and their chemistry was great. Because of who Marisol is, the story’s ending is inevitable, to me, yet many readers are upset by it. Which isn’t a bad thing either.
John was really transformed by his friendship with Marisol. Do you think this influence of friends is typical of teen relationships?
I think it’s very common for a friend with a strong personality to affect a teenager–for better or for worse. At this age, kids are much closer to their friends than to their parents, and they’re very open to new experiences. Of course they’ll be influenced by friends.
Do you ever find yourself still thinking about the characters you created? Do you know what happens to them after the close of the novel?
I do sometimes think about them, but I don’t usually create a life for them that lasts much past the end of the book. If I did, I suppose I’d write a sequel. And though I’ve always been nervous about writing sequels, fearing the second book wouldn’t live up the reader’s hopes for it, Hard Love is one book I have considered doing a sequel for. Maybe next time we’ll be in Marisol’s head.
- In the first line of the novel John claims that he is “immune to emotion.” How has he changed by the end of the novel? What causes this transformation?
- Describe John’s relationship with his mother. What is odd about how she interacts with him? Can you imagine this trait in your own maternal relationship?
- Compare Marisol and John. What do they have in common? How are they quite different from each other? How do they bridge their differences to build a friendship?
- Marisol asks John, “If you don’t know who you are how is anybody else supposed to get to know you?” Do you agree with her? If you were going to describe yourself like Marisol does in only four words which ones would you choose? Why?
- John doesn’t seem to have a problem lashing out at his parents (reread pages 39 and 64 for examples) but it doesn’t seem to help. Why not? Do all teenagers spar with their parents like this? Why or why not? Is it possible to get along with your parents during the teen years? How?
- How does John treat Brian? Why? Do you think what they have is true friendship? Why or why not? Are all friendships tested and proven? How is this one tested? How is Marisol and John’s friendship tested?
- Why do you think John asked Marisol to the prom when he was so disdainful of it? What went wrong? Why are events like this so important to some teens and not others?
- Both John’s dad and Marisol’s parents seemed to encourage their physical relationship. Why? What did they both have to gain? How was the intimacy that John and Marisol shared actually closer than many physical relationships? What creates intimacy?
- At first John questions his sexuality. Why? Do you think by the end of the novel this issue is resolved? Did you think that Marisol would become attracted to John in the novel? What clues did you have? Why did she call him “her only boyfriend?”
- Do you think John was justified in giving the letters that he wrote to his parents? What were their reactions? What do you think their relationships will be after his letters? What clues do you have to support this answer?
- Who is Diana? What does she do for him? Do you think this relationship has any hope? Why?
- How was the ending inevitable? Although the relationship couldn’t be reciprocated in the way John needed was he still better for having attempted it? Is he a better person after it’s over? Is all love, hard love?
- “That’s what I love about writing. Once you get the words down on paper, in print, they start to make sense. It’s like you don’t know what you think until it dribbles from your brain down your arm and into your hand and out through your fingers and shows up on the computer screen, and you read it and realize: that’s really true; I believe that.” (p.7) Do you agree with John? Is this how writing works for you? Which method were you taught in school: to pre-write and outline your ideas or to dive in and see what you think? Is one more valid than the other? What method do you think published writers use?
Create your own zine of at least eight pages. It can be fictional and you may take a nom de plume.
Write the next zine installment for either John or Marisol.
When John listens to the music of Hard Love he feels like the song has been written just for him. He realizes then that “I was not the only person to ever feel so tortured. Somebody had written this song; it had happened to somebody else.” (p. 213) Find a song that has given you a similar feeling. Explain your choice in a brief journal.
Create a piece of art with an ordinary box. On the outside have it represent the part of you that the entire world sees. On the inside, have the color, shapes, figures and design reveal the real you we all keep to ourselves. Title your work, but do not explain it unless you prefer.
This guide was created by Tracie Vaughn Zimmer, a reading specialist and author Sketches from a Spy Tree from Clarion. Visit her website to find other guides to YA literature.