Back when I was a teenager, the book Go Ask Alice was published (1971), the purported journal of a heroin addict who ended up committing suicide by overdose. I remember reading the book and believing every word of it. I also remember as an adult that I found out it was probably a fictional account, and I was disappointed, but not terribly surprised. Cautionary tales read like fiction somehow because everything in the story combines to carry the message.
Dear Jo is another cautionary tale written in the form of a journal, but this time the moral of the story is “don’t meet stranger through the internet because they might be internet predators or even murderers.” Maxine, the journal writer, is writing about her feelings in aftermath of the disappearance of her best friend, Leah. Leah went out to meet a boy she first met on the internet and never came back. At the beginning of the story, it’s been six months since Leah was last seen, and it doesn’t look as if she’ll ever be found.
This novel doesn’t claim to be the journal of a real person or based on a true story, but just as Go Ask Alice warned kids of the 70’s of the dangers of drugs, Dear Jo warns kids of the twenty-first century of the dangers of the internet. And just as Go Ask Alice didn’t keep a lot of kids from experimenting with drugs, I doubt a book like this one will keep kids off the internet. (In fact, Brown Bear Daughter read it, liked it because it was so sad, and immediately asked if she could get a Xanga.) However, it may make them think twice before engaging in risky behaviors such as corresponding with pseudonymous guys or arranging meetings with strangers.
The story itself is decently written with lots of pop culture references: Avril Lavigne, the Goo-Goo Dolls, downloading MP3’s, Bratz dolls, Bob the Builder. Many of these references will be dated in only a few years, but maybe the information about internet safety will be dated by then, too. Predators and police alike may have developed new methods and new gimmicks by even next year. All an author can do is include the most current information possible and hope that parents and kids take heed.
I did have a little trouble with the time element in the book. A lot of Maxine’s journal is her memories of Leah and what happened before Leah was abducted. Then, the narrative switches to events that are happening six months after Leah’s disappearance and following. And sometimes Maxine writes about what happened immediately after Leah left. So the sequence of events gets a little confusing. But I think most kids would be able to keep up with what happened when.
The book does describe some pretty serious crimes: abuction, murder, and child endangerment. However, the descriptions are never gratuitously graphic, but more matter of fact. Most of the book deals with Maxine’s feelings as a survivor and her struggle to come out of her depression and make something good or redemptive out of a very bad thing. Dear Jo would be a great book to have available in every library and to reccomend to teens and pre-teens who spend a lot of time on the internet. (Are there any kids who DON’T spend time on the internet these days?) It’s propaganda, but it’s good propaganda for a worthy cause. And the story is absorbing enough to keep kids reading all the way to the end where the obligatory page of “tips for internet safety” is printed. I just hope they read those tips, too —and use them.
Dear Jo has been nominated for the Cybil Award for Middle Grade Fiction, and here’s what another blogger thought about it:
Charlene Martel of The Literary Word: “Via way of this journal, we follow along this painful story of loss and tragedy. A story that is all too real as these things can, and do happen all the time. It’s a great book in that it really brings home the message about the perils of the internet and why parents should be more “hands on” in supervising when their kids use it.”