From School Library Journal
Gr 9 Up—Devastated by the death of her first love, 15-year-old Jam Gallahue is having difficulty moving on with her life. After nearly a year of being mired in grief, her parents send her to a boarding school in rural Vermont that specializes in “emotionally fragile” teens. Once there, she is surprised to have been one of five students selected by the legendary Mrs. Quenell for a class called Special Topics in English. It seems that the entire semester—Mrs. Q’s swan song before retirement—will be devoted to the works of Sylvia Plath, and the students are given special red leather journals in which to record their reactions to the assigned readings.
Jam is unenthusiastic at first until she realizes that these are no ordinary journals. When she and her classmates, all of whom have endured debilitating losses, begin to writing in their pages, they are transported to their former lives, at least for a while. The teens bond over their experiences in what they call Belzhar, and are able to share their stories and look out for and protect one another.
As the semester progresses and the notebooks begin to fill up, they must each confront some inner demons and make some tough choices about their future paths. Wolitzer spins a smart and engrossing tale of trauma, trust, and triumph. She is respectful of the intelligence and sophistication of the teens while acknowledging their vulnerability and lack of life experience.
Their voices ring true and the emotional truths are authentic—even for those readers unwilling or unable to embrace the magical realism. Exploring the themes of self-reflection and the recurring notion that “words matter” make this title a perfect choice for book groups and discussions.—Luann Toth, School Library Journal