Ellen Hopkins. Burned. New York: Margaret K. McElderry Books. 2006.
Genre: Poetry, Realistic Fiction
Audience: This book is written for a high school audience, 9-12th graders.
Summary: Seventeen year-old high school junior, Pattyn Von Stratten, is the oldest of 7 girls in a Mormon (Latter Day Saints) family where women are relegated to serve. When she begins having sexual dreams and questioning her religion, Pattyn starts to act out and spend time with a boy who’s interested in her. At home, her father’s alcoholism and her mother’s acceptance of his physical and emotional abuse causes her to question her religion even further. Pattyn’s rage at her home situation causes her to act out at school and become suspended and pushes her parents to send her away to her aunt’s Nevada ranch for the summer. There she discovers acceptance and love from her aunt as well as true romantic love with Ethan. Both relationships show her the importance of open communication and respect. Her time on the ranch is limited, and in her return home and the tragedy and aftermath that follow, we learn what happens when true love and acceptance is pushed to it’s limits by abuse and lack of understanding.
Read Aloud: Burned
Themes: When teaching this book the theme of abuse/dysfunctional relationships and alcoholism become important for discussion in the classroom. Examining how alcohol fosters the abusive situation in the household, how Pattyn’s mother and sisters react to the abuse, as well as how Pattyn feels stifled in her religious community to address the abuse are all issues that may lead to important and in-depth discussions. There is also the comparison between Pattyn’s first relationship, which at times seems dysfunctional with her relationship with Ethan that is based more on mutual love and respect. Even though this relationship doesn’t have a fairytale ending, the realistic portrayal of what can go wrong even in a good relationship is important for discussion of the novel.
Teen sexuality is also an important theme for high school students. The book addresses the choices of teens whether or not to have sex, who you choose as your first sexual partner (and why) as well as consequences (both positive and negative) of having sex. The book allows readers to relate to Pattyn as she moves through her newly awakening sexuality, how she feels about it, and what she does when she finally finds what she believes to be “forever love.” The book does an interesting job of addressing love in both positive and negative light, but the ending makes the reader wonder if the choices Pattyn made were actually positive.
Another theme I saw, and one that may be addressed more with the sequel, Smoke, (that is due out in 2012) is that of violence and revenge. The end of the novel presents what critics call a “Columbine” moment and opens up a discussion of appropriate ways to deal with situations where you feel wronged. Is revenge the answer? Is violence the way to get back at people around you? How will you feel if you do enact a violent revenge? All these questions are relevant to youth and situations youth may find themselves in during high school.
Connections: The themes of this book are ones that connect to young adults and are relevant in a number of situations and appear in many young adult novels. It is unique in that it is written entirely in free verse, making it a book that can been used to introduce different genres to a reading class while at the same time discussing issues such as plot, theme, and character development.
Reactions: I have mixed feelings about the book. I enjoyed the free verse and I have to say the dramatic ending and what Pattyn alludes to doing drew me in (but in reflection are not unexpected due to her experiences as her relationship with firearms). Still, I felt like there were a number of extremes that were a little too much for me, as an adult reader, to accept. The romance (though, again, not unexpected) happened a bit too quickly. I did appreciate the discussion of the Vietnam War, nuclear radiation and government testing in Nevada and its effect on the citizens, and women’s rights. All in all, I was drawn to the book and am interested in reading the sequel when it comes out.
One Young Adult reviewer of the novel comments on Hopkin’s themes, cliffhanger endings, religious sub-plots and characters. When discussing the characters he writes, “The characters were just amazing, especially Aunt J! Pattyn was an amazing protagonist, and Ethan was a pretty nice guy, and Pattyn’s dad (Stephen) OMG, he’s just such a great, over-protective dad and antagonist! I actually expected me to be bored by these characters, but they turned out amazing, some of them better than those in Crank.”
Others are disturbed by Hopkin’s portrayal of the Mormon Church. Jeff Gottsfeld, a Jewish author, writes, “In “Burned,” though, the reader finds the church unrelentingly bashed. At the family level, the bashing occurs in the persona of heroine Pattyn’s devout Mormon father, who acts criminally toward his own family in supposed accordance with church doctrine. At the local level, it’s the portrayal of uniformly hurtful bishops and congregation members who look away from child and wife abuse.” He goes on to discuss the universal assumptions he feels Hopkin’s makes and that as a young adult author Hopkin’s must be more aware of the stereotypes she presents to her audience.
Awards: Iowa High School Award Winner 2009-2010