I had an opportunity to visit with one of my former students recently. As their "librarian-for-life," I am always interested in their current reading choices and interests. He said, "You have to read William Sleator, Mrs. P."
My sojourns into middle school libraries have reinforced my belief that is is NEVER too late for a kid to become a reader.
Hell Phone by William Sleator, Harry N. Abrams, 2006
Start with some classic Rod Serling-Twilight Zone; add in some of Dante's Divine Comedy with extra "Inferno" sprinkled on top. Mix in cell phones, video games, part time jobs, and a high school romance and you have a book that grabs the most reluctant, uninterested, I-don't-read-books guy (or girl) and keeps them turning the pages.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
[1855 H. G. Bohn Hand-Book of Proverbs 514]
Nick is an "A" student works a part-time job at a hospital. His income helps his mother who is working two jobs to support them. He does not have a car but gets around on an old bike.
For the first time in his life, Nick has a girlfriend and he is crazy about her. He is respectful to her parents and mindful of her commitment to the high school soccer team. He just wants to be able to talk to her on the phone in the evening.
A flier advertising the "cheapest phones in town" lures him to a store in a seedy neighborhood to look for a cell phone The fact that the caller ID does not work, does not dissuade him from buying the phone that is offered to him. The whiff of sulfur about the cell phone store foreshadows the events to come.
He begins to receive terrifying calls the moment he turns the phone on. A sobbing young woman and dire warnings from the former owner of the phone frighten him. When an anonymous, sinister voice threatens him, Nick's life begins to spin out of control.
He begins lying, stealing and becomes enmeshed with unsavory characters. The reader can sense the downward spiral Nick is on and calls to him at every turn to stop and reverse his course. The cell phone takes on a life of its own and plays on his insecurities. Nick acts heroically to rescue his girlfriend from an attempted rape (before anything happens) but then commits a crime for which he is tried and punished.
The book has great appeal to middle school boys. Seventh and eighth grade guys are looking towards high school when they will be have a part time job, working for good grades to earn college scholarships, and dating for the first time. Books are a safe way for kids to "try on" a future.
In every way, Hell Phone is a cautionary tale. The ease in which Nick slips away from his former life is frightening as each decision seems to be made almost innocently or as an attempt to protect his girlfriend and mother.
Sleator allows for redemption but harsh lessons are learned and no one escapes scot-free. The situations are grim and the book is creepy but there is no vulgar language or "Sam Peckinpaugh" style violence. The filth and ordure of Hell is vividly described and provides a hefty, "eeewww..." factor.
What a great teen book club read this would be!
There is much to ponder and discuss here about right and wrong, religious implications, free will and the nature of evil.
The book design is by the imaginative Chad Beckerman. (who also designs The Last Apprentice series) This cover grabs the reader by the shoulders and dares them to move on to another book. The opening pages shows a cell phone signal strength icon with the final and tallest bar in flames. Flames edge the pages exactly where a reader holds the book to read.
No wonder the book hardly ever makes it back to the shelf before it is checked-out again.