This post reviews Lucy Frank, The Homeschool Liberation League (New York: Penguin, 2009).
Frank, author of seven young adult titles, here offers a delightful contribution to the growing genre of children’s literature with homeschooled characters.
Kaity Antonucci is the only child of two Connecticut working-class parents. She is a funny, popular girl at school, often instigating minor conspiracies against the authorities. But the summer before her eighth grade year she, against her parents’ wishes, had entered and won an essay contest providing a scholarship to “Wilderness Discovery Camp.” There she met people who were genuinely interested in things–a Russian scientist/counselor who called her Katya, a mature and compelling homeschooled girl named Rosie. Kaity decided that she was going to be her real self instead of her fake, popular, slightly cruel school self.
But she cannot. School drags her back into her old ways. Chapter 1 of Frank’s book reads, in its entirety, “The first day of eighth grade, I took the bus to school, walked through the door, turned around, and went home.”
The rest of the book chronicles Kaity’s effort to become Katya, to transform herself from the shallow school tart she was to the curious naturalist she wants to be. Along the way there are many hurdles, starting with a strong aversion to homeschooling from her conventional parents, who call themselves “school kind of people” (p.203) and her grandfather, who thinks homeschooling is “for hippies and communists.” (p.29) But Katya draws strength from her camp friends, a lively elderly man who visits her mom’s salon to get his arthritic feet treated, woodland critters and vegetation, and a mysterious boy named Milo who plays his violin out in the woods.
Of all the recent children’s books I’ve read involving homeschooled characters, Frank’s goes furthest in making homeschooling itself central to the plot. Camp friend Rosie introduces Katya to the possibility of “unschooling.” Milo’s homeschooling father Preston explains at one point to Katya’s parents,
most parents I’ve known tend to start out with a ‘school at home’ model. But in my experience, most don’t stick with it…. The average homeschooling family changes their style of home-schooling seven times in the first two years. So I wouldn’t feel bad about not knowing what you’re doing…. There are as many methods and philosophies of homeschooling as there are families. You do whatever works best, for your beliefs and your life. What my wife and I’ve settled on over the years is an eclectic, mix-and-match approach. (p.194)
Here and elsewhere in the book Frank’s depictions of homeschooling ring true. Her protagonists, Katya and Milo, are not only well-drawn, complex young people, but the social world they’re inhabiting, the world of Connecticut homeschooling, is believable. Frank’s narrative gives us real families where homeschooling is neither panacea nor scourge–it is a complex endeavor requiring sacrifices and compromises, generating conflict among parents, children and extended family even as it brings people together in shared endeavor. It can be liberating and isolating, rewarding and punishing. Frank captures all of this beautifully.
I emailed Lucy Frank asking her where her interest in and experience with homeschooling came from and she responded that the homeschooling theme was actually her editor’s idea. Responding to her editor’s suggestion, Frank immersed herself in homeschool websites, how-to guides, critiques of public education, and first person accounts. “And when,” she writes, “I met a girl, now in college, who told me she’d begged her parents to take her out of school because all she’d learned that year was how to shake hands and throw a ball, I knew I had my subject.” Frank herself, though valedictorian of her class, felt like all she really learned at school was how to play “the game of school.” She writes, “I wish someone had told me that I didn’t have to play the game, that there were other ways to go.”
The only note missing in her book, and here the book is exactly like all of the others I’ve reviewed, is the religious dimension. While it is true that a substantial percentage of Connecticut homeschoolers are motivated less by religion than by other factors, even in New England many homeschoolers are conservative Christians. Frank’s characters are believable: Rosie’s lesbian professional parents, Milo’s stage father, and Katya’s independent-minded but reluctant working class parents are all types that anyone with much experience in the homeschool world will immediately recognize. And given the self-segregation within the homeschool community [in CT the conservative Christians tend to join TEACH and the “inclusives” tend to join CHN. Local support groups are often segregated along religions lines as well], it is not implausible that parents like Milo’s and Rosie’s wouldn’t have much contact with religious conservatives. But it is a dimension I would have liked to have seen worked in somehow.
Two final points to make about the book. This is a young adult title. Frank’s characters do a lot of text messaging, internet messaging, talking on cell phones, and so on, all reproduced in the book, giving it an almost multi-media feel. It’s also written about and for young teen girls. Frank nails the confusion and emotional volatility of young adolescence, as well as the occasionally coarse language (actually quite restrained–strong PG to mild PG-13) and dawning sexual awakenings of the teenage years (also restrained, but her descriptions of the emotional electricity of a first and second kiss are not to be missed!). This is not, in the end, a book about homeschooling. It’s a book about a 13-year-old girl trying to overcome the faux identity foisted on her by the school context, searching out a self and a voice she can believe in. Homeschooling is just the tool she uses to get there.