by Ali Benjamin
, Paige RawlPublished by HarperCollins
on August 26, 2014Genres: Memoir
, YA Pages:
ARCSource: BEA 2014
An astonishing memoir for the untold number of children whose lives have been touched by bullying. Positive is a must-read for teens, their parents, educators, and administrators—a brave, visceral work that will save lives and resonate deeply.
Paige Rawl has been HIV positive since birth, but growing up, she never felt like her illness defined her. On an unremarkable day in middle school, she disclosed to a friend her HIV-positive status—and within hours the bullying began. From that moment forward, every day was like walking through a minefield. Paige was never sure when or from where the next text, taunt, or hateful message would come. Then one night, desperate for escape, fifteen-year-old Paige found herself in her bathroom staring at a bottle of sleeping pills.
That could have been the end of her story. Instead, it was only the beginning. Paige's memoir calls for readers to choose action over complacency, compassion over cruelty—and above all, to be Positive.
This is one of those books most of my friends have no plans to read. Frankly, I didn’t have any plans to read it either, but it got handed to me while I was at BEA and a documentary about the HIV/AIDS problems in the hemophiliac community due to poor handling and testing of blood in the past made me change my mind. Besides, it was just 288 pages. That’s a breeze if you’ve got an afternoon and a good attention span. After about two days where I just couldn’t put Positive down, I finished it and decided it was a good idea to read it after all. This YA memoir is painful, but it’s necessary and it has so many passages that speak to experiences far beyond Rawl’s experience as a teen with HIV.
Junior high sucks for everyone. If this is not a scientifically proven fact, it should be. At this stage in a child’s life, they’re developing themselves and their brains by temporarily (in most cases, anyway) shedding all traces of decency in order to go to every nook and cranny within themselves. This results in kids at that stage in life being absolutely vicious to one another and mercilessly bullying anyone who isn’t like them or is something they don’t like. Absolutely anything can be used as ammo.
Rawl is an especially easy victim because of her status as a girl born with HIV. Telling just one friend leads to the truth getting around school and sending her into a downward spiral it takes her a long time to get out of. Having been through something similar on a much smaller magnitude (I told one friend of being sexually abused and it quickly made its way around my class, but only the people who already had it out for me cared much because I had a reputation for being a weirdo who liked attention), I really get what this poor girl had to go through. It helps she’s only about a year younger than I am.
Some passages are pure gold and will hopefully hook anyone who thinks this one isn’t worth their time. For instance:
Maybe Miss Ward didn’t mean it this way, but here is what I took from that: my reporting incidents was the problem. That my telling her what was happening to me was causing drama. For her, I guess. And that I had to stop.
I had to stop reporting incidents. (ARC p. 91)
I don’t know if it was Rawl or Benjamin who came up with it, but that kind of passage speaks to far larger an audience than other readers with HIV whose reports of harassment went unheard because of who they are. It speaks to victims of sexual harassment and rape and so many other horrible things that are considered “drama” if we dare to try and report it, especially if the victim is female. So much of what we do, say, and think is thrown together under “drama” because of sexism.
For instance, three boys sexually harassed me for months on my bus when I was in seventh grade. The bus driver did nothing when I reported it to her and considering her bad history with my brother, I don’t doubt she considered it just tween drama. It took going to the school board with my mother to get them assigned seats far away from me, which made me wonder if it was even worth reporting in the first place. Other students would routinely ask me at school if I stuffed my bra. Some of them even screamed the question in crowded hallways to humiliate me. I never reported these incidents because I knew teachers and administrators would dismiss me. It was just part of the junior high experience, after all! (Gag me.)
Oh, and the bus driver put me next to two of those boys the very next year after I started cutting. Because the best thing to do to a girl who is already mentally unstable is put her right near the boys who sexually harassed her. YEP.
So yes, passages like that mean so much more than they seem to at face value. I suspect that will be an quote brought up often when talking about this book.
There’s really nothing wrong with this book, but there’s something missing that keeps me from making it a five-star read. There’s nothing to criticize and the lengthy list of resources in the back of the book is going to be very helpful to some, but there’s just something more I wanted from it. It’s well-written, everything she writes about is relevant to her journey as a person in some way, but… Sometimes, you have that sense of something missing but can’t put your finger on it, you know?
TL;DR the 2-3 years of junior high are the worst period of time for everyone, especially if you’re a child with HIV. I definitely recommend this to anyone going through a hard time right now or anyone who had a childhood so rough they tried to commit suicide, but be warned that everything seems hopeless for a while and it’s difficult to get through. She really had it rough. Still, seeing Rawl get better from where she once was may give you the hope you need to keep going.