I met Jennifer Hubbard at an SCBWI conference this past June, and in August I interviewed her for this blog. There, I noted that Hubbard's third published YA novel, UNTIL IT HURTS TO STOP, was due to be published by Viking in September 2013, and that I couldn't wait to meet Maggie, its protagonist, when that happened. I must confess that it's taken me until the end of November to meet Maggie (my fault, not hers!), and the pleasure it brought me exceeded all my expectations. In fact, this book was not only a gripping read; it dealt with the topic of bullying in such a deep and powerful way that I think it should be on the required reading list at every high school in the country.
Seventeen-year-old Maggie Cameron was bullied mercilessly in junior high school by Raleigh and her posse, apparently targeted for no better reason than that Raleigh had sniffed out her vulnerability. All through seventh and eighth grade, Maggie lived her school days in a constant state of terror, never knowing when or how the next attack would strike. Her intensely vivid flashbacks illustrate that for her, she had survived the equivalent of two years in a war zone.
Maggie's reprieve arrived in the form of Raleigh's family's relocation to Italy after her eighth-grade graduation. In the years since, Maggie has been able to relax her constant vigil - but only to a degree. She is not about to win any popularity contests, but she's managed to form two close friendships: with Sylvie, to whom she can talk about almost anything, and with Nick, whose stepfather has taught him and Maggie hiking and mountaineering skills. Over the past few months, Nick's stepfather has dropped out of their increasingly ambitious hikes, due to problems with his knees, and Nick and Maggie's solo outdoor ventures have brought her a kind of joy she's never felt before. Now, she's tentatively beginning to try to sort out how much of the joy stems from the sense of accomplishment and power that climbing a mountain can bring, and how much stems from being with Nick. But what good does it do to try to decipher how she feels about Nick when no boy could possibly ever be attracted to her? Because if there was one thing Raleigh and Company made crystal clear to Maggie, it was that she was permanently, incurably unlovable.
And then.. Maggie's worst nightmares comes true. Raleigh is suddenly here, back from Italy, attending Maggie's high school, and Maggie's fragile new sense of safety and security is swept away like a mountain climber halfway to the summit being overpowered and swept to his death by a deadly gust of wind.
Every word of dialogue in this book rings true, from the kindness and compassion Nick and Maggie show each other, to the cruelty Raleigh once inflicted on her hapless victim, to everything in between. Because Hubbard gives us plenty of nuanced and conflicted secondary characters: Adriana, who used to be Raleigh's sidekick back in the dark days, but who now seems to want to be something different; Vanessa, who's girly and popular but whom Maggie would probably like anyway, if she weren't much too interested in Nick; and Sylvie, who pulls back from Maggie just when Maggie needs her most. And, because it's actually not all about Maggie, we learn that Nick has his own personal Raleigh - one even harder to fight back against, because it's his emotionally abusive father, no longer a part of Nick's household but still very much a part of Nick's psyche.
Hubbard told me in her interview that she wanted this book to explore, not so much bullying itself, but its aftermath, and that's indeed what it does. No one is spared. I've heard it said that when people become addicted to drugs or alcohol, they stop growing emotionally, so they remain arrested at the age at which their addiction began. In a similar way, Hubbard suggests, victims of abuse become so traumatized that their development is arrested too. Perhaps because Maggie has loving and supportive parents, she doesn't respond to her victimization by identifying with her tormenter and becoming one herself. She does, however, discover to her horror that because of the trauma she's experienced, she seems not to have developed a normal level of empathy. Her damaged view of the world is polarized between Me - the one everything is wrong with - and Not-Me - the people for whom life is smooth and easy, and whose inner lives therefore don't require much attention. It's only when Maggie unwittingly jeopardizes both her friendship with Sylvie, and the possibility of having something more than friendship with Nick, that she must face the fact that no one goes through life without having to deal with fear, loss, and insecurity, and that from time to time everyone needs a helping hand.
I plan to get in touch with my local school board to recommend adding UNTIL IT HURTS TO STOP to its high-school curriculum. It not only conveys truths about relationships and power that would benefit all teens; its characters are utterly believable, its story line is memorable, and the writing is so good that it's almost invisible. This is Hubbard's best book yet, and the most wonderful part of it all is that I feel absolutely certain that there are even better ones still to come. Maggie finds her power in this book, and so does Jennifer Hubbard.