This RITA® Reader Challenge 2017 review was written by Coco. This story was nominated for the RITA® in the YA Romance category.
Ninety-two days. That’s all that’s left. Just ninety-two days and Ruth Robinson, calculus genius, will stand with her arms raised in a triumphant V as the valedictorian of Roosevelt High. With her early admit to Princeton’s Neuroscience program burning a hole in her pocket, Ruth can hardly wait to show her fellow teenage troglodytes that while she didn’t have followers, friends, or “times” in basements, she was the one ending up on top.
All she needs to do is white knuckle her way through this waiting place last semester and then, finally, she’ll be on her way. Except, the first day back from winter break, Porter Creed shows up. Porter is a special education transfer—Affective Needs. And just like all the other desk flippers and chair throwers in the affective needs classroom, Porter has some major emotional problems. But when Porter strolls onto Ruth’s home turf, Advanced Calculus, and disrupts her axis by being both gorgeous and the only person better at math than her—Ruth begins to realize that maybe life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.
Here is Coco's review:
Affective Needs is a YA romance with classic teen characters, like an angsty, academically-focused young woman ready to leave the confines of high school and a broody, mysterious bad boy who just started at the school.
Rebecca Taylor’s story trod well-worn paths, but injects some fresh insights with an eye toward the realities behind high school experiences.
On day one hundred and forty-four, Bella Blake emerged from winter break with freshly dyed atomic-pink hair. Everyone in our first period homeroom was stunned, but impressed, and proceeded to make asinine comments like “You’re so brave” and “I wish I had your nerve.” So Bella preened and swelled and basically acted like she was so Rebel Without a Cause. This was exactly why I hated high school.
The central premise, and titular inspiration, for this story is the classification of affective needs. Taylor, who is trained and works as a school counselor and psychologist herself, explains that an affective needs classroom is populated by students with emotional, particularly anger, issues—or, in her character’s (Ruth’s) words:
Affective needs was filled with all the kids who had their anger issues dialed up to volcanic. Every chair thrower and desk kicker spent most of their days in that classroom. One big concentrated box of rage—all of whom were on my mother’s caseload and had probably been on some psych’s caseload since kindergarten.
By having Ruth’s mother working as a counselor at her high school, Taylor accomplishes two tasks: she is able to incorporate more emotional intelligence into her characters in a plausible manner, and she also builds additional tension and conflict by having mom and daughter intertwined at school/work, as well as at home.
Our young male and female protagonists do not have a classic meet-cute; the girl doesn’t trip and fall (“adorably” or otherwise) in front of the guy and they don’t lock eyes outside a concert or begin with an argument. Instead, Ruth and Porter first make eye contact when Ruth witnesses the end of an outburst from Porter that resulted in his being held down and restrained by school personnel. There’s an element of voyeurism, as she knows she shouldn’t be watching, but ultimately she is struck by the emotional pain she sees in this young man’s eyes. Her interest is this unknown new student is amplified when he joins her advanced math class, an act that seems (to her) to be at odds with his near-constant adult supervision while at school, his time in the affective needs classroom, and his overall rebellious demeanor.
Occasionally, a high school character opened his or her mouth, but a mature adult (dare I say it—a school counselor) seemed to speak. For instance, Ruth’s friend, Eli, reflected about the young adult developmental stage:
“I’m serious. Hear me out. In high school, we are not even fully formed people. Including you,” he added. “We are a collection of behaviors and opinions that are not much more than reactions to the labels and circumstances that we’ve been handed throughout our lives.
But other moments and expressions of pent-up emotion felt true to adolescence, like this scene in which Ruth is overwhelmed by her proximity to her new crush:
My mind raced obsessively. Was Porter, right now, sitting behind me and watching my every move? Did he know what was happening? Could he somehow feel this, sense it? Was my body radiating some kind of electric current that shot out in every direction, announcing my seemingly rampant attraction to Porter? Was it obvious, not just to him, but to everyone in the room?
Or this moment when Ruth’s sense of herself and the world start spiraling out of control:
I closed my eyes to that dumb broken star. The whole world was a confused and broken place. A place filled to overflowing with lost and broken people. My body, flat, stuck, still in the middle of my bed, at the edge of my room, in the corner of my house, at the end of my street, on the edge of my town, on the fringe of a landmass, a single point on the Earth— a small blue dot at an unknown location in the never-ending expanse of a universe that didn’t seem to know anything about the dark bottomless hole in the center of my soul.
Thoughts like this felt true to a teen’s turbulent emotions and conflicting feelings of self-importance and insignificance hope and despair. (Naturally, because she’s young, she has yet to learn how to self-soothe after a setback with things like bubble baths, good friends, and Pop Tarts.)
Taylor has spoken about her professional and vocational interests in school psychology and writing YA fiction, which I found interesting (because I love learning about authors’ backgrounds and inspirations, etc.) and I think could also help potential readers better understand her type of storytelling and writing style.
In an old post on her own blog, she wrote that, first, she just loves the heady rush of emotions typical to teenagers, but:
Secondarily, that whole phase of human development is just ripe for explosive story telling… The whole push-pull of becoming an adult and leaving childhood. The confusion. The mistakes. The joy of new freedoms. The fear of new freedoms. Really, there are just soooo many emotionally heady avenues to explore… I actually like that the YA character can be pretty centered on their own experiences and that doesn’t make them completely self-centered because it’s still developmentally expected (to a point, of course) for the 13 to 18 year-old.
She followed up on this idea in a later post about unlikable characters:
I feel that part of that passion stems from the fact that I fully acknowledge they are in the middle of a sometimes volcanic developmental period that frequently manifests into some not very ‘likable’ character traits. To deny this and not represent this struggle as reflected in some teen characters in literature is to pretend that they are only physically younger adults (albeit much, much cooler and better dressed adults) but still in possession of all the wisdom gained of a life already lived.
Overall, I found Affective Needs fairly engaging during the first two-thirds of the story, but I felt that parts of the climax and resolution were less satisfactory. I did not completely buy into the relationship, which meant I was never fully submerged in the story, like a favorite romance can do for me. There were also some intense moments dealing with Porter and his home life, and I did not think the characters fully grappled with these issues in a meaningful way (and when they did, it was off the page). YA romance is not always my cup of tea as I prefer more mature characters and situations (and sex, I can’t forget the sex! wink!), but I appreciated what Taylor was trying to do here, even if I found the results a little uneven.
You can find this book at the usual places, but if you want to sample some first, in a truly awesome move, Rebecca Taylor has been posting this story serially on her blog—one chapter a week—since the book was released! While I’m interested in trying another book by her at some point, Affective Needs didn’t automatically move Taylor to the top of my always-buy, one-click, or TBR piles (but, hey, those piles are huuuuuuge and crowded).
That being said, I have no regrets and I’m glad I read another random RITA nominee that I would not normally have chosen. Okay, bye now! See you in the halls of the Bitchery next year