The following is aligned with Common Core State Standards and is approved for classroom use.
Change Places with Me by Lois Metzger
New York: Harper Collins, 2016.
Grades 7-12. Excellent as well for use by guidance counselors and for groups focused on dealing with grief and trauma
Review by Dr. Rose Reissman, Director of the Ditmas Writing Institute and Author of Project Based Literacy
Why I chose it: The evocative title with the tag line “The biggest secrets are the ones we keep from ourselves,” immediately draws the reader. Of course, the title also deliberately indicates that the work will deal with the body-switch or identity-switch genre, an always mind-challenging and emotionally engaging subject. But beyond its surface premise, this is a so-called work of “speculative fiction” set in an imaginary Queens neighborhood, Belle Heights, 13 years in the future. It alludes to and includes old 20th-century movies, classic songs such as Rogers and Hart’s “Where or When,” David Bowie’s “Changes,” and Greta Garbo and Barbara Stanwyck (yes, those 20th-century stars!). It also includes key trips to the zoo, with its by-then current politically correct name of the Bronx Global Conservation Center, and hydro-buses, plus a key use of cell phones with ongoing video commercials for Memory Enhancement (and deliberate use of the acronym ME by Metzger). The speculative future—or is it rather a slightly heightened portrait of the immediate present that readers may not be paying as much attention to as they should? It’s the readers’ call as to the correct answer, but it’s a question this work will get them all talking about. Of course, also thrown into the book’s mix are the ever-present rites of teenage high-school life, including cafeteria lunch seating, the requisite prettiest girls, the cute guys, and the geeks who will mature to awesome individuals, plus the too-tall-for-high-school and seemingly fashion-awkward females who in a decade will grow into gorgeous self-styled distinction, but not at anytime during the tenth-grade school year. Most of all, there is a tall, awkward, lonely girl of 15 who has somehow, like so many adults as well, never gotten past the loss of her loving dad at age eight, and her mother when she was toddler. She has, by her silence and her withdrawal from active engagement with life, lost her childhood best friend, and scorned the care and attention of the stepmother she deliberately casts as a fairy-tale evil figure—Evil Lynn—instead of the everlastingly loving Evelyn, who works hard as a real-estate broker to support them. This is a work that immediately places itself in the teen reader’s social, emotional and psychological mind frame.
What I like best about this work: This is a quiet work that spans a couple of weeks in the life of its shy, literally withdrawn 15-year-old teen protagonist named Clara, who has decided to restyle herself as “Rose.” By convincingly describing name changes and nicknames and new hairstyles and makeup makeovers, the work nicely and quietly situates itself within the daily lifestyle and emotional changes that are part and parcel of the teen years, and, in today’s world, often for some extend beyond into adult life. Clara also sees herself in “Snow White,” the fairy tale with a sleeping princess in a glass coffin; Clara has literally stopped blossoming emotionally in the seven years since her father’s death. Metzger offers readers, through her varied yet quietly unobtrusive crafting of the book, the chance to see how the fairy tale genre, old screwball movies, the branding and public images of Hollywood stars, the science fiction body-switch genre, and the infusion of pop culture songs can help explore emotional growth and emotional diminution due to unexpressed grief: she deftly weaves together multiple literary and cultural frames, written and digital, to this end. Many teens today have already dealt with loss through death or divorce or the physical separation of close loved ones. While some work through it on their own and move resiliently forward, others, even with grief groups and well-meaning family/school support, slip through the cracks of their community and fall prey to isolation even though they reside in intact family settings. Our society also currently, and not in the speculative future, sanctions pharmaceutical relief, and many therapies, some with some of the light settings and transformation benefits outlined in this work. As Clara or Rose (remember Gertrude Stein) or Cora begins to understand what happened to her, at a place ironically called Forget-Me-Not, the reader begins to grapple with the ethical and psychological implications of using available technology methodologies and drugs to alter, enhance, and diminish intense emotional pain.
How teachers can use this work: Students can research the range of medications and therapies that are currently available to teens, with parental permission, to help teens deal with grief, trauma and emotional pain. They can and should also interview on-site school guidance counselors, deans and teachers as well, as grief specialists/social workers (employed and available at many hospitals and community centers) to get their expert perspectives on the best therapies and medications and group- participation methods for peers to deal with these issues. After this research and after reading the work, the students can argue for or against the ME—Memory Enhancement procedure—Clara underwent at the beginning. They might also want to compare and contrast it with the more visceral Adam Silvera book, More Happy Than Not, which also deals with a fictional procedure that manipulates painful memories. Given the elegant craft and genre stitching and numerous 20th-century allusions made in this also very contemporary and relevant work, students could do extended literary reflections on how the plotting, purpose and theme of this work dovetail with the songs “Where or When” and “Changes,” by aligning their lyrics to the work’s plot. In addition, students can compare and contrast the ending of Clara’s story with that of Snow White’s, to see how that fairy tale finish plays out in Clara’s real-life struggle to deal with the fact that she has lost both her biological parents. In the present world, where teens are offered so many legally prescribed and parent-sanctioned methods, therapies and medications for dealing with very real loss, pain and trauma, this work is a needed red-light, literary stop sign to allow teens to pause and to think about their options for dealing with challenges and moving forward healthfully and optimistically. And all that is beautifully and quietly conveyed in a book that stays with the reader after it is put down.