Title: Sometimes We Tell The Truth
Written by: Kim Zarins
Publisher: Simon Pulse, 2016
Ages: 14+ (YA)
Themes: high school, story-telling, confessions, The Canterbury Tales, perfect score, sexuality, gender roles
My mother drives me to school like I am little again, and I stir awake when she turns off the engine. It’s still nowhere close to sunrise, and my classmates huddle under the street lamps in the parking lot, some staying warm by smoking. I pray to God my mom doesn’t notice them.
In this contemporary retelling of The Canterbury Tales, a group of teens on a bus ride to Washington, DC, each tell a story—some fantastical, some realistic, some downright scandalous—in pursuit of the ultimate prize: a perfect score.
Jeff boards the bus for the Civics class trip to Washington, DC, with a few things on his mind:
-Six hours trapped with his classmates sounds like a disaster waiting to happen.
-He somehow ended up sitting next to his ex-best friend, who he hasn’t spoken to in years.
-He still feels guilty for the major part he played in pranking his teacher, and the trip’s chaperone, Mr. Bailey.
-And his best friend Cannon, never one to be trusted and banned from the trip, has something “big” planned for DC.
But Mr. Bailey has an idea to keep everyone in line: each person on the bus is going to have the chance to tell a story. It can be fact or fiction, realistic or fantastical, dark or funny or sad. It doesn’t matter. Each person gets a story, and whoever tells the best one will get an automatic A in the class.
But in the middle of all the storytelling, with secrets and confessions coming out, Jeff only has one thing on his mind—can he live up to the super successful story published in the school newspaper weeks ago that convinced everyone that he was someone smart, someone special, and someone with something to say.
In her debut novel, Kim Zarins breathes new life into Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales in a fresh and contemporary retelling that explores the dark realities of high school, and the subtle moments that bring us all together. (Publisher)
Why I like this book:
Like the original work, Zarins uses entertaining stories (that include their fair share of sex and farts) to provide commentary on social and other issues of the day. Zarins has done a masterful job of weaving together stories that are funny, tragic, bawdy, romantic, and surprising–much like the characters who tell them. She is able to create 24 completely unique character voices, which is no small feat. The characterization is spot on, and the teenage humour is pitch perfect. The narrator, Jeff Chaucer, is particularly appealing as he faces both the usual struggle of trying to fit into the high school social groups and the more complex journey of redefining his relationship with his ex best friend (he is confused with his growing attraction toward him.) And I love their ending! Of course, the Pardoner’s story is one of the best! In addition Jeff’s classmates throw out their secret stories – some fantastical, some realistic, some pretty juicy—in pursuit of the ultimate prize: a perfect score. I love every story they told! Their stories include revelations about a senior prank gone wrong, explorations of what it means to love and connect with others, friendship, family, sexuality, rape culture, mythical creature, even feminism.
The themes of sexuality and gender roles are handled with particular sensitivity and honesty, and authentic emotion. Zarins’ writing is gorgeous and I found myself wanting to highlight passages but couldn’t as I promised I would donate the book to our school library.
Sometimes We Tell the Truth is a great novel for older teens (for the explicit content), as well as an accessible and relevant companion to anyone struggling to read the original Canterbury Tales in Middle English (been there done that!) And I will personally be passing it along to our English department in the hope that one of them may pick it up for a class read.
Zarins, who is a Medievalist at Sacramento State University includes two lists of characters — one to help readers keep the individuals straight, and the other outlining the parallels to Chaucer’s characters. But you don’t need to know Chaucer, or even be an English major, to enjoy this contemporary story and the teens’ timeless searches for understanding and love.