Heaven Looks a Lot Like the Mall by Wendy Mass

heaven looks like the mallWendy Mass wrote one of my favorite YA novels, Every Soul a Star.  For some reason, I had it in my head that she also wrote Criss Cross but it turns out that was Lynn Rae Perkins.

So, with what I thought were two terrific books under her belt, I was willing to cut some slack with my review of Heaven Looks a Lot Like the Mall.  Now after Googling Criss Cross, I’m not so sure.  But if I could get it wrong, I should be generous.

I didn’t like Heaven Looks a Lot Like the Mall very much.  I liked it enough to read it all the way through to the end, but then I needed it to mark off the space of “Poetry book” on my Book Bingo card.  I’m playing book bingo with my seventh graders this semester.

Last week, I brought 15 prose poem books in from the library to show my students what they are.  I convinced a few students to give one a try by explaining that they could read a poem book in no time at all since they are mostly white space.  They are excellent if you have a book report due but haven’t read a book yet, I explained.  There are lots of prose poem books for YA readers, but truth be told, adult readers like them much more than seventh graders do.  You’ll find all kinds of stylistic experimentation going on in YA literature, but you won’t find many seventh graders reading it, not where I teach anyway.

Which sums up my main objection to Heaven Looks a Lot Like the Mall; it didn’t look much like reality, not the reality of middle and high school I’m familiar with.  The story concerns 16-year-old Tessa who suffers a freak dodge ball accident that puts her into a coma.  While in a coma, she visits what she at first thinks is heaven.  Turns out she is reliving key moments of each year in her life through the products and stores found in the local mall where both her parents work.  Tessa has spent much of her life at the mall.

Each chapter is titled with a store name which means her parents must have worked at the only mall in America with both a Party City and a Williams-Sonoma which I always felt were self-cancelling retail experiences of the kind that can’t exist on the same plane without damaging the time-space continuum.  And there is a chapter named for the dearly departed Brentano’s books.  That’s part of the problem with trying to be current in 2007 when the book was written.  Didn’t someone famous advise young writers to avoid pop-culture references.

The prose poem form was irrelevant here.  I have read books written in poetry that have explored the form to very strong effect; I think Ron Koertge’s Shakespeare Bats Cleanup, Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust, even Sharon Creech’s Love that Dog all use their poetic forms to make for a better novel.   Out of the Dust  has a few poems that left me in tears when prose would not have.  Here, I didn’t see any reason to make the print look like a poem at all.  Heaven Looks a Lot Like the Mall read like traditional prose and could have just as easily been written in prose form.

So my advice is to read Every Soul a Star–it’s wonderful.  If you’re also playing book bingo and need to cross off the poetry square or if you have a book report due in a few days and need something short and fast, go with Shakespeare Bats Cleanup, Out of the Dust or Love that Dog.  Actually, just go ahead and read all four books; they’re wonderful.

You won’t be sorry.

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6 Comments

  1. Judith says:

    When you mentioned poetic novels for seventh graders, my mind immediately put Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust to mind. A work of art. But as a former teacher of sixth graders for ten years, and of freshman “College English” students decades after that, I couldn’t agree with you more that young people gravitate and prefer to imbibe something more concrete as a conventionally written story. But exposure is the thing, James! And that’s what we do best.
    Judith

    1. I know it. I read Out of the Dust to my sixth graders and have used Shakespeare Bat’s Clean-up with seventh graders many times. I keep on keepin’ on but I don’t think I win many converts to prose/poem novels.

  2. Too bad – sounds like a good premise, and I also loved Every Soul a Star.

    1. Is basically an updated version of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” But Every Soul a Star, yes. That one is terrific.

  3. Jeanne says:

    My daughter liked this book when she was in 8th grade, and I’m not sure why because we didn’t get to places with malls very much–actually, maybe that’s it. She thought it was about a cooler, more urban girl.

    1. Which is kind of perfect since the main character sees herself as very uncool.

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