Tricks by Ellen Hopkins is a free verse novel told through five teenaged narrators, all of whom are struggling with various sexual and drug related experiences. It was published in 2009.
The book follows the experiences of five teenagers and is told through free verse poetry:
Eden — Eden has been raised in a religious family, Pentecostal, by extremely religious parents. She is in love with a boy named Andrew, but she knows that her parents will not approve; not only that, but her parents won’t allow her to date until she’s ready to be married. She dates him secretly — she’s sixteen and he’s nineteen, and she knows that her parents won’t hesitate to press statutory charges against him if they find out. Andrew and Eden go out one night and Eden tells Andrew that she loves him. Andrew tells her that he loves her as well, so much so that he wants “to take from you what I’ve no right to take.”
Eden’s parents find out about the relationship and assume that Eden is being possessed by the Devil. I mean, obviously. They send her to a camp called Tears of Zion for wayward youth. It’s not a very great place and she is mistreated through work and being kept in captivity. She begins having sex with a worker named Jerome in exchange for food and shampoo, and in hopes that he’ll eventually help her escape.
She manages to escape with Jerome and while at a gas station, she ditches him. She prostitutes herself to truckers for money and rides until she gets to a youth home that serves as a refuge for kids in similar situations. She emails Andrew’s mother and Andrew is glad to hear that she’s alive, as no one has told him anything about where she’s been.
Seth — Seth is a closeted homosexual; he has always known that he’s different, but he can’t come out since his mother died of cancer a year previously; his mother also had very conservative views of sex, having once said that his sixteen year old cousin who got pregnant was “a whore.” His father has said homophobic things in the past, so Seth lives with his secret: not only is he gay, but their priest had taken advantage of him as a child.
However, Seth is lonely and a hormonal teenager, so he posts on Internet personal ad and drives to Louisville and meets Loren; he wasn’t looking for a hookup, but gets to know Loren and falls in love with him. Loren introduces him to a cultural life that Seth doesn’t experience in Indiana.
However, Loren ends his relationship with Seth at around the time that Seth’s dad finds out that Seth is gay and kicks him out of the house. He ends up moving in with Carl, a man he’d met at a bar, and moves to Las Vegas with him. While in Vegas, Seth hooks up with a guy that he met in the gym; shortly after Carl reveals to Seth that it was a test — he paid the guy to act as bait to see if Seth would fall for him and he kicks Seth out. Seth resorts to escort sites on the internet to find new guys to live with.
Whitney — Whitney lives completely in the shadow of her sister, Kyra. She acknowledges that her mother loves her sister more and that Kyra does everything better. Needless to say, Whitney and her mother don’t get along. They live in Santa Cruz, California, and Whitney’s father works in San Francisco. Her family is mostly absent in her life, and she therefore seeks attention and affection from anyone who will give her the time of day.
Whitney is dating a boy, Lucas, who she’s in love with but has remained abstinent, due to the fear of venereal diseases and possible pregnancy. Whitney and Lucas meet at Kyra’s school choir concert and bond when he is the first person to ever tell Whitney that Kyra is a bitch. Lucas is three years older than Whitney — eighteen to her fifteen, and he introduces her to pot and kissing.
Whitney sleeps with Lucas and, in typical teenage boy fashion, he dumps her soon after. She moves with a friend, Bryn, to Las Vegas with his family, and soon starts sleeping with him. However, it’s soon revealed that he deceived her in order to get her to fall in love with him and starts using her for sex, forcing her to have sex with other people while he records it, and introduces her to harder drugs, to which she’s soon addicted. Whitney overdoses and lands in the hospital; her mother, father, and sister come to visit, but they’re still self-involved and don’t understand their roles in her problems.
Ginger — Ginger’s mother (though she insists on being called Iris) has had many boyfriends during Ginger’s life because of what she calls her “womanly needs” by what Ginger refers to as an “overinflated sex drive.” Iris has six kids by five different fathers and is addicted to all sorts of drugs — booze, pills, whatever. Iris supports her children through prostitution, which Ginger knows about. They’re living with Iris’s mother, Gram, for now, who is more of a mother to the kids than Iris.
One of Ginger’s brother is in a motorcycle accident and is in the hospital. While Gram goes to visit him, one of Iris’s boyfriends rapes Ginger — Ginger finds out that Iris is selling her to these men; not only is Iris prostituting herself, but her daughter now, too. This is the final straw for Ginger: she steals Iris’s money and runs away with her friend, Alex, to Las Vegas.
Alex’s aunt, Lydia, gets the two of them jobs as strippers, which soon turns to prostitution in order to make more money to survive. The Vegas police bust them and send them to a youth refuge home. Ginger calls Gram, who tells her that Iris is dying. Ginger goes home to care for her siblings while Alex stays in Vegas; when she gets home, she discovers that she’s pregnant, and she vows to be a better mother to her child and siblings than Iris or Alex’s mom were to them.
Cody — Cody doesn’t know who his real father is — he suspects that he might have raped his mother, since she’s such “a prude.” He, his mother, stepfather, and half-brother have moved from Witchita, Kansas, to Las Vegas. He lives a normal teenage life, going to school, working at GameStop, the usual. He’s always fooled around and partied under the radar, nothing too out of the ordinary for teenagers, right?
However, Cody’s stepfather, Jack, becomes sick and Cody’s brother starts getting into major trouble, and Cody’s drinking intensifies. It turns out that Jack has cancer — after he dies, it is up to Cody to help support the family. He begins online gambling and his drinking spirals into out of control territory.
Desperate for ways to make money, Cody meets Lydia, who helps set him up with men who will pay him for sex; he’s pretty sure he isn’t gay, but he’s also pretty sure that they have a lot of bills. Many of the “dates” involve Misty, as the men are interested in threesomes. During one of these nights, Misty’s boyfriend finds them naked with a client — the boyfriend is less than pleased, as he wasn’t aware of Misty’s job, and he attacks and beats them. When Cody wakes up, he’s in the hospital and is told that Misty and the client are dead. He hears his mother’s voice, begging him not to leave her, but he isn’t sure if it’s real.
Um. Wow. This book is nothing if not intense. It was difficult to read, for sure — I’ve been a teacher in two different schools with kids with less than desirable lives; many of the foster kids had stories similar to some of these children, especially Ginger’s.
In researching this book, I read an interview with Ellen Hopkins, who said that she wrote her books (including her prose novels about teenagers with drug addictions) to encourage teenagers to make good choices and seek help if they have problems out of their control. Many of my students saw this book on my desk and made sure to tell me how great Hopkins’ books are, so hopefully her message is working. I’m just not sure if the graphic nature and desperate circumstances are almost too unbelievable to seem real to some children.
The prose of the novel made it interesting and easy to read — at 640 pages, when I first got the book it seemed daunting, but it was a fast read. It also gave the narrators five distinct voices and poetic styles.
Five teenagers from all over the U.S.—three girls, two boys, some straight, some gay—end up as prostitutes in Las Vegas in this multiplevoiced novel in verse. Among the different stories are a preacher’s daughter breaking free from abuse, a closeted gay young man who hides his love life from his widowed and homophobic father, and the lesbian daughter of a prostitute. Hopkins has never shied away from tough subjects; descriptions of sex, while not overly graphic, are realistic and will likely provoke controversy. A master of storytelling through free verse, she uses multiple poetic devices to construct well-defined, distinctive voices for the five teens. Like E. R. Frank’s Life Is Funny (2000), the multiple protagonists are easy to identify and their stories compelling, especially when they begin to intersect. Teens will queue up for this one—some, admittedly, for the sensational subject matter—and find Hopkins’ trademark empathy for teens in rough situations.
Five teens desperately seek to find their way through the darkness in Hopkins’s latest epic novel in verse. Eden flees an evangelical household; Cody blocks out a family illness with gambling and sex; Whitney gives up her body in exchange for the love she finds so elusive; Seth struggles to define himself as a homosexual; and Ginger comes to terms with an awful truth about her neglectful mother. Burden after burden piles on the teens’ shoulders until they resort to the unthinkable in order to survive. As they near rock bottom, their narratives begin to intersect. It is only when their paths converge that a glimmer of redemption appears out of the hopelessness. From the punch delivered by the title, to the teens’ raw voices, to the visual impact of the free verse, Hopkins once again produces a graphic, intense tale that will speak to mature teens.
School Library Journal
This one is difficult. I don’t see myself using this as a booktalk, as the backlash from parents might be negative and overwhelming. However, it could be used in a display, perhaps for suicide prevention or another awareness campaign.
Carton, D. (2009). Tricks. Booklist, 105(22), 62.
Hopkins, E. (2009). Tricks. New York, NY: Margaret K. McElderry Books.
Maza, J. (2009). Tricks. School Library Journal, 55(10), 128.