Prudence and her sister, Grace, have been home-schooled since they were young. When their father suffers a stroke, however, they are sent to the local high school and must find a way to fit in with their peers, who have had very different upbringings to their own. Grace makes friends quickly, but Prudence struggles to do so, feeling as though the only person who cares is her art teacher, Mr Raxberry. But is Rax just a concerned mentor, or is there something more between him and Prudence?
Jacqueline Wilson is one of my absolute favourite contemporary authors. I love the way that she focusses on the kind of children who often are ignored in junior fiction and the way that she so cleverly captures the way that young people think and perceive the world. I can’t love this book, though. I think it sends a dangerous message to highly impressionable readers, and I was extremely disappointed that it was written and published in this form.
I will go into my qualms and the reasoning behind them under the spoiler cut, but first I’ll discuss what’s good about Love Lessons, because there are many positives to this novel. As always, Wilson is extremely adept at creating an authentic voice for her protagonist. Prudence is flawed and believable and her naivety is clear in the way it informs her perception and her actions. Grace is also a well-crafted character, whose growth throughout the book can be seen both in terms of her exposure to more life experience and of Prudence’s changing impressions of her.
Wilson also does an excellent job of depicting the distance between Prudence and her peers and of showing how awkward and out of place she feels when she finds herself at school for the first time in years. It is easy to empathise with her shame and confusion and natural to hope that she finds friendship and a sense of belonging at Wentworth High.
My trouble with Love Lessons centres around the way Wilson deals with Prudence’s crush on her teacher, Mr Raxberry. From here on in, there will be major spoilers for the novel, so please don’t read on if this bothers you.
I find it completely irresponsible for a highly-respected and much-read author such as Jacqueline Wilson to write about a teacher having an affair with a(n extremely naive) fourteen-year-old student with absolutely no negative consequences for the teacher and no criticism or condemnation of his actions. Instead, everything is seen through Prudence’s eyes and it is presented as romantic and good for an adult in a position of authority to be making out with a child, telling her he loves her and speaking about leaving his wife and two small children for her.
As an adult, I can read Love Lessons and know that Rax’s behaviour is unethical and just plain creepy. However, this is a book aimed, presumably, at people in their early teens. What’s more, Wilson is best known for her junior fiction (and this is written in a style that would seem too childish to many teens), so it’s highly likely that Love Lessons will be read by children who are far too young to realise that Prudence’s view of the situation is extremely flawed. Other reviews of this novel show that this is very much the case. Many young readers talk about how romantic the affair is, about how Prudence and Rax are meant for each other and about how they should run away together. They do not see how inappropriate Rax’s behaviour is.
This is dangerous in two extremely concerning ways. Firstly, it teaches children that it is okay for an adult to have a physical and romantic relationship with a child, so long as the adult talks of love. It is okay for that adult to be in a position of authority over the child, okay for the adult to cheat on his wife with that child, and okay for the adult to prey on a particularly naïve child who is in a situation in which she is isolated and especially unable to distinguish good and bad attention. It portrays child abuse as romantic – to an audience who sees the romance but doesn’t understand its abusive nature.
Secondly, it teaches young people that it is okay to act on their teacher crushes. Love Letters does not show the career-ruining consequences that such actions can cause. Even the most ethical teacher, who spurns a student’s advances entirely, can be ruined by the slightest suggestion that they may have behaved inappropriately. It is irresponsible for Wilson to suggest to her readers that their own teacher crushes might be reciprocated without showing the true consequences of a teacher’s relationship with hir student coming under question.
Ultimately, I found Love Letters greatly worrying. I don’t believe young people should read this book without a subsequent discussion with an adult about why Rax’s behaviour was inappropriate and how the consequences shown within the novel differ from real-life outcomes.