In Jane C. Brady’s YA novel Cascading Petals, our protagonist’s name is Jewel Hart, which tells you everything about how charming this novel is, and how completely lacking in nuance it is. Sweet senior Jewel expects another year of ostracism at school and harassment for the high school’s mean girls, but meeting a new boy at school begins to give her the confidence she needs.
Throughout the book, good-hearted characters behave in reliably kind ways, with very little conflict outside of the bullying. There was little internal struggle, instead, the book’s conflict comes from good-hearted teenagers facing harassment and insults from cruel school bullies. The notable exception is Amy, a former mean girl with a warm heart, who struggles to get past her horrible early childhood.
Their school fails the student victims at every turn, because just as the good characters are reliably upstanding, the hostile characters are unreachably hostile. While in reality many schools do fail to support students, in my experience, teachers and other adults who dismiss teen bullying tend to blow if off as kids being kids, as a harmless part of growing up, or ask what part the victim played in the situation. Blatant stonewalling, as happened over and over in this novel, felt a bit flat, and didn’t really do justice to the themes introduced.
For example, Ms Barker, an English teacher, known for playing favorites in her classes, chooses to let mean girl Lexi slide while coming down hard on Jewel. Certain personality types are lead to teaching teens because they get a real charge out of being the social leader over teenagers, but a teacher who blatantly insults some students while sycophantically flattering others really needed nuance and development. This character also begs for some backstory: Was she a queen bee bully in high school, who never moved beyond a high school hierarchy? Or was she a bullied teen who followed this path to get a second shot at being the queen bee? This was a missed opportunity for Brady to show another consequence of teen bullying, with an adult who’s unable to move past her high school identity and who continues to lash out at young women she perceives as weaker.
Even without as much nuance and character growth as I would have liked, this novel packs a lot of drama and tackles many teen issues. The main themes of the story are the dangers of bullying and the ways that bullying leads to teen depression and then to the tragic suicide of promising young people, but Cascading Petals explores more teen issues, with cutting, sexual abuse, and other forms of depression as well. Seeing sweet Jewel with her loving parents, looking after her adorable little sister, or falling in love with Kaidan made a nice counterpoint to the tragedies.
As I read, I enjoyed the development of voice in each section. For example, there’s casual swearing in Lexi’s sections, occasional swearing for emphasis in Kaidan’s, and no bad language in sweet Jewel sections. Kaidan’s feelings for Jewel are warm and engaging, and our glimpses of Lexi’s home life remind readers that bullying doesn’t occur in a vacuum. I only wish there was the same focus on supporting characters Finn and Amy, I’d have liked to get to know them better. I hope this author will continue to write warm and compassionate YA fiction.
In all, this is a caring look at an issue that affects many teenagers. Perhaps the biggest takeaway could be a reminder that real issues are not quite so clear cut, and we’d do well to look carefully at teenagers who seem fine or just a little moody.