Split Image, by Mel Glenn, is an intense surprise. The carefully chosen words in this short story, told in verse, run the reader through a gamut of emotions. The eye-catching cover features the face of a beautiful Asian young woman, representing the protagonist of the story, Laura Li. The back cover of the book features favorable reviews of the book including these: "A powerful look at perceptions and what lies behind them" (School Library Journal), and ALA Booklist said this: "Written with raw immediacy, this will touch teens deep down." I couldn't agree more with these comments. The author deserves credit for his ability to write meaningful, moving work with a sparse amount of text.
Each page features a poem, told in first person. The protagonist of the story in verse is Laura Li and all the poems revolve around people's perceptions of her. Her Chinese father's (a prestigious businessman) poems reveal that he doesn't know her at all. Her mother's poems tell of the hard expectations that are placed upon her daughter; to help care for her invalid brother, do well in school and completely bend to her will. Laura's own poems reveal how squelched she feels. In one of her poems, imagining what college to attend, Laura Li says this: "In many words-- My mother has spoken,-- You'll do as I wish. My dreams lie broken."
Laura Li works as a student assistant in the library, the setting of the story. The librarian, Sarah Binder, (I wonder at Glenns choice of name for this character), perceives Laura as her own daughter, trying to replace the broken relationship that she has with her own child. Other teachers adore her and many of the male characters are in love with her. She is popular, beautiful and a good girl in most people's eyes.
While many people envy her and the girls wish that they could be like her, the truth of her life is revealed through Laura's words. Laura has a dark side, a split image. She reveals this side of herself to a select few characters. She sneaks out, skimpily clad, at night to go clubbing and smokes cigarettes in school bathrooms. When caught she slips the cigarette pack into her friends bag, who must take the blame for Laura. This truth is kept a secret from the majority of the mottled icon's circle. When there is a fire in the library and Laura dies, smoke inhalation is said to be the cause of death. The truth of her sadness is uncovered, however, when the coroner exposes her "smokescreen" stating that the cause for death is suicide; an overdose of drugs. Bruises on her back and thighs reveal abuse at home.
The reader is surprised by the sad ending. The grief one feels is profound at this life snuffed out so early. The story is fictional, yet the characters ring so real and true that it meets the reader in the heart and rips a piece out. This is an excellent book for young adults and a brilliant choice for discussion groups. Superficial judgments and prejudices are often unfounded. The valuable lesson of this book teaches teens (and adults), in a non-didactic format, that people aren't always what they appear to be. This easy to read book will appeal to reluctant readers. Teachers and librarians are doing their job well if they introduce it to all teens. It will appeal to both genders, is easy and short, is fast-paced and interesting, meeting teen readers where they are at in this stage of their life.
Glenn, Mel. 2000. SPLIT IMAGE. New York: HarperCollins Publishers. ISBN: 0-06-000481-9.