Jerk California by Jonathan Friesen is about a teen with Tourette Syndrome

Jerk California was a fantastic read. It has been a while since I have read a novel young adult novel that has just stuck with me. Jonathan Friesen’s Jerk California with Penguin Group Publishers is such a novel. He masterfully created dynamic characters that I really cared about.

A Summary of Friesen’s Jerk California:

Jonathan Friesen
Jonathan Friesen

Jerk California has a main character named Sam Carrier. He’s a rural Minnesota boy whom we meet in his senior year of high school. His tics have made him a social outcast by his peers and a source of pity by many adults. Surprisingly, his disability is not the focus of the story. Sam lives with an abusive step father and a mother that doesn’t know how to help him. Sam meets Naomi, a popular and very beautiful girl from a nearby school. He falls hard but only admires her from a distance until after graduation, when his whole world begins to change for the better.

Sam and Naomi are just teenage kids, but they are conflicted, intelligent, drawn toward each other even though they come from opposite ends of the social spectrum.  Sam is poor, suffers from Tourette Syndrome, and unpopular at school. Naomi is wealthy, beautiful, and popular. Their paths keep crossing until one day fate takes them on a journey of self discovery together.

Taking Jerk California into the Classroom

jerk california
Jerk California

It has been a few years now since I’ve been at the front of an English class, but I couldn’t help to imagine this book as a great classroom piece. I had the pleasure of contacting Mr. Friesen this week about Jerk California and we had a nice discussion. For more information about it visit: www.jonathanfriesen.com.

Much like Brad Cohen, who’s biographical movie, Front of the Class, airs Sunday night on CBS, Mr. Friesen is also a former school teacher turned author who suffers from Tourette Syndrome.

Jerk California is edgy, but clean. Students will identify with it, will want to read all 327 pages of it. I did so in one night because I just couldn’t put it down. I did a quick readability test on the book and it flushes out at around the sixth grade level.

The style in Jerk California is very fast paced and Mr. Friesen often uses dialog to move the plot, a technique that I find refreshing. It keeps kids engaged, as the story is constantly unfolding under ‘live action’ rather than in long drawn-out descriptive paragraphs.

Based on the concepts found in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Lord Byron’s Prometheus, teachers could easily explore historic themes of physically abnormal and isolated main characters, parental abandonment, and the universal desire to find love and acceptance with Jerk California. In Frankenstein, we see a character born with a good heart, but slowly corroded by experience. It ends badly and doesn’t really inspire kids from broken homes or struggling with physical limitations.

Sam's jog in Jerk California by Jonathon Freisen
Here is a shot of the route Sam Carrier takes for his morning run.

But Jerk California has a refreshing twist. The main character does not self-destruct in the end, but rather rises up out of the ‘ashes’ so to speak, like the Phoenix, and redefines himself. He finds those that love and accept him, and he even changes his name as a final act of turning over a new leaf.

Unlike Frankenstein, Friesen’s Jerk California has elements of ‘fantasy’ situations, but they are never outside of the realm of reality. Many kids in similar life situations will read Jerk California and be inspired by the main character’s good fortune and ability to redefine himself. But in reality many will not see such a drastic change in their living environments or school relationships. They will, however, be motivated to redefine how they see themselves and also to seek out those that are accepting of them and kind toward them.

I found it interesting that there were people in Sam’s life that were kind (his running coach) but he rejected them. Jack Keegan, on the other hand, felt he was worthy of love and that made all the difference. This is the most appealing aspect of Jerk California. Sam-Jack– he is the same person. All that he changed was his perceptions and this made all the difference. Good fortune helped bring him to the place where he could see things differently, but still it was he alone who made the changes possible.

Chatting with Friesen about Jerk California

I recently talked with Mr. Friesen and he was gracious enough to answer a few questions about his first novel, Jerk California, for me.

Friesen says, “I’d spent a lifetime trying not to tell this story. Not because it didn’t need to be told, but because it contains so many elements of my own thirty-year fight to accept my Tourette’s. In a real sense, this story, this condition, is my own heart-shaped beach ball jammed underwater. I hoped to hide it—hoped no one would notice. Thankfully, I lost my grip, and my heart popped into the light for all to see.”

[CT] What made you decide to write Jerk California? How long did it take you and what was the process like?

[JF] I’ve always been a storyteller. I’ve always loved to write. Those two passions naturally started me thinking in the literary direction. Teaching in the public schools gave me the opportunity to see kids struggling with so many issues. It started me thinking about my own childhood pains. Two years later, Jerk California, the story of a young man (Sam Carrier) dealing with Tourette Syndrome, was born. Article continues on next page…

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