“Five Flavors of Dumb” by Antony John
Release date: Nov. 11, 2010
Publisher: Penguin, 352 pages
Winner: 2011 Schneider Family Teen Book Award
Eighteen-year-old Piper has gotten herself into a mess. Because of her big mouth, she has one month to get a paying gig for her high school’s hottest new rock band, called Dumb. In Piper’s mind, the band couldn’t have a more perfect name. Just look at the members: one egomaniacal pretty boy, one silent rocker, one talentless piece of eye candy, one angry girl, and on nerd-boy drummer — five discordant personalities who, when put together, seem ready to self-destruct at any moment. Getting them an actual gig seems impossible. Add to that the fact that Piper doesn’t know if their music is good or not, because, well, she’s deaf.
But Piper is determined to get the band a gig to show her classmates that being dear doesn’t mean she’s invisible. And as she gets to know the five flavors of Dumb, some hidden talents, secret crushes, and crazy rock music emerge. She doesn’t need to hear the music to sell it, but Piper wants the chance to feel the music too. Does she have what it takes to manage Dumb and discover her own inner rock star?
This is not a book I would ever have picked up to read if my brother hadn’t included it in his year Christmas book challenge. I’m not a fan of rock music, and the “high school rock band waiting to hit it big” story has never been one that appealed to me. But all that said, I’m so glad my brother included this book in his yearly Christmas book challenge because I would have missed out on a really incredible novel otherwise.
Piper, our narrator, is deaf, moderately severe. She has some residual hearing, which is amplified by hearing aids, but if she isn’t one on one alone in a quiet place with whoever she’s talking to, she has to rely on lip-reading and sign, and the latter only when her little brother is around to interpret for her. Piper has spent her life not really fitting in, and she can’t wait to graduate and go to Gallaudet, a university for the deaf where she’ll finally fit in. And then she discovers that her parents just raided her college fun to pay for cochlear implants for her infant sister. It’s a painful betrayal on two levels — one, her parents spent her college money without her consent, and two, they did so to take the first opportunity of “fixing” in her little sister what was also “wrong” with Piper herself, so what are they saying about their eldest daughter with that decision?
This book gives readers an excellent glimpse into the world of Deaf culture and some of its most pressing issues — sign language as a preferred means of communication, what it means to grow up deaf in a hearing home or hearing in a deaf home, the controversy of cochlear implants, what it means to be deaf in a hearing world — and yet, for all that those very specific issues are central to the plot and the motivation of the main character, Piper is incredibly relateable, and her struggles are incredibly relateable. Her deafness is the form that her struggles take, but in the end, this is a story about finding one’s identity, parental clashes, family dysfunction, and surviving high school.
What I love about this book is that rock music and Deaf culture are just the vehicles John has chosen to use to tell a basic coming of age story, inherent with those huge questions of how do we create our own identities and how do we misinterpret and misimagine the people around us? I love the way that stereotypes are shaken apart — the deaf girl managing a band, the popular pretty girl from a broken home with a desperate love and respect for rock music, the angry girl shouting at the world only because she’s afraid no one is listening. The relationships that get built in this novel between Piper and the members of Dumb are beautifully and realistically done, and every single character is complex, three-dimensional, and well motivated.
But what really sells the book for me is the family relationships represented. I’m a huge proponent of siblings relationships in novels, especially in YA novels, and Piper’s relationship with her brother Finn is so wonderfully done, and I love how Piper’s arc of growth is directly parallel and dependent on Finn’s arc, but also on Piper learning to see Finn for who he really is, rather than for just her annoying younger brother. The parental relationships, too, are at times painful and heartwrenching, but always incredibly real.
“Five Flavors of Dumb” is definitely worth a read. Even if it’s not your “kind of book,” I highly recommend picking it up — after all, it wasn’t my kind of book either, and I ended up loving it! –Cassie