Banned Book Club: Tricks

By London Alexander

Welcome back to the Banned Book Club! This month we’re exploring the #1 most banned book in the 2022-2023 academic year, Tricks by Ellen Hopkins. This young adult novel has been banned from libraries and classrooms in 11 states! Hateful groups ban books as a way to prevent readers from learning about different perspectives that often relate to race, gender identity, sexuality, and hardships in life. Expressing diversity and representation in media reduces biases, judgment, and conflict. This article contains some spoilers as we discuss the complexities of books rather than banning them. 

This is where we need to insert a TRIGGER WARNING (notice we’re not censoring this article) because we’re discussing situations depicting sex and violence. According to Hopkins, her books are usually banned due to their sexually explicit nature, spirituality, and having queer and characters of color within their pages. There is no shortage of sexual content in Tricks, including assault, loss of virginity, physical and emotional domestic abuse, and prostitution. All of these themes are further explored in this article through the perspectives of each character.

Through stylized verse rather than traditional narrative, Hopkins tells the story through the point of view of 5 main characters. The novel follows each character’s individual story and the difficult choices they need to make in order to survive human trafficking, sexual assault, potential homelessness, and drug abuse before they intertwine at a chaotic climax. By learning about the living situations of each person, the reader takes a journey filled with crossroads where the characters often make poor decisions in an attempt to solve dire romantic, financial, and family problems. Hopkins masterfully creates nuanced characters that cannot be labeled simply as “good” or “bad.”

Eden Streit comes from a religious, conservative family that banishes her to a youth rehabilitation camp because her mother believes she is possessed by demons for trying to date an older boy. At the ultra-regimented camp, her essentials (food, shampoo, soap, etc.) are extremely limited and are used only as rewards for good behavior—a ploy by those in charge to force the youth to trust and become reliant on them. After Eden gets taken advantage of by one of the counselors, he gives her cookies as a reward, making sure she understands that he has the power to provide her with such luxuries. However, Eden employs her wit, charm, and intelligence by reversing their roles. She uses sex to gain his trust and uses her newfound power to manipulate him into helping her escape from the camp. By being resourceful and not succumbing to despair at her lowest point, Eden attempts to regain her independence. 

Seth Parnell is a gay teenager who gets kicked out of his house by his father for his sexuality. To cope with the solitude of rejection, he visits a gay bar, where he meets an older man who persuades Seth into living with him. In exchange, the man wants Seth to be a mindless puppet that constantly cooks, cleans, and provides sex. He isn’t allowed to have friends or even leave the house! He becomes so reliant on the man’s money and housing that Seth becomes trapped in this toxic relationship. Instead of submitting to his situation, Seth uses his creativity by scouring internet forums to reach out for help from local individuals. His self-respect and practicality lead him to generating his own income, coming one step closer to reclaiming his freedom.

Whitney Lang is a 15-year-old who becomes intrigued with an older man who stalks her throughout a mall. As if already knowing that she and her boyfriend recently broke up, he strikes up a pleasant conversation with her and offers his phone number to call any time she “ever needs anything.” After she sees her ex with another girl at a party a few nights later, Whitney falls into a vulnerable state, crying and struggling to cope with heartbreak. She desperately searches for affection when she calls the man to pick her up, leading to a long-term relationship that spirals out of control when he forces her to become addicted to heroin so he can manipulate her into prostitution. One night, while she is being strangled by a client, her neighbor, Ginger, violently saves her life. Instead of being a powerless victim, Whitney’s determination and newfound faith that Ginger inspires in her, leads her toward a path of sobriety in order to escape her captor.  

Ginger Cordell is a 16-year-old with a mother who engages in sex work. A product of one of her mother’s encounters, Ginger has longed for a stable environment. However, one day when she is home alone, Ginger is assaulted by one of her mother’s “boyfriends.” This happens multiple times until Ginger discovers the shocking truth that her mother planned these violent events in exchange for money. Ginger escapes being trafficked by running away with her best friend, Alex. They meet up with Alex’s “cousin,” who employs them to be strippers for private events. Alex decides to take the job even further by engaging in sex work. Ginger faces the difficult choice of rehashing her trauma by joining Alex or risking becoming homeless. After saving Whitney from being abused, Ginger commits to avoiding prostitution, instead using her nurturing quality to help save herself and her friends from the dangerous profession.  

Cody Bennet’s stepfather is a respectable man who takes care of him and his family until he abruptly passes away. Cody must then support his mother and alcoholic younger brother financially despite only being employed at a video game store. To supplement his income, he discovers the lucrative world of online gambling. He uses his deceased stepfather’s credit cards and identification to gamble but quickly finds himself in a financial hole, becoming addicted to the allure of a jackpot. When his bets no longer pay off, he turns to sex work to raise money for his family. His strong, outgoing personality makes him great at his new profession, but he quickly finds himself in an even more dangerous situation. Knowing that his mother wouldn’t approve of his decisions, Cody realizes that the risk of sex work is not worth gambling his life. However, he must use his wit and reasoning to find a way to pay back his debts. 

There is no doubt that the subjects in this book are intense, but Hopkins says that she writes about the truth of what some teens experience “to show possible outcomes to choices they’ll likely face and help them make more informed decisions.” Tricks does not glamorize assault, prostitution, or drug use. Instead, the novel acts as a warning for teens by showing them the consequences of their decisions. Although the characters may feel like sex work is the only way out of their respective situations, the story shows that those choices create much more trauma and danger. Tricks is a gritty cautionary tale advising readers of the consequences of desperate actions. These sorts of tales are found in every culture, ranging from stories like “Little Red Riding Hood” to The Handmaid’s Tale to stories within the Bible.

Hopkins provides a raw view of the world and the struggles that teenagers face, but she also includes realistic hope. The theme of her book is one of determination and resilience expressed through stylistic verses that often include secret messages (were you able to decode them?) that visually represent the complex layers in each character. Despite being trapped in distress and desperation, her characters use their positive qualities to bounce back from their mistakes in an attempt to regain stability without the need for sex work. Hopkins writes her books for many types of people, including “those who’ve already taken wrong turns, or had all choices stolen from them, to bring hope and give them a voice.” Books that engage with realistic struggles and the consequences of making poor decisions are crucial in providing readers with perspective, hope, and encouragement. This is why it’s important to discuss books, not ban them.

Join us next month in reading the Coretta Scott King Award-winning novel inspired by the Black Lives Matter Movement, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. Recently made into a film starring Amandla Stenberg, this novel explores the effects of police violence on black individuals, families, and communities. We will discuss why this book is banned, the importance of perspective, and the complexities of collective trauma.

If you or someone you know has experienced sexual abuse please reach out for help. Call the RAINN National Sexual Assault Hotline at (800) 656-HOPE or visit online to chat with an expert at online.rainn.org or rainn.org/es.

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