Don't Stop Now by Julie Halpern, 219 pp RL: TEEN

"I did it," is all that Penny's whispery voice says in the message she leaves on Lil's phone at 4:27 am on the "first Saturday of the rest of our lives," also known as the day after high school graduation. Eight hours later, Penny is gone and Lil is keeping what she knows about her possible kidnapping from Penny's parents, the police and the FBI. While Penny's disappearance is the spark that sets the events of Julie Halpern's  third novel Don't Stop Now in motion, finding her is just the destination. The real story is that of the friendship between Lil and her best friend and unrequited love since freshman year, Josh. While Lil wants to make sure Penny is ok, she also thinks a road trip to find her may be her last chance she has to spark something more than friendship with Josh before she heads off to become the "new, improved college version of me."  The easy affection Lil and Josh have for each other and Halpern's skill at writing a road trip novel make Don't Stop Now very gratifying despite the distressing circumstances that are the catalyst for the trip. In fact, the title of the book could double as instructions on how to read it. Lil's narrative voice and outlook on life are so engaging that, once I started, I couldn't stop. 

Penny, who is neglected by her parents, hated by her little sister and physically and verbally abused by her boyfriend, complicates life for Lil by staging her kidnapping when what she really wants (and feels she doesn't deserve or is too scared to ask for) is the chance to visit a new friend she made over spring break who lives in Portland, Oregon. While Penny's situation is disturbing, her storyline, much like the behavior of her character in Don't Stop Now, it is peripheral to the real story. From the start Lil is in touch with Penny through phone messages and knows that she is safe, making it easier for her and the reader to focus on the road trip that she and Josh embark on. Halpern takes situations that could be emotionally fraught and agonizing and brings a level of tolerance, acceptance, and patience to the action and her characters that is refreshing and, in many ways, emblematic of the ideal attitude to have on a road trip. As Josh tells a distraught Lil near the end of the book when she is trying to find meaning in the fact that they keep losing the coin they are flipping in the hopes that it will tell them a direction to go in, "Life doesn't have to be so complicated." In fact, that could be the motto for the whole novel. There's a destination and a goal, so sit back and enjoy the scenery as you make your way there, which is a great attitude to have on a road trip and one that carries Josh and (mostly) Lil through their quest.

The banter between Lil and Josh swings between absurdly silly and witty, always laced with inside jokes and references to decades old movies like Buckaroo Banzai, Hiding Out and Pee Wee's Big Adventure - THE road trip movie of my college experience. The two decide to stay in the Don Q Inn and partake of the Tranquility Base "Fantasuite" featuring a recreation of the Gemini Space Capsule and a moon-crater whirlpool and they can't stop joking about it. When Lil notes that Tranquility Base was part of the Apollo 11 mission while the Gemini Capsule was not, this exchange follows:

"Wouldn't that make this suite historically inaccurate?"
       "Right. They're very concerned with historical accuracy at the Don Q Inn. That's why they plopped a heart-shaped bed in the middle of a cave."
        "You never know. That could be historically accurate. I have heard of cave paintings with heart shaped beds in them. Right next to the wooly mammoth wearing a Snuggie."

The delight that the two find in the odd roadside attractions they visit between Chicago and Portland is a kick, and Halpern manages to fit in an amazing number of oddities. From the House on the Rock and its bizarre interiors in Wisconsin to Wall Drug and its strange foreign exchange program in South Dakota to the 24 Hour Church of Elvis in Portland, these two know how to enjoy the weird displays of personal expression that sum up most of these landmarks. And, since they decide to head west to Portland on the spur of the moment in their quest to find Penny, they also know how to use Josh's dad's credit card to purchase souvenirs from these places, clothing themselves as they travel. I have to add here that went to Reed College in Portland and was SO tickled to come across my old hangouts in Don't Stop Now. From Powell's City of Books, which for me is the eighth wonder of the world, to the Rimsky-Korsakoffee House to OMSI to the bridges and the river, Halpern captured the city brilliantly. I only wish that Voodoo Donuts had been there when I was! Linked to my memories of living in Portland are the road trips that I used to make down the coast to San Diego once or twice a year to visit my family. I met my husband in college and the two of us would have the best times meandering up and down the coast, staying at the Curly Redwood Lodge in Crescent City, CA, driving along the cliff's edge in Big Sur, checking out the windmills in Solvang. My one regret is that we never stayed at the Madonna Inn, the California version of the Don Q. Based on these memories, I have to say that Halpern also captured the taste and feel of a summer road trip brilliantly as well, which is no surprise when you read this quote from her, 

When I’m not writing, I love to travel.  Most of the money I save (that's not for my daughter's college tuition) goes toward vacations, and it never feels squandered.  I have been to forty-six states, Australia, Denmark, Italy, England and Canada.  My dream life would be spent on a never-ending road trip (with a home to stop at whenever I want).  I never feel happier than when I am on the road, awaiting the next crazy museum or welcoming town.  I get dreamy just writing this.

When Lil finally works up the nerve to make a move with Josh, bolstered by the advice spray painted in red on a boulder at the Badlands National Park (DON'T STOP NOW) Josh returns her kiss but ends it with the expected, "you know I love you. I have too much respect for you to change us," leaving Lil to wonder, "if you love me, then how can you not want to love me more?" While this is the moment that she has been waiting for, it's not the dramatic climax that you might expect from a teen novel. Julie Halpern's Don't Stop Now has definitely made it into my Top 5 Teen Romances, which is comprised of pretty non-traditional romances as the genre goes. Along with  Dash & Lily's Book of DaresPaper Towns and Anna and the French Kiss, I think that Don't Stop Now represents a group of novels that, while they may have romantic pursuits as part of the plot are as much about self-exploration and understanding one's self as they are "getting the guy/girl," and I like that a lot. I can't wait to get my hands on Julie Halpern's first two books, Get Well Soon and Into the Wild Nerd Yonder.

Among other fascinating things, (she introduced a cartoon on The Bozo Show when she was nine, was an extra in the film version of one my favorite books, High Fidelity, has appeared on Antiques Roadshow, and lived in Australia. Oh yeah, and she is a middle school librarian!) Julie Halpern is married to one of my new favorite illustrators, Matthew Cordell, lately of Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie, by Julie Sternberg and the picture book he wrote and illustrated, Trouble Gum. Together, the two have created Toby and the Snowflakes.

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