This contemporary fiction book is the first in the "Carter House Girls" series by Wendy Lawton and is published by Zonderkidz, a division of Zondervan.
Mixed Bags is written for kids ages 13 to 17. The age range reflects readability and not necessarily content appropriateness.
After the death of her mother, DJ struggles to fit in with her father's new growing family. Her grandmother, Katherine Carter, is starting a boarding house for hopeful models, and even though tomboy DJ has nothing in common with fashionistas, she goes to live with her grandmother. DJ's search for her own identity is complicated by her grandmother (who was a famous model in the 1960s), the new girls in the house and a new boyfriend. Along the way, DJ acquires an arch-enemy, the beautiful and conniving Taylor, a disconnect with an old friend and a relationship with Christ through another friend.
The predominant Christian figure is DJ's longtime friend Rhiannon, who was not a Christian when DJ first knew her. She exudes peace, confidence in her identity in and relationship with Christ, and grace in personal interactions. She is also compassionate, as when she finds DJ heartbroken and alone at a party. Rhiannon takes this opportunity to show DJ that what's missing inside her is not a boyfriend's approval or fashion acceptance but the Lord. DJ prays to receive Christ, and she experiences an immediate difference. Rhiannon also shares with DJ that she has been praying that God would send her another believing friend and that she hoped it would be DJ. Other girls in the house come from Christian homes but are not Christians. One girl openly rebels against her parents and their belief system, going out of her way (Goth dress, piercings, sullen attitude) to shock them. Another girl explains that she grew up in the Bible belt and has always attended church. When DJ asks if she's a Christian, she replies, "Of course," although her behaviors suggest otherwise. DJ notes this and wonders if there are different kinds of Christians. Then she remembers her mother and a Christian friend having long, deep talks that DJ lacked the spiritual maturity to understand.
DJ's grandmother, Katherine, sets the rules. They are fair and meant to protect the girls' safety and reputations. However, she has not yet earned the genuine respect of the girls in the house. They admire her for her fashion sense, but not for her leadership or maternal role. One girl, Taylor, blatantly smokes and drinks behind her back. DJ is not always respectful to her grandmother, either, arguing and rolling her eyes. At the same time, the reader sees that Katherine has not yet made an effort to set aside the routine of her own life to connect with the girls on a meaningful level.
When the girls discuss their relationships with their parents, there are mixed attitudes about authority. Taylor portrays herself as independent person, throwing off rules and any attempts to control her. Kriti respects her parents and their business. She tells DJ that if she is in an uncomfortable situation with drinking, smoking or others being mean, she can call her parents to rescue her. Casey expresses disdain for her parents and openly rebels against them. Rhiannon is respectful and appreciative. DJ misses her deceased mother and resents her father and his new wife.
Other Belief Systems
During one of her many arguments with Taylor, DJ becomes so enraged that she considers slapping her across the face, but she opts for berating, instead.
There is a misunderstanding about condoms in a purse that embarrasses and angers DJ because they are not hers. Some of the other teens don't think it's a big deal. Kriti remarks that she never sleeps with a boy on the first date. DJ wonders what exactly that means. DJ begins to dress more fashionably, but adheres to her self-imposed rules of modesty. When she and Eliza go shopping, DJ buys clothing that she will be comfortable wearing. Because the clothes are stylish, her peers approve of them.
DJ's boyfriend, Conner (who is not identified as being a Christian), treats DJ differently based on how she portrays herself. At the beginning of the book, when she is a tomboy, he is respectful. When her white shirt gets wet, he looks shyly away and suggests she dry her shirt. Later, when DJ begins to take more interest in her appearance, he makes out with her in the backseat of a car, and she has to tell him to stop.
DJ has a confusing conversation with her grandmother, who explains that she does not want her girls sleeping around, and she does not want them to be unsafe if they do have sex. Seeing the inconsistency, DJ tries to get her grandmother to take a firm stand, but her grandmother won't.
If your children have read this book or someone has read it to them, consider these discussion topics:
- Who does DJ consider having as a new roommate?
What keeps her from inviting Rhiannon to room with her?
- Why does DJ volunteer to drive her friends?
Why does she feel guilty about being pulled over if she didn't drink?
Is there such a thing as guilt by association?
How can you avoid being in the same type of awkward situation?
Did DJ know her friends were going to drink?
Could she have done anything differently?
Do you have a plan for what you would do if you found yourself in DJ's position?
- What did DJ do right with Connor?
What mistakes did she make?
What did she learn from the experience?
- Why does DJ feeling confusion about Conner by the end of this book?
What do you think has happened to him?
- In what ways do Rhiannon's choices reflect the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20)?
What obstacles does she overcome to be obedient to the Lord?
- Is Casey's new personality real or a front?
What clues make you come to this conclusion?
If she were your roommate, what would you do?
- Inez and Clara are literal servants in the story.
How are they treated?
What is their attitude in service?
What does the Bible say about servants?
- Kriti's family's business is making high-quality knock-offs, but they are careful not to violate trademark laws.
Is this an honest business?
What do you admire about her family?
What is unethical about their practices?
- How is Katherine's stance on safe sex hypocritical?
What does the Bible say about sex before marriage?
Note: There are a few scenes in the book depicting underage drinking.
Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. A book's inclusion does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.