In children’s and tween literature, there’s often a struggle between a good guy and a bad guy. Many times it’s a superhero versus a nemesis. Other times it’s good magic against dark magic. Or a precocious child sleuth out to catch the villain.
But what if the good guy was a Jewish tween and the bad guy was her appendage — also known as her smartphone?
In Napa author Hillary Homzie’s new novel “Queen of Likes,” that’s the setup. Karma Cooper is a seventh-grade girl in Portland, Oregon, who’s the heroine of the book. But it’s her phone that is the dark impediment to her personal growth.
Karma is obsessed with generating “likes” on the fictitious SnappyPic social networking site. Determined to get approval from her online friends, she often forgoes her responsibilities, such as when she’s on her phone in the bathroom rather than participating in her friend’s bar mitzvah. Eventually, her parents step in and take away her phone — a fate worse than grounding.
The resulting series of events leads Karma down a winding road toward redemption. Will she conquer the forces of evil and find life beyond the apps on her phone? Oh, probably.
“There are many books that can be written about social media,” Homzie said from her home office in Napa, her youngest son’s iPhone next to her (he recently had lost his privilege to use it). “Technology is a tool. It’s not inherently evil. It’s a Jewish value to create community, and [social media] can be a wonderful tool to create community.”
“Queen of Likes” is Homzie’s seventh book for a younger audience and she has written for many publications. She holds a master’s degree in education and children’s literature, and teaches in the graduate program in children’s literature and writing at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia.
As a teen, Homzie was active in NFTY, as are her children today. At Congregation Beth Shalom in Napa, she served on the youth committee and co-founded (and ran) the synagogue’s preschool program.
Homzie said she had been itching to write about social media for awhile. One incident that sparked her interest occurred in 2014, when her oldest son, Jonah, was the recipient of threatening texts later deemed a hate crime. But even on a less severe level, she has always marveled about how her kids brag to each other about how many “likes” they get on their Facebook posts. “A competition” is how she described it.
Their identities and self-worth, she observed, are tied up in their social media accounts.
“It made me think about teenagers whose egos are much more fragile,” she said. “Kids are getting phones and hopping onto social media sites younger and younger. If they don’t know yet who they are and are so hungry for validation, what happens to a kid if she is not posting to communicate or express herself, but rather doing it to generate ‘likes’? And then comparing yourself to your neighbor all the time? I thought that could be really exhausting and unhealthy.”
The problem is amplified, Homzie said, by schools that allow kids to bring their devices into the classroom. Sure, laptops, iPhones and iPads are good learning tools, but the omnipresence of the devices has turned them into extensions of many teens’ bodies, like in Karma Cooper’s case, Homzie said.
“ ‘Queen of Likes’ is just looking at one aspect, looking at that hunger for self-validation through ‘likes,’ ” Homzie said. “Karma’s parents take away her phone and shut down her social media accounts. She’s on it all the time and she’s living through it and for it for the wrong reasons. She has to figure out who she really is.”
Homzie said her book can help start a conversation to address what — and why — many teens are constantly posting on social media.
“When is it helping community and when is it a hunger for self-validation, and when does it take away from being present?” she asked.
In promoting her new book, Homzie recently spoke to a group of kids at the Shalom School, a Jewish day school in Sacramento. She said she wants to talk to other groups at synagogues and Jewish organizations about the issues in “Queen of Likes.”
“It seems to me that kids want to read about this. It’s what they live and see,” she said. “And parents seem eager to talk about it.”
“Queen of Likes” by Hillary Homzie (272 pages, Simon & Schuster/Aladdin)