January 2009

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

Dealing with the Aftermath

Emily Wing Smith takes an unusual approach in her story about the aftermath of a teen’s death, The Way He Lived. The novel is framed around six young protagonists, each of whom mourns sixteen-year-old Joel Espen in different ways. From his older sister, who had suffered a nervous breakdown before he died, to the girl who was almost his girlfriend and the best friend who relied on Joel to keep him out of trouble, the teenagers are achingly human and equally bereft. The fact that Joel died on a Boy Scout outing gone horribly wrong -- the adults were grossly unprepared for the weather -- only makes his loss that much more shocking. Each of the people left behind wonder about the choices he made to sacrifice himself to help another. The fallout from that choice leaves Smith’s six protagonists spinning out of control in varying degrees, and looking for new directions that will keep them connected to Joel but also set them free.

From a technical standpoint, I have to commend Smith for linking the six separate stories together enough to keep the narrative cohesive, but not forcing the issue by blending the storylines in false or forced ways. The book opens with Tabbatha, Joel’s older sister whose drive for academic excellence has sent her into an emotional tailspin. Rather than leaving for college as scheduled, she is seeing a therapist and keeping a blog to sort out her feelings. The reader learns about the circumstances surrounding Joel’s death and his family’s struggle to survive it from her postings. From Tabbatha’s steadfast determination to make new friends, the reader moves on to Adlen who was Joel’s debate partner in school and now must somehow pursue her academic goals without his assistance. Adlen is a bundle of insecurities who understood Joel and desperately needed his understanding. Her story is a case of not realizing how significant a person is to you until they are gone which Smith manages to make both original and affecting. From there Smith introduces Miles, Joel’s best friend who is desperate to punish someone for what happened, then Claire, Joel’s younger sister who has gotten lost in the family tragedy and decides to run away. There's also Norah, Miles’s younger sister who was just beginning a relationship with Joel that no one else knew about and thus is left without a way to mourn who they almost were. Finally there is Lissa, friend to Joel, girlfriend to Miles, and uncertain what to do now that Miles is moving ever closer to the edge.

Collectively the group form a picture of typical teens, some of them angry, some sad, some questioning their faith while others just question everything. There are no easy answers in The Way He Lived but that’s the point -- when someone dies the ripples of that loss reach far beyond the obvious. Smith manages to inject sorrow, confusion and no small amount of wry humor in this unique novel and frame a portrait of Joel that will resonate deeply with readers. This is careful writing that the author makes looks easy; teens will certainly embrace it as the sort of honesty that adult authors often forget they are looking for and, more importantly, completely capable of understanding.

In Ron Koertge’s Deadville, sixteen-year-old Ryan finds a decidedly odd way to cope with his sister’s death two years before. He has been sleepwalking through life since she succumbed to cancer (I hate writing that -- it should read “since she was killed by cancer”) and finding solace only through drugs procured by his friend Andy. No one expects much of Ryan, certainly not his parents who have drifted into a false 1950s ideal of marriage which looks as sincere as an episode of the Donna Reed Show. Playing at being a good kid, while clearly tanking in more than a dozen ways, Ryan is the poster child for depression. Then one of his popular classmates has an accident and ends up in a coma. Everyone feels bad, but Ryan, who barely knew her, is devastated. Visiting Charlotte becomes the most significant part of his day and for reasons even he can not articulate, she also becomes his reason for living.

Just as the teens in The Way He Lived all find themselves reacting to Joel’s death in varying degrees of sadness or strangeness that they can not control, Ryan finds himself compelled to wait by Charlotte’s bedside. The only other classmate who continues to visit is Betty, whose link to Charlotte is also tenuous. In her case, she is moved for empathetic reasons but the two form a bond over their shared concern and it helps Ryan to slowly put his life back together.

Koertge is wonderful at writing about teenagers who are classic in many ways (you can see Charlotte’s boyfriend and best friend coming from a mile away) but infuses his main characters with a level of insight and sensitivity that shows them bridging the gap between the sometimes crushing confusion of childhood and easing into a more adult level of wisdom (although he is careful to point out that not all adults are wise). In many ways Ryan is trying to figure out who he wants to be but he is also losing himself to a grief that he can not control. Visiting Charlotte gives him space to think and breathe, and frees him from those around him. In Charlotte’s hospital room he can just be a friend and through the connections he makes with others he meets in the hospital, he can become the Ryan he was on track to be two years before.

Deadville is about listening to good music, finding good friends, meeting your parents halfway and choosing to live. It’s not about getting over the death of someone you love but getting by in the new world they leave behind. It’s an enormously uplifting story written in a way that will appeal to the most determined pessimist. Koertge has earned the awards he received in the past; don’t be surprised if Deadville gets him a few more.

Simmone Howell continues her unique vision of adolescence with the story of Riley Rose in Everything Beautiful. Riley considers herself a “bad girl” but is mostly an smart and opinionated teen who finds herself banished to Christian camp by her exasperated father after (pardon the cliché) “acting out.” (She was wasted on jello shots with a bunch of her friends and they broke into the local pool for a late night swim. There was a very cute boy involved.) Still mourning the death of her mother and the radical changes her father has made since (moving, rediscovering church, dating) Riley is determined not to give an inch. She hits camp like the second coming of Judas Iscariot with a plan to wreak splendid havoc, a determination to mouth off to everyone, and laugh her way through whatever lame spiritual tasks are thrown in her direction. She manages to get under the skin of more than a few counselors and fellow campers but also finds herself making unexpected connections with the other kids (who initially manage to act just like you expect while also shocking the heck out of the reader a few pages later). Everything changes dramatically when Dylan, a former camp leader who is now paralyzed from a recent accident, connects with Riley. In the midst of all her predictable wild child behavior she can’t dismiss him and the way in which they find their way to each other is what makes the story sing.

Howell is to be praised for taking the typical rebellious youth scenario and giving it a new spin. At first Riley uses her sarcastic wit and sexuality in unfortunate ways to try and make a space for herself in the new life her father builds, but her jaded attitude slowly changes. She is also a plus-sized heroine, which is uncommon in YA lit, although readers would never know this from the book’s cover. Her weight is stressed a bit too much in the text, which bogs the novel down, but the supporting cast is particularly strong and perhaps the best part of the book is that the camp and its denizens are not written as jokes. In the end, Riley sees that while she might not agree with everything and everyone at Spirit Ranch there is still something to be valued in the experience. Howell doesn’t preach, Riley never loses her edge and Dylan proves to be a lot sexier than you would expect. Everything Beautiful is a different book about grief and growing up and sports a cast like few others. It’s about the so-called wicked girl winning -- and not having to become squeaky clean in the process. Nicely done.

The loss of a parent also hovers on the edges of the plots of both Laura E. Williams’s Slant and Susin Nelson’s Word Nerd. In Slant, thirteen-year-old Lauren is the much loved adopted daughter of a devoted father. Along with her younger sister, also adopted, they have a relatively classic middle class existence. It is marred only by Lauren’s struggle at school with a group of boys who make fun of her Korean-American heritage by calling her a litany of harsh names including “gook” and “slant.” Although she pretends not to care it is clear she does, and when the boy she has crush on uses one of the slurs she is crushed. Lauren reaches for an extreme opportunity to change her life by pursuing eye surgery to make her look less Asian. Her determination to have the surgery forces a showdown with her father and in the ensuing argument a long kept secret about her mother’s death is revealed that dramatically changes everything Lauren thought she knew about her family, and in no small degree, about herself.

I found Slant to be a compelling book in a lot of ways, and especially appreciated the method Williams uses to show how hurtful name calling can be. The surgery described in the book is very real and not uncommon, which is really rather appalling. The big drama of going under the knife is not what makes Slant such a winner however, it is more the quiet relationships, between Lauren and her best friend, between her father and his new girlfriend, and with Lauren and Sean, the crush. There are a lot of good people in Lauren’s life and Williams does a great job of showing how even when your world is filled with goodness, the bad can still overwhelm. She makes Lauren’s world very real and her reach for a solution, as extreme as may be, seem almost reasonable.

For twelve-year-old Ambrose in Word Nerd the immediate problem also involves some unpleasantness with classmates. In his case a couple of bullies spike his sandwich with a peanut which results in a nearly fatal allergic reaction. His widowed mother yanks him out of school and Ambrose finds himself spending days doing correspondence school classes with mom and his nights watching tv while she works. A few accidental meetings lead to bonding with the landlords’ son, a young man recently released from jail. At first Ambrose and Cosmo have little in common, but as it turns out they are both fans of Scrabble. When Ambrose discovers a club for the game at a nearby church, he coerces Cosmo into providing him with a ride and soon the two are bonding in all sorts of “Big Brother” kinds of ways. Ambrose is looking for a father figure as his own died before he was born. The problem is that Cosmo is an ex-con and Ambrose’s mother is overly paranoid (which makes sense with such a highly allergic child). Everything blows up when she finds out about the Scrabble club and everything else Cosmo and Ambrose have been up to. She wants to move immediately and Ambrose doesn’t; this sets up a massive confrontation and Ambrose pushes back hard against his mother’s decisions for the first time in his life.

There were a lot of things to like about this book, starting with Ambrose who is a geeky kid you can’t help but love. One of the best parts about him is that he knows he is a geek; the problem has been finding a way to be who he is and somehow survive in school as well. Through his friendship with Cosmo, the Scrabble club and the people he meets there, Ambrose begins to make friends of all ages and finds out that it is okay to be a geeky kid as long as you find others who think that geekiness is pretty cool. When he makes his personal stand and insists that his mother see him for who he is, he is striking a blow for every kid who turned their backs on the carnivorous aspects of middle school and sought out other places to make friends and grow up. Word Nerd is all about finding your tribe and being brave enough to seek out friendships with people, young and old, who will respect and value you. Sometimes that can make up for the loss of a parent or even, as Ambrose discovers, it can make up for everything.

Finally, Kathe Koja’s inventive, deceptive, intense boarding school novel, Headlong is the sort of teen masterpiece that a lot of readers will embrace. The Vaughn School is a literary version of Rory Gilmore’s Chilton with all the secret dramas you'd expect. Lily is a perfect Vaughn student with the brains, beauty and popularity she needs to succeed -- as well as the killer hockey-playing cute boyfriend. This makes her sudden platonic attraction to transfer student Hazel -- artistic, dangerous, and orphaned Hazel -- all the stranger to everyone in Lily’s life. She never does anything unexpected and yet being Hazel’s friend is something she can not resist regardless of the impact it has on her life. From what appears to be a relatively standard coming-of-age novel about unusual friendships, Headlong quickly veers into original territory, proving itself to be a book about reinvention written in an elegant manner that seems more and more to be Koja’s own.

Hazel is sent to Vaughn by her brother and his partner in an attempt to get her back on track. An abrasive loner, she is a fish out of water in Vaughn’s relatively uptight, upper class, monochrome student body. She pushes artistic limits in appreciable ways and draws Lily into a world of taking chances and busting expectations. The more time she spends with her, the more Lily questions herself and her choices with negative ramifications for her friends and family. She is Cordelia becoming Buffy over the course of several months (without the vampires) and the book seems set on a pace to show Lily eventually in a new school, her friendship with Hazel continuing to grow and everything Vaughn-like left in the dust. This is Koja however, so readers should expect the unexpected. After all, everything about being a teenager is radical; a truth the author mines effectively in every book she writes.

Headlong is plotted in chapters traveling back and forth over a period of several months which reveal the steady progression of Lily and Hazel’s relationship. While their class differences do play into the story, the issue of class is secondary to the larger confrontation between the life Lily seemed set to pursue and the new path presented by Hazel. Personal wealth is a standard at Vaughn but it isn’t everything and Koja doesn’t make money all that matters in the story either. I found Headlong to be much more about breaking from the past, from the future set for you by others, and from the present you have fallen into without any awareness of how you got there. This is a book about finding the life you choose to call your own.

Happy New Year to everyone! You can find more reviews and literary talk at my site, chasingray.com or for book recommendations for teenage boys specifically be sure to check out the group blog I moderate, guyslitwire.com.

Cool Read: DK’s enormous new title Art delivers on its cover promise of  highlighting “Over 2,500 works from caves to contemporary” with a style that makes this book the sort of long term purchased that should be seriously considered for art-curious teens. It is a stunner (and a doorstop), and will serve as a valuable source for study of every major art movement in human history. From Egyptian funeral art to the Book of Kells and elaborate Byzantium mosaics, Art cuts a swath through prehistory and then details all that follows with chapters dedicated to a steady stream of artistic movements: Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo and on and on. Every page is a filled with brief biographies and gorgeous reproductions of a variety of artworks. The big names receive doublefold attention: Georges Seurat’s “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” Picasso’s “Guernica” and Jackson Pollack’s “Autumn Rhythm,” among others, but the real substance is found in the history and “closer look” peeks at thousands of smaller works. The famous artists were interesting, but I was dazzled by those I had never heard of before and impressed by the variety of those mentioned, both geographically and stylistically. This is a volume worthy of deep study and hours and hours of enjoyable perusal. Teen artists and those impressed by art will value having their interest taken seriously when they receive a gift like Art. It means that the giver believes in their talent – it means you believe in them. A coffee table book that could make a lot of difference, Art is a glorious way to celebrate history and the artists of tomorrow.