No Laughing Matter
Sometimes being a teenager is not just hard, it’s scary. Here is a stack of books about how serious the teen years can be, and why our younger selves deserve a lot more empathy then most adults are willing to give.
Beth Kephart is a National Book Award nominee who, in recent years, has been creating a name for herself as the writer who slices through the dramatics of teen life, and dwells instead on the quiet wonderment and worry of being a girl. While she does not neglect that age-old struggle to fit in, or defiantly embrace outsider status, her stories are much less about what everyone else wants and thinks, and instead look at the seriousness of being an individual. Her girls must find their way, and more often than not, that means letting go of what others hope and want for them. These are worrying girls, concerned girls, girls who want to do the right thing for everybody, but all too often find they cannot, because, after all, no one can. That is when Kephart’s girls grow up, and when readers who are just like them discover their own paths forward as well.
In The Heart Is Not a Size, Kephart introduces Georgia, who has a very nice family; a fun, creative best friend in Riley; and academic achievements that make college an obvious choice. She also is being bodyslammed by panic attacks that defy all efforts at control. Georgia is losing her grip, and because she is holding on so tightly to her own worries, she cannot reach out to Riley, who is literally (and figuratively) losing herself.
In a desperate bid for authenticity, Georgia urges Riley to sign up with a group of volunteers who are traveling to Juarez, Mexico, to build a community washroom. It is, she thinks, the ultimate opportunity to gain “release from the narrow outlines of my life.” Georgia is half convinced she is going crazy, but doesn’t know how to stop the rollercoaster her achievement-oriented life has become. With a little arm twisting, Riley is along for the ride, which Georgia thinks is a good thing. Maybe Juarez will be a way for her to save her friend also, or at the very least, to force Riley to admit what she is doing to herself.
A lot of stuff happens in Mexico as the group of teens and adults embarks on their Habitat for Humanity-like project. The girls have a falling out, make new friends, test their own abilities and then, just as you knew it would, there is a colossal frightening moment as Riley falls to pieces. Riley, however, as charming as she is, isn't the point of the story. Heart is about Georgia and what she can do to change her world. Consider what she is carrying around:
Your responsible, sold version is what everybody comments on: Georgia’s reliable, Georgia will do it. Georgia always knows what she is doing. She will come through. Your private, hidden self, meanwhile, would shout a different story.
With references to everyone from Pablo Neruda to Cormac McCarthy to the poet Jack Gilbert, The Heart Is Not a Size is Beth Kephart asserting yet again that great drama resides in the quietest of lives. So carefully, so elegantly, she brings a mature literary sensibility to the teenage world. Her books are objects of both beauty and worth; small things, like the young girls who populate them, that nonetheless carry great value. For all the quiet ones out there, she is not to be missed.
I approached Nina LaCour’s Hold Still with no small amount of trepidation. It tackles teen suicide, a worthy but dangerous literary subject that I usually avoid. In this case, LaCour won me over with her wonderful characters, her carefully crafted plot, and the surprising way in which she managed to bring a lot of average kids to life in ways that are all too typically lost in the high school halls. Mostly, though, she gave me Caitlin with her camera, her book on treehouses, her awareness of behavior she can’t control, and her unexpected crush on Taylor. It didn’t hurt though that every character in this book, large and small, is written with the kind of nuanced detail that is so rare it made me think of the halcyon days of Angela Chase and My So-Called Life. The adults are real, the teens are real, and through the words of the journal she left behind, even the deceased Ingrid is brutally, sadly, sorrowfully real. LaCour wooed me with Hold Still, and by the final page she had won me.
As the book opens, it is summer, and in fragmented paragraphs, Catilin reels from the news that her best friend Ingrid has committed suicide. A few pages later, it is September, and school forces her to navigate the same hallways and classrooms that used to find her and Ingrid, inseparable. No one knows what to say to her, least of all the photography teacher both girls adored. When a new student reaches out to her (unaware of Ingrid’s passing) she is unsure if she wants a friend, or if it is a betrayal to even consider one. Meanwhile, Caitlin’s parents struggle to keep their daughter going while carrying their own concern that she could become so grief-stricken, she might choose suicide as well (a not uncommon occurrence among teens). It is her father who has the lumber delivered to their backyard and challenges her to be creative. Coupled with the serendipitous find of a treehouse book in the library, this provides Caitlin with a literal way to work through her grief. But the building is only one small part of what Hold Still is all about.
What LaCour has done here is take something we all know happens, and force us to get as close to it as we possibly can without having directly lived through it. Caitlin finds Ingrid’s journal, obviously left for her to discover, and the entries tear her to pieces. She learns that her friend has not been well for a long time, and even though there were people who cared about her (specifically the boy she had a crush on, but didn’t reach out to, leaving him in a different state of shock), she couldn’t or wouldn’t let them know the dangerous place she was in. Caitlin has to take all this in and learn to live with it just as she must simultaneously navigate high school and keep her own life on track. The way she does this -- by taking pictures for a teacher she thinks has turned against her, by fighting her way into a friendship with Dylan, by crushing on Taylor and falling for Taylor and being honest with Taylor, and by recognizing and reaching out to Jayson, the boy Ingrid left with the hard reality of what might have been -- is masterful. The relationships and situations are as carefully plotted as any thriller, and the insertion of Ingrid’s journal entries and drawings, keeps the story laser-focused on the emotional bomb strike that Caitlin cannot ignore. It all comes together in the kind of perfect ending that looks easy, but clearly is not. Don’t be afraid of Hold Still or what might it tell you; it’s an artistic achievement that heralds a new and important author to watch.
After reviewing YA fiction for years (and years and years), it becomes abundantly clear that there are more books published about teenage girls than teenage boys. This is just a fact, practically a law of the literary universe. There are many questions about why this situation exists, ranging from "boys read less" to "boys spend less on books" (which is likely more important to publishers then the reading bit) to "more women write books about teenagers, thus chose female protagonists" to (my personal favorite) "more women review books for teenagers, and a book written from a teen male perspective (that is not about vampires) is less likely to receive publicity because women wouldn’t review it, making it a greater risk and less likely to be published at all." Basically, it's everyone’s fault.
I, of course, think all of this is bunk, and boys read plenty as long as the books are fabulous. (I also think graphic novels count in this equation, thank you very much.) My most recent fabulous book with a male protagonist is Francisco X. Stork’s The Last Summer of the Death Warriors, and I dearly hope it is widely read by teenage boys everywhere, because while I certainly think it can be enjoyed by any reader (I loved it), I think it can be life-changing for the average sixteen-year old boy. Remarkably -- shockingly -- Stork has written a book about becoming a man that primarily involves conversations and slight misadventures between two boys. It’s also about life and death and love and maybe murder. There is camping and cancer, boxing, a road trip, and a dinner with a very important girl. But mostly, there is Pancho and D.Q., and very difficult choices that must be made about significant things that will affect how they live their lives. It’s the real deal, but not maudlin and not boring, and for all its conversation. It’s about growing up and, for once, it’s about actual boys.
Plot rundown: Pancho’s father and older sister have died in rapid succession, and he finds himself placed in a “boys’ home.” He is convinced his sister, who was developmentally disabled, was killed by an uncaring male partner. Because he is angry but also feels guilty, he is determined to find this person and kill him. He knows this will land him in prison, but he doesn't care; it's what he must do now to make up for all he did not do before.
Meanwhile, D.Q. is very sick. They meet in the home, and he immediately reaches out to Pancho, enlisting him in a journey that involves possibly saving his life or possibly ruining the time he has left. Either way, he needs someone to lean on, and he is convinced Pancho is that person. In the days that follow, D.Q. shares wisdom from his life’s work, the “Death Warrior Manifesto,” and against his better judgment, and at the risk of his carefully laid out plans, Pancho finds himself listening.
There is no false drama here, and nothing supernatural. The Last Summer of the Death Warriors is about figuring out what matters and feeling the weight of a one-and-only chance at living. It’s about not screwing up with the time you have left -- no matter how short or long that might seem to be. It could very well be one of the best boy books ever written, and while that might not make it as popular as Twilight, it does make it a lot more worthwhile. No bullshit -- this is a book that matters, and deserves each and every reader it gets.
Teen Joshua Wynn has a very different problem in Varian Johnson’s latest, Saving Maddie. As the son of a preacher, and heavily involved in church himself, Joshua does not quite know what to make of his old friend and fellow preacher’s child Maddie when she returns to town with a rebellious look and attitude. The obvious thing is to dismiss her as easy, and continue to run the church youth group, play ball with his friends, and mind his parents. But Maddie is impossible to ignore, and even more than her beauty, it is the memory of their childhood friendship that pushes Joshua to reach out to her. He discovers that while she may not be playing the buttoned-up role he remembers, she is still the same Maddie, with the same beliefs and convictions. She’s just a lot more interested in keeping things honest now, and calling hypocrisy wherever she sees it. Joshua can’t keep away from her, and really, who could blame him?
Johnson deserves a lot of credit for writing about religion and teenagers in a way that is both earnest and realistic. Joshua is a good kid committed to being a good son, but he and his friends have questions and concerns about their church, and achieving balance between proper respect and modern teenage life. Maddie is a wild card that pushes the limits of their world and alternately alarms and challenges Joshua. He knows there has to be more to her story then just a universal definition of “bad girl.” He wants to understand her, and if he has to lie to his parents in order to find out her secrets, then that’s what he’s going to do.
There are a lot of ways Saving Maddie could have gone wrong, but Johnson clearly has serious affection for his characters, and doesn’t lead them astray. He introduces teens for whom church is more than just an obligation, and makes their concerns real -- while also making sure to keep basketball, coffee shops and kissing part of the conversation. There is some love and lust in Maddie, but mostly this is a book about genuine friendship and concern -- and the frustration that many feel when they choose God, but not church. Mostly, though, it’s about a boy taking a big step forward to manhood and standing by someone he cares about. Joshua is a good guy, and Maddie is a friend worth saving -- even though her battle is over something far different than is first apparent. Nicely done.
On the surface, Julia Hoban’s novel Willow is about a teenager struggling with cutting. The title character is wracked with guilt over her involvement in her parents’ death. Now living with her brother and his family, Willow’s life is in complete disarray; she struggles to care about school, has no friends, and feels disconnected from her brother. Cutting gives her a relief from everything she can not control; oddly enough, it is her only source of peace.
Hoban does an excellent job of explaining why someone would cut. She is painstaking in her description of the process, of Willow’s paranoia over being without her "supplies," her fear when she cannot find someplace where she can cut, and the relief she feels when the blood appears. It is obvious, however, that as much as she hides what she does, she also wonders why no one notices her long sleeves, in particular her brother David. It is this fractured sibling dynamic which I think is the main point of the story, and not the cutting at all.
Both Willow and David are grieving, and their grief is so personally overwhelming that it has pulled them apart. Readers will easily see themselves in these two, and sympathize greatly with their wrenching sadness. Willow keeps waiting for David to see her but he can’t; he can barely handle his own sorrow. It is not until an emotional explosion in the final pages that Willow finally realizes what David has been going through. At that point she realizes he could not see her pain, or her cutting, because he simply could not handle it. He has done the best he can at surviving with a host of responsibilities, and guilt she never understood. Neither one of them, in fact, has realized what the other has been thinking, and it is only when they make their first honest steps that their relationship can right itself. The siblings are very much the heart of Willow for me, and the reason why, I think, the book far transcends any assumption of it as a “teen problem” title.
The siblings are not the only story here however -- there is also a deeply affecting romance between Willow and classmate Guy, which grows over mutual love of some rather unorthodox literature. Hoban weaves Claude Levi-Strauss’s masterpiece of anthropology Tristes Tropiques throughout the narrative in both a smart and elegant way. The teens not only discuss the book, it serves as a touchstone for Willow’s ruminations on her own life as a “tourist” in the lives of old friends -- a permanent outsider always considering the life she could have had, if only things had gone differently on that single stretch of road. Hoban writes about bookstores and coffee shops, libraries and Shakespeare. She gives readers two intelligent, witty teens who fall slowly, carefully, seriously in love (culminating with a bracingly intelligent sex scene). The combination of physical attraction, thoughtful conversation and heartfelt empathy makes this a couple that few will resist. Willow thus pulls off a literary hat trick of impressive proportions: love, coming-of-age, family drama. This is a novel that has it all, one that I read with an increasing sense of wonderment, and one that I wholeheartedly recommend to anyone who has ever suffered the loss of a loved one. Willow is gorgeous stuff -- beautiful writing sharp enough to break your heart.
Jillian Cantor has a real heartbreaker with The Life of Glass, the story of protagonist Melissa’s life after her father’s death. Picking up just over one year later, this is a book about change, but way bigger, more significant change than most teens will face. Her father is gone, her mother is working full time and dating, dinner now comes in a box with “Swanson” written on it, and the new girl is crushing on her best friend who has always been there for Melissa. Oh, and her older sister is alternately a beast and a godsend, but that, happily, is completely normal. Freshman year would be hard enough without all the rest of this to deal with, and the really demoralizing part is that pretty much no one else gets how tough Melissa’s life is these days. She’s largely invisible -- barely a footnote in high school conversations -- and so she has to muddle along, pretending she doesn’t care about a lot of things that really do matter, faking her way into friendships and even dating when she really has no clue what she’s doing. Mostly she just wants some peace and quiet and time to figure out how to live the new life she’s stuck with. But nobody gives you time anymore, they keep pressing forward with their own very important things to do. And so Melissa is carried along with the crowd while barely able to keep her head above water -- and worst of all, she's forced to see her pal Ryan pulled away by the other girl just as she begins to realize that he was always much more than a friend could ever be.
The Life of Glass is another in a mini-trend of books I’ve noticed that relies on pivotal scenes in science class (you would think biology and chemistry exist solely for the purpose of forcing relationship dynamics through assigned partnerships), but other than the predictable setting, it is easily one of the weightier YA novels I’ve come across. Cantor manages to work in a lot of standard teen moments: the mean girl, the beauty queen, the one who doesn’t fit in, the friend who is something more, the senior boy out to score. But even while giving us the secrets, the lies, the confrontations, and the big dance, she also throws in several twists, like mom’s boyfriend, more than one dangerous accident, dad possibly not who the girls thought he was, a grandmother who is fading away, and a boy who really does want to step up to the plate, if only Melissa will open enough to let him in. It’s a fairly big book (352 pages), but zips along with its blend of girl detective, family angst and the mean girl who you know is going to stab Melissa in the back. (Run, Ryan! Run!) The mourning is real, the drama intense, and the friendship sweet. Melissa is a kid to root for, and readers will gravitate to her corner in no time.
Finally, Jacqueline Houtman has written a quiet but significant title on bullying and true friendship in The Reinvention of Edison Thomas. Edison lives with an unnamed learning disability akin to Asperger syndrome that has made him both emotionally distant and unable to easily read the emotions of others. While it is clear to his classmates that an old friend is now bullying and belittling him, Edison continues to think they are friends, as the cruel acts are committed with a smile. Irony and sarcasm escape him, and thus he plays along while becoming increasingly more confused, and finding himself in very real trouble from the school’s administration. This alone would make an interesting story, but Houtman is unwilling to leave Edison as simply a hapless victim; he is also very smart and determined, and his single-mindedness finds a focus in an intriguing science project. Classmates reach out to Edison over a shared interest in his project and genuine concern for his well being. They teach him what friendship truly looks like, and with this newfound knowledge, he is able to make a giant leap forward in how he sees and builds relationships.
The best thing about The Reinvention of Edison Thomas is that on some level, readers might feel like they are supposed to feel sorry for Edison but the longer they read, the more they will find him a strongly compelling character. As he lowers his reserve and starts to realize the value of friendship, he becomes a very likeable boy -- readers will understand why others want to be his friend. It’s nice to watch him finally stand up to the bullies, but even more, it’s when he accepts the kindness from others that his story sings. This is an unorthodox tale about school struggles that will nonetheless appeal to a wide range of readers. Edison is quirky as all get out, but honestly, so are we all, and it is the way in which everyone sees how he fits in that makes the book so powerful, and such a pleasure to read.
COOL READ: Once you get past the wonderful picture book stage for biographies, they tend to take a seriously dull turn. It’s as if publishers think the average ten-year-old would only read about a famous person if assigned to do so, and thus there is no reason to make their stories the slightest bit interesting. Fortunately, Beverly Gherman’s new biography of Peanuts creator Charles Schulz, Sparky, was published by Chronicle Books, which highly values good design. The end result is an off-sized book (basically 6 and a half by 8 inches) with a larger than standard font, lots of pictures (and comic strips), and colored pages. It is pitch-perfect for middle grade readers, but will appeal to older Peanuts fans as well. All future children’s book biographers should take note of this very successful package.
Of course the book could be super-cool, but if Gherman struggled with her subject, then it wouldn’t matter much. She is very skillful with the words, though, taking readers from Schulz’s childhood through war, marriage and professional success in a straightforward manner that is easy to follow but full of plenty of “secret” Peanuts histories that will delight fans. With everything from the inspiration to Lucy and Shermy, and the source of the Van Pelt name, Gherman provides plenty of clues to how Schulz’s creativity worked. (As an aside, I defy you to read about the source of Snoopy’s name without crying. I couldn’t.) The author works a clever balance here, imparting all the relevant information for a solid biography, and yet keeping it fun with the many revelations. All in all, young fans could not ask for anything more.