John Clark looking at a couple recent young adult titles that exemplify how strongly the genre is addressing changes in the way teens look at the world, each other and their peers. If you’re my age or thereabouts, you probably cut your teeth on Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys. Think back for a moment, did Nancy even know what a tampon was? Were Joe and Frank ever cautioned about STDs? Bet not.
While most of the challenges today’s teens face have been around forever, acceptance, discussion and awareness of/about them was ignored. The world is a scary place these days, made more so by instantaneous communication. Less than five minutes after a horrific shooting, plane crash or bomb going off, details (sadly often inaccurate or graphic) are all over social media. This change is here to stay, but I’m a firm believer in how good fiction can be helpful in not only opening eyes about issues, but in reassuring teens that whatever differences they may have on a physical or emotional basis, they’re neither unique nor alone.
The first book was brought to my attention by my friend Brian Katcher on his Facebook page a week ago. Brian has written some terrific YA books, some funny, some very emotional (his Almost Perfect is among my ten best YA books read of all time). He hooked me with his post and I ordered it on the spot. Look Past, (Running Press Teens, 2016. ISBN: 9780762459216) is written by Eric Devine, a high school English teacher. Avery, the protagonist, is a transgender boy who came out several years ago. His family is very supportive including his uncle Tom, a member of the local police force. School is still sometimes a war zone, particularly because of homophobia, lack of understanding and a lot of kids from religious fundamentalist families.
When Avery was younger, he was very close to Mary Mathison, daughter of the local fire and brimstone minister. She loved Avery, despite her background and her feelings were reciprocated. When they shared a first kiss while swimming in a stream behind her house, they were caught by Reverend Mathison. Mary was punished and even though it was clear to Avery that she still cared for him, the connection was essentially severed. Fast forward to junior year. Avery has a new girlfriend, Beth, and a best friend, Charlie. He and Charlie share a love of forensics and Avery knows that Charlie has never gotten over the loss of his mom. Neither has Charlie’s dad, who alternates between lashing out at his son and withdrawing.
The book opens with Avery, Beth and Charlie participating in a ground search for Mary who vanished a week ago. Avery expects the worst. When a hunter, involved in the search, follows a hunch and veers away from his assigned area, he finds her. Mary’s not only dead, but pieces are missing and a bible passage written on paper has been inserted in her mouth.
Thus begins a gritty, profane journey for all concerned, but mostly for Avery. Not only is he tormented by text messages from the killer, but he also finds himself reliving every memory he had with Mary, wondering whether he could have done something to change the outcome.
While a mystery, this is also one hell of a good look at how life is for a transgender teen. You get to see Avery at his best and his worst as well as understand what transitioning is like, not only from a physical, but an emotional standpoint. In fact, I was so focused on the dynamics between Avery and the other main characters that the solution snuck up on me. This is a definite book for Edgar consideration next year.
The other book is the first in a trilogy and I’m eagerly awaiting arrival of the other two. Courage In Patience by Beth Fehlbaum (Steady on Books; Revised First ed. edition (March 29, 2016): ISBN: 9780997387100). Ashley Asher is terrified more often than not and has good reason to feel that way. Her dad has never really been in the picture, her mom has crappy taste in men and her stepfather, Charlie, is a leering monster. He’s been after her since she was nine, knocking holes in walls so he can spy on her in the bathroom and her bedroom. Inappropriate touching is part of her life, but now Charlie has ramped things up to a really scary level. Ashley’s mother refuses to believe anything she tells her, making her living situation even worse.
When Charlie rapes her, she’s bleeding badly and escapes to her friend’s house. Lisa has started to get irritated with Ashley because their friendship seems one-sided. Ashley stays at her home a lot, but never invites Lisa to her place. When She sees the incriminating note written by Ashley’s mom, Lisa begins to understand how bad things are for her friend. They end up seeking help from a trusted teacher who gets Ashley to the hospital and involves both cops and child welfare. Unfortunately, Charlie and Mom’s lies trump Ashley’s story. Fortunately, the teacher, Mrs. Chapman, takes Ashley’s side and forces child services to locate her real father who lives a couple hours away in the small town of Patience, Texas.
What Ashley discovers is that Dad freaked out when he became a father and as a result didn’t handle things well. Her mother never told her much about him, only that he was bad and untrustworthy. In the interim, He’s grown up, dealt with drinking and anger issues and remarried. When he learns what has happened to Ashley, he’s there as soon as possible and promises her that he’ll do everything possible to make up for his absence and what happened to her courtesy of Charlie.
Ashley’s reluctant to trust, but Bev, her stepmom is a gem. She’s an English teacher who just found out she has to teach a summer lit course. Ashley, eager to find some normalcy, asks to enroll and a bonding between them begins. Likewise with her younger stepbrother, Ben, starts out not knowing how to deal with what happened to her, but soon becomes a real sibling defender.
This is a book not afraid to cover graphic details about abuse, the aftereffects and the insanity of a parent so desperate for male attention that she would sacrifice a child to get it. As readers follow Ashley’s slow and painful steps out of fear and mistrust, they meet some wonderful (and a few not so wonderful) people) The kids Ashley meets in the summer lit class are diverse and cover the spectrum from slacker, to eager to be perfect, to having issues close to what Ashley faces. Bev does a great job of forcing everyone in the class to engage by using Chris Crutcher’s Ironman as the topic book. Her strategy is not without repercussions, but read the book to find out about them as well as how Ashley’s journey unfolds. It’s a great book about the trauma of sexual and emotional abuse, perfect for teens who have been there or who have friends that have.
Wow! A serious change from Nancy Drew. And people think my books are gritty.
Thanks for sharing these, John.
I think that writing relevant YA novels such as these two must be harder than writing novels for adults. I’m looking forward to reading them.
Thank you, as always, John, for pointing the way to important books.
John, Thank you for keeping a hand in with the YA books; I always appreciate your suggestions. Your explanation for the changes in YA Lit is great. I am always flabbergasted by the people who ask “Why can’t we just have nice stories> Why all the angst?”
Thanks for this insightful post!
Thanks folks. I got the other two books in the Patience series yesterday and am halfway through the second one. No diminution in quality or story tension.