JOE BTFSPLK, one of the more inspired creations of the cartoonist Al Capp, walked around under a small dark cloud that rained only on him. Everybody else in Dogpatch might be basking in the sunshine, but poor old Joe Btfsplk had to endure endless rainwater running down his neck. I was reminded of his plight while sampling this fresh-baked batch of novels for young adults. Doesn't anybody in fiction today get to grow up without walking around under their very own cloud of angst?
All nine novels are competently written. Attention has been paid to the development of reasonably rounded characters. Inner and outer conflicts abound and each novel has some distinguishing features that make it special. With two exceptions, however, nobody in these books has much fun. Seven of the nine protagonists have lost a parent, sibling, or close friend. Most find themselves in isolated situations, forced to make scary decisions on their own; six have "problem parents," four are nearly murdered.
If this is what young readers find believable and absorbing today, okay, but count me with those who think the novel has better possibilities to explore than running a counselling service for troubled teens. Karleen Bradford, who wrote There Will Be Wolves (HarperCollins, 208 pages, $9.95 paper), obviously agrees. Her novel, about the daughter of an 11th-century apothecary who joins the First Crusade, makes much of its historical setting and succeeds in carrying the reader along for an unusual and exciting ride. Unfortunately, Bradford's heroine is hard to like, especially when her abrasive personality adds to her many problems. Other weaknesses are the imbalance between violence (excessive) and sex (implausibly little) and a happy ending that arrives too abruptly after all the suffering that has gone before.
Barbara Ann Lane also explores an unusual setting in Justice for Julie (Jesperson, 154 pages, $10.95 paper). Lane's 16-year-old heroine emerges from a coma to find herself haunted by the ghost of a murdered girl, Julie. (Julie's foster father sexually abused her, then killed her when she threatened to tell.) What with thrills, chills, and the antics of Miss Emily, a psychic adviser, the novel keeps a tight hold on our attention. What doesn't work is the way the teenaged trio Julie recruits as her avengers can only go about their business by lying to every authority figure in sight.
From lying to your parents to lying about them: Paul Kropp's Ellen/Elena/Luna (Maxwell Macmillan, 186 pages, $15.95 cloth, $9.95 paper), is an entertaining yam about a bored grade 12 student who tries to jump-start her life by pretending she's someone else. Twice. (Hence the book's three-name title.) But it's hard to be interesting when your father drives a taxi and your mother's a supermarket cashier, so Ellen has to invent new identities for them, too, and pretty soon her lies escalate out of control. When Kropp isn't straining for laughs, his genuine sense of humour makes this new wrinkle on the Cinderella story an enjoyable read.
Also enjoyable is the story of Marguerite Stratton Tennant, the real-life heroine of Margaret Smith's Margy (Maxwell Macmillan, 131 pages, $14.95 cloth, $9.95 paper). This story recalls a Depression-era childhood spent in rural Manitoba where Margy's mother dies and her father takes an unsympathetic second wife -and Bancroft, Ontario, where Margy is sent when the two aunts on her mother's side agree to "take her in." Recalled through rose-coloured memories, Marguerite's story may seem remote to the teenagers of today. But for lively adventure and a spunky heroine, Margy is hard to beat.
Two novels about spunky young heroes -Jack's Back (Scholastic, 238 pages, $4.50 paper), by Norah McClintock, and In Such a Place (Doubleday, 143 pages, $13.50 paper), by Lynne Fairbridge - make the point that when the going gets tough, the tough grow up fast. Jack Thorne has total amnesia; going back to school after "the accident" is like landing on a strange planet. He has to solve a mystery and cope with his unhinged parents while reclaiming an identity he's not sure he likes. Long on action, Jack's Back has all the ingredients of a typical television melodrama. The orphaned hero of In Such a Place, Mark, has been sent to South Africa to live with an aunt and uncle. After befriending a Black classmate, Mark is drawn into racial conflict, and learns to make difficult choices on his own. It's unfortunate that Fairbridge, well informed about her subject, couldn't find a way to write about it without being didactic.
Kathy Stinson's Fish House Secrets (Thistledown, 127 pages, $16 paper) is about a boy and girl who meet one summer in Nova Scotia, and alternates his version of what happens with hers. Only a teenager would know for sure, but I suspect she doesn't quite succeed in pulling this tricky manoeuvre off. I do know that local colour and teenage misery are not enough to make the story fly, even with its touch of romance. Teenagers who think the novel that can match TV hasn't been invented might try My Mother's Ghost (Kids Can, 213 pages, $4.95 paper), by Margaret Buffie. This one blows the competition out of the water with a powerhouse mixture of a dude ranch (horses, horses!), a domineering father, a mother who may be mentally ill, a dead brother, two ghosts, excerpts from the journal of a 19th-century crippled boy being tormented by his super-mean mother, rustic ranchhands, and even romance between a young cowboy whose alcoholic grandfather beats him and the heroine of this overheated but page-turning tale.
Still recuperating, I turned to a quiet gem for girls of all ages from Gloria Kupchenko Frolick: Anna Veryha (Maxwell Macmillan, 132 pages, $14-95 cloth, $9.95 paper). Nothing much happens to little Anna Veryha beyond normal family life; she has a pretty older sister, a gentle mother in hospital, a shorttempered, overworked father, and a grandmother like a cyclone who temporarily takes over the house. But these are all real people, their Ukrainian ways are clearly authentic, and, most refreshing of all, they belong to a family that functions the way fictional families used to, before books for young adults were written by novelists doing double duty as psychological counsellors.