Post Your Opinion
Reading For A Difficult Age
by Dave Jenkinson

Developmental psychologists tell us that between childhood and adulthood there exists a stage called "adolescence." Those who are in this stage are tagged "adolescents" or "young adults," and are often thought too old for "children`s" books but not ready for the length or complexity of "adult" novels. As a result, adolescents, since the 1960s, have had fiction titles especially written for and marketed to them. The best of this YA lit. (sometimes also called Ad. lit.) entertains while offering genuine opportunities for insight into aspects of the physical, social, and emotional changes that occur during adolescence. The worst (and most boring) YA lit. comes from didactic adults who want YA reading to consist of lessons about proper conduct. Fortunately, the books that follow generally fall on the positive side of the YA lit. scale. In Read for Your Life (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 1990), Dr. Joseph Gold argues that "story [fiction] is a very good vehicle, perhaps the best vehicle, for conveying large amounts of data painlessly, even pleasurably, without any rote learning or memorization exercises on the part of the reader." Fiction`s capacity to be informative as well as engaging is utilized in Ask Me No Questions (Prentice-Hall Canada, 204 pages, $5.95 paper). The author trio of Linda Phillips, a reading research professor at Memorial University, Peter Ringrose, director of Newfoundland`s Public Legal Information Association, and Michael Winter of the Newfoundland Writers` Alliance, has created an emotionally powerful yet highly informative novel about sexual abuse. In St. John`s, Newfounland, the Tunneys appear to be a model family. Roland Tunney, however, has opportunistically used his wife`s evening absences to sexually abuse Leslie, one of his two daughters; this behaviour began when she was eight and continued for five years until she refused further participation. At 15, Leslie suddenly understands her father`s willingness to stop -- her 13-year-old sister, Susan, discloses to an aunt that she is being abused. "And I`ll tell you no lies," the implied conclusion to the book`s title, describes Leslie`s means of coping with bottled-up pain. Unwilling to confront the anguish that disclosure would uncover, Leslie won`t substantiate Susan`s charges. Only when Susan attempts suicide because of continued abuse does Leslie finally reveal her own abuse history to a friend`s mother. The authors dot* cop out with a "happy -ever- after" ending. Leslie`s abuse aftermath includes encountering her father in court as well as dealing with abuse`s emotional consequences through group counselling. An epilogue, set some two years later, reveals the sisters` growth in overcoming the effects of being abused. This uncompromising, authentic portrayal of sexual abuse should be in all libraries serving junior and senior high students. Another author who effectively uses fiction`s capacity to impart information painlessly is William Bell. Having taught English as a second language at Beijing`s Foreign Affairs College in 1985 and 1986, he followed the events surrounding the 1989 student demonstrations in Beijing with an intimate knowledge of the city and its people. Bell`s rage over the June 4 Tiananmen Square massacre led to his writing Forbidden City (Doubleday, 199 pages, $12.95 paper). The narrator, who recounts the story in his journal, is 17-year-old Alex Jackson, whose interest in military history finds expression in his hobby of recreating battles with handmade lead soldiers. When Alex`s father, a CBC-TV cameraman, is asked to cover Gorbachev`s China visit, he persuades Alex to join him by offering Alex the chance to see the terracotta army unearthed at an emperor`s burial site. In China, Alex-the-tourist becomes Alex -the-observer and then Alex-the- participant as happenings before and after the massacre unfold. He discovers that military reality is much different from simply moving toy soldiers about or viewing earthenware soldiers. In lesser hands, Forbidden City could have become a shallow act ion- adventure that exploited this horrific event. Instead, Bell offers older adolescent readers the opportunity to experience vicariously the emotions surrounding one of this century`s great tragedies. A large Bravo! to Western Producer Prairie Books for the titles in its International Youth Fiction Series. Despite the books` foreign settings, the emotions experienced by their adolescent protagonists travel well across geographic boundaries. Rafik Schami`s A Hand Full of Stars (Western Producer Prairie Books, 195 pages, $12.95 paper) continues the fine combination of powerful theme and engaging plot that were found in Gudrun Pausewang`s post-nuclear holocaust story, The Last Children of Schevenborn (1988), Sigrid Heuck`s childhood view of the closing months of the Second World War in Germany, The Hideout (1988), and John Marsden`s journal of a physically and emotionally scarred girl, So Much to Tell You... (1989). Through four years of diary entries of an unnamed diarist living in contemporary Damascus, Syria, readers of Schami`s A Hand Full of Stars observe a 14-year-old egocentric`s gradual transformation into a 17-year-old freedom fighter. His early diary entries, often humorous, reveal typical adolescent concerns: confiicts with parents over career choices and problems with girls and teachers. However, political events in Syria begin to intrude on the diarist`s entries, particularly as the repressive aspects of a series of military coups directly touch his life. A childhood wish to become a journalist is realized when he and two friends take the dangerous step of operating an underground newspaper. The book`s open ending reinforces the series` recurrent theme of the durability of the human spirit. The complexity of Welwyn Wilton Katzs last book, The Third Magic, winner of the 1989 Governor General`s Award, challenged the average reader. While Whalesinger (Groundwood, 212 pages, $16.95 cloth) offers numerous parallels, it presents its story in a much more accessible form. A summer job with an ocean conservation project takes Vancouverite Nick Young, 17, to Point Reyes, California, where he meets Marty Griffiths, 16, and Dr. Ray Pembroke. Nick finds himself romantically attracted to Marty, but Pembroke becomes a target for revenge as Nick considers his elder brother`s death to be Pembroke`s responsibility. Had Katz limited Whalesinger to these two elements, the book would have remained just another competent adventure/romance; however, she intertwines three seemingly disparate facts about the book`s setting -- Sir Francis Drake landed at Point Reyes in 1579, gray whales pass the point on their northward migration, and the San Andreas Fault runs next to it -- to create a multi-layered novel in which the present repeats the past and where the "songs" of mammals from the land and ocean intermingle. A glance at the YA shelves in mass-market bookstores reveals that most titles directly marketed to teens are series books, love stories in particular. Adolescents looking for a romance with a more substantial plot and theme could turn to Mary Razzell`s Night Fires (Groundwood, 172 pages, $6.95 paper), which contains elements of her two earlier novels: Snow Apples (1984), with its theme of woman as man`s subordinate, and the authentic hospital setting of Salmonberry Wine (1987). By the end of the first chapter, teens may find themselves sounding like parents as they mentally warn student nurse Karin Mellors, 19, against marrying the self-centred, controlling 24- year-old Mark Dalton. Rationalizing that she must temporarily subordinate her wishes to those of her success-driven lawyer husband, Karin allows Mark to manipulate her until he demands that she choose between him and completing her nursing program, an ultimatum triggered by Karin`s refusal to cease caring for an AIDS patient. Jan Hudson`s first novel, Sweetgrass (1984), received much critical acclaim, winning both the Canadian Library Association`s Book of the Year for Children Award and the Canada Council`s Children`s Literature Prize. The American edition (Philomel, 1989) was named to the American Library Association`s 1990 list of Best Books for Young Adults. Now a prequel, Dawn Rider (HarperCollins, 160 pages, $14.95 cloth), is available, but sadly it will be the last work from this young author who died in April from sudden respiratory failure. In content and quality Dawn Rider mirrors Sweetgrass. Both feature adolescent girls looking ahead to marriage, with the details of their individual stories being shaped by larger events around them. In each book, Hudson portrays the Blood tribe, part of the Blackfoot confederacy, at a historical turning point. While Sweetgrass was set in 1837 to 1838, the action in Dawn Rider happens a century earlier and, to a great degree, explains the changed social conditions of Sweetgrass. Two major events occur during Kit Fox`s 16th year that alter forever the ways of the Blood tribe: her people obtain their first horse, and they begin to trade for firearms. Despite tribal elders` warnings about possible negative effects of horses and guns, the young predict only "good times for our people." To learn how to ride the horse, Kit sneaks out at dawn to practise; but her efforts are discouraged by the tribe`s males who believe a warrior should be the horse`s first rider. Ultimately, Kit saves her tribe by riding the horse to fetch armed Crees to repel enemy attackers. The careful attention to accurate historical detail that characterizes Dawn Rider is also present in Marianne Brandis`s The Sign of the Scales (Porcupine`s Quill, 221 pages, $9.95 paper), her third book set in 1830s Upper Canada and featuring Emma Anderson and her younger brother, John. The pair`s story begins with The Tinderbox (1982), in which Emma and John are the sole survivors of a house fire that killed their parents and siblings, then continues in The Quarter-Pie Window (1985) as Emma begins working as a servant in her aunt`s York hotel. The new book finds Emma still at the hotel but also employed part-time at the Sign of the Scales, a general store in which Mrs. McPhail, Emma`s aunt, has invested money. When Emma discovers John possessing more money than his livery-stable job should provide, she suspects his involvement in smuggling American goods. Emma`s fears prove groundless, but she and the shop owner`s teenaged son, Charlie, do become embroiled in breaking up a smuggling operation. Though the plot will maintain reader interest, the book`s real strength (and that of its predecessors) resides in Brandis`s ability to recreate the social and physical setting of 19th-century Upper Canada. While illustrations in a book for older adolescents are unusual, G. Brender a Brandis`s wood engravings contribute to creating the story`s period. Gordon Korman and Martyn Godfrey have repeatedly demonstrated that likeable, offbeat characters placed in unusual situations can evoke laughter from early adolescent readers. The pair`s recent offerings successfully continue that pattern. When Joe Cardone agrees to let his younger brother, Jason, 16, and two friends live in his Toronto apartment for the summer, he asks but one thing, "Don`t lose my lease!" In September, Joe must move, and the book humorously depicts how Losing Joe`s Place (Scholastic, 233 pages, $12.95 paper) comes about. The story`s humour results partly from Korman`s use of a series of running gags and also from his repeatedly taking characters to the brink of disaster and then rescuing them. At book`s end, Korman ties up all the loose ends, but readers know if they were able to turn just another page, the characters would be back in hilarious trouble. Can You Teach Me to Pick My Nose? (Avon, 121 pages, $3.50 paper) actually refers to the name of a skateboard manoeuvre, but, for Godfrey fans, this "gross-out-grabber" title may evoke images of the raisin-stuck-in-the-nose episode in last year`s Why Just Me? (McClelland & Stewart). Seventh-grader Jordy Shepherd`s move from Montana to California runs into difficulties when his classmate, Chris Williamson, attempts to promote Jordy`s crush on the gorgeous Marissa by falsely bragging that Jordy had been a Montana champion ramp skateboarder. Steve, Marissa`s ninth-grader brother, challenges Jordy to beat him in the upcoming local championship. Jordy, having never skateboarded, must discover a way to avoid being publicly humiliated Help arrives from an unlikely source -- the class pariah, Pamela Loseth of the nerdy laugh and acidic tongue. Pamela, an accomplished skateboarder, believes she can teach Jordy enough skateboarding technique in a week to permit him to fake an injuryproducing accident. By working together, the unlikely pair uncovers the real people behind the facades. A predictable, upbeat ending is fitting for this fun- filled story. Two first novels for younger adolescents are partially successful. Jeni Mayer`s The Mystery of the Turtle Lake Monster (Thistledown, 126 pages, $5.95 paper) is a competently written page-turner in which three friends try to collect a reward by proving the existence of a Loch Ness- type monster in a Saskatchewan lake. The trio experiences the expected series of life- endangering situations, but their brand of myopic sleuthing may become annoying to readers who quickly recognize the had guys and their obvious motivation. Alan Ritchie`s Erin McEwan, Your Days Are Numbered (Alfred A. Knopf/Random House, 188 pages, $16.95 cloth) has the laudable purpose of addressing the issue of math anxiety, particularly as it affects young girls and women; however, Ritchie`s message tends to overpower a weak storyline. Erin faces repeating grade six because of her seeming inability to comprehend mathematics. By taking a job in a deli where she experiences math`s practical applications and through the help of a sympathetic tutor, Erin makes the grade and along the way uses her new-found skills to solve the mystery of the deli`s disappearing profits. Though picture-books are normally associated with younger children, some, such as Warabe Aska`s Seasons (Doubleday, 44 pages, $19.95 cloth), find their audience among much more mature readers. Seasons weds each of 20 Aska`s oil paintings (five per season) with a brief poem selected by Alberto Manguel. The fantasy-like paintings were originally created between 1978 and 1989 and most are now in private collections. The poetry, which is not always obviously associated with a season, will be largely unknown to North Americans, as Manguel has selected from the world`s historical and contemporary poetry storehouse. Generally the paintings and poetry work well together. One quibble -- Manguel`s historical notes on each poem/poet are sometimes lost in the pages` coloured borders. Now, if only publishers would produce teen- attracting book covers...

Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us