Take the Stairs

by Karen Krossing
ISBN: 1896764762

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A Review of: Take The Stairs
by Tim McGrenere

Karen Krossing's first novel for teens begins with an interesting premise: thirteen stories told from the perspective of thirteen different teenagers who all live in the same run-down apartment building. Each character tells a story of personal adversity, and most end with some form of personal triumph. Petra escapes "the Building", as it is called by the tenants, and an abusive father. Tanya lets her leg hair grow and faces social humiliation at the pool to escape the repressive "beauty myth". Jennifer comes out of the closet. The stories intersect somewhat, with various characters re-appearing throughout the book.
Krossing does have some good moments. One of her characters has to paddle her injured father home at night and reflects that "the wilderness was harsh and unforgiving, but it wasn't really so different from [her] home in the city. The indifference of the strangers that were neighbours in the building. The unexpected hazards in the underground and the stairwells..." On the whole, however, the book is fundamentally flawed because the voices of Krossing's thirteen characters are not convincing. They rarely sound like teenagers. Worse, they often sound like an adult who's trying hard to sound like a teenager. Sometimes, Krossing lets her own "writerly" voice overtake her character's voice; so, you'll have a teenaged couch potato with no previous flair for romanticism suddenly describing a girl whose "eyes were shining black jewels and her cheeks burned deep burgundy." Burgundy? And not one of these teenagers utters a single vulgarity other than one or two instances of the word "bitch". Krossing handles the girls better than the boys, but I still can't imagine many teenagers from places like the Building recognizing themselves here.
This brings me to my second criticism. Although the book deals with real issues (homosexuality, child abuse, alcoholism, racism, etc.), it does so in a highly sanitized, after-school-special way. It reads almost as if Krossing set out a checklist of hot-button issues that teens would respond to and then systematically ticked them off as she wrote a story about a teenager overcoming each one. But Krossing never fully realizes any single one of these issues in a satisfying way. We are told about the effects that Petra's abusive father has, but we are never given enough telling details to really feel those effects and so we don't believe in or care for her triumph (and we aren't convinced she's real anyway).
I suppose the goal of presenting teenagers with uplifting and inspirational narratives is a laudable one, but it can't be at the expense of a basic principle of good fiction: convincing characters in convincing situations.

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