Young adult books: ‘Black Boy, White School’; ‘What Boys Really Want’

From the book jacket
From the book jacket
Posted: May 27, 2012

As energetic as the audience it’s intended for, young adult fiction continues to sparkle. Here are a few of the more vibrant YA titles published over the last few months:

Black Boy, White School By Brian F. Walker HarperTeen. $17.99

This bright, engaging book introduces us to Ant, a 14-year-old black kid from a tough Cleveland neighborhood where crime is an everyday occurrence. Soon, however, he gets uprooted and sent to a fancy boarding school in Maine, a predominantly white and culturally very different place. Readers get to experience both places, and author Walker gives a strong sense of how homesickness and civic pride can mingle confusingly with a desire to escape problems and experience something new. Ant doesn’t see eye-to-eye with all of his new classmates (or teachers, who insult him by confusing him with the school’s few other African American students); learning to cope in this environment is no small task. The book’s narrative and feeling of the passage of time are sometimes uneven, but Ant is relatable and funny, and Walker blends in ideas about the (sometimes surprising) intersections of race and class, making the book both challenging and charming.

What Boys Really Want By Pete Hautman Scholastic. $17.99

National Book Award winner Pete Hautman has come through with another fine book for teens. What Boys Really Want is told in turns by Lita and Adam, best friends who are both trying to find out what boys (and girls) really think about dating and love. Sassy Lita secretly writes a popular dating-advice blog under the moniker Miz Fitz, and Adam is a little huckster whose latest scheme is to write a book called What Boys Want, taking orders for it from his school’s female population long before he sits down to write it. Hautman has a sweet sense of humor, and his tone strikes a good balance between gentle and realistic (his teens swear, once in awhile, and they — gasp — do know about sex). He also displays a warmth and depth of understanding for his female characters in all their private travails — as in the hilarious scene of Lita and her friend Emily trying to create the appearance of cleavage using makeup and stuck-on maxi pads.

Olivia Bean: Trivia Queen By Donna Gephart Delacorte. $16.99

The quiz show Jeopardy! is special for 12-year-old Olivia Bean, and not only because she rules at trivia. She and her dad watched the show together every night; it was their thing. But her father recently left the family to start a new life with a new wife, and getting good at Jeopardy! has started to take on a grave kind of importance for Olivia. Written for a middle-grade readership, the novel has a simple, elegant way of saying the truth that should resonate with young readers: “Sometimes when I think about Dad and how much I miss him, I get a cramp in my stomach.” The book addresses a painful family situation, but the overall mood is light — and peppered with funny trivia. (“Grandma Scott used to say Charlie eats like a bird, but I know that’s not right because most birds eat half their body weight every day.”) Plus, local kids will smile when they see that Olivia lives in Philadelphia, goes to Phillies games, and mentions her favorite place to go out to eat: the Country Club Diner.

All the Right Stuff Walter Dean Myers Amistad. $17.99

Walter Dean Myers is wonderful. A seasoned children’s book author, he writes with an ease that lets a reader catch her breath: a rare treat. In All the Right Stuff, a Harlem teenager named Paul starts working at a soup kitchen during the summer his father is killed. He soon starts talking about heavy ideas with old Elijah, the man who runs the “Soup Emporium,” where he gives out soup (and companionship) to other seniors in the neighborhood. Through a series of conversations that read like oral tradition, taken down, Elijah teaches Paul about the social contract, about Hobbes and Rousseau, and — more practically — about the rules of getting along in today’s world. Meanwhile, Paul also gets to know a local gangster who has different but equally complex ideas about the merits of following the rules, particularly where race, class, and opportunity are concerned. These are serious ideas with no easy answer, and Myers doesn’t preach at his readers. Instead, he shows them a whole world on a few city blocks and lets them think for themselves.

The Year of the Beast By Cecil Castellucci Roaring Brook. $16.99

With nine charming YA books under her belt, punky L.A. writer Cecil Castellucci is becoming a mainstay of the genre. That said, this book is a little unusual. One narrative, the story of a teenage girl and her younger sister and the boys who come into their lives, is told in a fanciful style reminiscent of another modern fairy-tale writer young women love, Francesca Lia Block. The old-fashioned tone makes the characters’ references to things such as cellphones feel anachronistic, sometimes awkwardly so. But this story is interspersed with another, possibly more powerful one, told entirely in comics by Nate Powell. This one really is a fantasy, or like something from a bad dream: A teenage girl has turned into a freakish Medusa, and the snakes on her head can talk! What seems like a metaphor for coming-of-age eventually dovetails with the other narrative in a truly suspiring way, and this cleverness acts as a counterbalance for the essential darkness of the tale.

Also, keep an eye out for:

Curveball: The Year I Lost My Grip, by Jordan Sonnenblick (Scholastic): Sonnenblick, author of the affecting novel After Ever After, knows how to bring teenage boys to life on the page. In his new story, a promising young baseball player hurts his arm and has to learn to love something (and maybe someone) else.

Pretty Crooked, by Elisa Ludwig (Katherine Tegen Books): Local writer (and Inquirer contributor) Ludwig has her YA debut with Pretty Crooked, the Robin Hood story of a prep schoolgirl who steals from her bratty friends and gives the booty to the school’s scholarship students. The novel promises to be as snarky as it is sparkly.

Katie Haegele’s first book, “White Elephants,” a memoir, has just been published by Microcosm Publishing.

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