Maybe it's the reality TV craze, but it seems that today's books for teens are less focused on moral lessons and more focused on the issues of everyday life. In honor of the American Library Association's Teen Read Week (October 19-25), we've chosen some recent books that typify this trend by reflecting the challenges and interests of a new generation of readers.
No one cuts to the heart of inner-city teen issues like Walter Dean Myers. The Beast (Scholastic, $16.95, 170 pages, ISBN 0439368413) begins when 16-year-old Anthony "Spoon" Witherspoon leaves his Harlem neighborhood for a Connecticut prep school called Wallingford Academy, which he hopes will help him fulfill his dream of attending Brown University. The only thing he regrets is leaving his girlfriend Gabi, who has a real talent for poetry. At school, Spoon's classes inspire him, and he gets along with his classmates. It's only when he goes back to his old neighborhood for the winter break that he realizes how much—and how quickly—things can change. His best friend, Scott, has dropped out of high school. Gabi is still the sensitive poet he left behind, but the stress of family problems has pushed her into drug use. Spoon's attempt to save her will change them both.
The author of several acclaimed young adult novels, Myers grew up in Harlem, and if the disadvantaged teens seem a little too good to be true at times, knowing that Myers has been there himself allows the reader to suspend disbelief. The Beast's ultimately uplifting ending will satisfy teens.
Finding the way
The Earth, My Butt, and Other Round Things by Carolyn Mackler explores the challenges faced by teens on the other side of New York City. Fifteen-year-old Virginia Shreves considers herself a loser in a family of winners. Her parents and older brother and sister are all thin, attractive, intelligent and fluent in French. Virginia is "larger-than-average," detests French and prefers People magazine to classic novels. Her best friend has just moved to Walla Walla, Washington, her clandestine romance with a classmate called Froggy is on the rocks, and her fitness-obsessed mother has decided that now's the time to do something about Virginia's weight problem. Confronted with the disapproval of her parents and the rude comments of the more popular students, Virginia starts a dangerous descent into starvation dieting and other self-destructive behaviors. When her brother, Byron, is suspended from Columbia, Virginia realizes that her family might not be so perfect after all and finds a way to accept—and discover—herself. Mackler, whose Love and Other Four-Letter Words was an IRA Young Adult's Choice book, does an amazing job of capturing the wistful self-consciousness of teenage girls, and Virginia's transformation is inspiring.
The mature lives led by today's teens have inspired a crop of self-help and motivational titles. Mawi Asgedom, an Ethiopian refugee whose inspiring memoir, Of Beetles and Angels (2000), was a BookSense '76 pick, offers one of the best. The Code: The Five Secrets of Success for Teens (Little, Brown, $15.95, 152 pages, ISBN 0316826332) tells teens how they can improve their lives through knowing their inner character and refining their outer goals. Asgedom shares many inspiring case studies as well as his own experiences of overcoming difficulties in a conversational style that will appeal to teen readers. Each chapter is devoted to one of the five secrets and ends with a short section called "Your Turn," which gives teens the opportunity to put the chapter's message to immediate use. Asgedom, a graduate of Harvard, has been featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show, named by ESSENCE as one of the 40 most inspiring African Americans and has given the commencement address at Harvard. His practical advice will motivate teens to greater levels of success.
Nothing says "teen" like rock 'n' roll. The Book of Rock Stars (Hyperion, $16.99, 48 pages, ISBN 0786819502) by Kathleen Krull is the perfect volume to slide under the door of that teenager who just won't come out of his or her room (and has the music turned up too loudly to hear you knocking). The brief profiles of stars from Jim Morrison to Chrissie Hynde to Kurt Cobain are accompanied by gorgeous color art by Stephen Alcorn and full of fascinating tidbits. Can you name the only person who's been inducted three times into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame? (Eric Clapton—as a Yardbird, a member of Cream and a solo artist.) Three rockers who died at age 27? (Joplin, Morrison and Cobain.) The book concludes with suggestions for further research into each star, including websites, books and albums. This compelling introduction to some of rock's major figures will interest teens and offer an opportunity for parents to reminisce about the music of their youth. Copyright 2003 BookPage Reviews
Horn Book Guide Reviews 2004 Spring
When Virginia's brother, whom she worships, is found guilty of date rape, she finally begins to acknowledge her picture-perfect family's dysfunctions. An insecure girl desperate for the approval of her weight- and appearance-obsessed family, Virginia believably transforms into a confident young woman. Mackler does a fine job introducing girls to a very cool chick with a little meat on her bones. Copyright 2004 Horn Book Guide Reviews.
Horn Book Magazine Reviews 2003 #5
"You can tell that Ani is angry, but at the same time she's also funny and strong and sassy." Though she's talking about punk folksinger Ani DiFranco, fifteen-year-old Virginia could easily be describing herself. Unfortunately, Virginia buries her anger (toward her picture-perfect but dysfunctional family) and is unable to see herself as anything but a fat girl who's kind of smart. When her brother Byron, whom she worships, is found guilty of date rape, Virginia finally begins to acknowledge what her older sister Anais has tried to tell her: that Byron and their parents are far from perfect. Virginia's transition from an insecure girl desperate for her family's approval to a confident young woman might be a little messagey, but it's believable, and she doesn't do it on her own. Support comes from her best friend, from a teacher with eating-disorder experience, from a doctor who stresses health not weight and recommends channeling anger through kick-boxing, and even from the college student her brother assaulted. Readers will cheer Virginia on when she tells her father not to comment on her weight loss ("my body [is] just not yours to discuss"); tells her brother he's "an asshole for date-raping someone"; ignores clothing advice from her appearance-obsessed mother (who recommends "strategic layers and camouflaging colors") and buys a sexy purple dress instead; and realizes that the guy she's been making out with behind closed doors actually wants to kiss her in public. Mackler does a fine job introducing girls to a very cool chick with a little meat on her bones. Copyright 2003 Horn Book Magazine Reviews
Kirkus Reviews 2003 June #2
"Froggy Welsh the Fourth is trying to get up my shirt," begins this eminently accessible journey from self-hatred to confidence. Virginia is 15 and likes fooling around with Froggy, but she's mortified by her fatness, a shame fueled continually by her emotionally distant and pressuring family. Has she been switched at birth? Why isn't she perfect like her adored, overachieving older brother? But her brother isn't perfect after all, and he commits a horrifying act that rocks her world-and prompts her to begin questioning her family's values. Readers will be rooting for Virginia all the way as she moves from isolated TV-watcher to Website-creator with purple hair and an eyebrow ring. Sexuality, refreshingly, is treated as a good thing. Virginia's emotions progress from despondence to anger, joy, and strong independence, all portrayed with clarity. An easy read with substance and spirit. (Fiction. YA) Copyright Kirkus 2003 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved
Library Media Connection Reviews 2004 February
This is not your average, "fat girl finds faith in herself" story. Virginia has her own code of conduct, her own supportive teacher, and a real will to sort out the difference between the expectations of others and Virginia's expectations of herself to be happy. Common elements in many young adult novels are here: a recently moved best friend, an ambiguous romantic relationship with a male classmate, and the sense of being the "imperfect" child. Virginia's mother is a fascinating character study-the famous teen psychologist whose relationship with her teen daughter is mediocre at best. Readers will empathize with very real affronts to Virginia's sense of self and her own internal battle with her weight versus using food to cope with stress and disappointment. There are refreshing twists to this novel. One twist-original, daring, and very believable-is the fallout from her college student brother's accusation of date rape on campus. Not only did he commit the date rape and move back h me, but also Virginia has to rewrite how she views each member of her family because of it and actually meets the victim. Multifaceted, buoyant, and consistent, this solid young adult novel is a must purchase. Highly Recommended. Julie Perdue, Adult Service/Reference Librarian, Marysville (Ohio) Public Library Â© 2004 Linworth Publishing, Inc.
Publishers Weekly Reviews 2003 July #3
"Chubby" New York City teenager Virginia Shreves is having a hard time: not only is her best friend, Shannon, spending the school year out west, but Virginia's being pressured about her weight by her family-especially her formerly fat mother, a prominent adolescent psychologist. Lonely and insecure, Virginia has even started to hurt herself. When the brother she worships is suspended from college for date rape, the news shocks Virginia into realizing that her "stellar" family isn't as perfect as her mother says it is, and that she doesn't have to conform to her mother's expectations. Mackler (Love and Other Four-Letter Words) occasionally uses a heavy hand when it comes to making her points ("Recently, I've been finding it harder to pretend that everything is A-OK"), and some of the plot elements, such as the overweight teacher who looks out for Virginia, or Virginia's discovery that a popular girl has an eating disorder, seem scripted. The date rape story line, on the other hand, is gutsy; her brother wasn't just accused of date rape, he actually committed the crime. Ultimately, readers will find it easy to relate to Virginia; she loves junk food, gets nervous about finding someone to sit with in the cafeteria and can't believe that Froggy, the boy she has secretly made out with after school, could be interested in her, not just using her. The e-mails she exchanges with Shannon, and the lists she makes (e.g., "The Fat Girl Code of Conduct") add both realism and insight to her character. The heroine's transformation into someone who finds her own style and speaks her own mind is believable-and worthy of applause. Ages 14-up. (Aug.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal Reviews 2003 September
Gr 7-10-Sophomore Virginia Shreves lives in Manhattan and attends a prestigious private school. She lives by her Fat Girl Code of Conduct. She has a budding romance with Froggy the Fourth, but she doesn't want his wandering hands to feel her fat. Her baggy clothing helps her to "hide." Her mother, Dr. Phyllis Shreves, is an adolescent psychologist obsessed with her imperfect daughter's weight, and her father is rarely around. Her older sister joined the Peace Corps to escape mom, and brother Byron is big man on the Columbia campus-until he's suspended for date rape. Finally, Virginia stands up to her mother and takes charge of her life. Strong points in the novel are the issue of date rape and its consequences and, however glossed over, eating disorders. Parental pressure is overdone. Mom and dad are stereotypical of adults so involved in themselves that they cannot see their child for who she is. Some passages are very well done, but the book has an uneven quality in prose style and character development. Told through first-person narrative, journal entries, and e-mail, Virginia's story will interest readers who are looking for one more book with teen angst, a bit of romance, and a kid who is a bit like them or their friends.-Gail Richmond, San Diego Unified Schools, CA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
VOYA Reviews 2003 October
Virginia Shreves has some serious issues with which to deal. Her body and her inferiority complex are both larger than average. Her best friend just moved away from home in New York City to Walla Walla, Washington, and just might forget Virginia completely. Froggy, her potential boyfriend, is a great kisser, but he never speaks to her outside their Monday afternoon trysts. Worst of all, she is convinced that she was switched at birth because her family is a collection of thin, bright overachievers. Her adolescent psychologist mother is a diet and exercise fanatic, and her jet-setting father openly prefers skinny women. Byron and Anais, Virginia's older brother and sister, are slim, brilliant, and successful-hard acts to follow. Subtract the oddball Virginia from the equation and this fabulous foursome equals a perfect family. At least they seem perfect until an unspeakable act and a telephone call change everything, and Virginia learns that people are not always what they seem. Mackler allows Virginia to narrate the story of her family's destruction and struggle for redemption in a voice that is dead-on, whether sassy and self-assured or agonized and self-destructive. Hilarious, insecure, hopeful, clueless-Virginia is a treasure. All readers will wish they could tell her that themselves. From the eye-catching silver foil cover, with title graphics looking like lipstick, to the upbeat ending, this novel is a required purchase for public library young adult collections. The occasional use of strong language and a few mild sexual allusions are appropriate and well done.-Jamie S. Hansen. 5Q 4P S Copyright 2003 Voya Reviews