Review this piece


When asked how much time they spend reading, most adults would
say, “Not enough.” A suggestion about a reading area to compete
with other reading obligations and choices deserves an argument.
Time is limited. If readers inject something new, something old has to
go, or the time for it abbreviated to accommodate. However,
employing the NIKE advice, “Just do it,” challenges. Considering
why one should precedes how one should — the latter being too
personal to tackle collectively, and each of us makes time for what we
want to do.

Adults reflecting on their growth usually point to the teen years as
jarring, and guiding and watching others experience this stage evokes
memories, conversation, and reflection. I have devoted my life to
teens because they exemplify opposites: good, bad, exciting, dull,
boring, interesting, tolerant, intolerant, listening, deaf, respectful,
disrespectful — the list is endless. Often they don’t seek guidance and
advice because they want to find out for themselves. Most adults try
to make those discoveries as painless as possible, and some make
teen life more complicated and painful. Those of us who have stuck with teens in spite of many turn-offs know they need interested adults.

Copyright 2002
Timshel Literature

They may persist in camouflaging themselves and drive full-speed toward exasperation, but we stay for the ride, checking our seat belts and airbags and offering prayers.

My preference as a writer is teens. I have centered my life’s work around them, and, when staring at a blank page, I usually decide to write for them and about them because they read and listen. Many won’t give the satisfaction of comprehension at a moment of disagreement, but let time pass, and if an adult hangs around long enough, and if the moment is resurrected, an appreciation may come forth. It may not.

The appreciation doesn’t matter as much to me as the drive to offer teens the lifelines of experience. As an audience, that age group allows me to dabble into preteen and childhood experiences, as well as those well beyond, in an effort to forecast possibilities. The wisdom of the aged, carefully presented, strikes a hit. And if it doesn’t, the exercise is worth the effort just because it makes good sense, and teens wouldn’t have it if it weren’t offered. Sure, they can lump and dump, but, more often than not, they savor and record.

Teens have an energy and excitement about life. The breadth of possibilities from the gamut of life’s span invites creativity — the spark of life. That satisfies me.

Writing for them means reading about them. From that reading, adults can learn lessons that are worth the time adjustment. Often, adults only have time for reviews, such as the collection that follows.


A Year Down Yonder, by Richard Peck (Dial Books for Young Readers, 2000)

A survey conducted by Parade, a weekend-newspaper insert, investigated movie stars’ wishes for the new year. Gwyneth Paltrow wished for a book that she could not put down. My suggestion: A Year Down Yonder, by Richard Peck. An author who sets the standard for middle-school–age students, Richard Peck has created a lovely story in this Newbery Medal book that flows like sweet cream to its “happily every after” ending.

The recession of 1937 caused more ripples in families than did any of the recent economic periods to which the label has been applied. In its midst, Mary Alice goes to live with her grandmother in an Illinois hick town. Grandmother is formidable, and boy readers will appreciate the cleverness with which she takes on challenges and maintains her reputation.

A city girl, Mary Alice faces grandmother, school, and her own growth over the course of the year depicted in the book. Mary Alice’s classmates and her ingenuity (perhaps a chip off grandmother’s block, no doubt gene-descendent) create a warmth that invigorates. The humor is feisty, and the depiction of this slice of Americana is presented with originality. Mr. Peck injects cleverly worded phrases, some that sound like clichés, in a context that is fresh and consistent with the observations of a fifteen year old.

A Year Down Yonder is a sequel to A Long Way from Chicago, and fans will ask when they may expect its sequel. And to Gwyneth: This is not a book to be read between scenes, or the director will be stopping the cameras until the preoccupied reader detaches herself from the book.


Stargirl, by Jerry Spinelli (Knopf, 2000)

When I first heard the title of Jerry Spinelli’s book, Stargirl, I thought of a girl who stood out in my thirty-two years in the classroom. She was small, winsome, and quiet, with pixie-ish hair, and she wore lots of black clothes and, sometimes, almond-shaped glasses that tapered. She didn’t act out as Stargirl does, but the more I read, the closer Mr. Spinelli came to depicting the character of my student, who many didn’t see or take the time to appreciate. Her individuality was a trademark that she exhibited but did not impose and rarely shared except in her writing. The book cover, very cleverly simple, tactile, symbolic, and aptly colored, displays a five-pointed star and a bald stick figure in a triangle-dress.

In the book, Leo Borlock tells the story of his ninth-grade year at age fourteen, when Stargirl Caraway, birth-named Susan Julia Caraway, appeared for her junior year. Home-schooled, Stargirl is a free spirit. Leo, in his overly mature manner describes her on page 107 as, “bendable light: she shone around every corner of my day.” The book is peppered with these expressions that are beyond the level of a ninth grader but act as clues to identify the narrator. The first is on page 27: “The atmosphere bristled like cactus paddles.”

Most teens pride themselves on their individuality but are reluctant to express it. They like being accepted by others more than they like developing themselves — not Stargirl. Leo and Stargirl connect, and he experiences the exhilaration of her individuality and develops a crush that sears his heart until he gets shunned. Then Leo feels invisible, and even Stargirl attempts to be accepted. The adult voice in the book is presented through Archibald Hapwood Brubaker, a paleontologist with a gift, who recognizes and appreciates Stargirl’s individuality.

Stargirl vanishes as she appeared, leaving the reader wondering if she was an apparition whose impact is life long. Her story makes the message of her being and values emphatic. There are people and characters we never forget; Stargirl is one such individual. Spinelli creates a story that resonates, breeds discussion and analysis, and can stand on its own as a good read once or time and time again.


You Don’t Know Me, David Klass (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001)

A man sat on a park bench muttering audibly, a book in hand, with a professorial demeanor. In balmy weather more indicative of summer than of November 20, passers-by walked, ran, ate, and chatted during lunch-time at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. I slowed my pace on my first pass, attracted to the man repeating “know.” Painters paint publicly. Why couldn’t readers read publicly? Perhaps he tried to block out the interference to his concentration. He didn’t look to be reading-challenged.

On my return pass, I observed the scene and stood comfortably apart from him, but within listening distance. He was still on page one. I left. At 3:00 p.m., he was introduced to ALAN (The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents) Workshop participants as David Klass, and I worried that my eavesdropping might be labeled “author stalking,” even if I had not connected the man and his craft. Then, when he read a familiar sentence, I questioned whether I mightn’t be labeled worse than that — same verb, different tense, same object. “Hey,” I wanted to shout, “After more revisions than I cared to track, my book’s first sentence is dangerously close to yours!” I kept the thought to myself, satisfied that differences and similarities occur and that I had miles to go before publication.

After he read the first page, I thought about the reading order that I had considered for the books provided by ALAN (compliments of generous publishers) and saved You Don’t Know Me as a revision-reward read. When I finally opened it, I ate the pages, allowing food temptations to stale.

Riveting. Compelling. I broke up the reading to savor the impact.

John’s father left him and his mom. When John sees a thread of satisfaction for his mother with her live-in boyfriend, he keeps the man’s abuse to himself. The man intimidates and threatens John, but John’s surging manhood, making him feel responsible for returning his mother’s sacrifices, silences him.

John’s narration of his ninth-grade life includes a cast of characters named to suit his feelings for them. Ms. Moonface, his math teacher, when called that directly, reacts to name calling with the hurt and injury any kid camouflages better but feels as piercingly. John is no angel but is an individual, and Mr. Steinwilly’s persistence and sensitivity works.

Glory Hallelujah is John’s fantasy girl. A date scene made me wonder, with all of the warning (and the libido raging) there, how John ends the night, which borders on being contrived and far-fetched, nearly skinned. The night’s continuation into frigid torment plunges the reader into a vortex that rattles, even vicariously.

At times, the narrator’s story does read like a verbal exercise — for example, “flocculent snow” on page 240. But, there are sentences to savor, though they are profound for a ninth grader, such as this on p.147: “Allow me to share one simple and very frightening truth with you: your real enemy is someone who knows you. And the better they know you, and the closer they are to you, the greater is their capacity to do you harm.” Great, but better for an adult to express, like Mr. Hayes’s statement on p. 229: “It doesn’t matter how you look, or how people look at you — what’s important is how you look at yourself.” A truism that bears repeating in a variety of expressions.

The violence at the end of the book rivals any by Stephen King but underscores what it takes to get people to hear as well as listen. Although there is some difficulty around the boy’s imaginings, the well-paced plot proceeds, and the subplots offset the focus on the abuse theme, placing it as a carat among baguettes. John’s tensions, apprehensions, and fears connect us to a young life, experiencing what has the potential to become damaging memories. Through this young adult, adults can learn about perpetuating and breaking cycles.


Jerome, by William Taylor (Alyson Publications, 1999)

The reader learns about Jerome Winter through chats, faxes, and emails from two friends whom he left behind when he died: Marco Petrovic in New Zealand and Katie in the U.S.A. The threesome met each other in Atherton, New Zealand. Soon after Katie leaves as a foreign exchange student, Marco writes to her of Jerome’s demise.

Through their writings, family issues and tensions spice up the dialogue but never compete with the focus of their relationship: learning about each other and helping each other survive this fact of life. Most of the idioms are understandable contextually, though “had his guts for garters” may demand translation into each language in which the book is printed.

Katie and Marco write in young adult language that may cause adults to limit the book’s availability — Taylor makes “fuck” the thirteenth word of the opening chapter. But protest will certainly increase the readership because kids want to read what they are forbidden. This book, however, deserves their attention for other reasons, mostly because it reflects characters experiencing growth. Though thoroughly red-neck in attitude, Marco shatters like a door of glass hit by a boulder when Katie returns to New Zealand for a holiday break in December. The three friends are reunited at Jerome’s grave in a climax and ending that pull the reader into a vortex in 95 pages.

Because of the book’s brevity, questions and thoughts will simmer and make readers eager to talk about issues like values, stereotypes, prejudice, suicide, rape, family relationships, smoking, booze, bullying, cultures, friendships, and the tangents each of these stimulate. Who is the magnetic-filings-image on the cover?

The author does a masterful job of listening and imparting a fraction of narration, allowing the kids to expose the story. Katie and Marco may not be quoted in years to come, but they will be remembered for writing and speaking a profound story.


A Cold Case, Philip Gourevitch (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001)

Although this is an adult book, my class read an article by the author that allowed them to view a video tape of Koehler’s confession, via a guest lecturer. Teens are interested in adult issues. Philip Gourevitch’s A Cold Case is a “cold” story — one that has already been “told,” nearly in its entirety, in issues of The New Yorker. In the book, there’s a bit more background on the tenacious investigator, Andy Rosenzwieg, who gets his man, Frankie Koehler, with Frankie’s cooperation, after twenty-seven years.

The book’s 184 pages can be read as quickly as the magazine that forecasted and was the setting for the story. What makes the book worth the additional investment — beyond the magazine subscription — are two minor figures, insight into Koehler’s mind and his advice, and good writing.

Gourevitch writes in a style as smooth as soft ice cream, yet facts amass. He manages to insert tidbits of information that elaborate on what is known about the case, but the book is not a mystery because an aware reader knows the ending. What intrigues the reader is how the story came together — its history.

A Cold Case presents a Koehler, other than the criminal, who begs for more development: Koehler’s wife is an interesting woman who deserves more attention. A picture of old-school love and loyalty, she provides a rationale for why Koehler became the person that he became: rejection. Therein is one lesson. The other stunning lesson of the book comes from Karen McGinn-Hagen, who was six when her thirty-eight year old father, Peter, was shot by Koehler. What her father and his children (four of them) missed out on, what Koehler “blew away,” is expressed in her evocative testimony.

Gourevitch serves his readers well. He could have served them better by adding written pictures of the victims beyond those at the murder scene and of family members (if they allowed). Further statements from participants and perhaps articles from newspapers covering the case would have provided a broader comprehension than the book enables. A transcript of the confession videotape, which I have seen and heard parts of on NPR, should not await the movie. But readers’ wanting more is a rewarding testament to a writer’s investment of time and talent.


A Cup of Tea, by Amy Ephron (Ballantine, 1998)

Amy Ephron’s A Cup of Tea is a predictable beach read with less density and depth than the liquid and its holder in the title. Set in 1917 New York, the noire element established by the author reaches an unsurprising exposure in a dramatic ending that imitates O’Henry poorly because it lacks cleverness.

The pattern is familiar: debutante helps Cinderella, mix in the debutante’s prince’s testosterone, army hitch, army error, a girlfriend, and, voila, there are Rosemary, Philip, and Jane racing through fast-paced chapters that lack substance. The characters have a semblance of believability, but they are sacrificed to the plot instead of the reverse.


Plainsong, by Kent Haruf (Vintage Contemporaries, 2000)

Plainsong may leave your hands, but not your head, and if you let it, it will touch your heart. Kent Haruf tells a third-person story by changing the characters who serve as subjects for each chapter, an alteration of the technique used by Chaucer and contemporary writers Barbara Kingsolver (The Poisonwood Bible) and Andre Dubus III (House of Sand and Fog), who all change narrators through a work.

Disregarding quotation marks, as Frank McCourt does in Angela’s Ashes, Haruf dabbles into his characters — as an artist selects paints from a palette — until the last three pages, when the palette itself vacuums the story and reader into a vortex. With casual but careful perception, Haruf’s strokes splay into the essence of his plot, unfolding the chapters in a manner that entices the reader with each sentence and paragraph. The title, as defined on an opening page, means “the unisonous vocal music used by the Christian church from the earliest times; any simple or unadorned melody or air.” However, the significance of the title is best understood by reading the book.

Tom Guthrie, a teacher/single parent; Victoria Roubideaux, a pregnant teenager; Ike and Bobby (Guthrie), 10 and 9, respectively; McPherons (Harold and Raymond), crude men hurt by gossip; Ella (Guthrie), a woman in search of herself; and Maggie Jones, a teacher/daughter, are the characters who serve as chapter subjects. Through them, Haruf presents a town with a cast of minor characters, including Judy, the school secretary; Lloyd Crowder, the school principal, a “fat tub of guts” in Mr. Beckman’s (a parent) words; and Iva Stearns, whose smoke and clutter permeate the page. Each character is a masterpiece of sensitivity and detail, and, seen in the panoramic display that Haruf creates, each contributes to the author’s purpose of presenting a contemporary American town where life happens.

Haruf blends humor and sex into his story. Ike assesses Ralph Black for Bobby as “just an old dogfart.” The way in which the McPherons rid themselves of an unwanted visitor is just what the reader roots for them to do. Ike and Bobby watch older kids engaging in sex. (How many young people continue to learn about sex accidentally?) The violence and abuse unfolds in a manner that makes the reader grimace and wish he or she could jump into the page.

Haruf includes a segment on the school issue of parents defending a child. Any student, parent, teacher, or administrator can associate with the characters playing these roles. It is believable. What gratifies about Haruf’s work is that he keeps the characters in character. Other aspects lack the clarification to satisfy. Must the reader assume Ike and Bobby are left unsupervised when their father acts “single”? And on page 157, a sentence reads, “Then she [Judy] told him [Tom] the story about the blonde on the charter plane to Hawaii, and in turn he asked if she knew what the worst thing was for someone to say to you when you were standing at the urinal.”

What distinguishes Haruf and Plainsong is that he strums the reader’s emotions and interest — especially as the reader thinks about the story after completing the book. This reader wishes Haruf had left less to my imagination and carried each exposed item to a sensible and definitive “Harufian” resolution. However, reading groups need to speculate, and too neat a package leaves the characters and the story on a shelf instead of in the mind. Overall, Plainsong is an engaging piece of writing that resonates in its simplicity.

Haruf has also written The Tie That Binds and Where You Once Belonged. Plainsong, itself, is a New York Times Notable Book, a New Yorker Book Award Finalist, Winner of the Mountains & Plains Booksellers Association Award, and a National Book Award Finalist. When you buy this book, buy two — one to own and one to loan. As a gift, this book needs no wrapping.


Whale Talk, by Chris Crutcher (Greenwillow, 2001)

Buy this book, but do not read it unless you are willing to order in or eat cereal and delay everything else on your schedule.

Judy Crosby, of Island Books, Middletown, RI, and I have a contest going: she stacks copies of Chris Crutcher’s Ironman, and almost every time I go into the bookstore, I deplete her supply. One of us will tire eventually. I buy the copies to give as gifts for weddings, birthdays, retirements, and any event worth gifting. Yesterday, while checking out with this visit’s installment to my library, she said, “Oh, I’ve been saving something for you. I know you have an order in for April, but here’s my copy.” Whale Talk.

For those of us who are addicted to Chris Crutcher’s books, the wait since 1996 left us rereading previous works. Chris canned one book so as “not to be the guy who exploited that tragedy [in Littleton, Colorado] for personal gain.” Now, the bookshelf holds a new creation: Whale Talk, from Greenwillow Books. The publisher could better serve readers by sprucing up covers. Another detail that this reader would like is for the person to whom Crutcher dedicated the book, Ben Dodge (1982–1997), to be identified. Though not a short story, the 219 page book can be read in one sitting — sorely.

Chris characteristically creates subjects who deserve attention and repair. The narrator of Whale Talk is The Tao Jones (The Dow Jones), who possesses an “exotic DNA,” is physically fulfilled, and comes from a stable and supportive family unit. He assembles a swim team for Cutter High that resembles pieces of a puzzle stuck together. The crew from Mr. Nakatani’s Anger Management Class (see Ironman) has been replaced by a cross-section of students who beg for justice and development and extract emotion.

Crutcherese is a dialect of prose imitative of Swift’s satire and Gracie Allen’s quick wit for taking a cue and turning it inside out to create humor. Two examples: “The swim team from the Sahara” (p. 46) and “Spock, are you out of your Vulcan mind?” (p.12). Language that some will find offensive spices up Whale Talk frequently because that’s how kids speak.

Georgia Brown is developed like a song, and Abby Jones is the epitome of sense and sensibility, but early on in the book, Crutcher pays unnecessary attention to Mark Furhman and Charleton Heston. How The Tao’s adopted parents met deserves development, as does keeping Abby Jones present until the ending. My two favorite teens in this book were Chris Coughlin and Andy Mott, who will hopefully make an appearance again, perhaps in an expansion of Athletic Shorts. Andy may be a “less is more” formation, but his experiences deserve to be explored in more depth.

There are gruesome elements to this book that rival King and attest to the range of the truth of fiction. Some readers may close the book and let the violence settle before returning to see how Crutcher has dealt with it for us. But readers need not doubt the conglomeration of facts that Crutcher presents because anyone who knows, or wants to know, the world in which young adults live, will realize that the author’s imagination aligned incidents, not necessarily creating them from scratch. Life does that for us. People hurt other people.

Through his works, Crutcher speaks for kids and advocates in a manner that should make his books required reading for adults. Kids read him because they trust his truth. Whale Talk gives readers one more Crutcher novel to reread until the next book appears, hopefully without postponement in reaction to another tragedy.


Boy Still Missing, by John Searles (William Morrow & Co., 2001)

Boy Still Missing, by John Searles, fulfills the jacket praise of Frank McCourt (“bid your family and friends au revoir”), Wally Lamb (who “read — hungrily, compulsively, worried sick for… a character”), and Chris Bohjalian (“moving, intelligent, and gripping debut”). In its 292 pages, ten chapters, plus a prologue and epilogue, Mr. Searles proves his mastery of the technique of making the reader read faster: write an interesting book, with rapid plot changes, unraveling the mystery of the past while complicating the events of the present.

Mr. Searles also wrote an article in The New York Times (March 25, 2001) in which Clyde, his stylist, who shares the name of a minor character, led him through a series of publicity photos for his book that focused on the unnecessary glamour in lieu of the Stacy Sheehan photo that captured the core of the man.

“The way the world pinballed me that year [1971–1972]” is how Dominick Prindle, the older narrator, reflects on his life during his fifteenth year. Mr. Searles portrays Dominick accurately: lonely, self-conscious, sexually concentrated, bumbling, loving, considerate, sweet, foolish, thoughtful, and thoughtless. Consequences? Kids forsake them, if they think of them at all, because this is the time of their lives to experiment. They are invulnerable. They want their weak, changing voices heard. When no one gives them the attention they deserve and need, they act — without experience and without wisdom because they lack those characteristics. Teens, if they survive, learn best by their mistakes, as do the adults around them.

Between Holedo, Massachusetts, and New York City, Dominick collides with real world events. Through what he does and what he doesn’t do, life happens. The people he encounters demonstrate the range of the truth of fiction. Aspects of the book are far-fetched or coincidental. Humor and symbols are incorporated like spices in this emotional stew of a book that will have the reader racing through paragraphs to see how the author deals with each turn of events that he creates. One races ahead to get the answers, aware of the ability to go back to fill in the details after the “what happens” is known.

Searles gives social issues vent while the violence and media indicative of this age surge. The title of the book, found in Uncle Donald’s Bible, is a well-crafted metaphor for Dominick’s life.

John Searles has written a novel worth reading.