February 19, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

This Boy’s Life | Recent Young Adult Fiction

Though finding titles that will appeal to teenage boys is hardly a new challenge, reaching these readers remains a relevant undertaking. The following novels feature strong male protagonists and will draw in readers looking for characters with whom they can easily relate. But, perhaps more importantly, the books capture the essence of the adolescent experience. All are poignant coming-of-age stories that detail the slow, often painful, process of developing a sense of self and deftly tackle issues such as conflict with authority figures, romantic entanglements, and familial turmoil. They feature authentic, excruciatingly honest voices of characters on the verge of discovering who they are and will resonate with readers both male and female.

Mick Cochrane’s Fitz (Knopf, 2012; Gr 7 Up) opens with an arresting image: a teenage boy pointing a gun at his father. Fifteen-year-old Fitz has always considered himself incomplete (a teacher once summed him up with the words “seems somewhat adrift”), a feeling he attributes to the absence of his father. The teen’s unorthodox solution is to force the man to explain why he walked out on the family when Fitz was an infant.

What follows is a slightly surreal day in which the two take part in seemingly unremarkable father-son activities—going to the zoo, eating at a diner—while discussing the events that led to the man’s departure. Little by little, Fitz’s father opens up about the strain that having a child put on his relationship with Fitz’s mother, and his own fears and insecurities about fatherhood.

The novel’s deliberate pacing and matter-of-fact, almost subdued tone contrast with the threat of violence, adding an undercurrent of urgency beneath an outwardly ordinary plot. While readers are first introduced to Fitz in the middle of a criminal act, he is far from a typical juvenile delinquent; teens will have little trouble sympathizing with this troubled adolescent whose reckless behavior stems not from malice, but from fear and loneliness.

Cochrane skillfully depicts his realistically flawed characters—both Fitz and his estranged father—with tenderness and compassion without glossing over their very real pain. Quiet, restrained prose effectively conveys the raw emotions of this unconventional reunion; a brief scene in which Fitz’s father reveals that he was the one holding Fitz in a beloved baby picture taken on the day he was born, for example, is achingly poignant. Although Cochrane refuses to leave readers with an artificial sense of closure, by the final chapter this confused and frustrated protagonist has at last taken a stand by voicing his unhappiness.

Family dysfunction has not only defined 17-year-old Matt, the protagonist of E.M. Kokie’s Personal Effects (Candlewick, 2012; Gr 10 Up), but also eroded most of his self-esteem. His mother died years ago after suffering a mental breakdown; his emotionally distant father doesn’t so much parent as coerce and bully; and though he had an ally in T.J., the protective older brother he worshiped was killed six months before in Iraq. Between internalizing his rage and grief and reluctantly complying with his father’s wishes, including the expectation that he continue the family tradition of entering the military upon graduation, Matt leads a quietly anguished life.

Kokie’s terse, sparse text infuses the novel with the tension that has become part of the teen’s experience; even the few positive things in his world are tinged with angst, such as the unrequited love—and lust—for his longtime best friend, Shauna, that he desperately tries to conceal (“If she figures it out…if she sees….God, I’d never be able to look at her again if she knew how often…”).

But when the military delivers T.J.’s personal effects, Matt discovers a series of letters from Celia, an African-American woman with whom his brother was apparently having a relationship. He plans to find Celia and her daughter Zoe and give them the letter T.J. was writing before he died—an act that slowly begins to give the teen’s life purpose. But meeting Celia isn’t what Matt expects; he learns a secret about his brother that shocks him to his core and he realizes that he isn’t the only one hiding parts of his identity. That knowledge finally gives Matt the courage to take control of his life. Though this is a gritty and at times bleak novel, Personal Effects ends on a realistically promising note; readers will close the book hoping that this downtrodden protagonist has managed to turn things around.

“[My mother] had a serious love affair with Captain Crack and Major Meth and had to support those bloodsuckers somehow. My biological sperm worm wasn’t any better.” It’s language like this—riotously funny, occasionally graphic and vulgar, but always unapologetically honest—that has so often landed Cricket, the main character of Scott Blagden’s Dear Life, You Suck (Houghton Harcourt, 2013; Gr 9 Up), into trouble. As the novel begins, Cricket is contemplating his future with uncertainty; upon turning 18 within a few months, he’ll have to leave his group home, and though it’s far from a real family, it’s the only stable environment that he has ever known.

This understandably angry young man has led a life marred by physical and emotional scars; as a child, he endured nightmarish treatment at the hands of abusive parents (his father allowed drug dealers to carve up the boy’s face), and more than once, he has had thoughts of suicide. A nuanced and complex protagonist, Cricket grapples with both the urge to destroy and to protect; though he finds himself lashing out violently, these impulses are usually rooted in his desire to defend the younger children at his group home.

While Cricket’s predilection for offensive and provocative language often leads to adults dismissing the wayward youth, it’s this very same tendency that eventually provides him with options. When an English teacher asks him to expand on an incomplete assignment he turns in, the resulting short essays lead to Cricket’s realization that he is an exceptionally gifted writer. Darkly funny, surprisingly savvy (the teen references both The Simpsons and The Lion in Winter within a matter of pages), and chock-ful of creative wordplay (“Life’s about getting picked…By an apple pie mumsy or a musclehead quarterback or a moneybag boss or a sexytime squeeze”), Cricket’s unique voice injects wit and energy into what could have easily been a morose tale of woe. Like the protagonists of Fitz and Dear Life, You Suck, Cricket has begun to form meaningful bonds with others and started to construct a real identity for himself by the novel’s close.

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Mahnaz Dar About Mahnaz Dar

Mahnaz Dar (mdar@mediasourceinc.com) is Assistant Managing Editor for Library Journal and School Library Journal and can be found on Twitter @DibblyFresh.

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  1. I have added all of these titles to my TBR pile. Checking my library now to place these books on hold.

  2. Hey Mahnaz, these are terrific reviews! And I like the sound of these books, too. :p

  3. Cameron Thomas says:

    Thanks for the great reviews. My favorite book in the past year has been Journey (If Where You’re Going Isn’t Home) by Max Zimmer. A coming of age fiction novel about a Mormon teenage boy in 1960’s America. He becomes passionate about jazz music and wants to learn the trumpet but what he is learning and being forced to do in the name of his religion no longer make sense to him in the context of the rest of his life. I can’t praise this book highly enough. It’s the first in a very promising trilogy and you can read more about it over at the authors website.http://maxzimmer.com/the-trilogy/

  4. DEAR LIFE, YOU SUCK is fantastic and highly recommended. I’m adding the others to my TBR pile thanks to this write up.