February 18, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Forays into Foreign Territory | Teens Forging an Identity

One of the most reassuring aspects of literature is the knowledge that we aren’t alone, that others have  experienced some of the same joys and sorrows. Immersing readers in the minds of the male protagonists of three recent YA novels does just that and more: their stories awaken teens to settings, people, and ideas they might not otherwise have encountered. From psychological to societal issues, the topics tackled are varied, but the stories will engage readers with the authentic, well-wrought voices of their characters.

unlikely heroThe title character of Teresa Toten’s The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B (Delacorte, 2015; Gr 8 Up), Adam Ross, carries a heavy burden on his shoulders for a boy not quite 15: obsessive-compulsive thoughts, a mother with an out-of-control hoarding problem, and a four-year-old half-brother with a propensity for tantrums that only Adam can sooth. The teen is practiced in the art of preserving the perfect facade, however, and he rarely lets down his guard, even at the support group for adolescents with OCD he attends. Adam begins to get to know and trust the other participants—especially Robin, whose presence quickly plunges him into the throes of young love—but the severity of his compulsions is ratcheting up.

Despite—or perhaps because of—his issues, the teen feels the need to treat those around him with a tenderness he’s unable to show himself, and readers will come to root for this underdog protagonist whose small acts of heroism resonate deeply with others. Toten demonstrates the compulsions that often make Adam’s mind a prison as well as the intense highs that send him soaring. The rituals, the invasive thoughts, ways to cover up his imperfect life: readers will find themselves inhabiting Adam’s skin utterly.

The author also makes excellent use of the hero motif. Early on, the leader of the support group asks each of the participants to choose a name to be used at sessions. Most of the teens choose superhero monikers, and Adam’s decision to call himself Batman may seem ironic initially, but savvy readers will see subtle but powerful parallels between the brooding Dark Knight, whose heroism is a way to tend to deep psychological scars, and Adam, whose issues propel him to come to the aid of those around him.

eden west“I know that the World is a terrible place, filled with wild animals and evil men and wicked women. I know that the Beast stalks the streets of the cities, and the canyons and footpaths beyond, and that only the strongest and wisest of men can resist his seductive ways.” While Pete Hautman’s Eden West (Candlewick, 2015; Gr 10 Up) takes readers to a somewhat atypical setting, the author conveys universal aspects of the teen experience. Jacob is governed by fear and mistrust in the outside world and unwavering loyalty to Father Grace, the leader of Nodd, a community that supposedly will be spared when God wreaks destruction and punishes sinners. Despite the fire and brimstone tone, there’s a comforting predictability to Jacob’s life: the same plain garb that he and every other man dons every morning, his daily duties, and, above all, the belief in Father Grace’s superiority.

But the sturdy foundation of the teen’s life is eventually shaken. Jacob takes advantage of a broken fence to make brief forays out into foreign territory—and into what he’s been told represents utter depravity—with Lynna, a neighboring girl who begins to plant seeds of doubt into his mind. The arrival of newcomers and the lurking presence of a wolf on the outskirts only add further to his growing sense of unease.

Hautman captures his protagonist’s voice deftly and effortlessly, from the boy’s self-assuredness at the novel’s beginning to his dawning sense of doubt and anxiety as feelings of resentment for Father Grace develop and as he experiences shame at his burgeoning sexuality. While some readers may be drawn in by curiosity about the cult of personality that the author has crafted, the strength of this work is in its depiction of the evolution of a young mind. Adolescence is characterized by the eagerness to question authority, to reconsider ideas and beliefs one has taken for granted: themes that Hautman conveys masterfully.

all americanWhile Eden West demonstrated that there are universal aspects to the coming-of-age process, Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely’s All American Boys (S. & S./Atheneum, Sept. 2015; Gr 8 Up) illustrates a different perspective: that identity can have a profound effect on the way in which one experiences the world. Rashad, a black teenager, is beaten by a police officer, an act witnessed by Quinn, a white boy; told in alternating chapters narrated by both characters, the novel centers on the event and its aftermath.

From his hospital bed, Rashad attempts to make sense of what he’s endured and wrestles with the differing responses he’s received from the two male figures in his life: his authoritarian former police officer father, who initially blames Rashad for provoking the attack, and his rebellious and outspoken brother, Spoony, who is infuriated by the racism they’ve endured their whole lives and wants to fight back. Meanwhile, Quinn grapples with the knowledge that Paul Galluzzo, his best friend’s older brother, is the police officer responsible for this atrocity. Torn between a sense of loyalty for Paul and his guilt at the idea of doing nothing in the face of injustice, the teen becomes aware of his own privileged existence and his complicity.

Reynolds and Kiely write with a vivid and heart-slamming intensity that absolutely conveys the boys’ viewpoints: both mundane musings and more philosophical and emotionally charged thoughts. Action sequences are as immediate as the moments in which both narrators wonder about themselves, their society, and the future. The prose is unrelentingly honest, and readers of all backgrounds will find themselves contemplating their own identities, roles, and privilege.

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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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