March 02, 2006


Hard Hit. By Ann Turner. Scholastic. $16.99.

Dirty Liar. By Brian James. PUSH/Scholastic. $16.99.

     Like many novels for teens, these two have a tendency to confuse intensity with depth.  The authors seem to want to be thought profound, and their characters certainly want to be seen that way.  But dressing up an ordinary story with four-letter words or free-form poetry does not, ultimately, make it any less ordinary.

     This is not to say that these books aren’t well-intentioned.  In fact, they are so full of good intentions that the caring practically overflows onto the pages.  Nor is either book cynical – though both are somewhat manipulative.  The flaw they share actually grows from their strength: in their willingness to tackle difficult subjects, they find nothing new to say about them.

     Hard Hit, for ages 12 and up, is written in free verse – an increasingly popular form for teen novels, making them much faster to read and much, much shorter: because of all its blank pages and its free-verse format, this 170-page book is novella-length.  It’s the story of 16-year-old Mark Warren, who seems to have lots of things going well for him: decent family (uncommon in books like this, though here there’s a reason for it), nice new girlfriend, good best guy friend, and starring role at high school as the baseball team’s best pitcher.  Then – this is why the family’s goodness is necessary – Mark’s father is diagnosed with cancer.  His world is turned upside down, his relationships with his mother and 13-year-old sister inevitably change, he tries the equally inevitable bargaining with God or the disease (he’s going to pitch the best game ever), and his father, after some initial therapeutic hope, fades before his eyes.  This would be an extraordinarily traumatic event in any teenager’s life, and Ann Turner deserves credit for writing about it.  But her words, which aim at universality, tend to sound so ordinary as to be dull: “Mom said we had to be careful, no shouting no fighting while Dad’s so sick.”  “Dad walked to the sea, stumbling in the late May wind.”  There is genuine sensitivity in the deathbed scenes, and Turner’s inclusion of real-world sources of help may be valuable to teens facing parents’ real-world cancer.  The book, though, veers from sounding flat to pulling emotional strings just a little too hard.

     Benji, protagonist of Dirty Liar (for ages 15 and up), has a family of a type that is more typical in novels of teen angst: broken and dysfunctional.  Benji has been living with his alcoholic mother and her boyfriend, but when the vicious-tempered boyfriend becomes too violent, Benji has had enough and moves to a distant city to live with his father and stepmother.  Brian James keeps Benji in a state of constant rage.  His unending anger is expressed in plenty of four-letter-word tirades and huge, unsurprising doses of self-hatred.  He can’t figure out what to do about the girlfriend he left behind and the new girl to whom he is increasingly attracted – so he does things that upset and offend them both.  He gets picked on at school, gets into a huge fight, and so on.  Eventually he manages to confide his feelings to his stepmother – a smart move, though his motivation for doing so is not entirely clear – and she tells his father, and there is a predictably sad (but not violent) confrontation.  Benji is capable of insights that make him seem less out of control than his actions would indicate.  For instance, after saying he can’t trust his father because of things that happened in the past, he adds, “That is what has kept us puddles – that is what keeps us from becoming ponds.”  The book has an inconclusively hopeful ending, and readers will certainly want Benji’s life to get better.  But Benji’s story is really not that different from those in many, many other tales of troubled teens.

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