The Confessional. By J.L. Powers. Knopf. $16.99.
Blood Brothers. By
First Light. By Rebecca Stead. Wendy Lamb Books. $15.99.
Why, exactly, do teenagers and preteens read novels? There is no single or perfect answer – if there were, you can bet that every author and publisher around would be creating things that addressed that specific need. But in general terms, it is legitimate to ask whether young readers want escape from mundane reality (through traditional fiction, fantasy, science fiction, whatever) or reinforcement of real-world issues when they pick up a novel. Certainly for teens – and increasingly for younger readers as well – there seems to be a belief among authors and publishers that readers want more real-world issues in their books and less escapism, of whatever sort. All three of these books have reality at their core.
In J.L. Powers’ debut young-adult novel, The Confessional, the issues are racial, political and religious. Set at an all-boys Catholic school on the border between
Blood Brothers is a debut novel, too. This one is about the bad effects of drugs, and if that’s not a thrice-told tale, what is? S.A. Harazin’s angle on this is the way drugs can affect and undermine even the closest friendship – again, scarcely a new theme, but one that can be effective if well handled. Harazin’s central character, Clay Gardener, is a 17-year-old hospital orderly who helps out in the emergency room. Clay’s best friend, Joey, is admitted with a suspected drug overdose, and there’s a chance that Clay will be blamed for Joey’s condition, potentially ruining both their lives – because there’s evidence that the two fought over a girl. Clay decides to do enough detective work to defend himself and find out what really happened to Joey, who has never been much of a partygoer. But Clay can’t get the people who may know what happened to open up. A lot of the book involves Clay coming to terms both with himself and with the harshness of the real world: he remembers building a time machine with Joey when they were 11, eating nachos and drawing “pictures of aliens, flying cars, and computer-controlled buses,” but he also knows about dying and death from his emergency-room work. And in the course of his investigation, he learns about PCP and its highly dangerous, even fatal, effects. Joey’s inner strength – unsurprisingly, more than he knew he had – eventually pulls him through to an optimistic if not exactly happy ending.
The Confessional and Blood Brothers are both intended for ages 14 and up, but real-world concerns permeate even novels for younger readers, such as First Light, which is for ages 9-12 and is yet another debut novel. In keeping with its attempt to reach younger readers, it is less gritty and more adventure-oriented than the books for older ages, but it has a very serious subject at its core: global warming, and its potential effect on everything on Earth – things with which we are familiar and things with which we are not. The familiar here is in the person of Peter, son of a scientist who has received funding to study global warming in