September 13, 2007


The Confessional. By J.L. Powers. Knopf. $16.99.

Blood Brothers. By S.A. Harazin. Delacorte Press. $15.99.

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 Texas and Mexico, the book focuses on a Mexican terrorist attack on the U.S. and its consequences in a multicultural microcosm. Those consequences prove dire: arguments between Mexican and American students, already a normal part of the school day, become understandably more heated after the attack. One boy ends up in the hospital after things get physical, and the next day the town learns that there has been a murder. Powers spreads the reader’s sympathy rather thinly by having half a dozen boys, rather than one or two, become the center of the book: bits of the narrative are presented in different voices. The book’s basic point is mundane: everyone is guilty of something, and everyone should be more tolerant of everyone else. This applies not only to issues of immigration but also to those of sexual orientation. The book is largely about clichés and how they permeate interpersonal relationships; for example, one boy says, “I can’t imagine being Mexican. I mean, you’re either wealthy – and that’s practically nobody – or you’re living in some disgusting shack in the Juárez hillsides.” There is no artificially upbeat ending here – one of the ways in which the book mirrors the real world – but Powers also offers no particular solutions beyond the watery one of mutual tolerance.

      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 Greenland. The unfamiliar is in the person of a girl named Thea, who lives with her people deep underneath the arctic icecap and who has never seen the sun. The book is structured as a mutual search for answers: Peter’s takes him closer and closer to Thea’s world, while Thea’s drives her closer and closer to the unseen surface and thus to Peter. This kids-from-two-worlds story is a very old one, and Rebecca Stead does not always handle it elegantly. For example, Thea and her people speak English and, it turns out, originally came from England, where they were persecuted because they were thought to be witches. Somehow their language has not changed during their years beneath the ice, so Peter and Thea’s people can converse quite well. There are some standard clash-of-culture issues here, including a generation gap between Thea and the older members of her group, but eventually everyone reaches an understanding, and various adjustments are made as Thea’s under-ice world melts – although adjustments may be harder to make in the real world if global warming progresses as many scientists fear it may.

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