July 31, 2008

(+++) YOUTH WILL BE HEARD

We Are Quiet We Are Loud: The Best Young Writers and Artists in America. Edited by David Levithan. PUSH/Scholastic. $8.99.


Down to the Bone. By Mayra Lazara Dole. HarperTeen. $16.99.


      Works by young writers seem to be an inevitable mixture of freshness and predictability. Certainly that is the case in We Are Quiet We Are Loud, a collection of stories, poems and photographs by winners of the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. The anger in many of the contributions is no surprise. For instance, in “I’m an American Too, Damnit!” Bill Kephart writes, “Nothing aggravates me more than the stereotypical Middle American patriot. …The people who say ‘one nation under god’ need to be taught a lesson. They need to see that atheists can be in foxholes.” The sense of loss is not surprising, either, as in the poem, “Grandma,” by Ryan Brown: “She is missing from my memories. …I have only the green of her eyes…and my mother’s tears, thick and heavy as the day she died.” But the freshness of some viewpoints here is bracing. The very last story in the book is the shortest and in some ways the cleverest. By Cate Mahoney, it is called, “To My Future Lover and Soul Mate,” and goes, in its entirety, “Hurry up.” Then there are the photos: “Outside Influences” by Kerry McDonnell, a black-and-white shot showing someone blindfolded – just the head visible – with hands reaching down from above; or “Candy Head” by Nicholas Allen, in which a boy’s head seems to pop out of a Pez dispenser. There are stories in which the protagonist seems old in experience, if not in years, such as “Asher,” in which a girl travels to Las Vegas with a boy who commits suicide there: “That was another part of my life; my past is like a long and ratty hem I’m continually getting my heels caught in.” Or “Lost Boy” by Audrey Walls: “Adam Painter is an old, old flame. His sharp features are buried somewhere within my adolescent forgetfulness, halfway faded by a handful of years.” As with practically any anthology, We Are Quiet We Are Loud is tremendously uneven, the one thing the writers and photographers having in common being an urge to express themselves. How effectively they do so is a matter of opinion – a different opinion, perhaps, for each reader. The book is certainly valuable for its insights into how creatively some young communicators strive to put their thoughts across.


      One thing preoccupying some contributors to We Are Quiet We Are Loud is, not surprisingly, sex and relationships. That is a subject that gets book-length treatment in Down to the Bone, the first novel by Mayra Lazara Dole. Dole clearly draws significantly on her own life as a gay woman for the characters in this book – but disappointingly, she does not draw to any extent on an aspect of her life unrelated to sexuality: her publisher says she has multiple chemical sensitivities and must live in a glassed-in room. Perhaps, at another time, Dole will share what is involved in living that way – hopefully in the same fresh voice she brings to Down to the Bone. The book’s basic subject – the difficulty of being homosexual – is scarcely a new one in young-adult works, although there has been far less treatment of lesbianism than of male homosexuality, making Dole’s book a welcome addition to a small group. Dole’s descriptions of growing up are in some ways more exotic than her concerns about sexuality: Cuban-born and raised in Hialeah, near Miami, she has a strong sense of what life is like in South Florida and what sorts of people one encounters there. Most of those in the book are types rather than fully fleshed-out characters, but they are more interesting types than are found in many books for this age group. The book centers on what happens to a girl named Laura, who attends a strict Catholic school, after she is found reading a love letter – from another girl – in class. Rejection by family is bad enough, but worse is later rejection by the girl, Marlena, herself: she tells Laura that what they did together was “indecent and immoral; it’s not normal.” Now Marlena is “walking a pure path” by dating a boy, whom she plans to marry, leaving Laura to call Marlena “a friggin’ betrayer” while “punch[ing] the door over and over again till my knuckles bleed.” And things get even more intense (and melodramatic) later. Dole is deeply sincere, but her writing is not up to the task of communicating without clich├ęs, especially when she has a character try to be meaningful: “I believe in myself and in something I call Sacred Nature. Feeling one with nature soothes me. Nature feeds all of me.” Laura stays true to her own sexual nature, after trying to become emotionally involved with boys; and she confronts her parents; and by the novel’s end she feels “warm and deeply accepted” for what she is, by those who understand her. This is the ending toward which the whole book has been pointing, and readers – whatever their sexuality – should find it a satisfying conclusion, if scarcely an original one for a teen-oriented book focused on self-discovery.

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