30 Days to Getting Over the Dork You Used to Call Your Boyfriend. By Clea Hantman. Random House. $7.99.
I Want Candy. By Kim Wong Keltner.
Humor is such a relief. Teen angst books seem to spring up everywhere, like mushrooms after a heavy rain, and even though some of them (like some mushrooms) are really good, many others are (also like mushrooms) poisonously bad. Once in a while, though, some delicious varieties come along, and are so good because they don’t seem to be grown in quite the same fertilizer as everything else. These two books are examples: they confront genuinely heart-wrenching situations, but manage to do so with enough humor and high spirits so that their ultimate message will be uplifting to readers – even ones going through their own distressing times.
30 Days to Getting Over the Dork You Used to Call Your Boyfriend is aptly subtitled “A Heartbreak Handbook”; is interestingly dedicated by Clea Hantman “to all the dorks I’ve loved before” (which certainly shows a degree of comfort with failed relationships); and is designed to help girls through the first four stages of a breakup (denial, anger, bargaining and depression) and get them to the fifth (acceptance). Readers familiar with self-help books will immediately recognize these as akin to the stages of grief or mourning, and indeed they are; but Hantman defines the stages in teen-centered and surprisingly amusing ways. “Depression,” for example, is “the classic ‘I’m going to die alone, never having had another boyfriend, and can you pass me that pint of triple mocha fudge’ phase.” Hantman minces no words in telling readers exactly what to do, day by day, to get over a painful breakup. Day Four of “Denial,” for example, is headlined “Spew You!” and opens, “Toss that pain away. Heave it, belch it, blow it out. You feel better now?” Then, here as everywhere, Hantman gets into specific activities – in fact, staying active and involved in your life is the underlying prescription for everything she says. Hantman is no psychologist – she’s a Web columnist and blogger who has worked in advertising and written 10 previous books. But she’s got the basics of post-breakup psychology exactly right: keep doing things that make you stronger and you will, in your own time, get over that dork – any dork. Some of her activities are just wonderful, such as the Pity Party on Day Thirteen (“Bargaining” phase), where you have to write down a feel-sorry-for-myself half-truth and then, right next to it, write the whole truth. Her example: “I’m not good enough for him” goes next to “I’m too good for him – I’m putting real effort into bettering myself and I’ll be ready when someone better comes along.” Real-world advice couched in real-world language with specific real-world actions you can take to feel better – how cool is that?
I Want Candy is really cool, too, but in a very different way. This is a novel for ages 14 and up, not a guidebook, and features an atypical heroine: an overweight 14-year-old Chinese girl named Candace Wong. A typical teen in many ways, she is culturally outside the mainstream – except in her own neighborhood, which she loathes and where she works in the deliciously inaptly named Eggroll Wonderland. The restaurant is owned by the family of Candy’s best friend, Ruby, whose entire life (and breasts) Candy envies, even though a great deal of Ruby’s life involves having sex with W.P.O.D. (“white punks on dope,” from a Tubes song). Candy sometimes finds herself inadvertently (or not so inadvertently) watching Ruby in action: “He pulled up her skirt, and stuck his hand inside her underwear that, I noticed, were actually the bottoms to that striped bikini she bought last summer at Piccadilly. Figured. Ruby never had clean laundry.” Ruby’s sluttiness turns out, not surprisingly, to conceal deep hurts, which also lead to a love-hate relationship between the two girls that often seems closer to the latter than the former. But Candy learns more about Ruby only after her friend quite suddenly isn’t there anymore – and this is where I Want Candy really turns strange, and strangely wonderful. For Candy, one of whose relatives supposedly went crazy before committing suicide, starts seeing ghosts – not just a ghost, but ghosts all around, in unusual places and postures, doing unusual things. Is she really seeing them, or going out of her mind, or is something else happening? Balancing the everyday worries of teens with some quite extraordinary occurrences, telling the story with consistent punch and humor, all while creating such chapter titles as “Closed Casket for the Living Impaired” and “They Forced China to Open Her Legs Even More,” is quite a high-wire act; but Kim Wong Keltner maintains her balance with considerable skill, keeping the book in Candy’s voice while holding readers off-balance as the events get more and more peculiar. The ending is a hopeful one, but does not solve all of Candy’s problems – and that, in the context of I Want Candy, is just as it should be.