September 25, 2014
(+++) GETTING SERIOUS
Anatomy of a Misfit. By Andrea Portes. HarperTeen. $17.99.
The Triple Threat, Book I: The Walk On. By John Feinstein. Knopf. $16.99.
The Turtle of Oman. By Naomi Shihab Nye. Illustrations by Betsy Peterschmidt. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.
Death, dislocation and deep heartache – these are the basics of books that proclaim themselves more serious than others intended for preteens and teenagers. The angst tends to flow in predictable channels, although it is edgier in books specifically aimed at ages 14 and up, such as Andrea Portes’ Anatomy of a Misfit. This is in many ways a typical high-school novel, about popular kids, ones who do not fit in, ostracism and crowd involvement, loners and extroverts. Said by Portes to be based on her own high-school experiences, the book nevertheless reads like a delving into formula writing. There is a popular girl, protagonist Anika, who is, however, not the queen bee of the school and who must therefore listen when the queen bee, Becky, tells her what to do. And one thing Becky tells Anika is not to date Logan, an outsider who does not quite fit in even though he is, predictably, hot. Instead, Anika dates Jared, a prototypical “bad boy” and thus a hot guy himself. But Anika’s heart is not cooperating with what Becky tells her, and things are further complicated by the usual-in-books-like-this family issues: Anika herself needs social acceptance because she is living in Nebraska and the background of her father, who is from Romania, means she does not fit in with the well-scrubbed Midwesterners who populate the school; Logan, for his part, has genuinely serious family issues involving, primarily, a father who is both a drunk and abusive. That seriousness eventually turns explosive, just when Anika is about to take a chance and reveal her true feelings to Logan – and the result is violence, heartbreak and Anika’s eventual realization that the only thing that matters is to listen to your heart and say what is in it as soon as possible, because tomorrow may be too late. This is so contrived and saccharine an ending – even if it is based on events that actually occurred – that readers may look back at it after throwing away the tear-sodden tissues that it will surely provoke and wonder why exactly they reacted so strongly to something so pat and expectable. The writing here is drenched in I’m-so-with-it-ness: “This dinner is gonna be like the most uncomfortable dinner of my lifetime.” “‘So, um, Anika. You made my night kinda.’” And the book as a whole insists, absolutely insists, that it Means Something. Or wants to.
The Walk On, football-focused first book of a sports-oriented trilogy for ages 10 and up, is altogether milder, but it still tries to prove its real-worldliness by having a positive test for steroids figure significantly in the plot. The story itself is straightforward: protagonist Alex is a triple threat (hence the series title), being great at football, basketball and baseball. Or he was multiply talented in the place where he used to live – now he and his mom have moved to a new town, where sports really matter and where Alex is going to have to prove himself again. And again. He wants, of course, to be quarterback – why not start at the top in a new town where everyone’s loyalty has already been established? But Alex comes head-on against the reality of established relationships in the Philadelphia suburb where he now lives: the current quarterback, Matt, may not be as good a player as Alex, but he is settled into his positon and commands the full loyalty of the coach. So the coach benches Alex, conceals his abilities, and so on – which is about as real-world as…well, as nothing in the real world, since a sports-obsessed small town is inevitably going to want the absolutely best players on the field that it can get, and winning-is-all-that-matters coaches will gladly dump good and loyal players for a better chance at a championship. This opposite-of-reality book also has Alex and Matt developing such a good-buddy sort of rivalry that, when Alex’s dad calls him after a game and says something about Alex bailing Matt out, Alex responds that Matt is “a really good quarterback. Plus, he’s been my biggest supporter all season.” Then comes the drug test, with Alex testing positive for steroids; this sets him and his mom on a quest to prove his innocence – resulting in a series of charges, counter-charges, revelations, counter-revelations, and eventual comeuppance for the bad guys (whose motives are intended to be understandable, if scarcely admirable) and success for Alex. And onward heads The Triple Threat to the next novel, in which Alex will surely excel in the next sport. The Walk On is fine for football-obsessed readers who do not care much about character development, of which there is none here: even Alex is simply “the talented quarterback,” which is all anyone needs to know about him, and the other characters are even thinner.
A planned relocation sets in motion the events of The Turtle of Oman, too, but this is a move over a much greater distance than Alex’s. Aref Al-Amri and his family are about to move to Michigan from their home in Oman, with Aref continuing a family tradition by making lists of things – including facts about turtles, which he finds fascinating. Aref does not want to move – he would prefer somewhere closer, such as India – but he knows he must, since his father has gone on ahead. Both of Aref’s parents are university teachers, his father of biology and his mother of English, so Aref comes from a well-to-do and well-educated family, but he is nevertheless provincial and unsure of what to expect from the upcoming move. Naomi Shihab Nye’s book is not about adjustment to the United States, however; it focuses on the necessities of departure from Oman, as Aref says goodbye to his friends and his homeland and looks forward to the time when he will return. Nye is at pains to show the multigenerational love and complete, secular reasonableness of the Al-Amri family, no doubt to counter concerns that parents of kids ages 8-12 (the book’s target audience) may have about people and events in the real Arab world. In fact, the book tries so hard to make readers identify with and like Aref that it becomes a little fairy-tale-like, with the many lists within the narrative serving to humanize the characters even more than the story itself does. In one list about what people eat on airplanes, for instance, one of Aref’s items is, “Maybe the passengers gobble gigantic mounds of cotton candy since they are above the clouds.” In one of his lists about turtles, he writes that May 23 is World Turtle Day. In another, he writes, “People hunt turtles for their meat. Yucko.” And in a list about Michigan, Aref writes, “The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island features the world’s biggest porch.” Everything is so warm, so well-meaning here that it is difficult to see the book as anything more than a young boy’s journal – which is most of what The Turtle of Oman is. It is a pleasant work, certainly a well-meaning one, largely without drama or, indeed, significant occurrences of any kind – a slice-of-life book aimed at showing that people from Oman are just like people from Michigan in all the ways that matter. The real-world terror and trauma associated with so much of the Arab world simply do not exist here, making the book one that is curiously divorced from reality even as it accurately explores some (but only some) aspects of it.