September 22, 2005


Where We Are, What We See: Poems, Stories, Essays and Art from the Best Young Writers and Artists in America. PUSH/Scholastic. $7.99.

     This is an anthology of works by middle-school and high-school students who won the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards from 2002 through 2004.  It is, like anthologies in general, uneven in quality; and because there is no discussion, commentary or introductory material before or after the works – they just flow, though scarcely seamlessly, one into the next – it is virtually impossible to read sequentially and somewhat difficult to read at all.  There is, not surprisingly in light of the age of the writers and artists, a certain sameness of preoccupation and a certain self-consciousness of style, as if the works were designed for the purpose of winning the awards for which they were submitted (and they did win, fulfilling a self-fulfilling prophecy).  It is, finally, hard to figure out what the audience for this book is, beyond the writers’ families, friends and schools.  Only they will know who these authors and artists are: the book gives their names but not their ages, locations or any other information.

     This is as it should be with writing and art in most cases: the story or picture tells its tale even if we do not know where or from whom it comes.  But since this book purports to provide insight into the thoughts and feelings of “the best young writers and artists in America,” it would be nice to know at least what age the contributors are and where they live.

     Without that information, what we have is a considerable amount of juvenilia and a few items with wisdom beyond the creators’ (presumed) years.  There is not much to the strictly adolescent preoccupations of a poem such as “Hundred Percent Virgin” or a story such as “I Didn’t Know.”  But there is a fine opening of a poem called “Left of Center”: “I’m so shy/my cat has started/attending parties for me.”  And there is a moving and rather mature story about books, history and the Alaska Gold Rush called “Understanding the Stories.”

     But there is also a self-important “relationship” poem, “Proximities,” and a possibly autobiographical and definitely self-conscious story called “Crybaby Moon,” and a pseudo-sophisticated one called “Numbers,” and one in pseudo-experimental style called “Something in the Air.”  In the middle of the book is a mishmash of photos and paintings and collages, a few with surprising power but not one really shown to its best advantage.  In sum – if it is even possible to sum up a book like this – there is sincerity aplenty, a fair amount of posturing, some genuine insight, and a great deal of fairly standard material that might seem more special if presented in context (sincere seventh-grade thoughts seem merely puerile if expressed by a 12th-grader).  This book’s successes are scattered throughout; its failure is in its overall conception.

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