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Books: What teens are reading these days

Books | While popular young adult titles wallow in the negative, young Augustine shared their same spiritual problems

Issue: "There they go again," June 5, 1999

"National conversation" is an overused phrase, and rarely accurate-what journalists describe as a "national conversation," on a subject such as race, say, or hate crimes, is usually just a lot of professional hand-wringing with a little preaching thrown in. Still, the phrase does seem to apply to what's being said and done in the aftermath of recent school shootings. Much of the conversation centers on the usual suspect, gun control, but cultural factors aren't going unnoticed. Violent movies, music, and computer games are all coming under well-deserved scrutiny. Rolling Stone magazine, for example, in its oddly timed "Special New Teen Spirit Issue," takes a quick but accurate look at what is being called the "bleak book" market. Think Catcher in the Rye and The Basketball Diaries were depressing? These teen books are worse. "Writers have always known what adolescents want to read about," Rolling Stone reports in its May 27 issue. "Death, sex, self-destruction, death, mayhem, sex, and death. But predictably, Rolling Stone's take on the whole genre is misguided. The magazine refers to books such as When She Was Good and The Facts Speak for Themselves as "instructive," books that can "titillate and teach at the same time." It's more instructive to take a look at what these books are trying to teach, and the list is pretty much the same: death, sex, self-destruction, death, mayhem, sex, and death. (Parents, please note: Despite these disturbingly "mature" themes, these books are all found in the "young adults" and children's sections of libraries and bookstores.) When She Was Good, by Norma Fox Mazer, begins with death. The rest of the tale, told in a series of flashbacks, just gets worse. "I didn't believe Pamela would ever die," the protagonist, Em, says. "She was too big, too mad, too furious for anything so shabby and easy as death. And for a few moments as she lay on the floor that day, I thought it was one of her jokes. The playing-dead joke." Pamela is-or was-the mentally disturbed, violent older sister of Em. She dominates the lives of everyone in that run-down trailer. (A trailer always seems to pop up in these books-without exception. Trailers are the new Dickensian workhouses and debtor's prisons.) The poverty and abuse common to all these books is also Dickensian. After Pamela and Em's mother dies, their father begins to drink even more heavily. Pamela beats and belittles Em daily. Em becomes sexually active at the age of 13. (And make no mistake, it's not portrayed as a bad thing at all-"and each time there were his sleepy eyes and his hands on my skin. His lovely lovely hands.") Eventually, the sisters run away to the city to escape their father's new wife. This wicked stepmother reveals something crucial to understanding these bleak books: They're not very far removed from fairy tales. Hansel and Gretel, remember, fled their own wicked stepmother and found shelter in a gingerbread trailer in rural Alabama (too bad, the gingerbread was a trap set for them by a social worker who wanted to fatten them up, then feed them into the System). But the fairy tales found in these bleak books are all missing something. In When She Was Good, there is no hero-there is no woodsman with his trusty ax, no prince, no Wesley, no Curdie. Instead, the author offers us that most dangerous of modern fables: "She found her strength and her salvation within." Right there, behind the spleen, beside "The Greatest Love of All," Em's essential goodness and courage make everything work out okay. If When She Was Good is a fairy tale without a hero, then Weetzie Bat is one without a dragon. The world presented by author Francesca Lia Block in this highly acclaimed book is a beautiful Los Angeles, where happy goths and sensitive homosexuals play in the sun all day. "In the daytime, they went to matinees on Hollywood Boulevard, had strawberry sundaes with marshmallow topping at Schwab's, or went to the beach. Dirk taught Weetzie to surf. It was her lifelong dream to surf-along with playing the drums in front of a stadium of adoring fans while wearing gorgeous pajamas." Weetzie, a "bleach-blonde punk pixie" and her homosexual friend, Dirk, drive around looking for boys together. They live in a house left to them by Dirk's grandmother Fifi. Eventually, they find love (Weetzie's beau is a young movie director, while Dirk's is a surfer). When Weetzie wants a baby, she sleeps with all three men, so that the baby will belong to them all. Weetzie Bat's L.A. is, I suspect, what 12-year-old girls are thinking when they run away to California. But it's a dangerous thing to ignore dragons. It's not just that nothing bad happens to Weetzie-it's that nothing pedestrian happens to her, either. There are no bills to pay, no taxes due on Grandmother Fifi's house, no bugs, no hangovers, no piles of laundry, no acne, no colds. Babies don't cry or get colic or wake people up. And ultimately, that's what makes this book bleak. It reinforces every teen's suspicion that their lives are Unfair, that somewhere there are other kids who don't have the problems they have. In the Forests of the Night, on the other hand, is a fairy tale without a moral. It's a remarkable book, in its way, because author Amelia Atwater-Rhodes was 13 when she wrote it. And that fact all but excuses the stylistic flaws in this vampire tale-the lack of depth, the historical inaccuracies, etc. What's intriguing about this book is what vampires seem to represent. Risika, the narrator and a 300-year-old vampire, recalls her transformation: "I approached the mirrored surface and stretched a tentative hand out to the stranger reflected there. Her hair was still my golden hair, and her body had nearly my body's shape, but her form was more graceful, and when she walked she seemed to glide effortlessly. Her eyes were black as midnight, her skin as pale as death." No more teen awkwardness, no more teen angst. Gracefulness replaces guilt. Risika kills, violently and often, and she feels no remorse. There is a higher existence, the author seems to be saying; it is beyond right and wrong. What she fails to point out is that it is also beyond hope. But the bleakest of these books is Brock Cole's The Facts Speak for Themselves. It begins with a murder-suicide; Linda sees her mother's former boyfriend kill another man, and then himself. What the author slowly reveals is that the other man, Jack, is involved in a sexual relationship with Linda, a 13-year-old. Even more disturbing is the way in which Mr. Cole presents it-as a consensual relationship, enjoyed and even initiated by the young girl. There's something inexpressibly creepy about an adult male writing a book that attempts to justify pederasty. But summer reading need not be so bleak. There is nothing covered in these books-no adolescent problem, no burning teenage issue-that wasn't addressed and (here's the key thing) answered by a somewhat earlier writer: Aurelius Augustinus, a.k.a. St. Augustine, in his book The Confessions. Holden Caufield himself could have written these lines about being punished for goofing off in class: "It was simply that we loved to play, and we were punished by adults who nonetheless did the same themselves. But whereas the frivolous pursuits of grown-up people are called 'business,' children are punished for behaving in the same fashion." There's poverty, there's sex (undescribed-Augustine has a mistress and an illegitimate son by the time he's a young man). It yet again proves the biblical axiom: There is nothing new under the sun. Adolescent life for Augustine, on the outskirts of the Roman Empire in the fourth century, was not very different from present-day suburbia. "I was not yet in love, but I was enamored with the idea of love ... (also) I was held spellbound by theatrical shows full of images that mirrored my own wretched plight and further fueled the fire within me." That pretty well sums up the recent spate of teen movies, such as Cruel Intentions, Urban Legend, and Ten Things I Hate About You. Augustine's autobiography, recently reprinted in a nice new edition by Random House's Vintage Spiritual Classics imprint, is underrated as teen reading, but highly appropriate. He writes of his childhood and his childish sins, and he treats them as sins. He dwells on a particular act, in which he and some friends robbed a neighbor's pear tree, only to throw the pears away. It wasn't a particularly grievous crime; the pears weren't worth much. But Augustine sees the action for what it was: pure meanness. It foreshadowed future sins and said something about character. The answer, as Augustine found and faithfully relates, is Christ. His Confessions, written in the form of a long prayer to God, can be tough going in places, particularly for restless teen readers. But the book is worth the extra effort.

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