From Auckland to Cairo
Young adult fiction is exploding with new authors who are revising the coming-of-age genre by creating stories about issues that were once ignored. Parental abuse or negligence, parents in prison, deformity, and sexual identity are real issues for many teens, but they also serve as metaphors for those whose lives may look more ordinary but feel as treacherous and monstrous as the characters in these exciting new books.
In the game there’s a bunch of dirty children and a bunch of wolves and they battle each other. There’s a forest and the dirty children have to climb the trees before the wolves get them.
This is the reality of “The Frog” in Adam Rapp’s The Children and the Wolves (Candlewick Press, 978-0-7636-5337-8), a chilling tale of childhood gone wrong. Three eighth-graders, Bounce, Wiggins, and Orange, have kidnapped a three-year-old girl they dub The Frog, and they are keeping her chained to a heating duct in Orange’s basement with only a violent video game for company.
Bounce, who masterminds The Frog’s abduction, describes herself as someone who “wants to get down in the dirt with the worms and the beetles” and to know “the way meat moves through the packaging house … from the smells she acquires on her hands.” She controls Orange and Wiggins by doling out “Oxycotton” a drug she stole from her jet-setting, pharmaceutical-selling parents.
Wiggins feeds The Frog nightly and often notes the girl’s progress in the game with pride, the first sign that he may see her as human. When a news announcer mentions The Frog’s nut allergy in a story about her disappearance, Wiggins begins to monitor her diet vigilantly, even as he continues to participate in Bounce’s exploitation of the missing child by fraudulently collecting donations they claim will help finance the search. However, when Bounce leads a vicious attack on a children’s services worker and even makes plans to kill a poet who visited her English class, Wiggins discovers that there is some territory into which he will not go. He refuses to cooperate, even in the certain knowledge that Bounce’s sadistic wrath will follow him into a new wilderness.
Children and wolves locked in perpetual combat is an apt metaphor for the myriad challenges confronting twenty-first-century teens. The problems facing the angst-ridden denizens of elite private schools have given way to the starker challenges of abuse, abandonment, inter-generational poverty, and homophobia that lurk in today’s landscapes, seemingly everywhere.
Although New Zealand might normally conjure settings of fantasy, Maori writer Tama Wise portrays a far starker reality in Street Dreams (Bold Strokes Books, 978-1-60282-650-2). Tyson, a closeted gay teen, shuttles monotonously between his job as a dishwasher at an elite restaurant and his home in Auckland’s slum, where drab despair manifests itself in untended yards, peeling paint, and cars up on blocks. This evocative portrayal of urban poverty treats the homophobia of many minority communities frankly, and readers will understand the complexities Tyson faces.
They will also appreciate his fierce loyalty to his local culture—only Auckland’s hip-hop music interests him, and the book depicts a lively local music scene. Tyson’s music, which American readers may never hear, punctuates his passage from silent despair into a full-bodied rhapsody of uninhibited self-expression, friendship, and the possibility of love.
Aaron, from the outskirts of Cairo, Egypt, has fewer dreams than Tyson and even less hope of realizing them. In The Glass Collector (Albert Whitman and Company, 978-0-8075-2948-5), Anna Perera depicts the Zabbaleen, a Coptic Christian minority that has subsisted on the fringes of Cairo’s mostly Muslim society for generations. Unseen and despised, they perform an invaluable service by hauling the city’s trash out of sight to their home to Mokattam, where they sift through it for recyclables they can sell. Each family has its niche, and each family member has a specialized role to perform. Aaron’s specialty is broken glass. After roaming the alleys and transporting his haul in a pony cart, he picks shards of glass from the filth, entranced by the graceful appearance of these colorful pieces amidst piles of rotting food and the debris of a burgeoning consumer culture.
When Barack Obama arrives to make his historic speech in Cairo, the blockades set up by the police jeopardize a day’s income for the Zabbaleen. The adolescent characters in this story, Aaron, Elijah, Shareen, and Rachel, have no futures to anticipate, merely abstract notions of love, early marriage, and babies who may survive to replace them amid the trash heaps that comprise their lives. The Glass Collector is Perera’s second book about growing up in the world’s forgotten zones.
“D is for darkness / Where monsters might hide, / But they’re out in the daylight, / Hitching a ride,” chants Polly in Blithe Woolston’s Catch and Release (Carolrhoda Lab, 978-0-7613-7755-9), a quirky novel that explores what happens when Beauty becomes the Beast. Polly and Odd are the unlikely survivors of a deadly MRSA infection that swept through their high school and left five dead. Odd has sacrificed a foot to the infection and struggles with his new prosthesis along with phantom pain; Polly has lost an eye. Her face is an unsightly mass of scar tissue, and she loses both her job and her boyfriend as a result. When Odd, whom Polly barely knows, invites her to go fishing, their one-day excursion spontaneously becomes a meandering journey along the riverbanks of Midwestern national parks. Physically together but emotionally apart, Polly and Odd stumble, half-blind and lame, down a rocky riverbed, fraught with misunderstanding, self-loathing, and the unquenchable thirst to find beauty and meaning in themselves and their world.
Lost and forgotten people also form the basis for Jan Walker’s Romar Jones Takes a Hike (Plicata Press, 978-0-9828205-9-9). This poignant tale about a boy looking for his incarcerated mother is well timed, given today’s growing national conversation about America’s prison population of over two million. Grieving the loss of both his father and grandmother, Romar has just learned that the relatives with whom he has been living intend to ship him out as cheap labor to an aunt who owns an orchard. Although numbed by grief and rejection, Romar snaps when he becomes the butt of his English teacher’s ire. He walks out of school and takes off across the country, planning to camp and sustain himself on the dehydrated camping food that remains in his late father’s backpack. He resolves to scatter Granny’s ashes at Smelt Sands Beach and to find his mother, even though he has only the vaguest idea of where she might be imprisoned.
Already past six foot two and still growing, Romar is perpetually hungry, and his grumbling stomach renders him vulnerable to the kindness of strangers. When he follows his nose to Vesta’s By the Sea, soup as good as Granny’s prompts honesty instead of cautious prevarications from the exhausted boy. This novel is that quintessential rarity in YA fiction: a realistic coming-of-age story that is not depressing. Romar is sweet, earnest, and eminently genuine, and young readers will find the story of his quest an accessible and worthy read.
Reality-weary teens are often tempted to turn to fantasy, and Court of Dreams, by Stuart Sharp (Pink Narcissus Press, 978-0-9829913-2-9), will not disappoint. A compelling addition to the sagas of desperate attempts to save humanity from otherworldly villains, this novel channels writers Melissa Marr and Terry Pratchett to deliver a lightly sardonic tale about a young man who survives an assassination attempt, travels to another world, and meets a colorful cast of characters with suspicious motives. A sadistic princess contributes to the mayhem. And one hopes this first novel, by a young ghostwriter, will soon be followed by more.