For Young Readers

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Breaking Into YA

The phenomenon of famous adult writers pitching novels to younger readers isn't new. Michael Chabon, Joyce Carol Oates, Carl Hiaasen and Neil Gaiman are among those who have done it--and done it well--in recent years. But the trend flourishes, and the latest offerings just confirm the suspicion: Writing for kids, especially the 12-to-15-year-olds dubbed "young adults," is harder than it looks.

Take the misguided forays into YA by literary superstars Ariel Dorfman and Isabel Allende. Dorfman's Burning City (Random House, $15.95), written with his son Joaquin, has a promising premise: a 16-year-old bike courier delivering bad news and sympathy to New Yorkers in the summer of 2001 for an outfit called Soft Tidings. But the writing is so execrable it's funny ("Tired faces walked by, all lost to Heller in the movement of Silvia's hips"; "The heat wave engulfed everyone, and nearby a skirmish broke out between two people"). And Heller's nonstop zooming about Manhattan and stagy encounters with not-so-random inhabitants are sure signs of what the Dorfmans (playwrights both) are really offering: the dreaded Multicultural Urban Fable.

As for Allende's Forest of the Pygmies (HarperCollins, $19.99), this third book in a trilogy about a pair of globe-trotting teenage do-gooders is no better than the first two. Magical realism isn't the problem--though Alexander and Nadia's reliance on their totemic animal spirits to get them out of sticky situations strains belief. The problem is magical realism delivered in cliché-ridden prose in the service of save-the-planet pieties.

Try, instead, two novels by authors known for their adult crime thrillers and feminist-slanted science fiction respectively. They prove that good writing breaks out of all boxes--genre, age, the lot.

47 , by Walter Mosley (Little, Brown, $16.99). In his YA debut, Mosley defies categorization with a tale that blends historical fiction, folklore and fantasy. Forty-seven, the narrator, is a slave boy on a Southern plantation. (Slaves were assigned numbers rather than names in antebellum censuses, and they didn't have birthdays, either: "White peoples gots as many ages as you can count but slaves on'y gots four ages," Forty-seven learns. "That's babychile, boy or girl, old boy or old girl, an' dead.") As a portrait of slave life--both the brutality and the camaraderie--Forty-seven's story is hard to put down. He is branded, half-starved and sent to pick cotton from sunup to sundown without "pants or shoes or hat to wear." A quick-witted observer, he also makes strategic alliances in the slave quarters that help him survive.

For my money, this is the novel's strongest strand. But it's hardly the only one. It turns out that Forty-seven is still alive, albeit not a day older, speaking 173 years on. Back in 1832, his life was interrupted and transformed by the arrival of a copper-colored being named Tall John, to all appearances a runaway slave but in another reality the precursor of a mythic savior figure known as High John the Conqueror. When Tall John identifies Forty-seven ("that runt") as the Conqueror's new incarnation, the other slaves start "laughing, guffawing actually." In Mosley's view, though, history has harder things to explain or credit than time-traveling heroes. Slavery is a big one. Thus the swirl of genres echoes his grand theme: Freedom means trying on ideas, of all kinds. Breaking from a traditional slave narrative to a crowd scene on a far planet is as exhilarating, if you stick with it, as the moment when Forty-seven grasps that he is of "the same people" as his white master: "This set off a way of thinking that was more alien to me than anything.

Mister Boots , by Carol Emshwiller (Viking, $15.99). Strange things happen in this quietly affecting fable, too, but Emshwiller is so wry and matter-of-fact about them that disbelief is not an issue. Facts are few, reflecting the narrator's limitations ("I guess you haven't been homeschooled enough about reality and science," says Mother). Bobby is 10, "the perfect age." The setting is pre-Depression desert California. Father is gone, and Mother and Bobby's sad sister knit for a living. Beyond that, it gets hazy--and interesting. Bobby meets an odd, wounded man who is also a horse, Mister Boots. Bobby might or might not be really Roberta. Father returns after Mother dies; he's a magician and a bully. Emshwiller is playing with some heavy themes here, particularly the staple sf notion of identity and gender as sleights of hand and power imbalances between both species and sexes. But she has said, "As to any 'meaning' I'm trying to get across, there isn't any"--and that is the beauty of Mister Boots . Ideas creep in as quietly as a horse watching you in the moonlight.

--Elizabeth Ward

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