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FOR YOUNG READERS

Death, Mental Illness and Cross-town Traffic

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By Elizabeth Ward
Sunday, May 11, 2008

The so-called young adult novel isn't just a novel about young adults. It's also a) easy on the brain and b) fond of "issues." The lines are double-spaced, and often the ideas are, too. Feelings are powerful but broad-brush. It can be funny -- see anything by Richard Peck. It can be sad -- see Sonya Hartnett. It can be funny and sad -- see Shyam Selvadurai's Swimming in the Monsoon Sea (2005), a coming-of-age saga set in Sri Lanka that is close to the genre's gold standard. But a hopeful ending is usual. The key thing is that you don't close a YA novel wondering what the heck it all meant.

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If these novels seem unsophisticated reading material for people on the cusp of adulthood, try thinking of them as less YA and more YT: pitched not to 17- or 18-year-olds but to much younger teens -- a peculiarly challenging category for writers. Three new titles include a miss, an interesting near-hit and a winner.

William Sleator's Test (Amulet, $16.95) is an agenda-driven novel that tries so hard not to tax young readers that it ends up insulting their intelligence. Sleator is a science-fiction writer known for his original and hair-raising ideas -- remember the sudden-death board game with aliens in Interstellar Pig (1984), in which the object was to save one's home planet from extinction? Here, though, he attempts to deliver chills with two issues straight out of the Metro section: traffic and school testing.

Sleator is against both. In his tomorrow-land New York, the helicopter-equipped elite beings who've passed "the test" lord it over "the people who lived in the traffic" below. The novel might have worked -- the gridlock scenes are memorably surreal -- but Sleator demonizes the rich kids and gives the Thai immigrant-kid hero such lines as " 'No Child Left Behind.' The people who make test, they say that is meaning of whole test. But they wrong!"

Gary Schmidt's Trouble (Clarion, $16) is an admirable novel that could use just a bit more of the light touch gracing his recent Newbery Honor winner, The Wednesday Wars.

Trouble is what the blue-blooded Smith family of Massachusetts has made a tradition of avoiding. "From the casement windows of his bedroom, Henry could look out over the feathery waves, and on sunny days -- and it seemed as if all his life there had been only sunny days -- he could open the leaded-glass doors and walk onto a stone balcony and the water would glitter all the way to the horizon."

But Henry, 14, learns there's no escaping the rain cloud of trouble when his older brother, Franklin, is hit by a car and killed. The incident fractures numerous lives, including that of the Cambodian scholarship boy from Franklin's prep school who was in the car that night. Franklin's heroism and the immigrant boy's guilt are not the givens Henry had assumed, either.

There is nice writing here. There are also issues aplenty, thoughtfully addressed: character, judgment, prejudice, fortitude. There's humor, too, channeled through Henry's wisecracking -- and wise -- friend Sanborn. My main quibble is with the big patches of mush, particularly as voiced by the preachy old guy who lectures Henry about the larger meaning of climbing a mountain: "And above you, the mountain is all bright stone, looking like God hasn't gotten around to putting the trees on it yet. . . . and you realize why the Abenaki thought it was a sacred place."

Who talks like that? Authors directing you how to feel, that's who. Still, Trouble remains an honorable effort.

The best YA novel I read this spring was Kimberley Heuston's The Book of Jude (Front Street, $17.95). Heuston made her mark in 2002 with The Shakeress, a sympathetic portrait of a 19th-century teenager who quits Shakerism for a celibate Mormon community. In this even more startling novel, the characters are modern Mormons, but their religion isn't an issue. It's simply the air they breathe. (However, the book's best exchange is when the heroine, 15-year-old Jude, tells her psychiatrist he won't be able to understand her because "for one thing I'm a Mormon." "So?" "Look, the point is, if you're not religious, you're not going to get it." "Who says I'm not religious?" the doctor responds.)

Her family's religion is one of the few things in Jude's world she's all right with. Here's what's wrong: Her mother, a graduate art student, has won a Fulbright to study in Prague. While the rest of the family doesn't mind being uprooted for a year, Jude reacts oddly from the start and just keeps getting odder. She's a canny and poetic observer, but because we're limited to her viewpoint, the fog is pretty thick before it dawns on us that this is no portrait of a spoiled, "stupid American teenager," but a remarkable inside account of a mental illness unfolding.

Oh, and the setting isn't just Prague. It's Prague 1989, the year of the Velvet Revolution. Heuston's interweaving of these big themes is moving and often funny, and she rarely jabs you to think this or feel that. You could give The Book of Jude to any adult, young or otherwise. ยท

Elizabeth Ward can be reached at warde@washpost.com.


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