In some editions yesterday, part of a paragraph in a Metro story about 17-year-old book critic Adam Balutis was missing. The paragraph should have read: A senior at Washington-Lee High School, he's a funny kid when he wants to be--and very often when he doesn't, which is even better. In his weekly reviews, Balutis displays a style not found in Jonathan Yardley's work but one that Holden Caulfield, the articulate if slightly odd loner in "The Catcher in the Rye," might like for its matter-of-factness. (Published 10/21/1999)
Holden Caulfield is smiling somewhere. Salmon spawn, the sun rises in the east, and each year adults can be counted on to say that kids should read more.
In an era much like any other, where somber, book-loving adults are renewing their concerns that not enough teenagers are studious and cerebral, 17-year-old Adam Balutis, of Arlington, has emerged as a national icon for the American Library Association's "Teen Read Week," an event dedicated to the eternal proposition that reading is, you know, fun and stuff.
For the past five years, Balutis has penned a weekly book review, which appears on his Internet page. A wry and acerbic observer of the genre known as "Young Adult Literature," he's in such demand that publishing houses consult him when trying to gauge teenage reaction to their upcoming books, hoping to get the early line on the next big seller.
Librarians across the country also seek his advice before placing purchase orders.
Now, thanks to the library association's publicity machine, the press is after him, fascinated by the unlikelihood of a nationally read literary critic who has yet to graduate from high school.
"Yeah, well, if it helps, whatever," he says, shrugging, looking a little underwhelmed.
He absently rubs a finger along his mustache and scratches his goatee, which he'll tell you isn't a goatee at all but a Vandyke because, hey, take a look, this 'stache and his patch of chin whiskers don't connect, see?
A senior at Washington-Lee High School, he's a funny kid when he wants to be--and very often when he doesn't, which is even better. In his weekly reviews, Balutis displays a style not found in Jonathan Yardley's work but one that Holden Caulfield, the articulate if slightly odd loner in "The Catcher in the Rye," might like for its matter-of-factness.
"Man, does this book suck!" was how Balutis opened his 1997 review of "Edge," a young adult book by the unfortunate Michael Cadnum, who was gutted like a little trout by Balutis's pen: " 'Edge' is monotonous and without action. . . . No character can ever simply respond. . . . There's always some useless description of how something was said. Who really cares how some detective in a minimal role says 'Aunt' like 'ant' or 'ahnt'? . . . I don't feel I've been brutal enough. . . . Man, does this book suck."
"Edge" received an official Balutisian zero--the "only zero I've ever really given, because I usually don't want to keep people from reading anything, really."
Balutis has developed a rating scale of zero to three: zero being "a waste of a tree," one being "something to be read on the can," two for beach reading and the luminous three awarded to those few books deemed a worthy alternative to "being the first to see the premiere of 'The X-Files' movie."
A volunteer at the Arlington Public Library in sixth grade, a paid employee since he was 14, Balutis loves books the way some lust after cars. "Nothing has ever excited me so much," he says.
Sharyn November, a senior editor at Puffin Books and Viking Children's Books who sounds Balutis out on the arc of the teenage marketplace, says, "Since he was 13, he's been very articulate, pointed and funny. He can not only tell you whether he likes a book and whether other teens might relate to it, but also how the book compares to other literature."
Balutis's "other life," as he calls it, started in a room in the Arlington library called the "Rabbit Hole," where the teeny-weeny chairs are unsuitable for anybody taller than 4-foot-6 but where Balutis seems in his element. He was introduced to the Hole when he joined a book club in sixth grade; he soon became the library's youngest volunteer.
Despite being in demand as a speaker at book conferences, his life is remarkably balanced. He coaches children's basketball and baseball and is a peer counselor at Washington-Lee, bringing together students of different races and ethnicities.
On some levels, he is a typical teenager with normal anxieties: "I'm just somebody going to school who has a lot of different interests, and some things that don't interest me so much."
Schoolwork generally falls into the latter category. "I've gotten a lot more out of the library and reviewing books than I do in most classes," says Balutis, a B student.
He's no prodigy. He doesn't read Nabokov or Joyce, and he's not the next Bret Easton Ellis. He's never even heard of Ellis's "Less Than Zero." His tastes run more toward titles like "I Am the Cheese." He's in love with obscure as well as celebrated titles, ready to rhapsodize about anything he thinks captures the teenage experience.
"The most academically accomplished kids always find their ways into libraries and to books," says Sara Long, head of the library association. "Adam is the other kind of teen, someone bright who is like so many other kids that he can lure more Adams in."
Balutis remembers the exact day he fell in love with books: He was reading "Earthshine," by Theresa Nelson, the story of a father with AIDS. "It was sad and funny, and I found myself learning about life and changed from having read it," he says. "I told people, 'That's the best book I've ever read.' "
It was the start of his days as a barometer of teenage tastes. Now, he and his Web page (www.euronet.nl/users/jubo/balutis.html) could be entering their twilight. "He may be aging himself out of the genre," November says. "At some point, his perspective will be a little too remote maybe."
It is to say that Young Adult reviewers, like members of Menudo, must say goodbye one day. Balutis isn't worried. "I'd like to try writing my own novel someday, maybe write for a newspaper. Reviewing was never about getting known anyway. I read because I kind of have to, because I grow doing it."
CAPTION: Adam Balutis, 17, of Arlington, is a high school senior and works at the local public library.
CAPTION: Adam Balutis has written a weekly book review for five years. He posts the reviews on his Internet site.