Been reading a lot of Young Adult books lately. Here are three I’m recommending these days:
The Mysterious Benedict Society (Trenton Lee Stewart)
I’m a bit late to this party, as the cult sensation around 2007’s brainy action adventure is already well established. (Kids show up to book signings with author Stewart dressed as characters from the book; also, while reading this during a swim team practice for Oldest Son, one mother nudged me and said, “Oh, my daughter loves that book!” I’m pretty sure she was genuinely into the book, and not coming on to me.)
It gets and deserves this adulation for making heroes out of a set of brainy kids. You know: nerds. The kind of smarties who are, in other books, useful-but-barely-tolerable bookworms relegated to the sidelines.
You know how Hermione is the nag who Potter and friends tease for being such a relentless know-it-all? The kids in TMBS are nobody’s nags, and they don’t shiv just because they spend more time in a library than on a Quidditch pitch. Each of Stewart’s four heroes are selected for a secret mission because they are smart — and not just book smart, either. Stewart celebrates all kinds of braininess, from introspective and curious Reynie to adventurous and instinctive Kate. The socially maladroit Sticky is the only character who is a typical walking calculator, but Stewart’s great creation Constance Contraire is selected for the team for being a stubborn skeptic — a rare and misunderstood trait. Kudos to Stewart for introducing readers to the concept that doubters and difficult people can be essential contributors to a project.
It’s a great cast that rises above the adventure itself, which is actually rather bland: The MBS kids infiltrate a bizarre private school where children are being brainwashed to take part in a sinister thought-control experiment. The action settles into a lot of skulking, observing and reporting back, followed by periods where the children review their observations and make startlingly accurate suppositions.
But watching these characters bounce off each other, and generally elevate the role that thinkers can play in a YA book, gives this one a lift onto the must-read list.
The Black Book of Secrets (F.E. Higgins)
I didn’t see this one coming. This 2007 book flew all the way under my radar until a paperback copy landed on the bookshelf at our school’s Scholastic bookfair. I judged it purely by the cover — because, come on, something with the title “The Black Book of Secrets,” gussied up like a distressed Old West ledger, and featuring a tree frog and a Lurch lookalike can’t be ignored. So I picked it up.
What a surprise. Higgins spins a weird and spooky tale that unfurls at a nice tense pace. Set in a vaguely 19th-Century, vaguely European country, the book opens with a downright Dickensian dilemma: Street urchin Ludlow Fitch escapes his parents as they try to sell his (still-attached) teeth to an unscrupulous dentist — and it just gets better from there. Lud falls in with Joe Zabbidou, a mysterious loner who purports to buy people’s darkest secrets from them, a “secret pawnbroker.”
Their profession has a curious effect on Pagus Parvus, the hillside village where they set up shop. Zabbidou gives solace to the poor souls who unburden their secrets, and sows mistrust among those who have only greed and suspicion in their hearts. The tension simmers to boil, and is interrupted at perfectly tantalizing moments for the confessions of the tormented customers with sins to unload.
The writing is a treat, too, with clean, clear descriptions and amusing observations that help the book breeze merrily along:
Horatio had started in the shop as soon as he could reach the counter, and over the years the young butcher had begun to take on the appearance of the meat with which he worked all day. He had gradually become more solid in the body, rather like a bull, and his thick, hairless forearms were shaped like two shanks of lamb. His skin was the color of hung meat, a sort of creamy blue, and of similar texture. His face was long and his nostrils flared, and his brown eyes surveyed his surroundings with mild interest. The tips of his fingers were thick and blunted; for a man who made his living working with knives he was surprisingly careless.
The Schwa was Here (Neal Shusterman)
Wowzers. Shusterman hooks his readers with a truly unique character: Calvin Schwa, a kid so bland and forgettable, he’s hard to notice even when he’s standing right next to you. Narrator Tony “Antsy” Bonano notices this tendency and experiments with “the Schwa Effect” to see what Calvin can get away with without folks noticing. The answer is, a lot.
Here’s where many authors would take this idea and build a zany story of infiltrating girls’ locker rooms or spying on bullies, but Shusterman is telling a surprisingly moving tale about teens finding their identities and divining meaning from the everyday things that make up their lives.
It’s written in a bouncy Brooklynese, coming on strong with a bunch of dropped Gs and wiseguy phraseology like “on accounta.” But the narrator’s voice is so funny and genuine that the dialect fades from annoyance and becomes a welcome part of the conversation.
Shusterman’s ear for teen dialog is practically cinematic:
“I’ve been thinking there’s something wrong with him.”
“Like he’s retarded you mean?”
Howie’s disgusted by this. “The proper term is ‘mentally handicapped,'” he says. “Otherwise the retards get offended.”
… and he shows a seeming effortlessness when plumbing depth in Antsy’s chatty asides:
I guess this fascination I had with the Schwa was because in some small way I knew how he felt. See, I never stand out in crowd either. I’m just your run-of-the-mill, eigth-grade wiseass, which might get me somewhere in, like, Iowa, but Brooklyn is wiseass central. … “You’ve got middle-child syndrome,” I’ve been told. Well, seems to me more like middle-finger syndrome. … But the Schwa — he was worse off than me. He wouldn’t be the “whatever-happened-to” kid — he’d be the kid whose picture gets accidentally left out of the yearbook and no one notices. Although I’m a bit ashamed to say it, it felt good to be around someone more invisible than me.
The Schwa and Antsy, gaining notoriety from their Schwa Effect experiments, take a dare to sneak into a cranky old shut-in’s apartment and, of course, they get caught. Again, a lesser author would use this “worlds collide” plot barb to commence a wacky misadventure where the Old Man Learns to Be a Kid Again just as the Kids Learn Something About Growing Up — but Shusterman is swinging for a fence much farther away. That sort of easy sentimentality can pound sand.
The subtle shifts in character attitude are a wonder to watch as things get complicated between Antsy, the Schwa and a savvy blind girl they both fall for. (The easy way out? The blind girl would have played the part of the Magic Pixie Girl, that archetype character whose quirks and charm dissipate the protagonists’ angst — but that’s not Shusterman’s way, no sir.) All these characters are looking to get more out of life than they currently have, and not all of them are yet equipped to identify it, let alone pursue it. By book’s end, they all make surprisingly big strides.
Much of the last third centers on “something big” the Schwa is planning to get himself noticed; for a while, I feared this kid’s cry for help might turn deadly serious, but what Shusterman delivers is a payoff both heartbreaking and riotously funny, and it is so, so much better than anything I could have come up with.
Which is the highest compliment I can make: Shusterman makes original choices and takes surprising veers through his story in a way that even I — a jaded, blackhearted cynic — found moving. I wish I could write half so well. Better: I wish I could come up with characters half so endearing. Read this one already, wouldja?