Misfits. Outsiders. Weirdos. Call them what you will, but the concerns of the protagonists in three new young-adult novels are universal.
In Printz honoree A.S. King’s lovely and earnest “Ask the Passengers,” Astrid Jones eats Rolaids as if they were a food group. Maybe it’s because the 17-year-old can’t wait to leave the narrow-minded people of Unity Valley, Pa., behind forever. Maybe it’s because her dad smokes more weed than a Phish fan, and her reputation-obsessed mom has turned her younger sister against her. Or maybe it’s because she may or may not be gay. Sure she has a girlfriend, and her best friend is a closeted lesbian, but she’s not ready to define herself and doesn’t understand why everyone around her wants her to check off “a nifty little box.”
The things that bring her peace? Sending thoughts of love to passengers on planes as they fly overhead; her humanities class where she learns to develop her own life philosophy; and imagining that Socrates, who also “rejected all the boxes,” is by her side.
Astrid’s intelligent, first-person narration is interspersed with mesmerizing passages about the strangers on planes she is giving her love to: an estranged brother returning home for his sister’s funeral, a regret-filled husband who wants a second chance, a lesbian teen being sent to a conversion camp. After a disastrous night where all the secrets she and her friends have hidden are forced into the open, Astrid discovers just how cruel even those closest to her can be. Through her tribulations, she realizes, “I don’t want to send my love away forever. I want to be safe here. I want my life to be easier than this.”
Chris Colfer may play a teenager on TV (he’s best known for his role as the character Kurt Hummel on “Glee”), but in his young-adult debut, “Struck by Lightning: The Carson Phillips Journal,” he does not convincingly write from the perspective of one.
Seventeen-year-old Carson Phillips dreams of becoming editor-in-chief of The New Yorker. Problem is he has quite a few days left in his senior year, and each one of them he has to endure life in his hometown of Clover, “a place where the pockets are small but the minds are even smaller.” He’s already in charge of the Writers’ Club and the Clover High Chronicle, and when his ditzy school counselor suggests that starting a literary magazine will help his chances of getting into Northwestern University, he’s not above blackmailing a popular cheerleader, troubled goth girl, meathead football coach, and a host of other stock characters to get submissions.
Carson is acerbic, crude, and self-absorbed. That’s totally cool. Holden Caulfield, you’ll recall, isn’t exactly Mr. Congeniality either. The difference between them is that I return to Holden’s story again and again because I want him to triumph over the “phonies.” Carson? Eh, not so much.
“Struck by Lightning” certainly has some funny bits. Carson’s awkward friend Malerie’s earnest attempts to come up with a story that doesn’t plagiarize classic literature are fantastic, and his train wreck of a mother and barely lucid grandmother are hoots. Unfortunately, like Carson, the author is too smart for his own good, and the snide asides, oh-so-clever similes, and insights that seem more disgruntled adult than angst-riddled teen become as stale as the hallway air Carson complains about.
The novel ends up feeling like a movie in which the leading man is consistently overacting. Recognizing that characters are clichés doesn’t make them original. And just because Carson thinks his town is riddled with idiots doesn’t mean the author can’t trust the intelligence of his readers. This might be one of those rare cases where the movie (scheduled for release next month) will be better than the book.
Elizabeth Laban’s slow-moving but stirring new novel, which will be published next month, contains all the elements of a tragedy in the literary sense: Most importantly, the hero is his own undoing.
Set at a boarding school in rural New York, “The Tragedy Paper” unfolds as Duncan Meade, a senior, listens to recordings left for him by the former inhabitant of his room, Tim Macbeth. In them, Tim explains how a terrible accident that happened the year before all began with a snowstorm, a girl, and his desire to feel normal.
Tim, who is an albino, meets Vanessa Sheller when their plane is canceled because of bad weather. He’s bound for the Irving School for the first time, and she’s returning for the final semester of her senior year. They share a hotel room, breakfast for dinner, and even a kiss. On campus Vanessa’s calculating boyfriend, sensing Tim’s feelings for her, recruits the loner to help plan and implement the senior outing, a traditional adventure where the class sneaks out of the dorms.
The story is saturated with foreboding. We know through Duncan, who was one of the juniors invited to the outing, that the excursion is going to end badly, and we realize through Tim’s recordings that he is destroying himself emotionally and physically. As Mr. Simon, an English teacher who requires his seniors to write a thesis-like “Tragedy Paper,” explains, “Everything is connected, my friend, everything is connected.”
Like Shakespeare’s Scottish general, Tim is destroyed by a tragic flaw. His, however, is not his ambition; it’s that “he didn’t believe in himself.”
Chelsey Philpot is a book review editor at School Library Journal and can be reached at email@example.com.