The young adult memoir, historical ghost story, and a contemporary satire covered here could not be more different in content, and yet they all center on teens struggling with the same thing: belief — whether it’s belief in religion, belief in the supernatural, or belief (as cheesy as it sounds) in yourself.
Aaron Hartzler’s “Rapture Practice” is about a teen’s effort to figure out his faith. In this earnest but incomplete memoir, he describes growing up in an uber-conservative, Christian family in Kansas City where life was lived on tenterhooks: The Rapture, the assumption of true believers into Heaven, could happen any day, so you better have your soul in order. Particularly during his teenage years, Hartzler battles to balance his parents’ absolute convictions with his growing uncertainty. His rebellious path to self-acceptance is riddled with clandestine movie trips, school plays and performances, hidden tapes of forbidden music, booze, and make-out sessions. His experience is both universal and unique. Part of growing up is questioning parents’ values, religious or otherwise, but Hartzler had the additional burden of also wondering, “Who would I be if I wasn’t hiding from them?”
Some of Hartzler’s inconsistencies and omissions are frustrating. Was he 3 or 4 when he acted in his first play? And why did he choose to only hint at his struggle with his sexuality instead of naming it? His decision not to makes it the elephant in the church throughout the book. Nonetheless, the humor (“His altar call has the texture and subtlety of a commercial for the Labor Day blowout at a used-car lot.” ) and heartfelt passages display Hartzler’s wit and the vulnerability, bravery, and honesty of which he’s capable.
Set in San Diego in 1918, “a year the devil designed,” Cat Winter’s debut novel, “In the Shadow of Blackbirds,” is creepy good. Its protagonist, Mary Shelley Black, 16, believes in science, reason, and the love she has for her childhood friend, Stephen Embers. But when she comes back from the dead with the ability to taste emotions and to see ghosts, she does not know what to believe anymore.
Mary Shelley must go live with her Aunt Eva in San Diego after her father is sent to jail for treason. World War I is raging in Europe, and the Spanish flu is devastating the population in America. With all this uncertainty, death, and fear, spiritualism has become the rage. Julius Embers, Stephen’s opportunistic older brother, takes photos in which the ghosts of loved ones appear. Not long after her arrival, an unbelieving Mary Shelley poses for Julius; in the developed photograph, Stephen’s ghost stands behind her. She is told her first love died a hero in the battlefields of France. But after Mary Shelley runs out into a storm and gets struck by lightning, Stephen’s tortured ghost begins to visit her. She comes to understand that discovering the truth behind his death will require an unnatural marriage of reason and the impossible.
Eerie black-and-white photos and poster reproductions add to the horror-story-like feel of this atmospheric novel. Mary Shelley, with her Boy Scout boots and penchant for aviatrix goggles, is just plain awesomely odd. With wisdom that comes from being forced to suffer too much too young, she observes that, “I think between the war and the flu, no one’s going to escape getting haunted. We live in a world so horrifying, it frightens even the dead.” Winters, too, leaves readers haunted.
Paul Rudnick’s young adult debut, “Gorgeous,” is not a fairy tale. “Because in real life, fairy tales always end badly.” What it is is a satire as sharp as a stiletto heel that takes on celebrity culture, the fashion industry, consumerism, and princess stories. Oh, and it’s wickedly hilarious.
When 18-year-old Becky Randle’s mother dies, her bleak life is made even more depressing. Her home is a trailer. Her job at the Super Shop-A-Lot stinks, and her town of East Trawley, Mo., is about as exciting as watching nail polish dry. All that changes when she calls the phone number she finds among her mother’s things. She’s whisked off to New York City where the legendary designer Tom Kelly, who’s bigger than Calvin Klein and Tom Ford combined, makes her an offer she can’t refuse: He’ll design three dresses for her, and the first will make her the most beautiful woman in the world — all she has to do is find love within a year. The story that follows takes Becky from a Vogue photo shoot to a brawl at the Ascot racetrack to a grungy walkup in Hell’s Kitchen and beyond.
Rudnick’s language is as salty as a street vendor pretzel, and he’s refreshingly unafraid to be impertinent. We all should be so lucky to have a friend as fantastically foul-mouthed and loyal as Rocher Bargemueller or to meet a person as goofy charming as Prince Gregory.
With such a title, the book’s got to have a message, right? Oh, it’s there. Tucked between Becky’s escapades and Tom Kelly’s plotting is the idea that “maybe everyone has at least a touch of dysmorphia; maybe it’s impossible for anyone to ever truly know what they look like.” And, as Becky discovers, if everybody’s imperfect you might as well help people and change the world. Having “the biggest life” you can get? Now that’s a beautiful thing.
In the Shadow of Blackbirds
By Cat Winters
Amulet, 400 pp., illustrated, $16.95
By Paul Rudnick
Scholastic, 336 pp., $18.99
Chelsey Philpot is a book reviews editor at School Library Journal. Her first novel, “Even in Paradise,” will be published by HarperCollins. She can be reached at email@example.com.