Friday, June 17, 2011

Books for Teens: "The Running Dream," by Wendelin Van Draanen; "Orchards," by Holly Thompson; "My Life, The Theater, and Other Tragedies," byAllen Zadoff; and "Jersey Tomatoes are the Best," by Maria Padian

Trying to steer your children away from young adult books about vampires, sex and adolescent self-obsession? There are worthy new novels out there if you take the time to look.

My life is over. These stark words begin Wendelin Van Draanen’s book, The Running Dream (Knopf, 2011). Jessica, 16, was a rising star on the school track team when a car accident takes the life of a teammate and Jessica’s leg.

Amazing friend Fiona won’t let Jessica wallow in self-pity. She is a driving force in getting Jessica back in to high school life. And Jessica’s eyes are slowly opened to the complexities of life around her.  She looks beyond herself to see the emotional and financial struggles her family faces and she learns to look past infirmity in a fellow student with cerebral palsy, recognizing her as a person and a friend.

This is no fairy tale; the handsome, popular guy does not take Jessica to the prom. But it’s a wonderful story of triumph in terrible adversity. Jessica’s emotional journey makes this book enjoyable and worthwhile reading.


When a fellow student takes her own life, Kana Goldberg has to face up to her own weaknesses and her less than exemplary treatment of others.

Orchards by Holly Thompson (Delacorte Press, 2011), is a sensitive rendering of Kana’s struggle to face the suicide of a friend, although she would prefer to forget. She is sent to live with her extended family in the fascinating landscape of rural Japan to help her discover who she is and who she will become.

Written in free verse, Thompson’s economy of words brings out the emotional essence of Kana’s experience. Gently woven into the story is an indictment of teens who prefer to float through life following the group dynamic, intentionally unaware of the feelings of others.  Kana’s maturation and redemption blossom from the ancient ceremonies of her Japanese heritage and from her determination to hope for the future.


In Allen Zadoff’s novel My Life, the Theater, and Other Tragedies (Egmont, 2011), high school sophomore Adam Ziegler must decide: do you follow the arbitrary rules that go along with the “cold war” politics waged between actors and techies, or do you follow your heart?

Adam’s friend Reach explains why the two theater groups don’t mix:

We do not find actors interesting, because they are not interesting. They are boring. They are good to look at, yes. I cannot deny that. They have been genetically selected to be good looking. Like a butterfly. A butterfly is a lovely thing, but when it comes to brain surgery, you do not want a butterfly scrubbing in. You want a doctor. You want skill set.

Adam exists behind the spotlight on the catwalk of the school theater. The remote vantage point provides protection and a sense of place for a young man still dealing with the sudden death of his father.  But that world is forced to expand when he develops a crush on Summer, a spunky actor who shines onstage and off.

Against the backdrop of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Zadoff’’s relatable characters are finding their way while dealing with cliques, stereotypes and the pageantry of high school


Best friends Henriette and Eva are talented individuals in their chosen pursuits – Henry (as she is nicknamed) could become a major contender in the tennis world; Eva pursues excellence as a ballet dancer. They spend the summer following their dreams in Jersey Tomatoes Are the Best, by Maria Padian (Kopf, 2011).

Henry finds success and romance at tennis camp in Florida, but in New York, Eva begins to self-destruct when anorexia takes control of her thoughts. Pressures from parents, coaches and from the girls’ own expectations for themselves combine to force Henry and Eva to make serious choices about their goals, careers, and their friendship.

Padian writes this story with each character narrating alternating chapters. This double first-person technique gives the reader insight into the complex inner life of both characters, but it slows the narrative while readers get accustomed to the style.  Nevertheless, the story is absorbing and the reader will find Henry and Eva to be engaging and authentic.

Classic Choice

Jane Austen

Why should one encourage youth to read the novels of Jane Austen? The reasons are so numerous that entire books have been written on the subject. If you are interested in such books, I recommend Susannah Carson’s collection of essays, A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen (Random House, 2009). But for those whose interests are less scholarly, we read Austen because her prose is charming and witty, her characters are gracious and intelligent, and her stories are romantic and moral.

In Austen’s Emma, the endearing Emma Woodhouse takes it upon herself to play matchmaker among her acquaintances – often with disastrous results. Emma is an independent and imperfect girl who has a lot to learn about romance and reality.

It takes effort for modern teens to read Austen. The English Regency period customs and language may seem quite foreign at first. But those who persevere will find that they are greatly rewarded with timeless lessons about love, hope, despair, and moral character.

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