Teen fiction is not what it used to be. There's a lot been said in recent months about the darkness of it, about how vampires and werewolves and paranormal romance are going to be the undoing of modern youth (which I highly doubt - if anything, it's getting them reading, right?). But what I think is most significant is that authors who write for teens are willing to explore new topics and themes. Yes, some of these lead to dark places, but others just examine the messy business that is real life, which so rarely comes wrapped up with a cutesy little bow. (Maureen Johnson says it better here than I possibly could.)
Take Sara Zarr, for instance. Zarr writes realistic contemporary fiction for teens - in other words, no time traveling detectives here. And what she writes are novels that peel back the layers, one by one, that construct the experience of teens in this reality, right now. These are kids who face difficult problems, many of which are brought on by forces outside their control, just like kids always have, but who do so in a culture that is often frantic and always changing. You know what I mean.
In How to Save a Life, Zarr brings us a whole slew of issues in the form of Jill, her mother Robin, and Mandy, a pregnant teenager whose baby Robin hopes to adopt. Jill's bitter, and angry, not about the baby so much as she is about the sudden death of her father in a car accident almost a year ago. She's dealt with her grief by building walls around herself, pushing away anyone and everyone who cares, and not letting anyone new inside her circle. And here comes Mandy, bursting with life and new possibilities, but with secrets and pain of her own. Mandy knows Jill doesn't like her, but she's so grateful to be in a safe place, a real home, not the cobbled-together life she's lived with her mother's rotating boyfriends. OK, so maybe Mandy has misrepresented herself a teeny bit, but it's for a good reason, right?
And then the carefully constructed facade that each character has made for herself begins to crumble. Mandy's never had someone care for her like Robin does, and she's not sure she's ready to give that up -- or her baby, for that matter. Jill thinks she knows the role everyone in her life has to play, and it's all structured. But then an unexpected encounter in the parking lot leads to a new friend that Jill just can't shake, and a growing realization that the emotions she's kept bottled up won't stay there forever. Both girls struggle to find their footing on this shaky new territory, and to reexamine what they thought they knew about themselves at the most elemental core of their being.
Zarr's writing is balanced and fluid, her gaze unflinching as she peers into the most secret corners of her characters' lives. No one is wholly good or entirely bad, and for that I applaud her -- if you're looking for stereotypes, you won't find any here. Most interesting of all, she turns adoption inside out, giving voice to the experience from all angles. As a birth mother, Mandy wrestles with the idea that her daughter will one day feel abandoned, or think that Mandy didn't love her. As a prospective adoptive parent, Robin wonders if what she's doing is enough, or if she owes a greater debt. And as a soon-to-be older sibling, Jill fluctuates from feeling betrayed to mourning the fact that her sister will never know the father that Jill so adored.
Those who say they don't read "kids books" are really missing out when it comes to authors like Sara Zarr. Honestly, I'd put How to Save a Life up against anything from an "adult" author and it would hold its own. Strong characters, skilled writing and a story that sticks with the reader long after the last page is turned. In my book, that's quality fiction, no matter where it's shelved.
How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr, published by Little, Brown
Ages: 12 up
Mandy -- "My mother says that when another girl steps up to you, just smile and let her have the last word. My mother says it's usually jealousy or her wanting something you have. But I can't think of one thing I have that Jill, who has everything, could want. And I can't smile when we're talking about a tragedy."