. by

book reviews





send email

© Bella Stander

book reviews

"Tough stories of troubled souls for teen readers"
Chicago Tribune
July 1, 2001

by Bella Stander

When Dad Killed Mom
by Julius Lester

No surprises as to what this book's about; it's spelled out in the title. Julius Lester, author of To Be a Slave, probes the repercussions of a violent crime that is committed in every sector of society--even by an affluent, white, college professor in a small, picturesque, New England town.

The unerring authenticity of the voices of narrators Jeremy, 12, and his sister Jenna, 14, attest to Lester's authorial skill. Both are in school when the unthinkable happens: Their psychologist father shoots their artist mother in broad daylight outside her favorite cafe. Dad goes off to jail, and Karen, his former wife and, oddly, their mother's best friend, takes charge of them. Each child manifests grief and devastation differently: artistic Jeremy, Mom's favorite, holes up in her studio and obsessively catalogs her work, while "Daddy's girl" talks fashion with Karen and gets involved with a troubled boy at school.

Separately, the siblings discover more about their parents' lives, and the story the two piece together is considerably at odds with the "battered spouse" defense that Dad concocts and wants them to corroborate. The only section of the book that doesn't quite ring true is the denouement during his trial. The rest is spot on, and the story ends on a positive and uplifting note.

Given the subject matter, occasionally profane language and references to sexuality, "When Dad Killed Mom" is best for mature readers--with a pile of tissues at the ready.

by Chris Lynch

As he did in Gypsy Davey and Whitechurch, Chris Lynch packs quite a wallop into a slim little volume by giving voice to a troubled soul on society's fringes. Here protagonist Will's alienation and dislocation are manifested through a second-person narrative peppered with questions:

"The radio is playing. Are you listening? Listen. No, listen. Down at the pond, last night. Somebody was killed."

The obviously disturbed 17-year-old, who claims he's supposed to be a pilot, has been enrolled in a "special program" in wood shop, where he has been making whirligigs, demonic garden gnomes and bizarre totems. The last items have been turning up around town at sites where his schoolmates have been found drowned. Is it suicide or murder, and is Will responsible? He thinks he may be, since he already feels at fault for what happened to his father, whom his aging grandparents never talk about.

Eventually it's revealed that Will's father drove himself and Will's stepmother into a watery grave, and that he might have killed Will's mother, whom the youth never knew. Although events happen to push the story along, what's most important here is what goes on inside Will: his taking an interest in tough-talking classmate Angela and his transformation from shell-shocked onlooker to active participant. As he learns: "Life is a gift. If it doesn't fit, you grow into it."

There's no sex here, but lots of profanity and references to death. The sophisticated narrative structure also makes this best for older teens.

Whale Talk
by Chris Crutcher

You'd never know from the photo-illustration of a very white-looking youth on this book's jacket that much of the story centers on race, and that narrator T.J. is a brown-skinned, frizzy-haired African-Japanese-German-American.

Readers of Chris Crutcher's books, such as Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, may wind up thinking that eastern Washington has a disproportionate share of diabolic child abusers and bigots. Perhaps it doesn't, but certainly these are people with whom the author, a Spokane family therapist and child-protection specialist, is intimately familiar. As usual, several of the characters in this book have suffered appalling abuse at the hands of adults. And also typical of Crutcher, athletic achievement--once again, swimming--and strong, wise women are important features in the story.

Abandoned at 2 by his birth mother, T.J. (who for obvious reasons dislikes using his whole name, Tao Jones) has been brought up by two white, liberal ex-hippies. Although he's a gifted athlete, T.J. refuses to buy into his high school's jock culture by playing a team sport. At least not until senior year, when his English teacher challenges him to form a swim team, with himself as the star. To spite the racist, anti-intellectual coaching staff and team boosters, T.J. invites the biggest misfits to join the team, including a "fatty," a geek, a brain-damaged "retard" and a violent, one-legged loner. Object: to earn school letter jackets for the entire team.

This being Crutcher, the action is fast and furious, the language foul, the victims' stories heart-rending, the climax violent and the themes thought-provoking.

Bad Boy: A Memoir
by Walter Dean Myers

The noted author of scores of books for young people reveals the formative events of his bumpy early years.

Walter Dean Myers was born in 1937 to a black family in West Virginia. After his mother died, he was unofficially adopted by his father's German-American Indian first wife and her second husband, also black. Doted on as the "baby" and only boy, Walter lived with the Deans and his two older half-sisters in Harlem, which he lovingly recalls in all its colorful, fragrant and melodious glory.

An early and fervent reader with a high I.Q., Walter was also big, "busy" (perhaps hyperactive, he admits) and bellicose, with a speech impediment that was an object of much mockery. He reports on these qualities and all the trouble he got into because of them, but he is curiously detached about his feelings, especially regarding his birth family. It isn't until he discusses his wretched teenage years, during which the Deans' finances go bust, Mama turns to the bottle and he drops out of elite Stuyvesant High School, that he goes into any detail about his psycho-emotional state. "Mine was the humiliated consciousness, ashamed of its every face, its every nuance," he writes.

Too depressed to go to school, Walter nevertheless reads and writes constantly. Labeled a "troubled youth," for the first time he starts to question what it means to be an intelligent black man. Not coming to any gratifying conclusions, he joins the Army when he turns 17, quits writing and takes a series of menial jobs after his discharge. Then one day he starts writing again--and can't stop. Finally, in 1968, he wins a writing contest. "I have been publishing books for young people ever since," he proclaims with justified pride.

A thoughtful, cautionary and inspiring tale.

© 2001 Bella Stander

book reviews   interviews   articles

links   home   send email