"Tough stories of troubled souls for teen readers"
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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