Monday, June 15, 2009

Teens and the Hereafter

There seems to be an unusual focus in teen fiction lately: the afterlife. While young adult novels have given a lot of attention to otherworldly beings—djinn, demons, vampires, werewolves—these are not the books to which I refer. There is a separate, specific group of teen literature that speculates about what happens to perfectly ordinary people after they die. Perhaps the trend started with the huge impact—on both teens and adults—of Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, giving others the idea that fiction could address this issue successfully. Whatever the reason, the result has been some intriguing stories.

One such is Everlost, by Neal Shusterman. Two cars crash into each other; Nick, a teen boy, is in one car; Allie, a teen girl, in the other. Both are propelled through their windshields and down a long tunnel toward a light at the end; but just as their cars collided, so do they, knocking each other out of the tunnel and into some other place. Initially stunned from the accident and its aftermath, it takes Nick and Allie awhile to realize they are no longer at the site of their car crash, and that they are, in fact, dead. They have arrived in Everlost, an alternate afterlife populated exclusively by child and teen spirits, where there are rules of survival to learn, enough perils even for Pauline, and seemingly no way out. Shusterman’s afterworld is populated by monsters, heroes, pirates, and villains (all under the age of 16), and though this is definitely an exploration of possibilities about the great beyond, it’s also a great adventure story punctuated by his trademark quirky humor. A film of Everlost is in development by Universal Pictures.

A second novel on the subject is Gabrielle Zevin’s book Elsewhere, which received starred reviews from Booklist, Horn Book, and School Library Journal, and appears on the New York Public Library’s list, “Books for the Teen Age.” This is an appealing story that focuses more on the personal and internal life of its protagonist. Fifteen-year-old Liz Hall, who was the victim of a hit-and-run driver, deeply resents the fact that she will never get her driver’s license, go to the prom, or fall in love—she thinks—now that she has landed in Elsewhere. Elsewhere is a place where no one is ever born or dies; people arrive there (by cruise ship) at whatever age they were when they passed on, and there they stay—getting progressively younger—until they are sent back to Earth to be reborn as infants. Liz initially refuses to engage with the place or its people, denying that this strange backwards life can offer her anything in comparison to her “real” life. She sulks and moons and makes life difficult for her grandmother, who has welcomed Liz into her home. (Grandma been here awhile and is now in her thirties.) Despite the fact that everyone is aging backwards, this is a lovely coming-of-age story, especially for these uncertain times. The book highlights the plight of people whose expectations for their lives have been abruptly changed, and shows them how to go on by looking for the good in what’s left and finding something positive to do with themselves until the next change is upon them.

Other teen titles with a theme of metaphysical speculation include The Sledding Hill, by Chris Crutcher; Ghostgirl, by Tonya Hurley; and A Certain Slant of Light and The Fetch, by Laura Whitcomb. (The library’s High School Book Club gave A Certain Slant of Light a rating of 8+ out of a possible 10.)

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