Tuesday, December 01, 2009

What We're Reading: Teens with Special Powers

With vampires, werewolves and the miscellaneous undead dominating teen publishing, there is another category of book that I wouldn’t call a subset, but perhaps a parallel track. It comes from the same pond of wishful thinking that spawns all fiction dealing with the desire of teens to be anything but normal, average, or dull, and shows what happens when they achieve their desires. The difference between these books and those from the fantasy genre (for instance, City of Bones by Cassandra Clare) is that the characters are grounded in and surrounded by contemporary “real life.” Juvenile readers of series like Melvin Beederman: Superhero by Greg Trine may happily gravitate to these when they hit the teen years.

One fine example is Alyzon Whitestar, by Australian author Isobelle Carmody, who has written the Obernewtyn science fiction series, plus The Gathering for young adults, and the Little Fur quartet for younger readers. The thing I loved about Alyzon is the creativity of its ideas and their extremely descriptive execution.

Alyzon is one of five children—four teenagers and a little 13-years-later afterthought—of two creative parents (musician and painter). One day she is preparing to put the baby, Luke, into the car, and just as she opens the back hatch, the family cat jumps down from an upper story onto the door, which slams into Alyzon’s head, putting her into a coma with a severe concussion. When she comes out of it, she discovers that something in her brain has changed, and suddenly everyone around her has a distinctive odor. It’s not a physical odor, it’s what they smell like because of who they are—their basic essence. So when she returns to school after her transformation, the gorgeous, charismatic, popular boy she had a crush on before the accident now repels her because he smells like rotting meat, revealing his true personality, while a girl she never looked at twice seems enticing as a friend because she has the fresh scent of an ocean breeze and the inner tranquility that goes with it. And of course there immediately crops up a use to which she can put her new senses…and a cadre of new friends to help her. It’s an engaging book with an intriguing premise, beautifully carried out.

A more straightforward exploration of teens with powers is examined in Dull Boy, by Sarah Cross. This is a more typical “I’m a secret superhero” tale, but the interesting part of it is in the back story—how the teens acquired these powers—and also in the dilemma of what to do with their powers now that they have them. Their dialogue about how to take responsibility for their sometimes inadvertent actions is a nice counterbalance to the showy feats they manage to pull off once they discover one another and unite into a crime-fighting team. I would have liked the book better if it weren’t such an obvious set-up for a sequel, but hey, series fiction is big business these days. Fans of James Patterson’s Maximum Ride books might like this one too.

Some other titles by well-known authors that could fit into this genre are The Chemo Kid, by Robert Lipsyte, and The Midnight Twins, by Jacquelyn Mitchard.

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