Monday, July 19, 2010

Gentler Reads for Teens

A teenage girl asked me for a book recommendation the other day. I always ask first, “What have you read lately that you really liked?” This usually (though not always) gives me a hint about what other books might please this person. For instance: Say that the answer to the question is, “My favorite book is To Kill A Mockingbird,” or “I loved Gone With the Wind.” You can’t give that person another book by that author, because Harper Lee and Margaret Mitchell were, unfortunately for us, one-hit wonders. So you have to think of other, similar books the person might enjoy.

But the follow-up question has to be “Why did you like it?”, because people enjoy the same book for widely different reasons. One person might like Mockingbird because it’s a young girl’s coming-of-age story, while another might focus on the historical aspects of civil rights in America, and a third might enjoy its ambience because it is set in the South. Depending on the reason, you might recommend The Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk Kidd; A Time to Kill, by John Grisham; or Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, by Fanny Flagg! These are three very different books, so knowing why a person likes a book is key.

This particular girl was a Sarah Dessen fan. (Dessen's latest is Along for the Ride.) I couldn’t recommend any other Dessen books to her, though, because she’d read them all! So just to be sure I knew why she liked the books, I asked her what appealed to her about them.

“They’re soft,” she said.

Since I have read some Sarah Dessen, that told me she liked books mostly about teen girls, that they should be “regular” people (not wealthy, sophisticated New York prep school socialites) confronting mild challenges (more about “what should I do when I graduate?” or “how do I quit being so shy and dorky?” than “how am I going to kick this drug habit?”) and wrapping up with a nice resolution.

I immediately thought of Deb Caletti, and it just so happens that she has a new book out, called The Six Rules of Maybe. It was checked out, so I gave the girl Honey, Baby, Sweetheart instead, for which Caletti was a finalist for the National Book Award, and since she was still reading that when the new one checked back in, I read it myself in the meantime.

Scarlet Ellis thinks she has a lot of problems, but the truth is that she surrounds herself with other people who have problems, so she can focus on helping them. She’s a pleaser, a listener, an advisor, but only for others, never for herself. She frets about the retired postman across the street who seems to be losing his mind; his next-door neighbor, a depressed Goth girl who draws disturbing chalk pictures on the sidewalk in the middle of the night; and Mr. and Mrs. Martinelli, whose emails from suspect people with Urgent Business Propositions for them are seducing them into unwise behavior.

When her older sister Juliet comes home from a year away in the big city, dragging along a new husband and revealing that she’s pregnant, Scarlet’s caretaker propensities kick in at first; but then something changes. Juliet is one of those people who has always been a “me-first” girl, and as Scarlet observes Juliet’s treatment of her (hot) new husband, Hayden—which ranges from casually heedless to actively cruel—she goes from empathy to unrequited love for her sister’s husband. Now Scarlet has to decide where her loyalties lie, and what she owes to Juliet, to Hayden, and to herself. She has to learn how (and whether) to forgive, how to trust herself, and where to find the balance between fantasy and responsibility.

It’s an engaging and involving book, containing both depths and lighthearted details, and will resonate for anyone who has ever felt invisible in their family, or who has put everyone else first until one day they just can’t, and most of all for those who have suffered the pangs of unrequited love—does that leave anyone out? If you have never read Deb Caletti, this is a great place to start.

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