(published in the News and Observer 4/24/16)
This year three debut authors burst on the scene with intense young adult novels that make them writers worth watching.
Charlotte author Amber Smith begins “The Way I Used to Be” (McElderry, ages 14 and up) with a rape. Eden’s memories of brutal acts by Kevin, her brother’s best friend, are as painful as the realization that she doesn’t think anyone will believe her.
The book follows Eden through her high school years, all of them marked by a callousness created by burying the truth deep inside her. She transforms herself from a studious band geek into a startling beauty. Not surprisingly she attracts the attention of Josh, a popular senior jock. Josh is honest and seeks true intimacy, but Eden can’t be genuine, caring and finally, ends the relationship cruelly. Her junior and senior years are even more painful as Eden succumbs to slander, alcoholic blurs and a series of anonymous sexual partners. Trapped in a prison of self-imposed secrecy, Eden can neither remember or speak out. Eden’s hellish years post-rape are even more difficult than the opening scene. When she finally tells the truth, her path is almost as agonizing as her silence. The book ends with a glimmer of hope that hints at the growth readers have wished for Eden since the book’s beginning.
Jeff Zentner’s “The Serpent King” (Crown, ages 13 and up) has three captivating characters. They’re all graduating seniors who have mutually supported each other’s coming of age in a narrow rural town. Lydia, a fashionista, writes college essays, a sassy blog and dreams of escaping Tennessee. Dill, who hides his crush on Lydia, also disguises the disgust he has for his father, a zealous snake handler imprisoned for child pornography. Travis suffers life with an abusive father who has turned to drink and hate to escape the pain of Travis’ older brother’s death. Travis hides out in a fantasy world wishing he could stand up to his bullying father, continually diminished by the man’s menace.
Both boys camouflage their pain and poverty. Lydia, supported by the love of her adoring parents, can’t see the disparity and disparages Dill in particular. Her home is “perfumed with bright, clean white flowers and citrus” while Dill’s is filled with “decline, stinking of mold, old carpet, and the glue that held everything together.” Impending separation thrusts all three characters into self-examination and finding independence. Readers see the strengths of each and the constancy of their enduring affection woven into the powerful alternating viewpoints and heartbreaking ending.
▪ Gavriel Savit’s “Anna and the Swallow Man” (Knopf, ages 13 and up) is a sophisticated story for young adults and adults. Seven-year-old Anna’s father, a linguistic professor, never returns from a meeting with the Nazis who are swarming Krakow. Days pass before Anna, left alone, meets an enigmatic stranger who know as many languages as she, more perhaps, for he seems to speak swallow. The Swallow Man leads Anna on a meandering journey through Poland teaching rules of survival in a country overrun by wolves (Nazis) and bears (Russians).
Savit’s lyrical language and thought-provoking writing contrast with the stark setting. His convincing characters are startlingly real in a haunting book with a mysterious, metaphoric, mythic tone.