Lobster Press, 185 pages, $10.95
In the mid-1970s, the summer between Grades 9 and 10, when I was 14, my eldest sister died. I returned to school in September as though nothing unusual had happened. She'd been seriously ill for two years, yet very few, if any, teachers, students or friends knew this going on in my household. As the youngest, most protected child in the family, I barely knew the details myself. You just didn't talk about things like that then, and it certainly wasn't anything that would gain you special consideration for missed school days, late assignments or a sagging attitude. You lived with it, dealt with it and didn't spend a lot of time analyzing it.
That's all changed now, mostly for the good. Kids are growing up armed with much more information, and there is little or no shame about family issues, no matter how big or small. Even so, no matter how savvy children are, or how safe parents hope to make them, they still mature emotionally at the same pace as ever. They'll also usually find a way to test their limits and do what they want, unbidden.
Two new young adult books by Ontario authors, one set in the mid-1970s and one in the present day, perfectly exemplify this. Teresa Toten's sequel to Me and the Blondes, Better Than Blonde, involves secrets and lies about: a) an alcoholic father, to protect the reputation of an immigrant family in an otherwise upstanding Toronto community; b) a surprise discovery of adoption; c) a pregnancy scare; d) an eating disorder; and, finally, an actual teen pregnancy, the resolution of which, in 1975, can only be marriage. The story advances, as good fiction should, by being creatively and imaginatively told, with just enough humour to break up the intensity of typical teen life. Life is disorderly and chaotic, fun and tragic, all in equal measure.
In direct contrast, Christina Kilbourne's Dear Jo is an all too real account of the dangers that lurk inside Internet chat rooms, and the worst outcome possible: the abduction and murder of a pre-teen. To boot, it is based in part on the true case of Holly Jones, a 12-year-old who went missing and was later found dead in Toronto's west end. Her predator, currently serving a life sentence in prison, claimed that viewing child pornography influenced him. Dear Jo is a heavy-handed morality tale that leaves too much of an impression. My evidence? I'm a grown woman who doesn't even have children to worry over, and I had nightmares after reading it.
Sophie Kandinsky has a secret. But in her new diary, the young heroine of Better Than Blonde vows, "I will absolutely be more honest." The year is 1975; the handmade diary is a gift from her estranged father, the subject of and reason for her lies. Her best friend and leader of the coveted Blondes, Madison (who by the way has a "buttery soft, turquoise leather" diary), is complicit with her big fib only because she has a very large one of her own.
For that matter, so do all the Blondes, and Sophie seems to be the custodian of all the secrets. While she loves her misfit immigrant family, with their strange customs and broken English, she loves being "one of the Blondes" even more. But since her father was released from prison, it's become impossible to pretend that he's dead. Revealing her truth creates a domino effect, and soon everyone is telling the truth all over the place.
Sophie also has writer's block, and can't seem to get to her diary as often as she'd like; but that doesn't stop her from telling a spirited, page-turning story. Young readers will fall in love with her over-protective aunties, pull for her as she attempts to hide Papa's drinking from her mother, exalt when her crush, Luke Pearson, finally confesses his love for her, then feel her pain when Luke's girlfriend turns up pregnant. They'll cry and laugh with her, and in the end celebrate her discovery that better than being one of the blondes is being Sophie Kandinsky, "the strong one."
A diary comprises the whole of Christina Kilbourne's Dear Jo. The form turns the story into an unrelenting tale of fear, heartache and foreboding. Though it's recommended for readers 9 and older, and endorsed by teachers and librarians, I have my doubts about whether it's appropriate for such a young audience.
At the story's opening, Maxine's best friend Leah has been missing for six months, and Maxine feels responsible. You see, they have both defied their parents' warnings and entered Internet chat rooms to talk to a boy. The boy, really a middle-aged software developer, divides and conquers and begins a separate e-mail relationship with each girl (and countless others).
A little less guarded than Maxine (with less parental guidance), Leah agrees to meet the boy at the local mall, goes missing and later turns up dead. Maxine, now under extreme scrutiny by her parents, teachers (she's failing school where once she excelled) and therapist, isolates herself from her friends, finding solace in playing at home with her little sister and brother, and retreating as often as possible to tell Jo (her journal) her story. Too many people know about her situation, too many people want to help her. It's embarrassing and provokes guilt, and she already feels that in spades. Some resolution comes when
Maxine helps police catch the predator by luring him back out to the mall.
The implied message seems to be that whether you watch your children or not, there's a bigger, more insidious danger out there that defies the best parental shielding. At the end of the book, Kilbourne provides guidelines to readers and their parents about how to use the Internet safely. By then it could be too late; the story might just scare the hell out of them.
Given the choice, I think young readers will enjoy a story told from what seems a much simpler time even if children of those times were a little less supervised, and the tough stuff a little more hidden.
Carla Lucchetta is a writer and TV producer. She is working on a book about how young adults experience and express their sexuality. Taken from the Globe and Mail on-line edition.