Navigating those tumultuous years between childhood and adulthood can be tricky business. Writing for and about adolescence – while remaining true to ever-changing teen culture, replete with its ephemeral slang and supercharged technological savvy – is even trickier. And the YA books of today deal with issues unheard of only a couple of decades ago; the sweet simplicity of yesterday’s Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys has been supplanted by fiction that more aptly reflects the serious situations that contemporary youth face.
Two new novels pit unsuspecting teens against adults who, while appearing to have their best interests in mind, ultimately end up exploiting them horrifically. Their young protagonists must not only learn who in the adult world is sincerely trustworthy, but they also must discover how to trust again.
Mount Albert, Ontario, author Christina Kilbourne’s latest YA novel, They Called Me Red, is a shocking story of child exploitation and human trafficking that, although fictional, could easily have been plucked from today’s headlines. Told with compassion and delicacy, the novel centres on a boy who is changed forever after he’s sold into the global sex trade.
The protagonist, 11-year-old Devon, has a pretty typical life. He’s an avid skateboarder and a master of Xbox games who spends much of his time hanging out with his best friend, Vic, and his other best friend, his dad. However, everything changes the minute Dad’s new girlfriend, Lily, walks into their life. To Devon’s dismay, Lily immediately inserts herself into everything. Once she moves in, the rules of the house change for the worse, and the bond between Devon and his dad begins to suffer.
When his father falls mysteriously ill, Lily convinces him that the family ought to travel to her native Vietnam in search of a cure using traditional Eastern medicine. However, when Devon awakes one morning locked in the filthy basement of a strange restaurant with three other young boys, he discovers that Lily has sold him into slavery in Cambodia, where he is highly valued by male customers for his rare white skin and flaming red hair.
Although the subject matter carries the potential for graphic descriptions of Devon’s situation, Kilbourne artfully depicts the horrors of forced child prostitution without resorting to disturbing specifics. The plot moves at a heart-pounding pace sure to appeal to young adult readers, and yet Kilbourne manages to imbue her characters with both depth and humanity. (It should be noted that the potentially offensive Lily character – evil Asian stepmother, anyone? – is balanced by a very sympathetic Vietnamese detective who rescues the children.)
While Kilbourne’s novel explores the wider issue of child exploitation abroad, film star-turned-writer Meg Tilly’s new novel, First Time, takes a hard look at trouble closer to home. The story, which is geared toward reluctant teenage readers, details the confusing period of blossoming adolescent sexuality – complicated, in this case, by sexual abuse.
Haley is 16 years old, and is looking forward to the promise of greater independence when her best friend finally buys a car. To Haley’s dismay, Lynn’s car comes to symbolize a sudden obsession with all things adult – from drinking coffee to ditching Haley in order to chase after sex with Chad, an older guy. While Haley struggles with the abrupt and hurtful changes in her closest friend, she must simultaneously come to terms with a shocking sexual assault by her mom’s new boyfriend, Larry.
The plot of this short novel is rather scant, and the final chapter yields little resolution. It is by sheer accident that Haley’s mother discovers the abuse, and the reader is given no indication of the emotional and/or legal repercussions. It is implied, however, that Haley’s mother is finally awakened to the harsh truth about Larry, thereby bridging the growing chasm between mother and daughter. The final scene of the novel emphasizes Haley’s need to share the burden of her confusion with a loving adult, rather than try to shoulder it alone.
Unfortunately, the characters in the book seem rather flat, as there is little to no backstory to add bulk and dimension to the first-person narrative. Tilly employs a halting prose style whose fragmented sentences and somewhat dated colloquialisms (“This is totally awesome!”) are intended to mimic the adolescent protagonist’s inner thoughts and speech patterns. However, there are some moments, such as a painfully awkward incident involving the purchase of condoms at the local Shoppers Drug Mart, that ring true to teenage life, and Haley’s sense of guilt after being assaulted does provide for a flash of psychological complexity.
First Time is a lightning-quick read that, while lacking a varied emotional register or clean conclusion, will likely provoke some discussion among young people about how to handle difficult situations.
A pivotal challenge for any YA author is to both delight and instruct a generation that is less likely to crack open a book than to plug into an iPod. Though Kilbourne has produced the stronger novel here, both authors recognize the need to meet YA readers on their own turf.