Every woman has known a Bad Boy. He may wear a leather jacket or a letter jacket, and he's always way too good with words -- or body language. He knows when to back off and when to come on strong, but when it comes to commitment, he's generally . . . gone. Bad Boys have a timeless appeal, from Casanova to Mr. Big on "Sex and the City." Still, it's not immediately apparent why, as the title of Tanya Lee Stone's new young-adult novel proclaims, A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl.
"The book is not saying, 'Go find a bad boy,'" says the effusive 40-year-old South Burlington author. "It's saying, 'Girls are heading into rocky territory, and they're going to experience some decisions that shape them.' The book is about how the decisions they make affect who they want to be."
Set in a high school, the novel takes the form of three long monologues in free verse. The "bad boy" of the title never speaks to us, nor is he named, but each female narrator in turn is the object of his attentions. First comes Josie, a freshman who's confident in herself but naïve about boys. Then Nicolette, an outsider who's sexually experienced but secretly vulnerable. And finally Aviva, a guitar-strumming intellectual who's not immune to the charms of "one of the hottest jocks at P.B.H." After the Bad Boy does her wrong, one of the girls hits on the idea of exposing his caddish ways on the pages of the school library's copy of Judy Blume's Forever. The sexually explicit novel -- one of the most often stolen from libraries, Stone points out -- soon becomes crowded with testimon-ials. It's like a less aggressive version of those lists of sexual offenders that guerrilla feminists used to post in campus bathrooms.
"The title came to me first," Stone says, when she heard about a journal issue devoted to "bad boys" at a writers' conference. Next thing she knew, "This freshman in high school girl just popped into my head." The girl became Josie, who starts the book by declaring that she doesn't need a boyfriend "to be a legitimate person," lives to belie her words, and eventually delivers its strongest message: "Ignorance is not bliss."
That she makes her point in poetry may seem daunting to adult readers, but it's fairly standard in the YA market. In fact, the paucity of words on each page can make the format more accessible to "reluctant readers," Stone suggests. Here the verse came naturally. "I was writing how she was talking," the author says of Josie. Later she found that verse was a good "way to keep the girls' voices distinct from each other. Josie talks fast and has run-on sentences, Nicolette is sort of more punctuated and strong, and Aviva is more flowing and lyrical. I think each of them represents different parts of any female character," says the author.
Those characters will come to life in a February 10 performance-cum-book-signing-event at Burlington's FlynnSpace, which Stone has rented for the evening. Four actors, three of them teens themselves, will play the parts of the three girls and the Bad Boy in a half-hour series of monologues intended to "introduce the characters to the audience," says Stone. From the dramatic reading, directed by Veronica Lopez of the Catalyst Theater Company, the attendees will "move right into discussion," with questions from a board of teenagers who've read the book in advance. Stone says the young people she's talked to tend to react strongly to the story: "They all know this kind of boy."
Like Forever, A Bad Boy doesn't shrink from addressing adolescent sexuality, although Stone points out that the culture has changed since Blume's oft-censored classic appeared. Nowadays, "primetime TV is racier, and it offers no context," she says. YA lit is franker than it used to be about the facts of teen relationships, though it generally strives to incorporate a message -- in the case of A Bad Boy, one about the power of knowledge and self-respect. "Kids are really good at self-censoring," Stone says. "A kid who's not ready for this book is going to flip through it and put it back on the shelf."
Does the book address the nice guy's eternal lament: Why do girls like bad boys, anyway? "It's human nature," says Stone. "I think we all sometimes have to learn the hard way, to figure out what's good for us."
A different sort of coming-of-age tale is Eben Reilly's Daughter Dedannan and the Cauldron of Undry. Well-researched and heavy on lore, the novel is likely to appeal to anyone with a Celtic fascination as it plunges straight into the world of Ireland in 995 A.D. Its heroine is Shenaynay, the offspring of a Viking invader father and a mother from a mythical race called the Tuatha Dedannan, said to have colonized Ireland in prehistoric times. Although it moves slowly, driven more by description than plot, Daughter Dedannan offers intriguing, sometimes lyrical meditations on the legacy of magic, warfare and violence that Shenaynay inherits from both sides. Through supernatural means, it takes its heroine on a tour of Ireland's future, offering vivid glimpses of a painful history.
Eben Reilly is the pen name of Eileen Ressler of Bomoseen. She's part of a multitalented family -- her husband, sculptor Rob, designed and built Brooklyn's September 11 memorial. Ressler's son Ben originated Daughter Dedannan; the first draft was his seventh grade writing assignment. Although she had previously published in magazines for young readers, Ressler ran into some roadblocks with her expanded version of Ben's story, which recreates a vibrant pagan culture while also addressing Ireland's transition to Christianity.
"Back in 2001, Cricket Magazine had turned down my first story of Dedannan for fear of its 'Wiccan undertones,'" she writes in an email. The term was foreign to Ressler, who was surprised to discover that "neo-pagans were alive and well in the 21st century." Puzzled by the designation, given that the book "had no recipes for spells of any kind," Ressler started researching "Wiccan" lit on the Web. An editor at Braiswick, a small independent publisher in Suffolk, England, wrote back, "So nobody likes a Wiccan, eh? I'll have a look."
After a seven-month delay -- HarperCollins took its time rejecting the book -- Ressler decided to publish with Braiswick. The result is denser and more spottily edited than the usual big publisher's release. But it has passages of startling beauty, and a level of anthropological detail that may make readers feel they've visited a lost world.
Listeners heard traditional yarns in Swahili and Mai Mai last Saturday at Burlington's Fletcher Free Library. Not your typical storytime, the event was part of a program promoting literacy among refugee children in Vermont and New Hampshire. A collaboration between the Children's Literacy Foundation and the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program, it also provides bilingual kids books to circulate through the refugee community. The aim is to support children who may be struggling to function both in English and in a print-driven culture, offering them materials to kick-start their reading in their native languages.
Last word: Middlebury's Ron Powers is a National Book Critics' Circle Award finalist for his biography Mark Twain: A Life. Winners will be announced at a ceremony in Manhattan on March 3. And the American Library Association's Coretta Scott King Award just went to a young adult novel by Julius Lester, a very part-time Vermont resident: The University of Massachusetts at Amherst professor treks to St. Johnsbury each fall and stays for two weeks to lead the synagogue's High Holy Day services.
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