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Fresh air in teen literature

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Men of Stone   
Gayle Friesen
Kids Can Press, 2000  216 pages/ ages 11-16
Losing Forever   
Gayle Friesen
Kids Can Press, 2002  247 pages/ ages 12-18



Commentators such as Booklist Magazine critic Michael Cart, and former president of the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) Paula Brehm-Heeger have called the first decade of the 21st century the golden age of young adult (YA) literature. According to the Association of American Publishers, in spite of all the media available, young adults are not only still buying books but buying books in unprecedented numbers.

This trend can be attributed in part to the increased range of subject matter. In the past, controversial and mature topics, while not expressly taboo, were seldom addressed in YA literature. Now, topics such as sexuality, substance abuse, gang involvement, suicide, self-mutilation, eating disorders, and depression are the mainstay of fiction for the 12- to 18-year-old reader. Indeed, teen fiction has become so “edgy” that YALSA has for some years published a list of “Books that Won’t Make You Blush.”

Author Gayle Friesen, member at Killarney Park MB Church, Vancouver, doesn’t shy away from controversial topics in her young adult novels, but writes about violence, family breakdown, and other human problems in a sensitive manner that never shuts the door on hope. Her first novel for teens, Janey’s Girl, was included in YALSA’s prestigious “Best Books for Young Adults.” Friesen’s characters grow and change for the better – if things aren’t perfect, at least they seem less grim by the end of the story.

In Men of Stone, Friesen tackles school bullying. Her protagonist, 15-year-old Ben Conrad, who lives in a household of women (3 sisters and a widowed mother), is less than thrilled to discover that a great-aunt on his father’s side is going to make an extended visit.

Like many teens, Ben struggles emotionally and socially; his best friend has disappeared, and Ben is being pushed into a corner by a group of boys determined to victimize him. His mother is emotionally absent and his sisters are wrapped up in their own pursuits.

Like a fairy godmother, old Aunt Frieda insinuates herself, her cooking, and her stories of the past into Ben’s disconnected family. Although Aunt Frieda’s character seems a bit too good to be true at times, for the most part Friesen’s characters – Ben, his sisters, and his friends – are well-drawn and believable.

Aunt Frieda’s stories and persistent patience, and a brief encounter with a sympathetic Mennonite pastor enable Ben to find a path other than despair or revenge; a path consistent with the peacemaking tradition of his father’s Mennonite ancestry. By avoiding a simplistic revenge-fantasy ending which might appeal to the teen reader, Friesen, like her protagonist, chooses a more difficult but ultimately more satisfying solution to the problem of violence.

Making wise choices

Personal growth through making difficult but wise choices is also a theme in Losing Forever. Like Ben in Men of Stone, Jes, the protagonist of Losing Forever, is a teen facing multiple problems. And, like Ben, she takes many missteps before finding her way.

Jes is emotionally buffeted by a secret wish for her parents to reunite and unexpressed grief at the long-ago death of a younger sister, her only sibling. Her mother, caught up in wedding plans, is unaware or unwilling to acknowledge Jes’s reluctance to accept Cal as a stepfather. To complicate life further, her best friend Sam is making clumsy but charming attempts to get Jes to see him in a more romantic light. Then Cal’s daughter Angela arrives unexpectedly and sends Jes’s problems into overdrive.

In Losing Forever, Friesen’s writing is taut and confident. The dialogue rings true and is leavened with wit. Perhaps the book’s greatest strength is Friesen’s deft delineation of the many-layered
relationships in the story. Her characters, like people one could meet in one’s own neighbourhood, have complicated relationships but as these relationships intersect, break, or reconnect, the story maintains a strong narrative thread which ultimately leads Jes to a difficult choice and a surprising conclusion.

Jes’s story is continued in For Now (2007).

In the YA genre, often fraught with commercialized spinoffs and morally ambiguous plot resolutions, Friesen’s books stand out for their strong themes of personal growth and clear boundaries between good and bad choices. Her characters stumble and make mistakes but ultimately, with the help of others, they are able to do what they know to be right.

—Lois Klassen is a middle school teacher librarian and attends Highland MB Church, Abbotsford, B.C.

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