"The guy looks tough, setting off my internal alert. Everyone knows a guiding principle of underclassman survival is identifying dangerous upperclassmen." (from "Leverage")
"We're losers together. We don't care. We're like freedom fighters. We've been getting revenge against lucky kids for the last couple of years. It's our way of making things even, at least while we can." (from "Scrawl")
"I'm sorry, but I gotta [hit you].… I can't explain it. It's just that, well, it's what we do, okay? If I want to be one of the guys I gotta do it too. If I don't, they'll call me a coward and turn on me." (from "Warp Speed")
"Shut up, new boy." (from "Nicholas Dane")
These days, as novels for teenagers fearlessly approach the most difficult social topics, what tends to differentiate young-adult novels from adult novels (besides the age of the main characters) is the intensity of emotion and the directness, fierceness and honesty of the writing. Adult novels beat around the bush much more; compared to teen novels, they overthink. As a frequent reviewer of young-adult fiction, I often lose patience with "grown-up" books; I have to slow down and remind myself that grown-ups take a long time to get to the point. This insight has given me a bit of help — but only a bit! — in dealing with my own budding teenager.
A group of new novels about bullying among boys takes fierceness and honesty to a new level. It may seem a grim subject, but there is no topic more central to figuring out how the world works for guys. And good storytelling — which all of these books offer — makes it compelling. Although there have been plenty of books lately about mean girls, bullying among boys (and men) is a much more physical affair. These books pull no punches about the violence that is perpetuated in a vicious circle, from the bullies to the bullied, who become bullies in turn.
Like "The Chocolate War," Robert Cormier's classic about standing up to bullies, "Leverage" (Dutton Children's Books: $16.99, ages 14 and up) draws a connection between the attraction of team sports and the thrill of aggression. Author Joshua Cohen is Cormier in a more contemporary (uglier) world — "Leverage" makes the ferocious "Chocolate War" seem almost genteel.
Cohen's story is about a war between the football players and the gymnasts in a high school where well-meaning adults are clueless and clued-in adults are complicit in the culture of violence. A gigantic young man recently rescued from an abusive foster home as a recruit to the football team strikes up an unlikely friendship with a gymnastics star. Each admires the other's athletic ability and mental toughness, but the alliance threatens the traditional division between the school kings (football players) and the serfs (everyone else, but especially small guys who think they're tough).
A former gymnast and a football fan, Cohen delivers some breathtaking writing about the experience of putting one's body on the line in extreme sports — as well as the disposability of athletes in the professional sports machine.
Melvin Burgess' "Nicholas Dane" ( Henry Holt Books for Young Readers: $17.99, ages 14 and up) takes bullies into adulthood and shows how violence begets violence and easily turns into criminality. A fierce advocate for young people in all his books, Burgess pulls no punches in this story of a high-spirited teenage boy thrown into "care" — the British equivalent of "the system"—when his mother dies of a drug overdose.
Brutalized at a group home, Nicholas Dane manages to escape, but it's almost impossible for a boy branded "delinquent" to claw his way back into the good graces of society. He has learned the power of violence and distrust; what other strengths will keep him safe on the streets? The author has given him one saving grace (loyalty), which can help him find his way to forgiveness, but Dane is surrounded by plenty of people who can't break the cycle of victimization.
Note that the reading age level of "Leverage" and "Nicholas Dane" is set at 14 and up; both have horrifying scenes that will make even tough readers flinch.
"Scrawl" (Roaring Brook Press/A Neal Porter Book: $16.99, ages 12 and up) is the rare novel written from the bully's point of view. Large, scary Tod Munn happens to have found a guidance counselor who sees a ray of hope for him. Instead of being expelled for his latest crimes, she condemns him to write a journal in detention every afternoon. Their exchange becomes the novel. A reader — especially one who has been singled out for harassment — may protest that not every bully secretly harbors the soul of a poet (in Tod's case, a smart kid who is also a skilled tailor), but it's useful to point out that much can hide under a hardened exterior.
"Warp Speed" (Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic: $16.99, ages 9 and up) adds to the middle-school society that author Lisa Yee has been exploring with her popular series of related novels, "Millicent Min: Girl Genius," "Stanford Wong Flunks Big-time" and "So Totally Emily Ebers." In Yee's new book, Marley Sandelski is a classic victim, a kid who passively endures random shoves and punches in the school hallway by imagining what his heroes from "Star Trek" would do. Perhaps because this novel is intended for a younger audience, "Warp Speed" is lighter and funnier than the others. In middle school there is still hope that taking up a school sport and exchanging fanboy T-shirts for cool clothes will transform an oppressed nerd into a popular kid.
Yee, however, doesn't release Marley from geekdom without settling some serious questions: Can he take up track without becoming a jock and abandoning his former friends? Can he retaliate against a bully whose father beats and humiliates him?
The hot topic in the news these days, Internet bullying, isn't a huge factor in these books. The school audio-visual club, traditional realm of techno-geeks, does play varying roles. In "Warp Speed," the AV room is the refuge from the harassment of school bullies; in a clever bit of reversal, the bully-narrator in "Scrawl" is stalked by teachers' pets who use school equipment to post humiliating videos of him on-line; in "Leverage," the two athletes find another unexpected ally in a techie girl who sabotages the stadium jumbotron to expose the football team's secrets.
But there is still a lot of room for books about on-line bullying; expect to see more of them on the shelves shortly.
Bolle writes Word Play, a column about children's and young adult books, which appears monthly at http://www.latimes.com/books.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times