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Under the Sign of the Swan : Francesca Lia Block’s teen stories make the straight-laced shudder : BABY BE-BOP, <i> By Francesca Lia Block (HarperCollins: $13.95; 106 pp.)</i>

<i> Ron Koertge is a novelist living in Los Angeles</i>

Two librarians, tote bags full of publishers’ giveaways, meet by the buffet table dominated by an ice sculpture; this year it’s a swan, its beak in a book.

They nod and rattle the cubes in their gin-and-tonics; then one notices Francesca Lia Block’s new novel--"Baby Be-Bop"--tucked in a side pocket of the tote.

“Do you like it?”

“Frankly, no.”

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“I’m surprised. I love it.”

They circle warily, then introduce themselves. “I’m Joan.”

“Beth. What don’t you like about it?”

“Well, to begin with, in the first 11 pages, this tortured soul, Dirk, and his new pal sneak a swim in a pool that isn’t theirs, then steal a pie from the farmer’s market.”

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“Kid stuff. What about Dirk’s honesty and real affection for his grandmother, Fifi? And don’t you think his conflict over his sexuality rings true?”

“Yes on both counts. But I don’t like the N-word when Dirk and Pup are talking about Jimi Hendrix.”

“The kids don’t use it. They’re quoting a racist.”

“I also don’t like the complete absence of condoms or birth control when the boys are in that Jacuzzi with--God help me--Stacey Stace and Nancy Nance. And couldn’t Ms. Block have written those girls as something besides bimbos?”

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Beth holds out one hand. “Could I see the book a sec? If we’re going to talk about writing, how about lines like this one, from the scene at the dance club: ‘Sweat on tan skin like beer drops on brown glass glisten.’ That’s sprung rhythm . That’s Gerard Manley Hopkins. That’s poetry !”

“It makes me want to eat some protein and lie down. I admired ‘Weetzie Bat’ because I’d never seen anything like it, but now for all her fabled powers of invention I feel I know what to expect.”

“I love her prose. I think it’s witty and lyrical.”

“Do you love the book’s architecture, too? It seems to me that when all those new characters ooze out of the magic lamp, the book just stops dead in the middle.”

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“Only in the sense that a hummingbird stops dead in the air. And it’s not as if we don’t know these guys from ‘Witch Baby.’ ”

“I don’t know that. I just want to read the book in my lap, not everything she ever wrote. Anyhow, I’m happy to read about a boy struggling with his sexuality, and I’m willing to live for a while in Ms. Block’s version of Los Angeles. But I don’t just want to just sit in Dirk’s room and listen to Gazelle Sunday’s story. . . .”

“ ‘Any love that is love is right,’ ” Beth quoted.

”. . . and then Be-Bop Bo-Peep’s story and then Duck Drake’s story. Any arc the story had turns into a flat-liner.”

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“Joan, the structure is perfect. We need those stories of Dirk’s grandmother and mother, and we certainly need to hear the exchange where Dirk says to his father, ‘Dad, I’m gay,’ and his dad says, ‘I know you are, buddy.’ That didn’t move you?”

“Correct me if I’m wrong, but this is the father who explains a double suicide with, ‘we gave up on life. . . . It was all too much for us.’ There’s some lovely subtext: When the going gets rough, the sensitive off themselves. Anyhow, at this point Dirk is talking to a ghost. That’s the oldest trick in any book. Wrote yourself into a corner? Bring in a ghost.”

Beth took a long swallow of gin. “ ‘Baby Be-Bop’ is, among other things, a fable,” she said patiently. “And anyway, Dirk is hallucinating; that’s why he’s in a hospital at the end.”

“Couldn’t Ms. Block have him hallucinate safe sex when Duck is in various men’s rooms with strangers?”

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“Look, I admit she’s not for everyone. But that’s what makes her unique. If she was more homogenized and safe, she wouldn’t be herself. And that’s her message to her reader: Be who you are--gay, straight, fabulous, literal. She can’t cut corners and pander to book clubs and she can’t compromise and bowdlerize her own work or she wouldn’t be Francesca Lia Block. I can’t keep her books on the shelf, can you?”

“No, because some parent is usually shaking one at me and asking me what I think I’m doing ordering stuff like this.”

“Look,” Beth said, “doesn’t a lot of the young adult writing sound like it comes from Writers R Us?”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

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“I mean it sounds as if the authors bought it, took it home and put it together. A’s a lonely girl, B’s a misunderstood boy, C is the conclusion down by the dock. Shoot, I think I could write books like that, don’t you?”

“I understand,” Joan said grudgingly. “Though they’re grittier than that nowadays: A’s the abusive father. . . .”

“B’s still the misunderstand classmate, and C is still the dork. Well, there aren’t any kits with Duck and Dirk and Be-Bop Bo-Peep and if there were I wouldn’t know what to do with them. There’s no one like her.”

“That’s true, but. . . .”

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“Don’t you think she’s brilliant?”

“Probably, but she’s brilliant in a way I have trouble appreciating.”

“Don’t you admire that? I do. I like people who are loved and hated. I like books that some people are crazy about but just drive other people crazy.”

“Well, I like it that you like her so much.”

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“And Francesca Lia Block loves kids. She takes them seriously. Do you know what two words I wish somebody would ban from reviews of YA fiction? ‘Teen angst.’ Talk about reductive and trivializing. As if a sophomore’s suffering were nothing compared to the angst an adult feels.”

“I agree.”

“Which part, that she loves kids or that some reviewers condescend to their subject?”

“Both. She does love kids, and I like it that she takes their problems seriously, too. If only she. . . .”

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“Look. Let’s have another drink. I’ll buy. I’ll turn you into a fan yet.”

Behind them the swan drips onto the ice book, etching long columns of hieroglyphics that even to a trained eye could mean more than one thing.


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