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Children's literature

Where the coolest kids are, like, undead

A feisty teen heroine inhabits Kim Harrison’s latest novel. A feisty teen heroine inhabits Kim Harrison’s latest novel.
By Liz Rosenberg
Globe Correspondent / June 28, 2009
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It’s impossible to talk about new trends in young-adult fiction without considering the wildly popular supernatural fiction - much of it terrible knock-offs of the “Twilight’’ series by Stephenie Meyer. One surprising fact remains: Meyer can write beautiful prose, and she creates characters that young people care passionately about.

But why vampires? Why so many books for teenagers about the dead and the undead - about ghosts, ghouls, fairies and werewolves?

Like all speculative fiction, that of the supernatural allows teenagers to grapple with ideas. In this it’s kin to science fiction, though that genre tends to be social and political - “Stranger in a Strange Land’’ by Robert Heinlein or “A Clockwork Orange’’ by Anthony Burgess - while the supernatural inclines toward the psychological and personal. Not always, of course. The original “Dracula,’’ published in 1897 by Bram Stoker, comprised a socio-political commentary on the desiccated, blood-sucking upper class. Mary Shelley’s 1816 “Frankenstein’’ is a work of philosophy and science far closer to Heinlein’s work than to Meyer’s series, though both came to the authors in dream form.

But in the 1960s, a TV show called “Dark Shadows’’ introduced a new kind of soap-opera vampire: sexy, darkly comic, and doomed. The notion of eternal love and desire entered in, while writers like Anne Rice and “Cirque Du Freak’s’’ Darren Shan updated and refined vampire literature. Of course, vampires are great metaphorical teenagers anyway. They stay up all night and sleep all day. They hunger for what they can’t have, and are never satisfied. They are the original emo-goths, dressing in black, going without sleep, exuding a brooding, outsider sexiness. Vampire literature allows teenagers to think about sex and violence without censorship. It appeals to young men, because vampires are dangerous, super-fast and super-strong. It appeals to the romantic in young women, though the passivity of many female characters in vampire literature is a bit troubling. But the newest supernatural teen books aim to end all that.

Consider Madison Avery, murdered on prom night - sort of. She’s the feisty teenage heroine of “Once Dead, Twice Shy,’’ (HarperCollins, $16.99, 240 pp.) by Kim Harrison, author of the best-selling “Hollows’’ series. Madison evades her dark reaper by stealing his amulet, and spends much of the novel bouncing between spheres, getting herself, her handsome prom date, and guardian angel into misadventures. “Once Dead, Twice Shy’’ has more plot holes than a slice of Swiss cheese, yet it’s compelling reading. Harrison knows how to keep her story moving - with time-keepers and arch-angels, the fated and the doomed.

Like most paranormal young-adult literature, it ricochets between teenage realism and wild fantasy. Being mostly dead, Madison doesn’t sleep much, doesn’t eat much, but her perspicacious eye and sassy sense of humor teeter between laughter and grief. Here she looks with an outsider’s eye at her own father’s kitchen: “the white-and-yellow-tiled splashboard and the cream-colored walls looked tired . . . There was a small lazy Susan with napkins, salt and pepper, and a dusty ashtray sitting right where it would be in my mom’s kitchen - whispers of her still in my dad’s life though she’d been gone for years.’’

Black wings cluster around the doomed, and dark reapers chase Madison all over town, but she prevails.

At the heart of “Once Dead, Twice Shy’’ is an argument about free will versus fate, yet it’s the idea of the idea that takes center stage.

Much new supernatural literature toys with big ideas without fully engaging them. Marilyn Kaye’s new paperback Gifted’’ series (Kingfisher, $7.99) proves the point. Her heroes and heroines all possess special gifts - one reads minds, another sees the future, and a popular boy, injured in a car accident, now hears the dead speaking. Our heroine Amanda is a mean Queen Bee body-snatcher: Her gift and curse is literally to enter anyone she pities.

Like Harrison, Kaye knows how to tell a story and is the author of the updated fairy tale “Penelope,’’ made into a popular movie. One can practically feel a “Gifted’’ TV series zooming around the corner. We could do worse. If the characters in the “Gifted’’ books are familiar types, they are nonetheless enlivened by Kaye’s quick-paced plotting, her crisp prose, and blend of piquancy and humor: “There were 342 students at Meadowbrook Middle School,’’ begins “Out of Sight Out of Mind,’’ the first “Gifted’’ book, “and three lunch periods each day. . . . The noise and commotion, however, suggested that half the population of mainland China was eating lunch together.’’

Brushing lightly against the theme of the paranormal, “Nothing But Ghosts,’’ (HarperCollins, 288 pp., $17.99) by Beth Kephart uses ghosts more as metaphors than central plot devices. Katie’s much-adored mother has died, and Katie inhabits a house full of loss. No wonder she’s out as early and late as possible: “My bike is the ten-speed, thin-wheeled kind, a perfect silver streak. If you were looking down on me and my bike from a cloud above, you’d think we were a zipper.’’ She happens onto a local mystery and ghost story, and in unraveling it comes to terms with some of her own grief. Kephart’s language is diamond-sharp and bright. The city of Barcelona, with its underground ghosts and tunnels, plays a part - so does art and French history, love and family. “How do you go from being a star to being a black hole?’’ the heroine asks, a question pertinent to the neighborhood heiress, her deceased mother, and life itself. If there’s a taste of the paranormal here, there’s also the sustenance and comfort that many teenagers are seeking in books.

Liz Rosenberg teaches at Binghamton University. Her first adult novel, “Home Repair,’’ has just been published.

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