TRUE BELIEVER

When Wolff writes a book, it’s an event. When she revisits LaVaughn, as she does in True Believer, it is a prodigious gift. This book stands alone, but includes a cameo appearance by the hapless Jolly (Make Lemonade, 1993). In the course of LaVaughn's seismic 15th year, she grapples with all the big questions of teen life: the drifting away of lifelong friends, setting life goals, falling in love with the wrong man, making sense of sexuality and abstinence, and questioning the existence of God. Or, as LaVaughn puts it, "My life is so swollen with things . . ." With wisdom, snap, and a touch of profound sadness, LaVaughn confronts her best friends' slipping away to "be all the property of Jesus," the deeply wounding discovery that the boy she loves is gay, and the acknowledgment of her own character flaws. She is accused of being "uppity" for her academic achievement, her refusal to join the "Cross your Legs for Jesus Club" and her disdain of a brilliant, shabby lab partner. With every aspect of her life in tatters, LaVaughn confides in her scrappy mother (also an uppity woman) and begins to "rise to the occasion which is life," bringing together the rich cast of characters who inhabit her world at a sweet-16 party. The urban setting, in which six children in LaVaughn's fourth-grade class have died violently, is effectively but unsensationally sketched. In economical blank verse of graceful simplicity, Wolff unerringly reveals the inner depths of her heroine. While LaVaughn feels isolated in her confusion about life, she is surrounded by adults (including demanding, mentoring teachers) who will not allow her to fail. This is a coming-of-age story with both bite and heart, which poses more questions than it answers but never runs out of hope. (Fiction. 12-16)

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-689-82827-6

Page Count: 264

Publisher: Atheneum

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2001

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GETTING NEAR TO BABY

Couloumbis’s debut carries a family through early stages of grief with grace, sensitivity, and a healthy dose of laughter. In the wake of Baby’s sudden death, the three Deans remaining put up no resistance when Aunt Patty swoops in to take away 12-year-old Willa Jo and suddenly, stubbornly mute JoAnn, called “Little Sister,” in the misguided belief that their mother needs time alone. Well-meaning but far too accustomed to getting her way, Aunt Patty buys the children unwanted new clothes, enrolls them in a Bible day camp for one disastrous day, and even tries to line up friends for them. While politely tolerating her hovering, the two inseparable sisters find their own path, hooking up with a fearless, wonderfully plainspoken teenaged neighbor and her dirt-loving brothers, then, acting on an obscure but ultimately healing impulse, climbing out onto the roof to get a bit closer to Heaven, and Baby. Willa Jo tells the tale in a nonlinear, back-and-forth fashion that not only prepares readers emotionally for her heartrending account of Baby’s death, but also artfully illuminates each character’s depths and foibles; the loving relationship between Patty and her wiser husband Hob is just as complex and clearly drawn as that of Willa Jo and Little Sister. Lightening the tone by poking gentle fun at Patty and some of her small-town neighbors, the author creates a cast founded on likable, real-seeming people who grow and change in response to tragedy. (Fiction. 11-13)

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 1999

ISBN: 0-399-23389-X

Page Count: 211

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 1999

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THE YEAR THEY BURNED THE BOOKS

Garden (Good Moon Rising, 1996, etc.) returns to territory she’s staked out in previous novels for this drawn-out tale of gay teenagers caught in a small town conservative backlash. As Jamie watches her long-time friend Terry move into a relationship that is effectively pulling him out of the closet, she develops a powerful yen for straight-but-accepting newcomer Tessa. Meanwhile, backed by a shadowy national organization, community activist Lisa Buel gets herself elected to the school board and immediately launches a campaign against the new sex-ed curriculum, the availability of condoms at the high school, and the liberal stance of the school’s paper, of which Jamie is editor-in-chief. The cast is composed of types, modeling behavior and expressing a range of attitudes; with frequent stops for newspaper editorials, prolonged conversations, and indignant speeches, the plot moves past various confrontations, a book-burning, hate mail, and a near- riot at school to an eventual uneasy peace. By the end, the gay teens have earned a measure of acceptance and Buel is handily defeated in a follow-up election, but the school newspaper is shut down for the year, and all health classes are turned—temporarily—into study halls. Garden makes a game if unsuccessful effort to create an evenhanded liberal/conservative dialogue, but the characters’ mercurial love lives and their searches for identity will provide the book’s chief draws. (Fiction. 13-15)

Pub Date: Sept. 22, 1999

ISBN: 0-374-38667-6

Page Count: 246

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1999

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