Three utterly fantastic YA titles: Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, Keeper by Mal Peet and The Knife That Killed Me by Anthony McGowan.
Speak (1999) is the story of Melinda Sordino, a freshman at Merryweather High School. The transition to high school is always traumatic: a shift from the (relatively) care free days of youth and innocence to a vastly more complicated world. In high school, the future matters - you're told about college and sex and adulthood - life isn't about potential any more - your acts now have meaning. (Ah, the "permanent record", is there anything more terrifying?) Moreover, high schools have hierarchies: not just the cliques and clubs, but also the ages. There are Varsity and Junior Varsity, Seniors and Juniors; as a freshman, you're the lowest rung on the social ladder, told to look up at, admire and emulate, those above you.
For Melinda, this transition is especially brutal. At the last of the big summer parties, she's raped by "IT" - her way of referring to the senior boy who takes advantage of her. In a state of shock, she calls the police and has the party broken up. No one knows of the sexual attack, but everyone knows that she's the girl that ruined the party. Melinda's not the lowest rung on the ladder: she's buried deep underground.
Speak is a beautiful, horrible novel: layered with manifestations of Melinda's enforced silence. She cannot find someone to talk to. When she does, she can't make them listen. She begins to believe that she has no voice and then, ultimately, it disappears - leaving her completely silent. The truly terrifying part, of course, is how little that seems to matter: although there's a bit of token concern by the "system" (parents, school), Melinda's unnatural silence is simply brushed aside, dealt with as routine adolescent angst. It is only through isolated incidents - connections with individuals - a teacher, a friend, a lab partner - that Melinda regains the power to communicate.
Ms. Anderson wraps up Speak in a way that's empowering without being a fairy tale. The ultimate lesson, I suppose, is something along the lines of people are good, even if individuals can be evil and, collectively, we can be dingbats. Communication is critical - it isn't that people don't want to hear, it is that sometimes they can't. But, just as critical: we need to make sure that people have the room, and the time, and the opportunity and the power to speak. A simply brilliant book in both story and message.
Mal Peet's Keeper (2003) was a recommendation from a friend, who referred to it as the book that made him into a writer. He's a very good writer, so that's one hell of an endorsement. And, frankly, he was right: Keeper is a terrific book, combining the known mechanics of sport with a type of ecological mysticism. It is a ghost story, a coming of age tale and a fantasy that's uniquely its own.
El Gato is the best football player in the world: a goalkeeper that's completely without peer. He's just won the World Cup, and, throughout Keeper, that ugly/beautiful trophy is always within our field of view. Keeper is structured as an interview - the reclusive El Gato is baring his soul to journalist Paul Faustino. Faustino, originally just keen on a few pretty pictures and some quotes, realises that he's bitten off more than he can chew... the story goes all night, and into the morning.
The keeper talks about his childhood as a gangly child living in a forester's camp. He and the other children would play football while the men trudged off into the jungle for the dangerous (underpaid, slightly terrifying) job of a cutting down trees. El Gato is not particularly talented as a child - and after humiliation after humiliation, he swears off football. To kill time, he takes longer and longer walks in the forest, and there, he meets a ghost - a ghost that teaches him to be a keeper.
The premise is unquestionably ridiculous, and Peet wisely sets up Faustino as the voice, or ears, of reason. Even as El Gato walks through his training regime avec phantasm, Faustino wonders if his 'exclusive' will be that the world's greatest goalkeeper is insane. But El Gato speaks calmly and clearly, and, as the story goes on, both Faustino and the reader are gradually convinced of the truth.
El Gato comes of age in the logging camp - he follows his father to work (what else can he do?), and his talent is eventually revealed in the weekly football matches with the adults. A kind-hearted foreman and an opportunistic club owner become involved, and, against all odds, El Gato is given the opportunity to leave the forest and see the world. (Given that he begins the book holding the World Cup, this is hardly a spoiler.)
Mr. Peet imbues Keeper - and, by extension, football - with a spirituality that would be easy to mock if it weren't done so damn well. Sports are often used as a metaphor, for heroism, war, community, sacrifice, but are very rarely treated with dignity in and of themselves. In Keeper, Mr. Peet presents the reader with a football story that isn't just about scoring that really important goal, but a story that connects the intangible aspects of the game with the bigger picture. Being a keeper is about knowing your territory and owning it, it is about falling gracefully, it is about reading other players, it is about seeing the entirety of the field. Those same traits that make El Gato a great kicker-of-footballs are the same traits that make him, ultimately, a great man. (Happily, Mr. Peet doesn't extend this to say that all athletes = great people - which is where most sports narratives, be it journalism or fiction, seem to fall down. It is learning and growing and understanding the significance of his actions that makes El Gato great; and those are traits that could come from excellence in any field.)
On the other end of the spectrum, Anthony McGowan's The Knife That Killed Me (2008) isn't about great men - it is about ordinary ones. If Keeper is the search for the transcendental, Knife is about existence. This difference established from the start: Keeper begins with El Gato cradling the World Cup, Knife begins with teenager Paul Vardeman, describing the blade that ends his life.
Paul is a loner - not even a "Plain Jane", as was the group that Melinda belonged to prior to the events of Speak. He's made an art out of invisibility, knowing exactly what to do or say to go completely unnoticed by the brutal powers that be at his school. In a sense, this is in stark contrast to his father's life. His dad, a truck driver, attended the same school, and likes to boast of the glory days of his youth. Paul's given the impression that these are the best days of his life - and, frankly, they suck.
Knife, however, doesn't let Paul stay invisible. Two tiny incidents bring him to the attention of two different factions at his school. He stands up to a bully (in, that, in a fit of rage, he rather ineptly brandishes some scissors at one of the bully's cronies), and he helps one of the 'Freaks' (in, that, in a fit of ill humor, he rather ineptly feigns a seizure to distract an awful teacher). The first incident means that Roth, the school's cruel, bullying overlord, sees Paul in a new light. The second leads Paul to make new friends - especially in Shane, the 'leader' of the Freaks.
Roth and Shane serve as the good and evil Goofys (Goofies?) of Paul's life. Roth gives him a knife. Shane admonishes him for taking it. Roth sets Paul errands. Shane lets him hang out. Paul isn't torn between them as much as he is buffeted: whichever is talking to him at the time, he agrees with - just delighted to be accepted by anyone. The years out in the cold have taken their toll, and Paul is an extremely malleable young man. As Roth and Shane begin to joust with one another more openly, Paul is caught in the middle, and eventually forced to make a choice.
...or is he? Knife's core theme is that terrible things happen because people get caught up in the tide of events. Call it destiny, call it overbearing social pressure, call it a system that feeds on failure... whatever it is, it leads to people like Paul losing any sense of agency. In a way, this unpleasant lesson rings true: adolescence is a time of frustration and powerlessness; in which the only 'choice' one has is which path to follow. On the other hand, as a story, it means that Knife is predicated on following a character without agency - a young man that never seems to make decisions (and, when he does, they're wholly impulsive).Thematically, this is consistent. Paul admires, and is drawn to, Shane and Roth because they're confident. They know what they're doing; they have moral (or immoral) compasses.
Knife is difficult and thought-provoking because we're not reading a book about a hero, or even a protagonist (in the definitional sense). We're reading the book about someone who's merely caught in the tide of the action, a young boy who's unimportant (even in his own eyes). It's the diary of a pawn. In Speak, we have an ordinary girl who, after extraordinary suffering, takes action and, as a result, achieves incredible things. In Knife, however, we have an ordinary boy who does not. I'm not sure which book makes a more powerful parable, but I'm certainly glad they both exist.