While the general perception of young adult literature is that it's all dark and depressing, many worthy writers in the genre produce work of wit and hilarity. Joan Bauer is Exhibit A in this category; her characters' narration is smart, funny, and original. A not-sv elte heroine laments, "My life was passing in front of my eyes, and it was pudgy." A jaded and desperate teen queries, "If you can't find an answer at the mall or the library, what does that say about the world?" They're aware of the epistemological aspect of the struggle for maturation, and they're also aware that the search for meaning doesn't mean things aren't funny.
Her first book, Squashed, detailed the tribulations of sixteen-year-old Ellie Morgan, a passionate pumpkin grower preppin g her beloved quarter-ton squash for victory in the town Weigh-In while hoping that the new boy in school likes her better than the girl he left behind. Thwonk is the story of A.J. McCreary, photographer extraordinaire and loser in love supreme, whose life is improved-she thinks-when a cupid takes a hand in her yearned-for romance. Rules of the Road tells of Jenna Boller, her devotion to good shoe salesmanship, and her trip across country with the president of Gladstone Shoes in an eff ort to fight a company takeover bid.
One of the refreshing things about Bauer's protagonists is that they care desperately about what they do. Ellie is consecrated to her pumpkin; A.J. would rather photograph well than be part of the cutest couple at the King of Hearts Dance; Jenna wields her shoehorn and knowhow like weapons in a hostile world of shoe ignorance. (And Bauer's one non-YA novel focuses on a preteen poolshark and his math-obsessed friend.) She lets her girls share their passion in detail that makes it understandable and perhaps even contagious. When Jenna says, "You can put four pairs of sandals in front of me and I can tell you which one to wear on the beach, which one to wear for a walk, which one to buy for the long haul, and whic h one to avoid altogether. And when it comes to selling sneakers you better have done your homework or you'll get blown out of the water. You sell road traction and heel alignment, and don't let anyone tell you that a cross-trainer is going to give you the strength of a long-distance runner. It's a bold new shoe world out there and not everyone knows how to compete," we believe her, we accept her judgment of her niche's importance, and we see that commitment and understanding has made what could be a geeky after-school allowance-enhancer into something beautiful, a genuine vocation.
Bauer has a gift for particularity and she matches it with the courage of her excesses. Far-out is the point here; so is discovering that far-out is a fascinating pla ce to be and not weird at all to those interested in the territory. That these characters battle against evil forces-nasty cheating adults, the tyranny of popularity, the lure of profits over quality-is merely an added pleasure to the books. They've already won just by pursuing their individual dreams.
--Deborah Stevenson, Assistant Editor
This page was last updated on March 1,1998.