of the Center for Children's Books:
Each month we offer a focus on a particular author or artist. Sometimes we use this space to discuss a rising new talent or an established star, but we also like to celebrate those who now live on only in the rich legacy of their books. See the archive for focus pieces from previous months.
Rising Star—Terry Trueman
In an interview published in the 2002 Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market, Terry Trueman says that his writing goal is to “find some way to tell the truth.” He elaborates with a discussion of the personal connections to his first novel, Stuck in Neutral: he based the protagonist, whose cerebral palsy prevents him from controlling any of his muscles, on his own son. For Trueman, writing was therapy and perspective (“Instead of saving my son,” he says, “I had to settle for saving myself”), allowing him to draw on his experience of parental helplessness to enhance the novel's raw authenticity.
Trueman is surely not the first author to write for himself as well as his audience. It is not sympathy for Trueman himself, however, which has garnered his books various award nominations; the gritty realism of his characters makes these novels standouts in the field. His protagonists recalls the mix of sarcasm, insecurity, and intelligence that made Holden Caulfield such a memorable character. All his characters are essentially wounded, giving them a vulnerability that balances their sometimes belligerent adherence to “guyness.” It is this balance of damage, machismo, and fragile hope that makes Shawn, Zach, Paul, and Jordan notable characters.
Shawn and Zach, the narrators, respectively, of Stuck in Neutral and Inside Out, are both severely hindered by their own traitorous bodies. Though Shawn has perfect recall and considerable intelligence, his cerebral palsy, which renders him unable to communicate with others, and frequent seizures are so severe that he is considered to be essentially brain. Zach, diagnosed schizophrenic, is dependent on his medication to keep the voices in his head from dictating his actions. Without the psychotropic assistance, Zach would be as powerless as Shawn to prevent potential harm to himself. However, these are not idealized message-bearers: both characters have roots in normalcy. Shawn obsesses about breasts and cracks himself up with small jokes and ironies. Zach wolfs down too much junk food and filters life through scenes from favored movies. These are real kids, not case studies.
Even kids without clinical diagnoses are isolates one way or another. In Cruise Control, a companion novel to Stuck in Neutral, Paul, Shawn's brother, is tortured by uncertainties and family problems. Paul has pushed his ablebodiedness to its limits, trying to be the perfect student and a star athlete, while inside he is seething with rage. Jordan, protagonist of No Right Turn, is still haunted by his father's suicide three years earlier, however, continues to haunt him, leaving him a self-proclaimed “zombie.” Once again, though Trueman does not shy away from the agony of his troubled characters' lives, Paul and Jordan both retain an unexpected normalcy: both love fast cars and hot chicks, and neither wants to admit to ever being wrong. It is to Trueman's credit that readers looking for rhapsodies about Corvettes or a fast-paced basketball book will be as content with these two novels as those drawn by the psychological drama.
The teen years may be a time of tremendous change, but it's often a time when people become acutely aware of what's not changing, leaving many kids feeling stuck in bad situations. Trueman's characters are trapped, both literally and figuratively, in many ways. Yet they're not hopeless figures by any means: their task is finding forward progress in the places they can as they accept what they cannot change.
--April Spisak, Reviewer