Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Young Adults

In 1982 Daniel Pinkwater wrote Young Adults as a send-up of the Young Adult novels of the time. I discovered it a few years later and wasn't as familiar with the tropes he was poking fun at, though I did find it, on the whole, a humorous gloss on the trials and tribulations of teen life.

This summer my summer reading goals include going back and looking at a number of books that were key to either giving me back the joy of reading or the inspiration to become a writer; Young Adults gave me a good dose of joy and inspiration and I recently dug out my yellowing copy and read it for the first time in decades (honestly). The dang thing not only holds up, but it does a pretty fair job skewering the Young Adult genre today in the process.

Narrated by Charles the Cat (a vacuum cleaner - just go with it for a moment) "Young Adult Novel," the lead-off story, introduces a band of misfits who have dedicated themselves to being the living embodiment of the Dadaist art movement, the absurdist progenitor to Surrealism. The Wild Dada Ducks, as they call themselves, dedicate their non-school energies to infusing their boring school with acts of Dadaist pointlessness. Among their personal works is the creation of a long running story of Kevin Shapiro, Boy Orphan, who experiences all the trauma of a typical "trouble novel" typical of early YA novels.

One day the Wild Dada Ducks are flummoxed to learn that there's a real person at Himmler High School named Kevin Shapiro, a kid seemingly cast in the most stereotypical of nerd molds, who they take on as his protector and champion. But quickly thing take a wrong and unintentional turn when their Dadaist acts turn the real Kevin Shapiro into the king of the school, leaving the Wild Dada Ducks vulnerable and hated, the ultimate outsiders.  

What makes this near-perfect is that it both contains all the things we expect in a humorous YA novel while poking fun at them at the same time. Goofy names abound, the nerd gets revenge and popularity and doesn't want either, even the meta-fiction surrounding the stories of orphan Kevin Shapiro are merely exaggerated versions of the type of YA that sprung up in the gritty, realistic teen fiction of the late 1960s. Perhaps Pinkwater's greatest achievement is that he does all this in less than 60 pages. It's not quite a novella and yet slightly more than a short story but it gets the job done.

Granted, Young Adults is a collection of Dada Ducks stories fleshed out with some early computer graphics but I have no doubt that if he'd wanted to Pinkwater could have fleshed "Young Adult Novel" out; shown us the home life of the Wild Dada Ducks (we see no family members her); introduced us to some girls (the boys wish they had girls members, which makes this more realistic than much YA fiction that tries to balance out the sexes); built up the tension between the school, the Wild Dada Ducks, and Kevin Shapiro. As it is, the story whiplashes through its paces and is exactly as long as it should be. In keeping with my general feelings about many books these days being too long, "Young Adult Novel" is a perfect example of how funny should be done. Given the choice of 60 pages of absurdity versus 300-plus pages of trying-to-hard sitcom-styled "realistic" teen humor, well, I'd rather have six of the former than one of the latter.

The follow-up stories – "Dead End Dada" and "The Dada Boys in Collitch"– follow our boys further adventures but they weaken the sharp perfection of "Young Adult Novel." Go ahead, read them yourself. It should be noted that these stories stand out among Pinkwater's other stories in that they do not have sci-fi elements or talking animals in them. They are as "straight" as Pinkwater gets!

Young Adults no longer exists in print as a stand-alone title, it's currently bundled within the 5 Novels collection, along with other early Pinkwater. Looking down the road at summer reading, this could be a perfect palate cleanser between larger outings or just hit the spot on a lazy afternoon under a tree. You could dip in an out of Pinkwater, casually making up your own stories about Kevin Shapiro, Boy Orphan until, suddenly, you find yourself craving Grape-Nits cereal.

Trust me, just go with it.

5 Novels: Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars; Slaves of Spiegel; The Last Guru; Young Adult Novel; The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death
by Daniel Pinkwater
FSG 1997


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1 comment:

Ms. Yingling said...

Oddly, my library doesn't have a copy of this, although at one point we had The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death. Good to reexamine your influences!