In this year of all years, escapism has been sorely needed. Broadly speaking, teen readers have a choice between utopia and dystopia. Fleeing to a more innocent, less conflicted, happier world is the more obvious stratagem, but it can be just as therapeutic to be thrust into a situation that is even more perilous, arbitrary and bitterly farcical than the one we’re living through.
K.L. Kettle has gone down the dystopian route with The Boy I Am (Little Tiger, £7.99), flinging the reader instantly into an environment of confusing strangeness and harsh coercion. Calling into question traditional gender roles, Kettle upends the power dynamic between male and female by means of a simple switch. What if women were the oppressors and men and boys their victims? Would female supremacists be somehow kinder and more empathetic than the male variety?
Jude Grant lives underground in the House of Boys. Along with other teenage inhabitants, he’s forced to compete in humiliating swimwear contests and trials of strength and attractiveness. Periodically the boys are put up for auction before crowds of masked women; at other times they are put to work for merits, a complex reward system that disadvantages the male sex. When required to service the women in various ways (it can be as simple as a foot-rub), the boys must be blindfolded; to glimpse an unmasked woman is to court severe punishment. Kept in ignorance of the outside, above-ground world, the boys are controlled by grown men complicit with tyranny, but rumours of a fight for freedom still swirl.
Unfortunately, this is such a convoluted set-up that Kettle has to spend more time on world-building, explication and mythology than on actual plot. The confused action frequently struggles to emerge from lengthy expositions addressed by Jude to his friend Viktor, who is missing and presumed dead. The Boy I Am feels too laboured to count as true escapism.
Chloe Gong is a step ahead, given that her alternative world is built on recognisable elements of our own. Her debut, These Violent Delights (Hodder, £14.99), transposes the characters and plot of Romeo and Juliet to glamorous, gritty Shanghai in the 1920s. Juliette Cai is the heiress to a criminal empire, the Scarlet Gang, jostling for dominance with the Montagovs. Juliette once had a modest fling with handsome Roma Montagov, heir to rival gang the White Flowers, but they are now sworn enemies. However, reluctantly, they have to co-operate in the face of a mysterious disease whose symptoms are even grimmer than Covid.
A rip-roaring, magic-tinged epic of cabarets and speakeasies, dens and dives, it feels only tenuously linked to any sort of lived experience (Gong is still a college student). Everyone who has seen Romeo and Juliet knows that the “two hours’ traffic of our stage”, as it says in the Prologue, proceeds briskly, whereas These Violent Delights culminates after 400 overwritten pages with the ominous words “to be continued”. A more critical problem is that Juliette, no doubt intended to be an empowering heroine for teenagers, simply comes across as spoilt and arrogant. However, Gong’s vivid Shanghai is a place to get enjoyably lost in.
If anyone needs to escape from harsh surroundings, it’s Amal Shahid, locked in a juvenile detention centre for a crime he didn’t commit. Punching the Air (HarperCollins, £7.99) is co-written by one of the men falsely accused in the infamous Central Park Jogger case of 1989, which adds a powerful dose of reality to the plot. Yusef Salaam provides the authenticity, with YA author Ibi Zoboi lending a hand in the construction. Salaam and his friends, now known as the Exonerated Five, served years in detention as convicted rapists until the real perpetrator was found. The fictional crime here is less clear-cut, with a more ambiguous moral outcome. A young white youth has been battered almost to oblivion in a turf war. Sixteen-year-old Amal’s defence lies partly in not having thrown the first punch; the white boy also hurled a racist slur.
The main thrust of the narrative lies not in the legal details but the experiences of a black youth in the criminal justice system, and the unequal judicial outcomes for black and white defendants in the US. A few buds of hope spring up in the arid garden of “juvie”: Amal encounters a mix of outright racism, disinterest and true concern, but it’s not until he finds the means of artistic expression via poetry and paint that his despair begins to lift. The urgent verse format, together with swirling, abstract illustrations by Omar T. Pasha, pulls the reader along compulsively. Amal’s deep dive into his own resources, no doubt mirroring Salaam’s own experiences, is ultimately uplifting — whatever the situation in which we find ourselves.
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