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Reviewing Classic Teen Literature: The Westing Game, A Wrinkle in Time, and Something Wicked This Way Comes

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By Edited Nov 13, 2013 0 0
Westing Game - Wrinkle in Time

Traditionally, young adult lit involves themes like forging your own identity and building self-acceptance. Recently, however, we've seen a noticeable increase in themes of forsaking your family to become undead, changing your personality to the point of unrecognizability, and feasting on human blood to nourish a fetus that your husband will eventually have to chomp out of your womb. (No, we aren't making this up.) For those of us who miss the good ol' days when reading teen lit made you feel better about life (as opposed to in need of a long shower), it might be a good investment to pick up some of the following classic reads.

Despite the countless ways in which Ray Bradbury can put us ill at ease, his 1962 coming-of-age novel Something Wicked This Way Comes actually has a wholesome message at its core. Beneath all the carnies and funhouses, that is. The story follows two thirteen-year-olds named Will and Jim, whose visit to the traveling circus gets them involved with a wicked witch, a magic carousel, and a guy who has tattooed both their faces on his hands. (Clearly, this predates the cameraphone.)

For whatever reason, Jim is drawn to all things dangerous, creepy, or both, and desperately wants to ride the carousel that can instantly turn him into an adult à la Tom Hanks in Big. Will, on the other hand, enjoys being thirteen and has absolutely no desire to pursue adulthood through unnatural means. (Clearly, this predates VH1.) With the help of Will's father, the two learn how to kill evil with a smile – literally – and laugh in the face of insecurity, even when that face is your own. Only Ray Bradbury can pull off something like that while still managing to scare the crap out of you.

Published in the same year, Madeline L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time is a similarly offbeat novel that reads like something out of a David Bowie acid flashback. Our teen heroine is Meg Murray, a self-proclaimed, self-loathing freak whose face is horribly disfigured by – get this – braces. (Okay, so standards were different in 1962.) Also noteworthy is the fact that she travels to a planet called Camazotz with the help of four exploded stars and a time/space-folding procedure called a tesserract. Yeah, we've all been there.

Through her travels, Meg learns to let go of everyone's helping hands (literally – she was practically glued to the things), see her "faults" as things that could "come in very handy," and ultimately fly solo to solve her own problems. The story climaxes with Meg defeating a giant, pulsating brain through the power of love. If that ain't symbolism… well, we're actually kind of hoping the whole thing is symbolism.

Sixteen years later, Ellen Raskin published The Westing Game, challenging the then-prevalent idea that young adults couldn't follow stories with ridiculously complicated plots. (Clearly, publishers were unfamiliar with Tolkien.) Its heroine is Tabitha-Ruth Alice "Turtle" Wexler, a thirteen-year-old who is trapped in her pretty sister's shadow but nevertheless gets major kudos for being nicknamed after a lumpy reptile. Turtle and her family are involved in an elaborate inheritance puzzle that sets an entire apartment complex's worth of people against one another for $200 million in loot.

Amidst the endless characters, unexpected bombings, anonymous tips, and false leads, Turtle demonstrates business savvy, goodheartedness, and independent thinking; she invests her "incentive" funds to profit independently of the riddle, attempts to fall on the sword for her mad bomber of a sister, and solves the puzzle even though the game ends and the prize is withdrawn. By befriending and impressing the benefactor, Turtle then goes on to prove that you don't have to be a beautiful young thang to get your mitts on an old man's multi-million dollar inheritance.

Growing up is hard enough as it is without television and magazines telling kids to hurry up and buy into adult things. Admittedly, literature is as bound to market trends as anything else, but until books start selling ad space between chapters, we'd like to think of them as a refuge for the mind. And if novels about black-magic carnivals, interplanetary time warps, and pyrotechnic treasure hunts can somehow present well-balanced young adult characters, any story that doesn't is definitely not trying hard enough.



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