Arcs of Evil and Justice
Segregation, shoplifting and the university of evil in young adult books
by Suzi Steffen
Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, nonfiction by Phillip Hoose. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2009. $19.95. The Blonde of the Joke, fiction by Bennett Madison. HarperTeen, 2009. $16.99. Evil Genius, Harcourt, 2005, $7.95; and Genius Squad, Harcourt, 2008, $17, fiction by Catherine Jinks.
The week after we finish Winter Reading means a rebound in reading joy — there’s no pressure, nothing we have to finish, plus we find the books hidden at the backs of bookshelves and address our stacks of library books with glee … and, in this case, tears.
The tears come from anger at Jim Crow laws and admiration for Claudette Colvin, a 15-year-old girl living in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955. Hm, what does every reader of this column probably know about Montgomery in 1955? That’s right: Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
But, not even counting a Montgomery trolley boycott from earlier in the century, Parks’ refusal to give up her
seat on the segregated bus wasn’t the African-American community’s first brush with resistance to segregation. We learn that early in Claudette Colvin, but Phillip Hoose shows the reasons Parks became the one remembered in histories about Montgomery: Colvin was depicted in the community as simply an emotional, angry teenager, unpredictable and not steady. The portrait that author Hoose (The Race to Save the Lord God Bird) paints, however, shows that young Claudette had a firm, clear grasp on the ideals of justice and that she conducted her resistance with calm refusals to accept the bus driver’s and policemen’s orders.
Though Hoose researched extensively, one of the book’s strengths lies in sections where Colvin speaks (Hoose labels them “Claudette”). I studied the Civil Rights Movement extensively for my senior history thesis lo these many years ago, and I’ve read many books about it since then, but Hoose reminds me with this excellent piece of young adult nonfiction that there’s always more to learn, always another normal person who decided to help history move toward justice. But Colvin didn’t just decide once; young lawyer Fred Gray asked her to take part in a federal lawsuit. That second time “toward justice” took courage and energy as well. Read the National Book Award-winning Claudette Colvin to find out how a 15-year-old’s activism and her testimony in the lawsuit, Browder v. Gayle, helped topple the entire system of Southern segregation. In the fictional world just as in real life, justice is rarely so clear-cut. That can make for good fiction, of course, as characters wrestle with moral choices. One of the most enjoyable parts of Evil Genius and Genius Squad, two books in a newish series from Australian writer Catherine Jinks (Pagan’s Crusade), lies in watching main character Cadel develop. He begins his young life in Evil Genius as an amoral little kid more interested in disrupting systems than in human consequences, and the reader finds his intelligence delightful, as Jinks intends.
But the systems he messes with — trains and subways, auto traffic in Sydney, the exam results of his 12th-grade classmates — cause chaos in people’s lives. And when 13-year-old Cadel starts classes at the Axis Institute (aka the University of Evil), the joke about an evil genius stops seeming funny, even to Cadel.
Bennett Madison (Lulu Dark Can See Through Walls) uses his main character in The Blonde of the Joke to address more intimate issues of justice, friendship and choice. Valentina Martinez, who’s definitely not a blonde at the beginning of the book, fades into the woodwork until she’s picked out by new girl Frankie as someone who “has potential.”
The potential consists mostly of shoplifting, but Madison’s writing glistens and deepens the seemingly teen-movie plot. I loved the Lulu Dark books though like Blonde, they’re about people completely different from me — these people love malls, for Pete’s sake. But Madison turns Val and Frankie’s friendship/hateship into a fast-moving meditation on the nature of grief and loyalty, loss and the suburbs versus the city, all tinged with an undercurrent of the bleak existential void. Madison nails teen anomie and the ’burbs (where “no one has parents”). Val’s choices might not be all good or all evil, but the absences that riddle her life give her decisions gravity. When Madison finishes the book with a Lorrie Moore-style chapter, any reader should know there’s more going on than a pinkish cover and blonde jokes.