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Book Report: Young adult novels good for a change

In 2003, I had the privilege to speak at a very fine writers' conference in Eau Claire.

Writers from all over spoke, or listened, to other writers in some of the charming old mansions along Barstow Street. I was most impressed with a guy named David Benjamin, who grew up in Tomah, but had transplanted himself to New York City to be where the action was.

He read from his new book, which the critics were raving about. I ended up raving too. "The Life and Times of the Last Kid Picked" was just my cup of tea (or flagon of Leinenkugel's to be more precise.)

In it, Benjamin described his childhood growing up in Tomah, where he was the last kid picked (too small). I was the last kid picked in Whitehall (too fat), so that may have something to do with my personal opinion.

Anyway, it was a great reading and I promised to get a copy of the book, a tribute to kids growing up on their own back in the 1950s, as they made forays into the swamps, city dumps, swimming holes, schoolyards and Saturday matinees, without benefit of parental supervision.

And then the book just sort of disappeared.

Last month, I get a call from New York City. Guess who? It was David Benjamin, who explained to me what happened to his book after we met these many years ago.

What happened was this: Bertelsman, the giant German publishing house, purchased Benjamin's publisher Random House, then proceeded to fire the extant Random House staff, including his editor. And his book, after getting great reviews and selling 1,500 copies died on the vine.

Recently Benjamin read that Random House is now interested in producing E-books, so he wrote to the current president of Random House and said, "Here's your chance to make it up to me, an orphan author, by re-issuing my book."

And wonder of wonders, it did.

"The Life and Times of the Last Kid Picked," by David Benjamin (Random House, available through Amazon Barnes and Noble Books-a-million, BooksOnBoard, the Google eBookstore, or was recently reissued as an E-book and Benjamin is back in business.

Little wonder, because if you sign on you'll be treated to Benjamin's rare prose style. Here he is describing the smell of stale beer on Tomah's Superior Ave.:

"It was the spoor of adulthood...It was the sinner's incense, the aroma of desire. I slowed down whenever I passed a bar, just to sniff the innuendo."

He's also a storyteller of surpassing grace, just as good as Jean Sheperd if not better. Read about his wading through a fetid pool of tadpoles, taking thousands of them home to his mom's second floor apartment just above the S & Q Hardware (whatever happened to second floor apartments above hardware stores?) and smell them stink up the back porch when they all die.

This is a book that truly deserves to be revived.

Thank you O, Brave New World.


Moving from the national to the regional front, we turn once again to Lerner Publishing of Minneapolis. What started when Harry Lerner made a profit selling Volkswagen repair handbooks to his fellow GIs in post-war Germany has become a behemoth in the world of children and young adult publishing.

One of Lerner's newer imprints in Carolrhoda Lab, which turns out scores of young adult fiction that deals with problems of growing up. Some of its newer offerings are herewith described.

There's "In Trouble" ($17.95), by prize-winning Vermont author Ellen Levine, a onetime civil rights lawyer who interviewed women who came of age in the 1950s and 1960s, who faced unwanted pregnancies before Roe v. Wade.

Levine creates high school pals Jamie and Elaine. When Elaine gets pregnant, the trouble begins.

"Brooklyn Burning" ($17.95), by Steve Brezenoff, who lives in Minnesota but grew up in Brooklyn. His new novel, aimed at kids from seventh to twelfth grade concerns Kid and Scout, two teenagers adrift in the streets of Greenpoint, the northernmost suburb of Brooklyn. Brezenoff never identifies the sex of either kid, so that's the job of the reader.

"Ultraviolet," by B.J. Anderson ($17.95), is a murder mystery for high schoolers. Young Alison turns up in a mental institution, where she discovers that she has confessed to murdering a schoolmate. But the victim hasn't been found and Alison fears that she's as crazy as her mother always said she was.

That's until a scientist visiting the institution takes an interest in Alison, and discovers she has weird sensory abilities. Think "X-Files."

Dave would like to hear from you. Phone him at 715-426-9554.