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What are books teaching our kids?

From the book jacket of a young-adult novel my 12-year-old just read:

"Are you bored out of your mind? Sick of your friends and family? Wish you were somewhere (anywhere) else?"

The book is "How To Steal a Car," by National Book Award winner Pete Hautman, who, you figure, must be pretty good, right? Must have his finger on the very pulse of adolescence?

So here's how the flap of the book jacket continues: "Some girls might start drinking or doing drugs. Some girls might act out by sleeping with guys. Some girls might starve themselves or cut themselves.

"Not Kelleigh Monahan. She just steals a car every now and then."

Excuse me? Some girls might get drunk, get high, sleep around or slice or starve themselves? That is the sum total of their options (besides auto theft)? Is it just the teensiest bit possible that some girls might, oh, I don't know, take up knitting if they're looking for a hobby? Or Facebook? Fossil hunting? Baby-sitting?

I am sure this author thinks he's cutting-edge -- so to speak -- by showing us what teens are "really" like, without the sugarcoating of well-adjustment. But there is such a thing as being trite in the other direction, too. The triteness of teen despair. (Note: Holden Caulfield got there first.)

Now, I will grant you that it is not just middle-school novels that wallow in cheap gloom. Open up the New York Times Book Review any Sunday and you'll find grown-up books about unhappy professors whose wives are having affairs, unhappy professors whose husbands are having affairs, families crushed by alcohol, sex abuse, drugs or the death of a child (the favorite jumping off point for lazy authors because it's automatically gripping), and the equally gripping tragedy of being denied tenure.

God forbid you write a book with mildly contented characters; you might as well go straight to self-publishing.

But at least adults have some clue about how the real world works. Get to a certain age and you know that whatever misery Madame Bovary is dealing with, the rest of us will enjoy at least some parts of our everyday lives. Kids wondering about high school and reading books like "How To Steal a Car," meanwhile, come away thinking, "Oh. I guess teens are all a mess of conflicting feelings, and the only relief is self-destruction. Now I get it!"

My son was required to write a book report, so I decided to write one, too:

"In the book 'How To Steal a Car,' a high-school girl named Kelleigh has a friend who nearly gets raped, another friend who is monosyllabic, a lawyer dad who is having an affair and also defending a serial child rapist, and a mom who is dead to all emotions (and sometimes drinks).

"Kelleigh finds a man's keys at the mall parking lot and steals his car. Then she steals a Hummer and drives it into a pond and almost drowns. No one notices. Then she steals another guy's car, but he tries to stop her in the parking lot, and she drives so fast that she thinks she ran him over; it turns out she just crushed his briefcase. She shrugs it off. Then she steals a few more cars. I like this book because it is so highly realistic. It makes me understand that my life, like Kelleigh's, is meaningless and that there is nothing I can do about it, and neither can anyone else who is a teenager. Someday, if I'm not a junkie or in jail or dead, I will become a professor, and my spouse will have an affair, and I will drink. But that's life."

Next book I'm handing my kid? "My Side of the Mountain," about a boy who goes to live in the Catskills for a year, on his own, I guess instead of sleeping around. Or cutting himself. Or committing felonies.

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