The Trouble With Wednesdays by Laura Nathanson (Bantam: $2.95, 176 pp.)
Secrets Not Meant to Be Kept by Gloria D. Miklowitz (Delacorte: $13.95)
"Issue novels," books attempting to tackle pressing social problems, have been in vogue among writers for young adults ever since Judy Blume hit pay dirt with her popular novels in the mid-1970s. Although an interest in social issues often indicates that the writer is sensitive to adolescent concerns, there is also the risk that content will overshadow form, and that more attention will be paid to subject matter than to craft. Two recent Y.A. novels, "The Trouble With Wednesdays," and "Secrets Not Meant to be Kept," deal with the sexual abuse of children, and while one novel handles its theme more effectively than the other, both novels are problematic.
"The Trouble With Wednesdays" a first novel by Laura Nathanson, tells the story of Becky, a young girl who is sexually molested by her dentist, but who can't find a way to make anyone really listen to her cries for help. The author is a pediatrician, and the biographical information on the back of the book reads, "Dr. Nathanson has been very interested to hear how children handle their problems at home, at school and in the world. She feels that children very often don't get enough credit for their kindness, courage and adaptability."
The sentiment here is to be admired, and the author's warmth certainly shows up in her writing, but there's something missing from this novel: a feeling of spontaneity, a lightness to the prose. One has the sense that the author is constrained by her subject matter--weighed down by it rather than uplifted.
In important moments, Nathanson "writes down," using unsophisticated language to get serious points across, and the gravity of the scene is often lost. In one such scene, Hilary is being fondled by Dr. Rolfman, an attack of nausea suddenly overcomes her:
"She swallowed hard, fighting the nausea. Wait a second. Why fight it?
"She searched her mind for all the nauseating things she knew. What he was doing. Chicken livers. The mushrooms in the canned soup. Slimy worms. Her--her proboscis. The real juicy bug with its fuzzy little legs and twitchy antennae and shiny slimy body--
"That did it. All over the white smock, Becky's old red sweater, the floor."
One wishes that the author had found a more convincing narrative voice, so that the reader would be a willing follower of Becky's predicament. Instead, the often mundane prose keeps us--like the people in Becky's midst who don't respond to her pleas--at a distance.
The situation is a bit different in "Secrets Not Meant to Be Kept," by Gloria D. Miklowitz, a veteran young adult writer. Miklowitz's prose is subtle and believable, and she takes on an extra-large task by choosing to write in the first-person. From the start, her teen-age heroine Adri is convincing and likable, and the author sets up a sense of mystery.
"I'll let you feed the rabbits . . . if . . . Hairbrush poised halfway to my head I stare at my image in the mirror. Eyes dark, secretive, perhaps even frightened.
"It's the third time this week the odd phrase has jumped into my head, and I still have no idea what it means . . . I'll let you feed the rabbits . . . I'll let you feed the rabbits . . . if."
"If what? And what about rabbits?"
"Secrets Not Meant to Be Kept" follows the story of Adri, a teen-aged girl who is haunted by vague, confusing memories of her early childhood, and equally troubled by her lack of sexual feeling for Ryan, her attractive and loving boyfriend. Gradually, the two problems become intertwined, as Adri realizes that years ago she was abused by Treehouse, the preschool her 3-year-old sister currently attends, and that the abuse has left her afraid of intimacy.
The novel ultimately disappoints, however, when it focuses on the 3-year-old's current anxieties about school, and the fact that she, too, is a victim of child sexual abuse. In one important but finally unconvincing scene, Adri draws her younger sister out through a kind of playschool psychodrama, using hand puppets and dolls to represent teachers and students at Treehouse.
While both "The Trouble with Wednesday's" and "Secrets Not to Be Kept" are to be admired for their frank dealing with sensitive matters, it also strikes this reader that there needs to be a better forum for writing about difficult issues so they don't turn into polemics. It's crucial to keep young readers aware of possible dangers they may encounter in the world, but it's a shame to have sacrifice subtlety in the process.