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'Weetzie Bat' Proves Someone Understands

January 25, 1994|IRENE LACHER

The first words of Francesca Lia Block's "Weetzie Bat" could be a youth manifesto, the opening salvo blaring the Sturm und Drang of adolescence:

"The reason Weetzie Bat hated high school was because no one understood. They didn't even realize where they were living."

In fact, Block, 31, never set out to be a bard of puberty. Like other young-adult fiction authors, she woke up one morning to find herself metamorphosed into a standard-bearer for a genre she'd never thought much about. On the way, the L.A. writer became one of the most highly acclaimed stylists in the field.

"Hardened critics, who thought they had seen all the possible variants of the coming-of-age novel, were astonished by the freshness of Francesca Lia Block's voice," Patty Campbell wrote in the New York Times. Michael Cart, writing in the Los Angeles Times, called her "one of the most original writers in the last 10 years."

Block followed the 1989 "Weetzie Bat" with three other tales borrowing the same quirky characters and beguiling pop-magic realism--"Witch Baby," "Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys," and "Missing Angel Juan." Most are set in an L.A. of "skating hamburgers" and "pink-flamingo skies"--"hot and cool, glam and slam, rich and trashy, devils and angels."

"Weetzie Bat" traces the quasi-family formed by post-punk princess Weetzie; her love, My Secret Agent Lover Man; her best friend Dirk, and his boyfriend, Duck. For all its unconventional arrangements, the Weetzie books extol enduring values--"the healing power of love," as Block puts it.

In fact, the Weetzie of "Weetzie Bat" fame was inspired by an actual "punk princess with spiky bleached hair" who was hitching in Laurel Canyon 14 years ago, uniformed for the trip in a "very pink '50s prom dress and cowboy boots," Block wrote in an essay for the L.A. Times two years ago.

Weetzie was born as Block was edging into adulthood in a dazzling but uncertain L.A.

"While Los Angeles was full of fairy-tale magic and possibility for me, there was also a sense of encroaching darkness," wrote Block, who now straddles L.A. and Joshua Tree. "My friends and I found ourselves confronted with punks wearing swastikas as fashion statements. People were beaten at concerts. There was the personal pain I was experiencing due to my father's illness. And there were the first terrifying signs of the disease that would later be named AIDS.

"I wrote 'Weetzie Bat' as a celebration of the beauty and sparkle I had seen and as a way to deal with the suffering."

Block's lyrical work consistently wins American Library Assn. young adult book awards, and her fairy tale world of "jammin' cars" and "slammin' slinkster bands," evoking the passions and yearnings of youth, has won fans across the country.

Still, Weetzie's straying from tradition has found foes among such librarians as New York's Barbara Nosanchuk, who lambasted "Weetzie Bat" as a "glorification of pathological neurotics" in a letter to the New York Times.

Block thinks such criticism misses the point. And while her editors once considered--and eventually decided against--a disclaimer that they did not advocate the characters' freewheeling lifestyle, Block believes "parents should use their discretion and kids will use their judgment.

"I need to just write the story I have inside of me, and I think all the stories are motivated by love and friendship and healing, so I feel good about them in that respect."

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