Many hands have wrung over the dark and dystopian literature teens are devouring in droves, from the "Twilight" series and "Thirteen Reasons Why" to the "Hunger Games" trilogy.
"Devine Intervention" is not that kind of book. It is funny and wry and charming and tender. But it deals head on with matters of death and abandonment and the afterworld. "Sweet Valley High" it ain't.
We spoke with Martha Brockenbrough, self-described author of "books for smart kids and juvenile adults," about her latest creation.
Q: There's been some concern expressed about teens turning to very dark literature. But adolescence is always a mixture of dark and light, isn't it?
A: As adults we sometimes forget that children are full and independent human beings who experience darkness. From the first time someone says, 'I don't want to play with you. Go away,' kids feel sadness and rage. I don't know why we think that keeping any darkness out of stories is going to protect our children. The world offers darkness up on its own.
Q: Is it a desire to protect our kids from darkness or a fear that they'll replicate it?
A: Probably both. There was just a report out of Brigham Young University that carefully counted up the number of curse words in some young adult literature. Certainly people who are counting swear words are worrying about the corrupting influence. But as I've told my children: Words are powerful, but they're not actually magic. You can offend people with what you say, but words aren't going to corrupt and curdle anyone's soul.
Q: What kind of books did you love as a kid?
A: In middle school I loved fantasy, especially Lloyd Alexander's "Prydain Chronicles," which I'm reading out loud to my kids now. They're beautiful stories about someone who feels powerless and unimportant, even though that's not the case at all. He's capable of so much more than he thought. It deals a lot with the power of love. The books you read when you're a kid get into your DNA and give us these great adventures. I loved the "Anne of Green Gables" books. Judy Blume.
Q: Did you set out to write about similar themes — characters who feel powerless and discover they're really not?
A: At the outset I wanted to write about a character who died before she ever got to live and how incredibly sad that was. I used to teach high school students, and I would hear them say, "When my real life starts —" They were largely living someone else's life — parents, teachers, coaches. Having experienced the loss of a friend and watching another friend go through brutal rounds of chemo, I wanted to find a way to say, "Your life has started. The moment you take your first breath your real life has begun."
Q: How did you nail teenage dialogue?
A: In a lot of ways I'm not so very advanced from the adolescent I once was. I still remember how it feels. I still remember what I used to say and the imaginative conversations I would have, so I think it's a function of being true to your memories and true to those things you felt when you were a teenager.
What we think of 'Devine Intervention'
Heidi Devine is no "Hunger Games" Katniss, but she takes her share of blows — metaphorical and metaphysical.
The protagonist of Martha Brockenbrough's new young adult novel, "Devine Intervention," is a high school junior whose every waking moment is shared with Jerome, her guardian angel flunkie. Jerome is himself a teen, shot down in his prime by an arrow to the head and sent to heaven's soul-rehabilitation program. He lives in afterlife limbo — and in Heidi's head, which is plenty cluttered with insecurity and self-loathing of the teenage variety, particularly after a fateful performance at her school's Talentpalooza!!
As Jerome fumbles his way through guardianship, a role he feels wholly unsuited for, a story unfolds that is both absurd and poignant. Sure, Jerome spends his days in group therapy with expired humans, and carries the constant fear of descending to one of the nine levels of Hell. (Level I: Everlasting Standardized Testing for the Ungrateful. Level II: Ballroom Dancing With the Elderly.)
But is his existence really so different from actual adolescence, much of which is plagued with fear of rejection and failure?
And Heidi, for her part, is so busy resenting her too-tall body and too-weird hobby (drawing tiny cityscapes) and too-meddling family that she forgets to actually live. Then, suddenly, her time is running out.
Brockenbrough's spot-on dialogue and hilarious, lovingly crafted prose elevate the book from what could have been a long, clever joke to what is an endearing look at two lost souls who find, to both of their surprise, a purpose.
And along the way, the reader is treated to such gems as this one, from Jerome: "My tongue felt like a lump of cotton. A lump of nasty cotton living in the armpit of a bum who has an apartment at the dump and not even the good kind of dump with busted car parts. The kind with fish heads, banana peels and old transvestite wigs."
And this one, from Heidi, who realizes the drawings she used to escape from people have actually prepared her for a life spent loving one. "To draw someone, you have to see their edges and all the space around them. To even start loving someone, you have to know where you start and where you end. Where you are, and where you aren't, the shape you make in the world."
By Martha Brockenbrough
Arthur A. Levine Books, 304 pages, $17.99