Young-adult novels are often clearly intended for either girls or boys -- witness the shelves full of supernatural romances and high-energy action-adventure. But teen boys and girls are all pursuing relationships, and what better way to reach a broad swath of both sexes than with a he-said, she-said story?
Two new novels -- one by a man, one by a woman -- tell their stories in chapters alternating between a boy's and a girl's point of view. In Pete Hautman's "What Boys Really Want" (Scholastic, $17.99, ages 12 and up), Adam and Lita have been best friends since kindergarten. Now in high school, they are "just friends" with a possessiveness they probably shouldn't examine too closely. Adam's plan to write a book on "What Boys and Girls Really Want" is, according to Lita, typically clueless. "How hard can it be? You just make stuff up," Adam blithely says. He gathers material from the drama in their group of friends and steals from every source he can lay his hands on, notably the snarky, anonymous online advice columnist at their school. Between Adam's chapters and Lita's, there is plenty of humor from both sides of the gender divide. Exasperated that Lita takes the boys' interest in breasts too seriously, Adam writes: "Guys like looking at monster trucks, too. That doesn't mean they want one in their driveway."
Katie Kacvinsky's "First Comes Love" (Houghton Mifflin, $16.99, ages 14 and up) brings together Gray, a withdrawn guy, and Dylan, a free spirit determined to pry him out of his shell. Their love develops naturally, each voice picking up the story where the other leaves off, as Dylan's zest for life slowly breaks through the layers of Gray's resistance. The novel beautifully evokes both the intense exhilaration of first love (including a first sexual experience), and the piercing understanding that this moment is only the starting point for lives that won't necessarily unfold in the same way or at the same pace for each lover.
It's too bad that the covers of these books won't attract more guys. The up-close kiss on Kacvinsky's jacket makes it look like a breathless romance, while the gaggle of girls on Hautman's might as well be in a shampoo ad. I never thought I'd say this, but thank heaven for e-books, which don't give jacket art much display.
Early reading books seem to be more successful the funnier they are. "Frog and Fly: Six Slurpy Stories" by Jeff Mack (Philomel, $12.99, ages 3-6) introduces a pair of characters in the tradition of such beginning-reader series as Arnold Lobel's "Frog and Toad," and Mo Willems' "Elephant and Piggie." Frog and Fly are less cozy, since the essence of the relationship is that one eats the other. That obvious tension makes the stories easily told with a few well-chosen words, such as: "Nice to meet you . . . nice to eat you."
Brightly colored ducks sporting outrageous socks shake their tail feathers on the pages of "Duck Sock Hop" by Jane Kohuth, illustrated by Jane Porter (Dial, $16.99, ages 3-6), while a rollicking rhyme makes the word patterns bounce right along with the ducks.
"Sophie's Fish" by A.E. Cannon, illustrated by Lee White (Viking, $15.99, ages 4-7) and "Oliver" by Judith Rossell (HarperCollins, $16.99, ages 4-7) take on two common types of child: the worrier and the high-energy kid. Sophie manages to turn a simple promise to care for a friend's fish into a monstrous, life-consuming responsibility, while Oliver exhausts his mother with questions until she sends him off on a nap-time adventure ("I'm not tired," says Oliver. "I am," says Mom. "You do something quiet").
There is a genre of picture book that allows sly, secret pleasure on the part of the parent reading aloud. Kids catch on quickly that something is going on over their heads, but I firmly believe they can tolerate an occasional teasing smile between parents. "When Dads Don't Grow Up" by Marjorie Blain Parker, illustrated by R.W. Alley (Dial, $16.99, ages 3-6) prompts such smiles. "Some dads just never grow up," the book opens. "You can tell which ones they are." Silly behavior is to be expected from fathers, the book suggests, maybe a relaxation of mom's rules; that's why dad is such fun to play with. Avoid this book if your family has successfully overturned traditional parental roles, but if, like my family, you've found the stereotypes too strong to topple . . . well, that's where the ironic looks over the kids' heads come in.