You're a poor kid, and you're offered a scholarship to an elite prep school. Is this a club you want to join, or not?
In Brian F. Walker's "Black Boy, White School" (HarperTeen, $17.99, ages 12 and up), East Cleveland ghetto boy Anthony has the chance to attend a fancy high school in Maine. He's not sure that he wants to leave the life he knows, but then his best friend is murdered, and Belton Academy is looking pretty good.
Walker sometimes resorts to stereotypes, but a number of his observations are fresh enough to cut deep. He captures the essential discourtesy of seeing one another as members of a group rather than as individuals. Although Anthony has always been known as "Ant," everyone at Belton persists in calling him "Tony." "Tony" is safe. "Tony" is the guy from down the block in Brooklyn -- which is where everyone assumes Ant is from, because Easterners seem to think that African-Americans exist only in New York (with cousins in D.C.). Ant even has trouble persuading the few black students that East Cleveland is a legitimate place, with its own local customs and slang.
Whether Ant will insist on his name and his identity, and make everyone around him uncomfortable, or whether he will accept being Tony, and live up to everyone's expectations, becomes the issue of the novel. Walker doesn't resolve the question satisfactorily, but the reader is left fruitfully wondering whether such a question is ever resolved in our schools -- or, indeed, in our society.
Ralph Fletcher's "Also Known as Rowan Pohi" (Clarion Books, $16.99, ages 12 and up) looks at the city-on-a-hill prep school from the other side of the tracks. A trio of townie boys are deriding the snooty, rich boarding-school kids who occasionally slum at their local hangout, IHOP. As a lark, the boys submit a fake application to the school for one Rowan Pohi -- IHOP backward. Naturally, the school accepts Rowan. Bobby, the most ambitious among them, decides to take the place offered, and manages to wangle a full scholarship. Is it his best self that rises to the challenge of prep-school classes? Does he deserve to be there? As with Ant, the question is one of identity: Does a person become what he fakes?
Two young-adult novels that have passionate and long-standing cult followings have new sequels:
Blake Nelson's "Dream School" (Figment, $8.99 paper, ages 14 and up) takes off at precisely the moment where he left his character Andrea Marr in 1994 at the end of "Girl": on the airplane from her home in Oregon to an elite New England college. It's a place populated with sophisticated kids much better prepared for college than she. Andrea is almost as much a duck out of water as Ant among the East Coast preppies. Haven't these kids ever heard of alternative rock? Don't they know the Northwest is cool?
Andrea's voice is the one that adults hear with consternation, lamenting: Don't these kids feel anything? Don't they take an interest in anything? But Andrea's flat delivery conceals great depth, and she comes to the end of this story with the same phrase that ended "Girl," looking into the future with Blake Nelson's brilliantly realistic brand of hope: "And as usual, my plans, my goals, my visions of my own future, were not even vaguely related to what would actually happen to me. Not even close." Will Andrea Marr look for a job in another sequel? I hope so.
Weetzie Bat, the eponymous character of Francesca Lia Block's groundbreaking 1989 novel, was a young woman who lived in a magical world apparently devoid of responsible adults. (Grandma Fifi conveniently dies in the first pages, leaving Weetzie a fabulous collection of cocktail dresses.) There are dark references to parental incompetence and the deep potholes left by childhood trauma, but by and large, Weetzie and her friends live by their own choices and loves. "Pink Smog" (HarperTeen, $17.99, ages 12 and up.) is a prequel, giving Weetzie a back story -- of course she doesn't fit in at school -- and setting up the combination of vulnerability and toughness that has made Weetzie a heroine for sensitive girls (and more than a few boys) for decades.
There's a reason why young fans read Nelson and Block over and over again: Neither whitewashes the messiness and general insanity of the world, but they make a convincing case that the surprises waiting out there can be good, if you're willing to take them on.