If your notion of young adult literature is candy-coated, it may be time to revisit the genre. Think of the mythical coming-of-age adventures of youth that are found in The Hunger Games or Harry Potter series. Or recall stories brimming with youthful romance such as Madeleine L'Engle's A Ring of Endless Light. Ponder stories of transformative growth, Of Mice and Men or To Kill A Mockingbird.
Criminal, the latest from Atlanta-based YA novelist Terra Elan McVoy, is a survival story rooted deeply in the dour traditions of The Scarlet Letter or Speak. Its characters maneuver poverty, bad luck, and urban sprawl. Nikki, the story's protagonist, has been dealt a bad hand. She has lost her father to jail, her mother to addiction, and her grandmother to death. The only salvation and comfort she can see in her own life is in Dee — her boyfriend. Nikki depends on Dee for validation, despite their rocky relationship and his unlawful behavior. This need prompts her to not only turn a blind eye to his shortcomings but also to become involved as a naive but willing participant in a felony. Afterward, she has misgivings about their actions and turns to Dee for solace.
What comes next is turbulence. Nikki's perspective is warped by her loneliness and self-doubt. She is consumed by her adoration of Dee and because of it, has followed him blindly into a life of crime and deception. She is left to deal with the penalties of her actions alone, abandoned by her friends and Dee. Criminal is more than a coming-of-age story, it's a story of resurrection.
Criminal is a departure from Terra Elan McVoy's previous works. The juxtaposition is a stark one. Her previous novels, Being Friends With Boys, The Summer of First and Lasts, After the Kiss, among others, have safer plots: a tomboy grows up and is beset by first romance; three sisters elicit the romance of summer; two girls unknowingly share the attention and affection of one boy. None of these characters face jail time. Although all individually rooted in passion, Criminal marks McVoy's turn into darker, illicit territory.
In the aftermath of her crime, Nikki lets the truth form her future. She takes responsibility for her mistakes rather than wallow in remorse. She casts her own convictions about herself, a brave accomplishment, especially with her court date quickly approaching.
Her narration is real and bold. "I wasn't hiding anymore," she says. "I'd done what I'd done. Whatever punishment came from that, I knew I deserved. Deserved because of my weak-kneed blindness, my choosing Dee over everything else. So I'd told the prosecutors everything without thinking twice. And though I was ashamed, when everything was finished, I felt cleaner than I had all year."
McVoy's stark and succinct language respects the mind of her audience. There is nothing candy-coated about these truths.
Criminal by Terra Elan McVoy. Simon & Schuster, $16.99, 288 pp.