As young lives intersect, a tale takes shape

This teen novel blends artistry with a sharp ear for adolescent voices

Call Lynne Rae Perkins a fairy godmother. In Criss Cross, her sparkling new novel in which adolescence hits Anytown, USA, she transforms ordinary teenagers into thoughtful, self-aware young adults - and everyday objects and circumstances from the mundane into the poetic.

The world of young adult fiction isn't unfamiliar with Perkins's deftness at capturing all trials adolescent. Her first novel, "All Alone in the Universe," established her as a sensitive voice for an age group that hasn't exactly become accustomed to the gentler approach.

In "Criss Cross," Perkins proves, once again, that her ear for the social dynamics and inner workings of young teenagers is dead-on. But she also brings something more to the mix: art.

Art converges in multiple ways in this novel about relationships, growing up, and the discovery of identity. Certainly, the illustrations - which range from Perkins's trademark drawings to photos to photo montages - highlight this author/illustrator's know-how when it comes to merging multiple graphic offerings to form a coherent whole.

Interesting bits of collage seep into the text as well, which is a combination of straightforward prose, pure dialogue, and poetry. One chapter even makes a foray into what might be called concrete prose: Like the neighbors on which the section focuses, twin columns of text dwell side by side on the pages, telling two stories simultaneously.

Beneath the art and narrative approach lies the story itself, a collage of incidents, situations, experiences, and conversations all weaving a loose web of story around a group of teenagers.

Although things happen sequentially in "Criss Cross" and there is a clear narrative arc, Perkins's style lends a situational feel to the book, making it seem more like a collection of inconsequential-moments-turned-golden than a straightforward story.

In another author's hands this approach could easily veer into the haphazard or chaotic. But here it works.

This is, of course, a credit to Perkins, but also an interesting commentary on the very nature of narrative. Is any given story more than a collection of moments, moments that require time - or a keen observer - to give them coherence?

Trying to explain what happens in "Criss Cross" would be akin to asking any given reader to piece together the situations and encounters that have forged and refined his or her character. In other words, it's nearly impossible.

The pieces of this novel are so numerous, the characters' lives so interwoven, that a few sentences simply couldn't do a synopsis justice.

What seems more important to convey is that I found this to be one of the most satisfying takes on teenage relationships that young adult fiction has offered to date. I think that's because there was no pat ending to any of the various entanglements that surface in this novel's 300-odd pages.

Instead, like the other adolescent experiences "Criss Cross" chronicles, these forays into the realm of the romantic are moments. Just moments. That's not to say they won't become more, but rather to say that finding their meaning will take just the right kind of magic.

According to one fairy godmother, it's the magic known as knowing - and loving - yourself.

Jenny Sawyer has reviewed children's books for Riverbank Review and the Horn Book Guide.

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