The one word that springs to mind when I think of Cat Bauer's books--both "Harley, Like a Person" and this sequel, "Harley's Ninth"--is "authentic." The characters are so human, so real, that they remain with the reader long after the last page is finished. And even more impressive, the books are emotionally authentic, which is to say "trustworthy." You can trust that Harley is a real teenaged girl, one who makes mistakes in judgment and who struggles with the conflicting lures of boyfriends (and sex) and developing her unexpected strength as a painter and a person in her own right. Harley's psychologically damaged mother, Peppy, and her abusive, alcoholic stepfather, Roger, are not pretty. But if you have ever known anyone like them, you know they ring true. Likewise her birth father, Sean, is achingly, frustratingly, touchingly genuine.
And while I'm at it, I'd like to say that none of the emotional or other abuse, or sex, in either of these books is exploitative or unnecessarily graphic. Ms. Bauer can write. She approaches sensitive material with an artist's eye. Her object is not to shock, but to illuminate. Here is Harley describing her aggressively oppressive home: "The atmosphere in my house in Lenape was a barrier that blocked access to the part of me that paints. My mother, Peppy, was a constant drizzle. My stepfather, Roger, was a thunderstorm. The only sunshine was my little sister, Lily: my brother, Bean, was more tornado than sibling. It was not possible to work with the weather in that house."
Both books also honor what I can only call the "spiritual" in life, the unseen forces of creativity that we channel if we are willing to, as well as the nearly incredible, fortuitous coincidences (I have experienced my share) that make us wonder if there's more to life than the five senses can convey. As exemplified by Mrs. Tuttle, Father Lorenzo, Sofia, and Joe the cab driver, they remind us that respect and love go a long way towards nurturing those who may be unconventional, lonely, and needing to express themselves in the face of other forces that would dominate and sap them.
One final observation: effortlessly, these books introduce teens to art, live theater, classical music and European culture, as represented by Venice, Italy. Teens who read them may try some Bach on their iPods.
The "Harleys" are the kind of books that send teens dashing to the computer or cell phone (or even an old-fashioned desk) to write the author that at last they feel understood, known, valued. And I'll bet that Ms. Bauer hears from both girls and boys. And frankly, like many other outstanding books for teens, they make excellent reading for adults, too. May they find their way into more and more open hands and hearts.
Janet Zarem is a freelance writer (NY Times Sunday Book Review, etc.) and Former Manager of Dutton's Books Children's Department