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Cherie Bennett (1960-) - Sidelights

review series novel life

A popular columnist and novelist read by young teens around the United States, Utah-based author Cherie Bennett got her start in writing as a playwright. A former Broadway actress and singer, she saw her first play produced in 1988. Now frequently working with coauthor and husband Jeff Gottesfeld, Bennett is the author of standalone novels as well as numerous novel series for teens, several based on popular television series. In between writing, Bennett visits with groups of teen girls in different parts of the United States. Her upbeat author's discussions with adolescents are a constant reminder that growing up is a difficult time. Teen girls "worry most whether they are cute enough or thin enough," the author explained to React for Teens contributor Karen Pritzker. "Their lives become smaller. If I can write one book that saves a girl from that, I'm happy."

Born in 1960, Bennett spent her childhood years in Michigan, the only girl in a show-biz family. Her father worked as a writer for television shows, including Twilight Zone, Route 66, and Sid Ceasar's Show of Shows. Bennett recalled to Blast! contributor Laura Matter that she started writing at a young age. "I wrote really, really bad poetry when I was a teenager," she admitted. "This should give hope to kids out there who write poetry and think, 'This isn't any good.' I mean, my poetry stunk."

Bennett published her first novel, With a Face like Mine, while she was a student at the University of Michigan during the early 1980s. However, it wasn't until she had graduated from college and spent several years in New York City as a singer and dancer that she returned to her writing seriously, first as a playwright. Bennett's play Honky Tonk Angels features a group of women with dreams of becoming country music singing sensations. The play was produced in Nashville in 1988 and sold to Tri Star Pictures in 1992; by 2004 Bennett was at work on a revised version of the play, to be produced as The Tennessee Waltz.

Bennett's long-running "Sunset Island" series of young adult novels, which included over forty volumes written between 1991 and 1997, features teens Sam, Emma, and Carrie, who embark upon a summer vacation that never ends. Taking place on an island off the coast of Maine, the novels follow the teens' efforts to find time for fun and friends while working as summer au pairs for vacationing families. In 1994 Bennett published the "Club Sunset Island" companion trilogy for younger readers. Featuring the novels Too Many Boys, Dixie's First Kiss, and Tori's Crush, the three-novel series features preteen protagonists coping with their first romantic experiences.

Other Bennett-penned series popular with teen readers include "Surviving Sixteen," a trilogy that debuted in 1993, and "Wild Hearts," which began in 1994. In Wild Hearts, the opening novel of the latter series, country music provides the backdrop to a New York City teen's growing appreciation for her new hometown of Nashville. Street-smart and cosmopolitan newcomer Jane McVay, together with her new friends Savannah, Kimmy, and Sandra, decide to form the band Wild Hearts, which serves as the series' focus. "Nashville provides a distinctive setting," noted a Publishers Weekly reviewer, who added that "Jane's wisecracking, first-person narrative . . . sets a rapid tempo." Silvia Makowski, in her review of the series premier in Voice of Youth Advocates, commented that "Bennett is in top form with this first installment" and added: "Teens will feel sad and bad for [Jane] . . . and identify with her predicament, caught between two exotic city cultures."

Comprised of the novels Did You Hear about Amber?, The Fall of the Perfect Girl, and Only Love Can Break Your Heart, the "Surviving Sixteen" trilogy was praised by reviewers for its humor and lively style. Bennett's first-hand experience with rheumatoid arthritis serves as inspiration for her 1993 book Did You Hear about Amber? Published in 1993, the novel follows the beautiful but snobbish Amber, who makes up for living on the poor side of town by excelling at dance. Her talent and good looks gain her entry into the in-crowd until a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis cuts Amber's dreams of a career as a dancer short at age sixteen.

In The Fall of the Perfect Girl Bennett introduces readers to another teen with a less-than-ideal personality: Suzanne Elizabeth Wentworth Lafayette. As the length of her name might suggest, Bennett's protagonist is wealthy, worldly, and very spoiled. Despite such advantages, the sixteen year old's perfect life comes crashing down around her after an indiscretion in her politically prominent father's past is publicly revealed. The family is scandalized with the discovery that Suzanne has a half-sister, Patsy, by her father's old girlfriend, and Suzanne's Bennett and husband Jeff Gottesfeld frequently collaborate in writing works such as this 2002 companion to the popular Smallville television series based on the early life of Clark Kent, soon to be Superman. socialite mother indignantly leaves her husband. While noting that most readers will not find much to sympathize with in the novel's haughty heroine, Elaine S. Patterson stated in her Kliatt review that "girls should enjoy . . . [watching] Suzanne becoming more thoughtful and mature." Noting that the novel is a "refreshing change of pace" from much YA fare, Voice of Youth Advocates critic Beth Andersen maintained that The Fall of the Perfect Girl "is a good story about decent teens behaving in believable ways that do not involve substance abuse or promiscuity."

Bennett's "Teen Angels" novels were among the first to be created and co-authored by her writer-producer husband, Gottesfeld. The series concerns three older teens who meet untimely deaths and wind up in Teen Heaven, sent there by "Big Guy . . . when they still had lessons of life to learn." The series begins with 1996's Heaven Can't Wait, as Cisco, Melody, and Nicole attempt to earn "Angel Points" by helping self-destructive musician Shayne Stone straighten out his life and end his dependence on drugs and alcohol. Averting a teen pregnancy becomes the focus of Love Never Dies, as angel Nicole is sent to Ground Zero—Earth—to convince a sixteen year old that motherhood should wait, no matter how much she loves her boyfriend.

Observing that the series contains nondenominational references to religion despite its subject matter, Holly M. Ward, writing in Voice of Youth Advocates, praised the "Teen Angels" books as a "cute idea" and summarized the series overall as "light romance with the idea that one can make a positive difference in another's life." Similar in theme are Bennett's "Hope Hospital" books, which features a trio of thirteen year olds who volunteer at a hospital in Hope, Michigan, and discover a great deal about life, death, and, of course, boys.

Bennett and her writer husband have also joined creative forces on the "Trash" novel series, begun in 1997. Drawing heavily on both writer's daytime-dramawriting experience—Bennett spent several years writing soap-opera scripts in Los Angeles—they introduced series protagonist Chelsea Jennings, the teenage daughter of a convicted mass murderer. Hoping to conceal her past, Chelsea finds herself with a new boyfriend and a fashionable summer job in New York City, working behind the scenes on a scandalous television talk show. The authors "pull . . . out all the stops to snare female young adults looking for a read that's, well, just a trifle trashy," according to a Publishers Weekly critic in a review of the series' first installment, Trash.

Other series by Bennett and Gottesfeld include the "University Hospital" series, "Mirror Image" series, and "Enchanted Hearts" series. Through their television-writing connections, the couple also had the opportunity to adapt the storyline of the popular television series Dawson's Creek and Smallville into the novel format, producing several installments in each series. The Dawson's Creek books, which include Shifting into Overdrive and A Capeside Christmas, were published under the joint pseudonym C. J. Anders.

Another joint pseudonym, Zoey Dean, was created for their "A-List," series, which focuses on a New York city teen who moves to swanky Beverly Hills, California, during the last half of her senior year. While romance looms in the form of Princeton grad Ben Birmbaum, New Yorker Anna Percy finds that the fast cars and designer rags of the Hollywood elite mask a superficial culture. Reviewing the "A-List" series installment Girls on Film, School Library Journal contributor Tracy Karbel called the book a "fast-clipped, juicy read.... that teens will devour," and a Kirkus reviewer noted that the novel provides readers with "the fun of peeking through a chink in the gated walls of the rich, the beautiful, and the mean." The pseudonymous Dean "has her finger on the pulse of pop culture," wrote Amanda MacGregor in Kliatt, adding that Girls on Film is "driven . . . by characters readers will love to hate." Reviewing the series opener, The A-List, a Kirkus reviewer noted that "teens will get the thrill of seeing how the super-rich live, coupled with the heartening insight that money doesn't guarantee happiness."

Published in 1998, and based on the author's personal experiences, Life in the Fat Lane features a sixteen-year-old homecoming queen who lives the life many teens dream about: popularity in school, a perfect boyfriend, and excellent school marks. However, Lara Ardeche's ideal world slowly disintegrates as she begins to add pounds to her beauty-pageant figure. Frustrated at her inexplicable weight gain, Lara tries fad diets, intense exercise sessions, and even fasting to shed the added pounds, but nothing works. Only after coming to terms with her new size, and the incurable metabolic disorder behind it, is she able to regain her self confidence and appreciate the few true friends that remain with her.

While talking about the damaging effects "unrealistic standards of beauty" have on teenagers, a Kirkus Reviews critic claimed that Bennett "lays out the issues with unusual clarity, sharp insight, and cutting irony." Calling Life in the Fat Lane an "addicting experience," a contributor to Publishers Weekly insists that Bennett's story about Lara's experience "is sure to hit a nerve" with readers. For her part, Bennett views Life in the Fat Lane as a positive contribution. As she told Publishers Weekly interviewer Shannon Maughan, "I'm not naive enough to think that this book can cure girls with eating disorders or body image problems. But I know from their letters that I have been able to help empower some young women, and that's exciting."

Writing again as a couple, Bennett and Gottesfeld managed to pen the novel A Heart Divided in between juggling their many fiction series. Published in 2003, the novel takes place in Tennessee, the new home state of rather unhappy sixteen-year-old Kate Pride. A talented young playwright who was active in her New Jersey school's dramatic club, Kate was forced to give up both a much anticipated play-writing workshop and her many friends when her parents decided to move south. As a northerner south of the Mason-Dixon line, Kate soon realizes that cultural differences run deep, and she is shocked at the racist attitudes of the people living in the small town of Redford that she now must call home. She is even more shocked that her high school's home team, the Rebels, has as its emblem the Confederate flag. Her desire to remove this emblem joins her to new friends such as Nikki, the daughter of a black civil rights activist who hopes to remove the stars and bars from the high school; it also creates a conflict in her budding romance with Jack Redford, a young man whose family proudly boasts of its Confederate lineage. Calling both the novel and the short play that is included in the text—and ostensibly the work of Kate—"an amazingly creative work," Kliatt contributor Claire Rosser dubbed A Heart Divided "an intelligent contribution to YA literature," and in Booklist Jennifer Mattson maintained that readers "held rapt by the drama and romance" of the novel will also become drawn into the more serious issues. Praising the character of Kate as "an endearing teen who often lacks humility but believes in herself and her ideas," School Library Journal reviewer Delia Fritz commended Bennett and Gottesfeld for having "created passionate characters, and emotional climax, and an ending that suits the story."

In addition to her popular series and standalone novels, Bennett continues to put her knowledge of the theater to good use in plays written for both adult and teen audiences. John Lennon and Me, a drama about a girl with cystic fibrosis, was based on her 1993 novel Good-Bye, Best Friend, and received several awards after it was produced for the stage in 1992. Her play Anne Frank and Me about modern American teens, denial of the holocaust, and the Nazi-occupation of Paris, was produced off-Broadway by the American Jewish Theater in 1996 and adapted as a novel in 2000. In a review of the play for the New York Times, Lawrence Van Gelder hailed Bennett's reflection of Anne Frank's story through the eyes of modern—and skeptical—middleschoolers assigned to perform a play based on Frank's diaries, and called the work "an eloquent and poignant play" that "deserves to be seen."

Receiving more than one hundred letters from fans of her columns and books each week, the prolific Bennett responds personally to each letter. "Garth Brooks taught me," she explained, citing the country music superstar of the 1990s. "He told me early on that you must always respect the people who support you. And that's why anyone who sends me a fan letter gets my personal response. If a girl cares enough to read one of my books or my column, I owe it to her trust in me to write back."

Biographical and Critical Sources

PERIODICALS

Blast!, April, 1993, Laura Matter, "Cherie Bennett Unplugged," pp. 18-19.

Booklist, January 1, 1998, Ilene Cooper, review of Life in the Fat Lane, p. 794; February 15, 2000, Helen Rosenberg, review of Stranger in the Mirror, p. 1102; December 1, 2000, Elaine Hanson, review of Zink (audiobook), p. 740; February 15, 2001, Frances Bradburn, review of Anne Frank and Me, p. 1128; January 1, 2004, Jennifer Mattson, review of A Heart Divided, p. 843.

Horn Book, January-February, 1998, Roger Sutton, review of Life in the Fat Lane, p. 69.

Kirkus Reviews, December 8, 1997, review of Life in the Fat Lane, p. 73; August 1, 2003, review of The A-List, p. 1015; January 1, 2004, review of A Heart Divided, p. 33; May 1, 2004, review of Girls on Film, p. 440.

Kliatt, November, 1993, Elaine S. Patterson, review of The Fall of the Perfect Girl, p. 4; November, 2003, Deborah Kaplan, review of The A-List, p. 13; March, 2004, Claire Rosser, review of A Heart Divided, p. 6; May, 2004, Amanda MacGregor, review of Girls on Film, p. 17.

New York Times, Lawrence Van Gelder, review of Anne Frank and Me.

Publishers Weekly, May 26, 1997, review of Trash, p. 86; December 15, 1997, review of Life in the Fat Lane, p. 1832; June 29, 1998, review of The Wedding That Almost Wasn't, p. 59; October 25, 1999, review of University Hospital, p. 82; January 18, 1999, Shannon Maughan, "Changing Hats" (interview), p. 198; October 25, 1999, review of Zink, p. 81; January 3, 2000, review of Stranger in the Mirror, p. 76; March 5, 2001, review of Anne Frank and Me, p. 80; September 22, 2003, review of The A-List, p. 105; March 1, 2004, review of A Heart Divided, p. 70.

React for Teens, January 15-21, 1996, Karen Pritzker, "The Ultimate Pen Pal," p. 13.

School Library Journal, March, 2000, Ronni Krasnow, review of Stranger in the Mirror, p. 233; June, 2000, Barbara Wysocki, review of Zink, p. 86; March, 2001, Sharon Grover, review of Anne Frank and Me, p. 245; January, 2004, Lynn Evarts, review of The A-List, p. 129; May, 2004, Delia Fritz, review of A Heart Divided, p. 140, and Tracy Karbel, review of Girls on Film, p. 144.

Voice of Youth Advocates, February, 1994, Beth Anderson, review of The Fall of the Perfect Girl, p. 364; June, 1994, Silvia Makowski, review of Wild Hearts, p. 80; June, 1996, Holly M. Ward, review of Heaven Can't Wait, p. 92.

ONLINE

Cherie Bennett Web site, http://www.cheriebennett.com (March 7, 2005).*

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