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Francesca Lia Block (1962-) - Sidelights

review weetzie bat september

With her novel Weetzie Bat, Francesca Lia Block created a new type of young adult novels, one that reflected the Los Angeles subculture of the 1990s. Their lives steeped in sex, drugs, and rock 'n', Block's cast of characters includes Weetzie Bat, a punk princess in pink; her lover, My Secret Agent Lover Man;, her best friend Dirk; Dirk's boyfriend; and assorted offspring Witch Baby and Cherokee. As Block once explained: "I wrote Weetzie Bat as a sort of valentine to Los Angeles at a time when I was in school in Berkeley and homesick for where I grew up. It was a very personal story. A love letter. I never expected people to respond to it the way they have. I never imagined I could reach other people from such a very personal place in me."

Born in Hollywood, California, Block was raised by parents who were both artists: her father was a painter and teacher and one-time special-effects technician and screenwriter for Hollywood and her mother is a writer. As Block recalled, "There were trips to the library for books and there were books all around our home. It feels like I was always able to read." In addition to traditional childhood favorites such as Charlotte Zolotow's Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present, Randall Jarrell's Animal Family, and Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, Block was also greatly influenced by Greek mythology and legend. "My father used to tell me bits of the Odyssey for my nighttime story," she recalled. "It was an incredibly rich upbringing."

As a teen in the late 1970s, Block and her friends often went to Hollywood after school, where they hung out at Schwab's soda fountain, drove up and down Sunset Strip, or went to the Farmer's Market, another popular teen hangout. It was in Hollywood that Block first saw the prototype of Weetzie: a hitchhiker with "spiky bleached hair, a very pink '50s prom dress and cowboy boots," as she later described her. A name later attached itself to this character when Block saw a pink Ford Pinto on the freeway with a driver who looked like that hitchhiker; the license plate of the car was "WEETZIE." Block began making up stories about Weetzie and drew her innumerable times long before casting the character in her first novel.

While Block was studying at the University of California, her father passed away, which was difficult for her to deal with. After graduation, she returned to Los Angeles, worked in an art gallery, and wrote two novels and several short stories. In 1989 a friend at the gallery where she worked read the manuscript of Weetzie Bat, was impressed, and sent it off to editor Charlotte Zolotow at HarperCollins, which published the book. Block's writing career was born.

Weetzie Bat tells the story of Weetzie and her gay friend Dirk—the only person who seems to understand her—who set up house together in a modest home in Los Angeles. Soon Dirk finds love with a surfer named Duck, while Weetzie meets My Secret Agent Lover Man. When a baby named Cherokee is born, everyone adopts it as an extended family, and Witch Baby, child of My Secret Agent Lover Man, also joins the family. A modern fairy tale, Weetzie Bat is written in a mixture of L.A. slang and creative hip talk. It was praised as an "off-beat tale that has great charm, poignancy, and touches of fantasy," by Anne Osborn in School Library Journal.

While some critics enjoyed the story, Weetzie Bat stirred up some controversy, too, particularly among librarians. Patrick Jones, writing in Horn Book, summed the concerns up: "It is not that the sex [in Block's books] is explicit; it is not. It is just that Block's characters have sex lives.... In the age of AIDS—whose ugly shadow appears—anything less than a 'safe sex or no sex' stance is bound to be controversial." Jones pointed out that the homosexual relationship between Dirk and Duck is also hard for some reviewers to deal with, as is the communal rearing of the baby, Cherokee. Despite concerns, Weetzie Bat was included in the American Library Association's Recommended Books for the Reluctant Young Adult Reader list, and was shortlisted for Book of the Year.

Block examines the theme of homosexuality in a greater degree in her novel Baby Be-Bop. A prequel to Weetzie Bat, it tells the story of Weetzie's friend Dirk, and of how he deals with the realization that he is gay. "What might seem didactic from lesser writers becomes a gleaming gift from Block," a Publishers Weekly reviewer wrote. "Her extravagantly imaginative settings and finely honed perspectives remind the reader that there is magic everywhere."

Witch Baby focuses on a young teen's search for identity, and the story Block tells is "reminiscent of a music video," according to Maeve Visser Knoth in Horn Book. Witch Baby stumbles and sometimes falls in her searching for her own place in the world, her question being "What time are we upon and where do I belong?" Witch Baby, endowed with tilted purple eyes and a head of thick black hair, collects newspaper clippings of tragedies in an attempt to understand the world. When she finally connects with her birth mother, she begins to deal better with her role in Weetzie Bat's extended family.Calling Block "a superior writer," Ellen Ramsay noted in School Library Journal that in Witch Baby the author "explores the danger of denying life's pain."

"My books talk about tolerance," Block herself once explained, "though I never consciously think of themes like that as I write. I guess my general theme is the value of love and art as healers. That you must face the darkness, acknowledge it and still have hope. I think that is what is important in life."

Block focuses on the theme of family loyalty and the importance of love and a balance of spiritual powers in the world in Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys. In this book Weetzie and her adult housemates have left on a filming expedition to South America, leaving teens Cherokee and Witch Baby on their own. The pair team up with Raphael Chong Jah-Love and Angel Juan Perez to form a rock band, the Goat Guys, and draw on the powerful gifts from Native-American friend Coyote in order to perform. While the band is an instant hit, their success soon goes to their heads and they descend into destructive behavior involving sex, alcohol, and drugs. A Publishers Weekly reviewer praised the novel, noting that Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys "provides yet another delicious and deeply felt trip to Block's wonderfully idiosyncratic corner of California." The musical theme continues in Missing Angel Juan, in which Witch Baby follows her boyfriend after he leaves for New York to pursue a musical career. Missing Angel Juan is described as "an engagingly eccentric mix of fantasy and reality, enhanced—this time—by mystery and suspense" by Booklist contributor Michael Cart.

Block has expanded her writing away from the "Weetzie Bat" books in more recent years, although her novels continue to be praised for their unique style and often focus on the West Coast urban punk milieu. Girl Goddess #9 and I Was a Teenage Fairy deal with young people fighting to come to grips with a rapidly changing world and their place in it. Girl Goddess #9 is a collection of nine short stories about girls, with the stories arranged chronologically; the first tales are about toddlers, while the last one concerns a young woman entering college. The stories are written in Block's "funky, richly sensual style," Dorie Freebury of Voice of Youth Advocates noted, and the characters "are painfully real, facing the challenges of life that can make or break one's spirit."

A novel-length work, I Was a Teenage Fairy is a modern-day fairy tale about a girl named Barbie who is being pushed into modeling by her mother. The appearance of an acid-tongued, finger-sized fairy named Mab changes Barbie's life and eventually helps her overcome the emotional trauma of being molested by a well-known photographer whose crime was ignored by the girl's mother.

Block's novel Violet and Claire focuses on the friendship between two teenage girls as different as night and day. Seventeen-year-old Violet is an aspiring screen-writer and filmmaker and an outsider at her high school. Past depression and a suicide attempt have left her hardedged and isolated; Violet now devotes her time to studying the films she loves and to writing her own screenplay. When she meets Claire, a poet with glittering gauze fairy wings sewn on the back of her Tinker Bell T-shirt, the two become fast friends. Their friendship is tested, however when the girls cope with their personal ambitions and the influence of the real world. Violet trades a sexual liaison with a rock star in exchange for a job with a screen agent, while Claire enrolls in a poetry workshop and becomes attached to the instructor. When tensions between the two come to a head during a wild party, Claire flees into the desert, leaving Violet to search for her. "Block excels in depicting strong and supportive friendships between teen girls," wrote Debbie Carton in Booklist, "and Violet and Claire is at its best when the two protagonists reach past their own pain to help each other." According to a Kirkus Reviews critic, "Fans of the author's previous works will take to this one; newcomers will be captured by the rainbow iridescence of Block's prose."

Wasteland also focuses on a close relationship, this time between twins Lex and Marina. Sharing a close bond since birth, at age sixteen the two become physically intimate one night. The guilt over their incest destroys Lex, who kills himself, leaving Marina to deal with her loss. Coping with her sense of responsibility over her brother's suicide, as well as the sense that half of her is now gone, she increasingly relies on her friend West, who loves Marina while also knowing the truth of what has transpired. Noting the literary quality of the novel—Block interjects lines from T. S. Eliot's The Wasteland as well as allusions to Shakespeare—a Publishers Weekly contributor predicted that "sophisticated teens are likely to be enthralled by Block's bold and poetic experiment; her skill with words never flags." While Kliatt critic Michele Winship noted that the author "treads carefully around a taboo love," in Horn Book Jennifer M. Brabander cited the novel for its "exploration of tenderness, passion, and despair," and described Wasteland as "ultimately a haunting love story."

In another coming-of-age story, Block creates what a Publishers Weekly contributor described as an "exquisitely wrought" tale in Echo. The novel focuses on a Los Angeles teen who is raised by high-achieving parents who have little time for their daughter. In Echo's search for belonging, she encounters temptations in the form of vampires, finds friendship with fairies and angelic beings, and experiences the real-life seduction of drugs, anorexia, and alcohol. Weaving mythic language and fantasy elements throughout her plot, Block includes "layers of meaning hidden among the lush, eccentric L.A. environs that Echo inhabits," according to School Library Journal contributor Angela J. Reynolds. Calling Block "the sorceress of iridescent language," a Kirkus reviewer noted that, in the author's characteristic fashion, "fantasy elements act as grace notes against a gritty if spangled reality." Paula Rohrlick dubbed the novel "powerful stuff," and concluded of Echo that the story, with its "mature themes," "weav[es] . . . a dark spell over readers ready to enter [Block's] . . . universe."

Commenting on her focus as a writer, Block once noted: "One of the things about Weetzie Bat is that it has given readers freedom to take their own contemporary culture and write about it themselves seriously as fiction or poetry. In letters from my readers, I see that I have done something of the same service as my mother did for me writing down my early stories. I have made this other culture real and worthy. My readers discover it's okay to write about whatever is important to them and do it in a poetic way. Writing has saved my life in a way. Being able to express myself creatively was the way I could survive at certain parts of my life. If I can give others that message, that their lives and experiences are worth writing about, I would be very happy."

Biographical and Critical Sources

BOOKS

Children's Literature Review, Volume 33, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1994.

PERIODICALS

Booklist, August, 1992, Hazel Rochman, review of Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys, p. 2004; October 1, 1996, Debbie Carton, review of Girl Goddess #9, p. 340; September 1, 1999, Debbie Carton, review of Violet and Claire, p. 122; August, 2000, Marta Segal, review of The Rose and the Beast: Fairy Tales Retold, p. 213; July, 2001, review of Zine Scene, p. 1998; August, 2001, Debbie Carton, review of Echo, p. 2105; July, 2003, Hazel Rochman, review of Wasteland, p. 1880.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, December, 1993, p. 115; September, 1994, p. 6; October, 1996, p. 49; September, 1999, p. 5.

English Journal, December, 1990, Alleen Pace Nilsen, Ken Donelson, review of Weetzie Bat, p. 78; October, 1991, Rich McDonald, review of Weetzie Bat, pp. 94-95.

Five Owls, January-February, 1999, p. 66.

Horn Book, January-February, 1992, Maeve Visser Knoth, review of Witch Baby, pp. 78-79; September-October, 1992, p. 587; November-December, 1992, Patrick Jones, "People Are Talking about . . . Francesca Lia Block," pp. 697-701; January-February, 1993, Patty Campbell, "People Are Talking about . . . Francesca Lia Block," pp. 57-63; September, 2001, Jennifer M. Brabander, review of Echo, p. 581; November-December, 2003, Jennifer M. Brabander, review of Wasteland, p. 739.

Kirkus Reviews, September 15, 1999, review of Violet and Claire, p. 1497; August 1, 2001, review of Echo, p. 1117; September 15, 2003, review of Wasteland, p. 1172.

Kliatt, July, 2001, Paula Rohrlick, review of Echo; September, 2003, Michele Winship, review of Wasteland, p. 6.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 26, 1992, Francesca Lia Block, "Punk Pixies in the Canyon," pp. 1, 11; November 12, 1995, p. 4.

New Yorker, November 25, 1991, p. 148.

New York Times Book Review, May 21, 1989, Betsy Hearne, "Pretty in Punk," p. 47; January 19, 1992, p. 24; September 20, 1992, review of Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys, p. 18; February 26, 1995, Jim Gladstone, review of The Hanged Man, p. 21.

Publishers Weekly, March 10, 1989, review of Weetzie Bat, p. 91; December 22, 1989, Diane Roback, "Flying Starts: Francesca Lia Block," p. 27; July 20, 1992, review of Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys, p. 251; July 18, 1994, review of The Hanged Man, pp. 246-247; July 31, 1995, review of Baby Be-Bop, p. 82; September 21, 1998, review of I Was a Teenage Fairy, p. 86; July 19, 1999, review of Violet and Claire, p. 195; May 1, 2000, review of Nymph, p. 49; October 2, 2000, review of The Rose and the Beast, p. 82; July 16, 2001, review of Echo, p. 181; February 10, 2003, review of Guarding the Moon, p. 139; December 1, 2003, review of Wasteland, p. 57.

School Library Journal, April, 1989, Anne Osborn, review of Weetzie Bat, pp. 116-117; September, 1991, Ellen Ramsay, review of Witch Baby, p. 277; September, 1992, Gail Richmond, review of Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys, p. 274; October, 1993, Michael Cart, review of Missing Angel Juan, p. 148; December, 1993, p. 24; September, 1994, Vanessa Elder, review of The Hanged Man, p. 238; December, 1998, Carolyn Lehman, review of I Was a Teenage Fairy, p. 118; September, 1999, Kathleen Isaacs, review of Violet and Claire, p. 218; September, 2000, Trish Anderson, review of The Rose and the Beast, p. 225; August, 2001, Angela J. Reynolds, review of Echo; October, 2003, Catherine Ensley, review of Wasteland, p. 158.

Voice of Youth Advocates, December, 1993, Judy Sasges, review of Missing Angel Juan, p. 287; December, 1995, Dorie Freebury, review of Girl Goddess #9, pp. 297-298; February, 1997, p. 326.

ONLINE

Francesca Lia Block Home Page, http://www.francescaliablock.com (January 5, 2005).

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