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Todd Strasser (1950-) - Sidelights

review books february december

Todd Strasser writes critically recognized realistic fiction for preteens and teenagers. In works ranging from Friends till the End, the story of a young man stricken with leukemia, to Wildlife, a study of the breakup of a successful rock group, Strasser blends humor and romance with timely subjects to address various concerns of teens, including drugs, sex, illness, popularity, and music. Lacing his work for younger readers with a vein of humor, Strasser has also tantalized even the most reluctant reader to open books with titles like Hey Dad, Get a Life!; Help! I'm Trapped in My Gym Teacher's Body; and Greasy Grimy Gopher Guts. In addition to his many original works of fiction, Strasser has also written novelizations of several popular motion pictures, including some from the Disney Studios. According to critics, his understanding of the feelings of children and adolescents has made his works popular with young people.

Angel Dust Blues appeared in 1979 and won Strasser critical acclaim. The story itself is about, as Strasser told Nina Piwoz in Media and Methods, "a group of fairly well-to-do, suburban teenagers who get into trouble with drugs." It was based on actual events Strasser had witnessed when he was growing up. Two years later, he published another young adult novel, again based on his own experiences. "My second book, Friends till the End, is about a healthy teenager who has a friend who becomes extremely ill with leukemia," he explained to Piwoz. "When I moved to New York, I had a roommate . . . an old friend of mine. Within a few weeks, he became very ill. I spent a year visiting him in the hospital, not knowing whether he was going to live or die."

Rock 'n' Roll Nights, Strasser's third novel under his own name, was a change of pace from the serious themes of his first two works. "It's about a teenage rock and roll band—something with which I had absolutely no direct experience," he told Piwoz. "However, I grew up in the 1960s when rock and roll was really our 'national anthem.' I relate much better to rock stars than to politicians. I always wanted to be in a rock band, as did just about everybody I knew." "I think the kind of music teens listen to may change, or what they wear may change," Strasser continued, "but dealing with being popular, friends or the opposite sex, or questions of morality and decency . . . [I don't think] those things really ever change. I hate to say this, but I think authors tell the same stories—just in today's language and in today's settings." Strasser continued the story of the band "Coming Attractions" in two sequels, Turn It Up! and Wildlife.

In his other works, Strasser continues to write hard-hitting, realistic stories about teenagers and their problems. For example, The Accident, which Strasser adapted for ABC-TV's Afterschool Special under the title "Over the Limit," deals with a drunken-driving incident in which three of four high-school swimming stars are killed. The surviving teen commits himself to understanding what actually happened the night of the accident, in a novel that, in the opinion of Horn Book reviewer Margaret A. Bush, "reads well and competently uses the troublesome occurrence of drunk driving and teenage death to provoke thought and discussion on multifaceted issues."

Strasser has also produced a large number of lighthearted books for middle-graders. The Mall from Outer Space is about aliens who have chosen, for mysterious reasons of their own, to construct shopping centers on Earth. Hey Dad, Get a Life! finds twelve-year-old Kelly and younger sister Sasha haunted by their deceased father. Ghostly Dad proves to be a great help around the house—he makes the girls' beds, tidies their room, does their homework, and even helps out on the soccer field. Booklist contributor Debbie Carton called the work a "light-hearted and occasionally poignant ghost story" that features "appealing, believable characters and a satisfying plot." Equally laudatory in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, Deborah Stevenson described Hey, Dad, Get a Life! as "touchingly yet surprisingly cheerful," calling it "a compassionate and accessible tale of a family's adjustment to loss."

Several novels reveal Strasser's more quirky, humorous side. Girl Gives Birth to Own Prom Date finds ardent environmentalist Nicole taking time off from saving the world to transform her grungy next-door neighbor Chase into the perfect prom date. Praising the novel's "goofy plot twists" and "effervescent dialogue," a Kirkus Reviews critic noted that Strasser's "high humor doesn't detract" from his "understated message about nonconformity and self-acceptance." The author's "Help! I'm Trapped" books position their young protagonists in everything from the unwieldy body of Santa Claus to the summer camp from hell. In Help! I'm Trapped in Obedience School, for example, Jake's dog Lance switches bodies with Jake's friend Andy, and while Andy excels at most things doggy—although he never quite acquires a taste for dog food—Jake spends his time in human form chasing squirrels and barking during school. Calling Strasser's tale "briskly paced," Booklist contributor Chris Sherman wrote that the "easy, breezy" story would appeal to reluctant readers. School Library Journal contributor Cheryl Cufari predicted that readers will relate to the "predicaments in which Strasser's energetic boys find themselves and enjoy this light, entertaining read."

Strasser once remarked, "Since I've written [many] books about teenagers, people often ask me how I know what today's teens are like. It's true that . . . years have passed since I qualified for that age group, so I suppose the question has some merit. I think the single most important thing I do to keep up with teens is accept invitations to speak at junior high and high schools all over the country. This year, for instance, I visited schools in Alaska, Iowa, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Colorado. Thus, I'm not only able to keep up with teens, but with teens from all over the country.

"Another question I'm often asked is why I concentrate solely on books for teens. Well, actually, I don't. . . . I guess I originally wrote a lot of books for teens because that was where I had my first success and felt the most confident. But as I grow older, I find my interests widening not only towards writing books for older people, but for younger ones as well. I'd like to think that the day will come when I will write books for people of all ages, from three to eighty-three.

"The other day, someone who didn't know me well said that because I was a writer I must be a 'free spirit' and lead a wonderful life. At first I wanted to tell him he was completely wrong, but then I thought about it and decided he was only half wrong. In a way, I am a free spirit, in that I am free to pick any idea or topic and write about it. That, indeed, is a wonderful freedom, and I am grateful to have it. Along with that freedom, however, comes an awful lot of hard work. Unless you are fortunate enough to be one of the handful of perpetual best-selling writers in this world, you really can not make a living writing a book every two or three years. My work is about as close to 'nine-to-five' as my schedule allows. Being a writer is great, but I can't say it's easy."

Biographical and Critical Sources

BOOKS

Children's Literature Review, Volume 11, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1986.

Nilsen, Alleen Pace, and Kenneth L. Donelson, Literature for Today's Young Adults, second edition, Scott, Foresman (Glenview, IL), 1985.

Roginski, Jim, Behind the Covers: Interviews with Authors and Illustrators of Books for Children and Young Adults, Libraries Unlimited (Littleton, CO), 1985.

St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers, 2nd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.

PERIODICALS

Best Sellers, May, 1983, p. 75; June, 1984, p. 118.

Booklist, May 1, 1995, p. 1564; February 1, 1996, Chris Sherman, review of Help! I'm Trapped in Obedience School, p. 932; October 1, 1996, p. 344; February 15, 1997, Debbie Carton, review of Hey Dad, Get a Life!, p. 1024; October 1, 2000, Michael Cart, review of Give a Boy a Gun, p. 337; April 15, 2003, Ed Sullivan, review of CON-fidence, p. 1472.

Book Report, November, 1993, Annette Thorson, "Author Profile: Todd Strasser," p. 30.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, February, 1980, p. 120; June, 1995, p. 361; March, 1997, Deborah Stevenson, review of Hey Dad, Get a Life!, p. 259; February, 1999, p. 219.

English Journal, September, 1982, p. 87; January, 1985; December, 1985; December, 1986; November, 1987, p. 93; March, 1988, p. 85.

Horn Book, April, 1980, p. 178; April, 1983, p. 175; May-June, 1985, p. 321; March-April, 1986, Todd Strasser, "Stalking the Teen," pp. 236-239; January-February, 1989, Margaret A. Bush, review of The Accident, p. 82; January, 1990, p. 90.

Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, March, 2002, Devon Clancy Sanner, review of Give a Boy a Gun, p. 547.

Journal of Youth Services in Libraries, fall, 1988, pp. 64-70.

Kirkus Reviews, May 15, 1992, p. 676; August 1, 1996, review of Girl Gives Birth to Own Prom Date, p. 1158; September 1, 1998, p. 1293; December 1, 2002, review of CON-fidence, p. 1775; March 1, 2003, review of Thief of Dreams, p. 399.

Library Journal, January, 1988, p. 100.

Media and Methods, February, 1983, Nina Piwoz, "The Writers Are Writing: I Was a Teenage Boy—An Interview with Todd Strasser."

Publishers Weekly, November 27, 1981, p. 88; April 24, 1987, p. 73; December 4, 1987, p. 63; November 25, 2002, review of CON-fidence, p. 69; February 24, 2003, review of Thief of Dreams, p. 73.

School Library Journal, January, 1980, p. 81; March, 1982, p. 160; August, 1983, p. 80; August, 1984, p. 87; April, 1985, p. 100; February, 1988, p. 75; June-July, 1988, p. 59; September, 1989, p. 278; February, 1996, Cheryl Cufari, Help! I'm Trapped in Obedience School, p. 104; January 1, 2000, Shelle Rosenfeld, review of Here Comes Heavenly, p. 906; August, 2000, Jane Halsall, review of Pastabilities, p. 190; September, 2000, Vicki Reutter, review of Give a Boy a Gun, p. 237; March, 2003, Todd Morning, review of Thief of Dreams, p. 241.

Teacher Librarian, February, 2003, Teri S. Lesesne, "Surfing for Readers: An Interview with Todd Strasser," p. 48.

Variety, March 22, 1990, p. 14.

Voice of Youth Advocates, June, 1981, p. 32; December, 1982, p. 36; October, 1983, p. 209; June, 1984, p. 98; June, 1985, p. 136; December, 1986; December, 1988, p. 242; October, 1989, p. 217; October, 1995, p. 224; April, 1997, pp. 22, 33.

Writer's Digest, December, 1979.

ONLINE

Todd Strasser Home Page, http://www.toddstrasser.com/ (April 10, 2003).*

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