James (W.) Bennett Biography (1942-)
Writer James Bennett draws heavily on personal experience in his novels for young adult readers. His high school-aged protagonists are often emotionally or intellectually confused individuals unable to summon the emotional strength to deal with the circumstances that confront them in school, at home, and in other social situations. Only the caring, compassionate support of others can provide Bennett's characters with a resilient lifeline to adulthood. "I would like my readers to recognize that the handicapped are not throw-away people," Bennett told Publishers Weekly interviewer Lynda Brill Comerford. "Within them lies enormous courage and a strong nourishing drive."
Bennett's experiences as an intern for a local newspaper during his undergraduate studies in Illinois prompted his first thoughts of becoming a writer. Subsequent graduate studies in English at Illinois State University led Bennett to a career teaching creative writing to community college students. In 1975, however, Bennett suffered an emotional breakdown; during his recovery in a psychiatric hospital, he began to view writing as a way of expressing his feelings and promoting an increased awareness of the plight of many who are challenged by mental and emotional disorders.
During the period of his own hospitalization in the late 1970s, Bennett was particularly troubled by the acquaintance of a young woman, a fellow patient who was notably emotionally withdrawn. I Can Hear the Mourning Dove, his first novel, is based on his impressions of that young woman. "I knew nothing about the girl's background or diagnosis," Bennett explained to Comerford. "She was difficult to approach, but I realized that it was worth the effort to get through her shy exterior and discover the human being inside." In addition to recreating the young patient's speech and mannerisms—both on and off medication—in his novel, Bennett had to do some extensive research into the world of female adolescents to realistically portray his young heroine. Three years of effort culminated in Bennett's first highly praised work for young adults. Published in 1990, I Can Hear the Mourning Dove is the story of Grace Braun, a sixteen-year-old "crazy wild" adolescent attempting to return to the outside world after spending several weeks in the supportive environment of a hospital psychiatric unit following her most recent unsuccessful attempt at suicide. This was not Grace's first stay in a psychiatric ward: she has suffered from periods of depression for many years. The recent death of her father and the stressful transition to a new school add to the young woman's difficulties in readjusting to "normal" teen life after her release; unfortunately, it takes only the hateful actions of a group of rowdy, uncaring teens to send her back to the hospital in a highly depressed state. Fortunately, Grace's condition improves with the help of her psychiatrist, her mother, and Luke Wolf, a brash and angry teen hospitalized in police custody after he knowingly killed a paralyzed friend. "Few novels written for teenagers have dared to probe as deeply into mental illness" as I Can Hear the Mourning Dove, according to Stephanie Zvirin, who praised Bennett's novel in Booklist. "With tenderness and remarkable insight, Bennett identifies the causes and effects of Grace's suffering," noted a Publishers Weekly reviewer.
In the novel Dakota Dream, teen protagonist Floyd Rayfield has replaced his early childhood memories of his natural mother and father with those of a long sequence of foster families and group homes. With a desperate need to belong somewhere, fifteen-year-old Floyd creates an internal sense of being a part of something by convincing himself that he is really a misplaced Dakota Indian; his main goal now becomes escaping the foster care system and joining "his people." Stealing a motorcycle, the young man makes an eight-hundred-mile journey to the Dakota tribe's Pine Ridge Reservation, where a vision quest taken with Chief Bear-in-Cave and the active intervention of a naive but compassionate social worker help him to understand the real reasons for his fight against inflexible teachers and insensitive social workers. A Kirkus Reviews critic praised Dakota Dream, writing that the "dynamics between a thoughtful boy struggling to keep his unique spark alive and the oblivious public employees doing their best to quench it are poignantly realized." Deborah Stevenson of the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books maintained that "this is a measured, serious story and Floyd, not your stereotypical problem kid, is admirable in his devotion and application." Voice of Youth Advocates contributor Shirley Carmony added: "Floyd is finely drawn and comes painfully alive for the reader."
Like Bennett's other novels, 1995's The Squared Circle features a teen struggling to deal with a series of emotional problems. This time, though, Sonny Youngblood must also try to cope with his mother's mental breakdown as she spirals toward hospitalization. Basketball provides the eighteen-year-old high school senior with an escape, and when his obsession with the game helps him to earn a sports scholarship to a university, it appears that he is on the verge of burying his troubles for good. But life becomes more complicated as a growing friendship with his cousin, a university art professor, and Sonny's firsthand, freshman-year experience with big-time college sports and all of its trappings propel him toward self-understanding and maturity. "Interwoven around gritty, occasionally brutish, guys-only scenes of fraternity hazing, basketball team practice, and tension-filled games is an acutely perceptive account of a young man's emotional and intellectual awakening," asserted a Publishers Weekly reviewer. Calling the novel "a sobering read," Tom S. Hurlburt recommended in a School Library Journal review that The Squared Circle "should be thrust into the hands of any high school students who are contemplating playing revenue-producing sports" at large colleges or universities. "It is difficult to adequately describe the power of this book," exclaimed Dorothy M. Broderick in Voice of Youth Advocates. "It is a masterpiece."
In Blue Star Rapture, Bennett further examines issues related to unrealistic demands placed on teenagers and on corruption in scouting and recruiting of collegiate athletes. In the book, T. J. Nucci and his friend Tyron receive invitations to attend a high-profile basketball camp swarming with reporters, college recruiters, and others all making tempting offers to budding college stars. Though Tyron suffers from a learning disability, the six-foot-nine ballplayer is a talented athlete, with a natural skill that heralds a promising future in the professional ranks. T. J. lacks Tyron's innate abilities with the ball but is still approached by several recruiters and agents. Suspicious of their motives, T. J. soon realizes that the coaches and recruiters are interested in him not for any athletic ability but for his influence over the sometimes volatile Tyron. They want T. J. to help persuade Tyron to accept particular offers or attend particular schools. Overwhelmed by the pressure and the blatant unethical behavior surrounding him, T. J. goes for a walk to clear his thoughts and in the process meets LuAnn, a troubled attendee at a religious camp adjacent to the basketball camp. The camp that LuAnn attends is little more than a religious cult, and her own fragile psychological condition, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, and intense manipulation by the cult lead her to commit suicide. T. J. finds the unethical sports recruiting to be as despicable as the religious brainwashing and confronts issues of his own self-preservation versus his long-term role as Tyrone's unofficial protector. "Rarely in YA fiction is a protagonist as authentic as T. J.," thought Roger Leslie in Booklist. "He is an admirable, thoroughly believable character with a solid moral core." A Publishers Weekly reviewer noted that "While the pitfalls of religious fanaticism are clearly drawn, the ills of sports recruitment are more ambiguous." Although Mary Ann Capan, writing in Voice of Youth Advocates, remarked that the individual issues of the book were not explored in sufficient depth, she went on to claim that "this issue-laden novel honestly explores the politics of college sports recruitment."
Plunking Reggie Jackson also addresses the harmful effects of a too-deep obsession with sports and athletic achievement. Coley Burke is on top of the world at his central Illinois high school. One of the popular kids, Coley is a talented baseball player with a beautiful girlfriend and a promising future of a college athletic scholarship, or maybe an offer to join a pro team directly from high school. But when Coley's grades begin to slip, jeopardizing his scholastic eligibility to play, his world begins to collapse around him. His difficult and overbearing father—a man so obsessed with baseball that he keeps a life-sized bronze statue of Reggie Jackson in his back yard—begins to criticize and pressure him intensely. Unresolved issues surrounding the earlier death of his older brother, Patrick—a major league ballplayer—threaten to damage Coley and his family. Eventually, Coley's poor grades and a severe ankle injury confine him to the bench and make him ineligible to play during some critical games. Coley must find a way to overcome the abundant guilt, sadness, and pressure facing him from all sides or be destroyed before his career can even begin. "The ambitious novel borders on soap opera at times," commented Shelle Rosenfeld in Booklist. However, Rosenfeld praised the "straightforward prose," the appeal of the baseball background, and the "portrait of a teen's self-doubts." A Publishers Weekly reviewer remarked that Bennett "provides a frank, insightful psychological study of a troubled teen." Elizabeth Bush, reviewing the book in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, commented that Plunking Reggie Jackson relies too much on "stock plotlines pumped dry for dramatic effect and then swept tidily under the carpet." Despite that complaint, however, Bush noted that "There's just enough genuine baseball action, however, to keep sports enthusiasts turning the pages, and teens whose tastes run to daytime drama might even find some guilty pleasures here." Although Todd Morning, writing in School Library Journal, found the ending "abrupt and simplistic," he found that Bennett nonetheless "presents characters that are compelling and real, against a realistic background of high school life and sports action."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Booklist, January 15, 1991, Stephanie Zvirin, review of I Can Hear the Mourning Dove, p. 1052; January 15, 1994, p. 918; December 15, 1995, Susan Dove Lempke, review of The Squared Circle, p. 697; April 15, 1998, Roger Leslie, review of Blue Star Rapture, p. 1438; April 1, 2001, Shelle Rosenfeld, review of Plunking Reggie Jackson, p. 1458.
Book Report, January-February, 1999, Harolyn Legg, review of Blue Star Rapture, p. 59.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, February, 1994, Deborah Stevenson, review of Dakota Dream, p. 192; February, 2001, Elizabeth Bush, review of Plunking Reggie Jackson, pp. 214-215.
Kirkus Reviews, February 1, 1994, review of Dakota Dream, p. 138; November 1, 1995; March 1, 1998, p. 334.
Publishers Weekly, July 13, 1990, review of I Can Hear the Mourning Dove, p. 57; December 21, 1990, Lynda Brill Comerford, "Flying Starts: New Faces of 1990," interview with James W. Bennett, p. 15; November 20, 1995, review of The Squared Circle, p. 79; March 30, 1998, review of Blue Star Rapture, pp. 83-84; January 1, 2001, review of Plunking Reggie Jackson, p. 94.
School Library Journal, December, 1995, Tom S. Hurlburt, review of The Squared Circle, p. 128; February, 2001, Todd Morning, review of Plunking Reggie Jackson, p. 117.
Voice of Youth Advocates, October, 1990, pp. 213-214; April, 1994, Shirley Carmony, review of Dakota Dream, pp. 22-23; February, 1996, Dorothy M. Broderick, review of The Squared Circle, p. 379; December, 1998, Mary Ann Capan, review of Blue Star Rapture, p. 352.
James W. Bennett Home Page, http://www.jameswbennett. com/ (March 21, 2004).
Brief BiographiesBiographies: Miguel Angel Asturias: 1899-1974: Writer to Don Berrysmith Biography - Grew up in the Pacific NorthwestJames (W.) Bennett (1942-) Biography - Personal, Career, Honors Awards, Writings, Work in Progress, Sidelights