Francesca Lia Block, I Was a Teenage Fairy (Joanna Cotler Books, 2000)

My youngest sister was always prettier than I was. She had the long, graceful nose, proud forehead, slender neck, and dainty oval-shaped face that was perfect for modelling, at least in my ignorant opinion. Her hair was rich and brown and as thick as chocolate — so thick that it was almost impossible to braid, so thick that it threatened to snap the hair-tie it was so often bound up in. She had grace, she had poise, she could shimmy into tube tops and make them look good, she could sprint in high heels. She could magically manipulate makeup to make herself look years older. She was tall without being lanky, slender without being skinny, mature-looking with just the right hint of girlish cuteness lingering in her features. She could have been a star, a real supermodel. I hated her guts. However, after reading the dark, intriguing tale I Was a Teenage Fairy, even I wouldn't have wished a fate as horrible as modelling upon her.

First things first, don't be fooled by the juvenile title. There have always been cheap, dog-eared franchise paperbacks in the children's book bargain bin with the titles like I Was a Teenage Frankenstein or I Was a Teenage Werewolf. This book is in no way aimed at any child below the age of 14. It deals with several touchy subjects such as masturbation, sex, homosexuality, and pedophilia. The adults in this book are portrayed as soulless, ambitious people perfectly willing to selfishly live through their children or abandon them completely. There is harsh language and drug use. If this were a movie, it would have easily gained an "R" rating.

This novel begins with eleven-year-old Barbie Markowitz being thrust into the modelling spotlight by her former beauty-queen mother. With her father practically ignoring her, and her controlling mother paying all too much attention to her, Barbie can only find solace with her best friend, Mab. Mab, by the way, is the Teenage Fairy of the title. With fiery purple-red hair and delicate green skin, Mab is a cranky, foul-mouthed, and incredibly unpredictable pixie who longs to be photographed and craves "biscuits" (her code word for handsome specimens of the male persuasion). Mab is the only being in the world able to keep Barbie from becoming a complete doormat before her thoughtless parents. Soon after being introduced to the flashing world of cameras and lights, something horrible happens to Barbie. Something twisted and evil, something completely wrong that has no place in our society. Barbie is forced to cling to Mab in order to keep her soul and her sanity intact.

That is the premise of this interesting and well-crafted novel. Francesca Lia Block mixes black tragedy with sparkling threads of light-hearted humour and true love. She writes with a childish, casual prose that is very effective in highlighting the startling youth of her characters as they have to make their way through a grown-up world. All of her main characters have a weakness, or a unique habit, or a particular secret that is responsible for the state of their soul, the individuality of their personality. There is Todd, the actor whose passionate infatuation for girls causes him to enshrine their names forever in ink upon his flesh. There is Griffin, a young homosexual model (or as Mab would call him, a "biscuit-lover") who possesses a link with Barbie neither is willing to admit they have. The narrator of this story is anonymous and omniscient, but throughout the novel it borrows the viewpoints of the characters. However, the viewpoint occasionally switches from character to character — from Mab, to Griffin, to Barbie, even (for a gruesome moment) to the villain who is responsible for the shadows in Barbie's past — without any warning or break. I found this confusing, and it was the cause of a few bumps in the book's otherwise smooth flow.

I have never read any of Francesca Lia Block's other novels, such as Weetzie Bat or Missing Angel Juan. When I first picked up this book, I, too, made the assumption that this would be a children's novel. However, once I began to actually read it, I was genuinely surprised by the intensity of her writing. This book is in no way going to compete for the feel-good novel of the year, but it has heart and soul all the same.

[Elizabeth Vail]