cover image I Was a Teenage Fairy

I Was a Teenage Fairy

Francesca Lia Block. Joanna Cotler Books, $14.95 (192pp) ISBN 978-0-06-027747-5

This disarming new book by the ever-inventive Block (the Weetzie Bat books) seems at once more fantastic and more of a YA ""problem novel"" than her previous titles. At about the same time that her ex-beauty queen mom pushes her into modeling, 11-year-old Barbie--named after the doll--meets Mab, an acid-tongued, winged beauty: ""a teenage girl-thing who was the size of most teenage girls' littlest fingers."" Block proposes different ways to understand Mab: ""Maybe Mab was real... Maybe not. Maybe Mab was the fury. Maybe she was the courage. Maybe later on she was the sex."" In any event, Mab's friendship sustains Barbie after she is molested by a prominent photographer, a violation her mother aggravates by turning her head the other way. The novel jumps ahead five years, when Barbie has a flourishing career as a model but is stunted emotionally and artistically (she wants to be a photographer but can't summon the creative energy). Here the characters and settings will be familiar to the author's fans: a glamorous would-be boyfriend with a profoundly sympathetic gay best friend; impossibly hip restaurants and clubs; a house converted from a legendary Hollywood hotel. Barbie finally overcomes her psychic wounds by unmasking the predatory photographer; in this section, Block compares Barbie and Mab to comic book superheroes, and in fact, they behave with an exaggerated flatness, as if the author were squeezing them into a happy ending one or two sizes too small. Elsewhere, however, the writing is among Block's supplest. The prose, less obviously lush than in previous books, sustains steady crescendos of insight. This fairy tale is too pointedly a social critique to be entirely magical, but its spell feels real. Ages 12-up. (Oct.)