It should be acknowledged from the outset that Joyce Carol Oates is one of America's greatest living writers. For decades, her prolific pen has produced novels and nonfiction and criticism, at the rate of two or three books a year, and she does this while serving as a professor at Princeton University.

The year 2002 saw Oates take on yet another genre with the publication of Big Mouth and Ugly Girl, her first novel for young people. This month, Small Avalanches, a compilation of tales for teens and young adults that includes classic stories as well as new work, arrives on bookshelves. Kids don't know how lucky they are.

Oates' trademark is her ability to tap, uncontrived, into the danger that's implicit in everyday life, from the tragic slide of old age in The Visit to the volatile stranger in the title piece, Small Avalanches. Reality isn't a barrier to Oates either. Death shows up in denim in Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? and ghosts, both benign and deadly, drift through The Sky Blue Ball and the appropriately titled Haunted.

These days, it seems as if kids are treated as future consumers of bestseller fiction. All the more reason teens should read books by writers such as Oates. It's surprising that she waited so long to tackle the young adult genre. She must remember her childhood vividly, because the words her characters say and the thoughts they think ring so true. Her collection captures all the intensity and emotion of adolescence.

Small Avalanches isn't for the casual reader, and neither is it for the immature one, but consider this: Oates began writing novels as a teenager, long before she was ever published. The young, serious reader, and perhaps future writer, will love this compelling book. It is a look at what a writer's writer can accomplish.

James Neal Webb has two children; both are good writers.

 

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