30. Missing Angel Juan by Francesca Lia Block

Published in 1995 by HarperTeen.

Deemed a Best Book/Best Pick by the American Library AssociationSchool Library Journal and The New York Public Library, among others.

“… I put the flower in a teacup and look at myself in the mirror I found on the street. I can hardly stand to see my face. Pinchy and hungry-looking. I don’t need a hummingbird around my neck for people to see I am searching for love.”

Witch Baby, snarly-haired drummer girl loner, doesn’t feel like she fits, not really… apart from the times when she’s making music or love or everyday magic with her big-dreaming boyfriend, Angel Juan. Angel keeps the confused, restlessly aching parts of Witch Baby from scattering into the abyss of the latter’s personal demons. He brings her as much tender solace as he does ungovernable fire, so when he announces that he must journey from Los Angeles, where the couple live merrily, to New York, as part of his own vision quest, the bottom falls out from Witch Baby’s world. She must find him, she swears to herself, because life without her anchor Juan is unbearable. With the blessing of her almost-mom Weetzie Bat, and armed with a camera for clear sight, Witch Baby follows her love to New York, where the quotidian glitter beckons differently. Companioned by her ghostly grandfather, Charlie, the pair scour the city, encountering a whirlwind of delight and disaster in not-so-equal measure, keeping the faith that Angel Juan will cross their path before it’s entirely too late.

Here is something to love best about Francesca Lia Block’s writing for young adults: it doesn’t condescend to young adults, which is ironically rare fare in a genre that ought to be highlighted for its compassionate understanding. Block trusts that hearts not straddling the full saddle of adulthood can still articulate, in startling relief, all that they hold, as witnessed in this early letter from Witch Baby to her distant inamorato.

“Dear Angel Juan,

You used to guard my sleep like a panther biting back my pain with the edge of your teeth. You carried me into the dark dream jungle, loping past the hungry vines, crossing the shiny fish-scale river. We left my tears behind in a churning silver pool. We left my sorrow in the muddy hollows. When I woke up you were next to me, damp and matted, your eyes hazy, trying to remember the way I clung to you, how far down we went.

Was the journey too far, Angel Juan? Did we go too far?”

This isn’t parochial writing for young people, either — we’re gifted access to a panorama of intricacies that knit relationships together, or else wrench them apart:  two people loving each other is incomprehensible work, Block seems to be advocating, even with the full current of adoration coursing betwixt their hearts.

A cursory skimming of the novel’s plot might suggest that Witch Baby is 1995’s answer to the dependent Donna — a  comely young woman concerned principally with the acquisition and maintenance of a male partner. Witch Baby isn’t Bella Swan with a more bohemian title, however. Quite the contrary: the former’s observant rollerbladings through New York, and the ways in which she interfaces with the clues lined up for her personal edification, are engineered most tenderly to prompt an alternative ending for young people: that partner-prompted identification is no way to declare your definitive personage.

Block’s writing is luminescently unapologetic, not just in message but also in delivery: it is suffused and star-studded with multiple sonnets to beauty stuffed in each paragraph. Yes, to the angular reader, this lyricism will weigh heavily. The accusation that she writes from behind a gauzy, magically realist smokescreen has hounded the Weetzie Bat books, and in truth, the glitz and the diction-decoration is no less evident in this fourth installment. For some, this will represent too-muchness, and the reading will represent pulling factual teeth. For others, there will be revelry, merry traipsing through a heavily-imaged carnival. The language and the life it inhabits on the page are technicolour, certainly, but I’d posit that the aforementioned smokescreen doesn’t exist. If there is a barrier between the sober world of absolutes, and the way in which Block uses words, consider it instead to be a perfumed veil, a safety net for the suspension of your disbelief.

“A conspicuous love of vegetarian food runs through the book like a peaceful hippie emblem,” I wrote in the margins of my journal while reading. It’s true: Witch Baby’s family lives off their cornucopia of love and non-meat products, feasting on “vegetarian lasagna, edible flower salad and fruit-juice-sweetened apple pie” the night that Angel Juan breaks his terrain-altering news. The Jamaican cab driver who transports Witch Baby to her first destination in New York tells her that she won’t find many angels in that meat-packing district, with its implied dream-crushing, carnivorous redolence. Indeed, the consumption of a deliciously meaty hamburger is pivotal in Witch Baby’s squaring off against a soul crushing nemesis. At first, I was inclined to think of this as a little… precious. This waned, though, upon the consideration that the author’s prerogative, maybe particularly with young adult writing, is to shape the sort of world that best inspires our ardent commitment to living. If this means a world of nutty Guru Chews, armloads of fresh produce and honey-flavoured tea, one could arguably do worse.

What makes Witch Baby better than Bella Swan? Maybe it’s the fact that the sounds of drumming makes her come alive, even when she’s crushed beneath the weight of missing her beloved. It might have something to do with her ruminations on a pair of Egyptian mummies, her wondering

“if that king and queen ever screamed at each other and cried in the night with pain and desire or if they always looked so sleek and lazy-lotus-eyed.”

Perhaps it’s linked to the ways in which she can find inspiration winking behind and before the lens of her camera, the way she thinks about time and space, the fact that she curates bulletin boards of universal suffering. Missing Angel Juan can’t be said to show Witch Baby at her best, since it plummets her into the messy business of personal landscaping. Instead, it offers a portrait of a girl in the full-throated glow of her electric, sexy drumbeat of self-discovery. This could be said to be the writer’s most nimbly-articulated message, the one she hopes you will carry close to your chest, stitched into the folds of your skirts: that Witch Baby is beautiful, that so are you.