"I'm not ready to be a grownup yet."
With that simple admission, author Michael J. Bowler sums up the essence of young adult literature. So often, writers try to make their teenage characters seem more put together than they really are. It could be a ploy, telling young readers what they want to hear, that authority figures suck. It could be a marketing strategy that love equals sex because sex sells. It could be the belief that teenagers are looking to escape their problems, not solve them, so let's keep them disconnected because they want to be. But that kind of mentality is shortchanging a smart and capable teenage audience.
Yet again and again, publishers choose to spit out the same old story that teenagers don't need adults, feeding them the line that they can overcome any obstacle on their own. All they need is a hot love interest and they're all set, able to conquer anything that gets in their way.
But Bowler knows teens better than most. In 2000, he was invited to visit the White House when he was named the National Big Brother of the Year. For thirty years, he has volunteered within the juvenile justice system of Los Angeles, and he's been a high school teacher for a quarter of a century. He's not writing about some abstract, fantasy concept of what teenagers are supposed to be. He knows them firsthand because he's at the epicenter of youth culture, both good and bad.
That's why the adult characters in THERE IS NO FEAR are just as important as their younger counterparts. King Arthur is a father figure, the stabilizing influence for a group of troubled teens who aren't sure where they fit in or where they belong. He's a source of unconditional love because he expects them to mess up and make mistakes. He knows they're not going to be perfect. He's ready and willing to welcome them home time and again, never shutting his door to the prodigal sons in his midst. Arthur says so poignantly, "I've learned that it's ever and always my job to set a right and proper example for them. I've learned to trust them, and never, ever give up on them."
There are many touching scenes between King Arthur and his adopted son/protege, Lance. When fifteen-year-old Lance is sent to prison, Arthur waits in line outside the gate, desperate to see him. He never misses a visit. The minute he arrives, he's anxiously watching for Lance's face behind the barred window to his cell.
Another key moment is when Arthur has a heart-to-heart with Lance about the abuse he suffered at the hands of his foster father. There is a lot of pain that gets dredged up in that conversation, but Arthur is astute enough to realize that Lance has been carrying around a lot of heavy misconceptions about himself that need to be addressed and set right. It's a talk that's not easy to have, but it's one that Arthur doesn't shy away from.
A second adult worthy of mention is Merlin. Although he only makes one appearance of merit in THERE IS NO FEAR, it's an important one. Lance is foundering under a false sense of identity. He thinks he has to be perfect to be truly worthy anyone's love. But Merlin sets him right, saying, "In this era there seems to be an obsession with the perfect male and the perfect female, and if you cannot live up to those ideals you are somehow a failure. These idealized notions of perfection are like your Hollywood movies, Lance–pure fantasy. Do not destroy yourself because you cannot measure up to the fantasy image of the perfect boy. Would that you could see yourself through my eyes, you would see a true hero, an amazing young man who is more real than most." And that's a certainly a message all media-obsessed teens need to hear—it's okay to be yourself.
If Bowler could be there for every teen out there, you get the sense that he would. However, even if he can't personally visit each and every teen, he's able to reach a lot more through his books. Bowler is an author deserving of a wide spread audience, especially among inner city youth who are at risk of becoming just another statistic in the criminal justice system, like many of the boys Lance meets in prison. They need to hear that they're not mistakes, and that they're loved and someone cares about them. And if Bowler's unable to get to them personally, I think he hopes that his readers will take up the cause, because he can't do it alone, he needs help. Social change may start with one person, but it culminates with the active participation of the many.
The Round Table-inspired works of Bowler's are certainly meant to entertain, but they do so much more than that. They're the trumpet call in the night. They're the summoning sword held aloft. They're a call to action to right the many injustices facing the world today. It's up to readers whether or not they want to remain passive bystanders, who read simply as a means of escape, or if they're willing to take Bowler up on his offer and join the New Camelot because it's real and it's there, waiting right outside the pages of this book.