By SAM SACKS
One of the novelist's vital, if unenviable, duties is to inhabit the perspectives of society's most detested members—drug addicts, dictators, Red Sox fans, and now, in Teddy Wayne's deft and delightful "The Love Song of Jonny Valentine" (Free Press, 285 pages, $24.99), a bubble-gum pop star.
Jonny, an 11-year-old Justin Bieber doppelgänger and the novel's narrator, was Jonathan Valentino in blue-collar St. Louis until YouTube clips of his singing catapulted him to fame as a tween heartthrob. Jonny's manager is his whip-cracking mother, Jane, and the story follows the American tour promoting his second album, "Guys vs. Girls." ("Girls and guys, burgers and fries / All gets ruined with a coupla lies," goes the title track.)
Along the way, Jonny goes on an image-enhancing staged "date" with a teenage songstress, gets caught by the tabloids drinking in a Memphis nightclub and sneaks a groupie into his hotel room. It's all incredibly easy to mock, and Mr. Wayne's wisest decision is to mock none of it. His pop idol is at heart an awkward and introspective prepubescent boy, albeit one who has to worry about evading stalkers and putting on "stomach chub." He is also, Mr. Wayne shows, nearly friendless, and the novel's touching (and unexpectedly suspenseful) adjoining plotline tracks his surreptitious attempts to reunite with his father, who ran out on him and Jane before he was famous.
Mr. Wayne saves his sharpest digs for the people Jonny's fans would call haters, those who hypocritically cast judgment on the singer while obsessing over him. After reading a sneering New York Times op-ed that bashes his mother (this and other spot-on media parodies are sprinkled throughout), Jonny thinks: "This writer made it sound like she was above it all . . . but she was using us for content the same as any gossip blogger to advance her career, and gulping it down just like the public."
That's a pretty sophisticated observation for an 11-year-old, and this is the book's lone stumbling block. Jonny's weird parrotings of industry jargon are reliably funny—when a club bouncer fails to recognize him, Jonny laments, "I don't have much penetration into the urban-male demo"—but he sometimes betrays an unlikely level of jaded self-awareness. Still, if his voice isn't always believable, it's so frank and engaging that few readers will seriously object. Last year saw vibrantly ticked-off fictional critiques of American entertainment in Ben Fountain's "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" and Bruce Wagner's "Dead Stars"; Mr. Wayne's novel is a sweeter, softer-edged satire of the pop-culture carnival.
Karen Russell also struggled to capture the voice of a child narrator in the 2011 novel "Swamplandia!," but her trouble was a tendency toward nose-crinkling cutesiness and grandstanding lyricism. Perhaps unsurprisingly, some of the weaker stories in her collection "Vampires in the Lemon Grove" (Knopf, 243 pages, $24.95) take the points of view of kids. "Proving Up" follows a gratingly earnest young homesteader in 19th-century Nebraska; "The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis" is about a notorious bully's comeuppance, fashioned on Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart." At one point the narrator describes a guilty secret kicking like "a wild thumper of a rabbit inside me," proving that even Ms. Russell's bullies talk like Disney cartoons.
The same sense of twee novelty prevails in other stories (the puzzling gag in "The Barn at the End of Our Term" is that former presidents have been reincarnated as horses). But there are also encouraging signs that Ms. Russell is deepening her material. "The New Veterans" is about a masseuse treating an Iraq war veteran for severe PTSD. The soldier has a tattoo on his back of a battlefield tragedy, and the masseuse discovers that, by manipulating it, she can alter his memories of the event. It's a labored premise (and one reminiscent of Ray Bradbury's "The Illustrated Man"), but it allows Ms. Russell to delve into the morality of fostering therapeutic delusions—of "push[ing] the truth under his skin."
The best story, "Reeling for the Empire," tints the author's customary whimsy with horror and black magic. In Meiji Japan, the government doses a group of girls with a drug that turns them into human silkworms. The "reelers" are forced to spin silk from their fingertips while watching themselves become insectoid monsters. The story's eerie melancholy gives what might have been another kitschy vignette the heft of a classic tale of the supernatural.
A version of this article appeared February 9, 2013, on page C10 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Tween Angel.