No pressure, Jo Ann Beard, but what took you so long?

It's been more than decade since I first picked up "The Boys of My Youth," Beard's collection of autobiographical stories that traversed the murky iconography of her 1960s childhood.

I reread it so many times that the pages were dotted with telltale chocolate smudges. I bought extra copies whenever I ran across them and pressed them onto friends.

And all along, I searched in vain for Jo Ann Beard's next book.

A book that never seemed to materialize.

Imagine, then, my excitement when I learned that publication of Beard's long-awaited debut novel, "In Zanesville," was imminent.

Suddenly I had a new problem. What if the book were a letdown?

Lucky for Beard devotees as well as the uninitiated, any such fears were unfounded, and the early adolescent heroines of this delightful, genre-straddling new novel are a pure delight.

Set in the sleepy Midwestern town of Zanesville, Ill., in the early '70s, the 14-year-old narrator spends every waking moment with her best friend, Felicia. In their alternate universe of imaginary twinship and girlhood mischief, stray kittens and nightmarish baby-sitting gigs distract the protagonist from her real problems: an overworked mother, evil older sister and an alcoholic father.

In its zanier moments, the book reads a bit like a YA buddy novel, yet Beard's full-length debut also possesses the emotional heft of the best grown-folks fiction. As the two girls cling to their childhoods, they struggle to keep their friendship from changing just as much as their bodies. ("I do miss childhood," the narrator muses. "[O]ne long trance state, broken only by bouts of sickening family discord.")

Beard is at her best chronicling the stomach-tightening insecurities of adolescence -- oh, the angst! -- a time when even the smallest events are scrutinized for hidden significance. Still, it's thrilling to watch the wry wit found in Beard's previous work blossom into full-on laughs, and rare is the reader who will fail to smirk over the menstruation mishaps and budding boy trouble the besties suffer through at John Deere Middle School. (One friend, the narrator notes, "offers tampons to people the way missionaries hand out Bibles. She believes in them.")

Similarly, the enormous quilted brassieres of the narrator's mother were once an object of humor; as her childhood comes to an end, the sight of them takes on a more sinister cast.

"Now when I see them on the laundry table, one cup folded into the other, I have a sense of impending doom. It's like being on your way to the Alps and knowing that when you get there you'll have to wear lederhosen."

Of course, unearthing hilarious truths like this has always been at the heart of this stunning author's work.

We can only hope Beard won't make us wait so long for her next book.

  • Andrea Hoag is a Lawrence, Kan., book critic.