Saturday, September 27, 2008

YA Lit - Week 6

Fat Kid Rules the World by K.L. Going - Motherless Troy lives with his ex-marine father and jock brother in New York City. Self-described as 300 pounds, Troy feels friendless and alone and lives in fear of the laughter he feels whenever others look at him. One day, while contemplating jumping in front of a subway train, but afraid the incident will be seen as funny by others, Troy meets Curt, a legendary semi-homeless drug abusing guitar playing teenager. Troy somehow ends up agreeing to form a band with Curt, even though Troy hasn't played drums since junior high school. The story then slowly shows us Troy learning to see himself, and those around him, as much more than the summation of their lives. Troy isn't just a fat kid, Curt isn't just a junkie, his father isn't just a leatherneck, and his brother isn't the popular self confident jock he appears to be. This is a funny, sad, ultimately hopeful book about a boy who learns to look at people as more than just their simple charactertistics. It helps that Going makes the action so funny at times. A cut above the usual YA lit novel.

Monster by Walter Dean Myers - Set up like it is being written as a film script, this book about a boy standing trial for murder (accused of being a lookout in a fatal drugstore robbery) deliberately obscures the narrator's guilt or innocence. I can imagine this book being used as a discussion point in classes - mock trials, the role of racism in assumptions of guilt or innocence, the position of the young black male in our society - all good fodder for high school debate, social studies, etc. The book is a fast read, and I think it would appeal to its target audience. As an adult, I felt a bit manipulated by the book, but that doesn't stop me from thinking it would be an excellent tool in the hands of a good teacher. Myers is a solid writer, and his ideas in this book are well executed.

Show Way by Jacqueline Woodson - A picture book tribute to her family's female line, Woodson gives the history of her family through their tradition of making "Show Ways," quilts pieced together by slaves and reputed to provide slaves with the map - and the hope - to run away for the north. Woodson is a poetic writer, and the design of the book is beautiful. The colors are bright and the artwork vivid and appealing. That said, I'm not sure how much appeal this book would have to a YA audience. It will be interesting to hear the discussion of this book.

Skim by Mariko Tamaki - Kim (called Skim by her classmates) is a lonely girl dabbling in wicca and angst who attends an all-girls high school in Canada. She develops a crush, which seems at least partially returned, on the artsy, bohemian English teacher, but falls into depression when the teacher retreats from her. At the same time, the school is overtaken by a relentlessly upbeat organization formed to combat teen depression and suicide after a classmate's ex-boyfriend kills himself. The art in this graphic novel is somber and weirdly beautiful in places, although the faces of the characters are often disotorted and strange. Might appeal to outsider girls, and those who chafe under the pressure to be upbeat and optimistic, even in the midst of adolescence.

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang - A sometimes heartbreaking and often funny story of a boy growing up as the first generation American born child of Taiwanese immigrants rendered in graphic novel format, this often scathing book splits the main character into an American blond side and a terrible stereotyped Chinese character (simultaneously brilliant and ridiculous, with a queue, a silly hat, black satin slippers and bad manners). At the same time, Yang intertwines the story with the mythological story of the Monkey King. Great to look at, this book would appeal to children who feel different or singled out because of their ethnic background, or for those who feel left out for some other reason they can't control (red hair, an accent, etc.). Very well done, funny, and easy to read.

Monday, September 15, 2008

YA Books - Week 5

Hanging Woods by Scott Loring Sanders. Set in the south in 1975 in a hard luck town where the mill is closing down, this story of 3 best friends could almost be viewed as the darker side of the 1980's movie Stand By Me (and earlier short story The Body by Stephen King). Walter tells the story of his summer with Mothball and Jimmy and slowly unfolds a story in which we are deliberately led to the story of Walter killing first one friend, then the other. Walter's psychosis is slowly revealed as we learn he once burned down a neighbor's house and that he has a "stronger part" that leads him to do things that he knows are wrong. Sanders creates a richly detailed place and time that leads to a thick feeling of being in the moment he writes about. He indulges in the mystery writer's penchant for not revealing key facts until late in the narrative, which really made me feel manipulated, particularly when he lets us know the details of his twisted motivation for killing Jimmy only late in the story. Twisted and dark, I really disliked the book.

One Whole and Perfect Day by Judith Clarke. This Australia-based novel is mainly the story of Lily, a sixteen year old girl whose family seems to be imploding. Her brother Lonnie has been chased out of the family by her strange and sometimes racist grandfather, angry at the boy's fecklessness and inability to stick to any one thing. Meanwhile, Lily's vague psychologist mother runs a daycare for the elderly, periodically taking in confused strays while her house falls down around her. Lonnie drifts into literature at the university and meets a wonderful girl, and Pop and Nan go through their days, Nan talking to her "imaginary" friend, and Pop wondering when things changed so much in his country. Nan decides to throw a party for Pop's 80th birthday to bring the family back together, and Lily latches on to the party as a way to have just one "whole and perfect day" - something that she fears could never happen given her family's penchant for arguments and misunderstanding. Not a lot happens in this book aside from small (and sometimes big) changes in characters, and large coincidences that lead to a happy ending. This book isn't realistic, but I liked it very much. The first 100-150 pages felt slow, but then I felt myself being sucked into this story of coincidence and small episodes of personal change and growth. That said, I'm not sure how much YA's would like this book. It might seem too slow to them. I liked it a lot though.

Deliver Us From Evie by M.E. Kerr. This is the tale of Parr Burrman, a high school Missouri farm boy who wants to get off the farm and explore life. Meanwhile, he helps around the farm and tries to reconcile his older brother's growth away from the family farm, and attempts to deal with his boyish sister's emerging identity as a lesbian, along with her developing love affair with the daughter of the powerful local bank owner. Parr is scared that his more farm loving siblings will maroon him on the farm following loves who don't share their passion for farming, but is for the most part remarkably accepting of his sister's emerging identity, even though it might offend the fundamentalist family of his new love, Angel. Evie's farmhand admirer soon leads Parr astray and the boys post a sign in town about Evie and her girlfriend. The banker goes crazy of course, and takes out his anger on the family. This ultimately drives the girls (Evie's girlfriend Patsy has a convenient trust fund) out of town and Parr's new love rejects him because of his connection to a lesbian sister. I didn't like this book very much, mainly because it felt so predictable. Take the love relationship between lovers from different sides of town from any number of books, change the lovers to two girls, and the story doesn't add much to the canon of love stories that fill popular literature.

Stoner & Spaz by Ron Koertge. This slim book is the story of Ben, a teen boy with cerebral palsy, and the friendship he forms with Colleen, the "stoner" of the pair. Linked to the high school's pre-eminent drug dealer in a damaging relationship, Colleen briefly reaches for sobriety and a more normal existence with the support of Ben and his new neighbor Marcie, but she is ultimately unable to remain sober and slips back into a drug-addled lifestyle of casual, damaging hookups and drug and alcohol abuse. Through his relationships with Colleen and Marcie, Ben, meanwhile, learns how to reach out and make connections with peers and to creep out from under his wealthy grandmother's oppressive rules. With Marcie's encouragement, Ben makes a documentary about his high school and exhibits it at a local amateur film festival, taking his passion for film and making something creative. This book really reminded me of the relationship between Marcus and Ellie in the book About A Boy by Nick Hornby, another book where a lonely, frightened boy learns to reach out to others partially through a relationship with a dangerous and unbalanced girl who he ultimately leaves behind. Both of these books disturb me in that in each, the boy grows by making a link with a dmaged girl, but then abandons the girl when her demons appear too large for the boy to deal with. While I recognize that this is often the healthiest reaction for those involved with such damaged people, I can't help but feel like the girl ends up a squashed bug on the boy's road to self-actualization. That said, I did like this book. It is a fast read, and well-written with a real eye for how real kids might talk to each other. I enjoyed the characters immensely, and I think YA's would connect to the story. I also think Colleen is the gritty real-life Weetzie Bat - this is what usually happens to girls who live that kind of life, unfortunately.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

YA Lit Week 4

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
In the summer between 8th grade and freshman year, Melinda goes to a house party where something happens and she calls the police, who break up the party and make several arrests. As a result of her call, Melinda has become a complete social outcast. As the year goes on, Melinda becomes more and more silent and withdrawn, and her life becomes smaller and more circumscribed as her grades plummet. Melinda doesn't tell anyone what happened to her, and as the book goes along, it comes to light that Melinda was raped at the party. Only when her former best friend becomes involved with the boy who attacked her does Melinda find the courage to speak. This book reminded me so strongly of Are You in the House Alone by Richard Peck, a book I read more than once as a teen. Probably mainly due to the similar topic - a popular boy rapes a girl who is more of an outsider - than to any real thematic or genre similarities. Sadly, I think we still live in a world where a high school girl might be encouraged not to voice her accusations and where peers might be more likely to view her accusations as hyperbole, or regret about what she participated in willingly, than in Anderson's world. I guess Anderson resolves this by revealing that the perpetrator (Andy) turns out to have a widespread reputation for trying to move in on many girls, and by having him caught "red handed" trying to attack Melinda again. I think teens would really get caught up in this book, and not be critical of it like I was, nor would they guess as early as I did what happened at the party. I also think many teens will absorb the message (you must stand up and speak when things happen) without feeling preached at. I would give this book to teens from about freshman year on up, maybe 8th grade and up.

Doing It by Melvin Burgess
My local library withdrew this controversial book, but hooray for Joyce who runs the YA department at the library I work at - she still has it on her shelves. This is the story of 3 teenaged boys as they obsess about doing it, and sometimes actually get to do it. Dino is the best looking, most popular boy in school, and he wants to date - and do it - with Jackie. But Dino and Jackie are toxic for each other, and their lives become increasingly more complicated as they dance around each other never quite consumating their relationship. Meanwhile, Jon really likes Deborah who is smart, funny, level headed, and really quite attractive to him... but... how does he ever live down dating the school's fat girl? And Ben, well he's living every boy's fantasy, having an affair with Alison, the drama teacher at school. But pretty soon Ben learns that Alison isn't just accomplished at drama in school, and that having your fantasy fulfilled can sometimes become a nightmare. I think the sex in this book is MUCH more frequent than your average teenaged boy really engages in, but that didn't make me feel offended or bad about the book. I DO think teenaged boys are thinking about DOING IT quite a bit of the time, and I think this funny book, while it might sometimes make your average teen boy feel like he's not getting nearly as much as others, will make him realize that thinking about it constantly is pretty normal. I really like the characters, both boy and girl. What this book most reminded me of is Nick Hornby - "lad lit" that is really much better than 99% of lad lit with a real emphasis on the humanity and underlying decentness of most if not all of the characters. Not sure who I'd give it to, though...

Inexcusable by Chris Lynch
Keir Sarafian is a bit of a football hero at school, particularly when he is cleared of all blame in an accident on the field - a "clean hit" - that leaves an opposing player crippled. Kier lives a bachelor existence with his widowed father now that his two older sisters have gone to college, and both looks forward to and dreads leaving his father alone when he takes his football scholarship at the college where his sisters are going to school. Told in alternate chapters set in the present and the past, we watch as Kier goes increasingly out of control over the course of his senior year and refuses to accept any responsibility for his own increasingly violent and destructive acts. As the book ends, Kier is forced to see his own culpability in the date rape of a peer. I didn't like or dislike this book. It felt more like an "issue" book than any of the others I've read to date, written with a clear agenda to appeal to a particular type of reader. Again, I'm not sure who I would give this book to... I don't feel knowledgeable enough about the target audience to understand who it woudl appeal to. It will be interesting to hear what is said in class about this.

YA Books - Week 2

Hey, it's read the classics week in YA Lit! Hooray!

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton - A teen written book about teens. I think this book has stood the test of time despite its flaws. It is amazing to think that a teen had the insight to write this, even with its sometimes very obvious themes, images, and characters. Love the names - if anything shows that a teen wrote it, the names do that.... Ponyboy, Sodapop, etc. Interesting to think that the crowd in one book (16th Summer) could be the villains in the other (The Outsiders). I wish I'd read this as a teen. I think I really would have liked it. Today some of its conventions feel cliched partly because some of them were already conventions and partly because it has had such an impact that it has become part of our cultural baggage. I really LIKE that there is no complicating romance for Ponyboy. Too bad our teachers were too busy cramming Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Hawthorne and D.H. Lawrence down our throats, even though we couldn't possibly have the life knowledge to understand them.

The Pigman by Paul Zindel - A book that seems almost innocent now in the antics that the teens get into. Trashing a house and drinking? Child's play! Interesting to think that these kids aren't far from legal drinking age in this book, and that teen drinking was probably more acceptable then than it is today, i.e. had to be less hidden. Lorraine and John feel like regular teens to me. Bored, confused, not much guidance and they disreagard the guidance they do get. They're not super smart or dumb, they have no huge crises or handicaps. They're just ordinary run of the mill kids. It is still in print, so it must still speak to today's kids.

The Chocolate War by Robert Cromier - another classic of the genre I managed to not ever encounter as a teen, and I think this one has been on the top ten of the most challenged books pretty much from its inception. The reason given is most likely its depiction of the corrupt Catholic brothers who run the school, but I think the REAL reason in many cases may be its almost unremittingly bleak view of the world. This is a hard, brutal book, and the good guy doesn't just lose, he GIVES UP, which is practically the worst thing you can do in our culture; after all, William Wallace may have died at the end of Braveheart, but he died shouting "FREEDOM!" How could we let teens see Jerry go out in the ambulance urging his friend not to fight the system, not to think for himself? As much as I don't want to live in the world this book depicts, I fear I do. I really think this book shouldn't be banned - it should be required (which actually probably is the kiss of death for getting kids to read it - maybe we should go on banning it.)

The Contender by Robert Lipsyte - I like sports books. I like their conventions, I like their action, I like their style. This story of a boy who finds boxing for the wrong reasons, then pursues it for what we might call the right reasons, then gives it up because he hasn't got the killer instinct is a good, solid sports book. The action is compact, descriptive, and propulsive. Our main character Alfred is likable, human, and pretty real. The surrounding characters, while sometimes not entirely round, feel like they could be real. I think this would be a terrific book for the older boy (maybe 14/15 and up) who likes sports books. The action will keep the reader who doesn't care about nuance, while the detail and emotions will appeal to the reader who wants more than action.

Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block - Oh dear, I hated it, I really did. I understood it more and found it less annoying when I viewed it as a contemporary fairy tale, as one review suggested, but I still didn't like it. I think the thing that most annoyed me was that back in the day when this was being conceived and written and published (1989), I was a YA. I knew girls who wanted to live like Weetzie Bat in a kind of Cyndi Lauper/Madonna/new wave hippy kind of world with 50's tulle party dresses and black eyeliner and blue hair and torn fishnet stockings where everyone was cool and you could define your life by your cool car with the name and everything was surfacey and glittery and cool, like a video by a really edgy cool alt college rock band. And frankly, most of their lives were a hell of a lot more like Colleen's in Stoner and Spaz (see Week 5) than Weetzie Bat's. I hated thinking of those girls getting hold of this book and thinking somewhere in our nasty little Chocolate War world, there might be a way to live like this. And what does that say about me? Cynical, unhopeful, doom-saying, disapproving, bad-tempered naysayer!!!

YA Books - Week 3

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Alexie Sherman
Cartoon images decorate this diary of Junior, a Spokane Indian boy who leaves the reservation to attend a high school in a nearby farm town. The only non-white boy in school, Junior must battle crushing poverty, alcoholism, and a parade of deaths to make it through his first year. The illustrations in this book are so seamless to the narrative that I only realized on my third reading that Sherman didn’t do the illustrations himself. Funny and heartbreaking, this is a YA book that is suitable for adults. Sherman manages to make me feel at the end that Junior will be OK, without making me feel like the ending wraps everything up in a sunny little package.

Store-Bought Baby by Sandra Belton
This book about a Chicago girl adjusting to a world without her “perfect” adopted brother felt like YA-lite to me. The structure and style reminded me of children’s lit, particularly the relatively sunny ending, and the way that everyone seems so self-aware and sane. Leah’s brother Luce has died in a car accident and Leah’s family seems to be drifting apart rather than pulling together to cope. Leah decides to start investigating Luce’s “real” parents in an attempt to draw the family back together. The dialog is sometimes stilted, particularly between the kids (p. 102-103 just seems really “tinny” to me). I think this book would make a decent sell to younger YAs who are avid readers and who need a transition between children’s and YA. I don’t know that the average reader would stick with it.

An Abundance of Katherines by John Green
Colin and Hassan go on a road trip as Colin tries to get over the breakup of his relationship with the 19th girl named Katherine who has dumped him. Now this book has an ear for dialog! These kids sound like smart kids talking to each other – natural and easy. I just loved the way Hassan interrupts Colin with his quick assessments of Colin's digressions as "Not interesting!" Funny story of a somewhat Asperger’s seeming boy learning to reach out of himself as he learns how to get beyond his need to be a genius rather than a prodigy. This book feels a little gimicky with its footnotes and appendix, but it really is funny and affecting.

The Arrival by Shaun Tan
This didn’t really feel like a YA book to me – it felt more adult. I feel like this would have a very narrow audience. But then, I’m really bad at wordless books.

Finding H.F. by Julia Watts
What I liked about this book was the way the Bible loving, God fearing grandmother wasn’t a caricature, and how H.F. didn’t just rebel – she saw the love and the care that were under her Memaw’s strict Bible ways, and how much her Memaw was shaped by the narrowness of her world. It has rough edges (poor Bo), but it’s mainly a ultimately sweet and hopeful story about first love that just happens to be lesbian love.