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50 Years of YA, Part 3

I could write an introduction, but y’all know what’s coming.  Let’s do this!

Note: I decided to try including synopses with the books from here on out.  We’ll see if I remember to do this, and if it sticks.

 

#4: The Friends, Rosa Guy

A powerful, award-winning novel about friendship.

Phyllisia Cathy–She is fourteen. Her problems seem overwhelming: New York, after life on her sunlit West Indies island, is cold, cruel and filthy. She is insulted daily and is beaten up by classmates. What Phyllisia needs, God not being interested, is a friend.

Edith Jackson–She is fifteen. Her clothes are unpressed, her stockings bagging with big holes. Her knowledge of school is zero. She has no parents, she swears and she steals. But she is kind and offers her friendship and protection to Phyllisia.

“And so begins the struggle that is the heart of this very important book: the fight to gain perception of one’s own real character; the grim struggle for self-knowledge.”–Alice Walker, The New York Times

This book offers an interesting look at what it means to reach an age where you can identify your own prejudices.  Phyllisia is an extremely relatable character.  She just wants to be considered normal and to fit in, and after moving to this new place, it’s not coming as easily as she thought it might.  I really enjoyed her character in the sense that I think young people can look at her and see themselves.

Edith is the perfect foil to Phyllisia: Aware of who she is and unashamed of it (at least, willing to admit that nothing will change for her without her initiating the change).  She’s also a character you enjoy reading about, because she so perfectly depicts goodness.

I have a few issues with how the plot of this book is carried out.  In many ways, I think it is too didactic for the teenage reader.  They can spot a phony solution.  And the trauma that Phyllisia experiences as she’s learning to accept people who are different is almost textbook sentimental literature.

Despite its shortcomings (many of which are most likely a result of its age), The Friends is a story that offers an alternative perspective, and I can understand why it was included on this list.  I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it for “fun” reading, but it’s one to take a look at if you’re interested in what YA was like in the Beginning.

 

#5: A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But A Sandwich, Alice Childress

Benjie can stop using heroin anytime he wants to. He just doesn’t want to yet. Why would he want to give up something that makes him feel so good, so relaxed, so tuned-out? As Benjie sees it, there’s nothing much to tune in for. School is a waste of time, and home life isn’t much better. All Benjie wants is for someone to believe in him, for someone to believe that he’s more than a thirteen-year-old junkie. Told from the perspectives of the people in his life-including his mother, stepfather, teachers, drug dealer, and best friend-this powerful story will draw you into Benjie’s troubled world and force you to confront the uncertainty of his future.

Can I just say, I love this title?

This book is really neat due to its style.  Each chapter is from the point of view of a different character (although sometimes, like in the case of Benjie, they have mutliple chapters), and each of these characters shares his or her perspectives on what’s happening in Benjie’s life.  This gives the author the opportunity to personify the different ideologies and persons surrounding a heroine epidemic.   The other really neat part about this book is that it’s written in dialect.  It was difficult to read at first, but you quickly get used to it as you get to know the characters (and each character has a slightly different way of speaking, too).

This book, like The Friends, is from an early time in the world of YA, and therefore it has some weaknesses in terms of how engaging the plot is.  When reading it, I could definitely see this one being required reading in a freshman high school classroom.  Again, another you wouldn’t necessarily pick up for “fun.”  Yet I can also see how it could be challenged and banned in certain communities.  It’s brutally honest about how young people find and use and sell drugs, at least within the context of its day.  It also deals heavily with race issues, which in the story and in history were not resolved.

It was during the reading of this book and The Friends that I started to see this list of “50 Best YA Books” in a new light.  While I began reading these books because I thought they represented what teens loved, I think a more accurate description of them would be books that educators, librarians, and booksellers offer for their value to young people.  It doesn’t make me want to stop reading through these titles, but it does kind of change my approach to them.

 

#24: Kit’s Wilderness, David Almond

The Watson family moves to Stoneygate, an old coal-mining town, to care for Kit’s recently widowed grandfather. When Kit meets John Askew, another boy whose family has both worked and died in the mines, Askew invites Kit to join him in playing a game called Death. As Kit’s grandfather tells him stories of the mine’s past and the history of the Watson family, Askew takes Kit into the mines, where the boys look to find the childhood ghosts of their long-gone ancestors. Written in haunting, lyrical prose, Kit’s Wilderness examines the bonds of family from one generation to the next, and explores how meaning and beauty can be revealed from the depths of darkness.

I actually listened to the audiobook for this title, and I have to admit, I got lost.  It was hard to follow the story.  I don’t think it was the fault of the performer or anything; I just think this text is probably best read on your own.

The overall feel of the book is very weird, but in kind of a good way.  I love the haunting images and rhythm to the writing.  And the relationship between Kit and his grandfather is sweet and believable.  Having just recently experienced the loss of a grandparent, I was able to relate to the pain behind the struggles his family was facing.

Because I got lost with the overall plot of this story, I really have no idea what was going on with John Askew.  I think if I had read the story in print, I would have grasped it better.  However, there are 50 books on this list and I don’t have time to reread at this point.  If the title still sounds interesting to you, find it in print!

 

#26: Hole in My Life, Jack Gantos

In the summer of 1971, Jack Gantos was an aspiring writer looking for adventure, cash for college tuition, and a way out of a dead-end job. For ten thousand dollars, he recklessly agreed to help sail a sixty-foot yacht loaded with a ton of hashish from the Virgin Islands to New York City, where he and his partners sold the drug until federal agents caught up with them. For his part in the conspiracy, Gantos was sentenced to serve up to six years in prison.

In Hole in My Life, this prizewinning author of over thirty books for young people confronts the period of struggle and confinement that marked the end of his own youth. On the surface, the narrative tumbles from one crazed moment to the next as Gantos pieces together the story of his restless final year of high school, his short-lived career as a criminal, and his time in prison. But running just beneath the action is the story of how Gantos – once he was locked up in a small, yellow-walled cell – moved from wanting to be a writer to writing, and how dedicating himself more fully to the thing he most wanted to do helped him endure and ultimately overcome the worst experience of his life.

I didn’t recognize the title of this book, but when I saw the cover, I had a gigantic “Aha!” moment.  I’m pretty sure every single boy in my class in middle school checked out this book from the library, at least once.  In my mind, it’s the quintessential book guys chose when they had to find something to do during Silent Reading (oh, how I miss that designated half hour of the day!).  For that reason, I wasn’t super excited about this book.  I figured it would have very little to offer me that I would find engaging.

On the one hand, after reading this book, I can TOTALLY see why a certain school demographic was attracted to it.  There’s language, sex, and drugs on pretty much every page.  I went to a rather sheltered public school, and so this was probably one of the first introductions to anything grungy and on-edge for these young teenagers.

On the other hand, I ended up really enjoying the “memoir” aspect of this book.  Gantos is an excellent writer, and it shows through this very personal story.  I love reading memoir, and this actually did not disappoint.  I still struggled to really connect with any of his life experiences.  But, to me, the mark of a good memoir is that you end up relating to its speaker even if you have no personal experience with what they went through.

In terms of required reading and recommending this to young people, I think this book continues to speak to young men entering into the stage of life in which Jack’s experiences occurred.  And I think this one will stay relevant, as evidenced by its inclusion on this list.

 

#41: Wintergirls, Laurie Halse Anderson

“Dead girl walking,” the boys say in the halls.
“Tell us your secret,” the girls whisper, one toilet to another.
I am that girl.
I am the space between my thighs, daylight shining through.
I am the bones they want, wired on a porcelain frame.

Lia and Cassie are best friends, wintergirls frozen in matchstick bodies, competitors in a deadly contest to see who can be the skinniest. But what comes after size zero and size double-zero? When Cassie succumbs to the demons within, Lia feels she is being haunted by her friend’s restless spirit.

In her most emotionally wrenching, lyrically written book since the multiple-award-winning Speak, Laurie Halse Anderson explores Lia’s descent into the powerful vortex of anorexia, and her painful path toward recovery.

I’m not going to lie–this book was extremely difficult to read.  It wasn’t that the prose was stilted or that the plot was slow-moving; it was just so emotional and dark.  As someone who has struggled with body image issues in the past, Lia’s internal dialogue gave me a nasty feeling in the pit of my stomach.  The blurb from Goodreads does not lie–this is the most emotionally wrenching book by Anderson I have ever read.

I personally cannot stand when serious emotional and physical issues are used for entertainment purposes.  There are several very popular TV shows and movies I refuse to watch because I think there’s a limit to how much violence we should willingly take in for the sake of a good story.  As I began this book, I wondered if its content would fall in the same category.  In the end, though, I agree that this story is important.  The struggles Lia and Cassie face are not glorified, by any means.  Instead, they’re exposed for what they truly are: an illness, real and powerful, that no one can fight alone.  And this story likewise highlights the important role family and friends play in combating the darkness many people face on a daily basis.

This is not a fun book, by any means.  But it’s beautiful, and it’s important.  I’m glad it was included on this list and that I finally was able to read it.

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50 Years of YA, Part 1

Hey, guys!  I haven’t posted in a while.  I’ve been working on a post about my reading of Beartown by Fredrik Backman (it’s brilliant, I must say.  Everyone should read it).  However, I’m not quite ready to post about it yet.  My review has been giving me a bit of writer’s block, so I’m holding off on it for now.

Some of  you may know that 2017 is considered the 50th anniversary of the YA novel (based off of the publication date of The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton).  To celebrate the year, Booklist has compiled a list they call “Booklist’s 50 Best YA Books of All Time.”  It starts with Hinton and ends with our more contemporary literature.  While they openly admit to this not being a full-proof list, they have a number of interesting titles on it.

I love YA, like many readers, and I thought it would be fun to see how many of these books I have read and could read over the summer.  I don’t think I’m going to read all of them, but I’m going to make an effort to get through as many as I can.   As I go through this YA journey, I figured it would be the perfect sort of review to share with you.

I had read several books on the list before it was published, and I have since found lots at my local library, so I have a small list to share with you today.  More are on hold or sitting on my TBR shelf, so this will certainly be a post that will have a “Part 2” and maybe a “Part 3.”  It’s also going to be much more informal than other posts I’ve made, but I’m good with that if you are, too!

So, without further ado, here’s what I have So Far:

 

#3: The Pigman, Paul Zindel

John and Lorraine have created a game out of prank calling people, which is how they first encounter Mr. Pignati, or The Pigman, whose grief over the loss of his wife leaves him desperate for companionship.  Their adventures with and without him will have you laughing and then regretting alongside them.

This book reminded me a lot of The Catcher in the Rye, which makes sense, considering they were published around the same time.  The story is told as though John and Lorraine are typing up their account of the events, and their voices (particularly Lorraine’s) greatly resemble Holden’s.  Moreover, they’re apparent disregard for consequences easily reminds the reader of a certain high school student wandering the streets of New York and contemplating ducks…

I liked this book, but there wasn’t necessarily anything spectacular about it for me.  I think because I was part of a generation whose authors were unafraid to touch on the tough subjects surrounding growing up, I find this particular book’s approach to grief and suffering to be commonplace.  Booklist says that, when it was released, it was one of the first books of its kind to address “teen life in all its darkness and complexity.”  For a first introduction to its themes and ideas, I would say it was probably shocking.  Zindel also does a great job of not writing down to his audience; even though the teens are telling this story, they don’t offer some cookie-cutter “moral” to the story in the end, which is always a “plus” in the world of YA.

Overall, I liked it a lot more than The Catcher in the Rye, and I can see why it was included on the list.

 

#6:  I Know What You Did Last Summer, Lois Duncan

[Do you guys remember that first book you read that freaked you the heck out?  For a lot of people, it was probably that “Scary Stories” series.  For me, it was Duncan’s masterpiece.  Goosebumps for days!]

Something happened last summer involving four teens.  They thought no one knew about it.  That is, until a stranger contacted one of them, saying he knew what had happened.  What follows is a dangerous series of events that ends in a “surprising” twist that “no one” can see coming!

I’ll be honest, though–I re-read this after I saw it on the list, and I now realize that 10-year-old me had a very simplistic idea of what “scary” is.

I can certainly understand its inclusion on this list.  This was also one of my first introductions to the processing of “guilt” as a teen (or, in my case, tween), and Duncan certainly hopes to achieve an intimate understanding of what someone might go through when faced like a situation like this.  All lame-movie-making aside, the inspiration behind the threat in this book is both personified and very real fear.

It was great to return to one of my childhood favorites.  Lois Duncan’s books are all sufficiently creepy and spooky, and it’s pretty cool to see one of them featured on this list!

 

#9: Gentlehands, M. E. Kerr

This book comes with a really interesting concept–a young guy develops a relationship with his grandfather, only to find out that the same man is a wanted Nazi officer.  Unfortunately, in this particular telling, I think the actual heart of this story was overshadowed by a rather lame love story.

Buddy comes from the rough side of the tracks, and Skye is the daughter of a wealthy family who visits for summer vacation.  Their connection feels rather inauthentic, and the added drama of the hatred and distrust from Buddy’s parents toward those with “money” detracted from the overall purpose of the story (in my opinion).  Also, I always find it so difficult, and therefore weird, to tell a summer fling story from the perspective of the guy.

I liked the idea of this book a lot, and it makes me wonder if accounts like it are out there.  But I don’t think I would recommend it as anything more than a romance.

 

#11: Annie on My Mind, Nancy Garden

I think Booklist’s write-up of this one says it best:

“Garden’s novel, centered on Annie and Liza’s romance, revealed gradually through Liza’s memories, has all the iconic markers of teen romance, but it was truly groundbreaking: this teenage lesbian love story was the first of it’s kind to have a happy ending.”

I really enjoyed reading through this romance.  The story moves from friendship, to general acceptance of their identities, to discoveries considering how the world perceives them (incorrectly, I might add) and who they can turn to for help.  I like the parallel that appears between them and a couple of the other characters in the story.  And, for once, the flashback really seems to balance out the storytelling elements.  This one is definitely worth the read!

 

#14: Howl’s Moving Castle, Diane Wynne Jones

That’s right, folks–the very famous Miyazaki film was first and foremost a YA novel.  The same lovable Sophie appears to help the Wizard Howl in his escapades, just as the film portrays.

I’ll be honest–I found this book incredibly boring.  I don’t think it carried the plot well, and there were several parts of the book that I simply skimmed (without losing any part of the plot).  It is, perhaps, a perfect introduction to other fantasy novels (i.e. Terry Brooks, Robert Jordan), which I also struggle to get through.  Thus, for those who more greatly enjoy this genre, it may be a brilliant execution.  I, for one, will stick with watching the film.

 

#18: Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, Chris Crutcher

This book was actually a required reading title I read way back in high school, almost a decade ago.  Chris Crutcher, the author, actually came to our school to talk about his books (we could pick from a list of them, and I chose this one).  The actual plot of this story has faded for me, but I didn’t feel the need to re-read it, like IKWYDLS.

The one thing I know for sure is that Crutcher attempts to address the Tough Stuff in everything he writes.  This book alone deals with abuse, body image issues, high school drama, and so much more.  The characters are very relatable.  You feel for their experiences and recognize similarities in your own life, even if they don’t reach this extreme.

I think it’s great the Crutcher’s books are being used in the classroom (as many of these are, or might be).  One of the hardest lessons most people learn in high school is that there are no easy answers to most of Life, and authors who are unafraid to point that out in their work should be included in the curriculum.

At the same time, this was a school read, so I don’t know how fun it would be to read on your own time!  Jus’ sayin’.

 

Whew.  I need a break!

More to come in the future.  In the meantime, happy reading everyone!  If you’re looking for something fun to read over the summer, I suggest YA.

 

 

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