Tag Archives: teen

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 2

Second verse, same as the first…let’s get to it!

 

#22: The Facts Speak for Themselves, Brock Cole

I had never heard of this book before taking on the challenge of reading these 50 YA titles, but after reading its description I knew it would be one of the first I picked up. This book begins with Linda, our protagonist, giving a statement about a murder suicide that she has witnessed.  This book is her personal account of what brought her to that scene.

The premise of this story is far more intense than its actual exposition, but that doesn’t stop the plot from being absolutely chilling.  Linda’s young life is so traumatic; she goes through so much at such a young age, and in the end she sounds so numb to whatever awaits her in the future.  Incredibly dark and gritty, this book demands to be included on this list, if simply because I’m sure parents and conservative groups have been challenging and banning it since its publication.  I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, but you really grow attached to Linda’s voice as she tells this story.  So many times, I wanted to reach through the pages and give her a much-needed hug.  This is a very honest look at where American culture can lead when the American Dream fails.

My one big critique on this book has to do with Mom.  I am so sick of weak maternal figures in YA literature who are incapable of caring for themselves or their children.  I totally get that this is Real Life for far too many people, but I think this version of the teen story has been told.  I would like to see more self-empowered mommies in these books from now on.

 

#30: Looking for Alaska, John Green

Okay guys; I have a pretty big confession to make:

I am NOT a John Green fan.

That being said, I understand why, if we are including Green on this list, this was the book that was chosen.  I have to admit that this one left a pretty deep impression on me, and not just because it was one of the first audiobooks I ever listened to, and I was still getting used to how having a voice actor read to you can really bring a story to life.  Several books have been written on this topic, but few so directly address the questions without answers that accompany a traumatic death.  I recently finished All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven, and I can see how her approach to teen suicide is slightly different than Green’s, and that each has an important message to send to those who may be wondering or struggling or recovering.

Not my favorite inclusion on this list, but I can at least appreciate what the list creators were going for by adding it.

 

#31: American Born Chinese, Gene Luen Yang

This was one of the first graphic novels I ever read, and it is still one of my favorites!  I have heard Yang speak twice now, and his passion for his work is what makes me love his comics so much.  The fact that this one gets personal and works at describing some of the ongoing prejudice present in adolescent culture makes it that much cooler.

I think what makes this book unique is the portrayal of the many different hats children of immigrants must wear, and how complicated fitting in can be.  The content isn’t exactly new, but it’s a fresh set of eyes, and in a unique format from what most coming-of-age books are.

Plus, who doesn’t love a book with a Monkey King in it?!

In all seriousness, this is a great starter graphic novel for those getting used to the form (it reads left to right, so if manga freaks you out for its different layout, this is a good baby step!).  It’s also good for all ages to get a peek into what growing up Chinese American might be like.

 

#45: Fangirl, Rainbow Rowell

Confession Time #2:

I hated Eleanor & Park totally and completely, and after reading it I had written off Rainbow Rowell.

So, when I came across this title on my list of 50 YA Books, I was not excited to read it.  But I saw that a copy was available immediately through my library app, Overdrive, and I thought, “Oh well, might as well get it over with.”

Now? I am so glad I gave this book a chance.

Around the middle of the first chapter of this book, I realized how closely Cath’s experience during her first days at college resembled mine.  Immediately, the narration of her anxiety began to speak to me, reaching out and bringing comfort to a time in my life that has been long over, but had left some discomfort yet unsolved.  In the end, I discovered that this particular Rowell novel tells an important story of what anxiety, depression, and grief can look like–for different people and in different ways.  Reading this, I felt understood without feeling like the happy ending was sugar coating my own struggles.  At some points, I knew Cath would be okay because I had been there; in others, it seemed that her experience was telling me the same thing.

I always read others’ Goodreads reviews when I’m most of the way through, or finished with, a book, and I saw a lot of backlash against this title for its treatment of fandom.  I have to say I agree with them–I actually really hated the Simon Snow parts.  I had trouble following them, and really didn’t care what happened to whom.  [The inclusion of a wizard in this plot also pretty much cemented my belief that Rowell cannot come up with an original story if she tried…Romeo & Juliet, Harry Potter…].  I don’t know much about fandoms because I have never dived all the way into one, but I respect these readers’ opinions on how it was portrayed.

My counter to that, however, is that I don’t think that fact that Cath’s identifying with a fandom is what’s important here.  Instead, I think Rowell just picked something out to be the example of a crutch or obstacle brought to college, or the cusp of adulthood, from someone’s childhood.  Those of us who have started “adulting” have realized that certain aspects of who we were ten years ago don’t fit into the mold of who we are becoming.  We have to make the difficult decision to dump this thing that is a huge part of us, or to modify it to fit us as we change.  Cath’s struggles with her writing and her fanfiction display this–her molding of her old self into the new.

In the end, I misjudged Ms. Rowell, and I’m grateful that I gave her another chance.

 

#50: Out of Darkness, Ashley Hope Perez

Yes, this book is the “last” on the list (because it was published most recently), but it is not the last one I will be reading!

The whole time I was reading (read: listening to) this one, I had a hard time remembering that it is YA.  Think of everything that gets a book on the banned list, and you’ll most likely find it in this story.  Dark, traumatic, and with a brokenhearted ending, this book brought me to tears and filled me with anger.  I think the most important lesson this fictional story has to offer is that This Could Be Real.

It’s rare to find a YA title so hopeless, and yet I think young people who read this will feel empowered because the author chose to show them the Truth, in her eyes.  This is not an easy read, for sure.  But it’s a story that should be celebrated for what it captures.

 

That’s all I have for you today!  I’m working on another book from this list right now, and I’ll put another list on here when I’ve caught up a bit.  Until then, happy reading everyone!

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Best Books of 2016

 

This year, I made it through 125 books and audiobooks, which I’m pretty sure is a new record!  It was also a diverse year of reading for me, as I took on my second Pop Sugar Reading Challenge to broaden my tastes and habits.

As this crazy year comes to a close, I’m content to dwell on some of the best reading I had to accompany me through it.  They span the spectrum of children’s and “adult,” fiction and nonfiction, and I’m happy to share them with the world.

 

Ollie’s OdysseyOllie's Odyssey

William Joyce

What I loved most about this book was the way the story and the illustrations blended together so well.  The plot itself is fairly dark for a children’s book, but not inappropriate for younger children.  In fact, I have a theory that this book is meant to be read aloud to a child by an adult (or older sibling), because there are elements of the story that children will understand best, but there are other parts “mature” readers will pick up on as they read through it.  Ollie is the best friend every parent would want for their child, and even the villain has a story that people can understand.  I appreciated this book so much for the ways that Joyce applied eccentricities to a simple children’s story of the real-life love of their favorite toys.

 

UnhookedUnhooked

Lisa Maxwell

I love the original Peter Pan myth and legend, created for the stage by J. M. Barrie, and I also love the different ways people interpret that myth.  This book was my favorite adaptation of the year.  It’s not often that I enjoy an adaptation that messes with the good side and the bad side (I hope I’m not giving too much away there…), but this one does it well, and you experience great sympathy for the right characters at the right times.  Lisa Maxwell is an excellent author, and I look forward to reading more from her in the future!

 

The Female of the SpeciesThe Female of the Species

Mindy McGinnis

I’ve already gushed about this book in my last post, and I still haven’t said enough about it.  An easy-to-digest story this one isn’t.  McGinnis says a bunch of stuff you probably don’t want to hear about what happens (or, at least, could happen), in high school in such a way that we cannot ignore it.  Alex is the protagonist every present and previous victim needs to know she/he is not alone.  And we, the greater populace, should aspire to be the Alex to our friends who have suffered (although perhaps without the psychopathic violence…).

This story isn’t only worthy of school reading requirements with its treatment of sexual assault and date rape culture.  It’s also just brilliantly done.  You spend the second half of the book wondering how all these different situations could ever work out to be a good thing, and then BAM! McGinnis delivers the only possible ending that could tie everything together.  You don’t feel great about it, but you feel comfortable with the knowledge that she put it together in the method that works best.  Perfect for the teen reader and the thriller lover alike, Alex will have you guessing until the very end!

 

This is where it ends.jpgThis Is Where It Ends

Marieke Nijkamp

I read this book in a matter of hours on a Saturday.  The plot itself is a great page-turner.  I think I was most captivated by the idea that we would be witnessing this school shooting through the eyes of the shooter’s sister, along with a few other characters.  The perspectives that come from inside and outside the building, and even inside and outside the auditorium, give a plot that is at once well-rounded and scattered.  I was immediately drawn to the characters and their lives, and I was invested in how their stories would turn out.  I don’t think what Nijkamp describes is necessarily a realistic school shooting (if, of course, we want to admit to the “normalization” of this experience that makes us notice differences from actual situations).  Our shooter doesn’t act like someone on a spree, he has too much ammo, and it takes him far too long to be stopped.  Moreover, some of the deaths of different students are more from dramatic effect than for accurate representation.  However, the overall mood created in these instances does, in fact, create a better understanding of the atmosphere one might experience if put in that situation.  Another author who was unafraid to touch the social taboo and attempt to address real-life problems our culture must learn to acknowledge and attempt to overcome.

 

The girlsThe Girls

Emma Cline

This book is so dark and creepy, it made my skin crawl just reading about it.  I have to admit that, while I can’t stomach scary movies, I appreciate an occasional dark and frightening read, and this one did it for me this year.  I’m too young to really be aware of Charles Manson or the women who murdered in his name, so I was mainly intrigued by this book’s premise after learning about it.  After engaging in the story, I fell in love with the rest of it.  Evie’s plight is extreme, and I found myself empathizing and distrusting her at the same time.  As the story developed, I particularly appreciated the parallelisms between Evie’s past and present.  These elements complicate the message of the story and remind us that the behavior of these women are perhaps not so foreign to us after all.  Creepy as hell, but worth the chills!

Adulthood is a myth

 

Adulthood is a Myth

Sarah Andersen

I absolutely LOVE “Sarah’s Scribbles,” so I was totally stoked when I saw that she was coming out with a book (and I believe she’s officially signed a contract to publish another one soon!).  I read this collection in one sitting, as well, and I found it delightful.  It includes several of my favorites from the Sarah’s Scribbles Facebook page, along with several new stories.  As a twenty-something, I find the best way to cope with “adulting” is to laugh about it, and Sarah helps you do that it the best way possible.  I can’t wait to get the next collection!

 

 

 

milk and honeymilk and honey

rupi kaur

I don’t frequently read poetry, but this collection really spoke to me.  I think, like The Female of the Species, this is one young women should be exposed to, to remind them of where love and relationships can lead.  More importantly, this collection reminds young women where their strength comes from, and how powerful they are on their own.  In rupi’s own words,

“from now on i will say things like
you are resilient or you are extraordinary
not because i don’t think you’re pretty
but because you are so much more than that”

 

Finding Mr. BrightsideFinding Mr. Brightside

Jay Clark

I met Jay Clark and bought his book to show support for a local author.  Much to my surprise, I was immediately swept up in the story and carried away by the characters and the plot.  The writing is simple and funny, with some elegant twists and turns through the complex relationships it reveals.  The romance feels not only possible, but real, which isn’t often something I say about a teen love story.  But you want to situation to work out for our lovebirds, and it isn’t handed on a silver platter.  Now, I’m grateful for the opportunity I had to speak with Jay about his writing, and I can’t wait to pick up his first novel, The Education of Jay Baker.

 

Reason I JumpThe Reason I Jump

Naoki Higashida

I have been interested in the Autism Spectrum ever since I studied the disability deeply in a training course I took for writing center work.  When I found this book, written by someone with autism, I couldn’t wait to read it.  Naoki’s simple expressions of his feelings and experiences are eye-opening.  The target audience is parents of people who are on the spectrum, but I think anyone who wants to understand how others think might enjoy diving in to this thirteen-year-old’s brain.

 

Where Am I NowWhere Am I Now?: True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame

Mara Wilson

Other than having seen “Miracle on 34th Street” and “Matilda,” and finding her on Twitter, I didn’t know much about Mara.  However, after reading this book, I feel like she could be one of my best friends.  She’s extremely honest about her experiences growing up, both within and outside Hollywood.  She speaks to issues all young women have experienced, and even some of her unique encounters speak to me due to how we were interested in similar things when we were younger.  I also appreciated that this book did not read like a traditional celebrity memoir.  Mara isn’t trying to draw connections to her readers by speaking around her personal experiences.  Rather, she says what actually happened, and then expects you to make those connections yourself.  I felt like she was just talking with me, rather than trying to explain herself.  A great storyteller with a well-developed voice for prose.  Even those with no knowledge, appreciation, or understanding of Mara’s career would enjoy her book!

 

As I mentioned, this year was a diverse series of books from my Pop Sugar challenge.  I ended up reading some books I greatly disliked, including some highly popular bestsellers that simply didn’t speak to me personally.  Reflecting on these Top 10 Best, however, reminds me of what a great year in reading it was, and how much I can’t wait to take on the 2017 Reading Challenge for next year.

Happy New Year, and Happy Reading!

 

 

 

 

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