Wednesday, October 31, 2012

YA Reading, Round 4: More Issues!

More issues, more drama. According to YA lit, that’s what being a teen is all about. I remember the teenage years being melodramatic, but eeesh, nothing like this!

Allison Van Diepen’s Snitch is what, I guess, one could sort of classify as urban fiction (though not the sexy urban kind). Julia and her best friend Q are two of the only neutral kids in their Brooklyn high school, neutral meaning they’re keeping out of gang life. It’s a promise they made to each other back in middle school, and so far, they’ve done a good job at keeping it. But when a new boy, Eric, shows up and Julia finds herself falling for him, all her rules are broken. Snitch is a good, easy-to-read story about the complexities of gang life, the consequences of one’s actions, and the lines of friendships and relationships. It’s not too heavy but deals with some serious subjects. It was also next to impossible to find this book available anywhere in NYC! [I had to trek to a Queens PL branch and sign up for a card just to get this!] The copy I read was well-worn, so I get the impression that this is a popular book that speaks a message in just the right way to its intended audience.

Down to the Bone by Mayra Lazara Dole has a great story premise. Laura attends a Catholic high school in Miami and is about to celebrate her two-year anniversary with her girlfriend, Marlena. But then one slip of a passed note in class, and Laura’s entire world finds out that she has a girlfriend. On top of the taunts from peers and being disowned by her very traditional Cuban mother, Laura also gets dumped. So her life is in shambles, and it feels like it was for nothing. Laura is strong, though, and she works to put her life and relationships back on track while figuring out exactly who she is. Now, I am completely split on whether to recommend this book or not. First and foremost, the writing was terrible. The author is Cuban, and I can’t figure out if this is a translation from the original Spanish version. Regardless, the dialogue is incredibly choppy and unrealistic, and a lot of the colloquial phrases just don’t make sense [this is where it could be a victim of poor translation]. However, I really commend the subject matter and how it was handled. One of the most interesting aspects to Laura’s story is that she never defines herself as “gay.” She’s had one girlfriend but can’t classify herself strictly as a “lesbian,” and I thought this was a great point to bring up for teens (or anyone) struggling with their sexual identity. The supporting characters in Laura’s story were pretty one-dimensional (especially her mother, who I found to be one of the story’s weakest parts), but it’s Laura that matters. We follow her situation and she how she handles it on her own.

Cecilia Galante’s The Patron Saint of Butterflies is another one of those YA novels that introduces you to a different kind of lifestyle…one that has its own controversy surrounding it. Agnes and Honey have grown up in the Mount Blessing religious community, where their life follows the strict rules of their prophet, Emmanuel.  Though they’ve always been friends, they are incredibly different. Agnes is an Emmanuel devotee—a Believer down to her core. Honey, on the other hand, thinks, essentially, that it’s all a load of crap. A surprise visit from Agnes’ grandmother, Nana Pete, reveals some things about the community that Emmanuel is very eager to keep quiet, and Nana Pete doesn’t take it all so lightly. She kidnaps Agnes, Honey, and Agnes’ brother Benny to escape, and that’s where their story of discovery begins. This book has a lot of action and twists (though, fairly predictable to me as an adult reader) that will keep a reader engrossed. It’s got the same draw as The Chosen One in that it follows fairly ordinary, relatable teens who are living in extraordinary circumstances.

Last but not least, Angela Johnson’s The First Part Last is a really short, simple book that’s garnered lots of prestigious YA awards. Bobby is your basic teenager—he’s sometimes reckless, sometimes thoughtful, sometimes acts older than he is, sometimes still acts like a child. The only difference between him and every other teenage boy is that he’s also a father. Once his girlfriend Nina got pregnant, childhood ended for both of them real fast, and they faced new decisions, the biggest one being whether they’re even going to keep the baby. Bobby’s story is told through alternating, fractured chapters that go back in time to tell his full experience—with Nina, with his friends, with his parents, before the baby, and in the present. It’s a good book for provoking thought and discussion, and teens should be able to get through it easily. It does a good job reflecting the scattered thoughts that one experiences. And one of my favorite parts about it is how it’s so ethnically “neutral,” if that makes sense. You never get any sort of racial background or description to most of the characters, which makes this story even more relatable to a wide audience.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Revisiting Anne, Part 2: Anne of Avonlea

I bet that if you took a poll, you’d get a lot of different answers as to what exactly “Anne of Green Gables” is. Some would remember it as a single book’s title, some as more encompassing character, some as a movie. I bet, however, that it’s only the die-hard Anne fans like myself who are aware that Anne’s story continues in print beyond the Anne of Green Gables classic.

Anne of Avonlea is L.M. Montgomery’s follow-up to Anne of Green Gables, and I love how, as Anne’s story expands, so does her world. In the series opener, Anne came into her own at Green Gables. Now, she’s finding her place in a bigger world, in her town of Avonlea. (Spoiler alert: book three’s title is Anne of the Island!) I love how our view of Anne’s world expands alongside her own. We became comfortable at Green Gables, and now we’re thrust into a bigger place, learning the ropes alongside Anne.

At the story’s opening, our heroine is much more a young lady than the girl we met at Green Gables. Anne has completed her schooling at the Avonlea schoolhouse and has now become its schoolmarm (and only at age 16!). She’s working with her own school chums on a project to improve their town—the Avonlea Village Improvement Society. And Marilla has adopted two young twins, the rambunctious Davey and the obedient Dora. Throughout it all, we hear Anne’s internal monologue, as always, and see how she’s maturing through experience but without ever fully submitting to “grown-upness.”
In all honesty, I liked this one more when I was younger than I did this time around. Anne of Avonlea the miniseries is actually a bit of a compilation of storylines from the next three titles in the series, and I can understand why—the story just seemed a little lacking. It wasn’t any different in style than the first in the series—chapters still capture small stories or experiences that give us a peek into Anne’s life and ultimately define Anne and her way of thinking. This one just sort of felt like those awkward breaks from college when you return home to a setting that hasn’t changed, though you have…or that terrible year after college graduation when you’re just waiting for what’s next. In this, it seems like Anne (though she would never be this cynical) is just biding her time in Avonlea until she can move on with her education and life experiences. You just know she wants to see and do so much, and her current environment is just shrinking in scope. 
I had some other thoughts while reading this:
  • Montgomery really doesn’t like the French! I was surprised by all her rude comments about them! Must be a reflection of French-Canadian relationships at this time.
  • I also didn’t really like how disdainful she was of Dora, the obedient child! Montgomery (and as a result, Marilla and Anne) actually thought less of her because she wasn’t as spunky and disobedient as Davey. Poor Dora! She can’t do anything right, even when she’s perfect!
  • It was still hard to comprehend that Anne was only 16 during most of this. She was mostly considered “grown” by her society, while today at 16, we’ve generally got a lot of “growing up” to do.
  • Also funny how teaching seemed to be the only option for the educated directly after primary school. It wasn’t just for women—Gilbert did it too! It seemed to be the stepping stone before continuing education. And if you weren’t doing that, you apparently just started a trade or stayed home and waited to get married (poor Diana).
It was at least so lovely to end the story with a bit of a peek into Anne’s shifting feelings towards Gilbert, as she begins to actually think about him, and consider him as a person and more than just a figure in her adolescent schooldays. Oh, Gil!

Friday, October 12, 2012

YA Reading, Round 3: Issues

Issues. That has been the theme of my last two weeks of YA reading, and let me tell you…it makes for a semi-depressing class. The structure of my class readings is this—we have one or two books that everyone reads and then we get to pick one or two books of our own from our textbook of book lists. Then, we share what we read, as if we’re describing it to a teen reader.

There are a lot of downer YA books out there. And some of those plots sound like the authors are the ones trying to work out some serious issues. [Seriously, how do people think up some of this stuff? And why???] Luckily, my choices weren’t too dark, but the class got us to talking about why so many YA books have such serious subjects. One thought is that the adolescent years are when you start really feeling. You discover you have a reaction and you can empathize, and you feel more intensely than ever before. I remember that overflow of emotion being addictive. So maybe it’s that.

The Chosen One by Carol Lynch Williams was recognizable to me from the book blog world, actually. I think there was a lot a buzz about it a couple years ago. The story follows 13-year-old Kyra who is growing up on an isolated polygamist compound. The only world she knows is one in which she has three mothers and twenty siblings, and the Prophet’s word is synonymous with the Word of God. Once he decrees that she must marry her 60-year-old uncle, though, Kyra snaps. She’s desperate for the outside world and starts planning her own escape. Readers will quickly connect with Kyra, who you just know is different. She’s independent and inquisitive and isn’t under the same spell as her peers on the compound. Her hunger for knowledge leads her to befriend the local book mobile driver (on the sly, of course), and the illicit library books she reads each week open her eyes to a world outside her own. This story has a quick pace and is a bit of a thriller towards the end. Readers will be interested in this infamous lifestyle that is (probably!) so different from their own.

Brian Katcher’s Almost Perfect introduces us to Logan, a high-school senior who is recovering from the sudden break-up with his longtime girlfriend. In small town Missouri, it’s hard to get over someone when your world is rather small and you see them every day. But then, enter new student Sage. First of all, there’s never a new student in Boyer. Second of all, there’s just something about Sage that sucks Logan in. She’s tall and bold and boisterous—totally unlike any of the other girls roaming the halls. But Sage has a secret that she eventually shares with Logan [this is not a spoiler; it’s on the back of the book]. Sage—the girl Logan can’t stop thinking about—is actually a boy. Almost Perfect is told from Logan’s perspective, and it captures all the confusion and mixed emotion as he finds out that everything he believed…everything he knew…about Sage was a lie. It captures all the hurt and solitude and misunderstanding of a transgendered teen trying to find his/her place in the world. There are definitely times when you think that Logan is a jerk with his hurtful reactions, but I also really like that the author didn’t sugarcoat the story. It’s a difficult subject and a difficult situation, and I thought Logan’s reactions, though they made me sad, were probably realistic. There’s a lot of repetitiveness as Logan goes back and forth, back and forth, in dealing with the situation, but I think that’s the only place the narrative stalls. Otherwise, it’s well-written and engrossing. It would be interesting to pair this with a novel from the transgendered teen’s perspective; I Am Jay by Cris Beam is one to consider.

My last one of the week, Schooled by Gordan Korman, is by far the simplest and least depressing. I mean, it is published by Hyperion (owned by Disney), so what do you expect? Capricorn (Cap) Anderson grew up on a commune with his grandmother, surrounded by nature, yoga, and political activism. But now he’s entering public school for the first time, and the normalcies of a 21st-century middle school are completely lost on him. And unfortunately, he’s walked into a tough crowd. It’s school tradition (unbeknownst to the administration) that the 8th grade class always nominates the dweebiest kid to be Class President, setting the kid up for a year of pranks and torture, and Cap is their new man. Cap, though, just doesn’t get it. He’s so naive that he doesn’t realize when he’s being bullied for someone else’s amusement, and he just keeps trying to get the job done. In true Disney fashion, though, the student body has a change of heart as they get to know Cap, and Cap becomes a hero. It’s a fun read, though totally unrealistic. (You can’t just assume bullies will eventually see the error of their ways!) However, it did make at least one good point: Cap’s bullies got incredibly frustrated when he didn’t react to their pranks, so there’s a lesson about bullying in there somewhere!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

How to Be a Rebel: Read a Banned Book

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I’ve known that Banned Books Week was coming up this week for quite a while, but I’ve never really prepared anything to say about it. But as a prospective librarian (and even more specifically, a Young Adult one), I would be remiss not writing something about it! So this post may be all over the place, but its intent is to highlight an important part of reading and education, particularly as it relates to children and young adults.

My day job in publishing has connected me to a number of librarians nationwide, and I love discovering how they are keeping their kids engaged. One such librarian is Michelle Luhtala, a rockstar in the world of librarians. She was the keynote speaker at a school district conference I attended for work, and I overheard her presentation on how she encourages her students to use the Internet to its full potential, because this level of worldwide real-time connectivity—through Twitter, Facebook, news feeds, etc—is the present and it is the future. She organizes a Banned Websites Awareness Day every year (her school library has no bans or filters) to remind her students that not everyone enjoys the same access that they do.

And that’s it in a nutshell. That is purpose of Banned Books Week and other events that recognize censorship—to remind us that access is not equal, whether its prevented by a web filter or by a close-minded teacher or librarian or parent.

One of the fundamentals of librarianship is to ensure access of information and material to all, and I think there’s no more important group for that apply to than children and young adults. Because books, and movies and websites are how you experience the world. This is how you can learn opposing viewpoints, experience different lifestyles, and relive history without ever leaving your seat. And in a society that is increasingly global, it’s imperative that children grow up knowing what’s out there and knowing how to experience it.

I would’ve liked to have had a list of books I’d read and discuss during this week…but I just have so much to read as it is. (The day I get to read as book that is NOT considered YA will be a joyous day.) Instead, here’s a list of the most frequently challenged books of the past decade. What’s your favorite from the list? Do you think the challenges are warranted? Are you surprised to see any of these on the list?

I recently had to read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian for school, and I loved it. In fact, compared to many other books I’ve read, I am continuously surprised this one has such a history of frequent challenges. I think it has a wonderful overall message that yes, life can be hard, but here you have this character who is defying the society around him and taking control of his own life. It’s optimistic, it’s realistic, and it’s inspiring for anyone in a similar position.

As to the rest of that list, I actually shrieked a little bit when I saw the cover of It’s Perfectly Normal, a sex ed book by Robie Harris. My mom bought this book for me when I was about 10 and left it in my room with the intent to have “the talk.” I have never been so terrified of anything in my life, and I avoided physical contact with this book as if it held a communicable disease. That book was the stuff of my nightmares for at least a year of my adolescent life. Luckily, “the talk” was somehow avoided, and the book is probably at the top of a closet by now. Whew!