There's something about January that invites reflection. So this month, I decided to reflect on how three high-intensity, highly trendy topics are treated in YA lit. Here’s a look at the past, present and future of each of these topics.
Todd Strasser published Give a Boy a Gun in 2000, just after the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. What stands out about Strasser’s novel—other than now-quaint references to video rental stores and minutes-based cell phone plans—is its multivocality. In the sometimes-conflicting voices of students, parents, teachers, administrators and the shooters themselves, we hear how bullying drove two desperate students to a school dance where ultimately their lives—but no one else’s—ended. No single voice is “better” or more accurate than another . . . except maybe the voice of the author himself, adding real-world quotes and statistics as footnotes.
Violent Ends, published in 2015, takes the multivocality idea to another level: Seventeen YA authors, including one team, each pen a chapter. The shooting itself (in which five students and a teacher are killed) is never actually described. Instead, we hear from students who were in the bathroom or under the bleachers, or for one reason or another weren’t in school that day. We learn a lot of backstory that might (or might not) explain the shooter’s motivation. We also never hear the shooter’s own voice—although we do, hauntingly, hear the voice of the gun that he uses.
Maybe there’s something, well, fractured about school shootings that makes multiple points of view almost a requirement. This year’s much-anticipated This Is Where It Ends by Marieke Nijcamp uses this technique, too, although it limits its narrators to four teens. Most of the story takes place during the shooting itself. There’s a significant body count, a diverse cast of characters . . . and the author’s voice has entirely disappeared. We’re left on our own to ponder unanswerable questions. This intensity, authenticity and diversity build on the past while blazing new ground in treatments of this difficult topic.
Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly (2010) is one of my favorite YA books of all time. As teen musician Andi grapples with her brother’s recent death, she discovers the diary of Alexandrine, a teen swept up in the drama of the French Revolution. Maybe Andi travels back in time; maybe she’s just overwhelmed by too much stimulation one night. Either way, what Andi discovers in the streets of Revolutionary Paris turns out to be exactly what she needs to resolve problems in the present day. Another treatment of time travel, 2011’s Ruby Red and its sequels by Kerstin Gier, doesn’t view time travel as a way to solve present-day problems. Instead, it’s a family affair that teenage Gwen is drawn into whether she wants to be or not.
The Yearbook by Carol Masciola (2015) expands on the idea of time travel as a balm for present-day problems. Orphaned Lola, who lives in a group home and has little to look forward to other than her fast-food job, discovers a portal that connects to her high school as it was in 1923. In the ’20s, Lola makes friends, finds a loving family and even acquires a beau. What will she do, though, when she’s dragged back into her own unhappy time?
Like Andi in Revolution, Etta in Alexandra Bracken’s newly released Passenger is also a musician. And like Revolution, Passenger is really two stories in one. But this time, the two protagonists actually meet . . . and more. Like in Ruby Red, time travel complicates Etta's contemporary life instead of simplifying it, and she and her new companion Nicholas aren’t limited to just one time or place.
But the time-travel read that I’m most looking forward to in 2016 is Janet B. Taylor’s Into the Dim. It combines features from these other titles but reworks them in new ways: Narrator Hope has present-day issues to resolve, the past offers an intriguing love interest and time-hopping is a family legacy. Time-traveling readers, set your dials to March 2016 for this one.
When Julie Anne Peters published Luna in 2004, told from the point of view of the younger sister of a transgender teen, it was a groundbreaking work. But it wasn’t until 2007’s Parrotfish by Ellen Wittlinger that YA literature got its first story narrated by a trans teen himself. Parrotfish also normalized trans teens by focusing on other aspects of Grady’s life—including his family’s annual Christmas play and his interest in becoming a filmmaker—not just on his gender.
I.W. Gregorio’s None of the Above, about an intersex teen, builds on the ground established by Luna and Parrotfish. Like Parrotfish, we hear Kristin’s story from her own point of view. The past two years have also brought two middle grade novels, Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky and George by Alex Gino, told from the perspective of elementary and middle-school girls born into boys’ bodies. All of these books are realistic fiction, but 2015’s Lizard Radio by Pat Schmatz features a non-gender-binary main character in a semi-futuristic dystopian setting. And taking the normalizing idea from Parrotfish even further, protagonist Kivali’s gender identity isn’t the main issue of Schmatz’s book. Instead, it’s just one aspect of a story that includes mystery, romance, spirituality and teens’ struggles against a conformist culture.
Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin is high on my to-read list for 2016. It features a genderfluid teen, Riley, whose anonymous blog provides a safe space for identity and community . . . until it’s discovered by someone who threatens to reveal Riley’s secrets. Twelve years after Luna, the time seems right to expand how gender identity can be explored in YA lit. I’m looking forward to seeing many more examples of this in the coming year and beyond. (Look for a review of Garvin's book in the February 2016 issue of BookPage.)
What trends are you noticing in YA literature? Are any YA books about these—or other—high-intensity topics on your 2016 to-read list? Share in the comments below!
Locker Combinations is a Book Case feature by BookPage contributor and young adult (YA) literature expert Jill Ratzan. Using a variety of literary, cultural and educational perspectives, Jill guest blogs about the latest in YA lit and the general direction, trends and changes of the field. When she's not reading, Jill matches readers with books in a small library in southeastern Pennsylvania. Read more BookPage reviews, interviews and posts by Jill here.
Has anyone else noticed the flurry of fiction focused on the art world?
The industry reflex seems to be to credit The Goldfinch, but it certainly wasn't the first novel about art to make a splash—think Steve Martin's Object of Beauty, Elizabeth Kostova's The Swan Thieves, Susan Vreeland's The Forest Lover and, of course, Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring, to name just a few. Still, they've become increasingly common in the last few years, and we happen to be featuring two—The Improbability of Love by Hanna Rothschild and The Muralist by B.A. Shapiro—in our most recent issue.
Our eagle eyes have already spotted a few artistically minded releases coming down the pike for 2016. If you're on the lookout for a new page-turning, paint-spattered read, here are our top 3 contenders:
The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith (FSG, April). In this twisty thriller from a Pushcart Prize nominee, a museum curator is confronted with her youthful forgery—a work thought to be the last surviving painting of a 17th-century Dutch artist.
Tuesday Nights in 1980 by Molly Prentiss (Gallery, April). In her debut novel, Prentiss takes a more modern tack as she explores the NYC art scene in the 1980s through the eyes of an art critic whose synesthesia has made him one of the most original writers around and an exiled Argentinian artist fleeing the Dirty War.
The Muse by Jessie Burton (Ecco, July). The author of The Miniaturist returns with the story of a mysterious painting that connects a Carribbean immigrant and a bohemian artist across decades (the 1930s to the 1960s, to be exact).
Watch out, readers—it looks as though this year's The Ice Twins was just the tip of the iceberg (sorry) when it comes to novels about diabolically dynamic duos. In January 2016 alone, two releases get a chill factor from different explorations of that powerful bond between twins.
Most of the time, twins switching places is done for laughs. Ann Morgan's debut, Beside Myself (Bloomsbury), puts a darker spin on it when favored twin Helen agrees to switch places for a day with her social outcast of a sister, Ellie—and Ellie refuses to switch back. The girls are only 6, and their troubled mother, who has just lost her husband to suicide, doesn't believe it when Helen tells her the truth. Forced to live her life as Ellie, Helen goes through a series of increasingly horrific experiences.
In Eleanor (Crown), by book designer Jason Gurley, twins Eleanor and Esmerelda are also separated at a young age. But this time, it's through tragedy: Esmerelda is killed in a car accident. The twins' mother drowns herself in alcohol and their father leaves. Eleanor is left to raise herself, with the support of her best friend and neighbor, Jack. But once Eleanor becomes a teenager, she begins to have out-of-body experiences that eventually turn into flat-out disappearances into a different world. Is Esmerelda the mysterious voice that pulls her into the void?
So, readers, on a scale of 1 (The Parent Trap) to 10 (The Shining twins) how creepy do you find this trend?
Excellent book-centric mysteries and thrillers always hit the sweet spot for big whodunit readers. This year has given readers several standouts, from creepy authors to cozy bookshop owners:
Finders Keepers by Stephen King
"King has long been interested in literary obsessions, and the divide between author and fan or creator and creation—think Misery, The Dark Half or Secret Window, Secret Garden. Finders Keepers continues to explore these ideas and adds another dimension: Pete and Morris are both willing to do a lot to hold on to Rothstein’s works. At what point does the hero become the villain?" Read the rest of our review.
Antiques Swap by Barbara Allan
"The mother-daughter writing and sleuthing team in Antiques Swap may share genes, but their methods are poles apart. Fans of the Trash'n'Treasures Mystery series will recognize the entertaining way level-headed narrator Brandy Borne’s sensible tone clashes with her mother's cheerful disregard for the rules." Read the rest of our review.
Pride v. Prejudice by Joan Hess
"Semi-retired bookstore owner Claire Malloy is back with her signature snark in this witty 20th installment of Joan Hess’ series. Though the distractible Claire can’t be bothered to address the alarming rate at which her bookstore inventory walks out the door on its own, she is more than willing to throw herself into a murder investigation when the prosecutor makes a grievous error: He humiliates Claire in public." Read the rest of our review.
Don't Go Home by Carolyn Hart
"Best-selling author Alex Griffith has mined his childhood home, Broward’s Rock, for all it’s worth, fictionalizing the island’s secret affairs, dirty deals and suspicious deaths in his novel Don’t Go Home. The golden boy is out of ideas, though, which is how he lands in the hands of bookstore owner Annie Darling." Read the rest of our review.
The Truth and Other Lies by Sascha Arango
"Most readers probably imagine their favorite author as thoughtful and deep—someone bursting with insight into life and empathy for all creation. From the outside, that’s what Henry Hayden appears to be. Modest despite the five-and-counting bestsellers that bear his name, he seems to be devoted to his wife, loyal to his friends and eager to sign books for the fans who travel to his remote village just to meet him. But he’s a fraud: Every word of his novels was written by his publicity-shy wife, Martha." Read the rest of our review.
Disclaimer by Renée Knight
"It seems the reading world can't get enough of these psychological thrillers starring deceptive, unreliable female characters. Knight plays with our allegiances in this juicy domestic noir, already in the works to become a film with 20th Century Fox. Her debut tells the story of Catherine, a successful documentary filmmaker who receives a manuscript that describes in excruciating detail a day from her life she has tried so hard to forget." Read more, plus an excerpt from Disclaimer.
Coming soon: Trust No One by Paul Cleave
Cleave's new novel, coming August 4 from Atria Books, stars a well-known crime novelist, Jerry Grey, who has early-onset Alzheimer’s. As the disease progresses, the line between reality and fiction becomes fuzzier, and soon he's convinced that his novelized murders actually happened.
It’s Private Eye July at BookPage! All month long, we’re celebrating the sinister side of fiction with the year’s best mysteries and thrillers. Look for the Private Eye July magnifying glass for a daily dose of murder, espionage and all those creepy neighbors with even creepier secrets.
Historical mysteries work double-duty, entertaining readers with whodunit twists while transporting them to another time. But there's something especially enjoyable about a book that includes real-life historical figures—especially when those fictional portrayals feel authentic and exhaustively researched, as with historical fiction by Paula McLain and Nancy Horan. This year's crop of historical mysteries star a number of real-life people, in roles big and small. Check out a few of our favorites:
The Harvest Man by Alex Grecian and I, Ripper by Stephen Hunter
It seems that Jack the Ripper may haunt us forever through literature. The serial killer is a secondary figure in the newest in Grecian's Scotland Yard Murder Club series, but you can dive deep into his twisted, bloody mind in Hunter's standalone. Read our reviews of both novels.
The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons
What if Henry James, author of The Turn of the Screw, teamed up with one of literature’s most beloved characters, Sherlock Holmes, to solve a murder mystery in turn-of-the-century America? It's a fantastic mix of history and literature, including a cameo by Clover Adams, granddaughter-in-law of John Quincy Adams. Read our review.
Too Bad to Die by Francine Mathews
In real life, author Ian Fleming was an assistant to Britain’s director of naval intelligence; in the new novel from the author of Jack 1939, he's caught up in a plot to assassinate all three Allied leaders at a conference in Tehran. Read our review.
Second Street Station by Lawrence H. Levy
Brooklyn's first woman detective, Mary Handley, finds herself tangled in a mystery in the late 19th century, just as the notorious Edison/Tesla feud over the electricity market unfolds. Go Behind the Book with Levy.
Leaving Berlin by Joseph Kanon
To clear his Communist past, Jewish writer Alex Meier must clear his name by becoming a spy stationed in Berlin. You can expect major doublecrossing and bloodshed in this stellar espionage thriller—as well as real-life characters such as poet/playwright Bertolt “Bert” Brecht. Read our review.
Ostland by David Thomas
Equal parts police procedural and courtroom thriller, this novel is based on the horrifying true story of Georg Heuser, one of the Holocaust's worst Nazi war criminals. It's a truly fascinating mix of fact and fiction. Read our review.
Nobody does interactive picture books like French artist Hervé Tullet. Following the success of his 2011 bestseller Press Here, Tullet has become a bit of a picture book sensation, encouraging the littlest readers to poke and shake books that seem to respond to their command. The dots from Press Here return on September 16 in Mix It Up!, but this time they've got something to show us about mixing and creating colors.
Tullet's Help! We Need a Title! came out in May of this year and took his interactive elements to a metafictional level, subtly provoking questions about what a book is. What's an author, and where do ideas come from? The scribbly, mixed-media characters in Help! seem to come straight from a child's mind, but when the book opens, they're all completely unprepared. Surely the reader expects a story . . . so what do you do when it hasn't been written yet? (Who's in charge around here, anyway?)
This fall's crop of picture books includes several more metafictional titles, encouraging fearless and unfettered creativity while challenging the relationships between readers, listeners, authors and characters.
Before snuggling down with this book, I highly recommend fixing yourself and your lap listener some PB&J sandwiches, then sit back and let the giggles begin. Everything starts out as planned in Louie's story—"Once upon a time, little Louie went skipping merrily along."—but a messy reader ruins everything. First a glob of jelly plops right in Louie's way, and then peanut butter lands on his face . . . and as the book gets dirtier and dirtier, Louie gets more and more upset with the reader/offender. Fortunately Louie and the reader come to an understanding. Perfect's boring anyway. Coming October 7.
This time, the reader is hero, not villain. The gutter of this unexpected adventure has a mind of its own, and when Bella's dog disappears between the pages, she finds herself in an escalating conundrum reminiscent of the events in Jeffers' Stuck. Soon the gutter has sucked up everyone in the book, and it's up to the reader to set them free. We're asked to shake the book—keep shaking!—until everyone reappears . . . almost as good as new. Coming September 30.
Just as you'd expect, Novak's debut picture book has absolutely zero pictures—not even an author photo on the jacket flaps. This innovative story is not really a story so much as a challenge to parents, to drop the ego and get silly. The concept works, though, as it calls into question the real balance of power in the relationship between reader and listener. When a reader has to read what is written—no matter what is written, no matter how ridiculous or how little it makes sense—things can get very, very silly. Coming September 30.
It seems to be the year of the mother-daughter mystery. I'm not talking about cozy mother-daughter sleuthing teams, solving crimes amid witty banter and little squabbles. No, these ladies are about as trustworthy as any Gone Girl character, and it's rare the reader knows what they've got up their sleeves.
It's the multigenerational bad girls club, and it's easily this year's hottest mystery trend.
Mind of Winter by Laura Kasischke
Paranoia reaches new heights in this psychological thriller. Holly Judge wakes up on Christmas morning, suddenly convinced that there's something very wrong with her adopted teenage daughter. "Something followed them home Siberia," she thinks, and starts ticking off all the disturbing evidence. An obsessive and twisted tale where reality threatens to slip away. Read an excerpt.
I Love You More by Jennifer Murphy
Oliver Lane’s murder looks like a simple case of a woman scorned—in this case, his wife, Diana. But investigators soon discover Oliver had two more families as well. So who really killed Oliver? Multiple points of view keep this thrilling mystery from every giving too much away. The most interesting POV comes from Oliver's daughter Picasso, who has seen plenty. Watch out for these ladies, and whatever you do, don't cross them. Read our review.
Don't Try to Find Me by Holly Brown
It's not initially clear who the victim of Brown's debut is. After 14-year-old Marley runs away from home, her mother launches a public campaign for her return. But people are fickle, and soon Marley's mom finds herself the target of public scrutiny. Why did Marley leave? Who is to blame? Secrets upon secrets. Read our review.
Dear Daughter by Elizabeth Little
This book's victim is pretty black-and-white, as Janie Jenkins was incarcerated 10 years ago for the murder of her mother. She's just been released from prison on a technicality—but she's also innocent and in need of some answers. Debut author Little has a great voice, and I wish her unapologetic heroine was my best friend. Look for a review in our August issue.
The Good Girl by Mary Kubica
This is another high-intensity thriller than unfolds through multiple points of view, but I can promise you'll never see this ending coming. The story jumps between events before and after Mia Dennett's abduction, when she was held in a cabin in the woods by a guy whose motivations don't quite make sense. Mia's mom is in on the investigation, and that's all I'm going to say about it. Look for a Q&A in our August issue.
Are you set for vacation reading this summer? If not, we're here to help! Follow the flowchart below to your ultimate summer read. Click on the graphic for an interactive version that will lead you more information about each book, or download it here.
What are you reading this summer?
It starts with one teenage girl—the severe tics, the twitching. Then it spreads to another, then another, then another. Is it a virus? Anxiety? Are the girls faking it? Soon, a dozen or more girls are twitching, and mass hysteria has an entire town in a panic.
I could be talking about the notorious Salem Witch Trials, the girls in LeRoy, New York, in 2012—or the two novels coming out this summer, one for adults and one for teen readers. Both novels were sparked by the mass hysteria in 2012 and tell the same general story—with some key differences. Both blend the thrills of a plague narrative with the psychological tension of paranoia and guilt.
We'll never forget how Megan Abbott addressed the cunning powerplays and precarious hierarchies of high-school girl world in her dark and twisted novel, Dare Me. In her next adult novel, The Fever, coming June 17 from Little, Brown, teenage girls fall one by one to unexplained seizures, sending the town into chaos. There's something distinctly sexual about the girls' twitching, and Abbott's dreamlike prose gives these events a haunting, disturbing quality.
YA novel Conversion by Katherine Howe, coming July 1 from Putnam, heads in a more supernatural direction and makes the satisfying connection between past and present twitching. Howe is a direct descendent of two of the women accused of witchcraft during the Salem Witch Trials, which has inspired her before. Conversion moves between Salem Village in 1706 and an all-girl's high school in Danvers, Massachusetts, in 2012. When girls start twitching and people start panicking, a parallel is drawn: Danvers was once Salem Village.
It seems the mass hysteria narrative is catching. I suspect we will see several more novels featuring twitchy girls before the end of the year.
Though William Shakespeare's exact date of birth went unrecorded, it's typically observed on April 23, the day he died on 52 years later—a neat piece of symmetry for such a literary life.
In the years since, the scant biographical facts available about the poet have combined with his singular status to ignite countless imaginations. This spring brings three additions to the lengthy list of Shakespearean tomes.
How did the son of a glovemaker rise to the heights of literary fame? This question has engendered many hypothetical answers over the years—including the well-known assertion that Shakespeare did not, in fact, write the plays he is credited with. Historical novelist Jude Morgan comes up with his own Bardic backstory in The Secret Life of William Shakespeare (St. Martin's), which opens in 1582, shortly before Shakespeare meets his wife-to-be Ann Hathaway. Morgan's Shakespeare adores his father and has a close relationship with his sister, Joan. He also feels a genuine passion for Ann, one that competes with his calling as a poet.
In Dark Aemilia (Picador), we move from investigating the source of Shakespeare's genius to unveiling the inspiration for the "Dark Lady" of his sonnets, the mistress whose "hair is nothing like the sun." Author Sally O'Reilly posits that the woman in question is a real-life contemporary, Aemilia Lanier—the fourth woman to ever publish a book of poetry in English. Lanier's biography is as sketchy as Shakespeare's own, leaving O'Reilly plenty of room to weave in a tumultuous romance with fellow poet Will while he's out and about on the London theater scene.
Finally, for those who don't take their Shakespeare too seriously, there's William Shakespeare's The Jedi Doth Return, the final Star Wars/Shakespeare mashup from Ian Doescher. The first, Verily, a New Hope, was a surprise hit back in 2013, and fans can't seem to get enough of the Star Wars story told in iambic pentameter.
If none of these suits your fancy, hold on until 2016, when Hogarth books will launch the "Hogarth Shakespeare Collection," a series that allows modern-day authors to turn several of Shakespeare's most popular plays into novels.
Those who prefer a "just the facts, ma'am," approach might try Germaine Greer's 2008 biography of Ann Hathaway or Stephen Greenblatt's National Book Award Finalist Shakespeare biography, Will in the World.
What's your favorite Shakespeare-inspired work? Or do you believe the play's the thing?