Once upon a time, BookPage sent me a copy of The Kingdom of Little Wounds (originally marketed for ages 14 and up) to read and review for the October 2013 issue. After I read it, I got out my drum and cried, "But it's not YA!" Associate Editor Cat Acree and I emailed back and forth about this issue for a whole day, and we ended up with enough talking points to write a (very, very short) dissertation. Or, as she suggested, to stick it on the blog (here).
And with that, Locker Combinations was born.
If you haven't been reading this series from its beginning, you probably aren't familiar with why we named it Locker Combinations. Here's why:
Locker Combinations is a way to "see inside" YA (young adult) literature. By opening a locker, sometimes you find meaningful objects, like photos and mementos. Sometimes you find useful objects, like pens and pencils; informative objects, like your history textbook; or secret objects, like that note your friend slipped between the grates. Sometimes you find gruesome objects, like those gym clothes you've been meaning to take home and wash. And sometimes you find a mirror, where you can see an image of yourself.
With only a few more days before the launch of BookPage's new teen e-newsletter, Yay! YA (you can sign up for it here), I was asked to share with readers what exactly is so great about YA lit—and why it resonates with me!
The new year is a time to think about transformations. But year-round, YA lit focuses on the space between being one thing and being another, with characters sometimes choosing one option unequivocally and other times finding a way to embrace both. Teens think about these issues . . . but adults do, too.
Normally when I talk with students about transformations in YA lit, we talk about teenage shapeshifters: werewolves, selkies, dragons, etc. But to me this year's best example of transformation in YA lit is less metaphorical: Girls Like Us by Gail Giles. Over the course of this short, accessible book, developmentally disabled high school graduates Biddy and Quincy and their recently widowed landlady Elizabeth gradually transform from characters weighed down by their pasts—and by the labels society has assigned them—into people who can build friendships and careers and find happiness despite obstacles.
Veteran YA author Andrew Smith is no stranger to metaphor: The dark horrorscapes that mirror real world terrors in The Marbury Lens (and its companion novel Passenger) established him as a master of the form. Last year, though, Smith took metaphor to yet another level with Grasshopper Jungle, telling two stories, one about teenage boys and the other about giant hungry mutant praying mantises with only one thing on their minds. But are they really two stories, or is one a running metaphor for the other?
You don't have to be a teenager to appreciate the power of metaphor. Adult fiction deals with metaphor too, of course—especially in genres like fantasy, science fiction and horror—but YA's metaphors tend to be more immediate and closer to the surface. Like Smith's oversized insects, this makes them impossible to ignore.
YA lit is often dismissed as more simplistic than adult fiction, but books like E. Lockhart's We Were Liars refute that notion.
Some stories have a beginning, a middle and an end, in that order. Sometimes only one story is being told at a time, and sometimes readers can trust a story's narrator to tell the truth. None of these are the case in Lockhart's postmodern, boundary-pushing YA novel. Narrator Cady's tale of summer friendship and romance on a privileged family's private island is constantly interrupted by flashbacks, bits and pieces of fairy tales and hints that a mysterious accident may be linked to sinister secrets that Cady's bouts of amnesia won't let her access. Lockhart's highly literary, experimental style challenges teen readers to create their own understandings out of disjointed, sometimes complimentary and sometimes contradictory narrative threads.
Lockhart's novel is only one of innumerable YA books that demonstrate that YA can be just as complex, nuanced and multilayered as literature written for adults.
How much power do teens—especially teenage girls—have over their lives and the lives of others around them? Conversion by Katherine Howe explores this question through two parallel stories, one taking place at the time of the Salem witchcraft trials and the other set in a modern Massachusettes high school. In 1692 Salem, teen Ann Putnam Jr. finds herself at the heart of the town's witchcraft hysteria, while in the present day an unexplained neurological illness is creating panic at all-female St. Joan's Academy. Are the sick girls—and the supposed witches' victims—being controlled by outside forces, or have they been the ones in control all along?
Determining, negotiating and reworking questions of social power are definitely not the exclusive purview of teens. Adult power dynamics can be so complicated, and can have such high stakes, that reading about teens who change the world is a good way to put things in perspective.
In some ways, the issue of identity is central to all of YA lit. Consider Noggin by John Corey Whaley: Sixteen-year-old Travis, dying of leukemia, has agreed to an experimental, last-chance treatment. His head has been attached to another teenager's formerly-dead body. In part because the body he inhabits isn't his original one—and in part because five years have elapsed since his head was frozen and then thawed—Travis quickly finds that a lot of rethinking is in store. Although the premise sounds silly, Travis' identity struggle (and his highly punnish sense of humor) will resonate with any teen who's ever wondered who they really are.
And who doesn't sometimes feel like they're walking around in a body that's completely different than what's in their head?
Reading YA lit, especially recent books that accent some of the most interesting ideas that YA tackles, is a great way to get through the winter doldrums. And if your 2015 New Year's resolution is to read more YA (and why shouldn't it be?), don't forget to subscribe to Yay! YA to learn about the latest reviews, author interviews and web exclusives on BookPage.com. Happy reading!
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. Read more BookPage reviews, interviews and posts by Jill here.
If you need any proof that books aren't dead, just look to the children's and young adult industry, which continues to grow and dominate bestseller charts for adults and young readers alike.
To celebrate this "golden age" of children's and YA books, Time Magazine has compiled a list of all-time classics, both old and new. The children's list includes favorites such as The Giving Tree and Make Way for Ducklings, and my own personal favorite, Miss Rumphius. Check out the full list of 100 here, and vote for your favorite.
The young adult list is a little . . . let's say confusing, and we're not the only ones who feel this way. Books like Wonder—which is middle grade, not young adult—share space with A Monster Calls, and it's almost unfathomable to see Twilight and To Kill a Mockingbird on the same list. See the full 100 here.
Readers, what do you think?
In only a few weeks, the American Library Association names the winners of its Youth Media Awards! In the spirit of the season, here are my predictions for the two biggest young adult (YA) lit awards, the Michael L. Printz Award and the William C. Morris YA Debut Award.
The Printz Award recognizes each year's best book written for teen readers, based entirely on literary merit. Up to four second-place Honor books can also be named. Established in 2000 to help bring legitimacy and visibility to books for teens, it's the highest award in YA lit.
What I think will win: This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki.
BookPage loved this monochromatic graphic novel about happenings large and small in the beachfront town where teenage Rose and her parents spend every summer. Reviewer Molly Horan writes that the story "perfectly captures . . . the dawning realization that no matter how static a place may stay, the process of growing up forces a change in feelings and perceptions."
On School Library Journal's award speculation blog Someday My Printz Will Come, librarian Sarah Couri has also tagged This One Summer as a good Printz candidate, and I completely agree with her reasons:
To these reasons I'd add two of my own. At the risk of getting too academic, children's and young adult literature is traditionally defined by its lack of authenticity. Although it's written for young readers, it's written by adults. But occasionally an authentic piece of childhood culture will creep into an adult-authored piece, as when Rose and her friend Windy play the aspirational pencil-and-paper game M.A.S.H. (Mansion Apartment Shed House). Lots of preteens (or readers who were once preteens) will recognize this game, but many won't have seen it mentioned in a book before.
And, as discussed on this blog last month, narrator Rose's age is never actually stated. This intentional lack of information forces readers to actively engage with the text (and the illustrations) to figure out for themselves Rose's place among the other characters. In scholarly parlance, this facilitates active, participatory meaningmaking.
So far, Printz medals have always been won by single authors (although author Daniel Handler and illustrator Maira Kalman shared a Printz Honor for Why We Broke Up in 2012). Maybe the time has come for a creative team—like cousins Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki—to take home the gold. And since a graphic novel has won the Printz Award before (American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang in 2007), the committee may be open to naming another sequential art winner.
Can I pick another? I'm doing it anyway . . . but this one's more of an outside contender: Complicit by Stephanie Kuehn.
Speaking of authentic preteen pasttimes, Kuehn's books are like those origami fortune tellers you might have made in middle school (or might have read about in the middle grade hit The Secret of the Fortune Wookie: An Origami Yoda Book by Tom Angleberger). Each flap unfolds to reveal something interesting, until one final unfolding turns the entire structure inside out.
Complicit, a suspenseful psychological thriller about a teen investigating a fire set by his sister, features an unreliable narrator with unusual psychosomatic symptoms and a past speckled with violence and loss. It stands out, even in a year with other strong unreliable narrators (like We Were Liars by E. Lockhart and Love Is the Drug by Alaya Dawn Johnson), and holds its own in comparison to older, similar works like Invisible by Pete Hautman. And even though I suspected that, like Kuehn's 2013 Morris Award-winning Charm & Strange, Complicit would have a twist at the end, I still finished the story feeling turned inside out . . . in a good way.
A relative newcomer to the scene (it was first awarded in 2009), the Morris Award honors YA debuts. Unlike the Printz, the Morris Award publishes a list of five finalists each year during the first week of December.
I'm rooting for The Scar Boys by Len Vlahos. Told in the form of a college admission essay, it's the story of a teen boy falling in love with music and finding himself after trauma. The book, inspired by the author's own experience touring with a band, is set in the 1980s—which means lots of pop culture references (and no cell phones!). Even in a year where high-profile titles like Andrew Smith's Grasshopper Jungle also address friendship among boys, Vlahos' treatment of the topic still stands out.
What YA books would you love to see recognized by these, or other, YA lit awards? Let us know in the comments!
To keep up with YA news and reviews, sign up for our new YA e-newsletter, Yay! YA, coming in 2015!
I'm a polyamorous reader. At one point last month I had two books open at the same time: Angus, Thongs and Full Frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison (for this blog post) and The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier. Angus, Thongs is a laugh-out-loud contemporary realistic fiction young adult (YA) book; The Night Gardener is a ghost story set in the mid-19th century and written for middle grade readers (ages 9 to 12, or grades 4 to 7). Both feature 14-year-old protagonists. What makes one YA and the other middle grade?
Literary agent Carlie Webber wrote in 2013 that she eschews manuscripts with 14-year-old characters. Fourteen-year-olds, Webber argues, lack the childlike "outlook of wonder" that characterizes middle grade fiction—but despite beginning to acquire a jaded teenage outlook, they're stuck being chauffered by their parents, so "there’s not a lot they can do to really affect a ton of change." And marketing books with 14-year-old protagonists is tricky, because this age is where two major priorities start to conflict. Conventional wisdom says that young readers like to read about characters a few years older than themselves. But readers also like to be able to relate to characters—and at age 14 "delightful things like puberty" start to differentiate children's experiences from those of teens.
More recently, writer Dianne K. Salerni, author of The Caged Graves, writes of similar issues. At her publisher's request, she reduced the protagonist's age in her middle grade book The Eighth Day from 14 to 13, because "age 14 was a No Man’s Land as far as book stores . . . are concerned. If my main character was 14, the book would be shelved in the Teen section, where it didn’t belong." Salerni goes on to brainstorm factors that might be relevant to character age, including popularity ("Percy Jackson ages past 14" but "I was not . . . Rick Riordan"), character or author gender, and genre and setting. She insists that "the premise of the story, the tone, the voice, and the themes matter more than the age of the main character."
One of this year's standout YA titles, the graphic novel This One Summer by Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki, is a great example of a book that not only avoids these pitfalls but actively subverts them. Protagonist Rose's age is never explicitly mentioned. Instead, she's sandwiched between her childlike friend Windy ("one and a half years younger than I am") and her sort-of crush, who she admits is way too old for her ("He's like eighteen. That's like perverted."). Rose and Windy often joke about sex, but its real implications—like teen pregnancy, marital relationships and infertility—are harder for Rose to process. Because the story is set on a small-town beach, transportation is never an issue, and because it's summer, neither is school. Is Rose an older kid, or a younger teen? How do others see her? How does she see herself? (This One Summer's exploration of these questions is part of what might make it a serious contender for this year's Printz Award.)
With all this in mind, let's take another look at YA Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging and middle grade The Night Gardener, both with 14-year-old main characters. Unlike the realistic Angus, Thongs, the spooky The Night Gardener takes place in a semi-fantastical historical setting. When protagonist Molly and other characters need to travel they do so by horse-drawn wagon, but most of the action takes place in and around a self-contained family mansion in the first place. Middle grade readers can relate to Molly not only because of her inherant hopefulness but also because she doesn't have to contend with, say, the daily social politics of ninth grade (or in British-speak, fourth form) the way Georgia Nicolson of Angus, Thongs does.
And then, of course, there's that puberty thing. Georgia's constantly thinking about boys, makeup and the eponymous undergarments, while these matters never seem to cross Molly's mind. Identity as a sexual being—blended with genre, setting and jadedness vs. optimism—may be what makes some 14-year-olds' stories YA and others middle grade.
What are some of your favorite books with 14-year-old characters—or characters whose age is never specified? Are these characters still open-minded kids, or world-weary teenagers? And who do you see picking up these books—adults, kids or teens?
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.
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. This month, Jill addresses a growing trend in YA lit: books featuring physically and mentally disabled teenagers.
Earlier this month, fans of John Green's iconic young adult (YA) novel The Fault in Our Stars lined up to be the first to see its newly released movie adaptation. Green's boundary-pushing book, in which two teens with cancer fall in love, has arguably set the contemporary standard for how YA literature portrays characters with disabilities.
Recently three books about differently-abled teens caught my attention. Like The Fault in Our Stars, all three take a nuanced, sensitive approach to their characters' physical and mental disorders, emphasizing that these teens' disabilities aren't the only factors that define who they are.
Revealing the narrator's disability in She Is Not Invisible by Marcus Sedgewick is almost-but-not-quite a spoiler: The careful reader will quickly figure out why 16-year-old Laureth needs her 7-year-old brother's help getting through a busy airport. Laureth and Benjamin are on their way to America in hopes of finding their father, who has mysteriously vanished. Laureth is blind, but she spends more time thinking about secret plots, numeric games and her father's cryptic notes than about her lack of sight. And Sedgewick's book is at least as much of a thriller and a fast-paced mystery as it is a book about a visually impaired teen.
Girls Like Us by Gail Giles is told from the alternating points of view of two new high school graduates, both developmentally disabled, who've been paired as roommates for their first post-high school jobs. Quincy and Biddy seem at first to have little in common with each other—let alone with their elderly landlady—but the three soon form a friendship that will help them meet ongoing challenges from the past as well as new ones in the present. Both narrators of this slim, accessible volume are fully realized characters with thoughts, fears, dreams and goals that extend far beyond the labels often used to dismiss them.
At the beginning of Say What You Will by Cammie McGovern, Matthew, a high school senior struggling with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), signs up as a peer helper for fellow senior Amy, who suffers from cerebral palsy. Like their non-disabled peers, Amy and Matthew experience many of the milestones of senior year, including afterschool jobs, college acceptances and of course prom. Neither expects that Amy will help Matthew at least as much as he helps her . . . or that their friendship will gradually blossom into romance.
Say What You Will doesn't end at Amy and Matthew's graduation, though. During their first months as newly independent adults, Matthew learns more about the world of work while Amy finds that her first semester of college isn't quite what she'd hoped it would be. And an impulsive decision of Amy's is about to change the course of both their lives.
(Note: Both Girls Like Us and Say What You Will focus at least in part on characters navigating jobs, college, roommates and living on their own for the first time. Fiction about this life stage has recently taken on the publishing label "new adult." This category name is often mistakenly seen as synonymous with "lots of graphic sex scenes," but these two books provide solid counter evidence to this claim, as neither book contains any consensual sex at all between so-called "new adults.")
In some ways, YA lit has been a welcome home to stories about marginalized teens ever since S.E. Hinton penned The Outsiders in 1967. While Hinton's book compared the working-class Greasers to the high-society Socs, contemporary YA fiction's protagonists represent a wide spectrum of differences across economics, ethnicity, sexuality and many other aspects of identity, including disability. The Fault in Our Stars (in both book and movie form) may have spearheaded the contemporary conversation about disabled teen protagonists, but it's done so as part of a longstanding tradition that continues to refine, and redefine, the portrayal of difference in YA lit.
We all have our favorite heroines from children's and young adult literature: Eloise, Pippi, Hermione, Katniss, Matilda—the list goes on and on. And then there are the real-life historical figures who paved the way for little girls everwhere: Marie Curie, Amelia Earhart, Rosa Parks and so many others.
In honor of Women's History Month, we're highlighting 10 new books that give young readers a fresh batch of heroines, from new fictional favorites to historical role models getting some much-deserved attention:
"Ellen, 'born with saltwater in her veins,' spent her days at the shore and learned at a young age from her father how to navigate a ship and operate a sextant. Because of Ellen’s desire for adventure and her competitive nature ('there is no glory in second place'), her father would often caution her—a recurring theme in this story—that 'a true navigator must have the caution to read the sea, as well as the courage to dare the wind.'" Read our full review.
"Whether you’re an adult or a child, this new picture book biography gives an informed overview of intriguing nursing pioneer Florence Nightingale. . . . [S]he felt that God wanted her to help people through nursing, even though the idea 'horrified' her parents." Read our full review.
"When a job lands Kate in San Diego, she sets her mind on transforming the dry, barren town into a site of tree-filled splendor. The story of how she makes her vision a reality is a remarkable one." Read our full review.
"With grace, simple shapes and lots of style and movement, this book perfectly captures Josephine, with a varied and vibrant color palette that complements her dynamic personality. Josephine is an extraordinary tribute to an American legend." Read our full review.
"Sulking around the White House one night, Audrey discovers a hidden compartment containing a diary written by a previous First Daughter, Alice Roosevelt. Alice’s desire to 'eat up the world' and claim an independent identity for herself—including bringing her pet snake to state functions, dancing on the roof and sneaking a boy past White House guards—inspire Audrey to try similar antics, with results that don’t always end up as planned." Read our full review.
"On the heels of solving her first mystery in the Newbery Honor book Three Times Lucky, Mo LoBeau faces more intrigue in her tiny North Carolina town of Tupelo Landing. . . . Small-town charm, clever dialogue and Mo’s unyielding wit are excellent reminders of why the first book was so successful." Read our full review.
"Sloan has created a story where the line between youth and adulthood moves back and forth, often more than once in a single day—and where kids and adults 'have relationships that are real and go both directions,' she says. The book is a moving, often funny reminder that such relationships are worth cultivating, and that being open to new people and experiences—however strange or difficult they may seem—can lead to wonderful things." Read our full interview with Sloan.
"Laila is observant, analytical and introspective, regularly comparing American customs to her family’s old existence of royal restriction. She neither fully condemns nor endorses either one of her lives or the people associated with them, but rather walks the common ground between them and begins to understand them." Read our full review.
"Eighteen-year-old American pilot and amateur poet Rose Justice has pulled some strings to land a spot with Great Britain’s Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA). As the daughter of a flight school director, she has been flying since she was 12, and after three months with ATA, she can deliver new and repaired Spitfire fighter planes to airfields without batting an eyelash." Read our full review.
"As Emily attempts to fit in at ASG and strives to articulate her feelings about the events surrounding her boyfriend’s recent death, she begins to feel a real kinship with Dickinson, whose work proves 'to other daughters of America, the ones who endure, who rise like rare birds from the ashes, that they are not alone.'" Read our full review.
We'd love to hear from you! Leave a comment below about your favorite young adult or children's book that stars a kick-butt heroine.
Today is Trailer Tuesday x2! Author Gwendolyn Heasley (Where I Belong, A Long Way from You) will publish her third young adult novel with HarperTeen this April, and BookPage has the pleasure of presenting the first look at the plucky heroine at the heart of Don't Call Me Baby.
It's a cute and charming story about teenager Imogene, the daughter of a popular Mommy Blogger. The "Mommylicious" blog is incredibly embarrassing for Imogene (imagine having all your private puberty stories published online!). Then Imogene must start her own blog for school, and there's no better time to define herself in her own words—and to turn the tables on Mommylicious.
Check out the trailer:
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. This month, Jill looks at one of our favorite classic YA novels, Forever . . . (which I think we can all agree is pronounced, "Forever dot dot dot") by Judy Blume.
When I taught young adult (YA) literature in a graduate program, my students were often less enamored by the academic background of YA lit and more interested in practical applications. So every year, I approached with trepidation our reading of Forever . . ., Judy Blume’s classic story of first love. What would contemporary library school students (and the teens they serve) make of this 40-year-old powerhouse?
And every year, Forever . . . inspired one of the most lively and animated discussions we’d have all semester.
“I remember sitting at the back of the school bus in junior high and passing this book around,” one student reminisced. Others reported middle school age readers borrowing the book and returning it partially read, having decided on their own that they weren’t ready for it yet.
Forever. . . , first published in 1975 by Simon & Schuster, is narrated by high school senior Katherine, who meets fellow senior Michael at a New Year’s Eve party. They date; they have sex. Katherine thinks their romance will last forever, but life has other plans. Minor characters include: Michael’s friend Artie, who may or may not be gay; Katherine’s friend Sybil, who fully intends to continue having sex after putting her baby up for adoption; and Jamie, Katherine’s younger sister, who in true 1970s fashion defends an impolite slang word for having sex: “That's not a bad word . . . hate and war are bad words.”
Blume wrote Forever . . . in response to a request from her then-teenage daughter for a book featuring “two nice kids who have sex without either of them having to die.” In other fiction of the time, as Blume explains, “if they [teens] had sex the girl was always punished—an unplanned pregnancy, a hasty trip to a relative in another state, a grisly abortion (illegal in the U.S. until the 1970’s), sometimes even death.”
As well as inspiring an entire genre of teen romance books, Forever . . . is also the direct inspiration for Daria Snadowsky’s 2007 YA book Anatomy of a Boyfriend, which retells Blume’s story in contemporary terms.
Like other controversial works of YA lit, Forever . . .’s reception has been mixed. The book comes in at number 16 on the American Library Association (ALA)’s list of the Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books of 2000-2009 and at a whopping number seven on the corresponding list for 1990-1999. On the other end of the scale, Blume won the Margaret A. Edwards Award in 1996, an ALA lifetime achievement award recognizing an author and her body of work for “significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature.” Forever . . . was specifically cited in the award announcement.
Forever . . . has been reissued with over a dozen different covers since its 1975 publication, including a now-iconic 2003 cover and a sexy new cover coming next month.
Perhaps some of the most fascinating aspects of Forever . . . are the urban legends that have sprung up around it. One such legend claims that page 115 of Forever . . .—the scene in which Katherine and Michael first make love—is the most read page in YA literature. (In class, readers of the 2003 edition were always slightly disappointed to find that its new pagination puts the content of the former page 115 on page 97.)
Another legend holds Forever . . . responsible for the decline in popularity of the name “Ralph,” the moniker Michael ascribes to a piece of his anatomy. Like many urban legends, this one isn't technically true—the number of American babies named “Ralph” peaked in the 1910s and has been dropping ever since—but who can say whether Forever . . . contributed along the way?
At a time when a seemingly endless amount of explicit content is available with a tap of a touchscreen, what accounts for the continued popularity (and infamy) of Forever . . .?
One factor might be the book’s relatability and accessibility: Katherine and Michael seem like real people teen readers might know, and Blume tells their story in simple, easy-to-read language. Another could be its usefulness as what scholar Amy Pattee describes as a “secret source” of love and relationship advice, including the practicalities of how to obtain birth control. (Newer editions include a letter to the reader with information about preventing sexually transmitted diseases.) Or maybe it’s the sheer idea that a book—a format that to some is clearly the domain of adults, school and other aspects of the formal grownup world—would dare to voice teens’ feelings and experiences in such an honest and upfront way.
Readers, share in the comments what classic YA book you'd like Jill to feature in her next Locker Combinations: Flashback Friday!
February is Black History Month, the perfect time to remind young readers of beloved heroes and heroines like Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman. This year, new books focus on other important figures, including Malcolm X, the many voices of the Harlem Renaissance and unexpected champions of equality, from unstoppable performers to long-forgotten slaves.
We picked our 10 favorite new books for honoring African-American heroes and heroines. Some of these stories are inspiring, some brutal and unflinching, but all are valuable and educational.
"Kristy Dempsey revisits a watershed moment in performing arts history in her sparkling new book, A Dance Like Starlight. The story’s spirited young heroine, an African-American girl who dreams of becoming a ballet dancer, lives with her mother in Harlem. The year is 1951." Read our full review.
"This lyrical tribute to Sugar Hill, the historic Harlem neighborhood of the 1920s and ‘30s, and its legendary inhabitants packs a lot of information with an economy of words and R. Gregory Christie’s colorful, stylized paintings." Read our full review.
"With appeal for younger and older readers alike, Under the Freedom Tree is both a beautiful tribute to a lasting symbol of freedom and a powerful reminder that one brave action can change the course of history." Read our full review.
"Malcolm Little is a terrific introduction to a polarizing historical figure and an inspiring tale that children can apply to their own lives. We all face adversity at one time or another; it’s how we respond that counts." Read our full review.
"In Josephine, Patricia Hruby Powell writes with great reverence and a vigor fitting to the life of the illustrious performer Josephine Baker. This handsomely designed tribute to Josephine’s life is refreshingly uncluttered in every way: Powell’s free-verse text doesn’t waste any words, and Christian Robinson’s minimalist acrylic illustrations communicate the very essence of Josephine’s vivacious spirit." Read our full review.
The Sittin' Up by Shelia P. Moses
Putnam | Ages 10 and up
"While most African-American children’s literature focuses on either slavery or the Civil Rights movement, Moses gives middle grade readers a glimpse of a time when slavery was recent enough to weigh heavily on the minds and hearts of African Americans, yet a more equitable future was also imaginable." Read our full review.
"Using the framework of Sarah’s unlikely wealth, Bolden offers a wide-ranging book discussing the creation of the Indian Territory and Oklahoma, the rise of black towns and boomtowns, and the greed and corruption that surrounds money. Searching for Sarah Rector draws upon photographs, census records, sensationalist newspaper articles and first-person interviews to tell a fascinating account of a little-known time in American history." Read our full review.
The Port Chicago 50 by Steve Sheinkin
Roaring Brook | Ages 10 to 14
"In The Port Chicago 50, Steve Sheinkin, author of the Newbery Honor book Bomb, tells the harrowing story of the fight for the lives and rights of 50 black sailors." Read our full review.
"Cy in Chains is a difficult, painful novel, but it’s an important one. Cy quickly morphs from a kind, compassionate boy, looking out for his friend before the accident, to a young man who’s been broken by a life of hard work and cruelty, and who comes to see compassion as a weakness he can’t afford." Read our full review.
"In a highly credible fashion, Willow grapples with her choices—she is as afraid of the path of freedom as she is of the certain horrors of continued enslavement. Perhaps most important to Willow, however, are the secrets she learns about the fate of her own mother, a beautiful and educated African woman." Read our full review.
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.
Last week, the American Library Association announced the winner of the Michael L. Printz Award, the highest award in young adult (YA) literature. Four Honor books were also named. (Marcus Sedgick's Midwinterblood won the top spot.) Interestingly, all five books are set either fully or partially in the past, in time periods ranging from the fourth century to 1986.
Historical fiction creates ample opportunities for YA literature, but it also poses a number of challenges. One such challenge is the role of female characters. How can authors of YA historical fiction stay true to historical realities while also presenting the strong, independent female characters that contemporary readers have come to expect? Read on for four possible strategies.
When Cat Winters' spooky historical mystery In the Shadow of Blackbirds opens, the year is 1918 and protagonist Mary Shelley Black is on her way to San Diego to stay with her recently widowed aunt. Mary Shelley's father is in jail for supposed unpatriotic activities, her beau is away fighting in France and the deadly Spanish flu is raging around her. With no one else to provide for them, Mary Shelley and her aunt—like many women of their time—must take on roles previously reserved for men. So, while Aunt Eva's work in a shipyard seems shocking, it brings in much-needed money. And although Mary Shelley's own activities might ordinarily have been looked down on by a husband, father or uncle, the combination of war, sickness and imprisonment mean that she's essentially on her own.
The popularity of crime drama series like "Sherlock" and "Elementary" have made character Sherlock Holmes well known even to those who've never read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Victorian-era tales. Similarly, Bram Stoker's Dracula has become an icon of pop culture. Fictional Holmes and historical Stoker are known for their intelligence, their curiosity and their interest in the macabre . . . but certainly not for their strict following of social conventions. If the two had teenage sisters or nieces, these young women might naturally be determined to set their own rules. Colleen Gleason's The Clockwork Scarab is the first in a series of mysteries starring the imaginary Mina Holmes and Evaline Stoker. If these two characters seem to be more independent than other women of their times, perhaps that's because they're taking a leaf out of their famous relatives' books.
Historical fantasy—works that combine history with aspects of the supernatural—is emerging as a hot new genre of YA fiction. Unlike traditional historical fiction, historical fantasy doesn't aim to be a perfect reflection of real life in the time and place in which it takes place. Instead, it combines elements from that setting with elements from the author's imagination.
One especially noteworthy historical fantasy series, His Fair Assassin by Robin LaFevers (especially the recent second book, Dark Triumph), revisits the history of medieval Brittany and France by juxtaposing real historical figures with fictional, magically trained warrior nuns. (You read that right.) Because LaFevers' female assassins are intentionally imaginary, they have no need to answer to the standards of demure behavior expected of other women of their time.
In Kerstin Gier's Precious Stones trilogy, translated from the German by Anthea Bell, teenage Gwyneth comes from a family of time travelers, but she's always been the boring, untalented one. An accidental slip into the past, though, reveals her identity as one of the Circle of Twelve, a secret sect with a long-running mission. Beginning with Ruby Red and continuing in Sapphire Blue, Gwyneth (and her cell phone) travel from contemporary London to the eighteenth century, the early twentieth century and various points in between. Again, because Gwyneth is an outsider to the times she finds herself in, her modern sensibility isn't necessarily an anachronism.
Strong female characters are always welcome in YA fiction, and if this year's Printz winner and Honor books are any indication, genre-blending YA historical fiction is here to stay. Combining the two ideas can sometimes be tricky, but these recent offerings show that it can be done with style, sensitivity and pizzazz.