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.
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 looks at one of our favorite classic YA novels, Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison.
Teen Read Week kicks off this Sunday! As an annual celebration of reading for fun, this is the perfect time to look back on one of the most fun YA books of all time.
Fourteen years ago, 14-year-old Georgia Nicolson made her debut in the pages of Louise Rennison's laugh-out-loud funny Angus, Thongs and Full Frontal Snogging: Confessions of Georgia Nicolson. Nine more books, an online short story and a movie would follow.
In hour by hour—and sometimes minute by minute—diary-style entries filled with British slang and her own neologisms, Georgia relates her adventures with her half-wild cat Angus ("I used to drag him around on a lead, but as I explained to Mrs. Next Door, he ate it"), her 3-year-old sister Libby, her best friends Jas, Ellen, Rosie and Jools, and most of all her attempt to snag—and snog—Robbie, the Sex God. In between, she and her classmates study geoggers and blodge (geography and biology), debate what boys really mean when they say "see you later" and handle various beauty mishaps, like shaved eyebrows and attempts at hair dying.
If these seem like silly concerns, they're supposed to be. As Rennison told BookPage in 2003, her path to writing about Georgia started when a newspaper column of hers caught a publisher's attention in an unusual way. (The publisher "asked me if I would consider writing a teenage girl's diary book. I said, er . . . why me? and they said, because we have never read anything quite so self-obsessed and childish, so we thought you could do a really good job.")
The glossary at the end of the book might be even more fun the main story. Georgia spells out the exact meanings of deely-boppers (an amusing piece of headwear), nuddy-pants ("literally nude-colored pants, and you know what nude-colored pants are? They are no pants"), "double cool with knobs" (which means "very" but is "altogether snappier") and other terms, to hilarious effect.
Recently the Guardian featured a guest piece by author Louise Rennison reflecting on how well the British humor of Angus, Thongs and its sequels has translated to "Hamburger-a-go-go land"—that is, the United States. Among other points, Rennison relates a confusion as to whether or not Americans wear knickers and an oddly impossible interpretation of the British title of the fifth book, . . . And That's When It Fell Off in My Hand.
Rennison's article was perfect timing, because I had recently been reminiscing on the bizarre incidents, urban folklore and noteworthy reputations that've accumulated around this cult classic over time.
First, there's Rennison's unusual path to writing about Georgia's "fabbity fab fab" life. As Rennison told BookPage in 2003, a newspaper column of hers had caught a publisher's attention in an unexpected way. (The publisher "asked me if I would consider writing a teenage girl's diary book. I said, er . . . why me? and they said, because we have never read anything quite so self-obsessed and childish, so we thought you could do a really good job.")
Then there's the climate of YA lit into which Rennison was writing. Angus, Thongs, a 2001 Printz Honor book, entered the American YA lit scene in April 2000, at a time when the Printz Award had just recognized its first crop of winners, John Green was about to graduate from college, and Harry Potter fans were eagerly awaiting the upcoming fourth book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Technology was different, too: Georgia and her friends pass notes in class rather than texting, call each other from "phone boxes" and listen to music on audiotapes. But their desire to evade school rules, their interest in kissing lessons and their frustrations with their parents are universal teen themes.
And don't forget about the longstanding appeal of the diary format itself. Georgia's entries are immediate and highly emotionally charged, with the quick ups and downs characteristic of teens' feelings ("6:00pm: Is my life over? Is this all there is? . . . 8:05pm: Jas has just phoned to say we've been invited to a party at Katie Steadman's and . . . Katie has asked Tom and Robbie. YESSSSS!!!!")
Although Angus, Thongs didn't invent diary format or even bring it to YA lit for the first time (it's a defining feature of 1971's anonymous Go Ask Alice, for example), Rennison's book might very well have popularized and encouraged this way of telling stories. Diary format has gone on to be used in dozens of other YA novels, ranging from The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot (also published in 2000) to Girls Like Us, longlisted for the 2014 National Book Award for Young People's Literature.
And finally, there's the book challenges, the complaints and the apologies. In 2005, the second book, On The Bright Side, I'm Now the Girlfriend of a Sex God, was challenged in a Bozeman, Montana, middle school on the grounds that "an unstable person seeing a girl reading the book might think from the title that the girl was promiscuous and stalk her." (Louise Rennison had appeared on the American Library Association's most frequently challenged authors list two years before, in 2003.)
In another incident posted on a children's lit listserv at the time, a bookseller found herself awkwardly explaining to a horrified parent what "snogging" meant (it means kissing, not to be confused with the significantly more R-rated "shagging").
Lastly, one of my own YA lit students shared an incident of her own with our class. Echoing Seventeen magazine's review—"You might want to refrain from reading this one in public"—my student found that Angus, Thongs and public transportation didn't quite mix. "I was reading it on the bus and laughing hysterically, and everyone was looking at me funny," she mock-complained.
Fans of Rennison's latest work might want to check out last year's The Taming of the Tights, her third book featuring Georgia's theater-loving cousin Tallulah Casey. But to some readers, nothing quite compares to their very first encounter with one of YA lit's funniest teens.
What retro YA book have you been meaning to read . . . or re-read? Let us know in the comments!
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 Chris Bohjalian's new novel and its crossover appeal.
Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands by Chris Bohjalian, a novel about a teen girl navigating a post-apocalyptic world, was published for adults. But it could easily function as a YA novel for a number of reasons:
Narrator Emily Shepard tells her tale from a first-person point of view, with an immediacy and focus that's arguably one of the defining characteristics of YA literature. Her speech is peppered with the kind of neologisms and pop culture references that a real teen might use. Bohjalian credits his then-19-year-old daughter Grace for helping make Emily's voice authentic, writing in his acknowledgements that "she [Grace] taught me a lot—and I mean a lot—of new expressions."
Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands is divided into sections before and after an important event (Emily's quasi-adoption of the homeless 9-year-old Cameron). This before-and-after format is probably best known from Looking for Alaska by John Green, but it also figures prominently in older YA books like Rats Saw God by Rob Thomas and newer ones like the 2013 William C. Morris YA Debut Award winner Charm & Strange by Stephanie Kuehn. Bohjalian's book also jumps back and forth in time freely, a technique familiar to readers of, for example, E. Lockhart's We Were Liars.
How many times have you heard book recommendations along the lines of "If you like Harry Potter, you'll like ______"? Comparisons help readers find books they might like, but they also serve as a metaphorical space to define genres, audience and other categories. By citing Karen Hesse's similar 1994 YA novel Phoenix Rising as inspiration (again, in his acknowledgements), Bohjalian grounds Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands in the section of this space occupied by YA lit.
While trying to survive their new world, Emily and her fellow teens use drugs, work as prostitutes and carry X-Acto knives to cut their skin. At first glance these topics—and in particular Bohhalian's non-condemnatory treatment of them—seem rather adult in nature. But in fact these ideas are standard fare for other boundary-pushing works of contemporary YA lit. For example, the upcoming Love Is the Drug by Alaya Dawn Johnson includes a character whose drug use is rooted in complex circumstances. Similarly, Blythe Woodson's recent Black Helicopters shows its protagonist trading sex with an older man for shelter for herself and her brother.
As Jennifer Miskec and Chris McGee explain in "My Scars Tell a Story: Self-Mutilation in Young Adult Literature" from Children's Literature Association Quarterly, contemporary YA lit embraces nuanced psychological and cultural views about cutting. In Violet & Claire by Francesca Lia Block, for example, the protagonist stops cutting when she channels her frustrations into filmmaking instead; in Pretties and Specials by Scott Westerfeld, "cutting is a way [for teens] to gain strength and clarity about the world around them." So when Emily describes cutting as a substitute for creative journaling and as a means to feel "almost human," Bohjalian's not flouting conventions of YA lit; instead, he's locating his story in an established pattern of others.
The number of YA novels that take place in crumbling worlds is dizzying. Some of my favorites from this year include Andrew Smith's Grasshopper Jungle and Rick Yancey's The Infinite Sea, the sequel to last summer's The 5th Wave.
In some ways the apocalypse is a natural metaphor for being a teen: For teenagers, everything is the end of the world. And as high school ends and teens leave home for college, work or other pursuits, the world as they know it is, in a way, literally ending.
So the question remains: Why is Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands an adult novel? Or rather, why isn't it YA?
A book's target audience can be as much a marketing decision as a content one—and no wonder, considering the debate that raged this past summer. When the movie adaptation of The Fault in Our Stars hit theaters in June, cultural critics like Slate's Ruth Graham immediately started lampooning grownups who read YA books that "abandon the mature insights . . . that they (supposedly) have acquired as adults." And just today, film critic Anthony Lane blasts YA lit in The New Yorker, writing of "the über-mantra of young-adult narrative: everything is a choice—your boyfriend, your college application, your breakfast, your playlist, the color of your scrunchie, and your ontological status. No reference must be made to principles beyond your reach, because those do not apply."
Bohjalian already has an established adult readership; would these fans buy a YA novel? By publishing Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands for adults, Bohjalian's publisher could avoid the issue entirely.
But, as surveys like Understanding the Children’s Book Consumer in the Digital Age show, adults actually do often buy, read and enjoy YA books. And as Salon's Laura Miller points out, YA fiction—like adult fiction—can do "everything a written text can do that other forms of storytelling cannot."
And just like adults can and do pick up YA books, teens can do and read books published for adults: Awards like YALSA's Alex Awards recognize adult books of high interest to young adult readers.
In the end, a good book can be a good book, whether it's categorized as adult or YA. So even though Bohjalian's readership is dominated by—and his new novel is targeted toward—adults, I'd bet on a new generation of Bohjalian fans. He's certainly earned it.
What other books do you love that cross YA/adult category lines like this? Add your thoughts in the comments!
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 pairs classic high school reads with great teen fiction.
For avid teen readers, the end of summer vacation can herald the end of reading what they want and a return to reading what they must. The teen who devoured The Fault in Our Stars may be less enthusiastic about the source of its title, Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. But pitting YA books against the classics of Western literature doesn't have to be an either-or proposition: Some pairs can illuminate each other in new and interesting ways.
Direct retellings of well-known tales abound (see this chart from Epic Reads), but works that complement rather than duplicate the classics can be harder to find. Here are four suggestions of great YA books to read alongside some staples of high school English.
SALEM WHICH TRIALS?
If you read The Crucible in American Lit class, you might remember your teacher saying that Arthur Miller's 1953 play was really about McCarthyism, using the Salem witch trials as a metaphor. Another interpretation is that The Crucible is about what happens when issues of gender, power, illness and social class combine in a high-pressure environment.
If so, Katherine Howe's new YA novel Conversion is the play's perfect readalike. Half of Conversion focuses on high school senior Colleen and her classmates at a highly competitive, all-female Massachusetts school where dozens of girls suddenly come down with unexplained, seemingly unconnected symptoms. (The story is based on a real incident that took place in LeRoy, New York, in 2012, a topic also explored in the recent adult novel The Fever by Megan Abbott.) The other half is narrated by Ann Putnam Jr., a teen at the center of the 1692 witch panic in Salem. The two halves, initially connected only by Colleen's extra credit project about The Crucible, soon converge. Like Arthur Miller, Howe leaves readers wondering exactly how much of a metaphor the Salem witch trials might be for contemporary goings-ons.
TURNING AROUND IN REVOLUTIONARY FRANCE
Dual, possibly intersecting narratives also characterize Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly, another contemporary YA novel that takes place partially in the present day and partially in the past—specifically, during the French revolution. This setting makes it the perfect choice to read alongside A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.
Like Charles Darney, Sydney Carton and Dickens' other characters, the dual narrators of Revolution watch their personal dramas play out against the backdrop of a larger political and social upheaval.
The 150-year gap between these two works might be the most thought-provoking aspect of this pairing. Historical perspectives on the French revolution have changed over time, with Dickens' heroic Bastille-stormers giving way to more nuanced modern interpretations. And readers of both books might want to remember the multiple senses of the word "revolution": It can mean both a war for independence and the act of changing direction.
WHITE DRESSES DRIPPING BLOOD
No one writes the macabre quite like Edgar Allan Poe. Teens who've read his short story "The Fall of the House of Usher" and want more creepy old houses haunted by revenge-seeking, bloodsoaked-dress-wearing gals—but with less onerous vocabulary and more running jokes about Ghostbusters—can't do better than Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake. Like Poe's classic short story, Blake's novel positively drips with Gothic horror—but it also features biology study sessions, talk of crushes (both ghostly and human) and pop culture references to everything from Harry Potter to "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." And fans of both authors can follow up with further works: Poe wrote dozens of short stories and poems, and Blake's sequel, Girl of Nightmares, picks up where the first book ends.
After leaving a place of chaos and conflict, our hero wanders for many miles, meeting people and learning about the world as they travel. But when they finally reach home, they find that their journey is actually just beginning.
This is the plot of Homer's Odyssey and Cynthia Voigt's Homecoming, both classics of their particular canons. While Odysseus navigates giants, sea monsters and other dangers of the ancient, mythological Mediterranean, teenage Dicey has a much more mundane but no less challenging task: bringing her younger siblings to safety after their mother abandons them in a Connecticut parking lot. First published in 1981, Voigt's novel is filled with pay phones, two-dollar bus fares and other relics of bygone decades, but that only adds to its charm. Besides, Homer's epic is almost 3,000 years old, making Homecoming (and its sequels) seem positively contemporary in comparison.
By pairing YA lit with classics, teen readers can apply what they learn from older works to newer and potentially more relevant contexts. Or they can use YA lit to rethink their interpretations of classic works. Either way, the start of school doesn't have to mean the end of reading YA.
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.
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 the importance of summer reading.
The days are getting longer, the mercury is climbing and the siren song of beaches, summer camp—or pretty much anything at all that isn’t school—is becoming irresistible. As the school year comes to an end, why should the teens in your life think about picking up a book during summer vacation? Research on summer reading provides some noteworthy answers.
One good reason is that reading over the summer has been shown to reduce “summer slide,” the term educators use to refer to the skills and knowledge that students lose over long summer breaks. A research brief produced by Karen Balsen and Douglas Moore for the New York State Library in 2010/2011 provides an accessible summary of much of this research, especially as it relates to socioeconomic factors. For example, Balsen and Moore cite a 2007 study that found that “two‐thirds of the 9th [sic] grade reading achievement gap can be explained by unequal access to summer learning opportunities during the elementary school years.” Having year-round access to a wide range of interesting reading material, this and other studies conclude, helps narrow achievement gaps and prevent summer learning loss.
Reading over the summer has been shown to reduce “summer slide,” the term educators use to refer to the skills and knowledge that students lose over long summer breaks.
Many schools assign books to be read during vacation months, but why should teens also be given the chance to choose their own summer reading? In his various writings, including the seminal books The Power of Reading: Insights from the Research (Libraries Unlimited, 2nd ed. 2004) and Free Voluntary Reading (Libraries Unlimited, 2011), educational researcher Stephen D. Krashen advocates for free voluntary reading (FVR), “reading because you want to: no book reports, no questions at the end of the chapter.” Citing dozens of research studies, Krashen explains that FVR—“the kind of reading that most of us [especially BookPage readers!] do obsessively all the time”—promotes reading comprehension, acquisition of general knowledge and most of all the positive attitudes toward reading that are all but necessary for achieving reading fluency. Summer is the perfect time for teens to catch up on the FVR that busy school year schedules often preclude.
Finally, in what might possibly be the most unusual piece of research ever produced about summer reading, emergency room doctor Stephen Gwilym and his colleagues noticed in 2005 that traffic in their pediatric trauma center had plummeted on certain July weekends . . . the same weekends that new Harry Potter books were released. Writing in the British Medical Journal, they report “a [statistically] significant decrease in attendances on the intervention weekends . . . At no other point during the three year surveillance period was attendance that low.” Why weren’t kids and teens getting hurt in typical summer accidents on those weekends? Because instead they were sitting still, reading about Harry’s latest adventures.
Why weren’t kids and teens getting hurt in typical summer accidents on those weekends?
Of course, this doesn’t quite work backwards: Dusting off your old copy of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince won’t necessarily keep you (or your teen) out of the ER this summer. But since Gwilym et al argue that Harry’s “lack of horizontal velocity, height, wheels, or sharp edges” contributed to low injury numbers, perhaps any book will do just as well.
In the end, teens (in general) don’t read research studies; their own reasons for reading over the summer are more likely to be about good stories than about achievement gaps. What books are your teens especially looking forward to reading this summer? How do you help convince them that, as the weather gets hot, reading is still cool?
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 tackles reluctant readers.
"My teacher told me to pick out a book," the seventh grader standing at my library reference desk complains. Clearly, she wishes she'd been sent to choose a poisonous octopus instead.
Avid readers can easily be boggled at best—and horrified at worst—by teens who seem completely uninterested in reading. As adults who love the written word, we want the teens in our lives to love it too. So how can we reach out to teens who don't like to read?
Librarians use the term "reluctant readers" to describe young people like the one above. The term is both alliterative and subversive: Reluctance doesn't imply refusal, just hesitation. The idea is that the right book can overcome a potential reader's misgivings and inspire them to give reading a chance.
Reluctant readers love lists: They're easy to follow and present information in quick, short chunks. In that spirit, here's a list of four ideas for matching reluctant teen readers with books they're likely to enjoy. Or, at least, not likely to hate.
1. Take advantage of resource lists.
The American Library Association publishes an annual list of Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers, including a Top Ten Quick Picks list. These lists feature "books that teens, ages 12-18, will pick up on their own and read for pleasure; [they are] geared to the teenager who, for whatever reason, does not like to read."
On this year's list, I love Game by Barry Lyga, the second book in a series about a boy who vows to catch serial killers . . . starting with his own father. The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey, about an alien invasion, has also been a big hit with the reluctant readers in my neighborhood.
Many public libraries put together their own lists too. For example, check out the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh's "But I HATE to Read!" list for teens, whose refreshingly honest title speaks directly to its target audience.
2. Choose books with inherently high-interest topics.
Alien invasions and serial killers are usually good bets. In a press release announcing the 2014 Quick Picks choices, Derek Ivie, chair of the Quick Picks committee, enumerates other topics and formats of perpetual interest, including "zombies, dystopias, dogs, crafts, [and] graphic novels." (He goes on to apologize that "there are no graphic novels of zombie dogs making crafts in a dystopian world" but adds, "Maybe next year?")
3. Choose books that don't look intimidating.
Page counts should be low and amount of white space should be high. Illustrations, if they're relevant, should be plentiful. And, of course, cover art should be inviting and book description blurbs should be attention-grabbing. My favorite blurb from this year's Quick Picks list is for Eat, Brains, Love by Jeff Hart: "Jake and Amanda just ate most of their friends. They feel really bad about it."
University of Richmond Department of Education Curriculum Materials Center director (and BookPage contributor!) Angela Leeper has the right idea when she assembles this terrific list of Books Under 200 Pages for Booklist magazine. These 20 choices are sure to be hits among teens who might eschew more intimidating-looking tomes.
(Of course, rules were made to be broken: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, which takes up only 72 pages in its Dover edition, is a much more difficult read than the 870-page Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. But in general, shorter books help reading seem more manageable.)
4. Discard your avid-reader instincts.
Gold and silver award seals, like those of the Newbery and Printz medals, can be off-putting to reluctant teen readers, who associate them with uninteresting, difficult books that carry that known kiss of death: adult approval. (Again, every rule has its exceptions: Rainbow Rowell's love story between two misfit 1980s teens, Eleanor & Park, was named both a Printz Honor book and a Quick Pick for 2014.)
While avid readers often relish the cracking sound that a pristine hardcover makes the first time it's opened, a reluctant teen reader might have just the opposite view. A creased spine and worn out pages indicate a book that's been well-loved. Teens are observant people and they notice these cues.
So what about my seventh grader? After being assured that it had not won a Newbery—but that it had been made into a movie—she left with a well-worn paperback copy of the YA suspense classic I Know What You Did Last Summer by Lois Duncan. I hope she didn't hate it.
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!