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!
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.
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.
Later this month, 10,000 librarians will converge on the city of Philadelphia for the American Library Association (ALA)'s Midwinter Meeting, five days of committee meetings, speakers, vendor exhibits and general hobnobbing. Many will venture out into the chilly January pre-dawn to snag good seats for the 8:00am announcements of the ALA Youth Media Awards, the Academy Awards of the children's and young adult (YA) literature world.
If the Youth Media Awards are the Academy Awards of youth literature, the Michael L. Printz Award is the YA lit equivalent of Best Picture.
It's awarded annually to the best—defined exclusively by literary merit—book published for teens in the previous year. The Printz committee can also name up to four Honor Books, or second-place finishers.
Compared to its much older children's literature cousins the Newbery and Caldecott Medals, the Printz, first awarded in 2000, is a relative newcomer. Since then, similar YA awards and recognition lists have either joined the party for the first time or gotten a makeover. These include the William C. Morris YA Debut Award and the Best Fiction for Young Adults list, as well as specialized lists like the Amelia Bloomer Project, recognizing the best of feminist-themed books for children and teens.
Much can be said about the awards' effects on YA purchasing (To what extent do sales spike after award announcements?) and publishing (Does the presence of an award to aim for encourage publishers to produce more YA lit in general—or to take more risks on edgy styles?), but to me the more interesting issues have to do with canonization, visibility and legitimacy.
Printz award winners, like those of the Newbery and Caldecott, instantly become canonical works of young peoples' literature. Teachers of YA lit (myself among them) often recommend that students consider the Printz backlist as a pre-assembled required reading list. Readers new to YA lit, whether formal students or not, can use the Printz to identify some of the very best works that the young adult category has to offer. Of course, not all excellent YA books become Printz medal winners or Honor Books, and not every winner is going to resonate with every reader. But with a variety of stunning offerings ranging from the atmospheric The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater to the hilarious Angus, Thongs, and Full Frontal Snogging: Confessions of Georgia Nicolson by Louise Rennison, the Printz list is a good starting point for dipping into YA lit's riches.
Awards that recognize excellence in YA literature also add visibility, and by extension a degree of legitimacy, to the field of writing for young adults.
While devotees of YA lit might wonder why this is an issue—of course YA is an easy to find, worthwhile category!—this very puzzlement may be a testament to the awards' success. YA guru Marc Aronson, who helped establish the Printz award, believed that the visibility of teen lit was part of the purpose of the medal. Writing shortly after the establishment of the Printz (but before the announcement of its first winners), Aronson explains in Exploding the Myths: The Truth About Teenagers and Reading that "the Printz is not merely designed to honor a few books; it is meant to bring new attention to teenagers and reading." Although Aronson acknowledges that attention alone isn't quite the same thing as recognition of YA as a legitimate art form, it's a first step in that direction.
Every year, YA lit readers try to guess what book will walk away with the gold Printz award seal. Teens debate their favorites in Mock Printz committees while librarians muse about possible winners on blogs like School Library Journal's Someday My Printz Will Come.
My own choice for this year's Printz is Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick.
Reminiscent of Madeleine L'Engle's 1978 YA classic A Swiftly Tilting Planet and the 1999 adult title Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland, Midwinterblood presents seven interconnected narratives in reverse chronological order. All seven take place on a remote northern island where blood, magic and mystery exist in equal measure, and where the power of love just might conquer time itself. Midwinterblood weaves themes from art, literature, mythology and history into a multifaceted work of fanfiction. (To impress classics professors or religion scholars at your next cocktail party, try calling it a palimpsest or a midrash!)
Most of all, Midwinterblood makes its readers work hard to uncover its secrets. That makes it a top Printz contender in my book.
So, in three weeks' time, one lucky author (or maybe a team?) is going to get a terrific phone call from the Printz committee very late at night . . . or very early in the morning, depending on your point of view. But while only one book a year can have that gold seal, the thousands of YA lit fans who read and relish that book may very well be the real winners.
What do you think? What's your own pick for the 2014 Printz?
In our monthly Locker Combinations feature, using a variety of literary, cultural and educational perspectives, BookPage contributor and young adult (YA) literature expert Jill Ratzan will guest blog about the latest in YA lit and the general direction, trends and changes of the field.
Spoiler alert: This month's Locker Combinations hints at the endings of several books, including Allegiant by Veronica Roth and Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick. But Jill doesn't give too much away—we promise!
A controversy is currently swirling around Allegiant by Veronica Roth, the final volume of the YA dystopian trilogy that began with Divergent. At the risk of a spoiler, Allegiant's ending is not what many readers expected. The cultural news website Flavorwire quotes an Amazon reviewer, who writes, “as a school librarian, I won’t be recommending this series to my students any longer. The thing about YA dystopian fiction is that it always leaves the readers with a sense of hope.” When this reviewer (according to her report) confronted Roth at a book signing, Roth allegedly replied unapologetically, “Maybe you should go get some ice cream or something so you can feel better.”
The larger question here makes an interesting discussion topic: Does some “rule” require all works of YA literature to end on a hopeful note?
In 1974, Robert Cormier wrote The Chocolate War, a brutal, unforgiving story about a lone teenage boy trying—but failing—to stand up to bullies during his high school’s annual chocolate sale. Cormier had difficulty selling the novel and was encouraged to change its “downbeat” resolution to better match “stories with role-model heroes walking off into the sunset of happy endings,” according to his introduction to the book’s 1997 reissue. He can hardly be accused of violating any “rules” of YA literature, though, since the category itself was new at the time; Cormier’s work helped to set the rules.
The decades that followed saw YA books that took a variety of approaches to the topic of hope, and sometimes reflected these approaches in their titles. In Homecoming by Cynthia Voigt (1981), Dicey Tillerman and her siblings achieve the titular event only after a series of missteps, false starts and dashed hopes.
The similarly upbeat title of Virginia Euwer Wolff’s 1993 novel-in-verse Make Lemonade immediately suggests the positive way its characters will react when life hands them “lemons” like poverty and teen motherhood.
And the title of Hope Was Here by Joan Bauer (2000) turns out to be true in many ways for its itinerant teen waitress protagonist . . . even if loss was “here,” too.
Contemporary YA books address the supposed “hope rule” in multiple ways. In Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick, the closer the story moves to a violent ending, the stronger a parallel thread about future possibilities becomes. Even if the crisis at hand is resolved, though, fixing the problems that led to it in the first place may be more complicated. It's so daunting as to be nearly hopeless.
And in Laini Taylor’s dark fantasy Daughter of Smoke and Bone, protagonist Karou (whose name means “hope” in the language of her otherworldly family) is repeatedly told that hope is stronger than angels and more potent than magical wishes. But, as she wonders later in the book, at what point do ignorance, jealousy and the desire for revenge outweigh hope’s power?
In what might be the ultimate test of the YA lit “hope rule,” both protagonists in John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars begin the book already diagnosed with cancer. Unlike the cheery-sounding Homecoming, Make Lemonade and Hope Was Here, the title of The Fault in Our Stars quickly establishes a subtle, nuanced perspective. (The characters know the famous line from Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar—“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves”—and consider it to be hogwash.) There are no victories to be won in The Fault in Our Stars, only battles to be lost on one’s own terms. Does this constitute “hope”?
And finally, a second look at The Chocolate War suggests that maybe the ending isn’t so hopeless after all. Betty Carter and Karen Harris, writing in the spring 1980 issue of Top of the News, a professional library journal of the time, argue that readers should bring their own hope to Cormier’s grim tale. “The reason Jerry was not saved was because he stood alone,” they write. “The boys at Trinity [High School] could have come to Jerry’s defense, if they had not lacked courage.” That is, Cormier’s “downbeat” conclusion challenges readers to be better than his characters, and to make the real world a more hopeful place than his imagined one.
So is there a rule saying that all YA books require some measure of hope? The answer is probably something indeterminate like “maybe, but . . . ” Teen readers are smart enough to know that the outside world is sometimes messy and confusing. YA lit that acknowledges this reality respects the intelligence of its readers . . . and this degree of respect may be the most hopeful quality of all.
Locker Combinations is a brand new Book Case feature! Using a variety of literary, cultural and educational perspectives, BookPage contributor and young adult (YA) literature expert Jill Ratzan will guest blog about the latest in YA lit and the general direction, trends and changes of the field.
November 9, 2013, marks the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, a night of anti-Jewish riots in Nazi-controlled Germany and Austria that began what would later be known as the Holocaust. Between this anniversary and the annual commemoration of the end of World War I (Veteran's Day, November 11), November is an ideal month to think about—and read about—the past.
Young adult (YA) literature offers lots of insights on history, including great examples of both fiction and nonfiction. At first glance, books like the 2013 Sibert Medal-winning Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin make nonfiction seem like the best way to talk about history. However, according to a recent study reported in the journal Science, reading literary fiction can “expand our knowledge of others’ lives, helping us recognize our similarity to them.” If the mission of learning history is not just to memorize names and dates but also to empathize with people from the past, then YA historical fiction seems ideal for meeting this goal.
YA historical fiction can take lots of different forms. Some, like the Revolutionary War-era The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation by M.T. Anderson (vol. I, vol. II) and Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson, about the Philadelphia Yellow Fever epidemic of the eponymous year, simply are engaging stories set in distant times and places.
Others combine historical fiction with elements of fantasy and the supernatural, like The Diviners by Libba Bray and Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers, or historical fiction with the suspenseful twists and turns of mystery, like The Caged Graves by Dianne Salerni and What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell.
Still others juxtapose stories of the present and the past, like Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly, set partially in the present day and partially during the French Revolution, and In Darkness by Nick Lake, in which a contemporary Haitian boy’s story runs in counterpoint to that of Haitian independence leader Toussaint L'Ouverture.
And some, like the magical realism-infused The Future of Us by Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler, take place in a past so recent—in this case, 1996— that adult readers will recognize elements like VCRs and cordless phones . . . maybe from their own teen years.
What makes YA lit such a great match with historical fiction? For one thing, several qualities that characterize a terrific work of YA lit also define an excellent work of historical fiction: namely, immediacy and the focus on an individual narrative. For example, Elizabeth Wein’s harrowing but hopeful Rose Under Fire follows a single (fictional) teenage pilot into the depths of Ravensbrück, a women’s concentration camp in Nazi Germany. By only focusing on what Rose, the narrator, personally experiences, Wein trades a big-picture perspective for one that’s narrow, individualized and intense—just like any other story with an authentic teen voice might be. (In an author’s note, she balances this highly focused viewpoint by mentioning the concurrent stories she doesn’t tell because her character didn't encounter them.)
The teen years are a time for many firsts, like first crushes, first dates . . . and first serious research papers. YA historical fiction can help teens understand why visiting libraries, assembling bibliographies and other such steps are valuable parts of the research process. Again, Rose Under Fire provides a good example. Wein explains, also in her author’s note, how her explorations of topics ranging from aircraft technology to conditions in wartime factories enhanced Rose’s story. Her inclusion of an extensive list of primary and secondary sources reinforces the importance of thorough research.
And finally, the best works of YA historical fiction inspire teens to bring ideas from the past into their present lives. Ravensbrück prisoners took any steps they could to tell the world their stories, and any book about them honors their wishes in some way. But the fact that Wein chose to write for teens in particular is significant. Teenagers’ unmatched levels of energy and passion, combined with their ability to tell the world for many decades to come, make them ideal stewards of this important task.
Each year, fewer and fewer survivors remain to tell their own stories of the 20th century's major wars. Historical fiction is one way to keep memories alive . . . and YA literature is one place to find excellent works of historical fiction.