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.
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.