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.
Young adult mystery Death Spiral is working double duty: It introduces the Poisoned Pencil, the new YA mystery imprint of Poisoned Pen Press, and kicks off the Faith Flores Science Mysteries.
Death Spiral might be intended for teen readers, but this science thriller tackles some dark stuff. Sixteen-year-old Faith Flores wants to go to college and study science, but she has a lot to overcome. When her junkie mom dies, Faith doesn’t believe it was an overdose, and she begins a dangerous search for the truth that takes her from the drug houses of North Philadelphia to the labs of the pharmaceutical industry.
Author Janie Chodosh is a "scientist wannabe and a naturalist." Chodosh shares 10 fascinating tidbits on the science behind her debut:
Death Spiral: A Faith Flores Science Mystery is a genetics-based mystery. Check out this list of interesting genetics facts that inspired the story of Faith Flores and her quest to find the true cause of her mother’s death from a supposed heroin overdose.
1) The human genome consists of approximately 3 billion chemical base pairs and about 21,000 protein-coding genes. There are probably thousands more genes. Despite so many base pairs, any pair of humans is 99.9% identical in DNA.
2) Many genes play a role in addiction. For example, The A1 allele of the dopamine receptor gene DRD2 is more common in people addicted to alcohol or cocaine.
3) Although no mice were tested on to write this book, with the help of mouse studies, scientists have identified many genes that play roles in addiction. The reason mice are so helpful in studying addiction is because the reward pathway in our brains functions in much the same way in mice as it does in people. (If you want to know about mice and their addiction issues, read the subpoints; if rodent addiction is not of interest to you, move on to #4.)
a) Mice lacking the serotonin receptor gene Htr1b are more attracted to cocaine and alcohol.
b) Mice bred to lack the β2 subunit of nicotinic cholinergic receptors have a reduced reward response to cocaine.
c) Mice with low levels of neuropeptide Y drink more alcohol, whereas those with higher levels tend to abstain.
4) Gene therapy is a set of methods that uses genes to treat or prevent disease by inserting genes into a patient’s cells. There are three approaches to gene therapy: replacing a disease-causing gene with a healthy copy of the gene; inactivating a mutated gene; or introducing a new gene to help fight a disease.
5) When many people, including yours truly, think of patents, they think of things like curling irons and doodads that make cars work. In fact, the U.S. Patent and Trade Office has been issuing patents on genetic material since 1982. There are currently 3,000 to 5,000 patents on human genes in the United States.
6) However, (see #5) on June 13, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that human genes could not be patented.
7) Opponents of genetic patents worry about the financial aspect of gene patenting. What about this: If just one company is allowed to patent a particular genetic test or treatment, they will have a monopoly for the term of the patent and can charge whatever they like for it, limiting access to people who cannot afford to pay. Or this: Without any competition from other researchers, the company who owns the patent wouldn't necessarily have to respond to consumer feedback.
8) Myriad Genetics filed several patents for BRCA1 and BRCA2, genes associated with breast and ovarian cancer. In March 2010, a U.S. District Court ruled that the company's patent claims were invalid because genetic material was, in fact, a product of nature.
9) The age of personal genomic medicine is here. Whereas it used to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to get a genome sequenced, the cost has gone as low as $1,000 and will continue to get cheaper. However, getting the meaning out of the data might cost you a lot more. Plus, where are you going to keep that valuable information?
10) We can find now find out if we are carriers for thousands of different diseases with a genetic component—things like Alzheimer’s Disease, Schizophrenia and Huntington’s Disease. Now, the question is, do we want to know? And if you know, it might have an impact on your siblings and children.
Thanks, Janie! Readers, Death Spiral is out now.
Meg Wolitzer, author of The Interestings, will publish a new young adult (YA) novel this September! Coming from Dutton Children's Books, Belzhar is inspired by The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.
It's the story of 16-year-old Jam Gallahue, who is coping with the death of her boyfriend. She is sent to a boarding school in rural Vermont for "emotionally fragile, highly intelligent" teens, and she is placed in a small, elite English class that is reading Sylvia Plath. During this semester, Jam and her classmates discover a fantastical and strange world called Belzhar.
Wolitzer spoke with NPR about the new book, what it's like to write a YA novel and how Plath inspired her. I found her explanation of the Belzhar world to be especially intriguing:
". . . I guess it can be described as a kind of alternate universe in which the person (or thing) they've lost is returned to them. The fantasy is fairly lightly handled (I hope), and to my thinking somewhat metaphorical. It's about having unmet needs met, about getting rid of the ache of loss. I also employed a very light drift of fantasy in my adult novel The Uncoupling, as well as in a book for middle-grade readers about kids who meet at a Scrabble tournament, called The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman. (I remember comparing the level of fantasy in Duncan Dorfman to the amount of fudge running through one of those ice cream sundae cups we ate as kids: a very light vein, a suggestive and necessary ripple.)"
I can see this one having major crossover appeal for Wolitzer fans of all ages. Who else is excited?
Sally Green recently kicked off her much-anticipated Half Life trilogy with the release of her first YA novel, Half Bad. Green weaves a paranormal world of do-gooder White Witches and evil Black Witches into her setting of a modern-day United Kingdom.
Sixteen-year-old Nathan Byrn is seen as "an abomination, a Half Code" thanks to, you guessed it, his White Witch mother and Black Witch father. After Nathan's mother takes her own life out of shame for her role in the affair, he is forced to struggle for freedom from his cruel father, Marcus, and from the regulatory hand of the Council of White Witches.
Murky alliances, questionable methods employed by the self-proclaimed good guys of the Council and a cliffhanger ending make this an absorbing read that's sure to lure fans of strong YA series.
Get introduced to Nathan in the darkly cinematic trailer from Penguin Young Readers below:
What do you think, readers? Does this sound like a book for you?
Today is Trailer Tuesday x2! Author Gwendolyn Heasley (Where I Belong, A Long Way from You) will publish her third young adult novel with HarperTeen this April, and BookPage has the pleasure of presenting the first look at the plucky heroine at the heart of Don't Call Me Baby.
It's a cute and charming story about teenager Imogene, the daughter of a popular Mommy Blogger. The "Mommylicious" blog is incredibly embarrassing for Imogene (imagine having all your private puberty stories published online!). Then Imogene must start her own blog for school, and there's no better time to define herself in her own words—and to turn the tables on Mommylicious.
Check out the trailer:
February is Black History Month, the perfect time to remind young readers of beloved heroes and heroines like Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman. This year, new books focus on other important figures, including Malcolm X, the many voices of the Harlem Renaissance and unexpected champions of equality, from unstoppable performers to long-forgotten slaves.
We picked our 10 favorite new books for honoring African-American heroes and heroines. Some of these stories are inspiring, some brutal and unflinching, but all are valuable and educational.
"Kristy Dempsey revisits a watershed moment in performing arts history in her sparkling new book, A Dance Like Starlight. The story’s spirited young heroine, an African-American girl who dreams of becoming a ballet dancer, lives with her mother in Harlem. The year is 1951." Read our full review.
"This lyrical tribute to Sugar Hill, the historic Harlem neighborhood of the 1920s and ‘30s, and its legendary inhabitants packs a lot of information with an economy of words and R. Gregory Christie’s colorful, stylized paintings." Read our full review.
"With appeal for younger and older readers alike, Under the Freedom Tree is both a beautiful tribute to a lasting symbol of freedom and a powerful reminder that one brave action can change the course of history." Read our full review.
"Malcolm Little is a terrific introduction to a polarizing historical figure and an inspiring tale that children can apply to their own lives. We all face adversity at one time or another; it’s how we respond that counts." Read our full review.
"In Josephine, Patricia Hruby Powell writes with great reverence and a vigor fitting to the life of the illustrious performer Josephine Baker. This handsomely designed tribute to Josephine’s life is refreshingly uncluttered in every way: Powell’s free-verse text doesn’t waste any words, and Christian Robinson’s minimalist acrylic illustrations communicate the very essence of Josephine’s vivacious spirit." Read our full review.
The Sittin' Up by Shelia P. Moses
Putnam | Ages 10 and up
"While most African-American children’s literature focuses on either slavery or the Civil Rights movement, Moses gives middle grade readers a glimpse of a time when slavery was recent enough to weigh heavily on the minds and hearts of African Americans, yet a more equitable future was also imaginable." Read our full review.
"Using the framework of Sarah’s unlikely wealth, Bolden offers a wide-ranging book discussing the creation of the Indian Territory and Oklahoma, the rise of black towns and boomtowns, and the greed and corruption that surrounds money. Searching for Sarah Rector draws upon photographs, census records, sensationalist newspaper articles and first-person interviews to tell a fascinating account of a little-known time in American history." Read our full review.
The Port Chicago 50 by Steve Sheinkin
Roaring Brook | Ages 10 to 14
"In The Port Chicago 50, Steve Sheinkin, author of the Newbery Honor book Bomb, tells the harrowing story of the fight for the lives and rights of 50 black sailors." Read our full review.
"Cy in Chains is a difficult, painful novel, but it’s an important one. Cy quickly morphs from a kind, compassionate boy, looking out for his friend before the accident, to a young man who’s been broken by a life of hard work and cruelty, and who comes to see compassion as a weakness he can’t afford." Read our full review.
"In a highly credible fashion, Willow grapples with her choices—she is as afraid of the path of freedom as she is of the certain horrors of continued enslavement. Perhaps most important to Willow, however, are the secrets she learns about the fate of her own mother, a beautiful and educated African woman." Read our full review.
Locker Combinations is a Book Case feature by BookPage contributor and young adult (YA) literature expert Jill Ratzan. Using a variety of literary, cultural and educational perspectives, Jill guest blogs about the latest in YA lit and the general direction, trends and changes of the field.
Last week, the American Library Association announced the winner of the Michael L. Printz Award, the highest award in young adult (YA) literature. Four Honor books were also named. (Marcus Sedgick's Midwinterblood won the top spot.) Interestingly, all five books are set either fully or partially in the past, in time periods ranging from the fourth century to 1986.
Historical fiction creates ample opportunities for YA literature, but it also poses a number of challenges. One such challenge is the role of female characters. How can authors of YA historical fiction stay true to historical realities while also presenting the strong, independent female characters that contemporary readers have come to expect? Read on for four possible strategies.
When Cat Winters' spooky historical mystery In the Shadow of Blackbirds opens, the year is 1918 and protagonist Mary Shelley Black is on her way to San Diego to stay with her recently widowed aunt. Mary Shelley's father is in jail for supposed unpatriotic activities, her beau is away fighting in France and the deadly Spanish flu is raging around her. With no one else to provide for them, Mary Shelley and her aunt—like many women of their time—must take on roles previously reserved for men. So, while Aunt Eva's work in a shipyard seems shocking, it brings in much-needed money. And although Mary Shelley's own activities might ordinarily have been looked down on by a husband, father or uncle, the combination of war, sickness and imprisonment mean that she's essentially on her own.
The popularity of crime drama series like "Sherlock" and "Elementary" have made character Sherlock Holmes well known even to those who've never read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Victorian-era tales. Similarly, Bram Stoker's Dracula has become an icon of pop culture. Fictional Holmes and historical Stoker are known for their intelligence, their curiosity and their interest in the macabre . . . but certainly not for their strict following of social conventions. If the two had teenage sisters or nieces, these young women might naturally be determined to set their own rules. Colleen Gleason's The Clockwork Scarab is the first in a series of mysteries starring the imaginary Mina Holmes and Evaline Stoker. If these two characters seem to be more independent than other women of their times, perhaps that's because they're taking a leaf out of their famous relatives' books.
Historical fantasy—works that combine history with aspects of the supernatural—is emerging as a hot new genre of YA fiction. Unlike traditional historical fiction, historical fantasy doesn't aim to be a perfect reflection of real life in the time and place in which it takes place. Instead, it combines elements from that setting with elements from the author's imagination.
One especially noteworthy historical fantasy series, His Fair Assassin by Robin LaFevers (especially the recent second book, Dark Triumph), revisits the history of medieval Brittany and France by juxtaposing real historical figures with fictional, magically trained warrior nuns. (You read that right.) Because LaFevers' female assassins are intentionally imaginary, they have no need to answer to the standards of demure behavior expected of other women of their time.
In Kerstin Gier's Precious Stones trilogy, translated from the German by Anthea Bell, teenage Gwyneth comes from a family of time travelers, but she's always been the boring, untalented one. An accidental slip into the past, though, reveals her identity as one of the Circle of Twelve, a secret sect with a long-running mission. Beginning with Ruby Red and continuing in Sapphire Blue, Gwyneth (and her cell phone) travel from contemporary London to the eighteenth century, the early twentieth century and various points in between. Again, because Gwyneth is an outsider to the times she finds herself in, her modern sensibility isn't necessarily an anachronism.
Strong female characters are always welcome in YA fiction, and if this year's Printz winner and Honor books are any indication, genre-blending YA historical fiction is here to stay. Combining the two ideas can sometimes be tricky, but these recent offerings show that it can be done with style, sensitivity and pizzazz.
The internationally best-selling novel has been adapted by Ben York Jones (Like Crazy, winner of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize), and it's set to be directed by Marius Markevicius, who directed The Other Dream Team (a documentary of the 1992 Lithuania national basketball team) and produced Like Crazy. Filming will begin in Lithuania this year.
Between Shades of Gray is a Carnegie Medal-nominated tale of a 15-year-old girl's fight for survival during World War II. Set during the little-known yet shockingly true events of the Baltic deportation, Sepetys' debut shocked readers with its brutal honesty, and her heroine won our hearts with her resolve and her refusal to let go of hope. Check out our interview with Sepetys, where she shared her reasons for telling this moving story.
How exciting! And considering the inevitable hilarity of parents trying to hunt down the titles on their children's school reading lists and confusing Between Shades of Gray and Fifty Shades of Grey, what are the chances that a few feisty Redbox users will end up accidentally renting a heartrending tale about Siberian mass deportation? Probably pretty good, I'd say . . . .
We always look forward to the Newbery, Caldecott and Printz Awards, and this morning was filled with delight (and some surprise!) over this year's recipients.
We're perhaps most ecstatic that Kate DiCamillo won the 2014 Newbery Medal for Flora & Ulysses, the adventurous, hilarious story of a cynical, comic-loving girl who befriends a most unusual squirrel. (We were looking forward to this one several months before it came out; watch us chat with DiCamillo about seal blubber, poetry and giant donuts here.)
Mad props to our teen literature expert, Jill Ratzan, for predicting the Printz winner! She shared her prediction for Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick, saying, "Midwinterblood makes its readers work hard to uncover its secrets. That makes it a top Printz contender in my book." Seven intertwined narratives, full of blood and magic, unfold in reverse chronological order on a mysterious, remote island.
We are also tickled that Brian Floca won the Caldecott Medal for Locomotive, a gorgeous picture book about the beginnings of the transcontinental railroad in the United States.
Here's a (partial) list of the 2014 Youth Media Award winners. Find the full list here, and click the links below to read coverage in BookPage.
2014 CALDECOTT MEDAL
Locomotive by Brian Floca (Atheneum)
CALDECOTT HONOR BOOKS:
2014 NEWBERY MEDAL
Flora & Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo (Candlewick)
NEWBERY HONOR BOOKS:
2014 PRINTZ AWARD
Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick (Roaring Brook)
PRINTZ HONOR BOOKS:
MARGARET A. EDWARDS AWARD (lifetime achievement in writing for young adults)
Markus Zusak (The Book Thief)
So, what do you think, readers? We're definitely thrilled by some, surprised by others.
For even more recommendations for fantastic children's and teen books, see our list of the Best Children's Books for 2013.
Young adult mysteries and thrillers tap into some really creepy ideas—often with the help of a supernatural element—that keep teen readers burning through the pages. Few characters in YA mysteries are like cops and spies—they're not out looking for trouble, but it finds them anyway, and the pursuit of the truth is impossible to resist. And this year, it's all about the girls.
17 and Gone by Nova Ren Suma
Seventeen-year-old Lauren has visions of girls who have gone missing—always without a trace. As the missing girls reveal their stories to Lauren, she becomes obsessed with one girl in particular: Abby Sinclair, who vanished from summer camp. What happened to her? Is she dead like the other missing girls? A chilling psychological thriller with whispered warnings for young readers.
The Caged Graves by Dianne K. Salerni
It's 1867, and Verity Boone has just moved to Pennsylvania to live with her father and meet her future husband. But when she discovers that her mother and aunt, who both died 15 years before, are buried in unhallowed ground outside the cemetery and are guarded by a cage, she begins to dig into the mystery of the two women's deaths—and the secrets of her father's town. A great historical mystery.
What We Saw at Night by Jacquelyn Mitchard
Three kids with Xeroderma Pigmentosum (or XP, a disease that requires complete avoidance of sunlight) take to the nighttime rooftops, practicing Parkour and slighting their own vulnerability. But one night, they spy through an open window a possible murder in progress. The daredevils begin an investigation, and it seems to be no limit to their ability to risk their own lives.
This Is W.A.R. by Lisa and Laura Roecker
Revenge is sweet for an unlikely alliance between four girls. When popular girl Willa Ames-Rowan is pulled from the lake at Hawthorne Lake Country Club, everyone knows golden boy James Gregory was the last person to see her alive. Willa’s friends Sloane and Lina, Willa’s sister Madge and outsider Rose team up to solve Willa's death and make the killer pay.
The Waking Dark by Robin Wasserman
Coming September 10
The publishers are calling this one an homage to Stephen King, and that's dead on. This horror thriller finds 12 people dead, killed by five murderers who were all friends and family. Only one murderer didn't take her own life, and she has no idea why she did it. It falls to five survivors to stop whatever's happening. A terrifying, thrilling read.
Anyone up for something creepy?