TEEN BOOK BUZZ
January 26, 2015
Ask the Passengers
My second A.S. King, also excellent. YA author Lauren Myracle's description of the book's "stardust and guts" is apt. Astrid Jones is very similar to Glory O'Brien, though less sharp and more ambivalent. She finds a lot wrong with the world, is disappointed in others, and is unsure of what her purpose is. Astrid lies on a bench in her backyard and sends love to passengers in planes flying above. I'm learning that King's characters' quirks would be annoying in other books, but they are so integral to her characters.
Astrid's connection with the passengers of the title reminds me of the way that Glory purposefully smiles at strangers and keeps track of which ones smile back. King is dealing in our connections with one another and how her characters' ability to be honest about who they are strengthens or weakens those connections. At one point in Ask the Passengers, Astrid questions the need to teach tolerance; she thinks that not-bullying should be innate and obvious to kids, that it's absurd to have an anti-tolerance pep rally. Mocking this kind of thing is straight out of Heathers, for me. But cultivating empathy is an actual thing! Clearly we can't just hope that kids will be nice.
Astrid's family moved from New York City to a small town where the family still doesn't fit in. You get the feeling that there aren't that many people who just fit in, though. Most people have to fake it to some degree. Dad smokes pot, Mom wears high heels in the house and cooks complicated and pretentious dishes that nobody enjoys, younger sister Ellis is popular, but fragile and the two sisters aren't close the way they used to be. Astrid doesn't build elaborate birdhouses with Dad anymore--a symbol for their nonconformity and their splitting apart. All Astrid seems to care about is philosophy and she is content with a "bookshelf, t shirts, and jeans," while her Mom, brittle and striving, wants her to date boys and work toward being a wealthy and successful adult. I was uncomfortable with how cartoonish Astrid's mother, Claire, was. She was so grotesque and unpleasant in a familiar way. Mothers are so often portrayed as the repressive, controlling enemy to creativity and freedom, while dad's potheadedness (and driving whilst high?) makes him more tolerable to his teenage kin. However, the poisonous feelings between Astrid and Claire served the narrative and were scarily real.
With characters like Astrid and Glory, who feel like they're wearing the They Live glasses, I always go back to one of the only YA authors I read as an actual teen, Francesca Lia Block. The opening of Weetzie Bat has always resonated with me:
"The reason Weetzie Bat hated high school was because no one understood. They didn't even realize where they were living. They didn't care that Marilyn's prints were practically in their backyard at Graumann's; that you could buy tomahawks and plastic palm tree wallets at Farmer's Market, and the wildest, cheapest cheese and bean and hot dog and pastrami burritos at Oki Dogs; that the waitresses wore skates at the Jetson-style Tiny Naylor's; that there was a fountain that turned tropical soda-pop colors, and a canyon where Jim Morrison and Houdini used to live[...]There was no one who cared."
A.S. King beautifully ties together Socratic uncertainty with one of the "Qs" of LGBTQ. I really loved the way that Astrid's relationships with Kristina and Dee unfolded and the way that she revealed and articulated her sexuality.
January 20, 2015
Picture Books for Teens!
Kate Samworth, the author and illustrator of Aviary Wonders, Inc., will be at the library on Thursday, Jan. 22 at 7:30 p.m. This winner of the Kirkus Prize for Young Readers was just spotlighted by Someday My Printz Will Come in their post about picture books for teens!
Picture books for older children and teens can be a surprising juxtaposition of ideas--a traditionally children's format with adult concepts and images--but graphic novels continue to be popular with all ages, so why not picture books? Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) began in museums as a way of engaging with art in an open-ended, thoughtful, and critical way, and can be extended to inquiry with all images, including picture books. Picture books aren't only for early literacy.
Glory O'Brien's History of the Future
Glory O'Brien's History of the Future is one of the weirdest and most compelling books I've read lately. It's magical realism and stealth dystopia. Things start out more or less normally. Glory's mother killed herself many years ago and her small family--she and her dad--will never be the same. Her dad used to be a painter. Not only doesn't he paint anymore, but Glory and her dad cook with a microwave, not an oven; her mother killed herself with carbon monoxide. She has a friend she doesn't really like and one night they drink the remains of a bat and now she and Ellie are seeing visions of the future. They receive "transmissions" when they look at people and instantly know bits of people's history and future. The future visions coalesce into a knowledge of the Second Civil War, when women will be disenfranchised and oppressed.
At the same time, Glory's getting into photography vis a vis her dead mother's work. While it might seem too on the nose, the photography is an effective metaphor for her developing her identity, knowledge of her mother, and her "vision." And her mother's pictures and writing elucidate some of the problems with her friendship with Ellie through the similarity to her mother's friendship with Jasmine, Ellie's mom.
There are a lot of themes in the book that are significant to me. It's an anti-suicide book, for sure. The feminism at the book's core was a real surprise. The book has been criticized for Glory's slut-shaming, a small instance in a book with a lot going on, which is silly to me and holds all young feminists to a ridiculously high standard. Glory calls Ellie a slut and she feels guilty about it. Glory does go on a lot about Ellie unbuttoning too many of her shirt buttons and being too coy and flirtatious, but I saw this more as revealing Ellie's brainwashing and Glory not really liking her friend and not having sympathy for her. As you do. Glory is not a good friend to Ellie, but this is realistic. Some readers seem to feel bad for Ellie, who is a victim of commune/cult living. But I certainly don't think one should expect her teenage friend to rescue her. I consider Glory to be an anti-heroine similar to Katniss. She's not perfect and she makes mistakes but she's young, brave, and a trauma survivor. History of the Future is concerned with free will and independence. A lot of the characters are hemmed in by their history, their family, fear, the expectations of us all.
One of the through lines of the novel is the fear and loss of agency that a child feels when a parent has killed herself. Glory's ability to see the future is in service to her fear about her own ability to survive, to keep herself alive, and her new visions make her stronger and give her purpose.
I love to see YA books with feminist characters; this is the second one I've read this month. The book is a bit Feminism 101 for an adult reader. The betes noires of Glory and her family are anti-weaponized beauty and consumerism. It's great to show girls that they are not obliged to present themselves as sexualized made up objects in order to be happy and loved, but conversely it's not OK to demonize anyone interested in makeup and the like. The screeds against makeup and texting did read a little cranky.
I'm so happy that King wrote this bravely unusual book and I look forward to reading the rest of her work. I'm hoping that this book finds the audience it deserves.
January 12, 2015
Wildlife‘s poetic and inventive language and alternating voices can be a little challenging to get into, but the rewards are great. It’s another great Australian YA book. Fiona Woods’ writing reminded me of sophisticated YA books by Peter Cameron, E. Lockhart, and Margo Rabb, and though this book is set at a specific adolescent crossroads–is it worth it to treat people terribly? — I could see it crossing over as a New Adult novel. The tone is melancholy, but not indulgent. The issues are germane to adults, if you can submit to the dreaminess of the language and the ruthlessness of the camp setting.
The two main characters are Sib and Lou and the chapters alternate between their voices and perspectives. Lou is mainly preoccupied with grieving for her late boyfriend and writing in the journal that her therapist prescribed. Although she is grieving, she is a strong and confident girl who won’t be pushed around by her less strong peers. Despite their flaws and differences, I found Sib and Lou both to be wise and endearing. Sib describes herself as a feminist and she has a good role model in her mother. However, she has trouble speaking up and knowing who her real friends are. She is ambivalent even when she doesn’t realize it.
There are very interesting references that work for me as a reader: the music of David Bowie, lemon poppy-seed cake and Titanium purple toenail polish, Othello, the song "Blackbird," the French novel The Lost Estate, and the 1985 book Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. It’s cool and interesting without being try-hard. And as much as I love them, not a Smiths reference to be had!
Sibylla, Lou, and Michael have maturity, integrity, and character growth that adults could aspire to. It’s rare, but the love triangles in the book are handled with minimal contrivance and drama. And the Othello parallels are smart.
While the gorgeous cover makes it seem that the book is about romance, it is about friendship, identity, community, and integrity and determining who you are and what you value.
Zac & Mia
It’s inevitable that the teen cancer melodrama and quasi-romance of Zac & Mia will be compared to John Green's tear jerky blockbuster The Fault in Our Stars. The alternating voices are reminiscent of recent YA novels such as Like No Other and Wildlife and the Name & Name of the title is definitely a trend right now. While A.J. Betts approaches the subject of Zac & Mia with empathy and knowledge, I found the characters to be mismatched and unrealistic. Zac is composed and selfless, while Mia is alternately shallow, overwrought, and bitter.
The first act was fairly strong for me, but once things turn badly for Mia, I became disbelieving and annoyed. The plotting fell apart for a character-driven story and there's nothing I like more than characters, identity, and feelings! Unrealistic plot machinations just get in the way.
Is there something voyeuristic and exploitative about fiction (not this book in particular) about young people finding romance with fellow cancer sufferers and survivors? I'd hate to think of teens romanticizing this kind of thing. If you liked The Fault in Our Stars, you'll enjoy this sometimes sarcastic and sometimes sentimental take on teens and cancer.
December 31, 2014
Teens and Poverty
Teen Librarian Toolbox has highlighted books on hunger and poverty in teen literature. Karen Jensen makes a good point that we think of YA books as mostly aspirational stories of characters with great privilege, beauty, and wealth, but there are many titles that present the reality of teen poverty, as well. And YA literature should be a space for readers to both experience lives similar to their own and to learn about diversity, to stretch and to be held.
I have been thinking of lot about the gross excesses and need that are starkly obvious at this time of year and how ambivalent we feel about it all and how overwhelming consumerism and struggle are. 2014 in America was about many things, including oppression and protest and record numbers of homeless people in shelters.
For another fictional look at the news, at outrage and protest, try Kekla Magoon's How It Went Down, which is about a black teen shot and killed by a white man and the aftermath of it all.
If you liked this, then try...
Let's not let paranormal and dystopian YA overshadow the beautifully written and heartbreaking realistic fiction in the teen lit world!
I have a few recommendations for you if you prefer the latter:
If you liked the unlikely romance of Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell, then try Like No Other, by Una LaMarche far superior, in my humble opinion.
If you liked and were empowered bySpeak by Laurie Halse Anderson and The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart, then please give Wildlife by Fiona Wood and Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero a try.
If you liked and cried over The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, then try Zac & Mia by A.J. Betts.
December 17, 2014
Gabi, A Girl in Pieces
Gabi, A Girl in Pieces, a first novel by Isabel Quintero, is told in diary entries that include conversations, poems, and even a zine. High school senior Gabi Hernandez’s voice is lively and her life is full and complicated. She copes with her intense feelings about her identity and body and her chaotic family, first by binge eating and later, by reading and writing poetry. As an example of bibliotherapy, Gabi was many times more effective for this reviewer than Meg Wolitzer’s Belzhar (Dutton Juvenile, 2014.) While Gabi has the right to be as dolorous as Belzhar’s Jam, this novel is buoyant where Belzhar was leaden. Gabi is a survivor who deals with her struggles with humor, enthusiasm, and joy. While her own character is the fulcrum of the story, Gabi‘s friends and family are vivid, infuriating, and entertaining. They include her friend, Sebastian, recently openly gay, her best friend Cindy, newly pregnant, her mother, also pregnant and controlling of Gabi’s behavior, her little brother, and her meth-addicted father.
This is also one of the few Young Adult novels that deals with weight and overeating in an authentic, empathetic, and sensitive way. Aside from Quintero’s thoughtful and enjoyable storytelling, the novel satisfies readers looking for diversity. Adolescence is the crucial stage of identity formation, and teens (and adults!) will relate to Mexican-American Gabi’s ambivalence about her mother’s traditional ways. Fans of the CW telenovela Jane the Virgin might be interested in this book.
Speaking of Jane the Virgin, star Gina Rodriguez just decided that she's a feminist! Information is powerful!