Showing posts with label youth books. Show all posts
Showing posts with label youth books. Show all posts

1.02.2018

in a youth novel about adoption, abortion doesn't even exist

I am reading a YA novel about adopted people connecting with their biological siblings and parents. This is a topic I have written about and have an interest in, and it's supposed to be a very good book: Far From the Tree, by Robin Benway.

On page 3, the teenage protagonist knows she cannot raise a child, so she immediately begins the adoption process, interviewing prospective parents during her pregnancy. Fine. The word abortion is never used. Not fine.

There is no "She knew she would never have an abortion, so she...", no "It was too late to have an abortion, and anyway she doubted she would do that...", no "She was from a religious family, so abortion was out of the question." Not one word. As if the option does not exist. As if abortion itself does not exist. How realistic is that? Not at all?

Such is the state of YA in the United States. Does the author, or perhaps the publisher, think if the word abortion appears once in a 300-page book, the book will be the target of boycotts? Even in a book where the girl doesn't terminate the pregnancy? 

In case I was missing something, I searched the e-book for the word abortion. Not found.

I honestly don't know if I can get past this to read the book. My head is exploding.

I've written about this before, and at the moment I don't have time or inclination to add context. So: wmtc:
on tv, pregnancy is fine and dandy, but abortion is the choice that cannot be named (good comment discussion here)

murdoch mysteries, abortion on tv, and maybe an anti-war reference, too

Book Riot: Abortion in YA Lit: A Reading List

Cosmopolitan: Why I Included Abortion in My YA Novel -- "I just wanted to be one of the voices out there that shows that this is actually quite normal."

Gurl: 7 Awful Teen Pregnancy Plots in TV shows

10.15.2017

what i'm reading: turtles all the way down, the new book by john green

I don't usually write about a book while I'm still under its spell, but there are always exceptions. John Green's Turtles All the Way Down is an exceptional book.

One reason Green's writing is so powerful is that he conjures both the specific and the universal at the same time.

The Fault in Our Stars, for example, is about two teens who have cancer, and how they fall in love and have a relationship, even with the awareness of their own looming mortality.

The Fault in Our Stars is also about how we all love, even with the awareness of our own mortality always looming, be it far or near. We humans must love and be loved, and we must lose our loves, and they us. That is the paradox of homo sapiens sapiens, the animal who knows it knows. TFIOS is about nothing less than the human condition.

Green masters both of these, at the same time, and wraps it in an accessible package that is easy to read, to understand, and to love. The specific lives are vibrant and authentic, and the universal truths are recognizable and powerful.

Green brings that same duality to his long-awaited new youth novel. Turtles All the Way Down is a book about a girl, Aza Holmes -- her struggles to cope with her mental illness, while trying to be a good friend, find love, and cope with life after the sudden death of her father some years back.

And it is also a book about mental illness -- how it might feel, what it might make us do, how it might be survived, how our society frames it, how it impacts everyone in its sphere.

And it is a book about all of us -- our doubts, our fears, our self-hate and, we hope, our acceptance of ourselves. Aza wants to know how anyone will ever love her, given her limitations. Don't we all.

When I count the people in my life, over the course of my lifetime, who have been affected by mental illness, it becomes a long list. I think most people could say the same. We are only just beginning to recognize the prevalence and reduce the stigma of mental illness. Turtles All the Way Down will stand as a soldier in that important and necessary battle.

You'll notice I haven't written at all about the plot of this book, only the themes. The plot is excellent -- strange enough to be unique and unpredictable, and authentic enough to be convincing. You should read it to find out.

4.18.2017

things i heard at the library: an occasional series: #23

Girl: Do you have this book, something like, "keeping a secret about you"?

Me: Let's take a look in the catalogue. [Stalling for time while scrolling through titles in my mind.] Hmm, do you mean Keeping You a Secret?

Girl: Yes! I took a bus all the way from the South Common branch to here to get this book so I hope you have it.

I recognize it as a good title by Julie Peters, excellent writer of LGBT-themed girl books.

Me: Let's go over to the youth section to look for it.

Girl: Do you know any other good books? Anything LGBT! I want to read lots of LGBT stuff.

Me: You've come to the right place, we have a lot of it. I'm making a list now for our upcoming Pride display. [Technically speaking this is not true -- but I will be updating our list in about a month or so.]

Girl, pumping fist: Yes!

We get to the shelf... and it's there! Yay! We're both happy.

Girl: Is there any place I can charge my phone?

I point out some places she can hang out, she thanks me and leaves -- and I'm immediately sorry I didn't find another title for her.

I remember another good LGBT book, but my mind goes blank when I try to remember the title or the author's name. But I know around where it is on the shelf, so I walk quickly through the youth collection and spot it: The Vast Fields of Ordinary.

I grab it off the shelf and quickly walk around looking for the girl, hoping she is charging her phone. I spot her from across the floor and double-time it over to her.

Me: So glad you're still here! I have another book for you.

She takes it from me.

Girl: Great, I'll take this one, too. Thanks!

I'm totally casual on the outside, but inside I am almost crying from joy. This happens now. Easily, daily, in a perfectly no-big-deal way. Perhaps it should be unremarkable to me -- after all, I do live in Canada in the 21st Century. But this is a sea change I have seen in my lifetime and it fills me with such pride and joy.

I know it isn't like this everywhere, but because it is like this somewhere, it means it can be like this, one day, everywhere.

1.08.2017

what i'm reading: four realistic youth novels

Young-adult publishers' mania for series, with the emphasis on fantasy, has finally ebbed. There are still plenty of fantasy series to go around, but the new crop of youth novels is chock full of individual titles in the realistic mode. (In YA land, "realistic" means the opposite of fantasy: set in the existing world with real humans only.)

I've recently read four such novels. I chose three of them because the titles and covers intrigued me, and one based on the author's previous novel. Here are my impressions.

Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard
On the ever-expanding LGBTQ youth bookshelf, Girl Mans Up appears to be the first book to feature a butch lesbian, and I must say it's a welcome addition. All the other female gay protagonists I'm aware of are written in the "just like everyone else, but gay" vein, people whose orientation would not be guessed if not already known. Not so for Pen.

Pen is butch and a little bit genderqueer. Her old-world European parents don't understand her. Her guy friends accept her -- as long as she conforms to their expectations. Her brother is her rock of strength and unconditional love. But in order to be fully herself, she'll have to "man up".

The best thing about Pen is that she's comfortable in her own skin. She has no doubts about her identity or gender. Her problems arise from other people's expectations or intolerance. Her problems also stem from her best friend -- who is a jerk, if only Pen can see him clearly.

One could say this is a book where nothing much happens. Life happens. Regular, ordinary, everyday life, as lived by a teen in the process of finding her place in the world. For some readers, this is enough. For me, it's a welcome change from the conveniently placed life-tragedy that yields wisdom, a staple of youth fiction. For many readers, though, it will not be enough, especially clocking in at 384 pages. One thing is certain, you will love Pen.

The Great American Whatever, by Tim Federle
Quinn, the main character of Tim Federle's first youth novel, is coping with the aftermath of his sister's death, and his mother's subsequent depression. He's also gay, and that's not a problem.

Up to now, Quinn has been hiding in his room, wrapped in his love of old movies. When his best friend Geoff convinces him to take a step forward, Quinn meets a hot guy and falls for him.

Quinn is a fun narrator, and his friendship with Geoff is more important to the story than his new crush. Not a lot happens, but enough happens to make it interesting. Things play out realistically, which I appreciate.

If you're well-versed in contemporary youth fiction, the plot, the themes, and even the voice of The Great American Whatever may seem cliched and derivative. The dead older sibling. The parent with serious depression. The parent who walked out. The wise-cracking male narrator. We know them all. But if you're new to realistic youth novels, or just can't get enough of this type of book, TGAW may seem fresh, breezy, fun, and meaningful.

What Light by Jay Asher
Jay Asher is the author of the 2007 blockbuster youth novel 13 Reasons Why, which explores a teen suicide -- its causes and its aftermath. The book, widely promoted and popular at the time of publication, is now seeing a second life with the current interest in bullying. The publisher has released a 10th anniversary edition, a rare honour in the YA world.

It would be a lot to expect Asher to live up to the promise of this earlier, but I did expect a book with some weight and significance. I was very disappointed. What Light is a sweet, fluffy Christmas romance. The characters are flat and lifeless. Thoughts, feelings, and actions are described in excruciating detail. Girls think about boys, shopping, and who gets to own the title of Best Friend.

Of course, many readers love Christmas romances, and there's no harm in that. But there is harm hiding in this snowflake of a book. Sierra falls for Caleb; Caleb has a big secret, something shocking from his past that he is afraid to share with Sierra. The secret turns out to be a violent episode, in which Caleb was completely out of control. Only because of someone else's quick thinking, the episode did not end in tragedy.

The reader is repeatedly told that this incident was a one-time event, that Caleb is a good person who only needs a second chance. I thought Caleb might be dangerous. But apparently with the love and understanding of a nice girl, the past can be left behind and everything can be forgiven.

The audience for this book is almost exclusively female, and I am concerned about what messages they will take away. No matter what's in a guy's past, if he's charming enough and really sorry, you can overlook it. Warnings from parents and friends can be ignored. And if a guy has a problem, a smart girl can fix it. Sierra is a bland, blank character brought to life by her desire to fix Caleb, throwing herself into the project almost immediately after meeting him. It disturbs me that anyone writing for youth in the 21st century thinks this is appropriate.

The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis
I've saved the best for last. The Female of the Species is searingly honest, powerfully frank, disturbing in all the right ways, yet ultimately hopeful in a realistic way.

Alex Craft's older sister was abducted, raped, and murdered. (Dead sister, absent father, depressed mother.) In response, Alex has locked herself in mental and emotional armour. Also in response -- this will sound like a spoiler, but isn't -- she has murdered her sister's assailant.

In addition to Alex, trying not to feel, there is Peekay, trying not to be perfect, and trying to get over a broken heart. Good-looking and gifted Jack is trying to create a life with more meaning. Jack simultaneously pursues sex with the classically beautiful Branley and is ashamed of his shallowness. He craves something more lasting and authentic, and finds himself drawn to Alex. The gorgeous Branley, envy of all girls and object of desire of all boys, is collapsing under a self-worth based entirely on beauty and sexual availability. Adam, Peekay's ex, is sleeping with Branley. All are haunted by the memory of Anna, Alex's sister, but rape is not only a memory. Rape is an ever-present possibility.

The Female of the Species is about violence -- the violence and the threat of violence that hangs over every female in our society -- and the coping strategies we employ to deal with it. The violence runs the gamut from washroom graffiti and street harassment to roofies, rape, and murder. Many reviewers have noted that the book is about rape culture, which is true. But Alex and Peekay's volunteer work in an animal shelter show that the violence is not limited to women and girls. It is perpetrated, every day, on the powerless, the very creatures it is our responsibility to protect.

I had two problems with this book, but I'm guessing teen readers won't be bothered by either of them. First, the story is told from three different perspectives -- Alex, Peekay, and Jack -- but they all sound exactly the same. It's a challenge to write in different voices, but as an author, if you're giving three different first-person perspectives, you've accepted that challenge.

My second, more significant problem was that I found Alex's abilities hard to believe. As a revenge fantasy, it totally works. But as reality -- a teenage girl who literally gets away with murder, in a small town, where everyone knows everyone else's business -- it strains credulity. None of the reviewers on Goodreads mention this, so I might be the odd reader for whom Alex's revenge didn't seem real.

Despite this reservation, I can say this is an excellent, hard-hitting, honest and gripping story. It's one of the few youth novels to bring an unflinching eye to violence and the society that has more than enough of it to go around.

5.02.2016

what i'm reading: every exquisite thing by matthew quick

I recently had the pleasure of reading an advance reading copy of Every Exquisite Thing by Matthew Quick. Quick - a/k/a Q - is the author of The Silver Linings Playbook, which I have not read, but now will.

Every Exquisite Thing combines a few stock elements of youth fiction into something heartfelt, authentic, and compelling. I caught a little bit of Eleanor & Park and a little bit of The Fault in Our Stars poking through, but none of that stopped me from enjoying the book.

Nanette O'Hare is a high-achieving student athlete whose future is all laid out for her to follow. An iconoclastic teacher gives Nanette a copy of a cult novel - echoes of The Catcher in the Rye are obvious - and suddenly she views her privileged life in a new way. The teacher goes even farther, setting up Nanette with another young person to whom he's given the same book, this one a misfit poet with some dangerous tendencies.

Nanette needs to rebel, and she's fallen in love with a rebel. But what form that rebellion will take, and how far it will go, is something they both need to find.

Nanette sets out both to lose herself and find herself in some surprising ways. A few parts of Nanette's journey won't translate well into a review (plus I'm avoiding spoilers) but they work beautifully in context. The best part of Every Exquisite Thing is the bold character of Nanette herself, full of self-doubt and self-discovery, figuring out how to use the strength she knows is inside her.

9.27.2015

what i'm reading: the doubt factory, a young-adult thriller by paolo bacigalupi

A thriller about public relations? And for teens? It sounds improbable, and The Doubt Factory by Paolo Bacigalupi is an improbably terrific book. Marrying a somersaulting plot with heart-pounding suspense to an unabashed political agenda and a hot love story, Bacigalupi has delivered a stunning youth read.

On the political front, we contemplate "the place where big companies go when they need the truth confused. . . . when they need science to say what’s profitable, instead of what’s true.” All the tricks of the trade - astroturfing, fronts, false flags, sock puppets, money funnelling, stealth marketing, planted news, and outright false data - are touched on, along with the human damage they cause.

And the political is nothing if not personal. Alix leads the good life of a private school girl in Connecticut, and is forced to confront the possibility that her privilege is built on other people's pain. That pain is impossible to miss, when she meets a group of homeless kids, all orphaned, one way or another, by her father's handiwork.

Pharmaceuticals, pesticides, fossil fuels - you name it, Alix's dad has helped confuse the public, shield wrongdoers, and ultimately cause the death of thousands, while a few brave class-action litigants are painted as selfish and greedy, and those who say otherwise are branded as conspiracy kooks.

Alix is attracted - perhaps dangerously so - to a young man who turns out to be the leader of a radical group focused on exposing her father's complicity in all that suffering. Betrayal lurks behind every door, but who will betray, who will be betrayed, and who will be exposed?

My only minor complaint is that the political agenda gets a teensy bit preachy at times. Preachy politics in fiction are usually a dealbreaker for me, but with The Doubt Factory, I was so hooked by the plot and the suspense that I didn't mind. More importantly, I don't think young readers would give it a second thought.

6.14.2015

holden caulfield, ponyboy curtis, and my teen book club

"Don't ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody."

Recognize it?

For me it's one of the most memorable final sentences ever written.

I just finished re-reading The Catcher in the Rye, possibly for the first time since reading it (twice) in high school. I remembered it in a theoretical way, but had forgotten the details. It's a funny, sad, perfect little book.

I'm not breaking any new ground when I call Catcher the original young-adult novel. Every John Green and Ned Vizzini and Stephen Chbosky narrator, every wise-cracking alienated youth straight through to Buffy Summers and Veronica Mars, inherits their voice from Holden. Catcher, published in 1951, is more influential now than when S. E. Hinton started to write The Outsiders only 13 years later.

I had the perfect incentive to re-read Catcher: it's this month's selection for my teen book club. The core group of members are bored with cookie-cutter youth novels. They want substance. Over the past year, we've read The Outsiders, Fahrenheit 451, The Golden Compass and Ender's Game, now Catcher, and later To Kill A Mockingbird. They know they'll read some of these titles for school, but they want to read them now, with our group.

We have quality newer titles on the list, too: M. T. Anderson's Feed, Saving Houdini, historical magic realism set in Toronto, Kelley Armstrong's Loki's Wolves, and of course, the incomparable Eleanor & Park. But I find their thirst for classics so touching and inspiring.

I won't be the youth-services librarian at Central Library forever. Whenever I do move on, I will miss this group.

3.29.2015

what i'm reading: the golden compass by philip pullman

The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman, has been on my to-read list since it was first published in the mid-1990s. Although I generally don't read fantasy fiction, after reading an outstanding review in The New York Times Book Review, I was very intrigued. Thanks to the Teen Book Club I facilitate at the library, I recently had an excuse to read it: The Golden Compass (published as Northern Lights in the UK) is our March title.

This is an absolutely wonderful book. Lyra Belacqua, a smart, spunky 11-year-old girl, is wholly believeable as our powerful, but very human, hero. She lives in a world recognizable to us, but different - a parallel universe which unfolds naturally, without the ponderous world-building that I find so tedious in more typical adult fantasy fiction.

The book is chock-full of adventure, mystery, and action, with just the right touch of thoughtful reflection thrown in. It's an excellent youth or tween read, which is to say it's fast-paced, written in a clear and straightforward style, and with the darker, scarier, and potentially violent material handled with discretion and a gentle touch. There is sadness and loss and frightening elements, as there should be, but there's nothing graphic.

The Golden Compass is sometimes called a youth novel, but it lives on the younger side of that spectrum, perfect for a 10- or 11-year-old who is a good reader. Why, then, is it catalogued in the adult section of our library? I can only speculate that it might have been a response to "challenges" - meaning controversy and calls for banning or limiting access in the library.

To an adult reader, the reason for the challenges - though silly, in my view - are obvious. On the surface The Golden Compass is a straightforward fantasy-adventure, but on another level it can be read as a critique of The Church. The book is certainly not anti-religion or anti-spirituality, but it is a harsh condemnation of the institutional Church - the Church of the Inquisition, the Church of intolerance, and most of all, the Church that has harbored and protected known pedophiles for centuries, allowing countless children's lives to be shattered.

There are other aspects to which some Christian readers might object: our hero is herself identified with Christ imagery. But I believe the principal objections would focus on a negative portrayal of the institution of organized religion.

Some critics see Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy (The Golden Compass is book one) as a response to C. S. Lewis' The Narnia Chronicles, with its clearly Christian underpinnings. Not being a reader of fantasy, and never having read Narnia (I read and enjoyed The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a child, but stopped there), I can't comment on these critiques. There are many comparisons online, but most focus on film adaptations - not a reliable way to critique a book!

The 2007 movie adaptation of The Golden Compass was greeted with articles like "The Chronicles of Atheism" and "The Golden Compass: A Primer on Atheism". This is nonsense, of course. I'm pretty sure anyone who says the movie version of The Golden Compass is about atheism hasn't seen it. For this, I'll turn to the late, great Roger Ebert's review of the movie.
For most families, such questions will be beside the point. Attentive as I was, I was unable to find anything anti-religious in the movie, which works above all as an adventure. The film centers on a young girl named Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards), in an alternative universe vaguely like Victorian England. An orphan raised by the scholars of a university not unlike Oxford or Cambridge, she is the niece of Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), who entrusts her with the last surviving Alethiometer, or Golden Compass, a device that quite simply tells the truth. The Magisterium has a horror of the truth, because it represents an alternative to its thought control; the battle in the movie is about no less than man's preservation of free will.
One of the better pieces I've found on this subject was by Jenn Northington, writing on Tor.com, for Banned Books Week 2013.
One could argue that while the disdain for organized religion and bureaucracy registers in Pullman’s books as well as in his interviews, it doesn’t prevent them from containing all kinds of mystical elements. There are witches with super powers, embodied souls in the form of daemons, a trip to the underworld. One could further say that they promote a sense of spirituality and a belief in the possibility of things beyond our comprehension. There’s a word for that; some call it faith. This argument, of course, is unlikely to hold weight with anyone who objects to the series. In matters of taste there can be no dispute, and each reader finds something different in a book.
If The Golden Compass works equally well as a great children's read, and a response to a famous fantasy series, and a critique of a social institution, that is quite a feat, and Pullman deserves huge recognition for pulling it off. The symbolic meanings are there for discussion and debate, but the solid base of the book is vivid, highly accessible, and simply excellent.

12.27.2014

what i'm reading: four classic graphic novels for adults who think they don't like graphic novels

Despite the increased attention given to graphic novels in recent years, many readers don't consider graphic novels when thinking about what to read next. In this "what i'm reading" post, I highlight four graphic novels considered classics of the form.

At least three of these books are included on high school and university curricula, and taken seriously as literature. These are certainly not the only graphic novels to achieve that standing, but if you asked a bunch of non-graphic-fiction readers to name some well-known and influential graphic novels, these would likely top the list. Each is worth reading, and perhaps will lead you to explore the format. (Or not.)

First on any such list has to be Maus (now known as Maus I: My Father Bleeds History). Art Spiegelman is the godfather of the modern graphic novel, and this book, first published in 1986, might be his best work. It is a foundational work of graphic fiction, and a definitive work of the Holocaust.

Maus is both disturbingly realistic and a fable. In this Holocaust tale, the Jews are mice, the Nazis are cats, the Poles are pigs, the French are frogs, and the Americans are dogs. The effect invites the reader to imagine familiar events in new ways. That alone is a tremendous feat.

To write Maus, Spiegelman interviewed his father Vladek, a Holocaust survivor, about his experiences. The book recounts those, but also reflects on the burdens of the next generation, and the burdens of knowledge that successive generations must confront.

To date, Maus is the only graphic fiction to win the Pulitzer Prize. The Wall Street Journal called it "the most affecting and successful narrative ever done about the Holocaust"; the New York Times anointed it "the first masterpiece in comic book history".

Maus II: A Survivor's Tale: And Here My Troubles Began (1992), which I own but have never read, focuses on Spiegelman's difficult relationship with his father, illuminating the unique experience of the adult children of Holocaust survivors.

In 2011, Spiegelman published MetaMaus: A Look Inside a Modern Classic, a beautiful "making of" book. There is also The Complete Maus, 25th Anniversary Edition, which dates that quarter-century from when Spiegelman was publishing the material in serial form in his Raw, his comics magazine.

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood is Marjane Satrapi's memoir of growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution.

Satrapi weaves a condensed but vivid history of Persia/Iran into her family's history and her own coming-of-age. Satrapi was a rebellious, outspoken child raised by Marxist parents who were also descendants of Iran's last emperor. She witnesses the overthrow of the Shah, the installation of the Islamic Revolution, and the devastating war with Iraq with a child's incomplete understandings and sensitivities - and also a child's egocentrism.

Persepolis is funny, sad, sweet, and revealing. It is political, historical, and deeply personal. I think most Western readers would find the history portions fascinating and new.

The stark black-and-white drawings are powerful, easy to interpret, and deepen the reader's understanding - something graphic novel illustrations should, but don't, always do.

Persepolis was originally published in French; the English translation was published in 2003, Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return in 2005, and the excellent movie adaptation came out in 2007.

Ghost World, by Daniel Clowes, is an ode to teenage alienation.

Two girls, best friends, spend their days wandering around their unnamed town (somewhere in the US), criticizing everyone and wondering what shape their lives will take. As they grow up, they also grow apart, as each must decide whether to leave behind the shield of ironic detachment and cynicism and participate in the world.

Clowes quite brilliantly captures a type of teenage experience that is easily dismissed or misinterpreted from the outside. You can feel the longing that lies beneath the cynicism.

Like our two anti-heroes, Ghost World is more a meandering collection of scenes than a fully realized story, the form perfectly reflecting the characters' reality. (If I recall correctly, the movie, which I liked very much, is stronger on plot than the book.)

It's a fast read, but can leave you wondering what you missed. But then it's worth reading a second time.

Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth was, I believe, the first adult graphic novel I ever read.

Ware's illustrations are more complex, less straightforward, and more varied than any other graphic novelist I'm familiar with. His style can make for a challenging read.

Add to that, the story itself is extremely sad - a study of generations of abandonment, loneliness, fear, and depression. Jimmy Corrigan is very good, but I recommend it with a warning sticker. Although I read it many years ago, just thinking about it makes my heart ache.

10.20.2014

coming full circle: my sixth-grade obsession meets my teen book club

Continuing on the young-adult fiction theme, it's been about six months since I blathered about my absolute favourite part of my job: teen book club. Our monthly gathering is still going strong, a small but dedicated group of young readers who love books, and love to talk about books. My posters for TBC invite teens to "hang out, eat snacks, talk about books, talk about life," and that pretty much sums up what we do.

Every few months, the group votes on the next four titles, chosen from a selection that I gather, as well as their own suggestions. Most young readers gravitate towards either realistic fiction or fantasy fiction, so I try to balance the two. I also include one or two classics on each list of choices, and they are surprisingly popular: this month we are reading S. E. Hinton's The OutsidersFahrenheit 451 is on the list for early 2015, and the group is clamouring for Catcher in the Rye.

Along with those classics, the next titles are: Dooley Takes the Fall by Norah McClintock, Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card, Loki's Wolves by Kelley Armstrong, Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell, The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis, Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli, The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman, and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.

I'm especially happy to be doing The Outsiders, a book I was obsessed with in sixth grade (or "grade six," as we say here). S. E. Hinton's classic had a huge influence on my writing and thinking about young-adult fiction. When I learned that Hinton was a woman, and wrote the book when she herself was a teenager... my whole world changed. Apparently teens today find the book no less relevant. Although I don't expect any of my TBC members to become obsessed with The Outsiders, one young man did mention he's read it five times.

By happy coincidence, there's an interview with Hinton in the current New Yorker, asking her about - what else? - the so-called debate on youth fiction. When Hinton was a teen, there was no youth fiction: her books carved out a niche in the classroom, other writers followed in Hinton's footsteps, and YA was born.

the so-called "y.a. debate" rages on, but doesn't a debate have two sides?

In June of this year, Slate ran a now-infamous piece called "Against YA," in which Ruth Graham argued that adults shouldn't read young-adult fiction, and should be embarrassed if they do. A flood of posts and essays were written in response; my own response is here. In the short term, as far as I can tell, not a single writer agreed with Graham.

Despite this lopsided showing, some headline writer (possibly here) dubbed this "The Great Y.A. Debate," and the name stuck. There must be people out there who agree with Graham - surely hers was not an original idea - but one cranky article does not a debate make.

I did find a few interesting essays that used Graham's piece as a springboard to unpack some interesting ideas and cultural trends.

A. O. Scott, in The New York Times Magazine, is one reader who found himself agreeing with Graham, and asking himself why. Scott's The Death of Adulthood in American Culture joins the crowded field of "things ain't what they used to be" stories, gazing fondly back on a time when a cultural elite drew a very bright line between "high" and "low" culture, a line that, if it still exists, is too blurry to locate and carries little cultural currency. Scott, however, reflects on his nostalgia and acknowledges its curmudgeonly (and sexist, exclusionary) nature. It's a nicely ambivalent essay... and it has very little to do with youth fiction.

In Henry James and the Great Y.A. Debate, Christopher Beha, writing in The New Yorker, uses the same so-called debate to muse on the state of the novel, how literature from different eras reflect entirely different worldviews, and why the work of Henry James is still, in Beha's view, relevant to the contemporary reader. It's a good piece, worth reading, and again, none of its ideas are stated or implied in Graham's essay in Slate.

Beha offers this comments on A. O. Scott's piece.
...Scott’s essay is an expression of great ambivalence. He isn’t happy about this trend in movies, but he also isn’t sure how justified his unhappiness is. He admits to “feeling a twinge of disapproval when I see one of my peers clutching a volume of ‘Harry Potter’ or ‘The Hunger Games,’ ” but he quickly adds that he’s “not necessarily proud of this reaction.” He is scrupulously mindful of what it means for a self-described “middle-aged white man” to pine for an earlier era of cultural authority. Indeed, the real subject of Scott’s essay turns out to be not the infantilization of culture but the decline of cultural—if not political or economic or social—patriarchy, and the ways in which this decline is reflected in the culture itself. He takes this change to be the underlying subject of several of the past decade’s prestige TV dramas—particularly “The Sopranos,” “Mad Men,” and “Breaking Bad.” In Scott’s view, Tony Soprano, Don Draper, and Walter White are “the last of the patriarchs.”

This is where the essay becomes a little confused, in my opinion. If we really are living through the decline of the cultural authority of the straight white male, that seems like a rich and appropriate subject for a sophisticated work of narrative art. The fact that we find this decline represented on television seems in this sense a sign of cultural maturity, one that cuts against the idea that our culture reflects an “essentially juvenile vision of the world.” Many shows now grapple more honestly with the world as it actually exists than did the sitcoms that I grew up watching, in which mom and dad had all the answers and were waiting in the wings to save us from our mistakes.

The strong ambivalence running throughout Scott’s piece emerges from the fact that he sees an intimate, even necessary connection between the decline of the straight white male’s stranglehold on the culture as a whole (which he views as all to the good) and the rise to dominance of a juvenile strain within popular culture in particular (which he likes a lot less). But even assuming that both of these things are going on, it’s not at all clear how much they have to do with one another. There is a difference between art that merely enacts a culture’s refusal to grow up—say, a Y.A. fantasy turned summer blockbuster marketed at adults—and art that engages thoughtfully with that refusal.
The New Yorker also pointed to a 2008 article by Jill Lepore (one of my favourite writers in that magazine's circle), illustrating the long history of self-appointed reading gatekeepers. This one was a librarian who was horrified by E. B. White's Stuart Little. And not just any librarian: it was Anne Carroll Moore, who invented the idea of the children's library. Great reading: The Lion and the Mouse.

Throughout, I am left wondering if anyone on the "against" side of "Against Y.A." has read any youth fiction other than The Fault in Our Stars or The Hunger Games and has read any children's fiction other than Harry Potter. Often I'm left wondering if they've read even those, or merely read about them.

These essays are all worth reading... as are many youth novels.


10.06.2014

what i'm reading: how i live now, excellent (youth) novel by meg rosoff

Last year, I wrote about an excellent, unusual youth novel called There Is No Dog, by Meg Rosoff. I recently read the author's 2004 debut novel, How I Live Now, and I'm here to lay down a flat-out rave review.

Most of How I Live Now is told from the point of view of a teenaged narrator, in a present-tense first-person stream of thought, with long, rambling sentences and minimal punctuation. I often have problems with quirky or immature narrators as the voice feels forced and inauthentic to me. I found some famous and popular novels unreadable because of this. In this book, however, I found the voice completely authentic and utterly compelling.

In the first part of the book, a group of teenagers and children have been left on their own, without adults. They create an idyllic, natural, peaceful world, a kind of anti-Lord of the Flies - cooperating, caring for each other, communing with nature.

Then everything changes. The children are split up, the world becomes dangerous and unpredictable. Of course, the world was always dangerous and unpredictable, but the children had been sheltered from it, as most of us reading the book are, in the course of our daily lives. Now the reality of the very scary, dangerous world is hard upon them. The teenaged narrator and a younger girl are plunged into a world of survival and loss.

There is a war. To the children, it's a war without a name, without a known enemy, and without a battlefield. Rather, without a far-off, designated battlefield - a war where every place is a battlefield, where there is nothing but battlefields: a terrorist war. Rosoff imagines what this is like, through the eyes of someone trying to survive and to protect those she loves. That is, through any of our eyes.

As I read, as the girls' journey progressed, the descriptions of war and ruin began to feel very familiar to me, from blogs like Baghdad Burning by Riverbend and books like The Deserter's Tale. An invasion, then an occupation. No electricity, no running water. (What would the implications of that be? Not a temporary power outage, but no electricity, at all. The narrator fills in those harrowing details.) Food shortages. Checkpoints. Tensions between occupier and occupied, leading to random violence and retaliation. It dawned on me that the war Rosoff describes was actually happening while she was writing it. The story takes place in the UK, but this war did happen, in Iraq: it's "us" and "them" with the roles reversed. As the familiar landscape is transformed into a nightmare, Rosoff asks us to imagine what a modern-day war looks and feels like to the people who are forced to live it.

There are many other themes folded into this slim novel. Eating disorders is a subtext, as are potential psychic abilities. As in There Is No Dog (as in the real world!) teenagers have sex, but the sex is implied with a light touch, while the intense descriptions are saved for love and other confounding emotions.

This book fits easily into the "teenage survival" subgenre of youth fiction - a crowded field - but does so without creating a futuristic fantasy world. The fantasy here is a reality that exists, somewhere, right now. That's part of what makes the book so unforgettable. And although I'm describing the war theme because I was so impressed with it, the book's ultimate triumph is the way the narrator changes and grows from her experiences, from a troubled but self-centered girl into a compassionate, resilient, resourceful young woman.

How I Live Now is a fast-paced, compelling read. Although it's technically a youth novel, if you're old enough to think about love, war, death, and the aftermath of all three, I recommend you read this book.

7.27.2014

things i heard at the library: an occasional series: #15! one that makes me very happy!

The conversation was simple enough.

Teenage girl: "Where is the nonfiction?"

Me: "Nonfiction is upstairs, but it's organized according to subject. There should be some nonfiction books on the Bingo display."

Teen: "I think they're all gone."

Me: "OK, we'll find you something. What would you like to read about?"

Teen: "So far I've read one nonfiction book. It was about a man who left the war in Iraq. It was called The Deserter's Tale. I loved it."

!!!!!!!!!!!

Why did this make me so unreasonably happy?

1. War resisters! Teens reading about moral choices! Teens reading about conscientious objection to war! I always include Joshua Key's The Deserter's Tale in my youth nonfiction displays. But I've never gotten feedback on it before! And she didn't just read it, she loved it!

2. One of my missions at the library is to offer nonfiction to teen readers. There is no special youth nonfiction section, and I'm trying to informally create one. This is a sign that it's working!

3. No one likes to re-fill the nonfiction on the Summer Reading Bingo display because it means going upstairs and hunting for books. It's not that library staff is lazy; it's that we're all so pressed for time, and a trip to a different floor to find books feels too burdensome for most people (given most staff don't have a strong motivation to get teens reading nonfiction). So I refill the nonfiction on the Bingo display pretty much by myself. And it was all gone from the display! It was only five or six books, but they were all gone! All! Gone!

4. And a teen asked for more!

If you're curious about Summer Reading Bingo: teens read books in different categories, write short (1-2 sentence) reviews, and win prizes - which are usually donated books or advanced reading copies from publishers. It's a great way to keep teens reading all summer. You can see it here.

6.09.2014

memo to ruth graham: readers who try to shame other readers should be embarrassed by their narrow-mindedness

Ruth Graham, writing in Slate, says, "You should feel embarrassed when what you're reading was written for children." How sad. If anyone should feel embarrassed, it's Graham. She apparently writes this commentary without realizing how narrow-minded, outdated, and ignorant it makes her appear.

Then again, what can we expect from a person who describes a love scene by saying a young man "deflowers" his girlfriend? Perhaps Graham hasn't noticed, but in the 21st Century, women are not passive objects; their first sexual experience is not imagined as a loss of innocence and delicacy. Hazel, the hero of The Fault in our Stars, is not "deflowered". She chooses to have sex.

Graham mentions that it was "once unseemly" for adults to read young-adult lit. When was that, I wonder? I'm at least 10 years older than Graham, who places herself in the 30 to 44-year-old demographic. I've read young-adult fiction all my life, and I don't remember there ever being a negative connotation. She also lists Tuck Everlasting as a sophisticated book from her youth. Except Tuck Everlasting is a children's novel. An excellent book, but not to be confused with young-adult lit.

Graham says she didn't cry when she read The Fault in our Stars, and wonders if that makes her either heartless or "a grown up"? I answer both questions in the negative. Why would "saying 'Oh, brother' out loud more than once," make a reader more mature than a reader who cries? Is it childish to be deeply affected by reading? Is it mature to roll our eyes in cynical dismissal? I not only cried from The Fault in our Stars. I cried without shame.

"These books," Graham writes, "consistently indulge in the kind of endings that teenagers want to see, but which adult readers ought to reject as far too simple. YA endings are uniformly satisfying..." And maybe that's the key to the proper response to Graham's essay. Anyone who thinks the endings of The Spectacular Now, Looking for Alaska, The Book Thief, or It's Kind of a Funny Story, to name a few, are satisfying and too simple is poorly equipped to analyze literature at all. I wonder, too, how Graham knows "what teenagers want to see", and which teens she's referring to. I spend quite a lot of time with teens, but I would hesitate to make such a sweeping statement about any people based solely on age.

Graham writes, "Life is so short, and the list of truly great books for adults is so long."

Here's my edit. Life is so short. Read whatever you like. And never, ever be embarrassed by your choices.

I quickly dashed off this post after Allan brought the story to my attention. More fully fleshed-out responses abound.

Really? Are we still genre-shaming people for the books they like? by Lauren Davis at io9

No, you do not have to be ashamed of reading young adult fiction in WaPo

In Praise of Reading Whatever You Want in New Republic

Slate’s Condescending “Against YA” Couldn’t Be More Wrong - Young Adult Fiction Is for Everyone in FlavorWire

6.08.2014

what i'm reading: the book thief, an anti-war novel

I'm sure many of you have read The Book Thief, Markus Zusak's youth novel about a German girl and her (non-biological) family during World War II. If you haven't yet read it, I recommend it.

I had little interest in reading this book. I picked it up for professional reasons: it has been one of the most popular youth novels since its publication in 2005, and I intended to skim it, to get the gist. This book didn't care what I had in mind. The opening was so intriguing that I kept reading, and before long I was completely engrossed.

In our culture, there aren't many books or movies that contemplate World War II from a German point of view. By giving us the German people during the Nazi era - their suffering, and both their defiance and their complicity - Zusak humanizes war and suffering in a way that Holocaust stories - with humans on one side, and monsters on the other - cannot. As the beautifully drawn characters develop and the situations build - as the reader identifies with these people who happen to be German - Zusak builds a case about the futility of war.

The reader is forced to face an impossible truth. For ordinary German people, simply having an iota of compassion for a Jewish neighbour - simply being seen as less than brutal, or not completely loyal to the brutal regime - could destroy a person's livelihood and family. Trying to feed a starving Jew could result in torture or death, or leave one's family marked for the camps themselves.

Once the Nazis had reached a certain degree of power, there could be no real defiance. The Germans in The Book Thief can no more control Hitler than the American people could stop a former Resident of the White House from bombing Iraq.

18th Century philosopher Edmund Burke said, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing". But once evil has triumphed, what can be done? In The Book Thief we see that open defiance is both impossible and futile. Acts of courage are actually rash stupidity. The only courage is in perseverance.

If this is true, how can we prevent genocide? How can we prevent fascism? The only answer seems to be: by never letting it get that far. By recognizing the earliest signs and resisting before it's too late.

Leisel Meminger, the main character of The Book Thief, could well be Anne Frank. She is a young girl, and she suffers trauma and sorrow, because she happens to live in a country where a genocidal madman rose to power. German parents cry with grief and terror as their sons are sent to the Russian front. Germans and Russians alike freeze and bleed to death there. When allied bombs fall on German towns, the people of those towns cower in terror, and they die or survive in the aftermath with grief and loss. They suffer no less because the bombs are dropped by "the good" side. And they suffer, with no control over Hitler's murderous reign. Canadians and Americans, take note. When bombs fall, it doesn't matter if they're dropped in the name of The Master Race or Humanitarian Intervention.

"45,000 people in one day," we read, died in the bombing of Munich. "And still Hitler held strong."
Not long before the sirens signaled the end, Alex Steiner - the man with the immovable, wooden face - coaxes the kids from his wife's legs. He was able to reach out and grapple for his son's free hand. Kurt, still stoic and full of stare, took it up and tightened his grip gently on the hand of his sister. Soon, everyone in the cellar was holding the hand of another, and the group of Germans stood in a lumpy circle. The cold hands melted into the warm ones, and in some cases, the feeling of another human pulse was transported. It came through the layers of pale, stiffened skin. Some of them closed their eyes, waiting for their final demise, or hoping for a sign that the raid was finally over.

Did they deserve any better, these people?
Elsewhere:
It was Russia, January 5, 1943, and just another icy day. Out among the city and snow, there were dead Russians and Germans everywhere. Those who remained were firing into the blank pages in front of them. Three languages interwove. The Russian, the bullets, the German.
Zusak manages a tremendous feat as he builds the reader's sympathies. The reader feels unquestionable compassion and sympathy for all the characters' pain; most of them are non-Jewish Germans. Yet he makes it abundantly clear who is suffering the most. Yet the fact that the Jewish people are suffering the most doesn't lessen the suffering of the non-Jewish Germans. Zusak offers this paradox for us to accept and not resolve.

The book's unusual construction, narrated by Death itself, softens the impact on the imagination. This is an almost benevolent Death, carrying away souls in his arms. Death is an end of suffering, a final peace. This prevents The Book Thief from being too explicit, for young and not-young readers alike.

The Book Thief is not only an anti-war book. It's a story of a young girl, a new kind of family, and of the bonds of friendship. It's the story of people - funny people, nasty people, kind people, helpless people - playing out their lives amid a larger context. It's a small, family story. But it is, most definitely, an anti-war novel.

I am fond of saying that All Quiet on the Western Front is the greatest anti-war novel of all time, showing as it does the horrific suffering of the ordinary soldier through the eyes of young German soldiers. The Book Thief joins my pantheon of great anti-war novels for similar reasons.

Nicholson Baker: Why I'm A Pacifist (downloadable pdf).

4.20.2014

youth books, children's book edition #10, and the best part of my job

I thought readers' advisory was the best part of my job, but that was before I began running our library's teen book club.

Once a month, I spend an evening with a group of teens who choose to spend their evening at the library, talking about books. We hang out, eat snacks, talk about books, talk about life. Although I've never had an interest in book clubs for myself, facilitating these young people's enjoyment of reading is a joy and a privilege.

The teens themselves come from diverse backgrounds and experiences. Most are the first generation of their family born in Canada. Some lead pressured, overly scheduled lives. Others are relatively independent and mature. Some are bursting with ideas and enthusiasm. Some are quiet and speak very little. All of them listen respectfully to each other and encourage each other. This is what I love best. Always, they are kind to each other.

I've read that reading helps people develop empathy and compassion, that readers exhibit a higher degree of empathy than non-readers. I don't know if these teens are such nice people because they read, or if they read because they're nice people, or if it's just a random coincidence. But on the last Monday of every month, these kids make me love my job even more.

* * * *

TBC is also an opportunity for me to venture out of my reading comfort zone and try books I wouldn't normally pick up.

Many TBC members, including me, thought they wouldn't enjoy Cinder, a dystopian-future take on the Cinderella fairytale, by Marissa Meyer. We all ended up tearing through it, cheering for the strong, independent, but damaged main character, hanging on suspense and plot twists, and not guessing the ending.

TBC gave me an excuse to read Coraline, Neil Gaiman's modern classic children's horror novel. I normally don't read horror, and I really had no idea what constituted horror for children. Coraline seems like just the right amount of scary for kids - and me! It's creepy and shivery, in a way that makes you want to keep reading, not in a way that gives you nightmares.

Gaiman follows some standard children's-lit conventions - the child of absent or neglectful parents as a solo adventurer, forced to rescue herself and others from the clutches of something evil - but energizes them with lyrical language and unexpected twists. One member of TBC shares my avoidance of all things scary, so I'm looking forward to seeing what she thought.

Other upcoming TBC selections: The Maze Runner by James Dashner (which I wrote about here), It's Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini (here), Epic by Conor Kostick, the first book of the favourite adventure series of one of our members, Hate List by Jennifer Brown, and Gauntlgrym by R. A. Salvatore. At our next meeting, we're voting by secret ballot for the last two titles of the year.

what i'm reading: eleanor & park, another truly great youth book for readers of all ages

If you enjoy youth novels of the realistic (non-fantasy) variety, Eleanor & Park, by Rainbow Rowell, is just about as good as it gets.

Who else might enjoy Eleanor & Park? Readers who like beautifully drawn, believable, yet quirky and unique characters. Readers who are teens. Readers who have ever been teens. People who have fallen in love. People who dream of falling in love. People who like to read.

Eleanor & Park is about two people who don't fit in slowly and tenderly finding their way to each other. It's about the horrors that ordinary young people endure, adults who make their lives hell, and adults who are there to support them, whether or not they understand them. It's a book full of music, and the discovery of music and art that, as a teen, might just save your life. It's a book about love.

Last year in The New York Times, Eleanor & Park was reviewed by none other than John Green, far and away the most popular and famous author of realistic youth fiction of his generation. Green wrote:
When I began reading contemporary fiction in high school, I remember feeling that each book was an absolute revelation. Whether I was reading Michael Crichton or Amy Tan or Tom Robbins, there had never been anything like it before in my life. The novel's novelty passes, of course. I'm 35 now. I've read a dozen "we brought back the dinosaurs and they are mad" books. I've seen the conventions, and I've seen them interrogated.

But I have never seen anything quite like "Eleanor & Park." Rainbow Rowell's first novel for young adults is a beautiful, haunting love story — but I have seen those. It's set in 1986, and God knows I've seen that. There's bullying, sibling rivalry, salvation through music and comics, a monstrous stepparent — and I know, we've seen all this stuff. But you've never seen "Eleanor & Park." Its observational precision and richness make for very special reading.
Green closed his review with a ready-made jacket-blurb, and it's not even an exaggeration.
"Eleanor & Park" reminded me not just what it's like to be young and in love with a girl, but also what it's like to be young and in love with a book.

3.09.2014

kind of a not-funny story: ned vizzini, youth fiction, and suicide

It's so hard to talk when you want to kill yourself.

That's the first line of Ned Vizzini's excellent 2006 youth novel, It's Kind of a Funny Story. By the time I read the book this year, the author was already dead. Vizzini committed suicide last December; he was only 32 years old.

Those facts alone are tragic. But now that I've read this book, I find Vizzini's death even sadder. On some level, I chide myself for that: every person's life is of equal value, and every early death is a loss. But we feel the way we feel, and Vizzini's suicide feels, to me, inexpressibly sad, a monumental loss.

Vizzini wrote youth fiction in a natural, straightforward voice, with deep insight and wry humour. It's Kind of a Funny Story is a slightly fictionalized account of the onset of the author's depression as a teenager, and the five days he spent in the psychiatric unit of a hospital in Brooklyn, New York. It's a funny book, often poignant, sometimes very moving, always very honest. It's an excellent book, and was made into a very good movie in 2010.

Vizzini's work touched the lives of millions of young people. We can be sure that untold numbers of teens and young adults with depression recognized themselves in Craig Gilner, the intrepid narrator of It's Kind of a Funny Story, who is trying to save his own life, trying to believe that his life is worth saving.

Vizzini was a very talented writer, and was hugely successful. He found the kind of success as a youth author that I used to dream of - that I worked very hard for, but did not achieve. It's easy to speculate that Vizzini's early success contributed to his depression, but I think those easy answers are just as easily wrong. He was depressed. He sought help, he got help, but eventually his depression overwhelmed him. This happens to successful people, and it happens to people whose depression prevents them from ever achieving success. It happens to talented people, and it happens to ordinary people. For every Ned Vizzini, David Foster Wallace, and Anthony Lukas who kill themselves, there are thousands more, whose names we never know.

Suicide is called many things: cowardly, selfish, crazy. I find all of these judgements strange, and wrong. One of my little missions is, when I hear or read someone speaking ignorantly about suicide, to  always counter with a more compassionate perspective. Empathy really shouldn't be too difficult: imagine being in so much pain that death seems like the only option.

There is another thing about suicide: shame. In most western countries, suicide is among the three leading causes of death of people between the ages of 15 and 44, and the second leading cause of death between ages 10 and 24. And these figures do not include suicide attempts, which are much more frequent. (Figures from WHO and NIMH.) Most of those deaths also represent survivors: the loved ones left behind. I know many people whose lives have been touched by suicide, including my own and my partner's. Yet it's still rarely spoken of. Many families still change the cause of death in obituaries and fabricate stories for family history. Attitudes about mental illness have changed and are changing, but the stigma associated with suicide speaks to how much work remains.

I wish Ned Vizzini was still here to write more great teen novels, or to do whatever else he wanted. I hope his work has made life a little more bearable for some of his readers.

1.26.2014

what i'm reading: four youth books and some kind-of spoilers

Flight is a thought-provoking short novel by one of my favourite youth writers, Sherman Alexie.

The main character in Flight, a Native American boy who goes by the derisive nickname Zits, is a troubled soul with a long history of abuse, neglect, and abandonment. He seems to be on the brink of a major transition, either going off the deep end or beginning the long climb back.

I don't know how to write about this book without spoiling it. So if you're like me, and you don't like to know anything about a book before you begin, and you like a book to reveal itself exactly as the author intended, skip to the next book right now.

Zits finds himself inexplicably inhabiting the bodies and minds of different people in the history of his family and his people. He doesn't choose this, and he has no control of it, but Zits finds himself quite literally walking in the shoes of his fellow man.

The boy's journey into other people's lives takes him to some watershed moments. He travels to Little Bighorn, where an encampment of Indians are waiting for General Custer to make that last stand. He inhabits the body of an FBI agent who kills radical Indians. Zits becomes the father he never knew, being abused and belittled by his own father. And so on.

For me, this book was all about empathy, that crucial and too-often missing process, the one that leads to compassion. But for the author, I think, the book is a vision of revenge, an endless cycle of hurt for hurt. I had a problem with the simplistic politics that views an Indian raid on a settler camp, an invasion of another country by the United States, and a terrorist attack on the United States, all as expressions of revenge. But as an exercise in empathy, the book works for me.

Besides, I believe I also discovered that Sherman Alexie supports war resisters. From the discussion questions in the back of the book:
What is the reward of a kind heart in Small Saint? What war stories like this can you remember? Refusal to commit violence is punished as treason. Are we hearing analogous stories about members of the US military who go AWOL or refuse to serve?

* * * *

Lois Lowry's The Giver is another book that is difficult not to spoil. The book takes place in a seemingly utopian future, the dark side of which is revealed a bit at a time.

Jonas lives in a world without war, without hunger, without conflict. It is also a world without individual freedom or choice of any kind, a world without art or music - without hate, but also without love. Communities have adopted The Sameness, and this genetically modified future has brought them some obvious gifts and many hidden evils.

There are some simple and clear messages in The Giver. Without pain, we cannot truly appreciate pleasure. In order to experience love, we will always know loss, because we are mortal. In order to live fully, to be fully human, we need the entire range of human experience. But there are some complex and contradictory messages as well.

As I read this book, I found myself considering the political implications, my mind flip-flopping back and forth from agreement to disagreement. Is this an anti-government message? Is it anti-fascist, or perhaps anti-socialist? Is Lowry implying that a society without hunger and want must be a society without choice? Is she saying that if we were to abolish war, we would also surrender the joys of music and art? That if a society seeks to conquer evils such as child abuse and random violence, it must also give up vitality and joy? And if that's true, should we give up on trying to better human society? And so on.

It was very thought-provoking! Heavy themes, but a quick and easy read. Well done, but I'm not eager to see the upcoming movie.

* * * *

Since I wrote about The Hunger Games and briefly about Catching Fire, I felt I should complete the cycle and mention that I did read Mockingjay, the final book in Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games series. Unlike most of the young readers I've spoken to, I liked it very much.

Mockingjay is a book about the harsh reality of war; one could even call it an anti-war book. It offers poverty, oppression, starvation, and crippling mental illness as the guaranteed outcomes of war, contrasted with the duplicity, hypocrisy, and utter selfishness of those who plan and profit by those wars.

This book continues to explore the limits of loyalty, especially in the face of moral ambiguity, which, we discover, is the only kind of morality on offer. All The Hunger Games books deal with questions of reality - what is real, what is fiction - but Mockingjay takes these issues much further, always asking, "Real or not real?"

I liked that the book gives us hope. But I wanted to trust and love the revolution. I wanted Katniss to be able to trust and love the revolution, too.

* * * *

Alexie is a Native American, and his work always explores issues of growing up Indian in 21st Century North America. But his work is also about growing up, and fitting in, and finding your place in the world. It is specific, about Indians. And it's universal, about all of us.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which won the National Book Award in 2007, is a hilarious and heartbreaking look inside the world of one teenage boy. He must navigate the constant conflict between being true to himself and trying to reach his own potential, and his loyalty to his group. This would be a lot easier if his group wasn't usually drinking themselves to death and wasting their entire lives, and if being true to himself didn't mean being the only Indian and the only poor kid in a school for rich white kids.

There are who-knows-how-many books out there told in breezy conversational, diary style. To me, most sound stilted and inauthentic. This was Alexie's first young-adult novel - and he absolutely nailed it.

If you are a fan of Roddy Doyle, as I am, Absolutely True Adventures may remind you of his Barrytown books. Alexie has that same uncanny ability to tackle extremely serious subjects in a humourous way.

Added incentive to read this book: it is always on the most-challenged list and has been banned from many school libraries.

1.19.2014

james frey: author, liar, sweatshop boss

Today I break one of my own rules, and write about a book I didn't enjoy. Not only that, but I trash the author, too. But perhaps author is the wrong word. Maybe I should call him the factory boss.

I know something about how difficult it is to write a book, and I feel solidarity with all writers. When it comes to blogging about books, I usually employ the old saw, "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say it". So when I didn't like I Am Number Four, I wasn't going to write about it. Until I discovered what it really is.

I Am Number Four is a youth novel, the first in the "Lorien Legacy" series, written under the obvious pseudonym "Pittacus Lore". The writing is stiff and inauthentic, the pacing plodding, the characterization and suspense nonexistent.

I was surprised at the poor quality of the book, and went online to read more about it. A quick search revealed that the book and the series are the product of author James Frey's company Full Fathom Five, a kind of sweatshop for hungry writers.

Frey, you may recall, is the writer whose book A Million Little Pieces, marketed as a memoir, was exposed as fiction. There was a confrontation on "Oprah," there were lawsuits, a whole long drama. And while I'm not interested in drama, I am interested in truth. Frey, who seems to imagine himself a literary bad-boy, continues to claim there's no difference between fiction and nonfiction. I have a huge problem with this, and so should you. If you don't, try reading more Orwell.

But that's not my biggest problem with Frey.

When I Googled I Am Number Four, I quickly found a long New York Magazine article from 2010 called "James Frey’s Fiction Factory". The article detailed how James Frey created a media company, "hired" (but didn't pay) writers, and set about to create the Next Big Thing in youth media. The next Twilight, the next Hunger Games, the next Harry Potter.

Each of those successful series, however, is the product of someone's creative mind. You may not like them all, or you may dislike the idea of them, but each was born from one writer's creativity. Their outsized successes may have everything to do with money and marketing, but the creation itself, what millions of readers flock to, are what happened when Stephenie Meyer, Suzanne Collins, and J. K. Rowling put pen to paper or pixel to screen. Given its origin, it's not surprising that I Am Number Four is so bad. Art is not created by committee.

But that's still not my biggest problem with Frey.

The subhead of the New York Magazine story tells us, "The controversial author is hiring young writers to join him in a new publishing company. The goal is to produce the next Twilight. The contracts are brutal." And if you read to page five of an 11-page story, you'll find out what that means.
This is the essence of the terms being offered by Frey’s company Full Fathom Five: In exchange for delivering a finished book within a set number of months, the writer would receive $250 (some contracts allowed for another $250 upon completion), along with a percentage of all revenue generated by the project, including television, film, and merchandise rights — 30 percent if the idea was originally Frey’s, 40 percent if it was originally the writer’s. The writer would be financially responsible for any legal action brought against the book but would not own its copyright. Full Fathom Five could use the writer’s name or a pseudonym without his or her permission, even if the writer was no longer involved with the series, and the company could substitute the writer’s full name for a pseudonym at any point in the future. The writer was forbidden from signing contracts that would “conflict” with the project; what that might be wasn’t specified. The writer would not have approval over his or her publicity, pictures, or biographical materials. There was a $50,000 penalty if the writer publicly admitted to working with Full Fathom Five without permission.
Here, I typed a whole bunch of things in bold and italics, but lucky for you, I deleted them all. That paragraph speaks for itself.

The writer of the magazine story consulted with a publishing lawyer.
He said he had never seen a contract like this in his sixteen years of negotiation. “It’s an agreement that says, ‘You’re going to write for me. I’m going to own it. I may or may not give you credit. If there is more than one book in the series, you are on the hook to write those too, for the exact same terms, but I don’t have to use you. In exchange for this, I’m going to pay you 40 percent of some amount you can’t verify—there’s no audit provision—and after the deduction of a whole bunch of expenses.” He described it as a Hollywood-style work-for-hire contract grafted onto the publishing industry—“although Hollywood writers in a work-for-hire contract are usually paid more than $250.”
Desperation drives us to do many things. But it should never drive a writer to sign a contract like this.

* * * *

One of the many variables that fueled my career change was the deteriorating state of the magazine writing business. Even in the 1990s, magazine pieces were already getting shorter and shorter, and fewer venues were publishing long pieces. Pay rates had been stagnant for 20 years. Publishers, now owned by giant media conglomerates, started to issue all-rights, work-for-hire contracts.

Historically, a typical magazine contract was about licensing. A writer would license the use of a work, retaining ownership and being paid for each use. For example, the article would run in a magazine; that was one use. It ran in that magazine's European version, translated into French; that was another use. It ran in an anthology; still another use.

Writers retained the rights to their work, so with some judicious editing, they could sell more pieces on the same topic to different magazine with different audiences. By squeezing multiple articles out of one set of research or interviews, writers could earn a living.

In a work-for-hire contract, a publisher pays one fee, and owns everything, forever. They can use and re-use the story. They can re-write and re-package it. They can do whatever they want, because it's theirs. As more publishers starting adopting work-for-hire contracts, it became increasingly difficult for writers to earn a living from their own craft.

And that was before the internet.

After the advent of the internet, pay rates that had stagnated were cut in half, then in half again. There are a huge proliferation of writing venues, but almost no paying markets. Young people writing for About.com or Suite101 for pennies per 1,000 clicks, earning one dollar per article per month, do not believe me - I mean that literally, they think I am lying - when I say I have earned $1.50 per word. And that was only because I hadn't broken into the $3.00 per word category.

In the 1990s, the National Writers Union was organizing for a $1.00/word minimum. That had been the going rate for 20-25 years. By 2005, 50 cents per word was a lot. A few years ago, Allan was offered $175 for 1,500 words, from a glossy magazine with big-name national advertising. Huffington Post was bought by AOL for more than $300 million, but still doesn't pay its writers. At all.

And then there's James Frey, draining a little more water out of the pool.