Judy Blume and the History of YAL

I just finished a warm and insightful magazine piece (from The NYT Magazine) on Judy Blume. I’ll be honest up front here and admit that I never read any Judy Blume books as a teen, even though I knew about them, because I thought they were either girl books (in the case of books like Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret or Forever…) or for little kids (as in Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing or Superfudge). In retrospect, I find that kind of funny because I recall knowing that her books were  controversial, and that typically would have encouraged me to take a chance on a book. Not in this case, I guess.

There are some interesting insights in the piece into Blume and her writing and some nice quotes from current YA authors who unanimously credit Blume with being influential in their own writing and/or to the legitimacy of YA literature today. One author, Carolyn Mackler, who I think has some of the most creatively titled books, reflected on Blume’s authentic characters and stories:

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Crossover and Bridge: Conversion

I picked up Katherine Howe’s novel Conversion on something of a whim, mostly because whatever I had read about described its link to the Salem Witch Trials and Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible. Both are topics/texts that are frequently studied in high schools, so I figured this book might provide some nice connections in the context of young adult readers. I was surprised at how engaged I became in the story and the characters.
Conversion is really two stories in one: The main story is told through Colleen Rowley’s eyes while a secondary story reveals the truth behind the witch scare in Salem, Massachusetts in in 1600’s. Colleen lives in Danvers, MA (the town formerly known as Salem Village–renamed for obvious reasons, I guess) where she attends an elite private all-girls school; the focus of the story is on an unidentified “illness” that strikes the school, beginning with a few girls and slowly infecting more and more of the school’s population. Interspersed with chapters about the mysterious illness are chapters that take place in Salem Village, told from the perspective of Ann Putnam, where she confesses the true events and motives at work in the girls who were the center of the original Salem witch scare.

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Tough To Pin Down

The title of A.S. King’s book, Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future, with its inherent paradox, should suggest to you that this a book that will be difficult to categorize. And that’s true, but rather than turning out a muddled mess, this book is a powerful exploration of what it means to move through a liminal time in adolescence: graduations from high school.

In King’s book, Glory O’Brien is on the cusp of adulthood as she’s graduating from high school–but she’s at a loss as to what to do with her life. One night, she and a friend drink the dried remains of a bat and find themselves with the power to see the future. What Glory sees is reminiscent of dystopian works like Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a world where a new civil war breaks out over the rights of women and their proper role in society. Glory decides to write the “history” of this war as she sees it revealed piece by piece in visions of the future she has while associating with people in her town.

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Challenging Views of the Teenage Boy

Returning home from ALAN this past week, I started Adam Smith’s book Winger; I finished it on the way home from our family Thanksgiving excursion to my mom’s place in Idaho. I should have read the book last year when I landed a copy at the workshop, but I’m glad I finally read it. Winger is the story of Ryan Dean West, a 14-year-old at a rich boarding school who plays on the varsity rugby team and finds himself thrust into a world of older (16- and 17-year-old) students. He has to make some tricky decisions and navigate some complex situations as he’s forced to live in O-Hall with other students who are on their “last chance” at the school. Things move along at a nice pace: Ryan Dean makes mistakes (many of which are not hard for the reader to see coming but which Ryan Dean himself can’t seem to stop from happening) and he learns a lot from his experiences (about friends and the nature of friendship mostly). The ending’s a bit of a gut-wrencher, as things go off the rails in a surprisingly sad way–I had the distinct feeling of the carpet being pulled out from under me. I’m not complaining, just expressing surprise at the direction things took at the end of the book.

When we talk about young adult literature, we often idealize the writer who is able to capture a convincing teen voice, and there’s no doubt that Adam Smith has done that in this book with Ryan Dean. I enjoyed seeing the world of Pine Mountain, the boarding school he attends, through Ryan Dean’s eyes, and many times I found his thoughts and feeling echoing my own as I navigated that treacherous time of age fourteen. However, about three-quarters of the way through the book, I started to feel weary of two aspects of West’s character: his near-constant preoccupation with sex and his tendency to make choices he knew would be wrong or hurtful to someone else–and these choices often had to do with sex (in this case, mostly making out and kissing–there’s nothing more serious in this book).

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Pain and Loss in YA Literature

          

I have recently (not on purpose) read a trio of well-written young adult titles dealing with themes of death and grief and loss.

In Noggin (John Corey Whaley), our protagonist Travis Coates struggles with the loss of his body when he wakes up from a cryogenic sleep, saved from the cancer that ate at his previous body by doctors who sewed his once-frozen head to a donor’s body. Travis struggles to adjust to a new (albeit physically improved) body, but he struggles most with the loss of the five years that (for him) passed in the space of a nap but to those around him (including his best friend and girlfriend) mean real growth and change in their lives. This book is an interesting take on the post human experience and shares not a little with the Frankenstein literary tradition, but it’s Travis’ poignant–and more than a little pitiful–quest to restore his romantic relationship with his former girlfriend that drives most of the exploration of loss in this book.

The most conventional book of the three, perhaps, is Where Things Come Back (also by Whaley) which opens with the overdose of Cullen Witter’s cousin but quickly moves to the disappearance of his sensitive and gifted fifteen-year-old brother. There’s a lot of loss to go round in this book, and given that it takes place in a small town, some of that loss is experienced by those who return after having set out into the wider world with dreams and hopes that are, ultimately, unrealized. We see the most meaningful treatment of loss in the way Cullen describes his (and his parents’  and others’) wrestle with Gabriel’s disappearance. There are two intertwined stories in this book that come together in a satisfying way at the end, and both treat with loss in unique and meaningful ways.

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Paper Towns and Meditative YA Lit [updated]

I finished John Green’s Paper Towns this past week (I know, it’s an older John Green and something I should’ve read by now). I enjoyed it and found it remarkable in the genre of young adult literature for the way it deconstructs one of the popular assumptions about this genre. Many YA lit scholars (and I’ve shared this with my own students) suggest that one of the defining characteristics of YA lit is its focus on plot and action, the way it often strips away “fluff” in service to a story.

This is not what I found in Paper Towns, although it has a strong and engaging plot that tracks our protagonist (Quentin) as he seeks to unravel the mysterious disappearance of his neighbor (and romantic interest) Margo Roth Spiegleman. But woven expertly and integrally into this storyline is a serious meditation on what it means to be an individual and how we perceive (and define) the people we interact with. Most surprisingly, Green engages these ideas through a serious exploration of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, a title that is most assuredly not YA lit (and probably isn’t appreciated by many teens who might–against their will, sadly–read the poem).

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