Revisiting Sleator

Growing up as a reader in the 70s and 80s, I wasn’t exposed to much young adult literature. Yes, it was around (Cormier, for instance, was writing a lot during this time and I do remember encountering The Chocolate War as a high schooler.) But mostly I read what was assigned for school or what seemed to be literary (yes, I was something of a literary snob even before I was an English major in college.)

However, I recently finished a book by an author who I actually remember from my own teenage years, William Sleator. I didn’t read this book, Blackbriar, as a teen, but I did read two other books from Sleator, Interstellar Pig and House of Stairs (both of which I remember fondly). I was drawn to Blackbriar because it’s Sleator’s first book for teen readers and it’s a suspense-horror story set in a ramshackle, isolated little cottage–just the kind of gothic sort of tale I’ve been looking at lately.

The story is of Danny, a teen whose parents have died and who has been given into the care of a former school secretary who decides to leave London and move to the country. She finds the aforementioned abandoned cottage and the two move in. It’s not long before they realize there’s a mysterious history to the house and Danny is joined by a local girl who shares his interest in figuring out that mystery.

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Literature on Totalitarian Regimes

This summer I’ve read two books about totalitarian regimes: Sekret by Lindsey Smith and Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner. Although not pure historical fiction, Sekret is set in Soviet Russia during the moon race; its deviation from the historical record comes from the story’s focus on a fictional group of psychic children that the KGB uses in espionage activities against the Americans. Maggot Moon also focuses on the race to the moon, although it’s setting is more vague; while the book clearly evokes the USSR, we know-nothing explicit about the setting except that the characters live in “the Motherland.”

The two protagonists, Standish Treadwell (Maggot Moon) and Yulia Andreevna Chernina (Sekret), are drawn in stark contrasts: Yulia has a powerful psychic mind and Standish can’t even read and write. But both face the deadly trials of living in a totalitarian society with impressive courage, and the descriptions of the oppressive society in which they live and its puppet masters in both books is frighteningly compelling. I found booth book to be page-turners and highly recommend them. While Maggot Moon might seem to be for middle readers (its shorter and its protagonist is younger), its darker content is more suited for older readers; once you’ve read the ending (which I found more satisfying than that of Sekret), you’ll see what I mean.

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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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