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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Frighteningly Wholesome Lit

In the month of October I picked up a couple of YA horror novels to help me get in the mood for Halloween. For whatever reason, I ended up reading one of them, Cuckoo Song by Francis Hardinge,  in the wee hours of the morning when I couldn’t sleep. It took me a while to finish, and it was almost Thanksgiving by the time I did.

So my timing ended up being off for a horror story, but that’s okay, because Cuckoo Song isn’t really a horror story per se, although it’s pretty creepy and definitely has some twisted elements. Cuckoo Song tells the story of Triss, a perpetually ill child who’s sheltered by overly protective parents. Her older brother has just perished in World War I and her younger sister seems to harbor a thinly-veiled hatred for Triss. The book opens with Triss having suffered a terrible accident but being unable to remember any real details of the incident. She finds herself ravenously hungry, but normal food won’t satisfy her hunger–instead, she resorts to eating dolls and scraps of dresses. Weird, right? It only gets stranger.

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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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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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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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