Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Laurie Halse Anderson

I just finished Fever 1793, written by Laurie Halse Anderson, and it left me a little confused about Anderson. Known for writing books about current issues that teens struggle with, I fail to see the message in this novel, other than yellow fever “was really bad”. Sure, the teenage girl had to struggle to grow and become responsible during that horrible year, but what’s the meaning for us today? I felt indifferent to both the plot and characters by the end.
I read Speak and Wintergirls this year, both written by Anderson, in an attempt to get a grasp on this award-winning author. Both books left me with an impression of-“Her intention for this book is blatantly obvious to me, but I am skeptical that it will accomplish its purpose for teen readers.”
Tackling tough issues like rape, suicide, drugs, (yellow fever?) etc. is courageous for any writer, particularly one who is targeting the complicated, critical audience of teen readers. However, Anderson’s novels, though well-written and bursting with symbolism, don’t quite ring true, in my opinion. You finish the book, everything wraps up nicely, and the teenagers move on to happy, healthy lives.
Everyone wants a happy ending, but Anderson just misses the mark of reality. Her goal seems to be to reach these struggling teenagers, relate to their lives, then give them hope. When I read these books, the girls’ struggles were cliché, and the answers to healing were straight out of a psychology textbook-not believable outside of her pages.
I am afraid that these books place Anderson in the category of authors who try too hard to get inside the mind of teenagers but are unable to break through to the real reasons behind their struggles.
Needless to say, Prom and Catalyst are low on my book list. But maybe she'll surprise me..

Friday, September 11, 2009

Books you've heard about but never thought would be worth your time to read.....They are.

The Percy Jackson Series by Rick Riordan (You may recognize The Lightning Thief)

When I student taught in a 6th grade social studies class, I began a Greek mythology unit with all the expectation of being the first to introduce the subject. Rick Riordan had already beat me to it.
Riordan, previously a history teacher, decided to write a series influenced by Greek mythology. The series has become widely popular, increasingly influential to its readers, and is being made into a movie.
80% of my 6th graders were not only familiar with the main characters in Greek mythology, but they also knew the basic plots of various myths due to Riordan's fictional series.
These books will make the subject come alive to middle schoolers and encourage them to study the mythology behind the books on their own.

Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli

Don't be misled by the "preteen-esque" cover. This is not just a silly book filled with bubbles, giggles, and general nonsense. Spinelli once again displays a knack for finding new truths in the midst of the most ordinary life situations. Stargirl, the main character, demonstrates a faultlessly innocent character and is predictably punished for her naivete by the cruel world she lives in. However, merciful Spinelli allows Stargirl's unfailing goodness to overcome in the end, something we readers need to see on occasion. Spinelli always gives you a good ending, but rarely in the way you expect. More to come on him.

Eragon by Christopher Paolini

Started by a novice writer at the age of 15, Paolini is now on the fourth book of the fantasy series and adored by the young audience he has since matured out of. Paolini creates a complicated fantasy world, comparable on a smaller scale to Tolkien's in its totality and independence. The reader experiences the ups and downs of fate for the young hero, Eragon, who has to take on a great responsibility during a dark time. Dragons, magicians, and a medieval setting keep the reader entranced, but this is not an easy read. You truly feel like you've accomplished something by the fourth book.

The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo

I know, I know, it looks like a cutesie mousie bookie. Don't judge the content by the adorable cover and mesmerizing illustrations. It is a whimsical fairy tale, worthy of Hans Christian Anderson, and each word seems to be plucked from a magical tree of enchantment.....HOWEVER, DiCamillo has intertwined heavy themes throughout the sweet storyline that differ from your usual fairy tale stereotypes. You commiserate with the enemy, foul as he is at times, and are never quite sure what or who is good/bad. It is an important step for a young reader to take, into the land of complicated themes and ambiguous character roles. Highly recommended by me and...what is it, OH yes, Newberry something or another....

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Oftentimes Misunderstood Villain-Heroes?

It is rare that an author successfully pulls off a character who remains ambiguous until the very end. I was discussing the character Severus Snape, from the Harry Potter series, with a friend, and I began to think about the art behind his design.
Hopefully you've read the final book in the series, or this will ruin it for you. (so stop reading)
Snape was ambiguous throughout all seven books, convincingly corrupt, misunderstood, or innately good at various times. How does Rowling pull this off? There was hardly a moment that I felt I could predict Snape's actions or explain his often odd behaviors. I want to know how Rowling accomplished this literary feat. It's impressive, don't you agree? So I thought about other questionable characters in YA literature.

JRR Tolkien's character, Golem, is in the same boat. You want to trust him, but at the same time, want the hobbits to be on their guard around him. The reader is hoping for his redemption and turn over, but knows deep down, that both are impossible as long as the ring exists. He gives into temptation in the end, but arguably plays the most crucial role. He is unintentionally the destroyer of the ring.

What about Roscuro from Kate DiCamillo's The Tale of Despereaux? He only wants to live in the light, despite his role as a rat to stay confined in the dark, hopeless dungeons. Due to an unlucky accident, he is banished from the light, forcing him into the life that he had always avoided. This incident causes him to become resentful of everything associated with the world of light and give into his bitterness and rat-stereotype. Yet, his desire for truth, purity, and most of all light must still be lurking in that rotting mind somewhere. You never know quite what to expect from him.
These rare characters share a common bond. They all found themselves in the midst of the worst evil they could imagine, and they had to face the difficult task of escaping it. Some succeeded, others did not. While they do horrible things and cause immeasurable grief, the reader still has a faint hope that they will return to the light in the end. To me, these are the most believable villains.
All of them played the supposed villain at some point in the novels, and I think their threats are the most convincing. They know exactly the cost of suffering and still choose to allow it. Or they know the cost of their redemption and are always tempted by it.
They are obviously torn characters, and this is why the reader is torn when making an assessment. Life is not an easy recipe to sort out, so why should novels make it easy on us to organize into simple categories of good and evil? We need an occasional ambiguous character to throw us off of our prideful "reader thrones" and make us struggle a little.
I believe that Rowling knew exactly how Snape would turn out, and designed the books to lead to the very appropriate ending. Unike Golem, Snape died a hero. Not many stories would follow the path of a seemingly weak, oftentimes cruel outcast all the way to his victory over the worst evil. Yet, that was the perfect ending for Severus Snape. I am still in awe of her craftiness to surprise me with Snape at the very end, but that is ehy we love these characters.
You never know what to expect from these unlikely villain(?)-heroes(?).

Friday, August 7, 2009

Mr. Markus Zusak

I fell in love with Mr. Zusak's style last spring (when the trees were in bloom), when I read my first novel by him, The Book Thief.
I can't even begin to describe this novel's influence over me and my overall idea of what constitutes "young adult" literature. His writing style disabled me from continuing reading during a few delicious moments because I could hardly believe what he was accomplishing with black and white script. His metaphors were utterly mind-blowing, and his descriptions were nothing short of extraordinary and deeply insightful. There were a few pages that I wanted so badly to crawl into his head to try to get a glimpse of his view of this world we live in.

The plot alone would set this book apart from the thousands of other WWII era YA novels, both in character choice and setting. Not to be insensitive to this category, but many of the novels start to blend together. Not this one. Written from the view point of Death, who is imbued with human emotion and unfailing compassion, this story progresses slowly when looking at the actual time span. Yet, the richness and potency of each seemingly insignificant moment in the young girl's (main character) life pulls the reader along hypnotically.

Don't be misled by this first post, I am an avid reader. This book still took me by surprise, and I was glad to be shocked by the quality and originality this author displayed with every one of the 300-400 pages.

He joined the ranks of my current favorite writing voices, Kate DiCamillo and Neil Gaiman.

HOWEVER, I just finished I Am The Messenger, another Zusak creation, and found it ordinary in comparison to the previous. I believe it was one of his earlier works, and there are definitely moments of his unique writing flavor, but they are much more rare. Whereas The Book Thief is a collection of intriguing figurative moments, I found I Am The Messenger to drag on a bit.

Both novels are highly awarded and reviewed, and I Am The Messenger is used in classrooms around the country.

On its own, I would have found this novel to be interesting and unique. Interesting plot, resolved ending, good writing style. Period. Maybe even almost extraordinary. But it sadly pales in comparison to The Book Thief, which I would label Zusak's masterpiece thus far. If you haven't read either, go to the library.

I could write a thesis on The Book Thief and still barely touch the depth of Zusak's artistry. Perhaps I'll try eventually. This novel just asks to be poured over, dissected, pinned, and studied.

Currently reading The Book of Three, the first of The Chronicles of Prydain. Slow start on that one, but it's highly recommended.

Also, I am reading V for Vendetta (Graphic novel, and not necessarily YAL) and listening to The Golden Compass on audio book, narrated by Phillip Pullman himself. Excellent car entertainment. Highly recommend for car trips-but only if you've already read the novel.

Log Goes Forth

I originally meant this to be a blog for almost-legitimate academics, such as myself, as a means of naively reviewing and discussing young adult literature.
Recently, I've noticed that spot is overly filled in the blog networks. Lots of very knowledgeable people are already writing very knowledgeable reviews and thesis' over young adult literature. No more room in that boat.
Then, I decided I would just keep a log of what I'm reading and my opinion of it. Very open for comments, of course. Just a chance to share thoughts on books from a fresh perspective, hardly influenced by courses and grander opinions (for now). So, being an unrecognized student of young adult literature, this is my reading log.
Don't mistake this for an invitation to debate facts, it is all based on impressions and insights.
Don't scoff at my uneducated opinions, but feel free to contribute your own.
And finally, this is not intended to make me rich, famous, or to gain easy access into the literary world. It's just a chance to write all the thoughts bubbling over in my mind as I cruise through an endless list of YA books.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Vamps, wolfies, and zombombs-why?

While reading various book review blogs and scanning the new bestseller shelves in the YAL section of bookstores, I’ve begun to ask myself what is so appealing about gothic mythological creature stories? Vampires have led into zombies, werewolfs, aliens, hybrids, and every other mythical creature that is a perversion of humanity.
I am genuinely curious about the great appeal for these character types in recent novels. Sure, you could blame part of that on the Twilight series, but it has spread too far for that to be the only influence.
Youth, in particular, are obsessed with the romanticizing of what were previously considered unoriginal, old school monsters. These monsters were set aside as concrete and untouchable after centuries of morphing throughout literature to the familiar stereotypes we know them as now. The new novels that use these ancient character types have begun to alter their design, often humanizing them and crediting them with human emotion and characteristics. I want to know: why?
From a philosophical viewpoint:
Is this a result of certain people groups feeling like they are treated like monsters, so the result is a general avoidance of any prejudice towards any creature, fantasy or otherwise?
From a literary viewpoint:
Did we just run out of original story lines so we must remix and recycle the old legends and creatures to better fit present-day literary trends?
To pinpoint the cause, because I am curious about this literary phenomena, I went back to the original stories about these creatures. Certainly, the original vampires were charming and appealing to humans, but there was no reason to empathize with their fate. They were contented with their lot, and were shown as cruel, heartless, diabolical, blood-sucking monsters. No compassionate Edward Cullens in that lot.
Frankenstein, however, is another story (literally). He was created from humans, still retaining their characteristics and emotions, therefore, the reader could easily have compassion for his irrevocably tragic situation. He is rejected by humans for his differences, but he was not designed to kill or even reject humanity.
Vampires, werewolfs, etc. are not rejected by humans for merely their social differences. Everything about their design is the antithesis of humans. They feed on our life fluids, appeal to our emotional and mental weaknesses, and can easily overcome us physically. They are only designed to destroy life.
Somehow, those minor character flaws have become overlooked with recent literature. I would compare the recent vampire series’ (there are several) influence on the view of vampires to JK Rowling’s influence on the view of wizards, but alas, the two situations are incomparable. Rowling took a still physically human character and gave them certain abilities, usually assisted by a wand or other object. Their design was never an inevitable death toll to all human kind. They are still human by every definition. Rowling had an easier sell of making fabricated wizards into youthful, kind, common man stereotypes then other mythological characters.
Vampires are slightly harder for me to commiserate with. Pitying a vampire for its inhumanity is like pitying a snake for its lot. They are both made to kill and do it efficiently. We don’t pity a snake for its lonely species’ fate, in fact, most of us wish they didn’t exist at all. If someone wrote a book about a snake that just wanted to be loved and accepted by baby birds, it would no doubt be sweet and inspiring, but you can’t ignore its natural design: to eat the baby birds when it gets hungry enough.
On the other side, it is unpleasant to think of an evil baby or killer Christmas elf. Purifying the evil stereotypes or desecrating the innocent ones are equally unnatural.
Now the question I am getting at isn’t to overanalyze an obviously mythical creature, but I am curious as to what this intentional humanizing of them indicates for the future trends of YAL. I think you could safely say this is a generation of overall acceptance; accepting anyone for who or what they are, making sure every area or struggle is met with an understanding novel, going into the controversial corners that were never addressed in the past, and generally trying to smooth over any prejudices or feelings of inadequacy.
I am a supporter of teaching acceptance to our youth, and at this scale, it is going to make a vast difference in the way youth think in the upcoming years.
However, I am primarily concerned with the widespread, careless aim it has taken on all literary forms, age groups, and characters. Just as vampires were never designed to be humanized, perhaps we have begun to alter areas or issues which should have been simply left alone. Losing all discernment will not make us more open-minded, it will just blur all the lines so that there will be nothing left to discern. Is this what we want? A group of youth who are too afraid of following pre-set standards that they accept anything and everything for what they would like it to be, defying any logical or historical reasoning?
By undoing all standards and boundaries set up in the past centuries of literature, these creatures lose all distinction. By the time the future generations get hold of these novels, they will have no idea what creatures are good, bad, indifferent, powerful, regular, or otherwise. That is sad.
I like having some certainties with classic characters. In a mythological creature convention, there would be an obvious separation between the wood nymphs, elves, and fairies from the vampires, zombies, and werewolfs. I suppose you can’t assume any of these character basics hold true in the new novels, and I feel that we are demolishing a literary understanding that took centuries to build.
Besides the indications of the philosophy behind these radical character rationalizations, I just hate to see all the classic characters lose their foundations (for the sake of all fictional literature past, present, and future).
Only in this new fantasy world could a vampire love and marry a human. That’s why we read these novels, isn’t it? We love the escape of fantasy. But is it because we have a small grasp on the rules of the fantasy worlds we created? And if those rules disappear, will “fantasy” mean the same in the future as it does now? Just something to think about.