Monthly Archives: June 2013

What a Bundle of Joy

Mom,

The title of your last post (Talking ’bout Boys) made me laugh, considering the content of the post itself (about female authors writing about male protagonists), because it’s a reference to a Shirelles song (“Boys”), which celebrates boys as sex objects–but which is probably best known today (certainly it was the first place I heard it) from the Beatles’ cover of it on their debut, with vocals by Ringo.  In all probability, the Beatles recorded the song simply because they liked the Shirelles’ version, but what exactly are the connotations of an all male pop band singing a song in 1962 about boys being “a bundle of joy” (a line conveniently garbled by Ringo beyond all comprehension, but clearly audible on the original)?

The above paragraph could probably launch several music theory dissertations, but I’ll leave it as an aside for now. On to the books! I’ve only read two of the four books you mentioned, Pieces and Reality Boy, but I definitely agree with you (as a former teenage boy myself) that both Lynch and King create convincingly “actual” teen teens.  In reference to your point about King as a female writer, I have a few thoughts.  First: she’s done it before, possibly even better, in Everybody Sees the Ants.  Second, I tend to think that the ability to write a particular gender has more to do with the specific talents and background of the writer in question than their own gender.  For example, to my mind AM Jenkins (a woman) writes male narrators far more convincingly than, to take a not-so-random example, John Green.  I won’t presume to weigh in on the psychological realism of male authors’ female narrators, but my impression is that there are many of them who have been praised for just that talent.  So, while it is certainly worth noting when a writer like Laurie Halse Anderson or AS King pulls off a particularly strong male voice, I don’t think it should be seen as an exception–more just another thing to praise these great writers for.

– Mark

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Talkin’ ’bout boys

Mark,

I seem to be on a kick of reading “boy books” lately. By which I don’t actually mean books FOR boys, but rather books ABOUT boys.

You talked back in January about Chris Lynch’s Pieces, and I finally got a library copy to read. Like you, I’ve never been a huge Lynch fan (despite the fact that he shares a name with a cousin of mine), but I was quite taken with this one. The idea of trying to make peace with his brother’s death by meeting the people who piecesreceived his organs is an interesting one. Fortunately, Lynch didn’t try to push the idea too far, but rather made it an opportunity for Eric to come out of his grief a little in a safe way–with people who were also damaged in some way, and who had every reason to feel kindly toward Eric.

Winger, by Andrew Smith is a book that is getting a lot of buzz lately, for good reasons. Ryan Dean West is a 14-year-old junior at a boarding school in Oregon. Being younger than his classmates is not fun, but Ryan Dean manages, because he’s smart and funny and because he’s on the rugby team, which gives him some clout with the very jocks who would be likely to haze him otherwise. image There are several things going on in this book, including a critical sub-plot about the captain of the rugby team, who is openly gay, and who becomes a good friend of Ryan Dean’s. But I thought the most interesting thread in the book was Ryan Dean’s relationships with two girls–his best friend, Annie, and Megan, the super-hot girlfriend of his roommate. In brief, Annie is the girl he truly likes, but he can’t seem to resist when Megan puts the moves on him.

So, okay, the kid is only 14. He has two 16- or 17-year old girls who want to make out with him. Of COURSE he’s going to take whatever he can get out of that situation! Fourteen is young. Fourteen is immature, no matter how smart the kid is. Fourteen is an undeveloped frontal lobe, in which the “reward” area far outweighs the “risk” area. So I thought it was completely developmentally appropriate that he behaved the way he did.

But it did make me think about our expectations for teenagers. We seem to expect that at 13 or 14 or 15 they will understand what love is and be completely monogamous in their feelings. I wonder if this is related to what Liz Burns was talking about in her blog the other day, about “actual teen vs. adult teen.” Her point was that we see adults (20- and even 30-somethings) playing teens in movies and tv shows, and it skews our idea of what teens actually look like. I wonder if it also skews our idea of what teens behave like. Anyway, just a thought. Smith mostly stays on the “actual teen” side of the line, although it is always hard to tell in these boarding-school books, because the teens have a lot more independence and autonomy than they might in, for example, a suburban setting, where they are driven everywhere by parents.

imageSo, on to Reality Boy, by A.S. King. As always, King’s writing is beautiful, and this story is heartbreaking. We will have to talk at some other point about psychotic Tasha, the enabling mother, and the weak father, but for now I want to talk about her depiction of Gerald. This book reminds me of Laurie Halse Anderson’s Twisted, in that it is a book written by a woman but told in the voice of a teenaged boy–and one, in both cases, who has major anger issues. As with Winger, I thought King did a good job of keeping the depiction of Gerald age-appropriate. He’s 17, and he’s really riding that line between being a kid (wanting to run off and join the circus) and being an adult (taking responsibility for his own life and happiness).

Wise Young Fool, by Sean Beaudoin is narrated by Ritchie Sudden, who tells the story of the year that led up to him being in juvenile detention, alternating chapters with the story of actually being in juvenile detention. Ritchie falls perhaps a little too far on the side of coming across as older than his years. He’s a smart-ass, he’s a rocker, he really imageis a bit of a wise young fool. (It also just occurred to me that, like Pieces, this could go on our list of dead-sibling books; we’re going to have to suggest that theme to YALSA’s Popular Paperbacks committee!) There were some hilariously funny scenes in this book, as well as some that were overly absurd, but there were also some rather sweet moments. I especially like the developing relationship between Ritchie and his mom’s new girlfriend.

Sometimes it seems like I read a lot of YA books about teenage girls. All of these are focused on the boys, and their feelings, and all of them succeeded to a greater or lesser degree in creating really interesting teen boy characters.

Now, obviously, I was never a teenaged boy (although I had brothers, and boyfriends, and, of course, three sons–plus their (your) friends and the teens I worked with in the library), so I may not be the best judge of how well these four writers do in writing about the issues of teenaged boy-ness. But I am happy to find good YA books about boys that I can recommend to both boys and girls.

What do you think? Do any of these authors get it right?

– Mom

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Best of 2013 So Far, Sarah’s Take

Mark,

Obviously, there’s still a lot of reading to do, but here are some thoughts on 2013 books:

I agree with you about 17 & Gone, by Nova Ren Suma, and Pieces, by Chris Lynch. More to come, in a later post, on Pieces.

And, as you noted in that post, we disagree about Midwinterblood, which is still rattling around in my brain, so I think it has to go on my list. I haven’t read Yellowcake yet (though I have a copy now) or Primates, but I look forward to both. I’m reading A Corner of White right now, and if it holds up, it may make my list; so far it’s original and quirky and fun.

Other books that are rising to the top for me:

The Lucy Variations, by Sara Zarr. I talked about this book a few weeks ago. I am not sure that it will hold strong all year long, but for now, it’s up there.

I just finished Winger, by Andrew Smith. I will have more on this in a later post, too. Again, I’m not certain it has the staying power, but it was certainly a great read that surprised me in several ways, and that’s always a good thing.

Here are some books that may be contenders, and may require re-reading down the road to be sure. In all cases, my initial response was less than enthusiastic, but I think they all deserve more consideration:

Black Helicopters, by Blythe Woolston. I discussed it here.

Eleanor and Park, by Rainbow Rowell. Also discussed here.

Uses for Boys, by Erica Lorraine Scheidt. Discussed here.

Reality Boy, by A.S. King. This is a tough one. I found this book so painful to read that I had to keep putting it down. And I mean that in a good way! I wanted to be like the hockey mom, who just gave poor Gerald a big hug–only I also wanted to somehow get him away from his godawful family. But as you said in your Goodreads review, was the family a little over the top? I’ll be interested to hear more discussion on this one, too.

Books that were fun to read, but for which I don’t think there’s enough there there:

The Moon and More, by Sarah Dessen

The 5th Wave, by Rick Yancey

Just One Day, by Gayle Forman

This is What Happy Looks Like, by Jennifer E. Smith.

I haven’t read much nonfiction yet, so that’s something I’ll have to make a point of.

– Mom

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Is Chris Lynch a Robot?

Mom,

I just noticed that Chris Lynch has a new book scheduled for publication in January 2014, and another for March 2014, which prompted me to ask: is Chris Lynch secretly a robot? How else to account for this list of his publications from 2010 to the present:

Pieces – 2013

Casulties of War (Vietnam #4) – 2013

Kill Switch – 2012

Free-Fire Zone (Vietnam #3) – 2012

Sharpshooter (Vietnam #2) – 2012

I Pledge Allegiance (Vietnam #1) – 2011

Angry Young Man – 2011

Hothouse – 2010

Prime Evil – 2010

Thoughts?

– Mark

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What Should’ve Won: Printz 2001

The Publishing Year: 2000

kitwildThe Winner: Kit’s Wilderness by David Almond

The Honor Books:

  • Many Stones by Carolyn Coman
  • The Body of Christopher Creed by Carol Plum-Ucci
  • Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison
  • Stuck in Neutral by Terry Trueman

Other Books to Consider:

  • Fever, 1793* by Laurie Halse Anderson
  • Forgotten Fire by Adam Bagdasarian
  • Homeless Bird by Gloria Whelan
  • Sir Walter Ralegh and the Quest for El Dorado by Marc Aronson
  • Cut by Patricia McCormick

What Should Have Won: Stuck in Neutral

Compared to 1999, 2000 was a strange year for YA books, with lots of first-rate books published, but nothing in particular standing out from the pack, or screaming “Printz book.”  On the one hand, that probably accounts for what is, in my opinion, the greatest decision by any Printz Committee: giving an Honor to Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging–a truly delightful book that probably wouldn’t have stood a chance in a richer year.  But, on the other hand, it leaves us without any real obvious choice for a winner–rather than one or more books rising quickly to the top, this year seems more like a process of elimination.

Fever, 1793* is a really wonderful book, but definitely a lesser effort than many of Anderson’s other novels.  The Body of Christopher Creed is another one, like Angus, that seems like it maybe slipped into the list because of the weak field–don’t get me wrong, I love both books, and love that they have shiny silver stickers on them, but they don’t seem to have quite the same level of literary heft that most later Printz committees went for.  Homeless Bird, which won the National Book Award, and The Forgotten Fire, which made the BBYA Top Ten, both got quite a bit of notice at the time, but 12 years later they seem more notable for their socio-political statements than for their literary quality.  Again, that’s not to take away from them–Homeless Bird, which follows a young Indian girl who is married off for purely mercenary reasons, then quickly widowed, is particularly affecting.  And The Forgotten Fire, while a bit of a mess in terms of plot, is one of the only novels I know of that fully addresses the still sadly neglected Armenian Genocide of 1915.  And Many Stones . . . I dunno.  I guess I see what the committee was impressed by–certainly the narrator’s voice is well-wrought, and the conjunction of the family’s grief over Laura’s death and the political situation in South Africa is intriguing.  But, frankly, the book just doesn’t do much for me.

The one nonfiction book that I thought was worth a look (and which Jonathan recommended in my last post) was Aronson’s Sir Walter Ralegh, which I had not read before.  It’s generally a very fine history of the Elizabethan era, and of Ralegh’s various ventures, and features Aronson’s always fine prose, but it suffers from many of the same flaws you noted in Aronson’s book from last year, Master of Deceit.  There are, for instance, a proliferations of “might have”s and “maybe”s.  A small example (but one that stuck with me) of Aronson’s style: in discussing the Spanish Armada, he weaves an elaborate metaphor in which the huge, centralized structure of the Armada stands for Spain’s Catholic faith (get it? Catholics are monolithic and bureaucratic), and the more guerilla-like tactics of the English fleet stands for Protestantism.  So that somehow the Armada is a representation of the conflicting religions rather than the petty war of aggression that it always was.  I don’t want to make too much of Aronson’s faults, though–as with Master of Deceit, in the end, I found the whole to be well worth reading, just not Printz-worthy.

So that leaves us with a three-way battle for the crown: Kit’s Wilderness, Stuck in Neutral, and Cut.  Personally, my favorite of these is Cut, which I hadn’t realized was McCormick’s debut.  As a debut, it is nothing short of amazing–many at the time compared it to Anderson’s Speak, and I think those comparison’s still hold, in terms of the strength of the voice and characterization, and the delicate handling of a complex and possibly controversial topic, in this case self harm.  What ultimately puts it out of the running in my mind is McCormick’s explanation for her narrator’s cutting, which is essentially pegs to a single incident in which the narrator’s brother developed severe Asthma, which she feels personally responsible for.  Frankly, this is just too neat.  Again, McCormick handles the repercussions of the narrator’s cutting quite well, and she doesn’t imply that recovery will be easy, but this sort of textbook style causation knocks the book down a touch.

So what of the winner, Kit’s Wilderness?  Almond won a Printz Honor in 2000 for Skellig, then the Printz for this book, thus becoming the first of a select group of YA authors with two Printz medals, but since then he has been absent.  I think very highly of both these novels, and I had this to say about Skellig, on Goodreads, which I think applies equally to Kit’s Wilderness:

Almond writes with this eerily strange sense of inevitability – as if he is retelling a well-known folktale from an entirely new perspective. It is haunting and beautiful, and strangely distant at the same time. Utterly unique.Stuck in Neutral2

So, certainly a great novel–but a Printz winner? Maybe–if it weren’t for Stuck in Neutral. We’ve discussed this novel on this blog before, in the context of its ambiguous ending, and I continue to think that the ending is one of its great strengths.  But the reason it stands out as the winner for me is that it succeeds precisely where so many of the novels I’ve just discussed stumble: at balancing literary excellence with a complex understanding of a social issue.  Trueman’s delicate handling of cerebral palsy–his ability to imagine the inner life of a character trapped within that disease, while still fully acknowledging the trials and complications for the family (especially the father) who have no access to that inner life–is nothing short of amazing.  And while I wouldn’t put Trueman’s literary style at the same level as Anderson or Myers (or, for that matter, Almond), it is far and above that of Whelan and Bagdasarian, both of whom allow their subject matter to take too much away from their prose.

So in a year in which several novels fell down for failing the balance between literary excellence and thematic import, Trueman “should have” won for getting that balance exactly right.

* Fixed 7/4/13, per Jen J’s comment, below

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Best of 2013 So Far

Mom,

I thought I had a lot to say about your memoirs post, but when I started to try to compose a response, it all boiled down to, “yeah, what you said.”  So, I’m not going to do that.  Instead, with the year almost half over, I thought I’d make a list of my favorite books of the year so far–the ones that may very well be making their way onto our Mock Printz list–in roughly descending order. 

  • 17 & Gone by Nova Ren Suma–I continue to think that this is the best YA book I’ve read this year.  Emotionally and psychologically complex, gorgeously written, and haunting.
  • Yellowcake by Margo Lanagan–Lanagan returns to short stories. Nuff said.
  • Pieces by Chris Lynch
  • Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas by Jim Ottiviani, illustrated by Maris Wicks–I haven’t officially posted anything about this book, though I’ve mentioned it here and there. It’s definitely the best graphic novel for teens I’ve read this year, and my five-year-old daughter loves it.  It takes us through the lives of three of the great primatologists of the 20th century, all tied together by the great Louis Leakey.  The art is fantastic–approachable and distinct, with bold, rich colors.  And the text has just the right balance of humor, biography, science, and adventure.
  • Corner of White by Jaclyn Moriarty–I have serious doubts as to whether this book will last until the end of the year, but it remains one of my great pleasures of the first half.
  • Lincoln’s Grave Robbers by Steve Sheinkin–this one seems to be taking a lot of heat for not being Bomb (as we both assumed it would), but I haven’t read a better nonfiction teen book yet.  Hope to get to more NF in the second half though.

What about . . . ?

I’m taking a pass on such acclaimed titles as Midwinterblood (as you know), Alex Flinn’s Towering, Kiersten White’s Mind Games, and Megan Miranda’s Hysteria.  And I’m still mulling over my reactions to Matthew Quick’s Forgive Me Leonard Peacock, and AS King’s Reality Boy.  I could be convinced that either of those latter two are among the year’s best, but it would take a good argument.

What about you?  Do you have a best of the year so far list?

– Mark

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