Monthly Archives: July 2013

Well, shoot

Mom,

Here’s another little look into YA collection development: my library doesn’t own a copy of Charm & Strange, which is especially embarrassing since I was the collector responsible for YA fiction when the book came out (I’m not right now). Taking a look at the reviews, I’m going to have to assume I was swayed by Kirkus’s ambiguous last line: “A high-powered voice rich in charismatic style and emotional intensity illuminates this ambitious debut that doesn’t quite live up to its potential.” But the reality of the situation is that I just had very little money at the end of last fiscal year, and I was looking for any reason not to buy a book.  So, now you’ve caught me without a ready way of responding to your thoughtful post.  But that doesn’t mean I don’t have opinions!

First of all–I love your little statistics project, looking at the number of boarding schools in the US vs. YA lit.  In addition to the reason you cited (authors are always looking for ways to get rid of the parents), I think you’ll agree that probably a huge reason behind the high number of boarding school books is the influence of a few key texts, especially The Catcher in the Rye and A Separate Peace, both of which were written when (at least from my sketchy knowledge) boarding school was a lot more common, and both of which, though published for adults, remain keystones for a large amount of YA lit.

Finally, I did take physics, and even learned about quarks, but I only remembered them being up, down, top, and bottom–I definitely would have remembered charm and strange.  So apparently my teacher didn’t get very far into quarks.  I guess that’s what I get for not going to one of those fancy East Coast boarding schools.

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Quarks and Boarding School

Mark,

I recently read a book that fits into several categories we’ve talked about before, plus one we haven’t talked about, but should!

The book is Charm and Strange, by Stephanie Kuehn.

Charm&StrangeI actually liked the book quite a bit, and I want to talk more about it, but I’m going to start with the last topic first. When I was reading it, I started thinking about YA books set in boarding schools, and that got me wondering exactly how many boarding schools there are in the US. If you just read YA literature, you would be under the impression that about a quarter to a third of high schools are boarding schools. (I made that up; I haven’t done a count of schools in YA books; it just feels like a lot to me.)

But here are the facts, according to the NCES‘s website:

  • In the fall of 2010, there were 14,859,651 students in 9-12 public schools
  • In the fall of 2010, there were 1,309,000 students in 9-12 private schools
  • There were 24,651 public secondary schools and
  • 8,040 private secondary schools.

As far I can tell, the NCES doesn’t keep numbers on boarding schools. However, there is a helpful website called Boarding School Review that states that there are 322 college-prep and junior boarding schools in the US and Canada. Now, some of those schools take grades 6-12, some 7-12, a few even take younger students. I started to go through their list and count how many students these schools had, but it proved to be tricky, because many of the schools have day students as well as boarders. (For instance, they list Archbishop Riordan in San Francisco, which has a handful–they say 10%, but I think it’s lower than that–of boarders among their 400 students.) But just as a very rough estimate, based on the numbers I saw, I don’t think there are more than 65,000 boarders in the US. Maybe less.

So about 8-10% of high school students go to private high schools (up to 15% in the northeast; fewer in the west), and less than half of one percent are boarders.

So any way you look at it, boarding school students are seriously over-represented in YA literature.

Now, I totally get why that is. One of the challenges of YA fiction is to put young people in situations where they can learn, grow, figure things out, and a great way to do that is to remove as many adults as possible from the scene. Boarding school is a great way to do that. Plus, I think that just because boarding school is an anomaly rather than the norm, it has a certain mysterious appeal to young people.

Anyway, to the book: I have to admit that I spent the first thirty pages or so trying to figure out the title. Because, you know, I never actually took physics, and even if I had, it would have been before they taught about quarks, and even though I know (roughly) what they are now, I had forgotten that they come in “flavors”: up, down, top, bottom, charm, and strange. But fortunately, on page 35, Kuehn reminded me of this fact, and of the fact that quarks “contain particles of matter and antimatter, and where the two touch exists this constant stream of creation and annihilation.”

So that’s kind of the theme of this book, which is about Win, who is now in boarding school in Vermont, but who was once a ten-year-old tennis phenom known as Drew. The story goes back and forth in time between the two. We know that Win is angry and damaged, and not in touch with his family, and we know that Drew had his issues, but at least had an intact family, so clearly something is wrong. Kuehn does a good job of building up the tension; at one point I thought the story was leading one place, but it went in a very different direction.

In some ways, the book reminded me of A.S. King’s Reality Boy–showing the damage that can be done by toxic and/or detached parents, but also the resilience of teenagers. It’s part psychological thriller, part coming-of-age story, a bit of a mystery, a story about family and friendship.

I think this is a really strong debut novel, and I hope the Morris committee is talking about it. It’s not perfect, but it’s thoughtful and different and Kuehn is definitely an author I want to read more of.

– Mom

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Twisted Shorts

Mark,

I know you’ve been raving about Margo Lanagan’s Yellowcake for months, but I just now got around to reading it. Because, you know . . . . short stories. I honestly don’t know why I so resist reading short stories. Over the years I’ve read some wonderful collections of short stories, but somehow it’s just so hard to pick up a collection and start reading.

Anyway, Yellowcake. I have some fairly random thoughts, so I’ll just throw them out there.

As always, I was blown away by Lanagan’s prose style:

“Their legs were stumps and their arms were lumps and their heads were great heavy pots of brains, fitfully electric.”

“The hair was spread, laquering path and and field like a syrup, materials for a thousand gorgeous bird nests.”

And so many more.

You mentioned in particular “Catastrophic Destruction of the Head,” which is based on the Hans Christian Andersen story “The Tinder-box.” I re-read “The Tinder-Box” before I started Lanagan’s story. Interestingly, in reading it, I was struck by the opening lines about the soldier “returning from the wars.” I was thinking about how many fairy tales have that trope–tales like “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” (also Andersen), “The Blue Light,” and others. And then Lanagan went and used that idea of the soldier returning from war to hang the whole twisted story on!  I suppose we could imagine that he had PTSD, or at least was so damaged by war that he did the things he did. But oh, my! What a creepy, twisted, evil, yet compelling story!Yellowcake

In fact, I thought a lot about Lanagan’s source material here–fairy tales, myths, the Bible–and her nods to the original, while putting her own spin on it. For example, the ferryman’s (Charon’s) daughter was called Sharon. The neighbors in “Night of the Firstlings” were Gypsies (Egyptians). It occurred to me that Lanagan’s stories are very much like Rod Serling’s original “Twilight Zone” stories, which I read as a kid–they often start with something familiar and ordinary, and then . . . the twist into the odd, the strange, the almost-supernatural.

Another comment about short stories: I think that one reason they can be difficult is that because of the length and format, it is almost essential to start in the middle of things. There’s no time to build up and explain. So in “The Golden Shroud,” we don’t have the leisure to get the background of the Rapunzel story–we start at the end of the tale and go on from there.

Finally, when you brought up the book originally, one of our commentors wondered if it would be eligible for the Printz since most of the material was originally published elsewhere. I wondered that too, especially when I noticed that “The Point of Roses” was originally published in Black Juice, which actually won a Printz Honor in 2006. However, “The Point of Roses” was not in the American edition (nor the Australian edition, but only the British edition.) Also, I went back and re-read the Printz policies and procedures, and I didn’t see anything about portions of a work being previously published–it just says the book must be published in the US in the year of eligibility. Some of the stories were published in US collections, others were not. I honestly don’t have any idea how the committee will rule on this point. My gut feeling is that the book is eligible–but I’m not the one who will have to make the final decision.

Anyway, thank you for making such a strong push for this book that I finally felt compelled to read it. Some of those stories are going to stick with me for a long time!

– Mom

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Maggot Moon: Mark’s Take

Mom,

No, I didn’t care much for Maggot Moon either.  I had similar feelings to you, so I won’t belabor it too much, but here are a few thoughts:

I’m pretty sure the waving flag “error” was a nod towards a long-held piece of the conspiracy theory about the “faking” of the Apollo 11 moon landing.  NASA was aware that there would be no wind to keep the flag from hanging loosely, so they attached a crossbar to the top edge, so it would stand out and look picturesque.  The conspiracy theorists, not realizing this, claim that the pictures on the moon show the flag “clearly” blowing in the wind.

But that parallel with real life actually points to one of my major problems with the book: I don’t understand why Gardner felt the need to fictionalize the story so much. I mean, it is pretty obvious (to me at least) that the setting is Soviet-era Russia (Motherland vs. the land of Croca-Colas and all that), with a slight bit of alternate-history added, but why couldn’t Gardner just come out and say that?  Why did so many little details have to be changed?  Why not just say the evil leader was Krushchev?  The reason I ask, is that if she had set the book in the real world Soviet Union, it would have gone a long way towards alleviating your (and my) biggest criticism: the fact that, as you said, “There really weren’t any grey areas.”  Giving the book a real world setting would have allowed the “bad guys” to have all the freight of the Soviets, who (despite Cold War-era propaganda to the contrary) were not black-and-white, evil-to-the-core bad guys.  At the same time, fictionalizing the Soviets has the effect of making everything much less precise than it could be, in terms of who and how the apparatus of the state works.

I too didn’t think much of the dyslexia angle, and frankly, I didn’t find it particularly well-written either. I was annoyed by a lot of the imagery and figurative language:

  • “in another country where the buildings don’t stop rising until they pin the clouds to the sky. Where the sun shines in Technicolor” (p. 5) — that Technicolor bit is an especially overused phrase.
  • “My bones nearly jumped free from my muscles when I heard a noise in the back garden” (p. 179) — kind of seems like a new way of saying something, but ultimately yields a fairly prosaic cliche.
  • “Never would I have thought that the hard-boiled Miss Phillips had such a soft, sweet center” (p. 20) — bit of a mixed-metaphor that.

I don’t mean to be unrelentingly negative here (I’ll leave that to Gardner ;)–there were aspects of the book I liked, and I did find myself sucked into the narrative by the end.  But it has enough defenders, and mainly I just want to make clear why it won’t be making our Mock Printz list in the Fall.

– Mark

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Maggot Moon

MaggotMoonMark,

Apparently it is time to talk about Maggot Moon, by Sally Gardner. I say this because it keeps coming into my consciousness lately.

First, it won the UK’s prestigious Carnegie Medal in June.

Second, Horn Book, Booklist, and PW gave it starred reviews.

Third, when I was at ALA, I had the opportunity to meet some of Sharon Grover’s teen members of “The Book Club Formerly Known as Printz.” These are the teens who read widely last year, held their own Mock Printz, and like the Real Committee, chose Nick Lake’s In Darkness as their winner. Anyway, when I was chatting with them, I asked them what they were currently reading that impressed them. Two of them immediately responded, “Maggot Moon!”

Fourth, this morning I read a blog post entitled, “The Carnegie Medal–Can Children Have their Prize Back, Please?” in which the author discussed both Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking books and Maggot Moon, about which he said, “Adults should read it. They will love it. The hero is on the side of good and the side of evil is awful and banal and good fights to the bitter end for what it believes in. However, I’m not sure I would give it to a child.”

So, since I read Maggot Moon last week, it’s time to talk about it. Starting from the blog post referred to above, my first comment is that the author, like so many others, consistently blurs the distinction between children’s (e.g., middle grade) and young adult books. I actually thought that Maggot Moon fell a little on the younger side of that distinction, just because of what he said: “The hero is on the side of good and the side of evil is awful and banal.” It was a bit too cut-and-dried for teens. There really weren’t any grey areas; it was obvious from the beginning that Standish and his grandfather were the “good guys” and the despotic government were the “bad guys.”

I can see why the book is appealing, but my biggest problem with it was that it was too improbable. Unless I missed something important, I understood that because the radiation from the moon was too strong to allow landing on the moon, the government had decided to fake a moon landing, to demonstrate their prowess to the world. But if they knew the radiation was too strong, wouldn’t scientists in other countries? Wouldn’t it be obvious (umm. . . .flag waving in the breeze?) that it was a fake? So what would they be proving? And why would it be important for Standish to demonstrate that it was a hoax?

So that didn’t work for me.

The articles about the Carnegie Medal make a big deal about the fact that Standish was dyslexic, and so is the author, Sally Gardner. Again, I didn’t see that as being that big a deal. It struck me as being like so many things in children’s and YA books–a way to create more tension for the main character, and to isolate him, so that his feats would be even more important.

So that was my initial one-read impression: well-written, but too young for YA and with plot holes that I couldn’t get over. Is it this year’s version of Wonder? How about you? Have you read it yet?

– Mom

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What Should’ve Won: Printz 2002

The Publishing Year: 2001

The WinnerA Step From Heaven by An Na

step_from_heavenThe Honor Books:

  • The Ropemaker by Peter Dickinson
  • Heart to Heart: New Poems Inspired by Twentieth-Century American Art by Jan Greenberg
  • Freewill by Chris Lynch
  • True Believer by Virginia Euwer Wolff

Other Books to Consider:

  • Black potatoes : the story of the great Irish famine, 1845-1850 by Susan Campbell Bartoletti
  • The Rag and Bone Shop by Robert Cormier
  • Whale Talk by Chris Crutcher
  • Amandine by Adele Griffin
  • Meltdown : a race against nuclear disaster at Three Mile Island : a reporter’s story by Wilborn Hampton
  • Damage by A.M. Jenkins
  • Lirael by Garth Nix
  • Carver: A Life in Poems by Marilyn Nelson
  • The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents by Terry Pratchett

What Should Have WonDamage

black potatoesEach of the first two entries in this series came down to a decision between the Printz winner and one of the honor books–so that although I disagreed with both Printz committees on the final winner, I certainly validated their overall opinion of the year’s books.  If I were a different sort of reader or critic, I could easily see this entry as a death match between A Step From Heaven and True BelieverTrue Believer in particular seems to have been the overwhelming odds-on favorite of the year, winning the National Book Award (A Step From Heaven was a finalist), and making the BBYA Top Ten list, as well as the Notable Children’s Book list.

But the fact of the matter is that while I recognize the merits of both books, I don’t really care much for either.  It’s been a year and a half since I read A Step From Heaven and it is not crystal-clear in my mind, but I notice on goodreads that I didn’t bother to write a review of it, just giving it a mute 4-stars, something I usually do when I just don’t have much to say about a book.  One thing I remember clearly about the novel is being pulled out of the story almost immediately upon opening the first page, because the narrator is supposed to be four-years-old, the age of my daughter when I read the book. Now, Mom, you know Elsa, and she is ridiculously bright, so when I say that Na’s narrator was unrealistically articulate, I’m really saying something. It’s a small point (and, admittedly a pet peeve of mine–we discussed it regarding Adam Rapp’s The Children and the Wolves last year), but my overall impression of the book was not nearly enough to pull me back onto Na’s side.

True Believer, on the other hand, I just finished a few weeks ago.  I’ll reproduce my goodreads review here:

I found the story to be very moving, and much of the writing well-done, but there is simply no way this is poetry. I just used a random number generator to pick a random chapter and stanza. Here’s the result:

“My hunch was right.
It wasn’t the movie women
my mom put a dress on for.” (p. 103)

How is this a poetic stanza? I can’t identify any particular prosody to it. No poetic language of any kind. The full stop at the end of the first line is worse as poetry than it would be in prose (in either, it should be a colon, or a comma, or something).

Let’s try another:

“While the cookies were in the oven,
I made a card with red, blue, and green markers
on notebook paper:
a cartoon of him lying in bed
with a thermometer sticking out of his mouth.” (p. 191)

um . . . no comment.

That’s about all I have on that.  Speaking of poetry, though: fascinating, to meltdownme, that the Committee recognized a verse novel, a poetry collection, and a novel which could be described as a prose-poem (A Step From Heaven).  These committees do seem to have their own personalities, don’t they? So what about the other poetry I’ve mentioned?  Marilyn Nelson’s Carver was a Newbery honor book, but clearly eligible for the Printz.  I find it to be far too opaque for its own good–it seems to assume a good deal of knowledge of George Washington Carver’s life and the late 19th and early 20th Centuries in general.  Plus, though the poetry is certainly better than True Believer, I don’t find myself moved by it linguistically and emotionally the way good poetry should.  Heart to Heart, on the other hand, has the advantage over the other books of poetry by including the best, most interesting and challenging poetry–especially David Harrison’s “It’s Me!”, XJ Kennedy’s “Stuart Davis: Premier, 1957”, and Bobbi Katz’s “Lessons from a Painting by Rothko.”  But its main disadvantages are two.  First (and most importantly), it shares a limitation we’ve discussed before with regard to short stories collections, which is the uneven overall quality.  Those three poems I just mentioned and several others are magnificent, but others are only okay, and a few are just not good.  The second problem is related to the first–I find it somehow not coincidental that the three poems I cited above happen to be responses to three of the best pieces of art chosen.  In general, the art selections by the poets is confusing at best, disappointing at worst.  I wish that either 1) that the theme to the art selections was a bit more specific than a simple time-period (modernism, impressionism, African American art, whatever), or 2) given that they apparently could choose anything they wanted, that they had chosen, I dunno, good artworks?

The nonfiction titles I looked at fare much better than the poetry in my analysis.  Black Potatoes, in particular, is a fabulous piece of prose as well as a fascinating historical account, and a well-deserved winner of the Sibert award.  Meltdown, meanwhile, distinguishes itself by its unique narrative perspective: rather than a dry history of what happened at Three Mile Island, Hampton offers a memoir of his time reporting on the disaster, so that readers learn what happened as Hampton learned it.  I really don’t have much to critique in either of these–I just don’t think they are quite up to the high prose, structural, and thematic standards of my winner.

ragandboneshopSo what else do we have?  Well, we have novels from three (!) Edwards Award winners: Crutcher, Pratchett, and Cormier.  Cormier’s The Rag and Bone Shop was his last novel, published posthumously, and it is a doozy: a brutal, and depressingly realistic, demolition of police interrogation practices, in which nothing is sure but Cormier’s typically pessimistic message that a soul is an easy thing to lose. Compared to Cormier’s titanic achievements in I Am the Cheese, The Chocolate War, and After the First Death, this novel seems perhaps a bit minor, but it is still tremendously impressive, and for me beats all five Printz titles.  It also beats Crutcher’s Whale Talk, although both novels suffer from weak endings (Cormier for some uncharacteristically poor psychological development in the last chapter, and Crutcher for trying too hard to wrap up every detail).  Other than that ending, Whale Talk is rightly beloved by many, but I think too idealized: TJ is a multi-racial, beautiful physical and mental specimen; his decisions are ideologically pure; his stand for the little guy just so satisfying. Not to say that I don’t love it, because I do, but it’s all a bit implausible.  Finally, Pratchett’s novel was his introduction of Discworld to teens, which for many is reason enough to give him a prize.  For me, the humor isn’t as sharp as his later YA Discworld’s, The Wee Free Men and A Hat Full of Sky, and the business with the Rat King gets a little convoluted.

amandine 2One more paragraph and I promise I’ll get to why Damage wins. First, my obligatory admission of ignorance: I haven’t read (nor do I plan to read) The Ropemaker–there’s too little time in the world, and it just doesn’t sound like my taste.  I also haven’t read Lirael, but I leave it on the above list as a sop to my brother Thomas.  That just leaves Chris Lynch and Adele Griffin.  We’ve both recently admitted our lukewarm feelings towards Lynch, so I won’t rehash that, except to say that I would be more than happy to hear from a Lynch fan about why Freewill deserved a win–it seems like a powerful book, but I just didn’t feel the power. Amandine, on the other hand, seems like a relatively slight book–basically a standard-issue school story, with broken friendships, jealousies, etc.–but Griffin imbues it with her trademark sense of unease, especially with a very late double-punch revealing that our narrator has been less than reliable.  A superb book, but again, not quite up to the level of our winner.

damageOK, the winner is . . . oh yeah, I already told you: A.M. Jenkin’s Damage is really the runaway winner in my mind.  A very short, but very powerful book about a high school athlete battling depression, it is a novel whose power sneaked up on me, but once it grabbed me, it wouldn’t let go.  It is written in the second person (strangely, for a device used so rarely, so is Lynch’s Freewill), which I usually don’t think much of (and didn’t in the case of Freewill), but Jenkins uses the device to great advantage.  Many times the use of the second person seems like a clumsy attempt to implicate the reader in the protagonist’s feelings (clumsy in part because any talented writer should be able to achieve the same end with less intrusive first or third person narration). Jenkins, on the other hand, achieves almost precisely the opposite effect: rather than feeling like a nameless narrator dragging the reader into the character’s world, Jenkins’s second person feels like it is the product of the protagonist, Austin Reid, desperately trying to distance himself from his own feelings and thoughts.  This effect is nothing short of brilliant, since it is precisely the way many people with mental illnesses (especially depression) talk about their disease.

Beyond the narration, there is the unique (except to Jenkins’s other novels) narrative structure of delaying the emotional climax (Austin admitting his depression to his best friend) until almost literally the last moment, and eschewing denouement entirely.  As I wrote in the post linked to above, Jenkins comes back to this structure frequently, and it has a variety of uses.  Here, it is very powerful because it at once acknowledges 1) that simply admitting to having a mental illness is a problem worth a whole book, and 2) that there is in all likelihood no easy solution to Austin’s problem that could neatly fit into a traditionally structured novel.  I also wrote in that post about a brief scene which is one of the most emotionally wrenching I’ve encountered in YA lit.  Go read about it there.  And I haven’t even mentioned the brilliant character that is Austin’s girlfriend Heather.

As I said, this really wasn’t much of a decision for me–Rag and Bone Shop is probably the closest second place, but it is pretty far behind.  I find Damage to be just head and shoulders above the rest of the 2001 crop.

My Honor Books:

  • Amandine
  • Black Potatoes
  • Meltdown
  • The Rag and Bone Shop

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