In the library masters program at UCLA, certain classes are only offered once every two years, because there are so many paths these days for a librarian to take that equal time must be given to covering all those avenues. One of these is my class on Young Adult Literature, which I last taught in the winter of 2017 and am going to be teaching during this upcoming spring quarter, beginning two weeks from now.
Since the last time I taught it was my first, I have been going back over my syllabus, assignments, and lectures to tweak them in ways suggested by the feedback I received from my students, and to update them, since much YA literature has been written in the interim!
Although I have read widely in teen lit for the past 12 years, the one area in which I am weak is graphic novels. Being an artist myself, one would think that I would enjoy this format more than most; but on the contrary, I find them difficult to follow. Even though I am a visual creator, apparently I am not a visual learner, and the effort to go from frame to frame seeking out the text and trying to understand the continuity of the story is daunting. (I honestly don’t know how the kids and teens read manga, which is also much of it read right to left!)
When I realized that I needed to choose some new graphic novels, both fiction and nonfiction, as the required reading for that week’s lecture, therefore, I turned to three of my students from last time who were enthusiastic about the format and asked their advice. Helen, Christina, and Alex were generous with their recommendations, and I proceeded to order about half a dozen for my Kindle and chose several afternoons to page through them in a search for good examples for my class.
Last time out, one of the GNs we read was the classic Smile, by Raina Telgemaier. I wanted something similar in terms of age level, which is middle school, and also a book that was autobiographical and “coming of age” oriented, so the first book I read was Real Friends, by Shannon Hale.
It’s a fairly simple story, and it’s probably nearly everyone’s story, depending upon your point of view. It’s easy, when you’re in kindergarten or first grade, to make a friend: You turn to your left or your right, you focus on the person sitting there, you ask “Will you be my friend?” and they are. This was the case with Shannon and her friend Adrienne. It’s harder, having been best and only friends together for a couple of grades, to confront the concept of popularity and to realize that while you are perhaps the one-loyal-bff-forever type, your friend would prefer to run with a crowd, a crowd that is happy to leave you behind because you don’t quite fit. The combination of the judgment made by the group and the betrayal by your friend, whose reluctance to go against the group outweighs her loyalty to you, is heart-breaking.
While there is much to appreciate about this memoir, including the myriad ways Shannon finds to cope and hold her own against bullying and her own OCD, the conclusion I came to after having read this was that it was well done…and reminded me way too much of my own grade school experience! The issue with reading books like this is that the level of angst, while probably completely true to life for that child in that moment, is a little much to read about after you have passed through it. (However, Susie Benveniste, if you are out there somewhere, read this book! I was Shannon, you were Adrienne, and Lori was the evil Jenny in our scenario.) The illustrations are adorable, and seem directed towards the younger end of this age group.
The next book I read was recommended by Christina as one that addressed similar themes: Roller Girl, by Victoria Jamieson.
In this story, there are also best friends (Astrid and Nicole) who have done everything together for years. Their twosome has been a little more long-lasting than that of Shannon and Adrienne, but they have reached a place (the summer before middle school) where their interests have diverged, and for the first time they are not in agreement. Nicole is a ballet girl, and is beginning to gravitate towards others who share her interests (in dance and also regarding boys), while Astrid has become fascinated by the prospect of skating with the local roller derby team, after seeing them play. Although Astrid’s skating skills are definitely lacking, she is so enthusiastic about this idea that she wants to sign both of them up for the summer for roller derby camp. She’s devastated when Nicole chooses, instead, to go to ballet camp, but grits her teeth and pursues roller derby alone. The rest of the book is her personal journey, including meeting new friends who are quite unlike her and her previous circle, and painfully gaining a new skill.
This was a really cute story, both verbally and visually. The illustrations were a little more adult and modern, and with more energy and pizzazz than those in Real Friends. It had just enough about changing friendships, growing pains, and growing apart to be entertaining, without quite so much self-obsessed angst; and all the roller derby details were great fun. I ended up agreeing with Christina that this might appeal to a wider range of readers.
The third book I read was also memoir, but nonfiction this time: March, Book One (of three), by John Lewis. March begins in 2009, when Lewis is a prominent Senator, and then flashes back to his beginnings on the farm and in small towns as he began his lifelong struggle for civil rights and human rights. This first volume looks at his youth in rural Alabama, his first meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr., the beginning of the Nashville Student Movement, and their nonviolent protests at lunch counter sit-ins across the South. It poignantly references the 1950s comic book Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story as an influence on Lewis, whose own comics now enliven that history.
It was a powerful, emotional read, and the stark black-, white-, and gray-toned images were an excellent choice to convey the importance and the emotions of the theme. I will go on to read the other two volumes with pleasure.
Although I have a few more graphic novels to read, Roller Girl and March are both definitely going to be part of the curriculum for my class.
J.R.R. Tolkien says that “the world of fantasy is accessed by a meeting between the narrative skill of the author and the imaginative willingness of the reader.” This is a powerful quote, because it underlines the readers’ advisory tenet that only a collaboration between reader and writer determines reading preferences.
There is a huge body of work written about how to define fantasy, too long to cover here. One definition I appreciated, by John M. Timmerman in the book Genreflecting, and condensed down to a summary paragraph:
The job of the fantasy story is to create a world and characters so believable, a plot so urgent, and a conflict so daunting that the reader must live with and through it to the end. The story must have relevance to the everyday lives of the readers, and the way fantasy creates that relevance is to create protagonists with a common nature, regular folk with beliefs and values. The fantasy world must be different enough from that of the readers’ so as to engage them in its uniqueness; but it can’t be too obviously fictional. The evocation of the world must be immediate; the world is provided and we as readers step into it. There must be an essential conflict, usually between good and evil. There is oftentimes a quest, with a specific goal, usually to restore the society’s well-being. There is the presence and/ or use of magic. And fantasy is, for the most part, persistent in its optimism for humankind, with a positive resolution.
Contained within this broad description are nearly endless small differentiations of subgenre, which are defined by their world (unique, alternate, paranormal, crossworld), by the kind of protagonist (hero, commoner, adventurer), by the origins (unique, faerie, fairy tale retold), by the setting (legendary, urban, dark), and by the tone (humorous, epic, frightening). Lou Anders, an editor at Pyr Books, says that “nothing will land you an ax in your skull or a dagger in your spine faster than trying to define fantasy subgenres.” He notes that there are always exceptions to the rule.
With all that as lead-in, let me tell you about a particular fantasy I just read. It fits into the “fairy tales retold” subgenre, but the setting could be described as a “crossworld,” since the primary protagonist is physically transported from our own contemporary world sideways into a fairy tale. She is a “commoner” dropped into a role in a medieval kingdom still defined by swords and daggers as weapons, horses as transportation, and rulers and servants as characters. The world-building is fairly minimal, but both sufficient and believable because of its extreme familiarity. The conflict is provided by the specific fairy tale trope, but the author has inserted some twists. There are multiple conflicts, both personal and kingdom-wide, with enemies and heroes within and without. There is a specific goal; there is magic; and there is a resolution.
The book is A Curse So Dark and Lonely, by Brigid Kemmerer. I bought it along with four other fairly new young adult titles, and I left it until last to read because I was almost sorry I had chosen it. First of all, I am not particularly enamored of fairy tale retellings; I’d rather have an original story any day than one that is restricted by a precursor. And “Beauty and the Beast” is among my least favorite fairy tales, for so many reasons, paramount among them the compulsory nature of the romance—she either loves the Beast or experiences an epic fail, but who (besides sufferers of Stockholm syndrome) believes this is possible? I equally dislike the dark, original tale (the father’s love being used against him), and the Disney version of my childhood (with the dancing dishware). There’s just too much coercion and self-effacing pity involved for it to survive as a believable romance.
Second, as is usual with YA literature, the critics, the publishers, or other readers are way too busy comparing it with other books. At least a dozen sources said, “If you liked A Court of Thorns and Roses, you will like this.” Well, I didn’t read ACOTAR (heresy, I know), because I read Throne of Glass, by Sarah J. Maas, first. A brief synopsis of my review is that the protagonist (and thus her author) couldn’t decide whether to be a ninja or a Disney princess, which was really irritating. Other readers opined, “If you loved Caraval, by Stephanie Garber, you should read this book!” I hated Caraval. Apart from the flimsy world-building, vague story line, and confusing game, here is my quote, which should also enlighten re: my previous caveat: “The protagonist, Scarlet, reminds me of the supposed badass assassin, Caelena, in Throne of Glass, who can’t decide whether to kill the male characters or to ‘pillage’ them (plural). I call it ‘dithery fiction’ because we spend the entire book listening to the characters saying ‘what if’ a lot but never settling to a decision. Yes, they show moments of resolution…which dissolve like sugar in water at the first sign of opposition, and then it’s reset: start over. It’s tiresome.”
I have said all that to emphasize that taking read-alike claims seriously will sometimes backfire, either on the reader or on the publisher. I got it out of the way in order to give an original review to this book, which I read in less than 24 hours and couldn’t have loved better.
First of all, major props for originality on the part of Kemmerer. The protagonist, Harper, is a tough lower-class kid with a brother who’s an enforcer (but only because he owes guys money) and a mother with cancer. One of Harper’s legs is affected by cerebral palsy, so she isn’t as strong as she could be, and moves with a limp, but she doesn’t let any of this stop her. One day, she sees a guy attempting to kidnap a girl off the street and, realizing there’s no other help nearby, she tackles him. Somehow, the girl has suddenly disappeared, and the guy and Harper are…somewhere else. Somewhere that looks like a medieval fantasy, with a castle and swords and horses, filled with food and drink, posh accommodations and fancy dress, but no people except for her kidnapper, Grey, commander of the Royal Guard, and a guy called Rhen who says he’s a prince. Is she sticking around for this? She is not. They lock her in; she climbs down a trellis, steals Rhen’s horse out of the stables, and tries to escape…but where, exactly, is she going to go? She’s in the middle of nowhere, she has no idea where her home world is or how to get there, and so, when she’s recaptured by the two men, she decides to let things play out and try to figure out what’s what.
There is quite a lot of revelation about her circumstances, unlike in the original fairy tale; Rhen lets her know that he’s been caught in an enchantment loop for many years, and the only thing that will get him out of it is if one of the girls he sends Grey out to kidnap falls in love with him. Upon hearing this, Harper is not just skeptical, but aghast, and determined not to fall for any wiles. What does move her, however, is her eventual knowledge about the sad state of his kingdom and the people in it while he has been otherwise occupied; apparently a horrifying wild beast has been savaging and killing whole communities every year! This is the one factor not revealed to Harper (that Rhen becomes that beast). So she turns on him and chastises him for not caring about the people he was sworn to protect while he ruled, and together the three of them—prince, warrior, and girl from another world—begin to take that commitment seriously. But there is more to his curse than she knows, and more evil awaiting his subjects than he himself offers them in his guise as the beast. And amidst all of this, Harper yearns to return home before her mother succumbs to cancer and someone makes a permanent example out of her brother Jake.
The book is written from dual points of view—those of Rhen and Harper. This proves quite effective, giving the reader the inner thoughts of the proud but needy enchanted prince, who wants nothing more than to resolve his situation but can’t quite bring himself to trust, and the scrappy import, who has to figure out, on the fly, how to deal with a completely new situation. This book is the antithesis of YA “insta-love,” and the emotions of the two protagonists are ably portrayed from every angle. The writing is good, the scene-setting and details are excellent, and the story moves along at a satisfying pace, with little of the “dithery” bits included in each character’s self-examination. The side characters are equally well fleshed out and provide extra drama without distracting unduly from the main story. Finally, although there are threads left hanging at the end that will be addressed in a sequel, the book has a satisfying resolution and could be read as a stand-alone, if you’re not a sequel kind of person.
If every fairy tale was retold this well, I would happily read them all.
I’m always happy when I see mysteries written for teens; for some reason, this is a genre that isn’t nearly as popular with YA authors as it is with adult writers. And many YA authors seem caught in the homage trap, as they continue to remake Sherlock Holmes to fit teenage readers, either by picturing him as a youth (Andy Lane), inventing a younger sibling with similar gifts for detection (Nancy Springer), or postulating how his descendants would carry on his legacy (Brittany Cavallaro).
If they’re not playing a variation on Holmes, there are also the legacies of Agatha Christie (Gretchen McNeil) and James Bond (Charlie Higson) to mine for material. And then there are the take-offs on popular television icons, such as Tory Brennan, the great-niece of forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan of Bones (Kathy Reichs), or relatives of iconic series stars, such as Mickey Bolitar, nephew of sports agent and part-time sleuth Myron Bolitar (Harlan Coben).
I’m not saying any of these are bad; in fact some of them are quite good. But I do wonder sometimes why more YA authors don’t take off on their own when it comes to the mystery genre. Certainly the field is burgeoning with fertile imagination, but most of it seems to be expressed through fantasy, science fiction, or retold fairy tales.
Maureen Johnson’s first excellent mystery series, Shades of London, has a Jack the Ripper connection up its sleeve, and throws in paranormal features as well to keep the attention of fickle teens. But her new series, beginning with the book Truly Devious, shows she is an author who knows how to plot, how to build suspense, and how to introduce twists, without reliance on previous material.
When I first began reading the book, I wasn’t sure I was going to like it, because it does make use of a familiar and somewhat over-used trope: the boarding school. How many young adult books begin by separating their odd, misfit protagonists from their drearily predictable parents and sending them off to a mansion steeped in mist and mystery? But if we didn’t love this trope before, we certainly embraced it post-Harry Potter, and Johnson makes a few sly references to that series in this one:
“Stevie had great hopes for the boarding school dining hall. She knew better than to hope for floating candlesticks and ghosts, but long wooden tables didn’t seem out of the question.”
The basic premise: Albert Ellingham, an early 20th-century tycoon, decides to create a boarding school “where learning is a game,” and populate it with a combination of rich and poor teens, all of whom have some special gift for learning. He also builds himself and his family an adjacent, ornate mansion filled with secret passageways and tunnels to gazebos and such on far parts of the property. In 1936, shortly after the school has opened, Ellingham’s wife and daughter are kidnapped. There is one clue, a Dorothy Parker-esque riddle/poem signed “Truly, Devious.” Iris and Alice are never returned, although at least one of them is discovered to have met a tragic end, and the mystery of who took them and why has never been solved.
Stevie Bell has received an invitation to be a student at Ellingham Academy, and she couldn’t be more thrilled: Stevie is a true crime enthusiast, as well as possibly the world’s biggest aficionado and quite the authority on this particular mystery; and the chance to be on the property to expand her knowledge, search for more clues, and potentially even solve it is making her positively giddy. But when death revisits Ellingham, Stevie finds herself in an awkward position…
I really enjoyed this book. Stevie is a human, interesting main character, and the secondary characters are all just as quirky and well developed. The flashback scenes are gripping, and the present-day mystery is absorbing as well. But as I got down to the last 30 pages or so of the book, I began to realize that there were not enough words left in the book to reveal all the mysteries (past or present), and then…the cliffhanger. If it weren’t for the fact that I am behind on my YA reading and the sequel for this book just came out a few weeks ago, I would be howling with frustration about now! Instead, I ordered the second book and started reading as soon as it arrived.
The Vanishing Stair takes up only a few weeks after Truly Devious left off. Stevie’s parents insisted she leave the boarding school after all the drama that ensued, and she’s miserable back at home, once more subject to her parents’ oversight. But fate, in the person of politician Edward King (idolized by Stevie’s conservative parents and loathed by Stevie for everything he stands for), steps in: King’s son David, one of Stevie’s classmates at Ellingham, is acting out in a big way, and King’s theory is that returning Stevie to the school will act as a damper on David’s bad behavior and keep him there until he can graduate. Stevie has no such confidence, but the opportunity to go back is too amazing for her to quibble over the means by which she arrives—and thus begins the first of the secrets and lies…
This book introduces new characters, most notably Dr. Fenton, the author of some of the leading research into the Ellingham mystery, who hires Stevie to help her when she decides to release an updated volume, and soon begins to hint she knows more than she’s saying. She has an engaging nephew, worried for her mental and emotional state, who tries to enlist Stevie to help protect her. The familiar housemates and friends from the first book are also present and developed further, as is Stevie’s overall grasp of the mystery. But at the end of volume two, just as you are receiving some actual facts about the kidnapping from the horse’s mouth (Albert Ellingham), another cliffhanger ensues and the aforementioned howls of frustration are now truly aimed at Maureen Johnson’s head, because book three isn’t due out until sometime in 2020.
So…should you start this mystery series, knowing you will have to wait at least a year for its final outcome? Well, that depends: Are you a re-reader? Because there are so many tiny, important details about the mystery buried in both books to which the author later refers that I’m thinking I will be re-reading them to remind myself of those before assaying the third one, whenever the third one manifests. So if you don’t mind refreshing your memory, go ahead; but if you’re one of those who stubbornly refuses to read anything for a second time, then wait for #3 and have a long weekend of wallowing in the Ellingham mystery, start to finish!
I always find it interesting how one has a thought about something and suddenly that subject is popping up everywhere in life. This happens to me frequently with books: I will decide to read a book about Paris, for instance, and three more will come to me, purely by chance, after I’ve finished the first. This time, the theme was the Romany, otherwise known as travelers or, in less politically correct nomenclature, gypsies.
First, I bought a Kindle book as one of my “daily dollar deals,” called The Snow Gypsy, by Lindsay Jayne Ashford. I have always liked stories about Travelers, ever since reading Rumer Godden’s book The Diddakoi as a child, and following it up with Meridon, the last book in Philippa Gregory’s Wideacre trilogy as an adult. I didn’t read this one right away, though; my friend Bix had mentioned the other two books in the Chocolat series by Joanne Harris, and I decided to catch up with those first. But those introduced me to the itinerant boat people, including Vianne’s love interest, Roux, who seem to be some variation on Romany or pavees, as the Irish travelers call themselves, except that they travel by river boat rather than by horse and wagon. The French townsfolk of Lansquenet unflatteringly designate them “river rats.”
After finishing the three-book series, I went back and read The Snow Gypsy on my Kindle. Rose Daniel is an English veterinarian who specializes in alternative medicine for animals; in other words, she is an herbalist in her practice. Rose’s brother disappeared in 1938 in the mountains of southern Spain, fighting alongside gypsy insurgents during the Spanish Civil War. Rose knows that he had a love interest (or possibly a wife) in one of the villages near their base, and decides, in 1946, to drop everything and go there to see if she can find any trace of what happened to him. (She has, of course, an irrational hope that she will actually locate him, and/or possibly the woman and child.) She is on a collision course with Lola Aragon, whose entire family was murdered by the fascists eight years ago in one of those same villages while she was herding goats up on the mountain, and who rescued a baby girl from her dead mother’s arms when she descended and found the slain villagers. Rose connects with Lola, an aspiring flamenco dancer, hoping to get her help finding some trace of her brother and his family.
I enjoyed this story quite a bit, though it had its flaws. The parts I liked best were the details about flamenco (tantalizingly few, as it turned out), the herbalist knowledge Rose exhibits and learns throughout the book, the scene-setting in the mountain villages of Spain, and the lingering atmosphere of the Spanish Civil War that casts its shadow over all the characters. The coincidences were a few too many, and at least one of the relationships was hard to buy. I wished (in light of the title) that there had been a bit more detail about the Travelers—the few pictures that were given were evocative but not elaborate. Some of the details of the book that seemed superfluous became more understandable when I learned from the afterword that it’s based on the true story of a woman herbalist, so I reserved one of her autobiographies at the library and am waiting for its delivery.
In the meantime, my memory was jogged about another Traveler-related book that I read a few years back, and will mention here: The Outside Boy, by Jeanine Cummins. It’s poetic, beguiling, and different; a coming-of-age story, but within the subculture of the Irish Pavee—gypsies, tinkers, whatever name they are called by outsiders—circa 1950s rural Ireland. And within the already arresting picture of this nomadic people is the intimate story of Christy, who is at the brink of many unexpected discoveries about his family’s past and his own. I had planned, when I read it, to suggest this as a selection for my 10-12 Book Club—it was a real charmer, poignant and inspirational but also a good tale. Alas, I couldn’t get copies of the book in sufficient quantities at the time to make it work for the club.
That was my Romany serendipity; the following week, everything was about bees. Stay tuned…
Holding my breath…
If you don’t know this series, set your alarm clock for around June of 2020, start with The Thief, go on to The Queen of Attolia and The King of Attolia, follow the fate of the kingdom in A Conspiracy of Kings, get some necessary background from Thick as Thieves, and wrap up your reading just in time to celebrate the denouément of the sixth and last book in the most amazingly underrated series in the world of fantasy. Seriously. I’ve read the first book four times and the others three apiece. Do yourself the favor.
Answer in the comments—let’s trade reads!
I have read two books recently that dealt with the ideas, emotions, and results of bigotry, both focused on the Muslim experience. One was, somewhat weirdly, the third volume in the Chocolat series, by Joanne Harris, called Peaches for Father Francis (I reviewed the other two books earlier on this blog); the other was a newish young adult novel, A Very Large Expanse of Sea, by Tahereh Mafi.
The first was a story of clashing cultures trying to co-exist in the same small French village, while the second was the devastating effect high school ignorance has on one Persian Muslim girl in a sea of white kids, one year after 9/11. Both were powerful statements and, while quite different, arrived at some of the same conclusions.
In Peaches for Father Francis (otherwise sold as Peaches for Monsieur Le Curé), it is eight years after the events of the original book Chocolat, and Vianne and her two daughters have made a life for themselves in Paris, floating on the Seine in a houseboat with the traveler Roux, father of Vianne’s daughter Rosette. Then comes in the mail a posthumous letter from Vianne’s old friend Armande, via her grandson, Luc, summoning Vianne back to Lansquenet because “someone here needs you.”
It’s August in Paris, which means it’s stiflingly hot and empty except for the tourists, so Vianne decides to indulge the impulse to take Anouk and Rosette for a holiday in the country. Roux somewhat surprisingly decides to stay behind, in Paris.
What Vianne discovers when she arrives is that the derelict housing on the other side of the bridge from Lansquenet, near where the travelers used to dock their boats, has been appropriated by a rather large immigrant Muslim community, the Maghrébins, and although their occupation had initially been accepted with cautious enthusiasm by many of the other villagers, now factions have broken out on both sides of the river, and friction is growing. Somehow, despite their formerly oppositional roles, the solution comes down to a cooperative relationship between Father Francis, the town priest, and Vianne to solve the impasse and narrowly avert a war.
The characters and situations in this novel are masterfully drawn. While it still retains a bit of the magical realism for which the first book is known (the shadow of Pantoufle still follows Anouk), this third tale is deadly serious in its exploration of warring cultures, tolerance, and understanding. It clearly and sometimes horrifically demonstrates the degree of misperception that can exist when people make shallow and blatant assumptions about one another and fail to take either human nature or love into account.
The young adult book, A Very Large Expanse of Sea, was more problematical for me, partly because it relies so heavily on high school tropes, which become wearying after so many teen novels based on them; but the fact is, they do still exist, and are potent, especially for the teenagers experiencing them.
I found the protagonist, Shirin, confusing because she is so vulnerable and yet so hardened in her angry cynical belief that no one will ever give her a fair shake. Several things baffled me about her character, the first being that she spends almost a hundred pages (basically a third of the book) being angry about how people react to her because she covers her hair with the hijab; then, when asked why she wears it, her reason seems inadequate. Her parents don’t require her to wear it, and in fact questioned her decision to do so; while she celebrates Ramadan with her family, she isn’t particularly religious and doesn’t otherwise have any kind of spiritual practice; and what she finally reveals to her new boyfriend is that wearing the scarf is a control issue for her—she gets to decide who can see her hair. I was kind of stunned that she would put up with the treatment dealt out to her post-9/11 for such a stubborn but singular reason.
While acting and talking like she doesn’t care whether anyone sees and knows her or not, she seems completely blown away when her brothers’ friends, who are in the siblings’ break-dancing club (the side story of a break-dancing hijabi was one of the best images of the book), tell her she’s beautiful. This scene may have been constructed so that the black friend, Jacobi, can subsequently tell her that she’s also scary and mean, and that she has let her anger convince her that all people are assholes when in fact they’re not and she needs to let go of that belief; but the degree of her investment in her looks, after rejecting every superficial nice remark and compliment from absolutely everyone, felt a little off.
There is one raw-ly honest moment in the book when a teacher embarrasses Shirin in class and then keeps poking at her (after she cuts his class for three days) to find out why she’s so upset that calls out white privilege and is probably the penultimate speech Mafi wrote the book in order to include:
“I’ve been trying to educate people for years and it’s exhausting. I’m tired of being patient with bigots. I’m tired of trying to explain why I don’t deserve to be treated like a piece of shit all the time. I’m tired of begging everyone to understand that people of color aren’t all the same, that we don’t all believe the same things or feel the same things or experience the world the same way. I’m just—I’m sick and tired of trying to explain to the world why racism is bad, okay? Why is that my job? It’s not.”
But there are also a couple of bigoted remarks by Shirin herself—like when she somewhat snottily hopes that the boy who likes her will just give up and “find a nice blond girlfriend.” Ultimately, though, the book does a good job of breaking down stereotypes and misperceptions on both sides of the divide, and provides along with it a sweet, satisfying, and occasionally swoony romance. Most significant, perhaps, is the reaction to the book by this former teenager on Goodreads:
“Y’all mind if I cry? because if you’d told 16-year-old me that one day I’d read a NYT best-selling book where a Muslim Hijabi teen gets her own coming of age story and her own big romance instead of being the token (stereotyped) minority character or some cultural prop used only to further the writer’s favorite white girl…it would have made a world of difference.”
(Despite searching its pages, I have not figured out the title of the book: The boy protagonist has the unlikely first name of “Ocean,” but other than that, there’s no reference to a large expanse of sea. I’m sure it’s hugely symbolic and that I’m just being obtuse; if you get it, please enlighten me!)
I have either liked or loved and frequently recommended the books of Deb Caletti, ever since I discovered them in the Young Adult section. Hers can be thought of, I suppose, as a more mature version of the “soft read” so beloved of the parents of middle-schoolers, in that they tell compelling, real-life stories that are also frequently sweet. Her books are often compared to those of the ever-popular Sarah Dessen. But as Caletti’s career has progressed, the subject matter of her books has grown grittier and more real, even as she keeps the dialogue civil and mostly expletive free (something that is of much more concern to parents than to any teenager!).
Recently, she took a time out from YA and wrote a couple of books for adults, and although I read them, I found myself slightly let down. I can’t put my finger on why, but I didn’t connect with them or find them as involving as her YA books.
I waited, therefore, with both hope and trepidation for Caletti’s new offering for teens, A Heart in a Body in the World. Caletti talked on Facebook about how pleased she was with the book, its cover, and all the positive attention it was garnering, and I should have had confidence that she would deliver. I purposely avoided finding out the themes of the book and began it with no prior knowledge of its contents (I didn’t even read the cover flap), and the whole thing bowled me over.
The character of Annabelle was unlike yet familiar to me. As a woman (like most) who has had my share of difficulties, both in my teenage years and during the early years of adulthood, keeping men beyond the boundaries I tried to set—even while also guiltily trying to be nice and not upset or hurt anyone—I can see that this would be even more difficult for a beautiful, five-foot-three, 110-pound girl. (In fact, I believe that some of the large, ungainly, overweight girls and women like me may simply be attempting to reinforce those boundaries with our ponderous bodies, as we have come to realize that many men can’t be trusted to respect them, and that we don’t want to have to work so hard to do so ourselves.)
Caletti does a masterful job of letting the reader know that there has been a tragedy
here—perhaps a violation, certainly an event from which Annabelle hasn’t and may never recover—without initially coming out and describing what it was. The story unwinds along the road as Annabelle literally runs away from it—while hopefully running towards something else—and is revealed organically along with every apprehension, guilty feeling, and tic of Annabelle’s. Comic relief—or at least the relief of normalcy—is provided by Annabelle’s grandfather, Ed, her brother, Malcolm, and all the other people in her life who love her and are willing to support her on this journey. It’s a saga, a road trip, an adventure both internal and external, and it’s beautifully pictured and told.
For some reason, other YA books popped into my head as I read this. I wouldn’t go so far as to say they were similar, but perhaps both theme and feel suggest some affinity. The first is The Hate List, by Jennifer Brown, and the second is The Distance from Me to You, by Marina Gessner; one for the comprehension of just how deeply we can misunderstand other people and what they’re about to throw at us, the other for the sheer perseverance and determination necessary to undertake such an iconic journey alone, on foot, and dependent for the most part only on your own resources. Read
them—you might enjoy them as well—but definitely don’t pass up Caletti’s book, which is deserving of every award it has received, and more.
Since I will be teaching Young Adult Literature at UCLA for the library masters program there starting April 1 (after a two-year hiatus since the last time I taught it), I am scrambling to catch up on my YA reading. Although the class deals primarily with the history of young adult lit, I certainly want to be up to the minute on my knowledge of what’s new and popular. So I splurged and ordered a few books from Amazon to read and review during my ramp-up to the class.
I should have known, the minute that I heard Jennifer Lynn Barnes had written a new book, that it would be good; but when an author has done a particular kind of story well and then writes something completely different, there’s always the fear that the magic touch won’t hold up when the genre is changed.
I have read and enjoyed Barnes’s series The Naturals multiple times; I read the first two in the series with my high school book club when I worked as a teen librarian, and then was happily entertained by the remainder of the books as they emerged. I also enjoyed her series that begins with The Fixer, about political intrigue in Washington D.C.
When I saw that she had written a book about southern debutantes, I thought Uh-oh, partly because I have read two or three of those by other authors who took a perfectly good set-up and turned it into puerile insta-love. I should have had faith in Barnes: Even though the premise couldn’t be more different than that of a set of gifted youth working covertly for the FBI, Little White Lies is fantastic in every way.
The concept of starting out in the middle of a particular scenario on a particular day in April and then jumping backwards in ever-lessening increments (nine months earlier, three months earlier, six hours earlier) is itself designed to hold the reader’s interest: What happened today, and what led up to it? At some point, late in the book, when you begin to figure out what’s going on, you will undoubtedly (as I did) thumb back through its pages to read those one-or two-page interludes sequentially and get a giggle out of them.
The other thing that really separated this from run of the mill was the outsider status of the protagonist, Sawyer, The reader sees a slice of her world (regular, if a bit bleak), and then experiences with her the contrast between that and the one from which she originally emerged, and would have grown up in but for her mother’s rejection of that lifestyle. Her new knowledge of her family gets to be revealed to her in a way that both validates and contradicts her mother’s version of events; but her mother has raised her with the ability to judge for herself, and that’s what is important amidst the disconnect.
If all of this weren’t enough, however, you also get the bonus story of secrets, scandals, blackmail, and revenge, with all the anticipation and satisfaction those bring. This book is clever, witty, and humorous in the most perfect of dark ways. And although it stands alone, one tiny detail is left dangling temptingly at the end for Barnes to pick up and continue from, should she decide a sequel is in order (which seems likely, since this book is labeled “#1” on Goodreads).
What can I do but echo the most used phrase of the debutantes and their eagle-eyed mamas when I say to Barnes, “Bless your heart”?
The terms “magical” and “realism” seem antithetical, don’t they? If there’s magic involved, isn’t it fantasy? How can it be realism if there are magical elements in the story?
The literary movement of magical realism began with Latin American authors, and it has often been used by them as a genre of political subversion. The fantastic and magical elements of the story are presented as normal aspects of everyday life, thus putting the standard structure of reality into question; this allowed authors such as Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende to question the political regimes of their day without being instantly labeled as dissidents. Essentially, magical realism allowed these authors to show or even suggest an alternative to an accepted or established political reality.
As it diversified from the Latin American authors, the genre has taken on additional qualities, adding surrealism, with its irrational juxtapositions and combinations, and fabulism, incorporating fables and myths into a contemporary setting. Unlike fantasy or science fiction, which set up worlds separate from our own, authors of magical realism simply introduce into our world some slight distortion that forces the reader to question what is real and opens up additional avenues for our minds to ponder. It can be quirky and fanciful or fraught with significance, but the specific characteristic that makes it magical realism is the author’s refusal to define which elements are real and which are fantastical. It is for the reader to decide.
Some original classics would be One Hundred Years of Solitude, and Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel García Márquez; Like Water for Chocolate, by Laura Esquivel; and The House of the Spirits and Eva Luna, by Isabel Allende. Other more contemporary examples include Life of Pi, by Yann Martel; Kafka on the Shore, by Haruki Murakami; most titles by Alice Hoffman; The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, by Leslye Walton; and you could also include such offbeat books as Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore and Sourdough, by Robin Sloan.
Here’s the thing about recommending books containing magical realism: You have to be sure that your readers understand what it is and welcome its inclusion in the story, because they will either be delighted by it or they will be massively irritated. I am a person who has always enjoyed magical realism, and even I have a tolerance point beyond which I say to the author, “You’ve gone too far!” My breaking point, and it may be this way for others, is when the author begins to “fix” parts of the story as it unfolds by simply making things magical, instead of addressing the situation as it demands. When it is used as a crutch instead of as a delightful element or purposeful metaphor, that’s when magical realism can get out of hand.
All this has led up to my current reading, which is the trilogy about a French chocolate-maker who lets the wind dictate her destination in life.
Chocolat, by Joanne Harris, is a quintessential example of magical realism. It is especially potent because of the contrasts between the rural, parochial, cautious inhabitants of Lansquenet-sur-Tannes versus the mother and daughter who are swept into town with not only an ability but almost a mandate to upend everything traditional and narrow about the townspeople and insert some charm and whimsicality into their environs by opening a chocolate shop.
I had seen the movie version of this book several times, and so I felt I could dispense with reading it and move directly to the sequel, but it turned out I was wrong—the book has essential similarities, but also some crucial differences. So I actually ended up reading this trilogy in 2-1-3 order, which skewed my viewpoint of the books somewhat.
The first book is a nearly unalloyed delight. Using the device of injecting this footloose, free-spirited, pagan, magical woman into the humdrum life of a traditional French Catholic town allows the author to examine issues of tolerance and acceptance, religion, relationships, happiness, and even death in a serious but lighthearted manner. The touches of magic only serve to highlight these issues and keep the book from becoming too intense (and the constant talk of chocolate will have you noshing with one hand while you hold the book with the other).
The sequel, The Girl with No Shadow, on the other hand, was a puzzle to me. It’s four years later, and it’s clear that Vianne is fearful about something, though it’s hard to tell what or why. She and Anouk have assumed new names, their spirits have dwindled, and I couldn’t figure out how we got from the mostly upbeat Vianne at the end of the first book to the weirdly passive, unhappy, and self-deluding widow living in Paris at the beginning of the second. I became impatient at times with the levels of apprehension and timidity exhibited by Yanne, the name under which she now masquerades. She has developed a panicky need to be “normal,” supposedly for the sake of her daughters, that has left her open to the machinations of the malevolent trickster, Zozie, who shows up and essentially tries to steal Vianne’s life (and elder daughter) out from under her.
The story examines the debilitating effects of fear and the dangers to which it can expose us if we let it rule our lives. It also examines the sometimes desperate choices we make to obtain the things we need.
Even though she introduces some wonderful elements into the story, I so disliked the character of Zozie that it was hard to read about her triumphs and the way she insinuated herself into the lives all around Vianne. Ultimately I liked the book, but felt that it was a vehicle, a second designed to get you to the third—a long episode, if you will, to transition Vianne out of her fearfulness and back to embracing life.
I also felt that in this book, the author crossed that fine line from magical realism into manipulation. There was too much solving of problems with the flick of a finger or the drawing of a symbol, combined with an inadequate explanation of what magic was being sourced to do so.
I’m going to leave the discussion of the third book, Peaches for Father Francis, to a subsequent post, because it weirdly melded with a new young adult novel I picked up a couple of weeks later, and I want to put the two together. For now, suffice it to say that the third book documents a return to Lansquenet and also to the original spirit and intentions of Vianne.