Thursday, April 30, 2009

Thank goodness...

Chris Crutcher chose The Hunger Games over The Lincolns. Even though I liked The Lincolns, and I liked the first Octavian Nothing volume (I'm in the middle of the relevant one), I would have a really hard time feeling interested in a Lincolns vs. Octavian battle. That would be like Anita Silvey's ultimate fantasy of what the Newbery committee meetings are like.

As for what I think will happen... for once things went my way, so I'm going to cheat and repost my own comment from the previous BOKB post:

I just don't know what Lois Lowry is going to think. She generally goes for simpler prose, herself (although I think we all know the prose in The Hunger Games isn't exactly perfection), but I can see how, having written a dystopian book, she might have strong feelings about them and find The Hunger Games lacking. Or she could say "The Hunger Games is twenty times more exciting than my book!" and leave it at that. Or she could say "Anastasia would read and enjoy Octavian Nothing, but she would tell Sonya, Daphne, Meredith, AND Steve Harvey to read The Hunger Games. Katherine would have already finished it, and Sam would be swiping it from under her pillow." (Obviously, it goes without saying that Myron would vote for Octavian Nothing.)

(dude, did I possibly just write the first-ever Anastasia Krupnik fanfic?)

Sunday, April 26, 2009

If You Loved Twilight...

Or, actually, if you didn’t like Twilight, as I’m guessing most of the Six Boxes readership didn’t. But if you read Twilight, there’s probably a good chance that you thought you might like it, so this recommendation is just as much for you as it is for people who loved Twilight and want more books like Twilight.

I didn’t know whether I would ever get around to reading Twilight, but I had a reading-material emergency on a trip last week. I was delighted to be able to pick up something I wanted to read that would fill most of the trip right off the shelf at the airport newsstand. It was, pretty much, exactly as I expected: at least somewhat engrossing, but poorly written. But as I thought of the people I know who have been reading the Twilight Saga who ordinarily wouldn’t read YA--old college friends, my sister-in-law, and so on--I wanted to shout “Why are you reading THIS, when I could easily recommend a dozen YA books that are so much better?”

But I know, truthfully, that Nation and Jellicoe Road and The Green Glass Sea are not for everyone. The situation calls for something else that is engrossing and romantic and easy. The book I’m about to recommend is ten times the book Twilight is, but won’t scare anyone off.

It’s Both Sides of Time by Caroline B. Cooney, published in 1995. Like Twilight, it’s the first of a four-book series.

Both Sides of Time is the story of Annie Lockwood, a dissatisfied, romantic seventeen-year-old with a hot but boring boyfriend. Then she goes back in time to 1895, where she meets Strat and is swept off her feet. Strat is handsome, rich, intelligent, gentlemanly, and completely besotted with Annie, to the horror of his family. But his sister and semi-girlfriend reluctantly take her in, there are murders, there are beautiful clothes, there are scenes where Strat and Annie lie in the sun, there’s a scary and exciting climax, there are laugh-out-loud moments--really, it doesn’t get much better. And just like Bella, Annie eventually has to make a choice that could cut her off from her friends and family and life as she knows it forever.

Both Sides of Time isn’t, I know, a Great book. The writing is excessively romantic (and this is going to sound worse than it is, because I’m taking it out of context): “What power did she have to make him shiver every time he looked at her, and never want to do another thing in his life except look at her?”. But it’s peopled with characters who are real and, with a few exceptions, round. The bad people are truly evil, but almost all of them have hidden depths, too. Cooney uses just a few words to convey the motivations and emotions of her villains, which adds a powerful note of poignancy. The supporting characters are funny and fascinating, from the teenage sister who is both envious of and shocked by Annie’s free and easy ways, to the fluttering stepmother, to the Irish maid, Bridget, who works eighteen-hour days for small reward. And best of all? Both Sides of Time caters to the crowd that wants to wallow in otherworldly romance while remaining, unequivocally, a feminist book.

Seriously. Cooney manages this without anachronism.

In short: both books have appealing heroines, devastatingly handsome heroes, family troubles, murder and mystery, an element of fantasy rooted in the real world, impossible romance. Both Sides of Time is better-written, funnier, doesn’t take 498 pages to say what it can say in 210, and will not curdle your soul.

But, Twilight lovers, don’t hold those things against it.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

What do you suppose Katniss and Abraham Lincoln would talk about? Don't you love wondering?

So many great summaries of what happened this week in Battle of the Kids' Books have been written that this is a bit redundant, but I guess here is where I get to express any irrational opinions I might have. (And really, I swear! I'm not taking this seriously.)

No surprise when Octavian Nothing beat out The Trouble Begins at 8, but Tim Wynne-Jones's judgment is definitely worth reading.

As I said in my last post, I was both disappointed and moderately surprised when Chains beat out Tender Morsels. Frankly, I don't think the two books are in the same class.

Another non-surprise when John Green preferred The Hunger Games to We Are the Ship. I'm one of the few, as far as I know, who was pleased when Frankie Landau-Banks lost to We Are the Ship in the first round, but The Hunger Games is... as I believe I've mentioned, awesome.

Nancy Werlin surprised me by choosing The Lincolns over Graceling... at first. I sort of thought she would be more interested in Graceling because she wrote Impossible (which is, quite possibly, my best-loved book of last year--it's the only one, and I should be hanging my head in shame, that I've bought a copy of); but then I remembered how Impossible, while it's indisputably fantasy, is told in a very straightforward of-this-earth manner. I can see why Werlin might prefer a book like The Lincolns (and as it happened, that very day I was in Springfield, Illinois; I can report that The Lincolns is carried at the Lincoln Museum gift shop in small quantities, but not at the Lincoln Historic Home gift shop). Her decision summary is a pleasure to read, especially because she included thoughts about how she might have voted if the previous contests had ended differently. I'm still not convinced that The Lincolns is a YA book at all, or a middle grade one, or anything; it transcends age range, and I don't remember anything about it that made it seem like a kid's book. In fact, the Lincoln Museum had it with the adult books. So I'm not sure how well it goes in this contest, and I'm curious about whether that had any effect on the ALA awards.

I'm going to say something pedantic: next week Octavian Nothing is going to be up against Chains. Both books are written by white authors and have enslaved African Americans for protagonists. Isn't there something odd and possibly subversive about this? I know, it wasn't a deliberate choice on anyone's part. And I know both books have been praised for their research and sensitivity. But--still. I have a vague feeling of discomfort. Anyone?

I only need one bracket this week; what I want to win is also what I think will win.

Match 1: Octavian Nothing vs. Chains. I think Octavian Nothing will win. The judge's statements have all sounded firm and been true to my mind, while the praise for Chains has been there, but hasn't been quite as strong, and I continue to feel sort of emperor's new clothesy about it.

Match 2: The Hunger Games vs. The Lincolns. This is a hard one to judge; I would have had an easier time if the second book were one of my best-loveds, I think. I no longer feel like I have any clue about who's going to exalt The Lincolns's virtues (of which there are many, of course). But remembering how I hardly slept one night because I was too busy reading The Hunger Games--and knowing how that story has been repeated by thousands across the country--I have to think the judge will choose The Hunger Games. I didn't lose any sleep over The Lincolns.

Ultimate Winner: I think The Hunger Games will blow Octavian Nothing out of the water.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Why you should read Tender Morsels, even though the subject matter freaks you out

I was disappointed when Tender Morsels was voted out of Battle of the Books in favor of Chains. Judge Coe Booth ultimately made her decision based on the fact that she connected with Isabel in Chains, and while she thought Tender Morsels was great, she found the characters impossible to connect with. I thought this was interesting, because I could have written the exact same thing, reversing the two titles. I thought Isabel was a little cold and distant; she never seemed altogether real to me. On the other hand, several of the characters in Tender Morsels were so alive to me that I felt like I was breathing along with them. I had hopes for Tender Morsels to go further in the battle--and I really thought it would--but now that it’s not, I thought I’d give it some attention. I know there are still people out there who haven’t gotten past the book’s description.

Everyone knows about Tender Morsels, right? Incest. Forced abortion. Gang rape. Bestiality. People say it all the time: “How can this be a YA novel?” “Why would you want to read about something so horrifying?” And worst of all, “I wish she hadn’t made it quite so violent.”

On a blog somewhere--I’m sorry to say I have no idea what blog it might have been--the author of Tender Morsels, Margo Lanagan, wrote some things about her book that totally validated what I’d already been thinking. It’s great to have an author agree that you’re thinking about her book in the way she intended. But it also means that my thoughts aren’t altogether unusual or original. But this IS what I’ve come up with on my own, and any misinterpretation of the book (or Lanagan’s thoughts in that post) is, of course, my own.

Let’s talk first about how horrifying it is. Yes, in bald facts, we know what happens in the book is bad, very bad. But in the book, it isn’t stated baldly at all. This isn’t a graphic book; it isn’t any part of the phenomenon described as “torture porn”. The book doesn’t dwell on the incidents. Most fiction that deals with incest does it to shock or titillate; it isn’t usually wholly necessary to the story--and even when it is, it’s because if you took out the incest, there wouldn’t be much of a story left. And it seems to me that many well-known books that deal with rape do one of two things: either describe it too graphically, or are extremely circumspect, so the reader could be left unsure about the gravity of the situation. Tender Morsels does neither. What happens is clear, but none of it is graphic.

Tender Morsels seems to disturb many readers (actually, most of them are non-readers--either they abandoned the book after a short time because they were shocked, or they never read it at all, citing the descriptions) because of the category it’s in: quality YA fiction. I can’t help thinking it would be different if this were non-fiction (to my great distress, I’ve heard that the execrable A Child Called It is used in schools), or written for adults (are you really horrified at the idea of teenagers reading The Color Purple?) or low-quality horror (Flowers in the Attic, anyone?). I’ve no idea why there’s a different standard for what adult books are acceptable for teenagers to read, and what subject matter is appropriate in a young adult novel written for the same teenagers.

Neither of the authors who judged Tender Morsels in Battle of the Books fell into the trap of dwelling on the subject matter, though they both mentioned it. Booth says both Chains and Tender Morsels are survivor stories; Meg Rosoff commented that the fairy tale format made it possible to explore the unexplorable.

As to the pleading “Did she have to make it so horrifying?”, my answer is… yes. I’ve discussed above how in a way, it isn’t really that “horrifying”, because of the way that it’s told. But for the book to work, what happens to Liga has to be the worst thing one can imagine. And then something else terrible has to happen. Ultimately, I promise, this book is wise and uplifting. It doesn’t leave the reader thinking “the world is a terrible place”; it leaves you knowing that the world is a place where terrible things sometimes happen, but people thrive.

Does anyone need to hear this message more than teenagers?

(And just a note on the “bestiality”: I can’t help thinking people throw that in only to add fuel to the fire. This isn’t exactly new stuff. Just what did people think Beauty was planning on when she agreed to marry the Beast? OOOH. Bestiality. How terribly, terribly shocking.)

ETA: a better review than mine.

Monday, April 20, 2009

If I'd read this book when I was a teenager: How to Build a House

It's okay if you didn't love Juno. (I know, after everyone started loving Juno, loving Juno was no longer the thing. No movie is THAT good, including Slumdog Millionaire, except maybe Rebel Without a Cause, which lives up to and generally exceeds its reputation.) But you know how in Juno, amid all the patter (smart and funny or annoying, depending on your point of view), there are these moments when you're like "yeah, that's what it's like"? Like when Michael Cera's character says "Actually, I try really hard"? Those moments are all over Dana Reinhardt's How to Build a House.

I would say that I am wildly enthusiastic about this book, but then the emails about "it was good, but it wasn't THAT good" would start to come in after people read it on my recommendation.

There are too many things to run away from. There's what happened to Dad and Jane and how what happened to them happened to everybody in our family. There's Gabriel and how everything between us seems to add up to nothing. There's Tess and who she is and isn't to me anymore. There's the way I feel when I wake up in the morning in my empty house. There are the days I walk down the halls at school and I can't even hear my own footsteps. There's the space that's opened up inside me, blooming slowly, like a large black flower.

It isn't all angst, though.

I hate country music so much that I considered not coming to Tennesee. Homes from the Heart has other summer programs for teens. There's one in Guatemala. But I haven't heard enough Guatemalan music to know if I hate it or not.

Really, the book is both deeper and funnier than either of those quotes. I just don't want to give anything away.

My favorite thing about this is the authenticity of the summer program. The characters are real; some of the kids are cooler than Harper, and some aren't as cool, and isn't that how life really is? She forms a group of friends that are fun and realistic and funny without being quirky.

There's wisdom in this book, too. Harper learns a lot--probably more than a teenager could really expect to process on the spot--and yet it doesn't feel forced or preachy. It feels like the real conclusions Harper would have come to, given enough time.

I'll leave you with some extremely high praise: I think if I'd been able to read this book when I was a teenager, I would have been a better person.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

My Brackets Are In Tatters

Okay, considering that I had Nation winning in both the "What I Think Will Win" bracket and the "What I Want To Win" Bracket, though they took different paths to get there... Nation's loss to The Lincolns was shocking. To be honest, it's almost enough to suck the enthusiasm out of the contest for me. (But it's not!)

I'm trying to decide how mean-spirited it's OK to be here. I already had doubts about the idea of this author being a judge for this contest. I don't think her writing is the same caliber as that of the other judges, and issues have been raised about traveling pants and appropriation of another author's work.

So when she wrote the following, I was not impressed:
"My instinct was to base my choice on apparent effort, I guess, and The Lincolns represents a remarkable amount of it. The volume of research both in the text and pictures is admirable. And this is where one of Mr. Pratchett's great gifts caused the loss. His book feels effervescent, ebullient, exciting and . . . almost effortless."

What on earth? She based her decision, not just on effort--which seems odd in the first place--but on APPARENT effort? Is she a writer at all? Does she somehow think it takes less skill to write a book that seems effortless?

The Lincolns is good, though I thought it suffered from giving too much information--I say this about most books, but it was really too long and too much, in my opinion--but I just can't imagine choosing it as a winner in any kind of contest, serious or not, over Nation, which is wise, funny, entertaining, and very well-suited to its audience.

It was sort of a surprise when Graceling was chosen over The Underneath, but I had a difficult time judging that one--as I mentioned before, Graceling is really not my thing. I disagreed with the judge's comment that the violence and alcoholism of The Underneath belonged in a YA book, not a middle grade book; I could give her lots of examples in classic middle grade literature, and I really think this is a case where that stuff in this book bothers adults more than kids; but it's not a match I was really invested in.

Until today, things had gone pretty well my way. But now I must restructure my brackets.

What I think will win:
Round 2: Kingdom on the Waves, Tender Morsels, The Hunger Games, The Lincolns.
Round 3: Kingdom on the Waves, The Hunger Games
Ultimate winner: The Hunger Games

What I want to win:
Round 2: Kingdom on the Waves, Tender Morsels, The Hunger Games, The Lincolns
Round 3: Tender Morsels, The Hunger Games
Ultimate winner: yeah, that's another hard one, but I'm going to go with The Hunger Games. Tender Morsels has better writing, but The Hunger Games is tighter and more compelling.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

If I Stay: A Review in Three Parts

An unusual review follows.

My sister, my brother-in-law and I all read the new book If I Stay by Gayle Forman (Dutton, April 2009), and I thought it would be interesting if we all reviewed it from our distinct points of view. Laurie, Matthew and I are all Oregon natives (like the characters in the book); we're all around the same age, just a few years younger than the parents, which means we were teenagers at the height of grunge. Laurie is a middle school librarian; Matthew is a writer with a rock band past; I'm a registered nurse.

I'm going to be honest: this isn't what you'd call a glowing review. That isn't what I want you to take away, though. The point is that we were all intrigued enough with If I Stay to want to delve deeply into it.

If I Stay is a puzzle to me. Despite all the things that annoyed me about this book... it's moving, humbling, and, odd as it might seem for such a melancholy book, a pleasure to read.

I thought the writing in If I Stay was extraordinarily passive. Almost everything is "told, rather than shown"--and yet bizarrely, even while I was reading it and being annoyed by it and knowing that isn't how good writing is supposed to be, I couldn't help understanding that the tone and method of storytelling are exactly right for the character and situations. Anything else would be untrue or manipulative.

I'm a nurse, and I found the hospital scenes had a lot of jarring inaccuracies--always allowing for different hospital policies in different places, there were things that didn't ring true. I've never heard a nurse referred to as "Nurse Ramirez" anywhere but on TV, and the entire overlong sequence about who gets to visit Mia struck me as overdramatic and unlikely, all the way through where the family friend exerts her influence because she was once a student nurse (?!) in the hospital. But other touches in the hospital had great resonance; I was struck by a paragraph in which Mia talks about the disregard doctors have for their patients' eyelids. I don't know whether that paragraph might seem odd or unnecessary to some readers, but this, to me, is exactly what someone in Mia's situation would be thinking about.

Sure, there's a really odd sex scene, and Mia didn't change much from age 10 to age 17, and there are other flaws one could pick out. It really doesn't matter that much. If I Stay is a fascinating exploration of relationships, life, and death.

I didn't always pay attention in college, but occasionally I'd hear something outrageous enough to lodge in my mind permanently. Like the day my neighbor across the hall, a cello player, remarked that his cello bow had cost $5000. Even a mediocre bow costs several hundred dollars, he explained, and they are very fragile. He did not allow his friends anywhere near his bow, let alone the cello itself.

My point here is that a cello bow is very unlikely to be used as a sex toy. That is count one against If I Stay, although I guess that's no way to talk anyone out of reading it.

Next: Mia was reluctant to join the family jam session on the basis that the cello would not sound good with the rock guitars. This doesn't make any sense. There are dozens if not hundreds of good rock songs with cello in them, and Mia's dad would know that and would have been playing them since the day his daughter said the word "cello". (Here is one of my favorites.) I mean, she might still be bashful about playing with the family, but not for that reason. "And even though you wouldn't think it, the cello didn't sound half bad with all those guitars. In fact, it sounded pretty amazing." Well, duh. No instrument sounds more like the human voice than the cello. It goes with everything.

Next: I could see the end of this book coming like, you know, an inevitable car crash. I knew it would be sappy and uplifting and I would feel jerked around. I was right, and I was mad, but I was only mad because the book up to that point (aside from the cello bow part) was so unsentimental, which is hard to be when you're a book about a family tragedy. The writing is spare and quiet and forceful. The dad is as cool as I'd like to be someday. I wanted the good writing and the cool dad to support a story that would surprise me and make me think and make me not want to hit my head against something when it was over.

It didn't work out that way. But I'm definitely intrigued enough to check out Gayle Forman's next book and see if she can manage it there.

I expected it to be Adam: the effortlessly cool, very smart, and very perceptive guy in a rock band--just the kind of boyfriend I wished for when I was in high school. Or Dad, who transformed from rock musician to responsible-but-still-hip father and English teacher--and who is, of course, really the one whose age group I'm closest to. But when I thought hard about If I Stay, I realized that the character I most loved was Gramps. I love my grandfathers dearly, just as Mia does Gramps. My own grandfathers, and my father, are like Gramps. They don't say much, but every now and then, what they say is the most important thing in the world. The moment when Gramps tells Mia, "It's okay. If you want to go." Even though he wants her to stay so much that his heart is breaking. That's what this book is all about.

Almost every page of If I Stay came with a flash of recognition for me, usually for a person, because each character is a real person who reminded me of someone I know; and sometimes for a place, a Thai restaurant in Portland, or a rock band playing at the X-Ray Cafe. The lives lived in this book are familiar, making Mia's loss feel very personal to me. I don't know if this will resonate in the same way with teenage readers. It's a reflective and quiet book. The couple of students who have read If I Stay responded, quietly, that it was OK. (Granted, that's the most common response I hear, except for a select few titles.) While this is a book about love and death and rock and roll, it's mainly a book about a happy family. For some readers that will be enough.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Battle of the Kids' Books

School Library Journal's Battle of the Kids' Books is making me about crazy, and I get the feeling it's happening to other bloggers, too; the tone around the kidlitosphere is reaching frenetic. I have a bracket all made out, but every time I try to predict what's going to win, or what I want to win, I get jumbled. I've made markings on the bracket as to what I think will win, and separate markings for what I want to win, and I'm thinking about making a third set of markings for "what I think should win even though I don't really want it to". The matches are all difficult, and some are impossible.

Take, for instance, The Hunger Games vs. The Porcupine Year. It was my fervent wish that The Porcupine Year win the 2009 Newbery; it didn't even get an honor. On the other hand, any time I talk about The Hunger Games, I use the word "awesome" more times than is probably allowable by law. I had no doubt in my mind that The Hunger Games did not fit the Newbery criteria. But we aren't talking about the Newbery anymore. We can throw aside those constraints. So I don't know what to do. The Porcupine Year is a better book in so many ways, but... it isn't as awesome. What will win? What should win? What are the biases of the celebrity judge?

To my surprise, when I marked that match, I marked Porcupine to win and Hunger Games for my choice. I feel like I pushed my own sister off a cliff.

It's also humbling to find that I haven't read all the books, despite all the Newbery and Printz preparation I did last year. I read dozens upon dozens of books, but I still didn't read Ways to Live Forever, Washington at Valley Forge, Kingdom on the Waves, or Here Lies Arthur. (I haven't really read Graceling, but I read part of it and could see it Wasn't For Me, so when it didn't win any awards I put it aside; but I feel familiar with it enough to judge.)

Here are my picks at this point for what I think WILL win, except that I already know The Graveyard Book lost so even though I had that winning, I'm cheating and taking it out of the running.

Round 1: Kingdom on the Waves, Trouble Begins at Eight, Chains, Tender Morsels, Frankie Landau-Banks, The Porcupine Year, The Underneath, Nation.

Round 2: Kingdom on the Waves, Tender Morsels, Frankie Landau-Banks, Nation.

Round 3: Kingdom on the Waves, Nation.

Ultimate Winner: Nation.

What I WANT to win:

Round 1: Kingdom on the Waves, [Trouble Begins at 8], Washington at Valley Forge, Tender Morsels, We Are the Ship, The Hunger Games, The Underneath, Nation.

Round 2: Kingdom on the Waves, Tender Morsels, The Hunger Games, Nation.

Round 3: Tender Morsels, Nation.

Ultimate Winner: yeah, that's asking too much of me. Probably Nation. Yes, Nation. I think. Except I sort of want The Hunger Games to win it all. And I sort of think it will.

If you'd asked me what I thought would win and what I wanted to win, before I went through that process of considering match-by-match, I think I would have chosen The Hunger Games in both cases.

Abby has a great analysis of the first two contests.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Drop Everything and Read (aka Sustained Silent Reading)

Jen Robinson has reminded us that today is official DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) Day, in honor of Beverly Cleary, who is, I think, an amazing 93 years old today. (That's good Oregon pioneer stock for you.) For those who haven't picked up a Ramona book in too long, you may remember that DEAR was the daily silent reading time Ramona got to enjoy in Ramona Quimby, Age 8, although she preferred the more grownup name of "Sustained Silent Reading".

I'd thought that in honor of Beverly Cleary, I'd use this post to highlight a few of my favorite Cleary books--but when it came down to it, I simply couldn't decide which ones. Would I treat you all to my dissertative "Sister of the Bride as Feminist Treatise"? Marvel about how well Cleary, an only child, could write about sisters? Reminisce about my childhood longing to play Brick Factory? Tell about how I dreaded having to read all of Dear Mr. Henshaw for my Newbery Project, but ended up loving it? Attempt to convince my friends one more time that Jean and Johnny is one of her masterpieces, and the only reason they don't like it is because it hits too close to home and makes them uneasy?

Not long ago, my aunt told me, "When I first read Ellen Tebbits I felt like it had been written especially for me." Well, I was no Ellen Tebbits--I would have been the girl with the sloppy dress, not the bright, crisp sash--but Ramona was very comforting to me when I was a kid. I felt that we were misunderstood together.

I love three of Cleary's four teenage novels (I can't really stomach Fifteen), and I sometimes wonder if Ramona grew up to be one of those girls. She must have. Do you think Ramona was a Shelley or a Barbara or a Jean or a Jane? It's an interesting idea, but it's hard for me to imagine Ramona grown up; I don't want to think of her spirit stifled. Perhaps she grew up to be Winona Root from the Betsy-Tacy books.

Of those four teenage characters, which one do you think is most like a teenaged Ramona? Were you, yourself, a Ramona or a Beezus?

A final note: anyone who visited my college dorm rooms was bewildered and/or amused by my bookshelves (even though people frequently borrowed things like Madeleine L'Engle and commented on other childhood favorites they saw there). No title created greater amusement more consistently than Beverly Cleary's The Luckiest Girl. Forget the title, forget the silly covers; it's a very fine book, and if you've never gotten around to reading it, do it now.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Shock me, shock me, shock me with that deviant behavior

I continue to be really amused (probably a little too easily amused) by blog and Goodreads reviews that use the word "language" to mean "bad language" or "profanity". The usage results in hilarious-to-me sentences like this one, taken from an actual review: "I was disappointed that the author felt she had to put so much language in the book."


I'm not generally shocked by profanity in YA books--mostly, I don't even notice it. Often when I go back and read Goodreads reviews, I'm surprised if they mention "too much" profanity--I won't even have thought about it. (I'm much more disturbed by any use of "gay" (or similar) or "retarded" to mean "stupid", or the fact that there don't seem to be many YA books without alcohol scenes, even when there's no reason for them.) On the other hand, I'm not enthusiastic about profanity in most middle-grade books, usually because it stands out to me as being unnecessary and unnatural. It's possible that I'm not being fair to the conservative reviewers who want squeaky-clean YA; maybe they think the profanity in those books is "unnecessary and unnatural". But I always sort of assume that they think it sets a bad example for the reader, and I'm not really on board with that thinking.

Do you have a line you draw for profanity? How do you feel about it in YA and middle grade books? Is there a book you can think of that would have been better without profanity? Do you even notice if a book doesn't have any? (I can't say that I've ever thought "oh, this book is so unrealistic--none of the kids ever swear".)

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Strings Attached

Ten years ago a customer at the University Book Store asked me to recommend a novel for a teenage girl who was a musician. A YA book featuring a musician sounded like an easy request. So many teenagers are musicians, after all. Somehow, though, the search sputtered. There may even have been a reference to Little Women--Beth played the piano!--in my desperation.

Faced with that request today (booksellers and librarians always remember the ones that got away), I would now have two great novels to recommend. Is a duet enough to constitute a new girl-who-plays-strings mini-genre?

Violinist Patti Yoon focuses on being Good Enough--good enough to get into HarvardYalePrinceton, the pinnacle of her Korean-born parents' dreams. Patti sacrifices normal teenage fun for homework, violin, and church, until she decides to rebel--just a bit--and figure out what she really wants out of life. Good Enough is a Korean-American story, with the bi bim bap and bulgogi recipes to prove it, but it has a universal appeal for smart teenagers.

In If I Stay, seventeen-year-old Mia's cello *is* a rebellion, since her parents are laid-back rock music listeners. Mia's life is all about normal teenage fun, plus cello, until the day her life is suddenly only about IVs, tubes, and the four walls of her room in the ICU. Her parents' music, her boyfriend's band music, Mia's own classical favorites, all become a soundtrack as she hovers between life and death. If the "it's the next Twilight!" buzz around If I Stay turns you off, know that this is a small, powerful story about family, with real characters and an Oregon setting that will ring true to natives.

Musicians or not, teenage girls will really like reading about both Patti and Mia.

More novels about teenage musicians (via NoveList):
Bowler, Tim. Firmament.
Brooks, Bruce. Midnight Hour Encores.
Frank, Lucy. Lucky Stars.
Gilbert, Barbara Snow. Broken Chords.
Going, K. L. Fat Kid Rules the World.
Hughes, Mark Peter. Lemonade Mouth.
Okimoto, Jean Davies. Talent Night.
Simmons, Michael. Vandal.
Strasser, Todd. Rock 'n' Roll Nights.
Thesman, Jean. Cattail Moon.
Townley, Roderick. Sky.