Thursday, May 28, 2009

Maybe This Time

There's a series of books that I love, perhaps, better than all others, and it's being reissued yet again, thanks to HarperCollins. It's the Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace, and actually the first four books have been in print for quite a while, but the later six have been out of it and are the ones coming back in.

It's hard to explain, or even for me to put a finger on, exactly what makes these books so good. Even people who get past the fluffy-sounding titles and romance-novelish author's name sometimes have trouble letting go of their irony to see that these are actually GOOD, well-written books. Good on their own merits, not just as nostalgia pieces.

HarperCollins has been generous in their reissues; but the "high school" books were dropped because of poor sales. Now they're being returned in an innovative idea: the later six books are being published two to a volume. (With forewards by Meg Cabot, Anna Quindlen, and Laura Lippman!)

I think this is a great plan, though some of my numerous Betsy-Tacy friends are skeptical (we are always skeptical about any Betsy-Tacy related innovations; don't ask about cover illustrations). Why? Maybe this time, they'll sell enough... because maybe this time, they're long enough.

(You may remember that I mentioned "long" as being one of my guesses as to what makes YA novels sell well to wide age ranges.)

A bit of background: the series, fictionalized autobiography of a Laura Ingalls Wilder stripe, covers Betsy's life from almost 5 to young married life. There are ten main books. The last one ends where World War I begins.

I first read the high school Betsy-Tacy books when I was in elementary school, and I was sure not only that my high school experience would be pretty much like that, but that it was exactly what I wanted in high school. Dances, football games, pep rallies, a crowd of friends over every Sunday night. Then I got to high school and realized I would have hated, hated, hated going to Deep Valley High. I hate all that stuff and avoided it as much as possible. And yet I still like to read about it. Why? I think it must be because Betsy herself is so normal, so timeless, so much like me in spite of her pep rally attendance.

Freckles were fading out of a pink and white skin, the delicacy of which she guarded carefully.

"It's the only pretty thing about me," she often muttered savagely while rubbing in creams at night. "Straight hair! Teeth parted in the middle! Mighty good thing I have a decent complexion!"

As a matter of fact what one noticed first and like best about Betsy were her eyes, clear hazel, under dark brows and lashes. But her frown, as she tied on the sunbonnet, expressed disapproval of her entire physiognomy.

In Heaven to Betsy, which covers Betsy's freshman year of high school, you find the parties and pretty dresses, but there's a lot more going on. Betsy is anxious about impressing new friends, about doing well in school, about possibly changing church denominations. Are she and her best friend growing apart? Is it disloyal to like new things better than old, beloved things? Why isn't she prettier?

The Betsy-Tacy books will poke your nostalgia button, for sure, and if you love descriptions of vintage clothing and elaborate hairstyles--well, you've probably already read them. But if you're looking for solid, time-tested YA, for quality writing, for affirmation that teenage girls have been the same for at least a hundred years, hang up your irony and read Heaven to Betsy. And then hand it to any middle school girl you know.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Two Books I Loved This Month

I'd wanted to read Jennifer Bradbury's Shift for a long time; lots of people recommended it to me, sometimes without even having read it, because they know I'm into cycling. My longest trip so far has been three days/150 miles--nothing even close to the two months/multiple thousand miles covered by Chris and Win in Shift--but it was enough to give me a taste; enough to be able to assure you that Shift is brimming with authenticity. The never-know-what's-going-to-happen excitement, the shifts between wanting to ride together and feeling like it's too much trouble, and most of all, the instant awesome-cred you get when people find out that you're on a bike trip--Bradbury captures it all, with a fresh and easy tone that never makes the book feel like it's a thinly-veiled recap of her own (significant) bike adventures.

Shift is a bike trip story, a college story, a mystery. Why did Win abandon Chris just a short ride from the end of their journey, and where is he now? I had some theories, but I wasn't ever exactly sure. Bradbury mentions Chris McCandless early on (that's the Into the Wild guy), which pleased me, because of course someone like Win would know all about Chris McCandless and spend a lot of time thinking about him. Mentioning McCandless might be a little bit risky, because readers might have said "just a riff on Into the Wild", but instead I think the name-drop makes the world of Chris and Win seem more real, more like the one I live in. (Except that McCandless was not found frozen solid, as a character states--it was midsummer--but I accepted that because the character wasn't an expert, like Win was.)

In an interview, Bradbury said this was about friendship in general, not specific to boys. I was surprised, because one of the elements I loved best was that this seemed to me a really accurate portrayal of boy best friendships. I don't know how Bradbury did it, but this is one of my favorite male voices since Rats Saw God. And I would never believe a story that unfolded the way this one did if it had been about two girls.

Shadowed Summer by Saundra Mitchell is just a few months old, and is creating big excitement. I'm afraid to say much of anything for fear of spoilers. Eventually, I'm sure, this book IS going to be spoiled; read it now before you know too much. You don't even want to know what the general themes and plot elements are.

People are definitely agreeing that Shadowed Summer has a terrible cover. We complained because The Underneath had a cover that looked cozy on a book that was sad and hard-hitting; the cover of Shadowed Summer is worse, because it has a cover that looks like it belongs on a bad book on a good book.

It was already on my to-read list(here's the review that made me want to read it originally), but a review from my friend Claire made me hop on a bike in the rain and ride ten miles round-trip in the rain to pick up a copy immediately. (Seriously, no hyperbole.) Claire didn't even say anything--just rated it five stars and marked it "love-love-love". I had to know right away what it was about this ordinary-looking book that made her praise it so highly. A few hours later, I knew.

Shadowed Summer--in which three young teens try to solve an old mystery in their town--has a lovely Southern voice and a dreamy quality that's not overdone. The mystery isn't obvious; there are scary moments. Up until close to the end, I was thinking that it was a good mild suspense story. Then something surprising is revealed, but it's the kind of surprising that hits you because it makes total sense--and it also turns the book into something much bigger and more important than you'd ever have thought.

Read this book now, then pass it around to middle schoolers of your acquaintance. It's possible we'll be hearing more about this one come awards season.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Pious YA

Lots and lots and lots of teens are very religious Christians. Are there books for them in mainstream YA literature, or is YA a vast wasteland of inappropriate content and unrelatable characters? I read two books recently with Evangelical Christian protagonists: Evolution, Me, and Other Freaks of Nature by Robin Brande, and the brand-new Pure by Terra Elan McVoy.

(A note about terminology: "Evangelical Christian" is perhaps not the right term, but it's the best one I can come up with; it's what evokes the way religion is treated in these books for me. Tabitha in Pure is probably a mainline Protestant, but her beliefs and ways of expressing them are similar to that of evangelicals I have known.)

I picked up Evolution because I read a blog review that said this had a lot of "Christian-bashing", and I was curious to see if I thought this was true, or a case of someone taking offense where there's none to be found. It's the story of Mena, who was kicked out of her church (and, therefore, alienated from all of her friends) for getting the other kids in trouble when they harass a boy at their school. Mena's friends' next project is to keep evolution out of their biology class, and Mena finds herself unsure what to think either about her friends or about evolution. She falls in with a group of politically active students (including an awesome boyfriend) and--I'm sure this is not really a spoiler--ends up being able to reconcile her religious beliefs with evolution, based on stuff she finds in the Bible and advice from a teacher who really shares way too much with her student (my main quibble with the book; this part was both uncomfortable and incredibly didactic, and felt like a liberal-religious tract). While Mena sort of abandons her previous belief system for a liberal Protestant attitude, I didn't find any Christian-bashing whatsoever, only bashing of cruel behavior and unthinking obedience. It is, in fact, a pro-Christian book, and I think might be an uncomfortable read for a teenager who wasn't. I liked that Mena mentioned just a couple of times that she's planning to "wait for marriage"; it isn't a focus of the book, but she doesn't necessarily act like it's going to be a piece of cake.

That IS the focus of Pure--the hot topic of purity rings, True Love Waits style. Pure is a muddled book, with characters that aren't fleshed out well and a crazy climactic school assembly where every club from the Model UN to the Golf Club performs an elaborate and meaningful presentation (I could write a whole post about the strangeness of this scene, but I'll just say that it felt like School Assembly Ex Machina and was not unlike one of my favorite parts of High School Musical, except without the semi-unintentional hilarity). The protagonist, Tabitha, does talk about her religious beliefs quite a bit, but they never felt quite sincere to me; I could only read her as a girl who firmly believes in purity rings now but will abandon the whole idea by the time she gets to college, if not sooner. And I felt like the book was somewhat mocking toward the girl who has the strongest belief in her purity ring. (Okay, I wanted to mock her, too. But still.) Despite those things, there isn't really a lot of nuance to the book; it always felt like a book written around a topic. I think it'd be more likely to be of interest to junior high girls, who might notice less--IF their parents will let them read it. (I hated the cover, which I thought was inappropriately suggestive and very likely to turn off the parents of the very girls it's aimed at.) Here's a review with a different opinion.

Reading both of these books, I thought that neither was the right book for evangelical Christian high schoolers; neither is really that accepting of and kind to that belief system. It's a cliche, but I guess what I'm looking for is a YA book with a very religious Christian protagonist that's about something other than religious belief; that shows a group of friends similar to those in the lives of the intended readers. Maybe, if YA is going to reach these kids, they should just stick to the non-religious but innocent YA, like Jennifer Bradbury's Shift or stuff published before 1970.

I can think of a few books that might fit in, like Paula Yoo's lovely Good Enough, but maybe that has too much rebellion. Still--isn't that really one of the defining things about YA, the beginning of serious separation between kids and parents? And if that's the case, is mainstream YA ever going to satisfy? Should it be left to the Christian imprints to try? What YA would you recommend to devoutly Christian teens, if your aim is only to help them find books that reflect their lives?

Monday, May 18, 2009


I just finished a semi-traumatic weeding of my books.

Theoretically, I have stiff standards and criteria for weeding my personal collection that I believe in quite strongly. When I'm wondering whether I want to keep a book, I think to myself: will I be able to get it at the library? do I love it so much I want to be able to read it at any time? if I had a question about something in this book at midnight, would I need to be able to look it up right away? (thanks to Melody for that one) do I really love this book, or did I just kind of enjoy reading it once or twice?

Anything that doesn't meet those criteria should, theoretically, be tossed into the weed-box.

It is SO MUCH HARDER than that. I was just visiting my sister Laurie, who is the best book-lover I know at getting rid of books; it's always inspiring to see that they have a whole shelf on a bookcase that is just for LIBRARY books. I don't know that I've ever had an empty bookshelf anywhere I've lived. So I tried to adopt Laurie's steel this morning.

Today it was the childhood book collection. I didn't have a great many books when I was a kid, so every book was precious. I tried to let go out of that feeling and remind myself that I have MANY books now. It isn't that it's still hard to get rid of books in general, but those few books that were the precious ones--if I let myself think about it enough, it feels like a betrayal of my childhood self to weed them. I also always used to think that it would be awesome to have tons and tons of books, like Vicky Austin's grandfather or the libraries you sometimes see on TV; now that doesn't seem desirable at all. (Especially since I'm about to move for the second time in 2009, and I don't expect to stay where I'm moving for the rest of my life, or even many years.)`

I got rid of a large box, and those shelves haven't been so empty in years. But it took three passes. There were some that were obvious on the first try: 90s paperbacks I only read once, three copies of Beverly Cleary's Fifteen (sometimes people pick up books for me, saying "didn't know if you had this one", and set them on that shelf), Agatha Christie mysteries I took to summer camp. But there were many others I had to think hard about: why was I reluctant to give this up? I'm ashamed at how often I don't want to weed a book, even if I've upgraded to a nicer copy and this is now a duplicate, because it's the copy I read (and reread and reread) first, and I love the cover. And there was Roald Dahl's Matilda: often when a book fair came to school I was allowed to choose one book, and one year I chose this. I read it several times, but I don't love it now, and it will always be in the library if I should want it. But it's hard to forget how I pored over all the books at the book fair and finally decided this was the book I wanted more than any other. Eventually, it went into the discards. (I kept The Witches, though.) These were the kind of books that left on the second pass. On the third pass, I tossed out books like Little Women. It's easy to pass over books like that because you think "Little Women, that's a classic, moving on to The Great Mom Swap..."

I decided several years ago to stop thinking about value when I weeded books. Some of my books, mostly the nurse books and the vintage teen romances, are worth something; taken together, my book collection could be worth quite a bit. But the trouble of trying to sell them just isn't worth it to me, so I just base my decisions on whether I want the books or not. Still, there are some things that bewilder me. What about the ex-library editions? The bookstore won't take them; I could certainly sell them on ebay or just to online friends, but as I say, it's more trouble than it's worth to me. (That includes letting someone else take a cut for selling them for me. I just don't want to deal with it.) I ended up leaving them alone, so there are a disproportionate number of ex-library books I don't want still on the shelves. Also any number of beat-up paperbacks that are too beat-up for Powell's, but not bad enough to recycle.

I have ways of evading weeding. I tell myself "this book isn't mine to weed; it's really my sister's". But I've been forcing myself to think: did my sister leave this behind on my shelves when she left home, or did she not? has she ever expressed interest in picking up her old books from home? do you really think she would put this on her shelves now if she had it? The answer is always no.

Perhaps hardest of all: the Nancy Drew books. I liked Nancy Drew a lot when I was a kid, and I have quite a lot of them, mostly in my favorite matte yellow binding. In all previous weeding expeditions, I've never once considered getting rid of the Nancy Drews, even though I also never consider reading them. Today I thought: why? I'm not likely to read most of them ever again. I don't know that I'll have any kids who'll want to read them. It's nice to think that maybe someday my nieces will like coming over and reading the Nancy Drews, but odds are perfectly good that none of them will be interested, and the occasional read by a niece hardly seems like good justification for keeping three-odd feet of hardbound books around. (Besides, I tell myself, my nieces will be MUCH too busy when they visit me to read; they'll only want to do stuff like help me make jam, ask me to teach them to sew, beg me to help them identify the wildflowers on my property, and go wading in my creek, right? Then we'll eat pie, and they'll tell me that visiting me is the best thing ever.)

But I think I'm going to put off a Nancy Drew decision for a while longer.

How are you, with weeding your personal collection? What are your peculiar hangups?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A couple of notes

1. It's probably a good thing that no one but me knows how often I want to respond to a book review (mostly on Goodreads) with "You have fundamentally misunderstood the point of this novel."

I wonder how often people want to respond to MY 1- and 2-star reviews that way. I would like to deny that I ever dislike books just because I fundamentally misunderstand them, but I assume I probably do.

2. Melissa over at Kidliterate has a great post about the word "retard" in books. You can read my comment there, but I'll repeat here: How does this get a pass from multiple readers before publication? Authors, editors: even if you don't care that this totally offends me, please understand that I automatically lose sympathy for and identification with the character when they use this word, and I also assume the character is unintelligent.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

So what would you recommend?

As expected, I'm getting lots of hits from people looking for "books like Twilight" now--probably about half the search hits are along those lines. I don't know exactly how the Google Analytics data is gathered, but most people who find this blog through that search don't seem to spend any time reading posts; of those who do, I wonder, are any of them actually going to READ Both Sides of Time?

(I suspect that Both Sides of Time has one major drawback: it's too short. It's a normal YA novel length, which means it probably looks like a "baby" book. I hold that the main thing that makes Twilight acceptable for mainstream adults is that it's big. Not that this is YA, but my uncle once made a disparaging comment about the Clan of the Cave Bear series that makes me laugh every time I think of it: "I always think those books are for people who want to feel like they're reading really Big books." Like their length imbues them with the characteristics of quality literature. Yes, my uncle and I are kind of elitist. But then, I've read all of Jean M. Auel's books, more than once. Maybe I'm a wannabe elitist.)

I want to offer these Twilight-searchers more. If someone came to you asking for recommendations for "romantic books just like Twilight", what would you recommend?

It's a difficult thing, the art of making book recommendations, especially phrased in terms of "can you recommend another book like..." Kind of like I mention in my previous post, my idea of what's interesting about a book will be completely different from someone else's, even though we both like it. So I can recommend a book, and the recommendee will come back and say "Why did you recommend this to me? It's NOTHING like [fill-in-the-blank]".

Is The Cheerleader a romantic book like Twilight, or is it too intellectual, with the added "drawback" of being historical fiction? What about Gone With the Wind--is that an epic romance, or is it an accounting of battles fought and casualty lists published and cotton picked? For that matter, shouldn't The Valley of the Horses (second Clan of the Cave Bear book) appeal to people who loved Twilight, or will they be bored by the lion-taming and fire-starting and endless recountings of Pleasures, both human and animal?

Seriously, what would you recommend? It doesn't have to be fantasy, or even necessarily YA, or necessarily long. It just has to be "romantic". (Um, and despite my mention of Auel above, well-written would be great. Actually, The Valley of the Horses isn't THAT bad, or anyway it could be worse, as you can observe later in the series.)

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

I'm sort of afraid to read Catching Fire.

A big hooray for The Battle of the Books going to The Hunger Games. It was so close to being a no-brainer that I was afraid it might not happen. I was interested to see that Lois Lowry actually read all sixteen books, and that her favorite was Tender Morsels. But for a really good explanation of what's so great about The Hunger Games, read the response from Octavian Nothing author MT Anderson.

I'm still going to read the second Octavian Nothing. It's right here on my bed. Really. I even took the precaution of putting the SASS book I'm also reading out of reach so I'd read Octavian Nothing before I fell asleep. Sometimes I wonder--would I struggle so much with getting around to Octavian Nothing if I hadn't been told what a struggle it was? Or would I have given up long ago? I'll be honest; I don't like to work very hard for my reading material. The first Octavian Nothing wasn't much of a struggle once I got into it, and I was even looking forward to reading the second... until I picked it up from the library and saw that it's even more massive.

My one suggestion for the Battle of the Books organizers: compress things a little next year. I guess it's necessary to have a certain amount of time available for the authors to read the books and write their decisions, but... the first week was almost too exciting, the second week was great, and after that it sort of petered out; I don't think I'm the only one, judging by blog responses. I do think it was absolutely necessary that the 16 books be books many of us were familiar with already--it wouldn't be nearly as interesting if half of them were good unknowns.

But The Hunger Games won, for the same reasons I've recommended it to pretty much everyone I know, except for a couple who are really, really squeamish. And my friend Kathryn, an astute reader, voiced something I hadn't dared think about. Is Catching Fire really going to measure up? Could it possibly? And what will that do to my enjoyment of The Hunger Games? Many people have commented that The Hunger Games isn't the sort of thing I usually read (I'm not into violence or, in a way, fantasy--although there aren't any dragons, so it's not really a problem for me), and I'm afraid that Catching Fire could go right ahead and be Not My Thing. What I remember loving about The Hunger Games was the reality TV parallel and the general Girl Scoutiness of the whole thing. Will those be relevant to Catching Fire?

One of my very favorite books is sort of a fantasy novel, and although I love everything about it and you couldn't say I love it "in spite of" the fantasy, it comes pretty close. I love it so much that I was sure I would love the author's other books--but they turned out to have all of the fantasy and little of what I loved, and I wish I hadn't tried to read them.

Or it's kind of like how I loved the first season of Friday Night Lights, so I thought I would read the book. Then I discovered the book was actually about football. (I still haven't finished it.)

Catching Fire, just what sort of book ARE you?