Reader's Advisory, YA Posts

Reader’s Advisory: Two Boys Kissing

David Levithan’s novel Two Boys Kissing is loosely based on the true story of two young men who decided they were going to break the world record for longest kiss. The story follows the lives of a host of young men living in small town America. What sets them apart? They all identify as gay. Narrated by a Greek chorus of an older generation of men who died of AIDS, the book shows how the lives of the boys intersect briefly as they go about their lives.

While I liked the idea of a modern Greek chorus in theory, I found that Levithan’s execution left something to be desired. I understand that he wanted to illustrate a plurality of voices and, true to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s mandate, tell more than a single story. But it is precisely this aggregation of voices that I find both disingenuous. Levithan tries to accommodate for this, adding in disclaimers that try to differentiate between voices. But his disclaimers don’t change the fact that he has lumped together an entire generation to a single perspective. An entire generation does not experience, feel, think, or observe in the same ways. To assume, or even pretend that they might, is to do them a disservice.

Our class discussion today really helped me to better appreciate the story and what it might stand for. In our small group discussion, it was suggested that our experience reading the book would be substantially different than the experience a gay man or teenager might experience.

Researching the history of LGBTQ characters in the history of YA literature was eye-opening.  In a recent essay for OUT magazine, David Levithan acknowledged the unfortunate history of LGBTQ literature for young adults: “Tragedy and miserablism are no longer prerequisites for writing queer YA, and our literature is much more honest because of that, since tragedy and miserablism aren’t prerequisites for a gay adolescence either (present, certainly — but not prerequisites)” (link).  Considering the history of the way LGBTQ people, fiction or real, have been treated in Western culture, it is a triumph that this book exists. I am grateful that this book exists. But more importantly, I am grateful that we are able to discuss the book in terms of its literary merit, rather that just the sexual orientation of its characters.

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YA Posts

Where’s the YA? Why Our Required Reading Has Been So Hard To Find

Last week in class we discussed that many of the books on our assigned reading list have been difficult to find. Not all are available in the Western Library catalogue. The LPL has been missing a few of the key titles as well.  Chapters-Indigo has listed most of the books I’ve looked for as out of stock, both online and in-store.  What’s really interesting to me about this perceived shortage is that the titles we’ve been assigned are seminal classics for young adult literature. Many have been award winning, best-selling books. The stories are beautiful. The writing is of high quality. So why are these books so hard to find? Returning to Caroline Hunt’s Young Adult Literature Evades the Theorists helps answer my question, at least in part.

One contributing factor may be that Young Adult literature has “a striking lack of theoretical criticism” (4).  It makes sense that the Western libraries wouldn’t purchase or hold onto books that aren’t studied frequently. The idea of YA as its own genre is one that people have struggled with. As a genre, it shares some of the same issues as children’s literature, meaning that theorists, publishers, and even authors failed to differentiate between the two.  Censorship is common for YA literature.  These are decisions made by adults on the appropriateness of language, sexuality, experiences with drugs and alcohol and other “obvious taboos” (6) that are not present in children’s literature, but certainty important in YA. Hunt argues that theorists tend to defend the existence of the book instead of analyzing it from a literary perspective.  Caroline Hunt purposes that the category needs the time to pass to create more serious criticism.

Hunt notes that the marketing of YA titles has a huge impact on the longevity of titles. While children have books purchased for them by their parents, young adults tend to buy their own books.  Working to appeal to this quickly shifting demographic, current publishing practices tend towards more paperbacks, more series, fewer reviews, and multiple works by the same author with less individual authors.

The books that are popular with young adults tend to date quickly.  The language, customs, and sexual norms of young people have changed drastically from generation to generation. As a result, accurate portrayals of YA life date the book very quickly, meaning that enduring classics, such as S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, are rare.  As a result, it’s hard to nail down a canon.  Hunt purports that today, theorists are working towards constructing many canons, but that is it challenging: “[is it] possible for books to remain canonical after their readership has completely deserted them?” (7). Classics like Walter Dean Meyer’s Monster aren’t available in our school’s library catalogue because they aren’t been studied. They aren’t available at Chapters because they aren’t being read.

What can we do to change this? We can read the books, for a start. We can study them and write about them. As theorists, we can work to establish a canon. As librarians, we can work to introduce them to a new generation of readers through programs like reader’s advisory, reading groups, and library displays.  If a story is truly worth reading, it’s possible (and important) to keep it alive.

References

Coats, Karen. 2011. “Young Adult Literature: Growing Up in Theory,” In Handbook of research on children’s and young adult literature, pp. 315-29, edited by Shelby A. Wolf, Karen Coats, Patricia Enciso and Christine A. Jenkins. New York: Routledge.

A preprint available from author’s website can be accessed by clicking this link.

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YA Posts

Reader’s Advisory: Sabriel by Garth Nix

Sabriel is a 1995 fantasy novel by Garth Nix. It is the first in the Old Kingdom trilogy.  It won the Aurealis Award for best young-adult novel and best fantasy novel, as well as being an ALA Notable Book and a short-list nominee for the 1996 Ditmar Award. Regardless, I had a horrible time getting into this book. So bad, in fact, that I am still working on it.

Before the negativity begins, I will say there were a few things that I did really enjoy about the book. I love that it features a strong female character who displays compassion and intelligence.  The world is well developed — there’s a map at the front (who doesn’t love a good map?). The characters are interesting.  I know a fantasy fan would find a lot more to love about this story. But that’s about as far as I get.

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Sabriel Map

A lot of the book left me bewildered.  Why is time marked by Western calendar years — are we actually in the 1600s? Why does the map in the front of the book look like an inversion of Game of Thrones? For some reason, it’s acceptable for girls to travel alone, but they still have to go to finishing school. What kind of bizarre gender norms makes that possible? What is a Charter Mage? Why is there no glossary at the back of the book? Where is Gandalf to explain the parameters of this mission and give us some historical context?

Game of Thrones Map

Game of Thrones Map

I’ve been carrying the book around for the last week or so and was approached by a very enthusiastic fan that loved the series. I admitted that I was struggling to enjoy it.  It’s the magic, I complained. There’s no clear transition between magic and reality, and I don’t understand the rules of the magic. The fan (to her credit) thoughtfully considered before answering. She suggested that since she’d been younger when she first read the series, perhaps it was easier for her (and other readers who love the series) to accept the magic and worry less about the technical details.  While I’m sure it’s more than that, I think that’s a valid point.

I know there’s a lot that appeals to a lot of people about fantasy, and just because I struggled with this book doesn’t mean I wouldn’t recommend it. Garth Nix is well loved and this particular series is critically acclaimed, meaning that I’d definitely feel comfortable giving it as a recommendation. Reading the book, I have learned, can be about more than just enjoying the story.  I now have a better understanding of the book’s reading level and the intended audience. At the very least, I have a good grasp on elements of the story that might appeal to other readers.

Why is it that every fantasy book just feels like a rip off of Lord of the Rings? Is it because they all follow Joseph Campbell’s monomyth (the hero’s journey)? Or is that the point? For a certain fan base, it is that this story simply never gets old? Or maybe it’s just me – maybe I am the factor that has gotten too old, too analytical, and too cynical.

heroes_journey

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Reader's Advisory, YA Posts

Reader’s Advisory: Sherman Alexie, Full Time Indian

I’ll start by being honest: Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian wasn’t something I was looking forward to reading. It looked like a book for the kind of boys who played ‘cowboys and Indians.’ Judging by the cover, it was set somewhere back in the 1970s, something quaint and far-removed from the actual lives of Native North Americans, the kind of story that uses the idea of ‘Indian’ as a politically incorrect metaphor. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Part-Time Indian is a moving, poignant, and beautiful work that successfully navigates the thin line between devastatingly sad and laugh-out-loud funny. 

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian tells the story of Arnold Spirit, known to his family and tribe as Junior.  A 14 year old boy, Junior leaves his reservation to attend the ‘white’ high school 22 miles away in hopes of receiving a better education.  Part-Time Indian chronicles Junior’s struggles to make friends, hide his poverty, and find his identity in a hostile place that is shunned by his own community. I wasn’t far into the story when I became curious about the writer.  Alexie did indeed grow up on the Spokane Indian Reservation, which is located in Washington state, near Seattle. He left his reservation to attend the predominantly white high school in Reardan (actually called the Pembroke Academy). Like Junior, the main character of Part-Time Indian, Alexie was born with hydrocephalus and was bullied for his strange appearance. He excelled academically but struggled with his University career, giving up on medicine and law and eventually discovering literature as his passion. Now 47 years old, he is a well-known writer and poet and a ground breaking film maker.

Reading about Alexie’s life furnished several insights into the novel. While not as ‘absolutely’ true as it claims, the book is indeed semi-autobiographical, based loosely on Alexie’s own life. It began as a memoir and became a book for young adults. Understanding that so much of the story is, in fact, factual, made it all the more difficult to read. It made it all the more tragic and heart-wrenching. Reading about Alexie’s struggles during his university careers with alcoholism and anxiety made Junior an even more complex character. Like Alexie, he has left the reservation, for now. But the struggle won’t end. Like Alexie, he will never be able to separate his identity into  ‘part-time’ occupations.

The action figures on the cover vaguely reminded me of the Indian in the Cupboard (1995), which probably played a role in my initial reluctance to pick up the book. But the more I read the more appropriate they seemed. Those little plastic action figures embody the way Native American culture has been (and continues to be) tokenized and disregarded in mainstream popular culture. Alexie’s novel is a product of this disrespect: the Indians he writes about are bitter, angry, demoralized. Throughout the novel, Junoir struggles to connect himself to hope.  This is seminal in that is gives young adult Indians a voice.  It tells a part of their story. It is an important step in the right direction.
 
To learn more about Sherman Alexie and explore his other works, visit his official website at  http://fallsapart.com/
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