Reader's Advisory, YA Posts

Book Review: Uglies

Highly Recommended

First published in 2005, Uglies is the first installment of a New York Times bestselling series, written by Scott Westerfeld. Uglies is narrated by Tally Youngblood, a teenage girl who lives in three hundred years in the future. In Tally’s society, when teenagers reach their sixteenth birthday, they are transformed by cosmetic surgery to be beautiful. After their surgery, the teens move to a new city, where they live without responsibilities or obligations. As the novel unfolds, Tally discovers that the operation, and the life you lead after it, isn’t as perfect as it seems.

The story asks important questions about friendship, bullying, and the socially constructed idea of beauty. It has opened up interesting conversations about using cosmetic surgery to alter your appearance. As a dystopia, the story also engages readers to think about political power and control, as well as privacy in the modern age. Westerfeld uses simple, obvious names to clearly incorporate dystopic and futuristic elements, using names like ‘Pretty New Town’ and ‘Uglyville’. He carefully describes futuristic inventions like toothbrush pills and hoverboards, making the world of the books easily accessible.

Shorter chapters may make this book appealing for reluctant or slower readers. The fact that this book is part of a popular series is another important appeal factor for many young adult readers. The covers on the 2011 editions on the series feature close-ups of female body parts and a delicate font, meaning that the books may appeal more to female readers than male.

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Reader's Advisory, YA Posts

Book Review: The House on Mango Street

Highly Recommended

Sandra Cisneros wrote The House On Mango Street in 1984. It is a coming of age novel narrated by Esperanza, who speaks life as a young Latina girl in Chicago in a series of short, poetic vignettes, organized into little chapters. The vignettes are punctuated with beautiful images, and simple, poetic language. The short chapters illustrate different aspects of Esperanza’s life in creative, thoughtful ways. One chapter is devoted to describing the different kinds of hair her family members have, while another compares the children in her neighbourhood to birds.

She describes her neighbours, friends, family and teachers, leaving much unsaid but revealing stories that are complex, thought provoking, and touching. Esperanza’s keen observations touch on racism, poverty, religion, gender roles, sexual assault and class issues. Cisneros’ writing is skillful and deals delicately with the heavier issues, juxtaposing them with humour, poetry and beautiful images.

An important and reoccurring theme throughout the chapters is Esperanza’s desire for a permanent house for her family. She also devotes many chapters to observing the role of women in her community, noticing that many of them are limited and isolated by their domestic roles and the way they are treated by the men in their lives. As the story progresses, Esperanza becomes increasingly committed to a living her life as an independent, unmarried, woman, using her writing to focus on her dreams.

While young girls who are interested in gender roles and class issues may related best to the story, it is a good recommendation for any reader who appreciates good writing. It may also be a good selection for reluctant readers of poetry, and is a good introduction to elements of post-modern storytelling. The House On Mango Street is a classic that should never be forgotten.

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Reader's Advisory, YA Posts

Reader’s Advisory: Purple Hibiscus

“Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity” (Adichie)

Purple Hibiscus tell the story of Kimbali, a 14 year old in post-colonial Nigeria. Her father is a ‘Big Man,’ a man who is incredibly wealthy. Her father is a devout, fanatical Catholic. Her mother is humble, timid woman, who “speaks the way a bird eats.” Her father subjects Kimbali, her older brother, and her mother to intense physical, and emotional abuse. The novel traces the slow disintegration of Kimbali’s family unit amid the political turmoil in Nigeria in the 1990s.

Purple Hibiscus is set largely in Nsuakka, where Adichie grew up. Both of Adichie’s parents worked and taught at the University of Nigeria, where, in the novel, Kimbali’s aunt is a lecturer. The University of Nigeria was the first autonomous and indigenous university in the country, established in 1955.  Nsukka, an intellectual haven that vies for democracy and social rights, becomes a safe place for Kimbali, a place of both peace and growth.

I was thrilled to see Adichie on our reading list. Her novel Half of a Yellow Sun remains one of my favourite books, ever. I wouldn’t call Half of a Yellow Sun YA reading by any stretch though, so I was surprised that Adichie had written a YA novel. Although a teenager narrates Purple Hibiscus, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this book to all young adult readers. The novel delves into very intense issues: colonialism, religious fanaticism, immigration, and domestic abuse. Adichie handles the more graphic senses delicately, but the portrayal is still deeply disturbing.

What is amazing about Adichie’s work is the way that she makes the country come alive.  Colours, sounds, smells, textures are vivid and real. She makes the Nigeria of her childhood come alive in brilliant colour. And true to her words (at the top of this post), she displays characters who have grace, dignity, and beautifully human flaws.

References

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. “The Danger of a Single Story.” TED Talk. July 2009. 18 minutes. Web.

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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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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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