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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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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