Monday, March 14, 2005

YA Lit Overview

It's safe to say that I missed the YA genre entirely when I was of that age; there wasn't nearly the market there is today, for one thing, and I was reading Piers Anthony and Tolkien and Douglas Adams and assorted other science fiction and fantasy almost exclusively from sixth grade through till college. So this semester's Young Adult Literature and Resources class has been pretty interesting ride. I've already covered some of the reading I've done on my own, so I thought I'd give a brief report on what we've read for class thus far:

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables; mostly I was amused by the young Anne's unstoppable motormouth. Been there, done that, I guess. On the other hand, as she got older and eschewed the imaginative play and story-making of her childhood I was disappointed, and I particularly disliked the budding love-story, since it was so boring and predictable.

We had the choice between reading Maureen Daly's Seventeenth Summer or Salinger's Catcher in the Rye; rather than re-reading the latter for the fifth time I decided to check out the former. Bleah. One has to take into account that the book was written in 1942 (don't be fooled by the spankin' new cover), and the fact that it was really the first book to address adolescent romance in any significant way, of course. But it's hard for me to relate to the kids who snapped up enough copies of this to make it a huge best-seller and to keep it in print even today. The protagonist, Angie, is incredibly passive and mannered, and spends more time describing the flora and fauna around her than she does communicating with the people she cares about. Her family was insular and repressive, and I couldn't decide who was more boring, her or her beau. Not my cup of tea.

S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders, on the other hand, was good stuff. I'd imagine that I'm one of a very few that haven't read this before. I knew something about it, and was expecting rumbles and switchblades, but not necessarily the depth of introspection which Ponyboy displays. I also liked the depiction of the family which Darry, Soda and the others constructed, which was both heartening for its fierce loyalty and poignant for what it lacked.

I can't believe I hadn't read Francesca Lia Block's Weetzie Bat before this class, but there it is; I hadn't. There was about a zero percent chance of my not loving this book. What's not to like? A goth-punk heroine, a grandmatricidal genie ex machina, and a guy named My Secret Agent Lover Man? OK, I'm a convert. Beautiful stuff.

House of Stairs by William Sleator waxes rather Behaviorist; five orphans are stuck in a maze of stairs with a machine that feeds them if they're good. It reads more like a thought experiment than a story, but the relationship between Lulu and Peter salvages the book by allowing them to transcend the "types" they start out as. Some interesting symbolism here, but the morality play feel is a bit grating at times.

If C.J. Cherryh wrote novels set in high school, maybe she would write something like Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War. I haven't felt that much tension from a novel since the first time I read Cyteen. After a high school secret society (well, secret in that everybody-knows-but-nobody-talks-about-it kind of way) orders Jerry Renault to disrupt the chocolate sale, he takes things a bit farther on his own. In some ways I don't think this book should have worked, since Brother Leon is so damned evil and Archie is never truly tested--and also because the POV seemed to drift a lot--but it worked for me. Not a fun read, but a good one.

Avi's The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, on the other hand, did very little for me. The author takes a big risk by starting out thirteen-year-old Charlotte as entirely unlikeable--she blindly trusts the obviously evil captain out of class loyalty, and is responsible for the death of a sailor. Then he tries to rehabilitate her. I was convinced neither by her turnaround nor by the tough-but-not-too-tough conditions she faced being the lone woman on a ship full of grizzled old sailors. The action was fairly well done, but the ending was both predictable and unbelievable.

In Rules of the Road Joan Bauer creates a compelling and entertaining story about people who are passionate about selling shoes; as unlikely as that sounds, I was completely taken with this book. The characters--the aging matriarch of a fading shoe company, and the teenage salesgirl whom she hires to drive her from Chicago to Texas--are likeable even when they're being stupid, and their problems are realistic even when the solutions seem less so. I'm definitely going to be looking for more books by Bauer.

I've already written about Ender's Game, so I won't repeat myself on that score. For the same week we read An Island Like You by Judith Ortiz Cofer, a series of shorts and short-shorts about Puerto Rican teens living in the same barrio in New Jersey. The stories have something of the morality play feel I mentioned above, but unlike House of Stairs the situations depicted are realistic ones. Overall I wasn't much bothered by the figure-out-the-right-thing to do structure because the setting seemed so true-to-life. A very quiet book, but not one that I would recommend reading in one sitting.

Monster, by Walter Dean Myers, is about a young African-American film student who is being tried as an accessory to murder. The story unfolds in screenplay format, which helps keep the fairly standard courtroom drama interesting; in the end the verdict casts little light on the actual culpability of the protagonist, but the distancing effect of the format made it difficult for me to feel much of a stake one way or the other.

Peter Dickinson's Eva is a surprising science fiction look at what happens when a comatose girl has her brain patterns imposed into the body of a young female chimpanzee. Eva's been raised around chimps, and so she is able to adapt to her new self (perhaps a bit too easily), but the question is not just whether she can integrate her human past with her chimp present; it's whether the two are compatible in the long run. It plays out somewhat predictably, but I've got to give Dickinson his props for not tiptoeing around the more sensitive aspects of Eva's situation; he never lets the reader (or Eva's parents) forget that she is more animal than human now, and in doing so he manages to pose a few questions about humans as well.

Sarah Dessen's novel Dreamland is a terribly frustrating look at an abusive relationship from the POV of the girl who's trapped in it. Caitlin is so drawn to the dangerous Rogerson Biscoe (get a load of that name) that when he starts hitting her, she can't seem to get away. I was frustrated by this book, primarily because even at the end I couldn't understand why Caitlin didn't walk away. I realize that this may smack of blaming the victim, but the nightmare of their relationship was so horrible, as Rogerson gradually pulled her away from her friends and her distant and distracted parents, that by the end I had trouble sympathizing with her, let alone believing that she was going to be able to avoid repeating the pattern. Perhaps this has as much to do with my own naïveté about abusive relationships, as a friend of mine pointed out when we discussed the book. I can sort of understand how one gets sucked into an emotionally abusive exchange, because I've been there. But when it goes physical I feel like the lights should come on, the skies should open up, the Exit sign should start flashing. I suppose that whether that happens or not depends on how well the abuser has done his or her job. The thing my friend reminded me of was that abuse is a pattern: first obsession, then isolation, then the hurting. If by the time the hitting starts the victim is a) madly in love and believes the other person loves them as well, and b) convinced that they've burned all their bridges and have nowhere else to go, then I guess I can sort of understand the trap.

This is all problematic because I found it much easier to sympathize with the male protagonist of Alex Flinn's Breathing Underwater, which showed the flipside of a similar relationship. Nicholas has been sentenced by the courts to attend Anger Management courses after striking his girlfriend; at first he reflexively insists that he hasn't done anything wrong, but over time he is forced to examine his own behavior and the sources of it. Perhaps my reaction to these two books has to do with gender; while I hasten to assure y'all that I've never abused anyone, I found it easy to relate to Nick's anger and the fears and insecurities that feed it. In the end Nick has recognized the sources of his rage and is making a real effort to change his behavior; I didn't feel that Caitlin was doing similar work to recognize why she was willing to put up with Rogerson's abuse. None of this is to excuse either Rogerson or Nick's behavior, but only to point out that there are two people in a co-dependent relationship, and that healing is more than getting away.

A bit less heavy than these two books was Nancy Garden's Annie on My Mind, a bittersweet sort of story about two girls in love. With each other, that is. The story is showing its age a bit (it was published in 1982); while I don't doubt that kids can still be as cruel about those who are different, I doubt that if this happened today that Ms. Stevenson and Ms. Widmer would suffer the same consequences. Annie and Liza are perhaps a bit too good in some ways, and the pit-bull Christian administrator and secretary a bit too caricatured, but the book has a very genuine emotional center.

For nonfiction week we read Pedro and Me: Friendship, Loss, and What I Learned, a graphic novel by Judd Winick. If the names Pedro Zamora and Judd Winick ring a bell for you, it's probably because, like me, you watched The Real World: San Francisco about oh-my-god-that-was-a-long-time-ago. Reading this was an odd experience, like stepping into an alternate Behind the Music-by-way-of-PBS version of the show, with occasional mediocre sitcom humor thrown in. I knew Pedro had died of AIDS, but I didn't know the whole story, and even though I thought I knew a lot about the disease I learned more from this book. It's also very touching, without ever quite crossing the line into exploitative.

Hm. For this week we're reading supernatural and horror titles, and one of them is In the Forests of the Night by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes. Rhodes was thirteen when she wrote this book, and that's an impressive achievement, but the book itself is not. It's standard vampire fare, heavy on the melodrama. Any vamp-centric episode of Angel or Buffy has done it better. Hell, the novelizations are probably better. A quick read, but a forgettable one.

Counterpoint to the vamps in Atwater-Rhodes' book are the werewolves in Annette Curtis Klause's Blood and Chocolate. Vivian and her pack have been forced to live in (gasp!) the suburbs, and things are confusing for her there. Like the fact that she's falling for a human boy, and that the pack is in disarray since their leader, Vivian's father, was killed. There's a lot to like here; the werewolves, Vivian included, are cocky and lusty, more in touch with their animal selves than we sad, polite humans. The fact that Vivian is hot shit and knows it is kind of refreshing, considering all the YA books about awkward young teens out there. She's still a teenager, though, and has the teenage way of thinking her problems are too big to tell anyone about--although, in relative terms, thinking you might have killed someone is a bit bigger than the average "Afterschool Special." I could have done without the neo-mystical/extraterrestrial speculation about the werewolves' origin, and the resolution of all the loving and killing comes rather easily and quickly. Not to mention that one could read some strange messages into the superior race stuff thrown around by Vivian and her family, messages which make the ending a bit disconcerting. Overall, though, not a bad read.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Okay, good. Now you know why I was so chuffed when I got Francesca Lia Block to come to my 36th birthday party.

4:41 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

Absolutely! (You lucky dog.) That may be the best book we've read so far.

1:42 PM  

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