End of Year Mini Reviews: Saints, Aya, and The House of Hades

I haven’t written a proper review since October?! That’s just not on. Especially considering I have read a ton of books since then. Me and this blog have a lot to hash out in the next few days/weeks. In the meantime, here are some mini reviews.

Saints by Gene Luen Yang

1. Saints by Gene Luen Yang – This is half of a two-part series about the Boxer Rebellion in China. I thought the two books would come in together, but I guess whoever had the first book wasn’t done with it. I was planning to read them as a set, though.

What I liked about this book is how small in scale it is, even though it deals with a huge conflict. Saints follows Four-Girl as she discovers Christianity and leaves her family’s home. I really liked that she is not really directly engaged with the rebellion and is instead just trying to figure out her place in the world. The rebellion does directly touch her life, but the focus of the novel is on her day-to-day struggle to fit in with her family and community. So often stories about war are, you know, about war, so that was a pleasant surprise. Another unexpected and interesting approach Yang takes is with regards to Four-Girl’s conversion to Christianity. It’s less about spirituality and more about protection and rebellion. As far as the art goes, the graphics are delightful as usual. I love Yang’s artistic style.

 

Aya in Yop City by Marguerite Abouet

2. Aya: Life in Yop City by Marguerite Abouet (illustrated by Clément Oubrerie) – It took me a little while to get into this slice of life graphic novel set in the Ivory Coast during the late 1970s–mostly because the artwork inside the novel isn’t quite as detailed as the cover, so that was disappointing. The novel also doesn’t really have a clear plot right away; it mostly establishes the setting and relationships in the beginning. Once the relationships and setting are established, the drama starts to pick up, and I became much more interested. The main takeaway of course is that people are the same everywhere. Some of the cultural mores are different, yes, but, in general, Aya and her friends/family deal with family, work, and societal drama. There’s a “who’s the daddy?” plot, a plot about a boy who disappoints his father, several plots about infidelity, etc. I mean, you know, the usual. By the end I was engaged, but I’m not necessarily interested in picking up the next part of the collection.

 

House of Hades by Rick Riordan

3. The House of Hades by Rick Riordan – I continue to be delighted by this series and by Rick Riordan. The best part of this book is that all of the demigods get a chance to narrate so the story feels more balanced, and a lot of character development happens. I have to give Riordan props for anticipating my needs/wants as a reader as well. At one point, I found myself thinking, “Man, I really miss [specific character]” and then that character showed up within a couple of chapters. I also started getting annoyed with how heteronormative all of the characters/relationships are, and then he introduced a gay character. So I have much respect for Riordan as an author based on those two instances alone. Also: plot, characters, etc. I’m also starting to warm up a lot more to the characters I didn’t feel a proclivity towards, so that’s nice as well. I’m looking forward to seeing how everything shakes out.

I did read more books than the three featured here, but I’m trying to figure out the best way to discuss them. Mostly, with them, I’m concerned with certain patterns or trends I noticed, so they aren’t really fit for typical reviews, I think. We shall see.

Book Review: Son

The Product was what they had carved out of her.

And she missed it. She was suffused with a desperate feeling of loss.

I feel like Son by Lois Lowry is a gift to readers of The Giver. Well, that’s not true. I feel like the first two parts of Son are a gift. I feel like the last part is more of an epilogue for readers who want to know more about Jonas, Kira (of Gathering Blue), and Gabriel and what happened to them.

That’s my way of saying I absolutely LOVED the first two parts of the book and liked the last part okay.

Here’s what I loved:

– Claire. Claire is awesome. She’s so fully drawn and realized. Her heartbreak is my heartbreak. Her triumph is my triumph. Claire is the best.

– I loved revisiting the community from The Giver. I especially liked seeing it from another perspective and learning more about how other parts of the community Jonas couldn’t/didn’t see operate. I wonder, now, how many other people stopped taking their pills or flirted with learning more. How many others had a dissatisfaction. And what about the people who enforced and made the laws? So many more possibilities opened up once I read about the community again.

Although, wow, that place is so heartbreaking. The lack of love, of real joy. How absent and distant everyone is. I think Lowry really shows why living that way is terrible while at the same time making the reader understand how some people would think that’s a better way to do things.

– I don’t know exactly what to say about the Birthmothers and their lives, but I do enjoy the commentary Lowry is making about how some people view mothers.

– Einar. Let me just say that if I were participating in Yuletide in any capacity, I would be all over some Claire/Einar fanfiction. And I’m not a huge fanfic reader.

– The world-building in all three sections is stellar.

– I also love Lowry’s final commentary on evil (or what I perceive her point to be): Though evil may try to vanquish that which is good, it never truly succeeds, especially because it discounts the amazing heart and willingness of people to endure.

Why the third part didn’t work for me:

– I don’t want to spoil the story, so I’ll just say the characterization in that part wasn’t as strong, and the plot felt rushed. While things moved quickly in the first two parts, I felt like so much more was going on and that I was so absorbed in the world. I didn’t have that same sense in the third part.

In fact, I would argue that the first two parts mirror The Giver and Gathering Blue, and the third part mimics the style of Messenger, which would explain my reaction to this book.

In conclusion: A wonderful ending to the mythology of The Giver, though I wish the entire book had been as absorbing as the first two parts of its narrative.

Source: Library

Book Review: How to Save a Life

If you don’t grow up to be a wife or a mother, what are you? A person alone, always wanting to be one thing or the other or both? My mother was never a wife, and that’s what she wanted more than anything. She didn’t want to be a mother, and she wasn’t one. Where does that leave her? A husband makes you a wife, and a child makes you a mother…What if there isn’t anyone to make you something?

In How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr, Mandy is searching for a new life for herself and her baby, and Jill is still recovering from the loss of her father. Their two paths cross when Jill’s mom offers to adopt Mandy’s baby, and Mandy comes to live with Jill and her mom.

There isn’t anything I didn’t like about this book, so some highlights of things I enjoyed:

– Sara Zarr is so great. SO GREAT. Here, she takes these two (three, really, if you count the mom) characters suffering from loss and grieving in their own ways and creates this quiet, yet powerful story about love, forgiveness, and family.

– I love the discussion about motherhood and worth highlighted in the quote above. The whole story isn’t devoted to that, but, wow, that moment hit me. What do we teach girls and women about their choices?

– The love interests are used well here. The relationships are important, but not so much that they take over the book. Basically, this book doesn’t become about the boys but stays about the girls and their own development and growth.

– I can understand the way both girls see the world. I can understand why Mandy makes people uncomfortable, but also why she latches onto them the way she does. I can see why Jill is so angry and brokenhearted and treats people cruelly but also with kindness. The characters are nuanced and flawed and real. Love.

– I like that the story ended exactly the way I thought it should, but I wasn’t sure how Zarr would get me to that ending. I also like that I didn’t expect the story to end the way I thought it should, but it did anyway. If that makes any sense.

This was just a great story. I really enjoyed it.

Support Your Local Library: 41; YA Reading Challenge: 36

Book Review: Teenage Waistland

“You all believe that losing one-hundred-plus pounds will solve everything, but it won’t. Something far heavier is weighing on you, and until you deal with that, nothing in your lives will be right.”

I’ll admit it. I was sucked in by the cover. I wasn’t sure exactly what Teenage Waistland by Lynn Biederman & Lisa Pazer would be about, but I was betting it would have something to do with teenagers and body image. I was mostly right.

The book is about three morbidly obese teens who participate in a clinical trial for Lap-Band surgery. In order to participate in the trial and get the surgery, they have to attend mandatory group sessions for a year. The book follows these three teens as they participate in the group session.

What I Liked

– It’s not about the weight. No, really. It’s NOT about the weight. Over and over the point is made that being morbidly obese (because these kids are not just overweight) is really symptomatic of a deeper issue. It is pretty clear from the beginning what some of those deeper issues are, so I really appreciate that the authors make it explicitly clear that it’s not about the weight, even though each chapter begins with the character’s weight loss status (e.g., +3 lbs or -7 lbs).

– The teens’ stories are also not about the weight. Yes, they want to lose weight. Yes, they have families that may be encouraging them to lose weight (or not as the case may be). However, they do not obsess over their weight, every detail is not paid to how they look. The story focuses on their emotional journeys and what happens as they face their issues.

– The Lap-Band is just a tool for losing weight, but the success of the surgery depends on the lifestyle changes each character makes. It’s just a tool, not the be-all end-all. Again, it’s nice that the authors make this explicitly clear.

– I really like the premise and the first half of the book. There’s some nice character development, everyone is portrayed with several sides to their personalities, and the relationships/friendships that form make complete sense. I love that a lot of the kids are resistant to participating in group, though they come to create a basis for support for each other.  All of that is really nicely handled.

What I Didn’t Like

– Please note that I said I really like the first half of the book. Once the Big Secret is exposed, everything delves into melodrama. Lots of exclamation points, lots of FEELINGS that I don’t even care about, etc. The secret is a pretty devastating one, and I found myself completely unmoved by it.

– Once the book starts dealing with The Secret, the interactions feel forced and cheesy. Things happen too quickly, and it just feels unnatural.

– The resolution/epilogue is rushed and doesn’t feel earned.

– The romance is LAME. Ugh. There are a couple of reasons I find it icky, but mostly I think it was my disconnect from the characters at that point.

– The authors have the subtlety of a sledgehammer, I swear. Instead of trusting that the reader can figure things out, everything is over-explained.

In conclusion: This book is a mixed bag for me. I really dug the first half of the book and wish the second half had lived up to that potential. Unfortunately, I had to force myself to read the end because by the last third I was over it. It could’ve been SO GREAT. Instead it was mostly meh.

Support Your Local Library: 2/30; YA Reading Challenge: 2/20

Banned Books Week: Book Review: Life Is Funny

So now that’s why I’m sitting here, because I have to be alone to try and figure out two things that are getting on my nerves, bad. One of them is what do I do to stay out of fights at least for the next seven years until I’m done with high school because I’m supposed to graduate and my aunt Eva will kill me if I don’t, but everybody’s always wanting to fight and then you get suspended and kicked out and all that mess. And then the other thing is what do I do if I don’t want my brother, Nick, to be touching on my privacy every night and he comes and does it anyway?

Life Is Funny by E. R. Frank is about eleven teens and spans seven years. The cover says that it’s a novel by E. R. Frank, which is an interesting marketing technique, especially considering that it’s a series of interrelated short stories. I’m not saying it’s not a novel because it most certainly has a clear beginning, middle, and, end (and I like the linear progression of the story, but that’s a discussion for a different bullet point), but, you know, it’s really a collection of short stories.

What I Liked

– I love the way the book is set up. Lots of times, interrelated stories connect in obvious ways or just have one connecting element like the same high school or whatever. But in this book, it’s the relationships that drive the connections. The kids’ lives overlap in seemingly innocuous, but usually heartbreaking ways, and the progression for characters is easily followed even when they kind of drop out of the picture because their stories are over. But that’s the thing. Their stories are never over. They continue.

– The breakout quote above highlights one of my favorite things about the book. Frank deftly shows how kids’ concerns all run together, from the seemingly inane to the completely, devastatingly serious. At the same time, Frank shows how serious everything is when you’re that age. A bathroom fight can lead to a serious stress about friendship, but the real issue is a dark family secret.

I also chose that quote because it hit me in the gut.  It made me suck in my breath and reread it several times to make sure I read it right. And while there are other things that happen to the different characters, that was the first moment I knew the book isn’t just about how teens see things from different perspectives, but that it’s about how they deal with the different levels of pain in their lives.

– I’m making the book sound maudlin, but it’s not. There’s a lot of humor in this book, and, as tends to happen with YA lit, hopefulness. It’s not a bleak read. If anything, it does show that life is funny–both funny ha-ha and funny weird/strange/unpredictable.

– The characters are fantastic, and, like I said, even within the short story format, they are allowed to grow and change. They’re also all likable or have something good about them to cling to. Which may be the point Frank, a clinical social worker, may be trying to make.

Since I have no real complaints about the book, here is where I talk instead about the fact that it’s one of the top 100 challenged books of the past decade, a fact I learned when I signed up for Nikki’s 2010 Banned Books Week Challenge. According to the ALA website, the top three reasons books are challenged are because they are deemed sexually explicit, have offensive language, and are unsuitable to age group. And I gotta say this book has sexually explicit and offensive language. Which, I guess, makes it unsuitable to age group–or at least to middle school students, since this a book that was actually removed from a middle school library because of  a sex scene.

I know it is a little crazy to think that teens have sex and/or talk about it using dirty words instead of referring to it as “making love” and such. And it is really, really, REALLY crazy to think that middle schoolers are not familiar with any of these terms or ideas. I mean, I know when I was in middle school, we didn’t even know that sex was called anything but “making whoopee” (oh, The Newlywed Game, how sly you were) and that Lucy and Ricky made a baby sleeping in separate twin beds.

(That was sarcasm, by the way.)

I have to say, I do not think this book is appropriate for my sixth grader, and I would tell her as much. What I would not do is tell an entire school full of children, some of whom are probably 14, that they shouldn’t read it or have access to it because it has sex in it. Especially if I read the whole book and not just a passage taken out of context and understood that this book may offer hope to a girl who has been molested that she can have a positive sexual experience. Or that I understood this is just two teens’ experiences out of many, several of which don’t focus on sex, and many of which focus on recovery from trauma.

So what have the children from that school missed out on, seeing that at least one of the challenges on this book was successful? An opportunity to think about what’s really going on with the boy or girl in their class and trying to understand that they all have different experiences. But more importantly, an opportunity to know that THEY ARE NOT ALONE. There is someone else out there who feels stupid but isn’t, who has messed up parents, who has great friends, who has lost friends, who can find a great boyfriend or girlfriend in spite of his or her other experiences, who doesn’t have money but goes to college, who loves his or her parents, who hates his or her parents, who doesn’t have parents and on and on.

It’s no accident that the book starts with the characters aged eleven and twelve years old.

POC Challenge: 20/15; YA Reading Challenge: 29/75

Book Review: Icon: A Hero’s Welcome

When you can fly, there’s no burden you can’t bear.  When you can fly, gravity can’t touch you.  When you can fly…you can do anything.

I love the cartoon Static Shock, and so I was hoping against hope that my library either had Static in stock or had it available via ILL. Sadly, it did not.  But!  Icon: A Hero’s Welcome was available, and since I love Dwayne McDuffie (creator of Static Shock, one of the writers/producers of Justice League and Justice League Unlimited, and now a writer for Ben 10) (also, and not to put too fine a point on it, he started his own comic book company because he wanted to be able to write the stories he wanted to tell), I figured reading Icon was practically the same as reading Static.

The basic premise of I:AHW is “What if Superman was black?” Augustus Freeman IV crash lands on earth during slavery, imitates the looks of the person who finds him (a slave woman), and then lives a really long time.  He decides to become a superhero after a teenage girl, Rocket, tells him how helpful it would be for other African-Americans to know they have a hero of their own.

What I Liked

– Rocket is kind of amazing.  I love that Augustus is inspired by her, I like that she sees so much more for herself and the people she knows, I like that she calls Augustus on his inaccessible man on the hill persona (he’s a lawyer).  She becomes his sidekick not because he takes her in, but because she pushes him to do more.  That’s kind of cool.

– There’s a lot of commentary on race, gender, and class in the book.  Rocket, as an African-American teenage girl, has more possible complications for her life [she gets pregnant] than, say, Dick Grayson.  She is not an orphan but lives in the projects, so sees her relationship with Augustus as a way to access so much more.  And it’s not just his wealth that attracts her, but his access to education.

Race-wise, Rocket and her friends try to rob Augustus because they assume it’s a white person’s house, and they initially mistake him for the butler.  When Icon and Rocket show up to help the police, they try to shoot him.  Because, obviously, he must be a bad guy who is part of the plot against the mayor. Superman never has these problems.

I already mentioned some of the class effects re: Rocket, but there’s another subplot that discusses a community forgotten after a major riot in Dakota.  The book addresses turf wars, helplessness, and politics.

The book also operates as a commentary on what’s missing from the traditional superhero story that focuses on white, male characters.

What I Didn’t Like

– Calling it a dislike is strong, but the artwork is kind of dated.  The colors are very purple and yellow and, you know, 1990s’ Cross Colours.  So it’s fitting for the time, but dated for the now.  I still liked it overall.

In conclusion:  Solid characters, fantastic premise, and a solid story make this a very nice introduction to the Icon brand and Milestone Comics.  I really wish I could get my hands on Static now.  Moreso than before, even.

POC Reading Challenge:  14/15; YA Reading Challenge:  21/75

Book Review: My Life as a Rhombus

My mouth dropped open, and suddenly, I knew.  Unfortunately for Sarah, everything now made sense.

I checked out My Life as a Rhombus by Varian Johnson two other times from the library before actually reading it this go around. Third time is the charm? I don’t know why I held off on reading it for so long; it’s about teen pregnancy, one of my favorite topics to read about, second only to female friendship.  Bonus!  This book has both of those things.

What I Liked

– As mentioned, I am supremely interested in portrayals of teen pregnancy and parenthood, and this book delivered by presenting more than one point of view on the subject.

– I love the main character, Rhonda.  I also enjoyed her friendship with Sarah.  It felt very genuine and logical that these two would become friends.

– The tension between Rhonda and her father is also very well-handled.  I could imagine the distance between them. Rhonda’s loneliness at home is portrayed nicely.

– Rhonda’s fear of dating also worked. She closes herself off pretty effectively and chooses to surround herself with people equally closed off (Gail) or awkward (Xavier).

– The characters are all imperfect, which is nice.  Even the love interest, David.  He’s kind of cheesy, but his personality flaws are evident and on the surface.  At first he plays a little too good to be true, but it’s quickly remedied.

– It’s always nice to have a female character who enjoys math.

– The book is super engaging.  I read it in two days because I had to see how everything would shake out.

– This is on the book jacket, but I really do appreciate that the book is not preachy and doesn’t really advocate or condemn teen parenthood.  It’s just a story about some girls who have gotten pregnant and how they feel about/handle it.

What I Didn’t Like

– One of the most important resolutions (between Rhonda and her father) happens offscreen.  I felt completely cheated by this.  Yeah, the romance aspect is nice, but since the biggest issue is really her connection to her father, it would’ve been nice to see that resolved ON THE PAGE, not just hinted at.

– Sarah and David are very affectionate for siblings so close in age.  It didn’t ring true to me.  Of course, I’m an only child so your mileage may very.  Relatedly, Rhonda kisses Sarah on the forehead once, which I have never, ever done with my very best friends that I have known since childhood.  A hug, yes.  An arm around the shoulder, okay.  But a kiss on the forehead to comfort?  Uh, never.  It does tie into Rhonda’s relationship with her father, but…no.

– Oh, the melodrama.  I am a big fan of melodrama!  When I watch One Tree Hill, for example.  And melodrama happens in real life, but all of the melodrama here felt very over the top.  Probably because of…

– A lack of character development.  I know Christopher is Rhonda’s ex, but surely she must have liked SOMETHING about him besides the fact that he paid attention to her.  I mean, yes, that’s reason enough when you’re fifteen (or twenty or thirty or…), but there must have been something else about him besides his hot bod that she liked.  He trusted her enough to talk about his father with her, so there must have been something there.

– Which also leads me to the bad sex portion of the book.  She didn’t like having sex with him AT ALL?  Not once?  REALLY?  Not even making out with him?  Okay.

I do recognize that this may have been a specific narrative choice because Rhonda’s break up experience is so bad that she has rewritten the whole relationship as Not Good, but come on.

– This is probably weird to say about a book on teenage pregnancy, but:  NEEDS MORE SEXY FUN TIMES.  Hot boys and girls populate the book, and there is a serious deficit of making out and sexy fun times!  How did these kids get pregnant?  Hand holding?  I mean, it makes sense for the narrative, but at the end, I was just like, “Man, they could’ve made out A LOT MORE.”

Women Unbound?

This book is chock full of discussions of choice when it comes to pregnancy.

In conclusion:  The theme of the book seems to be:  TUTORING = PREGNANCY.  Which, hey, One Tree Hill taught me the same thing!  So it must be true.

I know it seems like I was hard on the book, but I really did enjoy it.  The girls were great, the conversations about pregnancy were ace, the female friendship was A+, and I was completely into the story.  There were just some sticking points is all.  I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it.

POC Challenge:  7/15; YA Reading Challenge:  11/75

Book Review: Impossible

In her dreams, at the end, Miranda loved her.

Impossible by Nancy Werlin is the story of a girl who is cursed to get pregnant and go crazy at seventeen–just like her mother before her and her mother before her, et cetera and so forth, way back to the beginning of time.

impossibleThis book has a lot of similarities with the Magic or Madness trilogy by Justine Larbalestier, so I’d be remiss if I didn’t address that right away.  The main thing, of course, is the curse of teen pregnancy and the consequent madness, which I find an interesting approach to teen pregnancy.  I don’t study folklore or fantasy (nor do I read that much of it), but it made me wonder if pregnancy as a curse is recurring trope in folklore/fantasy.  I also find teen pregnancy as a literal curse to be a fascinating approach to teen parenthood and the way that teen parents sometimes beget teen parents.  So that it’s a curse is both problematic from a real life standpoint and interesting as a folklore trope.

I wish I had more to say about it than “huh, interesting” but…I don’t.  Maybe a folklorist would, though.

Anyway.  Down to business.

What I Liked

– I found this book compulsively readable.  I would pick it up and just read pages and pages in one sitting without even meaning to.  I really wanted to know what was going to happen.

– The relationship between Lucy and Soledad.  The evil dude even comments at one point that he hadn’t anticipated the effect of a mother’s love on helping Lucy break the curse, and I thought that was such a great moment.  The curse focuses on biological ties, but that Lucy’s bio mom is not able to help her but she has a wonderfully supportive and loving adopted mom who becomes instrumental in helping her break the curse is just awesome.

– The relationship between Miranda and Soledad, even as it’s written in the past.

Craziness aside, sadness aside, the diary was also the story of Miranda’s relationship with the one true friend that she felt she had ever had, and this was, of course, Soledad.

So, that goes back to the power of motherly love and also the power of female friendship.  Soledad is able to be such a fantastic mother to Lucy in part because of how much she loves Miranda and how connected the two of them are.  And part of the fight is Soledad reclaiming her friend’s life as much as it is about helping Lucy reclaim her own life.

– The romance, while cheesy, added to the overall message of the power of friendship and the all-encompassing power of love.

– LOVE CONQUERS ALL.  The end.

What I Didn’t Like

– This is not a story about the horrors of rape or the challenges of being a teen parent.  That said, Lucy is raped and becomes a teen parent, and while the book doesn’t exactly gloss over these as horrors or challenges, it doesn’t really do a good job of dealing with the issues either.  What I do like is that there is an emphasis on therapy and family support, but at the same time, I feel like Werlin missed an opportunity to really make some statements about both of these things.  Which leads into my next complaint…

– …the book is too short.  I feel like it could be a lot longer, and if it were, it would be able to address the Big Issues that it covers.  (It would also solve some of the summary/glossing over/big things happening off screen problems that some of the Goodreads reviewers had.)  Plus, I found myself actually wanting more of the story,  more about the characters, and more evidence of the connections between the characters, so I totally understood why Larbalestier did hers as a trilogy.  Because it’s just a lot of story to cram into a short book.  (Amazon says the book is 384 pages, but I still argue that’s short–especially given how big the font/margins are.)

– I don’t understand why this book was a National Book Award finalist.  I mean, yes, compulsively readable, but it had a lot of issues in execution.

In conclusion: I liked it, but recommend it with reservation just because I know several people who did not like it…mostly for the reasons I outlined above.

Diversity Roll Call: The Problem Novel

The current Diversity Roll Call addresses the problem novel as inspired by a Justine Larbalestier post.  More specifically:

Did you read these kinds of works when you were an adolescent? Did you think they were silly or did you gain something from them? Do you enjoy them as an adult? Do you recommend them to students or other teens you’re in contact with? Which titles and to whom would you recommend them? What issues or circumstances would like to see address in YA? What are your recommended best reads and which would you honestly say are poor examples in this genre?

First things first.  I think it’s important to define what a problem novel is to me.  Someone in the comments section over at Color Online said they would call it realistic fiction, but I honestly kind of like the Wikipedia definition of an adolescent’s first confrontation with a social or personal ill.  Which, yes, realistic fiction.  But I would take it a little further.  Since most realistic fiction deals with problems, I’m thinking more specifically of novels I would describe by the social or personal ill first as opposed to, say, the quest the character is on.  Like Monster is about a boy in jail or Out of the Dust is about a girl surviving the Dust Bowl. Because most books require characters to have personal ills on whatever level for the sake of conflict, a problem novel would be more about a social ill than anything.  Meaning that when I think about the novel, I think about it first in terms of that social ill and recognize the ill as a social problem.  (I’m trying to think of realistic fiction, I don’t define as a problem novel, and so far I have True Confessions of a Hollywood Starlet [her sobriety is a big part of the novel, but I first think of it as her leaving her old life behind for a small town], Story of a Girl [double standards, family issues, teen pregnancy, but I first think of it as about a girl who did something and now is trying to figure out what that means for her–maybe the title has something to do with that], and A Northern Light [which, I know, murdered pregnant woman, but I think of it more as about Maddie trying to decide if she should go away to school or not].)

At Color Online, Susan says:

The problem novel isn’t designed to fix life’s ills, but it can help a young person realize they are not alone and possibly find the courage to seek help or gain understanding. The problem novel is sometimes the first time a young person finds identification.

I would go a step further and say that it’s also to help teens gain understanding of people who are not like them that may have stories they don’t understand.  So if you know someone in jail or who has been raped or has an abusive parent, these kinds of books would benefit you.  And if you don’t personally know anyone facing these issues, you’ve probably heard about them on the news or whatever, so the books can personalize the story.

As a teen/adolescent, I read pretty voraciously, but I often don’t remember the books I read back then.  The only novels I remember that dealt with problems, honestly, are the SVH Very Special Topic books:  the one where Regina o.d.’s, the one where Robin is  anorexic, when Ken goes blind, etc.

jacob-have-i-lovedThose, and Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson, which is one of my favorite books ever of all time.  I would count it as a problem novel because it’s all about how Wheeze feels slighted by her family, and Catherine is the preferred sister:  she’s prettier and more talented, and more importantly, she almost died at birth.  I haven’t read the book in years, but Louise’s pain is just as palpable to me now as it was then.  Also, I never forgot the ending where Louise makes sure both twins she helps deliver receive equal attention so those babies won’t go through life the way she and her sister did.  OH MY HEART.

monsterIt’s only now as an adult that I can identify that most of the books I read now are problem novels–or realistic fiction.  And for me, the gold standard of problem novels is Monster by Walter Dean Myers.  Not only is it about a boy in the system, it’s also about the problems with the system. It also addresses all of the issues in a non-didactic way.  Everything is just put on the page for you to decide what to do with it.  (I wrote a whole paper on the book, so I’m trying to be concise.  Basically, the heteroglossia of the novel lends itself to the reader making up his/her own mind about the issues in the book.)  I also love that, in any of the classes I’ve taught on the book, there is never any agreement about whether Steve is innocent or guilty, but everybody can agree that the system is messed up.

In fact, I’d classify most of WDM’s books as problem novels:  Shooter (school shootings), The Beast (heroin), etc.  His most didactic book is the one on recidivism (A Handbook for Boys), and while I like it, I can imagine it’d be pretty annoying to a teen (as evidenced by the reaction of my students when I taught it).  The topic is still well handled, but, yeah, didactic.

Anyway, there are lots and lots of books I’ve read and like that fit this topic, but I’m going to narrow it down to five other books I’d recommend that all deal with different societal ills.
queen make_lemonade_new2 living-dead-girl inexcusable hopewashere

The Queen of Everything by Deb Caletti is about a girl whose dad kills his girlfriend’s husband.

Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolff is about a girl who babysits for a teen mom in their impoverished neighborhood.

Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott is about a girl who is held captive by a pedophile.

Inexcusable by Chris Lynch is about a boy who rapes a girl.

Hope Was Here by Joan Bauer is about a teen who joins a campaign to fight political corruption in her town.

I’ll be honest.  I don’t exactly like Living Dead Girl or Inexcusable but I think they’re doing something different and are worth a read.  LDG is extremely disturbing (so very disturbing, so very VERY disturbing), but I seriously could not stop reading it once I started.  Inexcusable is not even a very good book, and it left me with a feeling of incompleteness at the end (needed more something), but it’d make a good companion to Speak.  As for the other books, I’ve taught them, and my students have liked them.  Hope Was Here is probably the least depressing of the books just because it’s so gosh darned upbeat and uplifting even when it’s dealing with heavy issues, which is why I’ve included it on the list.

whaletalkI also feel that any list of books about problem novels without a mention of Chris Crutcher, and specifically, Whale Talk is incomplete.  All of his books are, on some level, about abuse and its effects.

And then there are all of the other books that I’m not going to spotlight, but that I think fit this category.  So, a list:

  • The First Part Last by Angela Johnson (teen pregnancy/parenthood)
  • Shattering Glass by Gail Giles (bullying)
  • The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things by Carolyn Mackler (fat acceptance)
  • Looking for Alaska by John Green(death–although, as my students pointed out in one class, it is rare not to have death in YA lit)
  • Big Mouth & Ugly Girl by Joyce Carol Oates (media hysteria)
  • Just Listen by Sarah Dessen (rape)
  • Dreamland by Sarah Dessen (partner violence)
  • Don’t You Dare Read This, Mrs. Dumphrey by Margaret Peterson Haddix (neglect)
  • North of Beautiful by Justina Chen Headley (disfigurement/emotional abuse)
  • Don’t Think Twice by Ruth Pennebaker (teen pregnancy)

Book Review: I Know It’s Over

ikiocover2I recently read I Know It’s Over by C. K. Kelly Martin, and I have to say I enjoyed it a lot.  I picked it up because the cover struck me.  I love that the girl is in the foreground walking away, and the boy is lying on the bed.  Having now read it, I can say that it really encapsulates the whole mood of the book.

What I Liked About the Book

1.  The relationships

The main relationship in the book is, of course, Nick and Sasha, and it’s really well layered and suitably frustrating.  It’s clear why he is so infatuated/in love with her and also why he has such a hard time understanding her.  I don’t entirely understand her myself, which marks really good storytelling…or bad, I guess, depending on who you ask.  But I’m pretty sure that’s part of the point of the novel.

I also really liked Nick’s relationships with his parents, which are also well layered and suitably frustrating.  Nick’s feeling that he needs to be nice to his dad because his sister won’t and that he has to protect his mom’s feelings even when he himself is hurting are super believable and add different shades to his relationship with Sasha.

Then there are his two best friends who are so different but serve different functions.  I like that they all started out interested in the same thing (hockey) but that as they have gotten older, that’s not quite enough to keep the three of them together.  I also love how he identifies Keelor as his best friend, but as a reader, I felt that his true best friend is actually Nathan.  However, he needs different things from both guys so, essentially, they are both his best friends for different reasons.  I love that.

Also, near the end he befriends a girl, and the way they connect is very honest and believable as well.

2.  Teen pregnancy

I did not know this book is about teen pregnancy until I started reading it, and then I was pleasantly surprised.  I really enjoy the way it’s handled.  The book starts with the announcement of the pregnancy, and then goes back to show how Sasha and Nick got to that point.  So instead of the book being ABOUT the pregnancy, necessarily, it’s really moreso about their relationship, so that by the time it circles back to The Pregnancy, even that becomes more about their relationship than anything else.

(If I weren’t studying representations of female friendship, I would probably be studying representations of teen pregnancy, so I am always up for a book on the subject.)

3.  The format

As I said, the book starts with Sasha telling Nick that she’s pregnant, and then moves to a chronicle of their relationship up to that point, and the final third is about how they deal with the pregnancy and answer the question of whether their relationship is really and truly over.  (See title for that answer.)  I also enjoy that you know their relationship is doomed from the start, pregnancy or no, but the book is set up so that you’re constantly hoping they can work it out.

4.  The emotional honesty

The book is emotionally raw, which makes it both easy and hard to read at times.  Nick’s feelings are just all over the page, and, as stated previously, his frustrations with Sasha, his parents, his friends, and himself are just crystal clear.  It reminds me a lot of Coe Booth’s Kendra in that it was almost too overwhelming at times.

What I Didn’t Like About the Book

There was one part where a hockey game was explained in detail.  Okay, I’m mostly being facetious here.  I honestly can’t think of anything I didn’t like.

If you haven’t read it, I’d definitely add it to the to-read pile.