Holly Black’s Doll Bones (Margaret K. McElderry, $16.99) and Jerry Spinelli’s Hokey Pokey (Knopf Books for Young Readers, $15.99) both deal with the transition from childhood to adulthood, but are very different in their approach to the process. Hokey Pokey imagines an almost idealized world of childhood, where the rules are a little less formalized that the wild frontier. Kids rein bikes like horses; they move in packs, and there is a clear distinction between boys and girls. This world is filled with candy, games, and not a little recklessness. It doesn’t quite fit with my own memories of childhood and I do wonder how kids under 12 will respond to it. Do they recognize their own world in this book? Is it only possible to see childhood, once you’re looking back? The biggest problem I had, though, was the insinuation that the the border between childhood and adulthood was both abrupt and definitive. Once you leave Hokey Pokey, or ‘grow up’, there is no going back. One day you’re a kid. The next day you’re an adult, which doesn’t seem very realistic to me. I don’t know any kids who make the transition easily and singularly. I certainly didn’t.
Alternatively, Doll Bones also narrates the transition from childhood to adulthood, but despite the fantastic elements this book feels more realistic. First, the transition isn’t so abrupt, but rather happens over a journey. Also, there is a significant internal conflict about the change for each character, that varies from character to character. Zach’s dilemmas are different than Alice’s, who again is struggling with different things than Poppy. Finally, by the end of the book, although Zach, Poppy, and Alice have grown up, there is a clear sense that they each have more growing up to do and that on occasion, they might even ‘relapse’ and not grow up at all. Doll Bones is described as “spooky” and “scary”, which I didn’t find when reading it. I liked the ambiguity, even at the end (and I don’t think this is a spoiler) about whether the game was a game or the game was real. Because games are always real. And reality is a game. And I see no reason to make a distinction. Is Doll Bones a ghost story or a growing up story? Well, yes. Also, Black demonstrates that gender is just as fluid as ‘growing up’. Zach enjoys playing imagination games with dolls in the afternoon with Poppy and Alice. He also likes playing basketball. He doesn’t switch from boy to girl. He’s a boy who likes a variety of things. He doesn’t broadcast his afternoon games — he knows that some of the other boys wouldn’t approve — but he doesn’t feel the need to stop either. Doll Bones is ultimately about the between spaces. Maybe it is a ghost story after all.
Golden Boy, by Abigail Tarttelin, isn’t the first book to contain a character who is intersex, but books on this topic are few and far between (Simon & Schuster, $24.99, out today). Max Walker is the stereotypical golden boy. On the surface. But Max and his family have a secret. He is intersex: a person that used to be referred to as a hermaphrodite. Within this story, Max’s existence falls perfectly between horror (he has never been shamed or punished by his parents for being who he is as many intersex children have been) and complete acceptance (the parents do not make Max’s situation known to the outside world). Max identifies as a boy, but he is a true intersex: half and half. His family did not put him through reconstructive surgery as a baby. He’s known and understood that he was different his whole life, but it’s never really been a big deal. Just something that the family never discusses. At 16, the one childhood friend (boy) who knows about Max, rapes him. Rape is traumatic for anyone, but Max deals with a whole other layer of trauma. How is he supposed to process what happened? Thankfully he goes to a Doctor, one who is smart and sensitive enough to do some research and help Max find the vocabulary he needs to understand himself. This description might sound clinical, but even trying to talk about this book is a reminder of how inadequate our language is.
The narrative moves between Max, his brother, his mother, the doctor, and the girl he starts to fall for. This movement strengthens the story, because as each person struggles to talk about Max, the reader truly starts to appreciate Max’s inability to articulate himself. I most appreciated the Doctor’s narrative voice. She is professional, and remains at a somewhat critical distance, but truly helps Max and the reader navigate this rather uncharted territory. Max’s mom struck me as way too intelligent to be saying such ridiculous things. I liked her when Max talked about her. I started to despise her when she spoke for her self. I think the book would have been much stronger without her first-person chapters or perhaps if her voice had been introduced towards the end of the story, as Max’s dad’s voice is.
I also particularly liked Max’s younger brother’s commentary. Daniel is significantly younger (about 5 years); he looks up to Max and because Max is his older sibling, he knows nothing different. He is the only character (including Max) who doesn’t perceive Max as an aberration, because, to Daniel, Max is perfectly normal. Daniel’s voice, somewhat young and innocent, provides a strong counter to all the confusion that pervades everyone else’s voice. Golden Boy is not an easy book to read, but it is well worth it. I’m delighted that it has found the support of a major publishing house. This is a story that needs to be told.
The Lover’s Dictionary, by David Levithan (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, $20) falls in to that ‘New Adult’ category that you may or may not have heard of. The designation is an awkward, to be sure, and is meant to denote books that are more mature than YA. New adults, presumably, are the 18-30 crowd. You can see the issues. Are ‘New Adults’ not actual adults? How does one go from being a ‘young’ adult to a ‘new’ adult? That evolution seems arbitrarily backwards. Anyway. Categories are always random and problematic, which is hardly the point of this post. The point is that all David Levithan books are worth reading. The characters in The Lover’s Dictionary are certainly older than the teenage protagonists in his other novels, hence the clarification that this book perhaps isn’t ‘YA’ in the strictest sense. In terms of content, there is nothing in this book that you can’t find in a YA novel and actually less because the most intimate moments are unwritten. The narrative format is unique and very intriguing. Starting with A “aberrant” through to Z “zenith”, the story emerges from the entries of the dictionary. I was almost skeptical. How could such a dry format yield and interesting story? But it does. Well. The
narrator dictionary composer writes in the first person and refers to himself as ‘boyfriend’ repeatedly. We know his gender. His partner, however, remains in the ambiguous second person. I wanted to write a story like this when I was in college. I never did. It wouldn’t have been nearly as good. There is something remarkably satisfying in the snippets of story and a more patient reader would probably spend more time pouring over the word and the entry. The ones I did pay attention to were always clever on a variety of levels. The story and history of the relationship plays out non-sequentially throughout the entries. The entries are short, occasionally only one line, rarely more than a page. And yet, somehow this story is so full. Perhaps because the story is such a familiar one: falling in love, self-doubt, relationship fissures, the threat of break up. I love reading Levithan’s books because they always contain lines that break my heart. Not necessarily because they are sad, but because they are true.
I know I’m getting in a bit of a rut with the age titles. It’s so much easier, but not as helpful when you’re looking for subject recommendations. My goal over the next couple of weeks is to go back and add subject references to the blog titles. For today, however, Planet Middle School by Nikki Grimes is good for a kid who enjoys sports and is on the cusp of adolescence (Bloomsbury, $15.99). Joylin plays basketball. Her younger brother Caden is an artist. I’m always a fan of books that push gender boundaries and show young readers that what it means to be a girl or boy isn’t as clear cut as some would have you believe. The kids’ dad has a difficult time with his non-athletic son, although he is rather supportive of his daughter’s talent, and both kids struggle to align themselves what the perceived norms of their respective gender. Caden tries to learn basketball to impress his father and Joylin tries wearing skirts, heels, and lipstick to impress a boy. She’s just as surprised at her newfound interest as anyone: “There are suddenly // cute boys everywhere. // I swear.// They keep popping up // all the time”. She’s never cared about clothes or giggling before and she’s not exactly sure what kind of girl she wants to be now. Caden basically embarrasses himself on the court and Joylin usually ends up literally falling all over herself in front of Santiago — not quite the impression she’s going for. Written in free verse, Joylin’s flowing narrative voice is pitch perfect. She navigates the highs and lows of early adolescence with her two best friends KeeLee and Jake and when she questions “Where is a parallel universe // when you need one?”, I had to smile. Ah, middle school. How many times did I have that thought, although never quite so poetic!
YA books comprise one of my favorite genres. There are a number of interesting options now, and many authors are engaging creatively with narrative styles. I plan to return to this category often as there are a wide-range of sub-genres and so many excellent reads. Although cross-over books are pretty widely recognized, thanks to Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, YA books still remain an elusive genre and one not easily defined. Are they defined by reading level or content? Authorial intention or marketing plans? Readers or teachers/parents/and librarians?
In honor of this ambiguity, my first YA recommendation also poses a number of unanswerable questions, by challenging our conceived notions of fixed boundaries. David Levithan’s Every Day (Knopf, $16.99) is a unique inquiry into the relationship between body and soul. Is ‘who we are’ distinct from ‘what we look like’? Is love really blind or do we fall for the ‘package’ as much as the ‘person’ inside? What makes us human anyway? Readers will start asking these and other philosophical questions when they read A’s fascinating story.
A wakes up every day in a new body, crossing gender, race, ability, and sexuality. Creating a personal code of ethics, A discovers what can (and cannot), should (and should not) be done when you’re living in someone else’s life. One day A wakes up as Justin, meets Justin’s girlfriend Rhiannon, and on that day A’s own life finally begins.
Every Day was just released in August 2012, but it’s already showing up on Picks of the Year lists. It’s edgy, thought-provoking, and has enough respect for teenagers to not force any conclusions on them. I’d love to see it on school reading lists, but because of it’s gender and sexual fluidity I wouldn’t be surprised if instead it’s frequently challenged. Families with teenagers should read it as a family. I’m sure it will spark lively discussions at dinner.