I’m not sure if Tom Leveen’s Party is even still readily available (Random House, $8.99), which is too bad because this book really impressed me. Each of the 11 chapters is narrated by one high school student, who is either going or perhaps avoiding going to an end of the year party. I’ve said this before, but I’m always a fan of these types of merry-go-round narrative books, when they are done well, and Leveen’s is. Reading various perspectives about the same events is a reminder of how differently we see the world, even when we’re standing right next to each other. Despite it’s seemingly innocuous theme, Party deals with a lot of complex issues: Islamaphobia, losing a parent to cancer, race, and depression. I definitely cried several times, especially in the first and last chapters. But don’t think that this book is all depressing either. There are a few funny moment, a bit of romance, and a reminder that best friends are always there for you, even if they haven’t been there lately. Furthermore, Leveen really magnifies the variety and multiplicity of teen voices. I’d love to see this book get more attention.
Eleanor & Park (out today!) is a debut YA novel for author Rainbow Rowell (St. Martin’s Griffin, $18.99) and it’s a good one. Eleanor starts school mid-year. Classes have started, friendships have been made, cliques have formed, and the unofficial bus seating arrangements are fully entrenched. So when she shows up one morning, with wild red hair and rather unusual clothing, there is no space for her, even though there are plenty of seats. Finally Park, happy to keep his head down, tune out the world, and stay off the popular crowd’s radar, does what any reluctant high school hero would do, he angrily gestures towards the empty seat next to him and tells her to sit the fuck down. Thus begins one of the slowest, but extremely satisfying, courtship of two high school misfits.
Eleanor & Park is set in the mid 1980s, and there are tons of fun references to clothing styles, hair styles we’d all like to forget, music and The Latest in technology. Park is half-Korean; he reads comic books and listens to punk music. He does not quite fit in in his small Kansas town. Eleanor is living on the edge of poverty, in an extremely broken home, and keeps to herself, lest anyone should find out about her situation. She does not quite fit in in her small Kansas town. Neither of them feels lovable, and yet after sitting next to each other on the bus day after day, they fall hopelessly, and head over heels, for each other.
The bursts of racism, sexism, and homophobia that pepper this book strike me as particularly realistic for the 80s, but also made me slightly uncomfortable. Probably because they felt all too familiar. I don’t know how current young readers will interpret such comments. Will they understand that the book is portraying a specific era and not endorsing a certain kind of behavior? Will they chalk it up as the ignorance of dark times? Are the 80s really vintage already? Is this book going to be considered ‘Historical Fiction’? Eleanor & Park is a fun read as well as a reminder to stay true and value weird.
Again, this isn’t really a Halloween book, but I think you get the point by now. Split Screen: Attack of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies by Brent Hartinger (HarperCollines, $6.99 ebook) is the third volume of books that, while not a trilogy exactly, focus on a core group of characters. In The Geography Club, Russell and friends start a gay-straight alliance under the guise of a ‘boring’ geography club. The adventures and misadventures continue in The Order of the Poison Oak, when Russell (with his friends, of course) becomes a camp counselor for the summer. In Split Screen, the narrative is divided into two books, Attack of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies and Bride of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies. One book narrated by Russell, the other by one of his best friends, Min. The two of them — plus assorted friends, boyfriends, girlfriends, and potentials — sign up to be extras in a zombie movie that is being filmed in their high school. Unlike other popular YA novels, this book doesn’t alternate between the two narrators, but instead presents two distinct perspectives of the same events to be read separately. First, read Russell’s story from the front, then flip the book over and read Min’s story starting from the back. voilà! Double feature! (does anyone else now have the Rocky Horror Picture Show opening song playing in your head? ) The similarities between zombies and high-school students are not lost on either Russell or Min. Both struggle to find ways of staying themselves even when everyone around them seems just a little bit mindless. This isn’t a horror story at all, but fans of the genre will recognize and appreciate the tropes that infuse this unique and engaging narrative.
Fantasy has certainly experienced a resurgence lately, but most YA novels are known — and challenged — for their realism, their stark depictions of the darker side of life, their raw representations of drugs, sexuality, abuse, pain, depression, strong language, and violence. The two sides most often pitted against each other are those who want to protect teenagers and those who think that teens ‘know’ all about these things anyway so what’s the point in trying to hide it from them. I suppose I fall somewhere in the middle. Books can be powerful, but they aren’t all-powerful. They are one aspect of a teen’s overall experience. And while books can offer a safe space for exploration, I sometimes wonder if books (along with movies and tv and music, etc) can start to normalize an experience that may or may not be common. Fortunately YA novels are so vastly different that they can’t possibly be considered a collective and in my experience teens are pretty good at finding the books they want to read, with or without the permission of the adults around them. What I most appreciate is how many YA authors clearly respect teens; they offer questions and complicated concepts rather than trying to preach, or teach.
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (Square Fish, $9.99) has been out for a while, but it’s one of those books that I recommend over and over because it so clearly captures the high school experience in a way that is both hilarious and poignant. Melinda, who has stopped speaking due to a traumatic event that happened at a party over the summer, carefully observes her peers, teachers, parents, and community. Her wry commentary on the hypocrisy and chaos around her aptly expresses her own internal chaos and struggles with identity.