Archives for posts with tag: literature

9781442408920I’m slowly working my way through the recent ALA Youth Media Award winners. I’m moderately embarrassed at how many winners had completely escaped my notice. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz (Simon & Schuster, $17.99) received both a Prinz honor and the Stonewall prize so it immediately went to the top of my list of must reads. Of course, as any bookseller knows, it becomes difficult to get your hands on winning books (unless you already have them in stock) after the award show since all the *other* booksellers are all scrambling to get the books in their store. Insider info: booksellers totally watch the awards with the order window open so that they can put in requests as the winners are announced. Seriously. One minute late and you don’t get any of the books : ) Anyway, I put in a request for Aristotle and Dante with our store owner and waited for the book to arrive. This past weekend I was pulling books for our annual sale, and the book was on our sale list! What!?!?! Not only had the book arrived and I hadn’t noticed, but it accidentally made it on the sale list! My special order! I was shocked. SHOCKED. And thrilled because now I could finally read the book. All’s well, so they say.

As for the book. YES! yes, yes, yes. So good. Narrated by Aristotle, the story chronicles the friendship of two boys who meet at the pool in El Paso during the summer of 1987. Aristotle, who can’t swim, is floating around thinking about how most high-school guys are tools. My word, not his; it is 1987. Dante offers to teach him how to swim. Naturally, if your name is Aristotle and you meet a kid whose name is Dante, you are going to have to be friends with him. Fortunately, Dante isn’t a tool. He’s smart, well-read, funny, thoughtful, artistic. I want to be friends with him myself. Aristotle and Dante debate what it means to be a real Mexican. Dante teaches Aristotle about literature. Aristotle saves Dante’s life. Dante’s family moves away for a year.

Aristotle struggles with the silence surrounding his brother’s absence, that his parents refuse to discuss. He struggles with understanding his father, back from Vietnam, who can’t seem to talk about anything. He struggles with his own nightmares. He has a great relationship with his mother, which is one of the things I really loved about this book. Parents in YA novels are often absent or horrible, and that sort of makes sense from a teen’s perspective. But in this book, both Dante’s and Aristotle’s parents are lovely. Not perfect. Not idealized. But lovely, supportive, and smart. Smart enough to know their sons even better than their sons do. I respected both sets of parents in this story and appreciated that Sáenz gave all four of their characters so much depth without distracting from the two boys.

Although Dante is more confident and outgoing than Aristotle, he has his own struggles, namely his feelings for Aristotle. I’m a fan of narratives that rotate between different characters and in some ways I would have loved this story to move between Dante and Aristotle so I could have heard more of Dante’s thoughts. But of the two, it’s Aristotle who struggles with expressing himself. We need him to narrate because otherwise he’d be as much of a mystery to us as he is to Dante. Besides, he has a biting outlook on life that I really liked: “Reading my own words embarrassed the hell out of me. I mean, what a pendejo. I had to be the world’s biggest loser, writing about hair, and stuff about my body. No wonder I stopped keeping a journal. It was like keeping a record of my own stupidity. Why would I want to do that? Why would I want to remind myself what an asshole I was?” He has a soft side though: “My mother and father held hands. I wondered what that was like, to hold someone’s hand. I bet you could sometimes find all of the mysteries of the universe in someone’s hand”. I bet you could, too, especially when your best friend is Dante.

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9780525478812As I mentioned in a previous post, I discovered John Green because of the book he co-wrote with David Levithan, whom I’ve admired for some time. Will Grayson, Will Grayson was such an interesting read that I had to find out who was on the other side of that book. John Green did not disappoint. I now recommend all of his books regularly. The Fault in Our Stars (Dutton Books, $17.99) has been getting an enormous amount of attention over the past year, but it took me until the summer to get around to reading it. I knew it was going to be good; Green’s books always are. I did, however, wonder just a little if it would live up to all the hype.

It was better.

John Green gets it. He writes characters that precisely capture the transitional voice of teenagers poised between childhood and adulthood. In Hazel, he has created a character who has endured more than most adults, but retains the snarky running commentary that is pure adolescence. Hazel has lived most of her life on the edge of death. Although a Cancer Survivor — she mocks the melodramatic weight that people often use when discussing Serious Medical Conditions — Hazel is perpetually aware of her truncated life-span. Reluctant to get too close to anyone, because she repeatedly witnesses the pain of those who have lost a family member or friend, Hazel is unprepared for one Augustus Waters to bounce into her life. Her attempts to protect him prove futile and she ends up discovering why it’s never worth denying someone the pain of loving you.

Today’s post will be a bit different. Katie over at Youth Literature Review, had a lovely post last Tuesday, entitled “Top Ten Authors I’m Thankful For“. This post got me to thinking. Being thankful for an author is very different than simply loving an author’s work, or enjoying recommending their books. I’ve spent the weekend mulling over this distinction and wondering first if there are specific authors that I’m actually thankful for. And, if so, who and why?

Well it didn’t take long to answer in the affirmative to to the first question, because there are so many decisions I’ve made in life and goals that I’ve created, and then striven to achieve in life, that can be traced to one author: Madeleine L’Engle. I read and reread her books in junior high and high school. Not just her famous books, but all of them, children’s and adult. Her books made me feel like I wasn’t alone even though I spent most of those years feeling very alone. I also really admired her characters. They were intelligent, cultured, well-travelled, and passionate. I wanted to be just like them. Her books inspired me to read Shakespeare, listen to classical music, pay attention to art, take the time to travel and they directly influenced my educational trajectory. I wanted to attend an all-women’s college for a variety of reasons, but admittedly one of those reasons was because L’Engle had. I wrote one of my college entrance essays about her books and wrote my Masters dissertation about A Swiftly Tilting Planet. And, although it’s been years since the days I poured over all her books, she indirectly influenced my decision to pursue a PhD. A Wrinkle in Time is celebrating it’s 50th anniversary right now, so there are tributes to L’Engle all over the place. I like knowing that she has influenced so many other people, including recent Newbery winner Rebecca Stead, whose When You Reach Me is an homage to L’Engle. She passed away when I was in the first year of my PhD. I never met her, although I did venture to St. John the Divine in NY once, because I knew she had been a librarian there. I never really needed to meet her though. I needed her books and I am truly thankful for them.

As for other authors I’m thankful for, I agree with Katie, that J. K. Rowling would definitely make the list, because of the connections and memories she inspired. I love that Harry created a common ground for so many people of varying ages. I love that my friends and I got dressed up for the release parties and celebrated book 5 in Boston, book 6 in London, and book 7 on Cape Cod. I love that in London we were interviewed by CNN International and BBC Spain because our group was first in line at Borders near Oxford Circus. I love that everyone in that group was over 18.

I’m thankful to Nancy Garden for writing YA books about gay and lesbian characters, when it was not socially acceptable to do so. I’m grateful that she continued writing books despite the incredible backlash against Annie on My Mind. I’m thankful that David Levithan currently writes amazing YA books with gay and lesbian characters that have redefined the genre. I appreciate that he neutralized the trauma of coming out in YA lit and writes great stories, where a character’s sexuality is integrated into their overall complex and nuanced identity.

In addition to Madeleine L’Engle, there are two other writers who have directly influenced my education: Thomas Mann and Diana Wynne Jones. I have vivid memories of reading Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers when I was 19. I was taking time off after high school and hadn’t started college yet. I spent a lot of that time debating about what I wanted to study once I went back and had come of with a variety of possibilities. The train of thought as I was reading Mann’s book was awe at the phenomenal narrative that he had created. I then started thinking about how much I enjoyed literature and that I wanted to spend my life reading great books. And it became so clear: I wanted to study literature in college. It was so obvious that I couldn’t even begin to explain why I hadn’t realized it before. So I majored in English, with a minor in Religion. I later encountered Diana Wynne Jones’s books for the first time in graduate school. I had signed up to present during week 5 of our British Children’s Lit post 1960 class. The assignment was Fire and Hemlock and I started to read the book with no prior knowledge or awareness about Jones or this particular story. I loved loved loved the book, but I did not have any idea how to begin interpreting it. During the research for my presentation I finally understood that the book was a rewriting of the Scottish ballads “Tam Lin” and “Thomas the Rhymer”. I distinctly remember the fwomp moment of enlightenment. Jones hadn’t simply rewritten the stories, she had rewritten the questions and ambiguities intrinsic in these two ballads. From there I became interested in Scottish ballads, fairy tales, rewriting, and metanarrative, which lead me to emailing a professor at the University of Edinburgh, who eventually became my advisor.

There you go. A literary history of sara’s education. Thanks, Katie, for the idea. Writing this post has reminded me how much of my life has been influenced by various authors and how tremendously thankful I am for them.

As I’ve indicated before, there are many amazing YA books being published these days, but my favorite ones to recommend are anything by David Levithan and John Green, especially Will Grayson/Will Grayson, which is co-written by David Levithan AND John Green (Speak, $9.99). woot!

Two Will Graysons, living in two different suburbs of Chicago meet unexpectedly one night. Like all of Levithan’s books, the spectrum of sexuality is represented through a range of characters. Gay, lesbian, bi, straight, questioning, unknown: they’re all there and they’ll all supported and encouraged. This book alternates between the two Will Grayson’s, one written by each author. Levithan’s stories are refreshing because they don’t include the ‘traumatic coming out’ experience that is often a staple in lbgtq YA books. The characters in his books, regardless of their sexual orientation, are always interesting kids. Levithan’s Will Grayson is more melancholic than many of his other characters (Paul in Boy Meets Boy immediately comes to mind), but mostly because he’s a teenager, not because he’s gay. Green’s Will Grayson has his own issues with relationships and friendships. His spot on commentary about high school dynamics made me laugh out loud several times.

But don’t stop there, read all of their other books, too, because Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List (co-written with Rachel Cohn), The Realm of Possibilities, An Abundance of Katherines, and, of course, the amazing The Fault in Our Stars are each phenomenal. And let’s all hope that they collaborate again soon.

I’ve decided to finish out this week on Fantasy with one of my all-time favorite books, with the promise that next time I revisit this genre I’ll include books that are a little more recent (yes, there are some amazing ones). Madeleine L’Engle is best-known for her sci-fi novel, A Wrinkle in Time, but she has written numerous other books that are all worth reading, especially A Ring of Endless Light (Square Fish, $7.99).

A Ring of Endless Light is one of the later books in what is now marketed as The Austin Chronicles. Readers, however, do not need to have read the previous books in this series. Vicky Austin, a teenager and a poet, meets Adam Eddington, a marine biology student, and assists with his summer research about dolphins. The book has science, music, literature, family, and romance, but mostly it is about death and grief. And yet this is one of the most inspirational books I read as a kid: a book I read and reread. L’Engle weaves science, religion, and love together so expertly, it’s almost impossible to determine whether A Ring of Endless Light is fantasy or simply the reality we’re looking for. As a teenager, her books showed me how amazingly mysterious life could be and as Vicky began to learn how to communicate with the dolphins, I started to learn how to communicate with the intricate world around me.

I never meant for this week to be all about Fantasy, but I’m enjoying it so much I figured I’d finish out the week. According to J. A. Appleyard in Becoming a Reader: The Experience of Fiction from Childhood to Adult, young children experience the world through fantasy, and that “they live in a magical, numinous world, where the boundaries between the self, the factual, and the imaginary are permeable and fluid” (22). As such, picture books often depict the self, the factual, and the imaginary all mixed-up together (think Where the Wild Things Are). The trend continues into early readers, so some might argue that most early reader books are fantasy, and certainly many of the classics are: Frog and Toad and Little Bear are prime examples.

The book I recommend most often for this age group, regardless of whether customers ask for fantasy specifically, is Tashi, by Anna Fienberg (Allen & Unwin, $5.99). Tashi is an imaginary friend . . . or not? There is a certain ambiguity about whether this book is fantasy — Tashi being a supernatural being — or realism — Tashi being Jack’s imaginary friend. Jack’s parents engage with Tashi, but it is unclear whether or not they actually see him. Like Appleyard’s arguement, Tashi (book and character) blurs the lines between fact and fiction. Kim Gamble’s illustrations depict Tashi’s adventures, but the text remains uncertain. The books (there are several in this series) are perfect for kids who are not *quite* ready for chapter books, but are well-written and will even be enjoyed by kids who are already reading longer stories.

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