In Bill Konigsberg’s Openly Straight (Arthur A. Levine Books, $17.99, out in June), Rafe is tired of being ‘the gay kid’. He lives in a supportive home with parents who are activists on his behalf and for community in general. His school has protected him, and he regularly speaks at organizations about diversity and education. But he needs a break. He needs a change. He needs to feel like he can be himself without constantly working for ‘the cause’. Rafe applies to a boarding school out East and figures that going there will be his chance to not exactly go back into the closet, but maybe not be so publicly out of it. This isn’t the first YA book to deal with an openly gay teenager, who tries to put on a mantle of not being an openly gay teenager. Pink, by Lili Wilkinson (winner of a Stonewall ALA honor award), tells a similar story about a girl who changes schools for similar reasons. Ava, however, spends more time questioning her sexuality and the ending leaves her story somewhat ambiguous. In Openly Straight, Rafe never doubts that he is gay. It’s not his sexuality that’s in question, it’s his identity. This story will appeal to anyone who has experienced feeling reduced to one facet of themselves, whether ‘good’ or ‘bad’ : ‘the honor student’, ‘the athlete’, ‘the Asian girl’, ‘the popular one’, ‘the band geek’, ‘the fat guy’, ‘the new kid’, ‘the singer’, ‘the . . .’. We are all complex individuals. But as much as Rafe wants to be more than a label, he slowly realizes that denying part of himself turns him in to something else entirely: ‘the liar’.
I’ve been alternating between reading upcoming books and catching up with books already out that I’ve missed and recently read ALA William C. Morris Debut Award finalist, The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily Danforth (Balzer + Bray, $17.99, paperback coming in May). A customer ordered it, and I decided it was definitely a novel I needed to read. After all, it’s set in the early 90s, which is precisely when I was a teenager. I’ll say up front that it took me a while to get into this book. At close to 500 pages, it is rather hefty and I do think that perhaps the first 100 pages or so could have been edited. But it was worth continuing and the second half of the book was incredibly engaging.
On the day that Cameron kisses her best friend, Irene, her parents die in a car crash. Although cosmically unrelated, Cameron can’t quite separate the two events in her mind. The arbitrary connection doesn’t stop her from wanting to kiss Irene again, kissing Lindsay a few years later, or falling for Coley in high school and kissing her. But this is the early 90s, and in the spirit of LBGT lit, someone is bound to find out about Cameron eventually. And the are not going to like it. Cue born-again Christian aunt, who eventually sends Cameron to a religious conversion school for troubled youth (oh god, youths!), much like But I’m a Cheerleader. It’s at this moment, when you’re so angry at the complete ignorance of all the adults in Cameron’s life, that the book actually starts getting interesting. Mostly because Cameron is smart. Despite the loss of her parents, despite her complete lack of role models, and despite the fact that the two friends she cared about the most have both abandoned her, she knows who she is and that this conversion school is crap. Cameron makes an interesting comment about the conflation between the homophobia and psychology that pervades her treatment. She knows that conversion isn’t meant to help her or her peers, it’s meant to make them hate themselves. She pegs it as emotional abuse. The desire to save her soul is intrinsically intertwined with the desire to extinguish her. Reading a book like this makes me grateful for the things that have changed and horrified by what hasn’t. After a tragedy strikes the school, Cameron calls out the minister, “You guys don’t even know what you’re doing here, do you? You’re just like making it up as you go along and then something like this happens and you’re gonna pretend like you have answers that you don’t even have and it’s completely fucking fake. You don’t know how to fix this. You should just say that: We fucked it up.” Wish I could have been that articulate when I was in high school.
If you’ve been following this blog, you’ll know by now that David Levithan is, hands down, my favorite contemporary YA author. So of course I was delighted when I saw that he had a new book coming out this year. Invisibility is co-written with Andrea Cremer (Philomel, $18.99, out today). Levithan has co-written books with author authors including John Green and Rachel Cohn. I think this format suits him and these books generally offer various interpretations of the same event, which teaches something about perspective. However, Levithan’s books have tended more toward realism and in this way Invisibility is a bit of a departure. As I’ve argued before, though, his books are all differently amazing and he is perpetually pushing the boundaries of YA narrative, so I’m not surprised at this new approach. Furthermore, I don’t know Cremer’s work well enough to know whether she tends to write fantasy. To be fair, Every Day also included some fantastic elements, even while maintaining a sense of realism. Nevertheless, Invisibility contains wizards, curses, and a teenager who is invisible. Now as fantastic as this occurrence might be, it still strikes me as an interesting universal metaphor of the teen experience. I certainly remember feeling invisible. Don’t you? And many, if not all, YA books deal at least tangentially with teenagers who are neither heard, listened to, nor understood. Isn’t that one of the tropes of teenagedom? Feeling like no one ‘hears’ you or ‘sees’ you? Trying you damnedest to see yourself and figure out how to present yourself to the world? Another common trope is the jubilation of meeting someone who finally does see you for who you really are. And this book has an interesting twist on that concept, too. When Elizabeth meets Stephen, she has no idea that he’s invisible, because she can see him. It’s kind of brilliant actually. It’s a poignant reminder that what we see isn’t always seen by others. The fantasy part of this book is good. But it’s the parts that feel the most real, the conundrum of invisibility, that make it an amazing story. And per Leviethan’s style, this book leaves so many unanswered questions that it could easily have a sequel. I expect it won’t though and instead it allows the readers space to write the stories themselves. Stories to be heard. And seen.
I’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.
Here again, I feel a certain divisiveness in my reactions to a book that I’ve recently read. I’m desperate to talk about it, but I’m a bit wary of actually recommending it. I think the former impulse is winning out, however. I picked up A. S. King’s Ask the Passengers (Little, Brown, $17.99) super excited to read a new YA title, especially one that deals with gay and lesbian themes. I’ve really enjoyed seeing the various ways that authors have approached this topic, especially since we finally seem to have gotten over the ‘traumatic coming out’ narrative rut.
Ask the Passengers contains a very interesting protagonist. Astrid had a strong narrative voice, but was also somewhat detached from her life and environment. I liked that, because I often feel that way, like I’m watching, but not really participating. One of the recurring scenes in the book is of Astrid laying on the picnic table in the back yard, sending love and questions to the passengers of the planes flying above. Again, this concept felt incredibly relatable. I love traveling, because I like experiencing new places and cultures, but I like traveling, because I like moving. There was something intriguing about a high-school girl, stagnant in her home town, thinking about the people on the move above her. Her own struggles with the confinement of living in a small town, where she does not identify with the dominant way of thinking, were palpable in these scenes. Again, I connected with her there. I also connected with her resistance to the pressure pushing her in a direction that was not her direction. I felt the exhaustion of fighting back, and appreciated that she stayed the course.
What I did not like was the melodramatic trauma of dealing with her sexuality. Her confusion was normal, but overdone. Her girlfriend was pushy and super annoying. Her ‘gay best friends’ struck me as rather ignorant and irritating. Finally, the response, even from this small town, was so negative, it just didn’t feel very realistic to me. Maybe it would have if the book was set in the early 1990s, but the cultural references indicate that it is set in the 2010s. I’m not delusional and I realize that homophobia still exists, but the book seemed really imbalanced. It was as if she, and her friends, were the first kids to come out in this town ever. Highly unlikely.
What I did appreciate, however, was Astrid’s distinction between “lying” and “not telling everyone everything, just because they asked”. As she works through her own sexual orientation, she does so internally. Thinking. Critiquing. Speculating. Her friends, her parents, and even her girlfriend, all demand that she ‘come out’, ‘tell the world’, ‘tell the truth’. When accused of lying about herself, she tells her best friend, “I see what you’re trying to say. But you’re wrong. . . . Who is anyone to tell me when to talk about something so personal?” This conversation really struck a chord with me, because I firmly believe that it is one of these crucial aspects of teenagers that adults often ignore. Teenagers are accused of secrecy, sullenness, being cagey, or rude, but I’ve always felt that there is a larger developmental process occurring. I think that teens are starting to understand that they are separate human beings, with their own thoughts, and that they start to develop a sense of privacy. A sense of their right to privacy and that they can have thoughts that they don’t share with anyone. Or that they themselves can chose who they share their personal thoughts with.
Insofar as Ask the Passengers deals with teen identity, philosophy, and relationships, it is a good book, and one I would recommend. The lesbian plot line, however, was forced, unnecessary, and not remotely believable. While I commend the author for attempting to augment YA LBGT lit, unfortunately I think this book took a huge step backwards in that area.
The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, by E. Lockhart (Hyperion, $8.99) is precisely one of the books I was thinking about when writing yesterday’s post. I want to say up front that it’s a great read and I do recommend it. Frankie, tired of being treated like a child, becomes a behind-the-scenes ‘criminal mastermind’ at her rather traditional, ‘boys club’ turned co-ed boarding school. She creates and organizes intelligent and symbolic pranks. She anonymously sends detailed instructions, and an unofficial fraternity on campus carries them out, not realizing, of course, who is orchestrating the schemes. Frankie is smart and insightful; I think a lot of teenage readers will relate to her frustration of not being taken seriously. What bothered me about this book, though, is that Frankie ultimately ends up alone. She is clearly in a class by herself, which means, unfortunately, that she is in a class by herself. I wish wish wish that there had been someone who got it, who understood her and valued her for the insight she provided. There was a moment when it seemed like her roommate might, but by the end, not so much. The book itself is rather upbeat. Frankie learns who she is and learns to value herself, even when no one else does. It was the ‘but no one else does’ that was kind of depressing and seems too often to be the way of the world. Fit in and lose yourself or be yourself and lose everyone else.
Minus the teenager part, that’s me. home sick today. ugh. What’s even worse is that I wasn’t scheduled to work anyway. So I spent my day off, which is currently experiencing lovely weather, alternating between chills and a fever. I’m better now and hoping it was a 12-hour bug and not the nasty 48-hour thing that everyone else seems to have. So what to read when you don’t have the energy to do anything else? Well I just finished My Most Excellent Year by Steve Kluger (Speak, $8.99) and I really enjoyed it. Chapters alternate between three main narrators: T. C. Keller, Augie Hwong, and Alejandra Perez. Each section includes a variety of communication forms, email, text, IM, office memos, about some of which the narrators aren’t always aware. This range of communication offers a more comprehensive picture of these three freshmen’s ‘most excellent year’.
Set in Boston, T. C. and Augie have been brothers since T. C.’s mom died and the two families melded to the point where Mom, Dad, Pop, as well as extended relatives don’t bother to differentiate biological relations. During their ‘most excellent year’ T. C. and Augie maintain their close bond, but they both begin to develop new relationships. T. C. meets Alejandra, who has just moved to town, and Hucky, a six-year old, who alternates between foster care and a home for children with hearing impairments. Augie, more to his surprise than anyone else’s, meets Andy Wexler, who is just as surprised to be falling for Augie. Alejandra, who has spent her life as a diplomat’s daughter somewhat cut off from her peers, starts to make real friends and discover her own talents in theatre. Along the way, each of them fully begins to appreciate that families are made by surrounding yourself with the people who love and support you and that there’s always room for one more.
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.
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.