We look back and identify ground breaking books: Alice in Wonderland, Where the Wild Things Are, Snowy Day. Do we know they are groundbreaking when they first come out? In some ways, yes. The immediate audience was aware that these books did something different; they changed something in publishing. To me, David Levithan’s newest book, Two Boys Kissing (Knopf, $18.99, out today), feels groundbreaking. The book is about two boys kissing. The title is Two Boys Kissing, and even the cover image shows two boys kissing. This book does not blink. It does not compromise. Don’t like it? Avert your eyes, because this book is. And it’s phenomenal. Like the books listed above, Two Boys Kissing is groundbreaking not because it has an agenda. Not because it’s trying to prove something or change anything. But because it is so well written and is an amazing story. Inspired by true events, the story centers on two boys who are trying to set a new record for the longest kiss — upwards of 32 hours. But there are several other stories woven throughout and they all deal with boys at various stages of their relationships. The novel is narrated by a Greek chorus of gay men who died from AIDS in the 1980s and this is where things really start to get interesting.
The boys are blissfully unaware of this chorus in the same way that gay kids today are often unaware of the struggles of previous generations. At the risk of saying “kids today!”, that’s exactly what’s happening here, but it is entirely appropriate. Kids, all kids, don’t always know the past. Why should they? They’re kids. As frustrating as it might be for the chorus to see that they boys don’t really know their stories, that is the way it works. Each generation fights to make things better for the next one and that next generation reaps the benefit without ever knowing there was a fight.
As for the chorus, their nostalgia for their own lost youths, their admiration for the freedom within the gay community today, and their resentment that they never had the chance to experience that freedom is heartbreaking. Levithan elicits empathy and love from the reader for both generations.
As I’ve said before, he is a masterful writer. This book, like his others, is differently amazing. I finally had the chance to meet him for about 45 seconds and was able to say the one thing that I’ve always wanted to tell him, “I wish your books had been around when I was a teenager.”
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.
Walter Dean Myers’s Darius & Twig (HarperCollins, $17.99, out today) packs a lot of big thoughts into a compact book. Darius wants to be a writer, but he’s struggling to understand his story. Twig is a natural runner. The two boys are best friends and fiercely support each other, even when no one else does. This story touches on community, loyalty, family, violence, respect, dreaming big, but it manages to address all of this things with a subtlety that is remarkable. Myers paints a very clear and lucid picture and then steps back quietly, while letting others make observations. He doesn’t set out to teach lessons, or impose anything on his readers. Instead, he tells a deceptively straightforward story about two friends that can be enjoyed on its own. For readers who want to push further into the story, however, the setting is incredibly rich, the secondary characters are interesting and complex, and the representations of class, race, socioeconomics, education, athletics are thought provoking. More than that, however, this story describes how writing forces us to look deeply inside of ourselves. I hope that high schools adopt this book and start using it in their writing classes. The evolution of Darious’s story is phenomenal. There are no easy answers, but what I love are the subtle changes as Darius looks critically at himself and his world. Myers’s reputation proceeds him. There’s a reason.
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.
The last time we had a major storm (Hurricane Sandy), I spent the day home reading ARCs by flashlight. Well it’s storming again, and some of those books are finally being released. So while this book has no particular connection to storms, I’ll always associate the two. Ruta Sepetys’s Out of the Easy (Philomel, $17.99, due out on Tuesday) is not an adventure story. It’s a story about character, and there are characters aplenty in 1950s New Orleans. Josie has a complicated life. Raised more by Willie, the madam at a French Quarter brothel, than her mother — an employee of that same brothel, who alternately lies and steals from Josie — Josie learns quickly to take care of herself. She moves into the back room of a bookstore at age 12 and eventually sets her sights on getting out of New Orleans and in to Smith College. Reminiscent of Cassandra from I Capture the Castle, Josie is competent, intelligent, and just naive enough to make a few mistakes. The New Orleans’s French Quarter is as much a character in this novel as Josie, Willie, Cokie, Patrick, Sweety, and Jesse, but this is Josie’s New Orleans, not the tourists’: she sleeps through Mardi Gras. Southern literary references abound and there are subtle elements of second wave feminism that provide a nuanced context and support, rather than distract from, the story. Due to the matter-of-fact references to prostitution, corruption, drinking, blackmail, and guns, this book is probably better for older teens and will make an excellent cross-over book. It could have easily been 50 pages longer, but I’m hoping that the lack of resolution with some of the minor characters means there might be a sequel on the way.
The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer Smith (Poppy Books, $8.99) isn’t really a Valentine’s Day book. It actually takes place in the summer around the 4th of July. But it’s cheesy and romantic, so I thought it seemed appropriate to recommend it now. When I first saw this book, it struck me as rather cheesy and romantic, but it has been getting such good reviews that I thought for sure it must have more depth than I thought. It doesn’t. It’s super cheesy. But sometimes that’s what you want to read, so I’ll go ahead and recommend it anyway. Haley is on her way to her father’s wedding in London. She doesn’t want to go. She’s never met her step-mother-to-be. She’s still quite angry at her parent’s divorce. And she misses her plane by four minutes. Somehow, while waiting for a later flight, she meets a guy. THE guy, who also happens to be sitting in her row on the plane. They fly across the Atlantic getting to know each other and falling in love. Then they get separated at Immigration (he’s British) and the rest of the novel is spent searching London for that one perfect person you happened to have met on a plane. I told you it was cheesy. But just because I flew back and forth between New York and London at least 3-4 times a year for 7 years and never sat next to one interesting person, let alone someone I could fall in love with in less than 7 hours AND I’ve never met anyone else that ever has either, doesn’t mean it’s statistically impossible : ) It’s a fun book, relatively well-written, with decent characters. Nevertheless, it is over-the-top romance, which, despite (or because of) my protestations of ridiculous romantic commercialism, is why I’m recommending it for Valentine’s Day.
I wanted to title this post ‘for a teenager who wants a book that is better than its title/cover’, but no one’s ever asked me for that. Sarah Dessen is a perfect example, though. I picked up one her books years ago, thinking it would be an easy read for the train, and was really surprised at how well written it was and how complex the characters were. She continues to write and although I haven’t read all of her works, I can confidently recommend them (especially This Lullaby). So what about for someone who has read all of Sarah Dessen? I usually recommend Stephanie Perkin’s two books: Anna and the French Kiss (Speak, $9.99) and Lola and the Boy Next Door (Dutton Books, $16.99).
When I hand Anna and the French Kiss to a young/mid teen, I often see the parent’s eyes open a little wider and I feel compelled to indicate that the book isn’t nearly as salacious as it sounds. There are approximately two significant kisses. I’m sorry to say they are both relatively innocent. The book is actually about a girl who is sent to boarding school in Paris for her senior year of high school. It deals with living abroad, making friends, discovering a new culture and then reexamining your own. There is actually more sexuality in Lola and the Boy Next Door (although mostly off the page). Lola is dating an older man (22 to her 17), whom both of her fathers hate. She loves fashion and never leaves the house twice in the same outfit, wig, or accessories. Although Lola often tries to convince herself that she’s old for her years, she still struggles with identity, especially when her her appearance is forever changing. Cricket Bell — the boy next door — wears great pants, invents cool devices, and is determined to help Lola see herself for who she actually is. Set in San Francisco, with a delightful and colorful cast of characters, including Anna from the first book, Lola is a fun read that will surprise you with its depth and quality.
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.