Monday, May 20, 2013
This week's contribution to So You Want to Read YA? comes from literary agent Amy Stern.
Amy Stern is currently an assistant agent at the Sheldon Fogelman Agency. She taught science fiction and fantasy at the Simmons College Center for the Study of Children's Literature, where she also got her MA in children's literature and her MLS in library science. She is occasionally pretentious about children's literature on her twitter @yasubscription and her blog yasubscription.wordpress.com. She reads a lot about superheroes, watches a lot of reality television, talks a lot about problems with gender normativity in popular culture, and spends entirely too much time on the internet.
We talk a lot about finding the "right book at the right time for the right reader" when we're talking about getting things for other people to read. I don't think that we give it nearly as much thought when we're choosing what to read ourselves. We are people who crave good stories, and then talk about them on the internet. We are the opposite of the reluctant reader.
One of the hardest things I've had to do- as an agent, as a scholar, and perhaps most importantly as a person who loves stories- was come to terms with the fact that I can't actually separate myself from the books I read. I can recognize the artistry and skill that goes in to telling a story without loving it; conversely, I can recognize there are parts of a novel that are deeply flawed while still connecting with it on a deep visceral level. But I will always see the best stories as the ones that combine those two for me, and that's inherently subjective.
So for this blog post, I didn't choose what I think of as the "best" novels by some kind of arbitrary external standard that probably doesn't really exist. And I didn't choose my favorites, because that's more an exploration of my id than young adult as an overall category. Instead, I'm taking this opportunity to look at twelve novels that made me reexamine my own criteria for what makes YA something worth taking another look at- books that were the right book at the right time for me as a reader, and why each of them struck when they did.
A HOUSE LIKE A LOTUS by Madeleine L'Engle
The first time I read the novel, I didn't get it. I mean, I really didn't get it. I was in fifth grade, and I just kind of passed over the parts that didn't fit into my world view. Looking back, I'm not sure how I got anything out of it without all of those parts, but I did have that emotional connection that made it one of my favorite books. A HOUSE LIKE A LOTUS is about Polly, a teenaged girl struggling with her understanding of the world in both practical and abstract ways. When I was older and reread the novel, I was stunned by how much of the world she discovers; the novel explores- sometimes delicately, sometimes clumsily- sex and sexuality, childhood and adulthood, belief and betrayal.
If you're familiar with L'Engle's work, it's hard to separate LOTUS from the context of L'Engle's other books. Polly is the daughter of Meg and Calvin, two of the protagonists of her Newbery-winning A WRINKLE IN TIME. This is never brought to the forefront, but it's a constant undercurrent; if you're familiar with L'Engle's Time Quartet, the characters will ring very familiar. And it's through that lens that it hits so hard when Max, Polly's brilliant but troubled mentor, points out that Polly's mother is unhappy.
Lots of young adult books deal with the complexity of realizing that the adults in your life have as many conflicting emotions as you do, but this was the first novel where I couldn't escape the fact that the adult in question was a grown-up version of a teen protagonist I'd identified with. She hadn't just grown up and lived happily ever after; she'd made choices, and those choices had consequences, both good and bad. A HOUSE LIKE A LOTUS is Polly's story, but when I remember it, I think about how Charles Wallace is off on a secret mission and Calvin is performing cutting-edge surgery on animals and Sandy is an international diplomat and Meg is at home, helping with Calvin's research and not getting her PhD because she doesn't want any of her seven kids to feel "less than," the way she did compared to her own mother.
A HOUSE LIKE A LOTUS isn't the book that introduced me to intertextuality, but it's the one that taught me- many years after my first read- that a series of books can be more than the sum of its parts.
EVIL GENIUS by Catherine Jinks
First, a word of warning: this novel starts when Cadel is seven and ends when he's a young teenager. But this is not a middle grade novel. This is the first novel in a trilogy, and by the third book Cadel matches up to the age we expect in a YA novel, but this is not Harry Potter. There isn't sexual content, and the violence isn't horribly explicit, but a nine-year-old isn't going to get much out of this. I'm 28 and some of the sociological and scientific concepts the book covers confuse me.
That said, this book is totally worth the time and effort it takes.
I love stories about giftedness, but hate stories about smart kids whose intellect is rivaled only by their failure at basic social interactions. As an awkward, nerdy kid who both had friends and liked spending time alone, I resented the idea that academic talent was inextricably linked to wanting desperately to belong and falling flat. When a friend gave me a copy of EVIL GENIUS and told me I'd love it, I cringed, but decided to give it a shot. And the book did the impossible, by turning that plot I hate into something I deeply care about.
Cadel's genius lies largely in understanding complex systems, and he views everything as yet another case study. Being raised by not-terribly-well-meaning adults who are trying to make him the best super villain he can be does not increase his empathy. He doesn't interact with other kids much, and while he may be lonely, he doesn't have any real desire to be part of their world. He simply views them as gears in the larger machinery, and the story- told in close third person- allows the reader to see this as logically as he does. When Cadel slowly develops empathy, it feels earned, and we see that his intelligence wasn't at all a blockade to connecting to other people. In fact, he's able to use it as a bridge.
EVIL GENIUS is my reminder that there's no story out there that's been done to death, because there are always new angles making something old fresh. If that angle is supervillainy, so be it.
ON THE JELLICOE ROAD by Melina Marchetta
For context here, I have to explain that I am a pretentious jerk who desperately wants to be well-read enough that when the ALA awards are announced every January, I say "Oh, I read that" and promptly begin arguing whether or not the best story won. Some years, I get more into this goal than others.
The year JELLICOE won was probably the height of my commitment to this completely asinine goal. I basically stopped sleeping in favor of reading a YA novel every night. I read all of the prediction blogs, and used them to make lists that I took to libraries and bookstores. I started to get YA lit fatigue; each book I read started to feel more like a chore than a treat, and I was so stressed about reading what would win that I wasn't registering the individual stories as much besides items to check off on a list. The day before the ALA awards were announced, though, I decided that if I hadn't read it yet, I wouldn't have read it. I'd read something for fun- something to relax. And I'd really liked SAVING FRANCESCA, so I figured I'd give this book I'd picked up on a whim a shot. Instead, JELLICOE wrenched me apart, and then it put me back together again.
I could talk for days about the ways JELLICOE uses various literary techniques to build an outstanding story, one which stands up even better on second read than on first. Structurally in particular, JELLICOE does what I love most in a novel: even unrelated parts parallel each other, adding depth, by the end, every aspect of the story feels complete and whole, without a beginning or an end; this is a Moebius strip of a novel. Nothing is extraneous; every piece has emotional or plot payoff, if not both, and even as the story comes full circle, so does the reader, as the appreciation of each part snowballs in the context of the pieces around it.
But more than anything, JELLICOE is a novel about the power of stories and of storytelling that also recognizes how things which help you heal are often the ones that hurt the most. None of its answers are easy, and that makes all of its answers, both good and bad, feel honest. And what matters most to me is that I found all of that in the story, not when I was looking at it with the lens of "will this win an award?", but rather when I just sat down and let myself drown in it. When I got myself to a place where reading YA novels felt like work, JELLICOE reminded me why I choose to read in the first place.
HOUSE OF STAIRS by William Sleator
I love a good dystopia as much as the next YA aficionado, but I have to admit that every time I read one, my evaluation of it butts up against my feelings on this book. Nearly all of HOUSE OF STAIRS takes place in a single room, with only five characters. The novel is short, under 200 pages. The teenagers feel contemporary, but small details pop up which feel incongruous to what we know of our world. Gradually, the reader realizes how disturbing the world of HOUSE OF STAIRS is.
Everything about this novel is surprising, but in a way that's earned; once you've read it, you'll see how much all of the groundwork was expertly laid while you weren't looking. My favorite part, though, is how the characters subvert stereotypes. I'm almost afraid to say more, because it gives away too much, but reading the novel there's a sense of "Oh, I know all of the pieces in this game" that slowly dissolves as you realize you know nothing about this world- just like the characters! (Yeah, shit gets deep in this book.)
This is not a perfect book. On my most recent reread, I was horrified by the fat politics of the story; additionally, when you step back, the overall plot has some holes you could drive a truck through. But even when I was appalled or disbelieving, I never considered putting the book down; it's that gripping. HOUSE OF STAIRS is my reminder that
YA isn't about the biggest concept or the most ostentatious plot; a young adult novel is discovering more of your world, and that can be as big as the universe or as small as a single room with nothing but endless staircases.
DOING TIME: NOTES FROM THE UNDERGRAD by Rob Thomas
Like most librarians and publishing people on the internet, apparently, I saw Veronica Mars when it aired, fell in love, and immediately tracked down Rob Thomas's YA novels. But I wasn't just a quitter who stopped at RATS SAW GOD, or even SLAVE DAY. Oh no. I tracked down all of them. And while I understand why RSG was everyone's favorite, there will always be a special place in my heart for DOING TIME.
DOING TIME: NOTES FROM THE UNDERGRAD is not technically a short story collection, but it feels like it; after the introductory chapter, each story is a first-person account from the perspective of a different kid completing their school's mandatory volunteer hours. Nothing about this should work, but somehow it all fits together. When you hear the summary RATS SAW GOD, you say "Yes, this sounds fascinating and it definitely should work." When you hear the summary of DOING TIME, you say "what the fuck? Are you at all familiar with the young adult market?" But the miracle of this book is that each story is successful, on its own and as a part of a larger whole.
Objectively (or as objectively as anyone can when talking about literature), this isn't Rob Thomas's best book. It's self-consciously edgy, and some pieces feel like they're just present for the sake of controversy. While every story in the collection works, some are much more successful than others, and the stories aren't long enough to make me believe every character. DOING TIME isn't a book I can get lost in. But it is a reminder that in the right hands, even the craziest concepts can work.
EMPRESS OF THE WORLD by Sara Ryan
There are queer novels that function primarily as Queer Novels. They are fundamentally about gayness; they are important in our canon because rather than shying away from queer relationships they dive into them headfirst. These novels are important; they pave the way. But they pave the way for books which have queer themes and queer characters but aren't fundamentally ABOUT queerness, books that are primarily about characters discovering who they are, and if part of that is their sexuality, that isn't the whole. EMPRESS OF THE WORLD was the first queer novel I read that wasn't a Queer Novel, and I fell in love with it.
I can't pretend I wasn't predisposed to liking this. EMPRESS is about a group of teens at a summer camp for gifted students, and two of them- both girls- fall for each other. This is basically a checklist of things that would make me fall in love with a story. But EMPRESS uses all of these elements as a starting point, rather than the goal. There are both straight and queer romances in this novel, and obviously those are the focus, but what grabs me is the group's immediate deep friendship, the kind that you only develop at summer camp. I knew enough of the concept to expect, going in, that we'd see characters explore their sexualities, but what struck me even more the first time I read it was that this book had non-white and non-Christian characters, just as a matter of course.
Sexuality, race, and religion are all just factors in the greater task of exploring who these characters are as human beings, and no one part of their identities exists in a vacuum.
EMPRESS OF THE WORLD is the story that reminds me a novel is only as strong as the relationships that form its foundation, and world building is only as strong as the people inhabiting that space.
[Note that may or may not be necessary: I'm using "queer" here as a catch-all term for QUILTBAG- queer, uncertain, intersex, lesbian, trans*, bisexual, asexual, gay.]
THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE STORY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN by Sherman Alexie
This is not a book I would recommend if you're interested in young adult literature. This is a book I'd recommend if you live in the world.
A lot of these books I have a single explanation for, a specific thing that makes it special. The closest I can come with this book is that, while Junior is clearly the protagonist and we are definitely rooting for him, there isn't anyone I'd identify as straight-up villain. There are antagonists, but everyone is complex and human, and characters who do awful things also show complexity when you least expect it. This is a universe filled with people who behave like people, and through all the plot twists and turns, the novel never loses sight of how the root of every action is in real humans beings.
One of my golden rules for exceptional novels is that you should genuinely believe that, outside of the protagonist's point of view, every single character has a full life and is living out their own complex thematic arc that occasionally happens to intersect with the main character's. For me, this novel is the gold standard in that.
AFTER TUPAC AND D. FOSTER by Jacqueline Woodson
Jacqueline Woodson's novels tend to exist in the space between middle grade and young adult, and judging by the Newbery honor it got, I know that most people would classify this one as middle grade. The characters are only twelve, and while I'm sure some parts of the plot could be seen as "edgy," the three girls in this story are constantly aware of the dangers of the world without ever succumbing to them.
What makes this novel YA for me, though, is how much the story exists on a precipice. Neeka, D, and the narrator (she's never named) see all around them what growing up means- both becoming a teen and becoming an adult- and they're simultaneously desperate to make that jump and determined to stay where they are. What makes AFTER TUPAC AND D FOSTER exceptional, for me, is that it manages this without ever being nostalgic. The text doesn't romanticize adulthood, childhood, or adolescence. And that choice makes the emotional impact more, rather than less, because every development feels achingly real.
I've known for a while that young adult literature shouldn't be nostalgic, but this novel is what I look toward when I think about how that doesn't mean it can't remember the beautiful moments and the terrible moments that you don't always notice when you're in the middle of them.
NORTH OF BEAUTIFUL by Justina Chen
Mixed-media is my favorite style of art. I'm constantly amazed at what can be done with collage, using several different materials to create something that's more than the sum of its parts. But I'm always suspicious of art in literature. Too often, it's just there because the writer and much of the target audience (I include myself in this!) views a creative outlet as a necessary part of existing. Art needs to be used deftly, I think, to capture the idea that the act of creating isn't just a source of joy. It's also frightening, and that's part of what makes it so valuable.
The protagonist of NORTH OF BEAUTIFUL, Terra, loves working on collages even as she denies being an artist. Throughout the novel, she evaluates her circumstances in the context of her art. Her father doesn't support her art, and she doesn't have much faith in it herself, but at the same time, it shapes her world view. Terra is self-conscious about the birthmark on her face, and she uses her art to discover her own definition of beauty. She slowly learns to view each piece of her life as one item in a larger collage, and at the same time, to view her collages as things worthy of being seen and appreciated by others. Throughout this, though, the novel admirably refrains from hitting the reader over the head with the symbolism of collage. Terra is allowed to slowly discover how her art and her worldview are related, while rarely explicitly spelling it out.
NORTH OF BEAUTIFUL is about a lot of things. It's about geocaching; it's about living up to expectations; it's about unrealistic standards of beauty. All of those are probably more central to the plot than the motif of artwork. But none are more important to me. When I think about this novel, I think about the excitement and terror of destroying things to make new and better things, and how expertly that's woven into the text- one of many pieces that contributes to the novel being more than the sum of its parts. It's really difficult to integrate symbolism in a way that feels honest to the reader and realistic in the text, and it's to this book's credit that it pulls it off so well.
BLEEDING VIOLET by Dia Reeves
I love and hate books about mental illness in equal measure. I love them because I think, done right, they're some of the most brutally honest reflections on what it means to be a person. I hate them because, so often, a character is reduced to a stereotype of a disorder, and that stereotype is the plot of the story as well as the whole of what passes for personality.
Hanna identifies as bipolar. But that isn't all she is. Even though she's clearly unbalanced, far beyond bipolarity- within the first chapter we learn she talks to her father's ghost and she's probably killed someone- she's learned to allow herself to live a life that works for her, sometimes in ways that are incredibly detrimental but often in ways that show how people are fundamentally resilient. It isn't normal, but it's how she's learned to cope. So when she finds herself in the town of Portero, a town which is dangerously supernatural in ways no paranormal romance could prepare you for, she doesn't get frightened and leave. Her abrupt mood shifts and her tenuous grip on reality, which have hurt her in so many other places, help her adjust to a town where things change on a dime and the surreal is a fact of life. As a reader familiar with unreliable narrators, it's easy to place Hanna into that box, but that's as unwise as trusting Hanna completely. She's crazy, but she's also often right.
This is a bleak book. If you're squeamish, you don't want to read this. (And you especially don't want to read Dia Reeves's other book; compared to that, this is tame.) It's also a very disquieting reading experience. Much of the enjoyment in the book seems to stem from how much you believe Hanna, and how much you're willing to go along with her for the ride. I don't see this as a flaw with the writing, but rather a consequence of how successful the writing is. Hanna's psyche is dangerous, and getting tangled up in her mindset is unsettling. But that discomfort lends to the atmosphere of the book, and when I think about books with such strong character and voice that they can take me anywhere, BLEEDING VIOLET is the first that comes to mind.
HOUSE OF THE SCORPION by Nancy Farmer
In the same year, HOUSE OF THE SCORPION got a Printz honor, a Newbery honor, and the National Book Award medal. The year it won, my writing prof told me I'd get a lot out of reading it. I saw how long the novel was, saw the family tree at the beginning that told me how complex the story would be, and decided to ignore her advice. I didn't think any novel could be worth that much work. I was so, so wrong.
There are plenty of books for children and young adults about drugs, but very few are this nuanced. This isn't about the dangers of opium, or even of the drug trade; this is a novel about power and identity, and it uses contemporary issues to create a dangerous science-fiction world that feels terrifyingly plausible. From the first pages, we know Matt is the clone of a powerful dictator, who rules over a strip of land between the United States and what was once Mexico. Over the course of the novel, although the story goes deep, we are aware we're barely scratch the surface of what that means. We learn just enough to realize how many other layers lie just beneath.
Despite being blatant and even over-the-top about how terrible the world can be (there are multiple dystopias within the same universe, and the very idea of a place of safety is an illusion), HOUSE OF THE SCORPION is often quite subtle. It can achieve this because the novel is told from Matt's point of view. The novel can be terrifying, but while occasionally it's graphic, most of the true horror exists in the space between what Matt understands and what the reader does. When I want to remember how much authors can trust their audience to fill in the blanks, this is the text I return to.
WELCOME TO THE ARK by Stephanie S. Tolan
This book is a cheat to include on the list. I can't tell you what about it makes it good, or even that it really is good. What I know is that the first time I read this book I couldn't put it down, and that while the cover on my copy has fallen off, I refuse to replace it. This book is, for me, a marker in time and place; when and where I read it are as ingrained in me as the plot and the characters.
WELCOME TO THE ARK is ostensibly the first book of a trilogy (the third book still hasn't come out, and it's over ten years later), about two children and two teenagers who meet at an experimental group home within a mental institution. All four of them are extraordinarily gifted in different ways, and while alone each of them is isolated, they find themselves are able to connect with each other- and through that with the world- in ways which defy explanation. It's a mostly-realistic story that has fantasy elements; it is wish fulfillment for every kid who feels like there's no one in the world who sees the world as they do.
This is the book that reminds me that at the end of the day, the book that we need to read- whether or not we know why we need it, or even that we do- is a hell of a lot more important than any other standard we can place on the literature we read.
Saturday, May 18, 2013
I'm currently loving this series of "Things that remind me of" on this tumblr, and the image above is for the "Things that remind me of" for Malinda Lo's Ash. Spend a little time checking out all of the awesome posts here -- talk about a neat idea for visually thinking about books. I might have to try it.
This week's edition of Links of Note is short -- we've been collecting so many links for "30 Days of Awesome" and for the read and blog along to The Chocolate War. If you haven't spent time on either of those, you should.
If there's something I missed from the last couple of weeks worth knowing about, let me know.
- Andrea Pinkney talks about diverse covers over at the CBC Diversity blog and calls for a love fest of favorite covers featuring the full faces or bodies of people of color.
- At School Library Journal, there's a nice post about YA books you might have overlooked in the last couple of years. Interesting to me is the book that just came out being listed, only because it just came out. How could it already be overlooked? Either way, it's a good list.
- Flavorwire has a fun post featuring the handwritten book outlines from well-known authors, including JK Rowling and Sylvia Plath.
- Is it weird to include a post I helped write in the roundup? I'm going to anyway. Author Kathleen Peacock and I cowrote a piece about how piracy hurts libraries, authors, and readers. I talked specifically about how you can get books you want into your own library (and how piracy doesn't help that happen).
- Hilary T. Smith, author of Wild Awake (which I have a review of coming in a couple weeks) has an interview with the designer of her book cover. This is a neat read!
- A panel of authors on the question of likability. This is worth reading.
- "Where are all of the funny YA books?" is a question I hate hearing. Sure, there's not necessarily a YA humor section but there are plenty of funny YA books. Lawrence Public Library in Lawrence, Kansas even made this awesome flowchart to funny YA.
- This post is from earlier in May, but it resonated with me: what is the fate of the book blogger?
- I have yet to finish reading this piece, so part of why I'm sharing is because I want to remember to finish it and because it made the rounds of a few blogs I read. It's long form journalism and super interesting -- the lack of the female road narrative and why that matters.
- I think this is one of the best blog posts I've read in a long time. EM Kokie talks about how in YA, sexuality tends to be shied away from when it relates to females and female body parts. Why is this? I think I could write an entire post about this very topic because it's one I think about quite a bit.
- So it's interesting no one has talked about the fact that this New York Times Book Review of Andrew Smith's Winger coins the term "Green Lit," as though John Green is the gold standard for realistic fiction. In my mind, this piece said more about THAT than it ever did in terms of reviewing the book.
Pam, of Mother Reader, isn't hosting this year's annual 48 Hour Book Challenge, but it will be happening. Check out her post for all the details on the new hosts and how it'll play out. I plan on participating -- are you?
Now you've read The Chocolate War. What do you read next? Here's a short list with some suggestions for further reading. Some of these titles cover aspects of bullying. Some are about portraying the truth in the most honest and painful way possible. Some of them are about social dynamics and social truths. Some of them are all of the above.
Part of why I wanted to put together this short list is because a number of books that more recent YA readers have come to know were inspired by Cormier's classic, whether or not they were aware of it. In many ways, this book opened up a dialog about peer pressure, about conformity, and about the dynamics of relationships in high school in teen fiction and in teen lives.
All descriptions come from WorldCat. I'd love to know of other books you see as strong read alikes to The Chocolate War, and I'd also love to hear about books that were definitely inspired by Cormier's classic. Leave your thoughts in the comments!
Permanent Record by Leslie Stella: Being yourself can be such a bad idea. For sixteen-year-old Badi Hessamizadeh, life is a series of humiliations. After withdrawing from public school under mysterious circumstances, Badi enters Magnificat Academy. To make things "easier," his dad has even given him a new name: Bud Hess. Grappling with his Iranian-American identity, clinical depression, bullying, and a barely bottled rage, Bud is an outcast who copes by resorting to small revenges and covert acts of defiance, but the pressures of his home life, plummeting grades, and the unrequited affection of his new friend, Nikki, prime him for a more dangerous revolution. Strange letters to the editor begin to appear in Magnificat's newspaper, hinting that some tragedy will befall the school. Suspicion falls on Bud, and he and Nikki struggle to uncover the real culprit and clear Bud's name. Permanent Record explodes with dark humor, emotional depth, and a powerful look at the ways the bullied fight back.
What was most interesting to me in my read of Permanent Record was how many allusions to Cormier's classic were made. One of the teachers in Badi's new school wanted to use The Chocolate War as a classroom read, but in the end, decided not to. And rather than fight administration about using it, the teacher decided to forget about it all together. Which an interesting message to compare to what happened in Cormier's book. There's also Badi, who refuses to sell chocolates to raise money for student organizations at his new school. Though his resistance and reluctance is much more in-your-face than Jerry's ever was. There are some really fascinating aspects about identity in Stella's book, too. Badi has to take on a new name when he enters a new school, thus hiding his ethnicity. Jerry, in Cormier's novel, doesn't hide who he is in the least. These two books would make for an interesting discussion for how much they are similar -- but even more because of how much Badi and Jerry differ in their approaches to disturbing the universe.
The List by Siobhan Vivian: Every year at Mount Washington High School somebody posts a list of the prettiest and ugliest girls from each grade--this is the story of eight girls, freshman to senior, and how they are affected by the list.
Why The List as a read alike? Well, it sure seems inspired by Cormier's book in terms of bucking against school traditions. This book challenges the beauty myth and the tradition in Mt Washington High School which posts a list of the best looking and ugliest girls each year. This year's nominees each have an opportunity to give their views of the issue and readers get to experience what happens over the course of this week to the girls and to their peers. Does the list disappear? Do people learn about what beauty is and is not? If The Chocolate War were recast with all females, I think this one gets it pretty close. It's much less brutal, though, and much more internally and psychologically driven.
The Buffalo Tree by Adam Rapp: While serving a six-month sentence at a juvenile detention center, thirteen-year-old Sura struggles to survive the experience with his spirit intact.
I have to admit upfront I haven't read this book. But it came up for me as a strong read alike because it's a title that forces a main character to survive with his own sense of self and dignity while spending time in a place rapt with authority, power, and control. Knowing Rapp's writing style, I am confident it is unflinchingly honest. Anyone read this one? I think I'm going to pick it up sooner, rather than later.
The Mockingbirds by Daisy Whitney: When Alex, a junior at an elite preparatory school, realizes that she may have been the victim of date rape, she confides in her roommates and sister who convince her to seek help from a secret society, the Mockingbirds.
Why The Mockingbirds? Well, we have a boarding school setting with authority that's less interested in the best interests of the students and instead invested in the best face of the school and themselves. There's vigilante justice here, too, though in Alex's case, things pan out . . . a little bit better than they do for Jerry.
Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson: After finally getting noticed by someone other than school bullies and his ever-angry father, seventeen-year-old Tyler enjoys his tough new reputation and the attentions of a popular girl, but when life starts to go bad again, he must choose between transforming himself or giving in to his destructive thoughts.
It's been a few years since I read Twisted, but what I remember noting is how it's a story about what it means to be a male. What the power struggles are and what the challenges of defining yourself as masculine are. These themes are definitely huge in The Chocolate War and Anderson's writing is, of course, not afraid to tackle the tough stuff.
Some Girls Are by Courtney Summers: Regina, a high school senior in the popular--and feared--crowd, suddenly falls out of favor and becomes the object of the same sort of vicious bullying that she used to inflict on others, until she finds solace with one of her former victims.
It's hard not to see the parallels between what happens in Summers's book about bullying and what happens in Cormier's. Except, this time it's about the power struggles among girls, rather than boys. It's brutal and honest, and there's not a hopeful ending or solid closure. Which is part of the honesty and part of Cormier's book, too. Summers also does a good job of showing both sides of how girls are nasty with one another -- the physical and the psychological.
The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth LaBan: While preparing for the most dreaded assignment at the prestigious Irving School, the Tragedy Paper, Duncan gets wrapped up in the tragic tale of Tim Macbeth, a former student who had a clandestine relationship with the wrong girl, and his own ill-fated romance with Daisy.
Like the Rapp title, this isn't one I've had the chance to read yet. But by all reviews I've spent time reading, it sounds like the tight community within the school and the social tensions/politics would make this a strong read alike. Not to mention the history of tradition.
Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy by Emily Bazelon: Bazelon defines what bullying is and, just as important, what it is not; explores when intervention is essential and when kids should be given the freedom to fend for themselves; dispels persistent myths about bullying; and takes her readers into schools that have succeeded in reducing bullying and examines their successful strategies.
I read this one but can't talk too much about it except to say it's one of the stronger non-fiction titles exploring teen bullying and brutality I've read. It's adult non-fiction but definitely has teen appeal, as it begins with three case studies of teens dealing with bullying in very different -- very painful and real -- ways.
I could add many more bullying books, but I'm not because I don't think that all bullying books are good read alikes to one another, nor are they all good read alikes to The Chocolate War. I am curious to hear, though, what you might think makes for a strong Cormier read alike or what books were clearly inspired by the classic.
Friday, May 17, 2013
Archie always believed in doing the smart thing. Not the thing that you ached to do, not the impulsive act, but the thing that would pay off later.
How did I feel about Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War five years after reading it for the first time?
Much, much differently.
But I say that as a matter of my only real opinion last time was that this book wasn't as controversial as I'd once suspected and that I didn't like the way the boys in the book thought about girls. And now, with a few years of reading YA under my belt and a few years of actually working with teens, I think I went in with different expectations. I also got to leave the book with different reactions, too.
But when day eleven and twelve roll around, Jerry continues to say no. He continues to not participate.
Not only does this get everyone in his class riled up -- it's an act of defiance for the long-held Trinity tradition -- but Jerry's refusal to take part in the sale also defies the Vigils. He shouldn't be messing with the school and his peers, let alone the Vigils.
But Archie, who isn't president of the Vigils but who takes the lead in figuring out who to recruit and what it is the recruits will have to do to prove they're worthy of the group, handles this calmly. Even though he's agreed to have the Vigils make this the best sale year ever (it's a favor to Brother Leon, who asks for the favor), Archie isn't going to act immediately. Yes, Jerry needs to do his part in the chocolate sale. It's important. It reflects on the Vigils. But for Archie, the easy way out would be for him to beat on Jerry. The easy way out would be to corner Jerry, intimidate him, and make him follow the rules.
Archie waits. And plots.
Jerry, meanwhile, becomes the target of bullying. Yes, he's beat up, but the real torment comes in less physically-aggressive means. He's laughed at. He's prank called over and over. These are little things, and while Jerry continues to stand up for not wanting to take part in the chocolate sale, they do start to get to him mentally. It comes out in little ways -- he feels bad that his father, for example, knows about the phone calls. When he summons the energy to call the one girl he's been eyeing, he doesn't have the strength to actually talk to her for fear of what she might say. It comes out, too, through Goober, who decides that he's going to take a stand with Jerry. And even though Goober is much more open about his feelings, and he's tried to convince Jerry to get on board selling, he still supports Jerry's decision making. Jerry's impacted because he feels weird. He doesn't feel sad about not participating. He doesn't feel guilty for it nor guilty for how Goober's reacting. He just feels weird.
Maybe that weirdness is empowerment. It's taking the stand for what it is he does and does not want to do.
So now we have Archie, who is plotting to do something big to get back at Jerry, and we have Jerry, who continues to say no to selling the chocolate. We also have a handful of other male characters but for me, they weren't as interesting as these two. And I think what made these two so interesting to me was not just the power dynamics -- they both want to prove themselves -- but how representative they were of the school as a whole. So Brother Leon wants to have the most outstanding chocolate sale this year because he wants to prove his own leadership capabilities. He's second in command at Trinity, but with the head of the school unable to participate, this is Leon's chance to prove his worth. Which is precisely Archie's position, too. He's second in command of the Vigils. If he can pull of the chocolate war and bring a good image to the Vigils, he can prove his worth too.
Except unlike Leon, who is a begger and wants things done quickly, Archie is a much more precise and deliberate thinker. Their methods of wielding the power they have and reaching for the control they want are so different.
Archie's plans to take the chocolate sales to the next level comes through in his initially-stated philosophy: he'd do the thing that paid off most, rather than the thing that he ached to do. Jerry did the thing he ached to do. He disturbed the universe by not selling the chocolate and by defying his test by the Vigils. He wanted to be his own person and act according to his own wants and desires. Archie, on the other hand, may have wanted to skip out on selling chocolate or helping Brother Leon. He may have wanted to slug Jerry and have that immediate gratification. But he knew the true pay off would come through making a smart choice, rather than the one he really wanted to make.
That smart choice was putting Jerry in a physical battle with Janza, another member of the Vigils who is trying to prove himself. Who had been part of the crew trying to take down Jerry in the first place as a means of proving the power of the Vigils as a whole. And while Archie tricks Jerry into showing up to the fight, Archie also knows Jerry won't back down from it because that's just the kind of person Jerry is. He's going to see things through to the end. Janza was a no brainer, though, as a boy who wanted to prove himself and as someone who would love nothing more than to annihilate Jerry. And through selling chocolate bars and the opportunity to call the shots to be made by each of the boys in the ring, Archie made the money for the sales.
He also set up the entire event so that it'd be broken up by authority and he'd be in good with the Brothers still.
What captured my attention in The Chocolate War this time was less the plot and much more the characters and what their goals were. I wanted to know what the stakes were. I wanted to see what drove them to behave how they did. The ultimate take away is bleak -- even if you stand up for what you believe in, even if it's something that hurts no one else, like Jerry did, you will face the consequences of authority and the establishment. We get this early in the story with the role playing scenario in Brother Leon's class with Bailey, and we get it in the end with Jerry being bruised and broken following the fight.
Jerry doesn't walk away a hero in the story. If there's a hero at all to this story -- and let's take "hero" as a stretch here, defined as someone who got what they were going for the whole time -- it's Archie. He learned his opponents' weaknesses, then he took advantage of them to further himself. And even if Brother Leon is considered a hero too -- he did manage to make the highest grossing, most successful chocolate sale in the history of Trinity -- he's still overshadowed by Archie and the Vigils. It's Archie himself who says at the very beginning of the novel what might be one of the biggest truths of the book: "Most grown-ups, most adults: they were vulnerable, running scared, open to invasion."
Archie found that vulnerability in Leon and ran with it.
Even if Jerry learns the hard truth that standing up for what you believe in leaves you open to invasion, to attack, to unrelenting scrutiny, it is hard as a reader not to love him for what he does. And I think because he's strong in his convictions and a target because of this, it makes the messages and truths he learns even more difficult to take. How come a nice guy, one who is harming no one ends up the victim?
I loved how uncomfortable this book made me this time around.
Is it controversial? Maybe. Thinking about my initial reactions and thinking about the experiences I've had in the last five years through reading YA and working with teens, I think my perceptions of controversy have changed. I think my initial reading was about the things which could trigger heated debate, rather than my reading now, which considered the controversial elements of the story to be those very hard to digest truths about character, about power, about motivation, and about being true to yourself in a world which wants you to crumble and conform. Those are huge ideas. Those are not easy things to think about or read about. Part of it is because in the context of the book, those who are hurt hardest are the characters who are doing the least harm. But I think a bigger part of it is that these are the things we deal with every single day as living, breathing, working, thinking people. The systems we fight against do hold us down and do force us to conform. It's not necessarily with fists and kicks, though. It's much more subtle and much more psychologically debilitating than we want to give it credit for. Not to mention it's also about peer pressure.
I'm still not a fan of how women were represented in the book. But it makes sense, too. This is an all-boys school, so of course there aren't many females around. And it makes sense that the boys in this story would think about girls in very sexualized ways -- they're stuck in an all-male system, and it's through their imagination that they can find some way to get rid of that frustration. Plus, they are teen boys and they are hormonal. I give Cormier huge kudos for being open about this and for putting his characters in those positions, especially when they're compromising. Part of why Janza relents to Archie is his fear that Archie has a photo of him in a precarious position. And what's interesting is that it's Janza earlier on who says this: "People had a fear of being embarrassed or humiliated, of being singled out for special attention." And here, that's exactly why he's willing to bow to Archie's power.
But back to the women in the book -- we have a dead mom and we have the girls near the bus stop. Jerry tries calling one of them, but that's all we have of ladies in the book. Jerry, in fact, considers his crush's body as an object of desire when masturbating, too. And yes, the line about one of the boys raping the girls with his eyes still bothers me a lot, but taking it in the context of the story, in context of male hormones and testosterone flowing, I get it.
Considering this book published in 1974, I applaud Cormier's honesty in not just his big messages, but in his ability to be open about sex, about masturbation, and about the ways that teen boys think about women and girls. It's not always pretty. But more than that, I think this book stands out among even recent titles in terms of being unflinching in honesty about these topics. We all like to think that teen boys are saints without urges and inappropriate thoughts but it's also important to remember they're teen boys.
I could say a lot more about this book in the context of bullying, too, but the important parts to me were that the bullying here was at times physical -- which is how we associate boys and bullying -- but so much more was psychological and subtle -- which is how we associate girls and bullying. Cormier makes it clear that being nasty doesn't have a gendered approach.
I'm unable to get to the movie or the sequel to The Chocolate War before this week is up, but I'm almost glad. This reading experience was really worthwhile and opened my eyes a lot not only in terms of the book, but it opened my mind up to seeing and understanding how much I have grown as a reader. It'll be fascinating to revisit this book in another five years and see what stands out, too.
Reviewed from a purchased copy.
Thursday, May 16, 2013
Ready to check out what foreign publishers have done cover-wise for Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War? Some of these are head scratchers and others are pretty darn good. As I mentioned in my prior cover retrospective post, it's worth noting that researching the covers is a little challenging, so any errors are mine and mine alone. It's especially tricky with foreign covers, but I've spent less time worrying about publication dates of these covers and instead think it's more interesting to look at the designs themselves. Some of these might not be definitive foreign editions, and some of them might be older, rather than the most current version.
If you know of any other foreign editions or know of any further information on any of these covers, I'd love to know in the comments.
Let's start with what might be my favorite vision of The Chocolate War cover.
This cover comes from China. I love the light blue background, but much more than that, I love how this plays into the fact Jerry is a football player. This cover model doesn't look prep school, but he looks like an everyday kind of teen boy. But maybe what I love most is the look in his eyes. The boy looks determined but he doesn't look like he's out for any ill will, which is precisely how I read Jerry. Even though the cover itself feels light and looks light, I don't read it as being a lighthearted book. I think it's the look on the boy's face and the fact he's in his gear. I'm also digging on the way the author's name and the title fill out the right-hand side of the cover. Since I don't read Chinese, I have no idea what the tag line says on the left-hand side, but I like that it's in red because it does stand out.
I would not mind having this book on my shelf. Even if I cannot read a word of it.
Here's another light cover, though it certainly doesn't read as light hearted. This edition is from Italy, and I kind of dig how it's illustrated. We have the chocolate on the cover, though the chocolates are of the mixed variety, rather than the chocolate bar variety. The body lying down pretty well sums up the end of the book, and I think it's interesting that he's given pants and socks, but no shirt. Unless his shirt is white, but I think he has a belly button there.
I like the handwriting font used for the title, and I like how Cormier's name looks. It's a small thing, but it's visually appealing.
Apologies for the pixilated cover, but it's the best one I could find. This is the Greek edition of The Chocolate War and it sure has quite a bit going on for it. Or against it. We have the chocolate in the top left-hand corner, followed by a boy who sure looks dejected or frustrated -- I can't completely tell. And I don't think he's wearing a shirt. Then on the bottom, we get a boy engaged in a mean game of fisticuffs by himself. There's also the black and white effect in part of the cover, then we have the gold taking up the majority of the image. I find the entire cover to be visually jarring. Actually, it looks almost more like a cover for a movie or a movie poster than a book cover.
When we get to the French cover, we're back to looking at boys who appear very young for high school. Or I should say a single boy who looks way too young to be in high school, even as a freshman. But what is with that window in the background? Talk about a little foreboding. I think the most interesting element of the French cover though is how stark and simple it is. It's almost entirely white. Is it me or does the boy look a little defiant, too? I like that. But this is not my Jerry.
Here are two German versions of The Chocolate War, and I think I like both of them, but for very different reasons. The cover on the left I like because I like the boys. They're shadowy but they're distinguishable. They also look a little sketchy and like they're up to some trouble. Which totally fits the story. And even though it could look weird, I think the green hue on the cover works, as it contrasts nicely with the cream background.
Maybe someone who speaks German can enlighten me a little bit, since I don't and don't know, but the title for the cover on the right is a little different than the one on the left. Are they the same book or is one the sequel? I include it either way because I love the shadowy, chocolate-colored figure here. I love how big the image is, and I also like how there is still a shadow here. The second boy in the back has a shadow extending from his feet, but from the way the cover looks, it could be the shadow of the boy in front (depending on the angle of the light, of course). The cover looks a little scary and intimidating, which I think suits the book very well.
This is yet another German edition and yet another German edition that pleases me. I think it looks less prep school and more typical high school, but I love the motion of the image. In many ways, I feel the motion and blurred effect here mirrors much of the content of the book -- what are the lines of being good and bad? What is right and wrong? Where do you stand up and where do you conform? I like that we can't make out the boy's face, but I do like that he appears to be of the right age, rather than so young like many of the other cover boys. The colors in this cover work for me too. I like the dark blue lockers and the red shirt, and the way both play against the greenish-creamy hues through the rest of the image. And what about the red, enlarged font for Cormier there?
The final two covers are Spanish editions.
On the left, we have so many interesting things going on. I love that it's almost entirely black, but in the top corner, we see one of the Brothers. My guess is that it's Brother Leon, but that's up for debate. Then there's the boy in the baseball cap in what looks like a picture torn out of a yearbook. But who is it? Also, who wears baseball caps in prep school like that? I would think it's supposed to be representative of Archie, since he's the rebellious one. Then there's the logo and repetition of "Vigils" beside the image. Aside from the fact it's a clear element of the story, what's interesting in its use is that it's in English. In translations, I know that proper names can often stay the same (since there's not always a clear translation), but there is in Spanish. I'd be curious if it's changed in text because it's not on the cover. This cover is almost kind of cartoonish to me, though I do think it reads as a teen book.
I saved the best cover to be the last one because I want you to look at it and think about it for a good long minute.
Why is there a girl on it? What boy in The Chocolate War spends any time with a girl? There's a phone call, but that is the closest to a girl getting page time that there is. Certainly, no boy is walking with a girl like that in the story. So that it's representative of the book on the cover is bizarre and noteworthy because it doesn't even happen in the book. But aside from that strange choice in image, I love the illustrated effect. Except, doesn't it make the book look like it's almost a happy story? It certainly doesn't have a darkness or a shadow lingering over it. The design definitely nails the prep school look but this cover doesn't have anything to do with the book. Dare I say it looks almost like a romance?
Any other foreign editions worth knowing about? Have any favorites in this group or thoughts on any of these covers? I'd love to hear them!
Wednesday, May 15, 2013
Today as part of our Chocolate War read and blog along, we have a guest post from librarian and blogger Angie Manfredi about why this book matters to her and to YA lit more broadly.
Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman, two of cinema’s greatest directors, died on the same day. A few weeks later, The New York Times simultaneously published appreciations of their work by two more of cinema’s greatest directors. Martin Scorsese wrote a piece about Antonioni entitled The Man Who Set Film Free and Woody Allen wrote a piece about Bergman entitled The Man Who Asked Hard Questions. The cinephile in me fluttered with joy at this but, more than that, the book lover in me saw those two titles and thought instantly of one writer: the young adult author, Robert Cormier.
To me, no one is a better fit for these two monikers. Cormier was the man who set young adult literature free and, perhaps more than anything, he was a man who asked hard questions.
In none of his books is this more evident than in the classic The Chocolate War. Published in 1974, it’s sometimes referred to as the first young adult novel, but if I were making judgments about that, I’d give the honor to S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders which appeared in 1967. But there is a real case to be made for The Chocolate War as the beginning of young adult literature as we know it today and it’s not just “this book was different than children’s books because it was still for juvenile readers but it had teen characters and dealt with ‘mature’ topics!” No, The Chocolate War is the book that asks hard questions simply because it doesn’t claim to have any answers.
I will spare you the standard recap, you probably know it already. But let’s pretend you don’t: Jerry goes to a private Catholic boy’s school. Jerry dares disturb the universe and resists the mandate from the ruling clique at his school that he must sell chocolates to fundraise for their cronyism.
You know what happens next, don’t you?
Jerry collects a band of fellow misfits and begins to truly question the power structures inherent not just at his school but in the world. Jerry and his misfits rise up, against great odds and with much at stake, to expose the injustice.
And you know what happens next, don’t you?
Jerry and friends are victorious! Slowly but surely the rest of the school rallies around them inspired by their courage to also speak out, there’s a empathic adult there to lend insight and support at just the right time (possibly Jerry’s father, who has roused himself from the depression he’s been in for most of the book to really be there and connect with his son) and Jerry who stood up for what he knew what was right ... Jerry’s so glad he disturbed the universe.
That is, of course, not at all the way The Chocolate War ends. No, The Chocolate War ends with the status quo safely in place, the adults in the story more than just blindly looking the other way, but actively shielding and defending the teens who have committed criminal acts. And the bullies? Their power is not just intact, nay, it has been strengthened by this show of ultimate force. We leave Jerry literally beaten to a pulp, muttering to his single ally that trying to disturb the universe won’t work and, in fact, isn’t worth it.
And it is this ending, completely devoid of even a shred of hope or light, that is the brutal crowning grace of The Chocolate War and, moreover, this is the moment young adult literature is really and truly set free from the constraints and conventions of children’s literature. Nothing before this moment has achieved the same severing of young adult literature from children’s literature. Yes, there’s an actual death in The Outsiders, but we leave Pony Boy with a pen in his hand, the hope for words and healing. There is none of that in The Chocolate War - the powerful stay powerful, corruption runs deeper than we could have guessed, and our hero is hauled out on a stretcher.
To me, Cormier’s greatest legacy is the clear definition between children’s and young adult literature. There was no mistaking it - this was not a book for children. It was a book for older readers, those ready to tackle big, hard questions and moral grey areas, readers who didn’t demand or need everything all wrapped up with a big bow. Yet even with that, it still wasn’t for adults. No - this was a book just for teens. All these years later, it still is.
When Kelly and Liz announced this project, I decided I wanted to participate. I re-read it for what was about the fifth time in preparation for writing and the one thing that stood out to me was how current, how immediate, it still feels. Reading about the way adults not only refuse to get involved but often support the bullies? I couldn’t help but think of places like Steubenville, Ohio. The powerlessness Jerry feels? Cormier builds that tension with an intense, almost claustrophobic mastery - you are entirely wrapped up in this insular and sharply dangerous world. That’s a reality so many teens still live with. Adult readers may feel unsettled by The Chocolate War but I think teen readers, still, will find much to relate to in it.
With The Chocolate War, Cormier asked hard questions about morality and justice that young adult literature is still trying to answer. It’s this reason, after all this time, he’s still the writer that set us free.
Angie Manfredi is the Head of Youth Services for Los Alamos County Libraries. She blogs at www.fatgirlreading.com and tweets incessantly @misskubelik. Her most recently finished book was Sidekicked by John David Anderson.