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Contemporary Realistic YA Week @ STACKED

It’s hard for me to believe, but this is the fourth contemporary YA week here at STACKED. What began in 2011 as a way to explore a genre within YA has grown into a series that, while a lot of work, is so rewarding to put together each year. You can catch up with the posts from previous years through the contemporary week tag.

This year, we have 5 brand new voices weighing in on topics ranging from mental health to social class to “dude culture” as it appears in contemporary realistic YA fiction. In addition to those thought-provoking posts, I’m writing accompanying, related book lists featuring realistic YA three days, as well. The week will wrap up with a giant post of 2015 contemporary YA books.

To celebrate the event, we’re also offering up a giveaway of a book by each of the contributors. This contest is open to US and Canadian residents only and includes the following books by the (not surprise anymore!) guest authors:

  • Fake ID by Lamar Giles and a pre-order of Endangered, out in April (the topic of his post)

I’ll also be offering up a copy of my book, It Happens, which should give the winner an even larger selection of book lists and discussion fodder relating to contemporary YA fiction. To enter, fill out the form here, and I’ll pull a winner at the end of next week so books can be on their way before the holidays. The winner will walk away with a total of 6 books. 
As always, I hope this is an interesting, engaging, and exciting series for readers, as much as it is for me to put together and think about. 

Featured at BlogHer & A Big Welcome to STACKED!

Today, Kelly’s post about how to keep your privacy safe on the internet is featured over at BlogHer. Go check it out if you missed it the first time around.
Because of that, we thought we’d do a quick revisit of who we are and what we do at STACKED. 
Welcome new readers who are stopping by STACKED. If this is your first time here or you’ve been away for a while, we thought we’d give you a quick introduction to our blog, our history, and what it is we like to write about here.
STACKED is run by Kelly Jensen and Kimberly Francisco, who met in graduate school for library/information studies at the University of Texas in Austin. The blog started in April 2009, with the goal of writing about books, reading, and other library-ish/book-ish content. We write critical book reviews, explore topics of interest to us in reading and books, and we’re both unabashed feminists in how we think, read, and discuss. We’re passionate about diversity, as well as passionate about matching books to readers. Though the bulk of our reading and blogging focuses on YA lit, we do talk about other categories of writing, too. We also offer up periodic week-long series on different topics of interest — this week, for example, we’ve got 5 guest bloggers talking about different aspects of contemporary/realistic YA fiction, along with accompanying book lists. 
A few posts to give you a feel and flavor of what you’ll see around here: 

Thanks for stopping by and we hope you stick around, hop in, and/or pass along our blog to others who may be interested. 

Kelly’s Top Five Posts of 2013: A Look Back

Kimberly hit on a lot of what I have to say about 2013 when it comes to blogging. We reached over a million hits, continued a couple of old series, kicked off new ones, and we passed our fourth year blogging together. In addition to all of those exciting — and big — milestones, 2013 was, I think, our strongest year when it came to writing and blogging more generally. I think for the first time for me, this blog felt like a real outlet and place to explore new ideas. Some of them began as small ideas and exploded into much bigger things when I wrote them out, while others I thought were bigger stayed small and confined to the blog. It was such a different year for blogging more broadly, too, which I plan on talking a bit more about next week sometime.

As Kim said, we thought it would be worthwhile to talk about some of our individual favorite posts from the past year. Here are five of my top picks, in no particular order:

Female Sexuality in YA Fiction

After writing this post back in June about female sexuality in YA, I’ve not stopped thinking about this topic. And I’m not just thinking about it as more books publish that tackle the subject, but I’m thinking about it in terms of backlist, too. A few people pointed me to older titles that explore female sexuality in some capacity, and I am really looking forward to reading them and thinking about how far — or not far — YA fiction has come in how it approaches girls and sexuality.

When We Talk About “Girl Problems”

Kind of going hand-in-hand with the sexuality post was this one about the notion of “girl problems.” What does it mean to be a girl and how are the problems girls face handled in YA fiction? More than that, how are they responded to by readers? I loved talking about love triangles, as well as talking about the idea of the “every girl” that Sarah Dessen writes about (and that I think Dessen gets unfairly dinged for sometimes, too). I also think this post corresponded quite a bit with what I talked about in terms of “unlikable” female characters, too.

Getting Past the Easy Reach

When you commit something to paper (or blog, as the case may be), it’s harder to ignore your own words since you have to face them if someone calls you out on them. This particular post was one that I needed to write because I needed the reminder of the value of recommending the reads that fit the reader, rather than the reads which are most obvious and easiest to grab. It was this post that really inspired me to want to write the “Beyond the Bestsellers” series at Book Riot, and it’s the post I think those who do reader’s advisory should think about — I’d love to see more people talk about how to move beyond the easy reach.

Fat Isn’t A Disability, But It Is A Book Deal Breaker

The more I think about my favorite posts this year, the more interrelated I see that they are. The long and short of it seems to be that it’s hard to be a girl.

On Book Packagers and Literary Development Companies

This was just a straight-up fun post to write. There are posts you write that you know took you a long time to write because they required a lot of work — I’m looking at the New York Times Bestsellers Posts — and then there are posts you write that you know took a long time because you kept letting yourself fall down new rabbit holes. This was the rabbit hole post.

It was a real blast this year to return to the So You Want to Read YA series, as well as the Contemporary YA Week series. It was equally fun to try out a group read along for Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War, as well as giving a series about reader’s advisory a shot, too. Kimberly and I both loved putting together the monthly genre guides, as well as interviewing authors we respect for our monthly Twitterview series. Of course, writing reviews for books that really worked — as well as dissecting what didn’t work within a book that wasn’t a knock out for me — is always enjoyable, too.

One thing I discovered this year and that I’ll talk a bit more about in a future post is how much readership and audience has changed over the last year. When we once knew our readership pretty well, now we’re less aware (and maybe less concerned, too). It’s neat to see where and how people are finding us, and it’s been so great to see not just our content be shared, but it’s enjoyable to reader other people’s responses to our posts via their own blogs, tumblr, Twitter, and other outlets. There’s never a time when I don’t have at least a page worth of post ideas, thanks in big part to those of you who read and think about what it is we have to say.

I’m not a resolutions person, though I do like to set goals (resolutions to me sound too absolute and focus too much on an end result, whereas goals allow for celebrating and feeling accomplishment in the interim steps along the path). In the coming year, it’s my goal to keep writing what I feel like writing and to cover some of the things people have suggested I look at but I thought maybe I didn’t have the time or energy to do. The truth is, that time is there. It’s just a matter of sitting down and putting the effort in to do it — and that’s one of those interim steps along the way I love and look forward to but forget about until I get the chance to reflect upon the value it brings to me.

As always, a huge thank you to our readers, to those who comment or share or encourage us along the way. We’d probably still blog without it, but it’d be a much less enjoyable or inspiring experience. 

So You Want to Read YA?: Kelly’s Picks

One of the reasons I wanted to start a blog — and one of the reasons I wanted to make it a group blog — was not just because I love talking about books, but because I like learning about new books from other readers. And I think anyone who has spent a little time here knows that Kim, Jen, and I have some similarities in our reading preferences, but we also have a lot of differences. I’m able to be a better reader and a better librarian because of them and because of the other great bloggers who dedicate time and effort into talking about books.

Over the course of blogging and being a librarian, one of the questions that I think about and one of the questions I get asked a lot is the question that prompted this series: where do you start when you want to start reading young adult fiction? It sounds like a daunting question, but for the most part, I feel my librarian background has helped me think about how to best answer it. You ask the person asking what sorts of books they like reading, and from there, you can figure out whether they’re genre readers or they want contemporary reads or if they just want a good book, regardless of category.

I feel like I’ve talked at length about books I really like and about books I recommend, especially when it comes to contemporary ya fiction. As I thought about this question, I thought about how I could answer it a little bit differently.

So I focused in on the last group of new-to-ya fiction readers. The ones who just want a good book. But rather than give a list of “good books,” I’m breaking it down by specific writing or story elements which make the book stand out, and I’m keeping my list fairly short. You’re getting eight titles in four categories.

And not only will some of these authors be sharing their answers to this question over the course of this series, but I will also be giving away a half of these titles at the end of this post.

I’m hoping some of these might be off-the-beaten-path answers.

Knock-out voice:

The biggest, most powerful element of a good YA story for me is voice. You hear the character and you feel the character through it. It’s a distinct style and manner of writing, and when it’s good, you just know it is good. A book with voice sticks with you well after you finish the story, and you think more about that character than the story itself. I’ve got two memorable titles for this category that I think are must-reads for anyone looking to see an example of true voice in a YA novel. 

The Sky Always Hears Me (And The Hills Don’t Mind) by Kirstin Cronn-Mills: I’ve talked about how much Morgan’s voice stands out in my review from earlier this year. Even months after reading this one, I’m impressed with how much I remember of the story, of the emotional tug inside of it, simply because I can hear Morgan’s voice in my head.

Split by Swati Avasthi: There’s a reason this book made the Cybils short list, and there’s a reason it wont the Cybils last year, and that reason is that Jace has an amazing voice. It’s raw and wry, and it’s honest. He’s in a desperate and painful situation, and while the story is about this pain, it’s Jace’s voice that makes it palpable and searing.

Classics still holding strong:

We all know YA fiction has changed a lot over the last few years and the last few decades. But there are classics that still hit all the right notes.

Celine by Brock Cole: Barring the cover, this book is nothing short of what a YA book should be and it’s one that stands the test of time. First, this book could have fallen right into my great voice category because 16-year-old Celine has a memorable one. More than that, though, this is the story of a girl who wants to become an artist, and through her art she discovers who she is. Her family’s not the most stable, and she’s unsure of the relationship she’s in — but the thing that trumps all that is a friendship she forges with a boy in her apartment complex. Celine is snarky and funny without being too smart or too self-aware and even twenty-some years after being published, it is still a must-read and relevant.

The Pigman by Paul Zindel: This was a book I remembered reading and loving in middle school, and I revisited it recently and it’s still one that stands up. Zindel develops two fully-realized characters in John and Lorraine and he makes use of first-person multiple points of view well. But more than that, this is a story about friendship inside and outside of high school and it cuts to the meat of what it means to have relationships. What I didn’t remember about the book that I appreciated a lot more on my recent reread? These kids make bad decisions, and these kids drink and swear and party. They have crummy home lives. John and Lorraine are also lower middle class kids, and they’re well aware they don’t always fit in because of this. This book explores self-realization, and while there is a tiny bit of dating to the story — it begins with a prank phone call in the age before caller ID — that won’t change the fact it’s a must read.

Physically-chilling stories:

I think a hallmark of really good novel is it impacts you emotionally. You can have a great action-driven novel for sure, but the reason it is great is because it’s tapped something emotionally. You find yourself caring either about the character or the story.

An element that’s begun to stand out for me more and more as a reader, though, is the physical impact of a book. I’m not talking about the tears, though that happened in both of these books for me. I’m talking about books that tear apart your insides and that make you feel like you’re going to be sick. It’s part the author’s ability to write well, and it’s part the author’s ability to tackle a situation that demands that sort of reaction, too. These stories transcend genre, but both books that left me feeling physically weak happen to be (surprise) contemporary and both happen to tackle bullying. And as much as we want to pretend it’s the extreme, these are stories teens today are living daily. As far as I’m concerned, these are must-reads for anyone who works with teens because they shed light into what’s often unseen by adults.

Some Girls Are by Courtney Summers: When Regina’s knocked out of her clique, the girls she once called friends are out for revenge. And it won’t be pretty. Whenever I sell this book to someone, I tell them it’s like “Mean Girls,” but with actual mean girls. This novel is relentless and it’s brutal, and it left me sick to my stomach both times I read it. As much as I’d like to think this sort of story is just that — story — the fact is, it’s not. Knowing this happens made the pain in reading it even stronger. Bonus points to Summers for not wrapping this book up tidily, either. There’s not a firm resolution and that uncertainty adds another layer to the physical experience of the story.

Leverage by Joshua Cohen: Taking it from the male perspective is Cohen, who manages to tackle not only bullying, but hazing (which is a whole different form of bullying). This is the guy’s locker room. It’s dirty, it’s gritty, and it’s painful to read. The two main characters in the story have powerful voices, but it’s the situations into which they’re thrown that are the physically tough parts to read. This is one that requires a few breaks while reading to catch some relief and it does not shy away from depicting cruelty.

Setting as character

Something I pay attention while reading is setting. Setting can give so much insight into character and into the story, and sometimes, setting becomes a character in and of itself. There are a ton of books for me that fall into the great settings category, but in keeping with the tradition, here are two that do it very, very well.

Stolen by Lucy Christopher: When people think of this book, the first thing they tend to think about or associate with it is that it’s the book about Stockholm Syndrome. And while that’s certainly true and the bulk of the story, for me, one of the most memorable aspects of the story is the setting. It’s set in the desolate and desperate Australian desert, and that setting only further enhances the struggle in the story. I can’t see this story working as well in any setting other than the one it’s in and I don’t want to separate setting from story here, either.

Ten Cents a Dance by Christine Fletcher: I gravitate to stories set in Chicago, since I’m familiar with the city and am familiar with its history and development. It’s the historical time frame coupled with the gritty, working-class Back of the Yards neighborhood in Chicago that makes this book’s setting sing. Ruby, the main character, lives with her mother and they are poor, just like the bulk of families living in the neighborhood. Her solution? To become a taxi dancer and make the money they need to live better lives. Fletcher’s story gives us not only the incredible setting of the Yards neighborhood (if you didn’t click the link above — think Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle) with the rich neighborhood where taxi dancing brings in the bucks.

There you have it — eight titles I think answer the bill of where to start in YA if you’re looking for something specific to read in the YA realm. I know I left out big names. I know I left out perennials. But I’ve got an inkling those titles will make their way into this series.

Because I want other people to experience some of these titles, I’m going to give a few of these away! Up for grabs are finished copies of The Sky Always Hears Me (And the Hills Don’t Mind), Some Girls Are, and The Pigman, as well as an advanced reader’s copy of Leverage. I like to think of it as a starter kit for the good stuff in YA lit. One person will win all four titles, and I’ll draw a winner March 25.

Get Your Contemporary YA Fiction Fix

Remember last June when STACKED hosted a week-long celebration of all things contemporary young adult lit? We got such great feedback, especially about the book lists, that it was impossible to ignore an opportunity to continue advocating for this genre.

If you hop out of your feed reader (or if you’re on our site already) scroll down the right side bar. There’s now a box for contemporary ya lit, including a link to a rough database we’re building. It’s our hope readers looking for a certain type of contemporary read can use this to find good reads, fill holes in their personal/library/school collections, and discover how vast the genre is.

It’s our hope to highlight both current reads and back list titles and as reviews post on our blog, we’ll update with links to them.

Happy reading!