The Poet X – Elizabeth Acevedo

Elizabeth Acevedo’s debut YA novel The Poet X tells the story of fifteen-year-old Xiomarapoetx who lives in Harlem with her twin brother, whom she calls ‘Twin’) and her Dominican immigrant parents. She’s a good girl; she has no choice. Mami’s rules are law, and Xiomara wouldn’t dream of breaking them. But there are some things Xiomara can’t control. For example, she is “unhide-able”

Taller than even my father, with what Mami has always said/ was “a little too much body for such a young girl.”/ I am the baby fat that settled into D-cups and swinging hips/ so that the boys who called me a whale in middle school/ now ask me to send them pictures of myself in a thong.

She starts to question organized religion and at school, she finds herself drawn to her classmate,  Aman.  She starts keeping secrets from her mother because religious conviction is non-negotiable and  Mami’s dating rules are written in stone: she can’t date until she’s married.

When her English teacher encourages Xiomara to write poetry, she discovers that she has a lot to say and there might actually be a way to say it. As she commits her thoughts to the page, her confidence grows.

…I know that I am ready to slam. / That my poetry has become something I’m proud of./ The way the words say what I mean,/ how they twist and turn language,/how they connect with people,/ How they build community,/ I finally know that all those/ I’ll never, ever, ever”/ stemmed from being afraid but not even they/ can stop me. Not anymore.

There’s no reason to be intimidated if you’ve never tried a novel written in verse. The writing is stripped down, these’s no pesky exposition, and it cuts straight to the bone. Xiomara is a thoughtful, intelligent character and you will be cheering her on as she finds the power of her own words.

I loved spending time with Xiomara. As an English teacher, I appreciated that words offered her an escape and comfort and eventually the freedom to speak her truth. I highly recommend The Poet X especially if you’ve never given a novel in verse a go.

Watch Elizabeth Acevedo talk about how the novel came to be:

Emergency Contact – Mary H.K. Choi

Penny Lee can’t wait to get away from her mom, Celeste. Not because she’s overbearing, emergencybut because Penny has always felt like she’s the parent and her mom’s the kid. Sometimes Penny wanted to “shake Celeste until her fillings came loose.” Now it’s time for Penny to go off to college –  University of Texas in Austin, only an hour or so away, but away nonetheless.

Her dorm mate Jude, and Jude’s bestie, Mallory, seem like every mean girl Penny has ever encountered, but like everyone else in Mary H.K. Choi’s debut novel Emergency Contact appearances can be deceiving. Penny isn’t anything like them, she’s like the “tiny Asian girl from the Japanese horror movie The Grudge.” (Penny is, in fact, Korean.) Although her friendship with Jude and Mallory isn’t immediate, it turns out, once she lets them in, they’re tremendous allies.

Then there’s Sam. Sam is related (sort of) to Jude through some complicated family tree consisting of defunct marriages. At twenty-one, he works at a local coffee shop where he cooks scrumptious pastries, and lives in a room overhead. He’s skinny, floppy-haired and tattooed, and Penny is almost immediately smitten when she joins Jude and Mallory  for iced coffees. Sam is “different. Sleek. Brooding and angular.”

A chance encounter one afternoon, causes Sam and Penny to become each other’s emergency contacts,  and thus begins a series of light-hearted, and then increasingly more personal texts. Such is romance in the 21st century, I guess. The thing is, Penny has a boyfriend back home and Sam is still in love with his ex, the obnoxiously self-centered Lorraine. But since Penny and Sam never meet in person and only rarely speak on the phone, they manage to keep their relationship superficial, even if neither of them actually feels that way about each other.

I read my fair share of YA romance, and I have to say that Emergency Contact  is definitely one of the better ones I’ve read. Both Sam and Penny are delightfully drawn. Penny is closed off, but clearly as smart as a whip. Sam, too, has had his problems, and things get more complicated for him as he tries to navigate his feelings for Lorraine and his growing feelings for Penny. The thing about these two people is that they are genuinely nice and Choi doesn’t resort to any ridiculous tactics to keep them apart…or push them together, either. There’s certainly lots of potential for misunderstandings and crossed wires, but the little snags in their journey seem realistic rather than ridiculous.

And even though you know where all this is headed and you’ll want these guys to get together, too, it’s the journey, not the destination.

 

 

jake, reinvented – Gordon Korman

jake reinventedGordon Korman’s YA novel jake, reinvented takes a page straight out of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic,  The Great Gatsby. Like, straight out of it. This is the story of Rick, a high school kid who is only marginally cool because he is the kicker and back-up quarterback for the F. Scott Fitzgerald (yep!) high school football team and hangs out with Todd Buckley, the team’s hyper-masculine starting quarterback.

Rick Paradis is an observer, much in the same as Nick Carraway watched the action in The Great GatsbyWhen the story opens, he’s observing a raucous party being held at the un-parented home of new-to-town Jake Garrett, the football team’s new long-snapper. It’s the first of many Friday night parties that Jake hosts, each one getting bigger and more out-of-control.

Jake is an enigma. He watches his house getting trashed with an “unruffled calm.” His speech is peppered with ‘baby’ as in “Good hang time, baby”, I suspect an outdated tag even back in 2003 when the book was published.

He looked like he just waltzed off the pages of the J. Crew catalog, or maybe Banana Republic. I mean, nothing he was wearing was all that special – just a plaid shirt, untucked over a white tee and khakis. But everything went together perfectly, and hung on him with that rumpled casual effect that you can’t get by being casual. This guy worked it.

Jake befriends Rick, pulling him into his orbit. It seems like an odd friendship at first, but Rick does have something that Jake needs: a connection to Didi, Todd’s self-absorbed, but perfect girlfriend.

Like in Fitzgerald’s novel, none of these characters are particularly likeable. Todd aka Tom is a big-feeling womanizer; Didi aka Daisy is vapid and spineless; Rick is an observer who is soon calling himself Jake’s bestie, but I was never really sure how they managed to get to that place beyond acquaintances.

The novel’s plot mirrors Fitzgerald’s too, so for anyone familiar with that book, this book will not require much effort. And love or hate Fitzgerald’s novel, there’s no denying the quality of the writing. Korman’s novel suffers a little by comparison in that department.

On the other hand, Korman’s novel does speak to that crappy period of time when you are no longer a kid, but you are not quite an adult. There aren’t any of those (adults, I mean) in this novel, anyway. These kids are pretty much left to their own devices. Like Gatsby, everything Jake has done, the persona he has manufactured for himself, has been done to attract the attention of Didi. Is she worthy of his love? Probably not. As Rick says to Jake: “They’re crappy people. You’re worth more than the lot of them put together.”

As an homage to its source material, jake, reinvented will likely speak to any teen who has desperately wanted to reinvent themselves. And if it encourages students to read The Great Gatsby, then that’s a win in my book.

That Was Then, This Is Now – S.E. Hinton

that was thenBack in the day, there probably wasn’t a teenager alive who hadn’t read The Outsiders, S.E. Hinton’s first novel. Written when Hinton was just sixteen and published around the time she graduated from high school, The Outsiders tells the story of the Curtis brothers Darry, Soda, and Ponyboy. It’s considered the seminal young adult novel and remains a classroom favourite almost 50 years after its publication.

I read it as a teenager, of course. Then I read Hinton’s second novel, That Was Then, This is Now and I remember that it had a profound impact on me. So, when it came time to choose the novel I wanted to begin my first ever Young Adult Literature class with, I chose Hinton’s second book – mostly because I knew that although many students would be familiar with The Outsiders, they might not know this book. Plus, it gave me an excuse to read it 40 odd years later after my first go-around.

That Was The, This is Now treads familiar ground (and in fact Ponyboy even makes an appearance in this book). It concerns the fates of Bryon, the novel’s sixteen-year-old narrator and his boyhood best friend and de facto brother, Mark.

I had been friends with Mark long before he came to live with us. He had lived down the street and it seemed to me that we had always been together. We had never had a fight. We had never even had an argument…He was my best friend and we were like brothers.

The two boys live a relatively hard-scrabble life with Bryon’s single mother mom. They hustle pool, chase ‘chicks’ and generally get up to no good. Occasionally, they meet up with M&M, a younger kid from their neighbourhood.

M&M was the most serious guy I knew. He always had this wide-eyed, intent, trusting look on his face, but sometimes he smiled and when he did it was really great. He was an awful nice kid even if he was a little strange.

That Was Then, This Is Now  is a coming of age story. The catalyst for Bryon’s transformation from dime-store hood to responsible young adult is his blossoming relationship with M&M’s older sister, Cathy, and an incident which puts M&M in harm’s way.

There’s no question that some of the references are dated. It was kind of funny to read about hippies and parents who are cross with their kids because their hair is too long. On the other hand, although styles come and go, some things remain the same. Parents and their children still have disagreements. Lots of teenagers are left to their own devices, as Bryon and Mark often are. There were several moments in the book that felt as relevant and fresh to me now as I am sure they did then.

Ultimately, Bryon must make a decision that changes the course of his life. It’s a hard epiphany to swallow, but it’s one that makes That Was Then, This Is Now as relevant as it was when it was first published.

The Truth Commission – Susan Juby

Normandy Pale, the narrator of Susan Juby’s award-winning YA novel, The Truth Commission,  lives with her parents and older sister, Keira, on Vancouver Island. Keiratruth is a celebrated graphic novelist, whose series Diana: Queen of Two Worlds, tells the story of “a suburban girl who lives with her “painfully average”  family which includes her  high-strung easily overwhelmed mother, her ineffectual father, and her dull-witted, staring lump of a sister.”

Keira published three volumes of Diana, a smash hit with a huge cult-following, and then went off to college in the States.

That’s the same time Normandy (Norm for short) started attending Green Pastures Academy of Arts and Applied Design where everyone knew who she was because of her sister. It was notoriety Norm didn’t particularly covet because “you cannot imagine how embarrassing it is to be in these books, especially when all the Earth plotlines are taken from minor and usually un-excellent incidents in our real life.”

The Truth Commission‘s conceit is that Norm is writing her Spring Special Project, a story which covers three months from the previous fall (Sept-November).

Here’s how the project is supposed to work: Each week I will write and submit chapters of my story to my excellent creative writing teacher. She will give me feedback on those chapters the following week. I will write as if I do not know what will happen next – as if I’m a reporter, which is a device used in classic works of non-fiction.

Norm’s story is about The Truth Commission, a committee consisting of Norm and her best friends Neil and Dusk (aka Dawn) who “went on a search for the truth and…found it.” Norm discovers that the truth is a complicated thing and that is especially true in her own family.

Keira has returned from college under a rather dark cloud. “She wouldn’t tell us what happened,” Norm tells us, “and when my parents asked if everything was okay, Keira got mad and said she’d leave if they asked again.”  Now she spends most of her time in her room or in the closet she and Norm share and “when she did leave, she stayed out for days and we had no idea where she went.”

Since Norm and Keira have never been particularly close, Norm is almost flattered when Keira starts sneaking into her room at night admitting “I think it’s time for me to tell someone what happened.”

I loved every minute I spent with Norm and her friends, who are equally smart and funny. There is a sort of mystery at the core of the novel: what happened to Keira? Although that is certainly one reason to turn the pages I think Normandy pretty much had me at ‘hello.’

Highly recommended and BONUS! Canadian.

 

 

 

Off the Shelf – Bookish Bits

Listen here.

I’ve had a very ‘bookish’ few day…my colleagues and I hosted the seventh annual Write Stuff at the Saint John Arts Centre last week. We hosted about 120 students from six different high schools and launched our sixth literary magazine. This is an event that always reaffirms for me the power of the written word and that students want to share their thoughts with others.

I also attended the Eclectic Reading Club’s soiree last Wednesday night as the guest of Dr. Stephen Willis. For those who don’t know, this club is the oldest of its kind in Canada – established in 1870. It’s not a book club per se, it’s more like a throwback to the time when entertainment consisted of gathering in the warmth of someone’s drawing room chatting, and listening to readings, perhaps sipping a cup of tea or a glass of sherry. On the night I attended, the theme was pirates and privateers and those of us gathered listened to some interesting historical true-life accounts of pirates both close to home and in seas far away. It was a lovely evening. Everyone dresses up, there was the promised hot chocolate at the end of the evening and I saw people I haven’t seen in many years and met new friends. Other than that, of course, what happens in the eclectic stays in the eclectic. Top secret.

We’re only about six weeks away from the end of the school year and I am already thinking about the fall. I am very lucky to be offering a new course at Harbour View called Young Adult Literature. Like how could I not be excited about that?

The rationale behind offering a course like this is to give students who love to read an opportunity to read outside of the traditional English class and to, perhaps, make the experience slightly more authentic. I don’t mean to imply that what happens in traditional English classes isn’t authentic learning because it is – but when I‘ve finished reading I don’t write an essay or make a poster. Mostly what I want to do is talk about the book with someone else, maybe write a review so I can try to articulate my thoughts on paper. YAL is really my go at encouraging students to read widely and to share their reading experiences with others and to hopefully set them on the path to becoming life long readers – because truthfully that is what I think is the most important part of my job.

It’s pretty exciting to be thinking about a course devoted to a genre that actually had a fairly rocky beginning. Where does YA start? Think back to your own beginnings as a reader – not the books that were read to you, but the first books you selected on your own. In 1971, librarian Mary Kingsbury commented that librarians were acting like “frightened ostriches” with regards to accepting the notion of books for a young adult audience. By the 80s though, the genre was staring to take hold and names like Robert Cormier and Judy Blume were more familiar.

sehinton
Photo of a young S.E. Hinton from Penguin

It would be impossible to offer a course like this without revisiting where the YA movement – arguably –  began: S.E. Hinton’s classic The Outsiders. Is there a person on the planet who has not read this book?

 

First of all – The Outsiders is 50 years old this year. Like – doesn’t that make you feel ancient? I really do remember reading it as a kid in the 70s. That’s a million years ago – so that’s the mark of a powerful book, a formative book.  S.E. Hinton was just 16 when she wrote The Outsiders because she said “there wasn’t anything realistic being written about teenage lives.”  It was published when she was 17.  Theoutsiders novel tells the story of rival gangs in Oklahoma the greasers and the socs – the socials. It’s a simple story, really, about Ponyboy Curtis and his best friend, Johnny, but something about those characters really resonates with young readers and when I recommend the book to students who haven’t read it – the reviews are unanimously favourable. S.E. Hinton said “Teenagers still feel like I felt when I wrote the book, that adults have no idea what’s really going on. And even today, that concept of the “in crowd” and the “out crowd” is universal. The names of the groups may change, but kids still see their own lives in what happens to Ponyboy and his friends.”

thatwasthenHinton wasn’t a one-trick pony(boy) haha either. Her second novel That Was Then, This is Now, is actually better than The Outsiders, in my humble opinion. If students have read The Outsiders – and a lot of them do in middle school, I always suggest That Was Then as a follow-up. Most of them have never heard of it and again – they always like it. It’s about two childhood friends, Bryon and Mark, whose lives diverge when one chooses to go down a different – more dangerous –  path than the other. I loved this book as a kid. Loved it. And for students who’ve loved The Outsiders, Ponyboy makes an appearance – although this novel is not a sequel.

So, I am going to spend my summer thinking about the course. There will be lots of room for self-selection, of course, the only time someone else chooses what I am going to read is for book club or when I am doing a review for a third party. That said – I have read so many amazing YA novels over the past few years, and btw, by 2014, 55% of YA novels were purchased by adults – and I am looking forward to sharing these titles and talking about them with my students.

Off the Shelf – Should we let kids read what they want?

Listen here.

Um. Yeah. That’s the short answer. The long answer is a lot more complicated.

This is a topic we’ve tackled before, but it’s endlessly fascinating, isn’t it?  Just the thought of someone telling me what I can and can’t read gets my hackles up – but it’s an even pricklier subject when you start to consider younger readers. I deal with young adult readers every day and have a classroom library of more than 1000 books, several of which have been on a banned book list at some point, I’m sure.

According to an article in The Guardian, books are banned for all sorts of reasons including “Racism, homosexuality, offensive language, sexually explicit scenes, gritty topics like suicide and drugs, and talking animals.”  C’mon, you’re going to tell me Winnie the Pooh is objectionable – some of my fondest childhood memories of are of my mom reading me Winnie the Pooh.

“According to the American Library Association, the most common initiators of book challenges are parents, and the most common settings for book challenges are schools, school libraries, and public libraries. In other words, we can assume that books are most frequently challenged by concerned parents, who believe materials are unsuitable for children or teens.”

Okay, we’re going to head down the rabbit hole now.

TwilightbookObjecting to reading material is subjective. I object to Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series all the time – loudly – in my classroom, but I have the whole series in my library. My students know I think Meyer is a hack, but that’s about the quality of her writing, not about the subject matter and it’s a personal opinion.  If students want to read her books, they should read them. And then they should read other, better vampire books like Holly Black’s The Coldest Girl in Cold Town or the granddaddy of them all Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Young adult novels have definitely changed – but as much as things change they stay the same. So let’s have a quick primer.

Seventeenth Summer released by Maureen Daly in 1942 is widely considered the first ever YA novel. Fairly benign, certainly by today’s standards.

The first golden age of YA books happened in the 70s with novels by Judy Blume, Robert Cormier and Lois Duncan

Judy Blume’s novel Forever was an absolute a right of passage for anyone who grew up in the 70’s. The book has been on many, many challenged/banned lists since it was published in 1975, but as Ms. Blume says “How are young people supposed to make thoughtful decisions if they don’t have information and no one is willing to talk with them?”

Then there was a little lull before the baby boomers came of age in 2000. This second golden age in YA introduced readers to J.K. Rowling, Suzanne Collins and, yes, Stephanie Meyer.

If  you ask me whether or not we should allow young people to make decisions about what they read my answer has to be yes. Because let’s face they have access to way more potentially contentious stuff than what they’ll find in my classroom library, or the school library and they’ve got the power right in the palms of their hands.

And that’s really the crux of the matter. Books that are potentially controversial (and the range is crazy, Who Has Seen the Wind? for goodness sake)  are the exact books that are worth talking about because those are the books that will help young readers learn about their own limits and tastes and viewpoints and by deciding for them what those things should be we are taking away their right to develop into discerning and well-read humans.

I have been at Harbour View since 2009 and I haven’t had any issues with parents objecting to the books in my classroom. I post an introductory letter at the start of each academic year telling parents about my library and that some of the books might be considered ‘objectionable’ and I would certainly respect any parent’s right to prevent their teen from reading a book from my library – but why? It makes more sense to let them read the book and then, you read the book and then talk about the book together. That’s what I do in class. Talk about the books.

I read an article titled “The Not So Horrible Consequence of Reading Banned Books” where  psychologist Christopher Ferguson was quoted from the journal  Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts. He noted that “Reading banned books did not predict nonviolent or violent crime, or contribute to school GPA.” However, it was “positively associated with civic and volunteering behaviors.”  Ferguson’s research went on to report that “Such works can prompt readers to ponder ethical dilemmas, or — better yet — to discuss them with parents or teachers. In this way the books may foster higher-level thinking about these issues and promote more civic mindedness, even if the material is dark.”

And yes, there are some dark books out there. It’s a dark world. Burying our heads in the sand doesn’t make it any less dark. But I will say this – a book could save a life and Ferguson found that “It may be possible that youth with higher levels of mental health symptoms may select books that speak to them, offer them a chance for introspection, or a release from their symptoms.”

161426Allowing students to self-select reading material is important, but it is a skill and it starts at a young age. Read to your kids when they are young, take them to the library, talk about what they’re reading and read it, too. I know that when my daughter Mallory was about twelve she read a book called How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff…a book that I also read…quite an adult YA book and we actually did a mother/daughter review for my blog. Fantastic book and a powerful book for her and a book and conversation that we got to share. To me, that’s way better than any social media interaction I have with my kids.

Alice Munro talks about banning books, including her book Lives of Girls and Women here.