Musings on children's and YA literature, the academy, and the relationship between them, from an English professor and mother.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

(Young) Adult Literature

Whenever I teach YA literature in my children's lit course (which I do, because there is no YA lit course and I want to cover it somehow) someone objects that the book is not "appropriate" for kids. So then we get in a big discussion of how we define appropriate, and how we think about audience, and usually at some point someone realizes that, hey, the students sitting in the classroom are actually the intended audience for the book. Or they were, a year or so ago, when they were in high school. The category of "child" or "youth," that is, is very broad--though, of course, the category of "adult" is even broader.

Until now, though, I've had a hard time defining "young adult" for my students. We can talk a bit about age ranges and subject matter and such, but that doesn't always get us very far. So a recent panel discussion on "What Makes a YA a YA," sponsored by Publisher's Weekly caught my eye. I particularly liked Sherman Alexie's comments about condescension:
“I thought I’d been condescended to because I’m an Indian,” he said. “That was nothing compared to the condescension I get because I’ve written a YA novel.” He said that fellow writers have also accused him of chasing a lucrative market. “Because I’ve written a book about a 16-year-old,” he said, “that means I’m a capitalistic whore.”
(All the YA authors in the room now explode in laughter, since they've all gotten so rich off their hypocritical work. Not!)

I also resonated with these comments about the difference between YA and literature for "adults":
Writing for teens involves a stripped-down technique, Alexie said. “You tend to write more like Hemingway than Faulkner. More like Emily Dickinson than T.S. Eliot. It’s not a matter of more complex thoughts, but the number of adverbs and adjectives. In the adult world, the number of adverbs and adjectives* can be confused with great writing.” Martin put it another way: “Teen books are like adult books, without all the bullshit.”

Of course there's fabulous stripped-down writing for adults (even beyond Hemingway and Dickinson), but I have to say, I have been reading some "adult" novels by perfectly fine writers lately, and I keep getting really impatient with the literary effects (for want of a better word) they seem to be striving for. Every so often they just seem to want to remind me that they are writers, you know, real writers, so there are forced analogies or obscure metaphors or heavily symbolic objects littering up my pages. These are not bad books, but I find myself thinking, "get to the point!"**

Thanks to J.L. Bell at Oz and Ends for the link.

*Hmm, has Alexie read what people say about J.K. Rowling's use of adverbs?
**As Madeline L'Engle taught me, comparisons are odious, and YA books can be great without their greatness casting adult books into shadow. But when I read this and thought of the books I'd been reading lately (ok, not Twilight, in this case!), it resonated. That is all.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Which Narnia character are you?

I was sure I'd be Susan. I come from a family that matches the Pevensies (boy-girl-boy-girl) and I'm the Susan. According to the quiz, this is a better outcome:

You are Prince Caspian, who became the rightful heir of Narnia. You have a sharp eye for injustice and a humble heart to improve the world around you. You never quite rely on yourself to make changes; instead, you believe only teamwork can achieve them. As you grow in wisdom, you will learn to trust yourself.

Take the quiz here.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Listening In

If you look over at my reading list on the sidebar, you'll notice that I don't read a lot of adult fiction. It's not that I don't enjoy it, or find it richly rewarding--I do--but I have so much children's and YA literature to catch up on that I often don't find the time. Lately, though, I've discovered something I do have time for: short story podcasts. Have you discovered these? My favorite is the New Yorker fiction podcast: once a month, a writer who has recently published in the magazine selects a story from the archive, reads it aloud, and then discusses it with the fiction editor, Deborah Treisman. This month, for example, you can hear Louise Erdrich read the Lorrie Moore story, "Dance in America." I've got several months' worth archived on my iPod now, and I listen to them in the car when I've got it to myself. Yesterday as I was driving to pick Mark up from work I heard Donald Antrim read Donald Barthelme's "I Bought a Little City," and I found myself laughing out loud at the absurd little story. I need to go read it now, and see how much of my response was due to Antrim's terrifically dry reading, and how much the story itself. But all of the stories I've heard so far really lend themselves to reading out loud, and I've really enjoyed hearing them come alive in this way.

It's a lot of fun to hear writers read and talk about other writers--their discussions of the stories afterwards are almost as interesting as the stories themselves, as when Deborah Treisman told Antonya Nelson some of the background to the Mavis Gallant story, "When We Were Nearly Young." Sometimes the contemporary writers dig pretty deep into the archives; recently I heard Jonathan Lethem read James Thurber's "The Wood Duck," and before that I heard E. L. Doctorow read John O'Hara's "Graven Image." And sometimes the pairings are as intriguing as the stories--what made Jhumpa Lahiri choose William Trevor's short story, "A Day"? Right now I'm listening to Junot Diaz reading his own story, “How to Date a Brown Girl (Black Girl, White Girl, or Halfie),” which Edwidge Danticat chose, and I'm looking forward to my drive home to get a little further into it.

You can subscribe to the New Yorker fiction podcast over iTunes or XML, or just listen online.

Monday, April 21, 2008

On Road Trips and Picture Books

Mariah and I were out on the road last week, finishing up a college tour that put about 1200 miles on our car, allowed us to visit lots of old friends and a weekend with family, and got her much much closer to a decision about what she'll be doing next year. The whole thing had me thinking about picture books. Read this month's column and you'll see why...

(Cross-posted at the other blog...)

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Books in Brief

I've just read three great books in advanced reading copies (ARCs), and, while I want to review each more fully, I have to record my initial impressions before I forget. (And, to be honest, I may not get to write fuller reviews any time soon... or ever.)

The Explosionist, by Jenny Davidson, is a terrifically engrossing YA novel. Sophie Hunter, a boarding school student in 1930s Edinburgh, finds herself enmeshed in geo-political intrigues brought on by rationalist science run amuk. Oh, did I mention that this is Edinburgh in an alternate history, where Wellington lost at Waterloo and Oscar Wilde became an obstetrician? (That latter point doesn't really matter much as far as I can tell, but it's the kind of funny detail that animates the book in places.) While, as Becca said, its intended audience may not really "get" the ways in which Sophie's history has deviated from our own, the plot and characters are so engrossing as to keep them reading anyway, and maybe learning some intellectual history along the way. Science and spiritualism are allied in this world, making for some intriguing new technologies and some dangerously powerful people. Fair warning: the novel is the first in a two-book series, and several threads are left hanging for the next book. (Due out in July; I got the book from Becca, who got it from Jenny.)

Steinbeck's Ghost, by Lewis Buzbee, is a middle-grade novel that should appeal to all kinds of readerly kids. Travis Williams is 13 and living in Camazotz. Well, it's really a new development in the Salinas Valley, Santa Lucia (Bella Linda Terrace, to be exact), but Travis finds the "perfection" of his new development, his new house, and his parents' new jobs, mind-numbing and soul-destroying. Going back to his old neighborhood he learns that the John Steinbeck Public Library is slated for closure, and is energized by the librarian to do something about it. With a great cast of characters--including his best friend Hilario, the librarian Miss Babb, and a reclusive author--Travis discovers some secrets about his neighborhood and about Steinbeck that can--maybe--save the library. This book really gets the pleasures of reading and rereading; it had me wanting to spend more time in my library, too. (Due out in September; I received this book from the author.)

Moribito, Guardian of the Spirit, by Nahoko Uehashi, tells a fantastic story set in an imaginary version of medieval Japan. The woman warrior, Balsa, rescues the Mikado's second son from a near-fatal accident, and finds herself caught up in adventure in which it's not quite clear which side she should be on. Along with a healer and an elderly magic-weaver, she protects the boy, Chagum, from an invisible monster--and, perhaps, from his father. While in places the translation feels a bit pedestrian, the characters and the action in this book are so engrossing as to pull the reader along. (Due out in translation in June, this is the first book in an already popular Japanese series. I received the book from Cheryl Klein at Scholastic.)

While these three books are all very different, aimed at different audiences, with different styles and entirely different plots, I'm intrigued as I write this to realize that all three take the notion of a spirit world very seriously, and all are centrally concerned with the power of story--of books, oral tales, and mythic narratives--to shape reality. Their delights are many and varied--keep an eye out for them!

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Talking about books

Since I'm on sabbatical this year I don't talk about books as much as usual. I write about them, and I talk them up when I get a chance, but I always feel as if folks are humoring me just a little bit. (I do go on...)

But today I got to talk about the Twilight books with ten seventh graders who are big fans. (Well, nine of them are; the tenth was there to keep them honest.) These were smart, funny, articulate kids. They know at some level that there are better books than Twilight, but they love the feeling of giving themselves up to a book and just wallowing for a while. They love the action, the fantasy, the mystery--but also, I think, they love the predictability. They know Bella will whine, and Edward will let her, and Jacob will smolder, and Alice will be just perfect, and that's what they want.

There's a comfort to predictability, and smart girls are not above that comfort. But they were impatient with Bella, and troubled at the idea of giving up her humanity for Edward (at least one said she wouldn't change her name for a man, so why should Bella give up even more?). One called the books "anti-feminist," though others thought Bella's effort to establish herself on equal footing with Edward was admirable--if, perhaps, impossible.

They all loved Edward. When their teacher and I expressed a mild partiality for Jacob, not one agreed with us. They love Edward's perfection. Some compared him to Ashley Wilkes, though, wondering if he was "too perfect," or "perfect, but wrong for her." At least one had gone on to read Wuthering Heights after encountering the references to it in Eclipse. None had ever seen Buffy, or read Dracula (though some might, now that I've suggested it). None professed any particular interest in vampires.

I was fascinated by our conversation, which had lots of "likes" scattered throughout (they kept count on each other!), and occasional squealing, and plenty of in-jokes. The one who had pushed Twilight on the others denied ever crying about it, though the others teased her. One girl had read the series five times (!), but claimed that she found the characters slightly flat. All knew the date the next book will be out, and the movie date, too.

I think I'll go back and talk to them about books again. It's good to hear what kids are thinking about books, and good to know there's a new generation of readers coming up. I can't wait to get them in my own classes in a few years.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Cutting a Swath

Have you seen it yet? The Poetry Princesses have been hard at work, and now the fruits of their labor are out there, ready for you to read. That's right, Sara Lewis Holmes, Laura Purdie Salas, Tricia Stohr-Hunt, Liz Garton Scanlon (the instigator!), Tanita S. Davis (TadMack), Andromeda Jazmon (Cloudscome) and Kelly Fineman have written their crown of sonnets. You can read the whole thing here, and if you click on their names you can read their individual blog posts with their poems and their reflections on the process. It's an amazing feat, one I got a glimpse of early on while Tricia was working on hers. I'm so delighted with the results--and you will be, too.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Just. Stop.

I have to confess, I haven't even seen the live action Cat in the Hat.* Nor the Grinch. Why would I? I have the books and my children, thank goodness, are old enough not to beg to see these. The reviews of Horton haven't been quite so bad, but the anti-abortionists hijacking the tag line have annoyed me, so I'll probably stay away from that, too.

So, you know, I loved this. But it's not really G-rated, just so you know.

*imdb search terms include "Critically Bashed" and "Box Office Flop"

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Something I can have, something I must have

I can have: Someone somewhere (was it Amazon?) told me that Philip Pullman's Once Upon a Time in the North would not be available until later this month, but I actually have a copy right now in my hot little hands. What a pleasure! (I haven't actually opened it yet...I have a big road trip coming up and I'm saving it for bedtime reading on the road.)

I must have: Today I learned that Neil Gaiman has written an introduction to one of my favorite childhood books, The Thirteen Clocks, by James Thurber. My brothers and sister and I grew up parroting lines like "He breaks up minstrels in his soup, like crackers" and "He'll slit you from your guggle to your zatch." I think I have a battered old copy, but a new one--with illustrations by Marc Simont, whose illustrations for Thurber's Many Moons are a complete delight, and introduction by Gaiman--is going on the wish list right now.

Monday, April 07, 2008

The Edge of the Forest

Just out today, there's a huge double issue of The Edge of the Forest, packed with great stories about children's literature. Check out, for example, a review of an adult book (no, not that kind!), Before Green Gables. And then there's this lovely feature by Candice Ransom, a memoir of a long friendship and an appreciation of Trina Schart Hyman. There's an interview with Peter Cameron, by Barbara Shoup, Barrie Summy is this month’s Blogging Writer, interviewed by Becky Levine, and Sounds from the Forest is back. There are book recommendations and, as always, lots and lots of book reviews--so many that there's even a bonus section! There's even a book review by me.

The next issue of The Edge of the Forest is due out in May; this one's got plenty to keep you busy until then.

Saturday, April 05, 2008


I'm thinking.

And reading, and writing--but not so much here. I did, however, just read The Arrival (I know, I know, everyone already did). I wish I could find some appropriately wordless way to express how wonderful the book is, but for better or worse, I only do words. Trust me, though: it's marvelous, in every sense.