Monday, November 29, 2010

American Born Chinese (Gene Leun Yang) and The Absolutely True Confessions of a Part Time Indian (Sherman Alexie)

Both of these books really looked at the life of children growing up in multicultural traditions. It is interesting how both books choose a nontraditional format to tell their stories; ABC is a brilliant graphic novel that uses layered plot devices to tell an deeply poignant story and Confessions is the diary of a young Indian boy, complete with doodles and sketches and a stream of conscious feel that captures a unique voice. I found these formats to be incredibly effective tools, because they put readers outside of their immediate comfort zones. In a way, this leveled the playing field and forced readers to approach the book differently than a normal chapter novel.

Also, both books made very clear statements about society, specifically about the position of a minority young adult within the mainstream culture. Neither glamorized the life of individuals or even of the mainstream culture, rather they discussed the difficulties of fitting familial traditions into society's view of a "normal" or "good" life.

While I loved both books, I think that ABC portrays the struggle more effectively. Confessions is engaging and thought-provoking, and I find Alexie's multiple examples of the poverty and alcoholism that sweep reservations extremely compelling. Still, I feel like something is missing; it seems as though, while Junior is fully aware of what happens around him, he is unable to articulate it clearly. Alexie loads his prose with examples and heart-wrenching tragedy, but I left the story unsatisfied on some level. Maybe this is actually the most successful part of the book -- the fact that I walk away feeling someone hopeless and perplexed as to what I'm supposed to do with the information. Confessions is certainly rimmed in hope, but the story itself is bleak.

I think that I favor ABC because it focuses less on the struggle of an entire people group, and more on an individual coming to term with his identity. It is much more manageable and immediate -- while Confessions asks huge questions of society, ABC questions particular roles within society, and I connected more with that. I walked away blown away by the depth of the piece, whereas with Confessions, I was distracted by the major questions at hand and the plight of Native Americans as a whole.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Going Bovine

Going Bovine by Libba Bray follows 16-year-old Cameron on a quest to save his life...and the universe. A classic bildungsroman with a slight twist, Cameron's cross-country road trip leads him on a random, life-changing adventure where he meets ridiculous and eccentric characters and learns how valuable his life really is.

Going Bovine closely examines the need to live life and not sit back and watch it pass; consequently, simply reading Bray's novel is an adventure in and of itself. Written in teenage vernacular on speed, the intensity of her word choice plays a role in the novel to the point of distraction. I loved the way that she played with words and turns-of-phrase, but it got to the point where it actually distracted and annoyed me instead of enhancing the story. It didn't lend credibility to the characters as much as it made them seem cheeky and fake. I don't know a single sixteen-year-old boy who talks the way that Cameron narrates the novel and it really took me out of the story. As I read, I wondered about Libba Bray herself -- the overdose of hyperactive teenage vocabulary all mashed on one page made me think that she was nervous to be writing a non-girly young adult novel. I've never read her other writing and I don't know anything about her as an author, but I just do not think that the writing should take a reader out of the story leads to distraction, which leads to boredom, which is where I found myself after the first few hundred pages.

In part due to the writing, then, I found Cameron and his gang of mismatched cohorts somewhat obnoxious and typecast. In direct contrast to the way that Airborn's characters overshadowed the action of the novel, Going Bovine's characters get overwhelmed by their adventure. The events in the story captured me more than the characters themselves actually did. Cameron is cheeky and irreverent in the beginning of the story and, to a large degree, he remains the same way in the end. He has developed a more empathetic, loving view of those around him, which I found positive, but overall his dialogue and crazy antics distracted me from any deep attachment to his character. Similarly, Gonzo and Dulcie, his two best friends, seemed very much like archetypes of what the author thought the main character should need rather than what the story required. They both develop a slight amount of depth in the end, but, by and large, it seemed trivial -- it's brought in too late to add much to the story and one's opinions of their characters are basically set by that point. It was somewhat frustrating, because I really wanted to connect with the protagonists, but they just seemed shallow on the page.

What I loved about this novel is the way that it examined the value of life. I think that its speed and frenetic pacing will appeal to an audience weened on video games and instant gratification, and it is precisely this demographic that needs to hear the message of Going Bovine -- life is all around you. You must live the richest, fullest existence you can, because otherwise you're wasting the very finite amount of time allotted to you. Such a message is especially poignant today and I love what Bovine attempts to do in its story.

Though clumsy in its delivery, as if trying to do too much at once, Bovine has a beautiful heart, one that needs to be shared. I did not love this book, but I think that it is an important addition to young adult libraries. Its structure and highly stylized delivery embraces a new, fresh approach that many young readers will not be familiar with and the heart of the story is an important reminder for people everywhere. While it wouldn't necessarily be my first recommendation to a friend, I think that it is a stronger book than a number of the other ones that I have read.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

In The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly, Calpurnia Tate is the only daughter of a wealthy family from Texas in 1899. At eleven years old, she just wants to explore her family's property and learn as much about natural science from her eccentric grandfather as she can. Her six brothers are given freedoms and opportunities that do not apply to her, though she tries to escape her mother's societal expectations of her with varying degrees of success. The novel follows her through the summer of 1899 and meanders with her as she learns about what she wants for her life, versus what society and her family will allow her to experience.

Part of me really appreciated the structure of this novel, although I really struggled to get behind it most of the time. There seemed to be very few plot points, rather it was literally discussing the life of a young girl in the summer and through the fall. I kind of liked the fact that it was not some inciting incident or major event that threw her entire life into a dizzying spin -- it was the small things that summer that really took hold of Calpurnia and shaped her into who she wanted to be. Most of the time, however, I was bored. The story itself was slow and each chapter seemed more like a vignette than a part of a functioning novel. This might work well in some instances, but add to that the fact that the writing itself was very basic. Though it bordered on blase, it felt like the author had very little trust in the reader to catch her poignant or ironic meanings. When something struck a symbolic chord or had any sort of deeper meaning, she would repeat it and make sure it was obvious. Given the fact that the book caters to a younger audience, this makes sense, however it was slightly more overt than necessary. It made the mundane parts seem even more mundane by comparison.

The most interesting aspect of the writing itself was the inclusion of excerpts from Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species. The book is set around the time that Darwin's book was published and, given Calpurnia's love of science, this text plays a huge role in the novel. The excerpts served as little introductory thoughts into the theme of that particular chapter, which gave the reader beneficial grounding; since the chapters seemed to be strung together in chronological order rather than any other distinction, it was nice to have insight into where you were going.

The characters and themes were equally forgetable, I think. While I really liked the character of the grandfather and his growing relationship with Callie, he was almost too disinterested, and therefore made it difficult for me to have a vested interest in him. As a rule, I love eccentric, brilliant people and fictional characters, so I definitely appreciated him from that vantage point, but I'm not sure what there is about him that would set him apart from any other mad scientist grandfather. Similarly, I did not dislike Callie Vee or her family, I simply felt neutral toward them.

I think that might be what it comes down to, for me -- everything about this book was neutral. The statements about society were basically limited to the spread of scientific education and what a woman could be empowered to do in the late nineteenth/early eighteenth centuries, but even that seemed somewhat half-hearted. The novel was fine, but it wasn't special.

I don't know if my reaction to Calpurnia Tate stems from a lack of interest in science or the fact that I was reading things that I liked more at the same time I began it or if it was just the lack of plot, but I did not like it very much. I found it boring and wandering. The lack of resolution at the end was expected, but still somewhat disappointing. I don't consider myself a structuralist, but I think that young adult novels should be more purposeful than this.


Airborn by Kenneth Oppel is the story of Matt Cruse, a cabinboy on the airship Aurora. In the story, Matt becomes linked with Miss Kate DeVries, a wealthy young passenger searching for a mysterious creature that her grandfather had witnessed in the skies a year earlier. Together, they ward off pirates and search for the cloud cat.

The story was set in some sort of alternate past or historical future -- it took place on an airship, which seemed simultaneously nostalgic and futuristic. The society was very much that of the early twentieth century, though, so it seemed somewhat familiar. The writing felt similarly familiar and somewhat nostalgic; less verbose than the actual novels of that time, it still read like a classic. The language was accessible, but still pleasantly surprising. Unlike Uglies or, to a certain extent, Percy Jackson, Airborn did not just come from someone with a creative idea, but someone who could weave the language around the story. Oppel twists this familiar tale and revises the Romantic adventures of eras past, and his language serves this purpose. It has one foot firmly rooted in the Romantic Era and the other just as firmly planted in modern adventure stories.

Similarly, the characters were somehow familiar and classic, yet re-visioned into very modern individuals. Strong, believable, and likable, Matt and Kate draw a reader into the story. Kate DeVries stands out as the single best female character that I've read thus far for this project. She is strong-willed and independent without being over-bearing or overly obnoxious. Her determination overshadows her judgment at times, but she always owns up to her own mistakes and she doesn't ask more of Matt than she asks of herself. I found myself overwhelmed by her dedication to her project at times, but I think that such distinction is almost a characteristic of the faux-romantic era novel of years past. She takes on a sort of Romantic hero mentality at times, where her drive towards distinction almost causes her downfall. Even so, she remains genuine and honestly endearing through the end.

In the same vein, Matt is a very human character. He's riddled with fear and insecurities, but his overall dedication to his ship and his captain are admirable. He is far more cautious than Kate, but the foil serves the story well, and he definitely comes into his own by the end of the story. I wouldn't go as far as to call it a "coming of age" tale, however the book does end with Matt having a better understanding of himself and what he wants in the world.

While the characters absolutely make this book, I don't know that it said very big things toward society. Kate struggles against the bounds put on her as a young woman of a past culture, but overall, I don't see this as a cautionary tale like Uglies or a social satire like Unfortunate Events. The book is more introspective than outward looking, and even then, it doesn't make grand statements about good people versus bad people. It shows that all people are multi-faceted and can't be written off with big labels. Bruce Lunardi, for example, is the wealthy son of the Aurora's owner who comes to the ship and takes Matt's rightful position as sailmaker. Matt has his reservations and bitterness, but Bruce is humble and self-effacing and kind, thereby flying in the face of stereotypes. Even Vikram Szpirglas,the most villainous pirate in the story, is portrayed as a loving father in some parts, desperately confusing Matt and Kate. This novel thrives in the unexpected character developments and in such creates memorable individuals against a somewhat familiar backdrop.

I loved this book. I think that something needs to be said for when a reader can't put a book down -- that's how Airborn hit me. It was a page-turner, a really pleasant, exciting read, and I would highly recommend it to people of all ages.

Uglies Series

One of the first books I read for this project was Uglies by Scott Westerfeld. Set in a dystopian futuristic society of New Pretty Town, the world is separated into the Uglies and the Pretties. Everyone has major, intrusive plastic surgery on their 16th birthday, cementing their status as a Pretty forever. Tally Youngblood is born into this society, and very much buys into the myth that true happiness only comes post-surgery. When a change in events leads Tally on a wild adventure out of civilization to rescue a friend, she is introduced to a brand new world that is unlike anything she has ever experienced before. At the Smoke, the covert society where runaways live a more natural, surgery-free life, Tally meets David and makes some decisions that change her life and set the stage for the second two novels in the trilogy.

I have really come to appreciate the young adult dystopian novel. I think that they make teenagers pause and think about the patriarchy that they almost certainly take for granted as being the only way of life. No matter how foreign the society may seem, reading about young adults making revolutionary choices and succeeding in an atypical life has to be beneficial on some level. These books encourage questioning societal norms and testing beliefs for oneself and those things are really important to understand in the formative years of life.

That being said, the delivery of this series was off in some regards. To begin with, the writing itself bothered me. Pared down and repetitive, at times I wondered if Westerfeld was actually using the simplistic writing as a literary device, as a statement about how such an unhealthy emphasis on the external effects the internal; after reading two of his novels, though, I think this is saying too much. It got to the point where I didn't even find it that enjoyable to read, because the word choice and structure were almost too juvenile. I think that the intended audience can handle a lot more sophisticated writing than what Westerfeld does.

Really, the most alarming part of the story was Tally herself. Her motivation throughout the book is to get beautiful, then she meets David, who turns her world upside down. When he loves her, she can see herself through his eyes and focus less on both of their physical imperfections. In such, she trades her consuming desire for beauty in for a an equally consuming desire for David. After accidentally letting the Special Forces know the Smoke's whereabouts, however, she spends the rest of the novel cleaning up the mess she made. At this point, her motivation is to win David's love and trust back and to help reestablish the renegade society that she had come to appreciate.

Tally grew up fantasizing about the major plastic surgery that she was entitled to at sixteen years old, but when she meets David, she quickly (not immediately, but quite soon after) gives up that possibility to be with him. He was her rock and her source of security in the midst of this change. While I think Tally's obsession with becoming a Pretty does not send a good message to young readers, I think that the book appropriately villainizes the surgery. It is satirized to the point where the reader knows that, even if it is a societal norm, it's a creepy and intrusive government standard. Tally's dependence on David to voice her personality, on the other hand, is far more subversive, and therefore far more concerning. Because the book paints this love story as such a good, romantic, mutually beneficial thing, readers (especially young girls looking for that love story) will be blinded to the fact that Tally changes everything about who she is and what she wants for David. She depends on him for definition in much the same way that she depended on the future surgery to define her future. In a way, David replaces the surgery for her, leaving her with much the same dependence as before.

The error in this lies in a closer reading of the text, the subconscious experience. Relatively speaking, Tally and David's relationship is not that alarming (it certainly does not bear the outwardly terrifying aspects of Edward Cullen and Bella Swan, though the dependence is still an issue). It's the fact that Tally changes everything about herself for a guy she's known for a few weeks and that that is portrayed as a good thing that is not healthy. The book supports this choice, and it further ingrains it in the second book, where Tally does the same thing with a different guy. Not only does she need to change herself and conform her life to fit with a man's once, but twice. From a non-vested viewpoint, it just doesn't seem to be a great image for young, impressionable readers.

That being said, the books raise great questions about the environment, conforming to societal norms, the values and limitations of outward beauty, the importance of genuine friendship. These points save the Uglies series from a long chain of bad books, but they don't do much to raise it above mediocrity.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Ideas.

Let me start by saying that my proposal is impossible.

I don't think that there is any such thing as one definition of "good" literature. In my mind, all literature is good to a certain degree. Good for what, though? That's the question. Is it good for young people to read the same, tired stories with only the slightest changes to the characters' names and physical appearance? Is it good for them to read books that clearly lack a bigger vision and say nothing about society or humanity? On the other hand, is it good for them to read overtly didactic pieces, stories clearly written with an agenda? Is it good for them to read about sex or violence or the ugliness in the world? Or is it good for them to avoid all of those things, instead existing in a safe, pretend medium?

The answer to all of those questions is yes...and then no. What is "good" depends on the individual, the culture, the maturity level, and the ability to comprehend literary works, among a host of other things. What is "good" depends on taste and experience, on the sense of adventure or the need for the familiar within the reader. None of these aspects can be defined by anyone other than the reader him/herself, and that is why my proposal is impossible: I'm trying to nail down the incredibly slippery definition of an instrically subjective matter.

I don't claim expertise on anything, however I do claim years and years of reading experience. After the countless books that I have read, I have to stop and ask -- what makes some of them so wonderful and others so forgetable? What qualities in a book can make a heart pound or stop altogether and what qualities leave a reader unsatisfied and wanting more? Why do some books take my breath away, make me stop and stare at the words in wonder at their implications, whereas others are gone from my mind before I even finish them? That is the goal of this project; I want to create a list of criteria that, in my mind, work together and point towards something great, something beautiful, something important. I want to better understand myself and what I read, and to decipher what specifically I find successful in young adult books.

This too is yet another impossible task, so I have narrowed down the search fields a little. In order to better analyze what I read and to make sure I'm using the same lenses to look at different books, I have chosen three specific fields of interest. I realize that each of these topics could yield an entire dissertation in their own right, but I'm just using them as tools with which to better gauge the novels that I read. In large, sweeping strokes then, I want to examine:

1.) The style and sophistication of the writing. Is it beautiful or strictly utilitarian? Is there any semblance of poetry or drama in the words themselves or do they simply function? Are the sentences plain, repetitive units or do they flow across the page and off the tongue? How sophisticated is the word choice, the structure, the diction? I want to examine how the words work and how they make a reader think. I'm interested to see if the words themselves play a role in the story or if they are like an unseen narrator, simply telling the story without making themselves seen.

2.) The strength and believability of the characters. Do they make sense? Are their motives clear and appropriate to the story? Is the range of emotion clearly displayed and accurately represented? Do you like them? Do you hate them? Do they stick in your mind? Do you care? I'm looking at how strongly I react to characters and how their stories move me as a reader. I want to be compelled to understand them and to figure out why they do what they do in the novel.

3.) The statements about society. What does the author say about the human race? What is important in the world of the book? What is worth fighting for and what is worth fighting against? How should people act? What should society look like? These huge questions are just springboards for a general understanding of what the text stresses as important and noteworthy. I want to see how these implications of what the world is/what the world should be effect the story and the characters, as well as how a reader responds.

Again, this topic is entirely subjective and I know that. I don't know if an authority figure can exist when it comes to YA literature, but I do know that I cannot fill that role at this point. I simply want to understand, and isn't that why we read in the first place? To understand our world and our place in it? That is what I want to accomplish and if at the end of this thesis, I have more information on how to read books, than I think I will have succeeded in my task.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Proposal.

Literature shapes lives. History clearly shows the power of the written word and the
importance of literacy, however the youth sector is often overlooked. Books truly have the power to impact people, especially children, but our society as a whole quickly looks past that. The goal of this project is to better understand the depth and purpose of young adult and children’s literature.

After taking ENG 304, International Literature for Children and Young Adults with Professor Bloem during the fall semester, my eyes opened to the rich, wonderful world of young adult literature. It contrasted sharply with much of the work that I see proliferating the popular market and I wondered why such an incredible distinction existed. Why were these books so well done and maturely put together and yet unknown to an average teenager? Our society grooms poor readers; I thought that a veritable wasteland existed between low-quality, poorly written novels and the seemingly stodgy, canonized literature that is taught in high school classrooms across the countries. In ENG 304, I learned that this is far from true, but that there is difficulty in making the current, quality literature accessible to the youth.

As an individual with career aspirations in the publishing industry, I want to know what is available and what is being published to close this gap. For this project, I intend to read the quality, award-winning young adult literature, as well as some of the current best sellers that perhaps have less literary merit. I want to analyze what makes the books work, what defines their quality, and I will create a blog to report on each book on my list. At the end of the semester, I want to compile my findings and my essays from the blogs into a larger, more sustained paper of 15-20 pages. I will look at similarities and differences from the books and try to create a list of criteria by which to define “good” young adult and children’s literature.

The Working Reading List:

Kit’s Wilderness, by David Almond.

The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very

Interesting Boy, by Jeanne Birdsall.

This Book Is Not Good For You, by Psedudonymous Bosch.

Postcards from No Man’s Land, by Aiden Chambers.

The Magician’s Elephant, by Kate DiCamillo.

The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman.

Looking for Alaska, by John Greene.

The First Last Part, by Angela Johnson.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, by Jacqueiene Kelly.

The White Darkness, by Geraldine McCaughrean.

The Twilight Saga, by Stephanie Meyer.

Monsters, by Walter Dean Myers.

Step From Heaven, by An Na.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians, by Rick Riordan.

how i live now, by Meg Rosoff.

When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead.

A Series of Unfortunate Events: A Bad Beginning, by Lemony Snicket.

American Born Chinese, by Gene Luen Yang.

Airborn, by Kenneth Oppel.

The Uglies Series, by Scott Westerfeld.

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak.

The Absolutely True Confessions of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie.