Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Five Realistic YA Novels With Female Protagonists:Ranging from Excellent to Downright Bad

A quick note: one of my students who follows this blog convinced her roommate tot alk to me about ways to improve this site.  I ave been too busy reading and reviewing to give it much thought.  This student, however has some really smart and basic suggestions.  So stay tuned for a much better look.

Five Realistic YA Novels With Female Protagonists:Ranging from Excellent to Downright Bad

Bauer, Joan (1999) Backwater. New York: Penguin.
Opening Lines:  “I knelt in the snow in front of my great-great-great-great-grandfather’s gravestone, took my bristle brush and cleaned the surface the surface, working the bristles deep into each engraved letter.

Smith, Amber (2016) The Way I Used to Be.  New York:  Simon and Shuster.
Opening Lines:  “I don’t know a lot of things.  I don’t know why I didn’t hear the door click shut.  Why I didn’t lock the damn door to begin with.  Or why I didn’t register that something was wrong—so mercilessly wrong – when I felt the mattress shift under his weight.”

Rock, Peter (2016) Klickitat. New York: Amulet.
Opening Lines:  “It all started when I noticed the way my sister was walking.  It was late in the afternoon and I was upstairs in my bedroom, watching her out the window.  I’d wedged myself between my bookcase and the wall so they both pressed against me, holding me tight.  Below, outside, at the edge of our backyard, I saw Audra.”

Beaufrand, M.J. (2016) Useless Bay.  New York:  Amulet.
Opening line:  “Our dog learned obedience from a murdered man.”

Sones, Sonya (2016) Saving Red.  New York:  Harper
Opening lines:  “Why am I out here in the middle of the fricking night wandering the streets of Santa Monica looking for homeless people when I could be lying in bed watching videos of babies eating lemons and soldiers reuniting with their dogs?  Because I need four more hours of community service this semester.  That’s why.  And I need them by tomorrow morning.”

What makes a realistic YA book good?  This is a hard question.  It is much easier to identify things that make a realistic YA fiction book bad.  Here we will take a look at both.

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            Joan Bauer’s Backwater is a good book.  Ivy Breedlove is a teenager who, it is expected, will become a lawyer.  That’s what all Breedloves become – well except for her crazy Aunt Josephine, who lives on the side of a mountain, deep in the wilderness.  Ivy would rather be a historian, and because of the argumentative nature of the Breedloves, Ivy would love to be able to interview her.  But even if Ivy climbs the mountain, will her hermit of an aunt be willing to talk to her? Ivy hires a rather unconventional guide and sets out on a journey full of surprises. 
            What makes this book work is that it has at its core a good solid story.  One of the things a good solid story does is it lets the reader fall into it and get lost in it.  Bauer’s writing style first of all serves to carry the reader on that journey.  He prose is also beautiful in places, but it primarily serves the story.
There also has to be relatable truth.  In the case of this book, when readers get inside Ivy’s struggle to get her dad to see her as something other than a failed potential lawyer, many of those readers can either connect with that feeling personally or see how it played out in the life of a friend.
            This would be a great book for middle school language arts, though it could also be a good optional book for middle school history.  There is nothing in this book that parents are likely to object to.
            Amber Smith’s The Way I Used to Be is much more complicated. It is a much harder book to read, a much harder book to use in any capacity in a school, and at the same time, it is a book that has a much greater potential payoff, provided readers are willing to stick with it to the end. 

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            Eden is a broken kid.  When she was in middle school, she was raped by her brother Caelen’s friend from high school  She knows she should tell someone, but doesn’t because she is in shock, then is ashamed that she didn’t tell someone right way (and afraid they won’t believe her) and so she keeps it to herself.  She is hurting, and starts a lunch hour book club to try to escape from the noise of the cafeteria.  The reader can see the way her pain is eating away at her.  The summer after Freshman year she gets contacts and starts smoking.  When school starts she ditches her friend Steven (who stood by her when no one else seemed to).  She drops band.  The story is told in first person, and even Ivy’s language changes, as she starts using the f word constantly.  And she starts having sex with a kid named Josh, yet making sure that she doesn’t get too emotionally close to him.
The next school year her relationship with Josh falls apart, Edy and her friend Mara spend more and more time and effort on finding ways to buy alcohol and cigarettes.  And Edy spends more and more time sleeping with guys she doesn’t know and eventually starts getting high too.             
            I have two daughters, and as I was reading, at this point, my papa-sense started going off like crazy and it became harder and harder to read about Ivy’s self-destructive path.  It was particularly hard to watch as Edy’s friends, boyfriends, parents, keep trying to build relationships with her and she keeps sabotaging them.  But throughout the book, there is a sense in which her experience rings true.  Edy’s self-destruction finally hits bottom well past three-quarters of the way through the book.  And although it was hard to read, it was also important, it seemed to me, to read about the deep swath of destruction that swirled out from the original violent act of rape. 
            In the end, Edy hits bottom and finally tells her story and there is community, redemption, and even some justice.  But it is such a hard road to get there.   This would be a good book for some high school seniors to read, but it is certainly not the right choice for everybody at that time.  
            I am still trying to figure out why I didn’t like Peter Rock’s Klickitat.  Rock has won an Alex Award for his adult novel My Abandonment which I haven’t read.  Perhaps that novel works better.  This one seems pretentious, deliberately obscure, and inconclusive. 
            Klickitat tells the story of Vivian, a young girls who has anxiety attacks that are revealed by pressure (though she does not seem to be autistic, which I usually associate with this condition.  Vivians’s parents seem to be disconnected from their children’s lives.  Vivian’ sister Audra has met a buy named Henry whom she intends to run away with to live a purer life in the woods (though at the moment, they are living together in the crawl space under a house.  Vivian maybe has a crush on Henry.  Vivian has a notebook in her bedroom who someone keeps writing nearly incomprehensible poetry in. 

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            The book, at its best, can be ethereal.  At its worst though, it seems artsy, in the sense that it is trying very hard to seem like art.  It is like it is hinting at meaning that is not there.  The messages in the notebook are a good example of this.  They carry some sort of meaning, but nothing that really helps Vivian.  It is like reading lines of abstract poetry without any context.  As the book goes on, I became more and more convinced that everyone who writes notes in this book is allergic to making any kind of applicable point.
            The truth is, it reminds me of both the worst literary fiction of the 1990s and the kind of rocks songs that you thought were profound when you were in high school, but now listen to again and realize that, although they sound profound, they aren’t actually saying anything.  And actually, I find this terrifying.  One of the things I love about children’s books is that children tend to demand a coherent story that comes to some sort of a conclusion.  Children have little patience for pretention.  I am praying that this sort of book does not proliferate.  I suppose there may be something school students out there who might love this book, but I cannot recommend it. 
            Similarly M. J. Beaufrand’s Useless Bay (2016) seemed like an intriguing premise that didn’t deliver.  Set of Whidbey Island, off the coast of Washington State, this book tells the story of the Gray quintuplets and their dog who regularly serve as an informal search-and-rescue team.  When a boy is reported missing, the Gray’s search turns up a body, but not that of the missing boy.  Soon the quints are in the middle of a complicated mystery with multiple suspects and lots of danger.  Sounds good?

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            There are some problems, though.  We don’t get to know the Quints well enough to really care for them.  There is also some mystical magical realism thrown in which doesn’t add to the mystery, but rather seems like it is out of place.  The magical realism is not internally consistent, nor does it make much sense.  I know that magical realism is magical, but it also has to fit into the story in a way that makes sense.  Magic has a kind of weird logic to it.  In this book, that logic was very hard to follow. The story moves well, I will give it that.  The ending is quite gripping.  But the ending is not particularly satisfying.
            This book, like all YA literature in the last five years, has it’s fair share of vulgar language.  There are a couple of cheap shots at different populations, including one at people of faith.  “Mom was firmly anti-religious because of all of the people of faith who gathered around her with casseroles when she was a new mother of quintuplets and promised to help…if only she would repent and admit she’d been a whore to get herself knocked up to begin with.” (52)  I have no doubt that there are people who would say such things in the world, and that this is the mother’s interpretation, but even so, it seems an unfair stereotype.    
Sonya Sones’s Saving Red, on the other hand, works.  While on a service project helping to count homeless people. Molly sees a girl who seems about her own age and later makes it her project to reunite that kid with her family by Christmas.  Aided by a boy she met at the amusement park who rapidly becomes both a friend and something more, Molly begins to find out more about the girl, whose name is Red.  She finds out that Red is not so easy to help, that Red might not want to be reunited with her family, and that Red has schizophrenia and hears voices that tell her what to do.

Image result for Saving Red

This is a book about a kid trying to learn about homelessness and trying to do the right thing, but realizing that homelessness, like most important issues, is far more complicated than she thought.  Red learns that people care about her.  This is not a perfect book.  Molly is partly able to help Red because she herself comes from an affluent family and his resources that not every kid would have.  But she learns.  She makes a difference for Red, but doesn’t solve her problem.  And the fact that Molly meets a nice boy who cares about her counterpoints the fact that Red, because of her homelessness and disability is unlikely to have such a relationship.  I suspect that, if this bok gets reviewed, critics will skewer it for oversimplifying the problem of homelessness.
But it is a good and entertaining story (told using poems, by the way, though five minutes into the book you will hardly notice that is the case) and the middle school and high school students who read it will enjoy it.  The story is coherent, the characters likable, and its portrayal of life is real, at least to some people’s experiences. This one is worth buying. 


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