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Archive for June, 2007

Lord Loss

I think my 12 year old daughter would love this book. Except for the part about Grubbs Grady chopping up those dead rats he finds in the dump. Yeah. THAT seemed sadistic, even if the rats were already dead.

I got over it though, and I think most readers would. Even those who didn’t know until they read this weirdly upbeat tale of werewolf-ism and demons that in fact murdered families, un-charming uncles, and blood splashing around by the gallons can be lots and lots of fun.

After the static landscape of Seventeenth Summer, a blowjob gone bad in Good Girls, and the fucking amazing NYC nightclub scene in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, the novel Lord Loss– a reference to the story’s very creepy villain whose appetite for human sorrow is both his weapon and his undoing–was a breath of fresh air.

Grubbs Grady saw his family slaughtered, but he seemed to get over it–with the help of his matter of fact and mysterious uncle who rescues him from a mental hospital only to deposit him in a mansion that connects directly to Hell. A few chess games and bargains with the devil later, and this enterprising and resilient what–13 year old? 14 year old?– with the rogue werewolf gene run amok in his family tree, emerges stronger, wiser, and heroic from an encounter with something a lot more complicated than evil.

Even when the rat guts are flying and the deer are being ripped apart by Grubbs’ half brother, and we learn that Grubbs’ father was not quite the family man he appeared to be– we love this boy, and we are right there with him when he enters the bloody spiderweb Lord Loss calls home.

This book is too busy moving and too busy having fun to linger on the down side of being an orphan or nearly losing your mind or finding out you might turn into a werewolf on your 16th birthday. Shan takes his writing and storytelling seriously, without getting hung up in political correctness.

In the process he delivers a fast paced thriller for ‘tweens and teens that–by the way!–also delivers an upbeat message about resourcefulness, hope, and families cobbled together from spare parts and tragic accidents.

Shan’s world is a seamless blend of the ordinary and the demonic. His characters have a vinegary edge guaranteed to sharpen the reading appetite of kids who don’t even LIKE books.

I’ll never go back to Seventeenth Summer, not even to retrieve a glimpse of the pre-WW2 American mid-west–but when this class is over, I’m going to treat myself to the rest of the Darren Shan’s Demonata series.

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Six years ago I cleaned up my language act. After a long spell during which I swore enthusiastically, I heard my 15 year old daughter saying “shit” as casually as I was saying “shit”. Horrified–I told Evan I didn’t want to hear “that language” in the house. (Or outside! Or ANYWHERE!!).

She stared at me. “But you say that ALL THE TIME!”

So I made a promise. I wanted her to stop swearing. I would stop too.

End of obscenity. But not without serious effort. Swearing is an easy habit to fall into. Swearing sometimes relieves stress. Swearing made me feel a little less like I was the perfect mom–and therefore less like I had to BE the perfect mom.

But giving up the Four Letter Words made our household a more civil place to live, and it tamped down the heat of my arguments and conversations with my children, in which no one was EVER allowed to curse.

It wasn’t until my marriage blew apart though that I understood the abusive potential of obscenities, and after that, what had become a preference for “clean” language, became something of a passion.

If you have been in a verbally and emotionally abusive relationship–you may never again shrug off the sound of fuckshitassholecuntbitchfuckfuckfuckfuckshitfuckbitchbitchfuckingbitch. Or at least you may never get away from the violent associations you have with those words–which is why I found this YA novel about Nick and Norah’s night in NYC heavy going. On page 47 for example–authors Cohn and Levithan use the word “fuck” six times.

On one hand, I understand this is how teens talk. I hear it in the library, the grocery store, the street, and I hear my 18 and 21 year old kids use “fuck” every other word in conversations on their cellphones with friends. My daughter uses “bitch” in ways that make me laugh. If I complain about my nemesis at work, Evan says “Mom! You’ve got to make Jody your BITCH!”

And yet! I hear and read words that have in the past hit me with the force and accuracy of designer bullets–and my heart still beats faster and my hands sweat.

Set aside (if I can) my personal history with swearing, and I still question whether the enthusiastic repetition of fuck is appropriate or necessary in books written and marketed for Young Adults.

The language in this book was off-putting, but I still liked the book, and I would still recommend it enthusiastically to teens 15-18 years old. The authors deliver on a solid story and compelling characters. And if they keep us up all night club-hopping with Nick and Norah?– both of whom have memorable and engaging voices–the authors make it worth our while with (mostly) believable dialog and an informed and funny look into the music scene, and the way in which shared and offbeat interests can be a powerful means for people from dissimilar backgrounds to meet and get to know one another.

Norah and Nick stay out all night, and swear up a storm, but we never fear for their safety, or that they will knowingly hurt each other. Both of them seem more than sensitive and decent. Both of them wear their insecurities on their sleeves in a way that might be especially reassuring to teen readers, all of whom are by definition a mass of insecurities. Nick and Norah also have good back-stories: through each other they resolve some bad girlfriend/bad boyfriend issues and by the time they hop the turnstile to ride the subway together into the future, they seem better preapred for Life than they did in the opening chapter.

Cohn and Levithan offer teen readers more than enough “positive values” to offset the F word. Nick and Norah don’t drink. Nick and Norah don’t (quite) have sex on their first date. Nick and Norah treat people–and one another–with respect. Norah has a family that cares about her, her parents are embarrassingly in love with each other, and even when it comes to Norah’s complicated like/detest relationship with Tris, Nick’s ex–the authors give us a nuanced view of the two girls, and allow us to like both of them.

For the most part, I like how the authors build the book by alternating chapters first in Nicks voice, then Norah’s, so we get the story of the night long encounter from different perspectives that weave together as a whole. On the other hand, their voices and thoughts–as well as their individual brands of angst–feel predictable well before I turned over the last page.

I thought Norah was a refreshing heroine. Human enough to envy the man-trap beauty of Caroline and Tris—Norah enough that she really can’t and doesn’t try to be anyone other than who she is. The fact her family is rich and connected, and that her father looms lovingly and protectively in the background gives Norah’s night on the town a touch of Roman Holiday romance, only this princess doesn’t have to go back to her castle when the day is done and the car ride is over.

It’s always interesting to note the personal baggage we bring to stories. And because good stories are powerful, asking teens what they think and feel about the books we put in our collection will not only make us more sensitive readers–and better book buyers–it will help us understand who these young people are.

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Good Girls

Good Girls? No such thing. No such thing as Bad Girls either.

Just girls who are doing their best to get by in a world where anything you do–like giving your boyfriend a blow job–can and will be caught on film (er, cellphone) and sent to everyone in your school. Oh yeah. AND TO YOUR PARENTS. They get to see you on your knees too.

The WAY you get by? (THIS is where the word good comes in.) Good friends. Good parents. Good grade point average. And a good look em in the eye and get on with it attitude. It helps if your boyfriend whom you have misunderstood and underestimated turns out to be madly in love with you and only had sex because having sex was easier than declaring how he really FELT about you.

That’s the short version of Laura Ruby’s YA novel Good Girls, which is sure to cause a stir among at least some parents because if its sexual content. In fact, this book is less about sex than it is a cautionary tale about what can happen when you HAVE sex–or rather, when you get labeled a “slut”. It is also a story about the redemptive power of friendship, family, independence, humor, and forgiveness.

Therein lies the strength–and the weakness–of this quick and mostly entertaining read. The story works best when it’s just a story, well told. But too often, you can practically hear the gears grinding in the background–like Ruby had a list of Assets for Positive Youth Development that she was checking off one at a time:

importance of respect, boundaries, self-purpose, confidence, caring parents, caring community. In fact–Ruby may have touched on all 40 of the Health Institutes Teen assets, which may explain why the storyline felt contrived in places, as though driven more by form than content.

Overall? I enjoyed this book. I liked Audrey. I found myself smiling–despite the Teen Assets–and even laughing out loud. By the end, Good Girls was more like a Disney movie than a Grimm’s fairy tale. And after looking over the often dark landscape of YA literature, I appreciated the humor, the happy ending, and the competence of the writer.

As we discussed in class, this book would be a provocative and interesting choice for a parents’ book group. I’m not sure whether Ruby’s characterization of high school life is accurate or not, or accurate for what group of teens, but for anyone who grew up without a cell phone or before the Social Web, Ruby’s reminder that this technology has transformed the way teens communicate and given “invasion of privacy” a whole new meaning–is right on the money.

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I wanted to like this book. I really did. It was the first title on the reading list of a YA literature class I was SURE I would enjoy. I was doing my reading early for a change–so I wasn’t turning pages with one frantic eye on the clock. As soon as I saw the quaint cover that screamed out “This was written a thousand years ago!” (1942)–I thought fondly about one of my own childhood favorites–Anne of Green Gables, and applauded our professor for starting us off with a book that would give us an historical perspective on this genre called Young Adult.

Finally! After taking 9 Library Science courses in technology, reference, management, cataloging, web design, and how to develop programs for teens at a public library–I could set peer reviewed journals aside and just read a couple really good books. Murmuring my first sigh of delight in two years as a graduate student, I settled into bed with what the New York Times described as an “utterly enchanting” story of “youth in love” that “rings true, sweet, fresh, and sound.” 17 year old Angie Morrow, from Fond du Lac Wisconsin, was about to fall in love for the first time.

O.mi.god.

I got to page 22 and wondered if this was a book that would ever end–or start, for that matter. Even though by that time Angie had already met Jack, fallen in love with him, gone on a first date, introduced all the main characters in the story, busted out of the out crowd and into the in crowd, and set the stage for hours of waiting by the phone, wondering when/if Jack would call her.

Although it pre-dates this genre classification, Seventeenth Summer is widely regarded as the first book YA book ever to hit the press: that is, a work written for, published for, or marketed to young adults, ages 12-18. All criticisms aside (and those are best summed up by our classmate’s observation: reading this book is “like watching paint dry”), Daly, a college student when she penned this novel, does a good job describing the emotional ups and downs—and the cultural expectations of the time—that make “first love” so exciting, intense, and memorable. Small town America comes alive too. You can practically feel the heat of that summer; see the wet black earth of the Morrow’s vegetable garden. But most important from our perspective of examining YA literature, you know without a doubt, from the opening sentence, why this book is considered a defining moment in YA literature. Whatever its flaws, it is all about an experience particular to teenagers the world over.

But this is 2007! And our job as YA librarians or Library school teachers is to look beyond genre classification and offer a book and resource collection that gets today’s media-saturated, digital native teens hooked on reading. The course reading list makes it clear: we need to sample and select cutting edge material like graphic novels as well as classics like Seventeenth Summer. We need books about experiences relevant to today’s teens; we need “adult” as well as YA fiction and non fiction. We need fantasies like Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere to shelve along side JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series.

How to look outside the YA classification for books that will comprise a great YA collection? That’s where the Health Institute’s 40 developmental Assets for positive Youth development http://www.search-institute.org/assets/ come in handy. This list sketches out what kids need to grow into healthy successful adults—everything from self confidence to being able to understand, respect, and demonstrate boundaries and authority.

Seventeenth Summer may be a slow read, but it offers a good introduction to how YA books can support and explore those developmental assets, and how YA librarians can use the assets as one of a variety of resource collection tools.

Angie’s summer of love is one in which she explores issues of self restraint, resisting peer pressure, resolving conflict, making decisions about her future that are informed by a sense of her own purpose and desire. And when it comes to “boundaries and expectations”—Seventeenth Summer is a primer on family, neighborhood, and social values of the time, and how family and social expectations can help teens navigate the tumult (and sexual dangers) of love and lust.

This same thorny passage is the (at times too self conscious) theme of other more current and to me more lively YA reads like Good Girls and Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. Seventeenth Summer provides a good benchmark for examining YA literature in terms of where it started, and where its going, and the universality of the teen experience whether its 1942 or 2007.

I didn’t exactly ENJOY this book—and it can’t compare Ann of Green Gables!—but I would definitely include it in my YA collection, and even recommend it to advanced readers not just as a curiosity, but as a book with intrinsic artistic and historical merit.

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