By Elizabeth Wroten
On 02, Apr 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
I just got through reading two awesome books that I would categorize New Adult! Although I doubt they are being marketed as such. Just to quickly rehash the discussion, New Adult seems to be primarily focused on romance or romantic novels and are of dubious quality. That’s fine, except I kind of want to read New Adult (not that I don’t love my YA) because in theory it should be pretty reflective of where I am now and was just a few short years ago. Romance, although a popular and genre, just isn’t my thing, so I was rather elated to pick up two books that were right up my alley and NA.
I love books set in Western Africa. I think it hearkens back to a sub-Saharan African cultures class I took in my undergraduate years. I was completely taken with the cultures we studied, especially the music. My professor had done her doctoral (and continued) research with the Hausa so she tended to focus on West Africa so my exposure is a little limited (Africa is a big continent!), but I found what slice we got to be incredibly beautiful and fascinating. So any opportunity I get to read authors from West Africa, I take.
I can’t remember how I came across Aya of Yop City. I know it was through one of my library blogs, but I was intrigued because it was set in Cote d’Ivoire. It was also a graphic novel, a format I like when I read, but don’t tend to specifically seek out. Win-win so far. Unfortuately I was only able to get a copy of the first volume (if you go over to Goodreads, you’ll notice the cover/edition I have shown here is actually a compilation of the first three volumes).
Interestingly this one is shelved with the teen collection in our library system and the characters are on the younger end (late teens, I believe) so I can see why. But their lives and issues seem to be more in line with the New Adult crowd. Men- good ones and bad ones. Marriage. Babies. Family. Parents. Finding yourself and what you want to do. School. While it has some unique struggles for the characters that are a function of time and place (1970s West Africa), I think there are a lot of universals here as well. So even as a white suburban woman I found the characters and situations relatable and sympathetic. I could certainly see teens liking these characters, especially those teens on the cusp of adulthood. But I also see the appeal for new adults.
The Butterfly Mosque I picked up because I realized the author had been in Cairo around the time I was. It turned out we arrived at the same time, were there at the same time and lived in the same neighborhood for the time I was living there. It was little uncanny. But what really struck me was how our experiences diverged so completely. She had the experience I thought I would (mostly).
For years (we’re talking more than a decade) I wanted to be an Egyptologist. I worked hard toward that goal in college, getting archaeology experience, getting my degree in anthropology, making friends in the field. The next logical step was to spend a semester abroad in Cairo. The program was actually a year abroad, which was fine with me. I thought I would fall in love with the country and never come home. In reality, the experience was a disaster. For the purposes of this book review I don’t need to go into details (although maybe I can share another time), but I left a semester early, decided not to pursue archaeology, didn’t accept any grad school offers, and spent the next few years anchorless, wondering what the hell I wanted to do. It was traumatic to say the least.
Willow Wilson took a job teaching English, converted to Islam, met and married an Egyptian man and went on to become a writer. It was never easy for her, but she didn’t suffer the way I did. For that alone it was comforting to read her story and know that the country I so wanted to love wasn’t in fact unlovable. It was just me.
Like Aya, The Butterfly Mosque really tackles some issues that I have seen myself and my friends struggle with despite how different her circumstances were. She examines faith and religion, obviously, however there is also the issue of marriage and falling in love. She examines what she wants to do, how she views the world, and balancing old friendships with the changes in her life. There is even a bit about finding her place in her family and in the world. She has the quirky first job, a story everyone seems to have, and she goes on to start following and discovering what it is she really finds herself called to do. Not everyone wants to write about Islam for the West, but we all have spent time finding our callings.
The only thing I wish is that she had written this a little later and been able to include more about how she and her husband faired in the States, about having their daughter (whom her next book was dedicated to), and how the Arab Spring impacted them. But maybe she’s saving up for another memoir. 🙂 I certainly hope so.
Last month I decided to read a bunch of Laurie Halse Anderson’s books. I had been wanting to read The Impossible Knife of Memory, so I thought I may as well read her backlist too.
I was surprised to find she has written picture books, MG, and YA. I don’t know if there are a lot of author that write for all three audiences, but I’m sure it can’t be easy.
Fever 1793: I loved that this didn’t romanticize the time period. Too many historical novels make it sound like ponies and rainbows to live before cars and cell phones and TV. The reality is life was very very hard and medicine was primitive at best. I am also a sucker for disease books (most especially nonfiction), but I so connected with Mattie. She was plucky but also fearful and not necessarily the most graceful person under pressure. And that is totally okay. I know I wouldn’t have been either.
Speak: I thought the perspective was interesting. Many of the signs of depression and that something had happened to Melinda are there, but filtered through her they are downplayed and maybe not as obvious to the people observing her. I was really impressed with one of the final lines where Melinda says she was 13 when she was raped and implies she was too young to consent or know that it wasn’t her fault. (The exact wording escapes me.) I think this is an incredibly important message to give our girls. Here is another blog post on Teen Librarian Toolbox from a teacher who worked with Speak in the classroom. It sparked a very, very interesting discussion.
Twisted: I have to admit this one didn’t stick with me as much. It was a good story about the crap that happens in high school, but I didn’t find it nearly as impactful as her other books. On the plus side, it was a male MC dealing with a sexual situation.
The Impossible Knife of Memory: There was something about this book that made me feel Anderson has grown and matured as an author. Her earlier books didn’t seem as complex, although they were excellent. There was so much depth here, not just in the characters but in the setting and the story and the backstory. Maybe it was just that the book was more fleshed out? I think it deals with the very important issue of how war affects our veterans and how this in turn impacts their families.
All in all, I think what makes Anderson’s books so good is that they deal with heavy, important issues without ever sounding like after school specials. They may be cautionary, but they don’t hit you over the head with their point. They also never make the issues out to be anything less than very complex and nuanced.
Just a note: I read Wintergirls several years ago. It was one of those stories that really stuck with me. It was so beautifully written and was such a powerful story. I highly recommend it as a harsh look at eating disorders and the mindset that can overtake a person with one.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 05, Mar 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: May is helping out on a neighbor’s Kansas prairie homestead—just until Christmas, says Pa. She wants to contribute, but it’s hard to be separated from her family by 15 long, unfamiliar miles. Then the unthinkable happens: May is abandoned. Trapped in a tiny snow-covered sod house, isolated from family and neighbors, May must prepare for the oncoming winter. While fighting to survive, May’s memories of her struggles with reading at school come back to haunt her. But she’s determined to find her way home again.
I recently read May B. and enjoyed it, largely because it’s a piece of history you don’t read a lot about. The idea of living on the vast open prairie in a little sod house is rather terrifying and the book doesn’t glorify the life much. It would have been difficult and dirty and probably a bit frightening at times.
The book put me in mind to make a few comments on the format. May B. is written in verse. The first novel in verse I read, Ringside 1925, really took me by surprise. I loved it. It was quick, impactful and cleverly done. I’m not a “poetry person”, but the novel in verse format has been really appealing to me. I have since read a handful more novels in verse and loved each of them. I do wonder though, can this be a hard sell with teens and tweens, who like me don’t think of themselves as “poetry people”? In the library where I worked kids didn’t check out much pleasure reading and certainly the more obscure titles, like many of the novels in verse, were even less likely to be checked out, so I’m really not sure how to answer that.
As far as May B. was concerned I felt like the verse format wasn’t absolutely necessary. I don’t think it made it a bad book by any means. It mostly highlighted the suspense of her dire situation, which would be a great way to hook in a more reluctant reader, but I wanted more about May’s life, her learning disability and what made her tick.
Does anyone else like novels in verse? Do any of your patrons love them? How do you sell them to the kids?
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 19, Feb 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Zagora Pym has always wanted to be a desert explorer. Her father, Charlie Pym, is exactly that, and she’s always loved to look over his maps of far away exotic places. One day she’d be trekking through the deserts of Africa and China, discovering hidden treasures from lost tribes. But Zagora would never have guessed that her chance to prove herself would come so soon. Like most adventures, it starts with a mysterious letter. Zagora’s dreams of desert exploration are about to come ture, but are she and her father and brother being followed? And will they ever make it back to civilization? How will this adventure end?
I had two minds about this book. As a young adult I was really into archaeology and more specifically Egyptology. While this book isn’t about Egypt, I would still have really identified with Zagora and I would have loved her adventure that is mixed with archaeology and mythology. I always felt there weren’t enough novels out there about these Indian Jones type adventures for kids (and especially girls) when I was growing up. I don’t know if that was true, but I never got very many good books into my hands that were about a subject I was passionate about. And I really needed lots of high interest books as a tween and teen.
I know I read a lot now. A lot. But back then I hardly read at all unless it was assigned for school. I was not a strong reader. In fact I really struggled. Not in learning how to read, but to picture and comprehend a lot of what I was reading. Chapter books were really hard to keep up with.
When I started reading The Scorpions of Zahir I was rather put off by the fact that the writing style is pretty plain. After some reflection, though, I realized this is one of those books that would have met me where I was as a tween. A more complex writing style would have put this book out of my reach and I’m sure there are plenty of other kids that are in the situation I was in. Kids need these kinds of books.
My difficulty with reading has actually given me a great perspective when working with the kids. I know that the weak readers still have hope and I would often share my story with those kids who were struggling. I also recognize that books that may not have great literary qualities still have a lot of value (I’m thinking of those Magic Treehouse Books). They allow kids to practice their skills with books they are interested in.
I did have a couple other minor complaints about The Scorpions. Primarily that Morocco felt a bit romanticized. More like the author had read a lot of travel books and Victorian travel journals rather than actually finding out what the country is like. My other complaint harkens back to my thoughts last week on typos. They details have gotten hazy since I’ve read it, but there was a moment in the beginning where they spell a name of a town or something in Arabic letters. Except they didn’t actually use the correct letters. (I spent three years in college studying Arabic and a semester abroad in Cairo, so I was able to recognize the mistake.) If I’m remembering correctly, they chose Arabic letters based on their similarity to the shape of an English letter. They were also backwards or something too. It appeared not only in the text, but in an illustration so it happened twice. I would be surprised if a kid would catch the mistake, but it really irritated me that they didn’t bother to find someone who would know and just have it in there correctly.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 12, Feb 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: When Yeats and his parents visit his grandmother’s creepy old house, Yeats reunites a pair of pirate bookends and uncovers the amazing truth: Years ago, Yeats’s father traveled into The Arabian Nights with a friend, and the friend, Shari, is still stuck in the tales. Assisted by the not-always-trustworthy pirates, Yeats must navigate the unfamiliar world of the story of Shaharazad–dodging guards and tigers and the dangerous things that lurk in the margins of the stories–in order to save Shari and bring peace to his family.
This was a book I came across quite by accident. I saw it on the shelf when I was dusting in the library where I volunteer and picked it up. The cover plus the promise of pirates were the deciding factors. I also have a soft spot for The Arabian Nights, which is charmingly called Alf Laylah wa Laylah in Arabic which translates exactly as One Thousand Nights and Night. Fortunately you don’t need any knowledge of the classic, although I wouldn’t be surprised if some kids picked it up after being immersed in a very exciting way in its world. This is definitely a book for kids who like to read and like fantasies. It wasn’t the most literary of books I’ve read lately, but it had likable characters, an interesting idea behind it, and a very exciting plot. I wish there was either a sequel or more exploration of the house where Yeats grandmother lives. There is a lot of magic about and I would have loved to hear more about it.
Between Two Ends, however, brought up an issue for me and that is typos. I haven’t ever held the fact that a book has typos against it, but it irks me when they do. Once I really started reading a lot of books I started finding typos all over the place. Everywhere. Some books will only have one or two, but far too many have a lot more than that. Belly Up was by far the worst. I lost count of how many that had.
By typos I mean misspelled words, extra spaces between words, sentences that are missing words or even sentences that it seems have been edited but fragments of the original are still there. I am not a punctuation person so I rarely catch those if they’re there, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they happens considering how many of the other types I see. Between Two Ends only had two that I found, but they were egregious. In two instances the word “then” was printed instead of “than”. That’s bad. Really bad. I remember back when I was teaching second grade this was a hard concept to teach the kids because people don’t enunciate and it was hard for them to hear. But a professionally printed book making that mistake? Wow.
I don’t know if this is something that is peculiar to YA/MG or why it happens. I am not familiar enough with the publishing and editing industry that I know why exactly this happens. Do they not read the book before it goes off to the printer? Oftentimes I wonder if it’s the fact that they haven’t read the book in its final form. But seriously, simply taking an extra couple days to read through it would catch these little errors. I am not a good speller, I don’t have a grasp on punctuation rules, I even have typos on my blog from time to time (or probably in each post :)), but these are professional level novels.
As I said, though, I haven’t ever let it get in the way of my enjoyment of a book. Does anyone else find typos in books? Do they bother you?
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 05, Feb 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
I can’t remember when I read all these. Either at the end of December or sometime this month. I definitely read a couple this month. Is this a sign that I read too much? 🙂 As with my post last week, because these all have the award nomination in common, I’m going to write a longer post to review them all together.
This was a disparate set of books both in content and in how much I enjoyed them. I am always a little baffled by what gets picked for awards and this set was no different. And why were these books all so depressing? Can we have a happy debut next year, please?
Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets: I loved, loved, loved this one. Poor James he’s got a messed up home life and I really felt for him. But he’s also a really cool kid or at least he will be once he’s in college and works through some of his anxiety issues. He’s into literary poetry (as in not writing crappy, whiny, angst-y poetry) and photography. He can quote Whitman who isn’t really my favorite, but I can appreciate the level of interest or obsession he has for something that most high schoolers couldn’t be bothered with. He also is self aware enough to know that he needs someone to talk to and has invented a therapist in his mind that is a pigeon. That was kind of funny too, because the nonfiction book I read this month was actually about pigeons. He also gets it together to get a job and earn money to see a real therapist. All in all, he’s just a much more mature high school student. The kind of kid I would have been friends with or would love to have in my library. In terms of the writing it felt very polished. I would be happy to see this one win the Morris.
Charm & Strange: I’m not sure why everyone was so surprised by the twist in this one. I saw it coming from miles away. I really don’t want to spoil anything for anyone though, so I can’t talk too much about the actual story. Even this may be a spoiler, but I will say it was an amazing portrayal of a kid who is horribly damaged and shows to what great lengths the mind will go to block out that damage. The book was beautifully written and I like the alternation in chapters between past and present, although using the matter and antimatter (and also the title) felt a little unnecessary and just plain pretentious. There was little connection between quantum physics and the actual story. I wish it had been more hopeful at the end for those kids reading this who have experienced similar trauma, but sometimes life isn’t happy. Another I would be happy to see win.
Sex & Violence: I thought this one was a really beautiful story about healing and about how men can be just as impacted by sexual violence, even if they were not the ones raped. I know some people have complained about Evan, and even though he could be pretty cavalier about his sexual relationships, I think he mostly didn’t attach to people. I don’t think it made him a dirtbag, just showed his baggage from his parental relationships and questionable early relationships. Sadly it took a violent attack to make him realize he does care, deep down, even when he won’t admit it. All around a well-crafted and well-written book. I wonder if this one won’t win the Morris because the content is so explicit
Belle Epoque: This one was not my favorite. The concept was interesting, but it rang rather historically false to me. Especially how Maude suddenly feels very at home with the upper class. People were very aware of their social class and I have a hard time believing even some one as idealistic as Maude would think she could be mistaken for an upper class/nouveau riche girl or would fit in. There was an really fabulous story of friendship in here, though, that I don’t think we get to see often enough in YA. And for those kids that like historical novels and are interested in Paris, this is a good one. In terms of the award, I think the first three novels above were much better written and more nuanced.
In the Shadow of Blackbirds: This was my least favorite by far. The writing felt stilted to me, it was awfully long, and despite the fact that it’s marketed as a book about spiritualism there is very little of it. I wondered about the historical accuracy of this one too. Some of the influenza information in it didn’t sound right to me and upon checking the author’s note at the end she lists a lot of (pop-science and history) resources she lists no flu resources. There is a fantastic book by Alfred Crosby (America’s Forgotten Pandemic) about the 1917/1918 outbreak that is incredibly detailed and includes a ton of statistics, analysis and historical information. I would have liked to see that listed. I would also have liked to see a reference to Unraveling Freedom, a middle grade nonfiction book about how Germans and Austrians, etc. were treated in the US during WWI. It’s an excellent eye-opening book that would be right at the right reading level for kids reading Blackbirds.
I also thought Mary Shelley (who didn’t not really need to have both names used all the time) was a bit too free for the time period. She was, however, incredibly plucky and determined so she was a likable character despite the book’s flaws. Her aunt was also really great. And this is a time period that doesn’t get written about all that much (WWII is much more popular) so I think it’s good to see something about it in YA.
I do wonder if these issues occur all the time in historical fiction and I am both bothered by them and don’t read enough to understand it doesn’t matter. That entirely possible. I would suggest reading The Diviners instead or in addition to this one.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 29, Jan 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
True to my New Year’s Reading Resolution I choose to read a number of Holly Black books this month. Since I read so many, but wanted to both talk about the experience as a whole and only write short reviews of the books I decided to do one large-ish post. In an effort to cut down on length I will link the title of the book to its GoodReads page so you can read the synopsis and I’ll only include my thoughts in this post.
On the whole I really enjoyed Holly Black’s writing. She is an incredible author. Her dialog was strong, she really paints a visual picture without sounding stilted or formulaic. Even in her novels that I considered weaker, it was evident that she is a skilled author. It was also very interesting to see her both across time and across genres and age ranges. She is clearly very versatile.
The Coldest Girl in Cold Town: This was the first book I read and I was little skeptical before I began reading. I’ll be the first to admit I enjoy a good vampire novel from time to time, but I’m getting a little tired of all the supernatural stuff. Plus, I really wanted to read some of the faerie fantasy to beef up my knowledge there. However, I am so, so glad I read this one first for a couple of reasons. First, being one of her most recent books I think she’s matured a lot as an author so it was probably also one of her strongest in terms of writing. And there’s nothing like starting out on a high point.
Second, this was an homage to all the wonderful and terrible vampire novels that have been written and you can tell how much Holly Black loved those novels. She so lovingly creates this story. I’ve said before how sometimes some of the YA I read touches a nerve with my old self as a teenager and that’s what makes me love the book. This was one of those. It reminded me so much of the awful vampire novels I read in middle/high school (the ones my dad wouldn’t let me read once he found out the content) and absolutely loved. In retrospect they were miserably bad, but I saw them elevated in this book. I had forgotten how they had made me feel, how engaged I was with a book (something rare back then), how I reread them over and over.
This is not the vampire novel for those who loved Twilight (which I did!), although there is a bit of a romance. This is much much darker and grittier. In some ways it reminded me of This Is Not a Test, in that it’s essentially about a girl who has nothing to lose.
Doll Bones: A brilliant middle grade book from Holly Black. This one didn’t remind me of books I read as a kid, but of the joy of being a kid at play. This is a book for anyone who remembers playing pretend games with their friends and loving it. It’s also on the creepy side which makes it feel like an older book and also helps it not to feel like a heavy-handed coming-of-age novel. As a side note, I wish I had been as creative as this trio in my imaginative play. They’re brilliant. There is also an awesome adventure aspect to this one and wee bit of romance, so there’s really something for everyone.
The Spiderwick Chronicles: The Field Guide: This is definitely for the young crowd (third, maybe fourth grade, depending on reading ability). I enjoyed it and thought the illustrations really added to the story. However it still read like a series book. It ended rather abruptly and you could tell not much was resolved in an effort to get the story arc going. On the upside it wasn’t as tedious as some of those older series for this age group (like The Boxcar Children). Which even though I loved them as a kid and kids love them, they make for really really boring read alouds for parents. A great read aloud selection.
Tithe: This was the one I was most interested in reading and maybe I set my expectations a little high. It was definitely a good story (with a bit of a mystery) and well written. Obviously, it’s gotten a lot of praise (and circulation, the cover was quite worn!). But for some reason I had a little trouble following the plot and keeping the Seelie and Unseelie courts straight and some of their rules/lore. I just didn’t click as much with Kaye as I did with some of her other characters. I couldn’t help but think that since this one of her earliest novels it showed when comparing them to her later ones. I can confidently say that I would have continued to read her books if I had picked this one up first, but I don’t really think that matters because a teen with interest in faeries would have no problem with it.
White Cat: This one took me a lot longer to get into (more on that thought in another post), but once some of the background had been laid it was an amazing story with a lot of twists and turns. Holly Black is really good at coming up with creative magical worlds (although this one for all intents and purposes takes place in the world as we know it, just with a dash of magic) and I think the concept of this book it really shows how good she is. This one would be really good for getting boys into reading magical realism and low fantasy.
I had one issue with this book and that was the cover. Holy crap it’s awful. The boys on the cover look more like Abercrombie models to me than what I pictured for the characters. Plus, based on the back, I thought there was a gay romantic plot line, which would have been awesome even if it really wouldn’t have fit with any of the actual plot lines. Nope those guys are the older brothers. Whoops. I hate all that black pleather too (they wear totally normal clothes in the story) and the guy on the front with that white cat and his eyes blocked out…there is just something totally strange about it to me. Plus the characters are all youngish and these guys look way too old. While this would be a great book to put in the hands of male patrons, I would guess they wouldn’t want to be seen with it. Here’s to hoping you have the ebook version.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 22, Jan 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
Amir is twenty years old when she marries her husband, a boy named Karluk from a neighbouring village. Adjusting to life in a new household can be trying for any young bride, and Amira’s husband is eight years her junior. Amira was a strong, sophisticated hunter and horsewoman in her village, but though their villages were next to each other, their customs are very different. As Amira introduces Karluk to the foods and pastimes that were popular among her comrades back home, the warmth she feels for her young husband grows.
This was one of the series I read over the summer and it was so fabulous. This is what graphic novels/manga should be. The story is engaging and well written, even if it’s essentially uneventful. The art is incredible. What I wouldn’t give for an ounce of that artistic talent. *Sigh*
What really struck me about these books (especially the first two) was how it fit well within the New Adult category. I’ve talked a bit (or a lot) about how I don’t really see myself as an adult, but new adult is a category I could identify with. The story is about a girl in her early twenties who is newly married. She is finding her place both as a wife to her husband and in a new family. While we may not live in such a traditional society, it’s still awkward fitting in with your in-laws! Amir’s situation is not unfamiliar or unrelatable at its core.
While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this to high school students based on the story alone, it’s a good introduction to the culture of Central Asia. The art really captures the clothing, housing, and art of the culture. I do think there is a segment of younger girls who would really connect with Amir. However, I think Amir’s story and position is incredibly relatable to the new adult and the new bride and while I don’t know much about the author (who is apparently a famous manga author) or her usual audience, I got the impression she is writing for a younger adult set (as opposed to a young adult set, if that makes any sense).
I enjoyed this one so much that I went on to read the rest of books available in the series. They were all equally good, although some of them are quite different. I would also note that the last couple books (volumes 4 &5) focus on much younger girls/brides. The girls are really silly and quirky, which makes them very relatable and fun despite the fact that they are getting married so young.
One of the books I read this summer was the much acclaimed, Newbery Honor book Wonder which I would like to share my impressions of, but I would also like to use that as a springboard into a discussion about book awards*. I highly recommend reading this short post over on Crossreferencing by Mark about the Morris and the Excellence in NonFiction awards. Not only is it funny, it touches on a lot of my thoughts about awards.
First Wonder. From GoodReads: August (Auggie) Pullman was born with a facial deformity that prevented him from going to a mainstream school—until now. He’s about to start 5th grade at Beecher Prep, and if you’ve ever been the new kid then you know how hard that can be. The thing is Auggie’s just an ordinary kid, with an extraordinary face. But can he convince his new classmates that he’s just like them, despite appearances?
It was a very enjoyable book. The story was sweet and very middle grade appropriate. But it felt, to me, like the author was trying very hard to make a bullying/tolerance book not feel like a bullying/tolerance book. Auggie was a great kid, but he was too perfect for the role. His family was just a bit too perfect and up to the challenge of raising a child with great needs. (Also they must have a ton of money because keeping him home and sending him to expensive tutors and eventually prep school couldn’t have been cheap. Not to mention the medical bills. I wonder if having a family that simply struggled more financially would have made for a more authentic and interesting story?) The kids at school felt strangely like tropes- the free-spirt non-judgmental girl who didn’t take a second look at Auggie’s deformity, the kid too easily swayed by his peers, the mean kid who has equally mean, insensitive parents, etc. Maybe these complaints are typical of middle grade novels, but the more quality middle grade I read, the less I think so. Wonder was not the Newbery winner, but bullying and tolerance are hot, hot topics right now and I wonder if they weren’t so hot would Wonder have garnered the same attention it has. As I said, it’s a good book, but I’m not convinced it was a great book or even one of the greatest books of last year.
More often than not I scratch my head over the book award winners. I suppose they are trying to find books with broad appeal, but I think that can get in the way of selecting a winner. They also often feel like they are following trends or pushing an agenda (as with Wonder and bullying). Sometimes I feel like award committees have chosen pretentious books that are not all that good and wouldn’t really appeal to their target audiences, but adults seem to like them and/or feel they are necessary for kids to read. The Excellence in Nonfiction Award has nominated a book about the Kennedy assassination this year (The President Has Been Shot by James Swanson), but the Kennedy assassination doesn’t have the same significance even to people my age, let alone current middle and high schoolers. I’m sure there are kids who are interested, but they are probably a lot more interested in the World War II titles that were nominated.
On the flip side, awards can draw the attention of adults who put books in kids hands to books that are well done but about topics kids might not pick up on their own. I’m thinking specifically here about drawing the attention of teachers who might find books like The Milk of Birds, In Darkness, Never Fall Down, and The Good Braider and use them in their classes (I discussed this a bit here). Sure these books could fall into the category of adults-think-you-must-read-this, but they are so wonderfully written and do work for their target audiences I think some of that is negated.
And maybe this is where my arguments and thoughts about awards are wrong. Maybe awards are simply for the best books of that year. Maybe they aren’t intended to take into account popularity, interest, and target audience. Maybe I need to be scratching my head over why they don’t take these things into consideration and whether they are worth taking into consideration. Who are the award lists for, the target audiences of YA, MG, and children’s literature or for the adults who curate and select that literature for students, children, and patrons?
Ultimately I wonder, should I be reading through the awards lists? Do I read the nominees, the honors and winner, or just the winners? Do kids pay attention to these lists and/or actually read these books and, more importantly, enjoy them? I honestly don’t know. I would like to use them as a convenient way to beef up my list of books I could recommend and my backlist I can draw from. But if kids don’t read them and don’t like them, it isn’t worth the time. Does anyone out there have thoughts or ideas? I am very curious to know. Mark’s thoughts, that aren’t exactly glowing recommendations for the awards lists, are the first I’ve heard expressed in that vein.
*When I say “book awards” I am primarily referring to the awards given out by ALA and most specifically by YALSA and ALSC.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 04, Dec 2013 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
This summer I picked up two books that featured refugees from the Southern Sudanese conflict. The Good Braider is a novel in verse about Viola’s escape from South Sudan to the United States. While her life should in theory be better is is wrought with the trauma of what she lived through and the difficulty of finding a place in a new culture. The Milk of Birds is a correspondence between K.C., a girl from the US, and Nawra, a Sudanese girl who is living in a refugee camp.
Both books really shed light on a conflict that, despite Angelina Jolie’s best efforts, is not well known in the United States. When I reviewed In Darkness and Never Fall Down I talked about how important I think it is that kids have an awareness of what life is like for people who live outside the Western world and the first world. The question for me, though, is how do you get kids to read these books. All four are beautifully written with incredible stories, but how do you sell a book that is so tragic? They feel like books that a special kid would pick up, an already interested and compassionate student. While it’s great for those kids to read these books, I want others to read them too.
I could certainly see reading any of these four books in an English and/or History class. That would certainly broaden the audience…assuming the students actually read their assigned novels. In fact reading the books across disciplines and discussing both the writing, the novel format, the story, and then the history would be very powerful. But…but. How many teachers will use current YA literature in their classes? It’s not a classic so why read it in school? I don’t have an answer to this conundrum (if you do please share!). I’m simply thinking out loud here. I just really wish these beautiful, terrible novels had a bigger audience.
As a side note, while I enjoyed both The Good Braider and The Milk of Birds immensely, I thought The Milk of Birds fell a bit flat with K.C. I haven’t read a lot of books with two narrators, especially narrators that are so different, so maybe this how two-narrator books work. K.C. was a bit flighty and sounded so modern. This was compounded by the more formal tone of Nawra’s letters that alternated chapters. At one point I thought it might have worked better to not include K.C., but after finishing the book I think it wouldn’t have been as powerful. I think the fact that she has her own issues is really important. Although she has champagne problems, they are still relatable and they are still issues. Nawra, despite her incredibly difficult situation, never once belittles K.C.’s problems. She understands that they are just as real to K.C. as her own are to her. K.C.’s voice was also incredibly authentic. She sounded exactly the way I would have sounded if I were writing letters at that age. I think as an adult reading this book I was just left wanting a more mature narrator to complement Nawra. Especially since Nawra was so wise and mature beyond her years. In the end the book was so well written it didn’t matter that K.C. wasn’t the narrator I wanted.