Category Archives: Young adult literature

1 day, 2 book groups

Of Wintersmith and Clementine, one book was a hit, and one book was a flop.  Any guesses as to which was which?

Once again, I demonstrated my deep understanding of the appeal of children’s and young adult literature: my opinions on the two books were polar opposite to the kids’ opinions.  Granted, the third grade book group had never met before, and only two kids showed up (and a newspaper reporter stayed for the whole meeting), so they tended towards shy rather than forthcoming.  I’d like to think that’s why they claimed to love Clementine, but I think I’ll have to face the sad truth that they actually DID love the book.  They loved the humor, they loved Clementine’s character, and they made some thoughtful observations about language and connections to their lives and other texts.  All in all, a successful first meeting.  (And I decided not to spoil it by saying that I hated the book. 🙂 )

As for the teen book group’s discussion of Wintersmith: by the end of our meeting, they had convinced me that the book is a bit flimsy, with weak characterizations and an abrupt ending.  I had been swept along by Pratchett’s language and the humor (especially the humor of the Feegles, and especially the scene in which the Feegles talk about women – the pursin’ o the lips, the foldin’ o the arms, and the tappin’ of the feet), but the girls in the book group saw past the humor and found many flaws with the novel.  They’re right.  The witches are rather interchangeable, lacking real character, and the plot flounders in the final third of the book.  I still like the book, but I agree with the teen book group that it should be given a B- or C+, no better. 

That’s what I love about these book groups – the kids who come to the meetings are open to and freely participate in intelligent discussions that ultimately expand the appreciation of the book for all participants, me included.  The teen book group mentioned yesterday that they’d like to read some classics (Pride and Prejudice was specifically named), and they will each be sending me lists of books that they’d like to be considered for our February, March, April, May, and June meetings.  I’d love for us to discuss a truly great piece of literature, and see where our discussion leads.

(keep your eyes on the Book List page of this blog, since I’ll be adding many new titles in the coming days)

A two book weekend

After a season of home improvement projects, the cold weather has finally moved in, and I was able to enjoy a two-book weekend.  Absolute heaven (though it wouldn’t be so heavenly if I did this every weekend).

The first book was The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie; the second book was The Off Season by Catherine Gilbert Murdock.  Both books concern young adults who struggle with big life issues, teens who face deaths of loved ones, poverty, terrible accidents of loved ones, and school pressures.  I enjoyed both books, but Alexie’s novel rises to a far higher level than Murdock’s.  Far higher.

Alexie’s touch is lighter and cleaner, and the events of his story feel more genuine and less soap-operatic, while Murdock’s novel made me think of the show E.R. when it turned the corner from interesting to a bit over-the-top ridiculous.  Notably, Alexie’s novel is semi-autobiographic, while Murdock’s seems to be rather removed from her real life (her biography states that she grew up in Connecticut, lives now in suburban Philadelphia, and attended Bryn Mawr College – but The Off Season and its predecessor, Dairy Queen, take place on a family dairy farm in Wisconsin, with a main character who’s more jock than brain).  Does this prove true the old adage that an author should write what he or she knows?  According to the teen book group, who discussed Dairy Queen two weeks ago, that adage is indeed proved.  But I think that The Off Season is weak for another reason, since I did enjoy Dairy Queen: it suffers from sequel-itis. 

When I finished Dairy Queen two weeks ago, I was perfectly happy with it, and happy to imagine how D.J.’s life evolved after the conclusion of the book.  But in preparing for the book group discussion, I was reminded that there is a sequel, and the temptation was too strong: I read the sequel.  And the sequel answered all the unanswered questions from the previous book, and then continued on into new dramas and new difficulties in the life of D.J.  In reading the sequel, I became passive as a reader, since my thoughts and feelings on how D.J. might have matured and grown became moot in the face of the “real” answers.  My opinions didn’t matter any more, because the author, the real authority, had come through with what really happens to D.J.

And that, in a nutshell, is what’s wrong with sequels.  Reading is joyful because it’s active, because the reader gets to take the author’s words and descriptions and use the author’s starting point to embellish and visualize the world of the novel.  Most wonderfully, readers get to close the book at the end and imagine what happens next – how the characters will age and change – how their lives will progress.  I love a book that leaves me with questions, and provides me with the space to answer those questions for myself.  Some sequels honor that space and that role of the reader, but too often sequels impinge on the reader’s right to be active.  And it’s dreadfully hard to avoid sequels in children’s and young adult literature, since a large proportion children’s and YA books today are published as part of a series.  Totally understandable from a marketing standpoint, and totally understandable from an educational standpoint (developing readers seek out series books, for a multitude of very good reasons), but totally sad from the standpoint of an adult reader like me who likes to have a significant role in the reading process.

Sherman Alexie

My current book-in-progress (the one I’m reading just because I want to, not because it’s for one of my book groups) is The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, and I was so pleased to see yesterday that it won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.  I love this book: it’s deeply funny, and by that I mean that the humor is intermixed with the deep realities of a teenage life.  And the depth extends beyond Junior’s observations on his own life; as I read it, I’m finding myself more and more baffled by the continued marginalization of Native Americans in US society.  How can things still be so bad?  How is that possible???  I’m only half-way through the novel, which I’ll try to finish today, and I’ll be interested to see how the novel progresses, and what thoughts Alexie leaves us with at the end.

And one last thought on the National Book Award:  I do wish that they would establish two new categories in place of the “Young People’s Literature” category.  Wouldn’t it make more sense to have one award for Young Adult Literature and another for Children’s Literature?  They are kinda different, after all…

Book lists

After talking with my brother, the blogging genius, I have added a new page to this blog.  Titled “Book Lists,” this page is a compilation of the books that I have been using with my book groups over the past two or so years. 

There are several items of note concerning the book lists, which I also mention on the book list page:

~ Not all of the books on the list are books that I have actually used with my book groups.  Some of the books are ones that I had proposed to my groups, but they have not chosen to read.  Some are books that we will be reading in the upcoming months. 

~ The majority of books on the lists are new (published in the last few years), though there are some classics included.

~ I do not use discussion guides in my book groups (see the book list page for details on why I choose not to), and so I do not provide discussion questions for the books on the list.

~ I will update the lists periodically.  At the moment, my book groups have chosen their books through January, and all of those titles are on the lists.  We will pick the titles for February through June in December, and I will add those books at that time.

~ Some will think that the books on my lists are at a high level for the grades listed.  This is due to the composition of my book groups; my library is in a very literary town, and the kids who belong to my book groups are strong readers.  See the book list page for more details on this subject.

~  Not all of the books we have read for book groups have been successes.  I try to write a post on each book title summarizing the group discussion; to find these posts, search by the book’s title. 

Enjoy the book lists – I hope that they are of use to others!

The White Darkness ~ Geraldine McCaughrean

The teen book group discussed The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean today, and are sitting in as guest bloggers to give you their opinions on the book:

Attendee #1:  I thiught that The White Darkness  had a good plot and some amazing descriptions of Antartica. There were some parts of the book that I just had to keep reading. The narrator was a very interesting character who displayed a very different point of view than those of many narrators that I’ve read before. The one complaint that I had was that the main characters were all very complex and hard to predict. Though that made the story very interesting, It also caused me some confusion, and there were some times that I had to go back and reread. All in all, The White Darkness was an interesting and informative book that created a very good discussion.

Attendee #2:  

The White Darkness was in all a very good book. Although the characters were strange, they also contributed to the overall story because it wouldn’t have been the same if they were all completely sane. Sym was a character I could relate to very well, especially during the first part during which Sym is at school. I was always a shy, weird girl with few friends, so that part brought back memories. Another part of the book I really liked was the idea of travelling. I seem to like books set in different or unusual places right now. Your book really did make me think about what it would be like to travel in Antartica, as I have often wondered what it would be like–it was very thought inspiring. I’d reccomend it to my friends who are more creative and open-minded.

Attendee #3:  I didn’t actually finish the book, but I did find the half I did read very…strange. I don’t know, I guess it was beacause all of the major characters seemed to have internal or mental issues that caused them to act in random ways. I never really understood Sym, or Victor, or anyone else. I also found it weird that Sym would have a friend/lover that is probably imaginary, but no one really knows. And he died 90 years ago! Imaginary friends are fine when you’re little, even if you’re shy and alone they’re understandable at an older age, but the relationship Sym had with Titus seemed very odd to me. Maybe I didn’t appreciate it because I am unable to relate to any of these characters, but I wasn’t really sure what to make of the story.

I Capture the Castle

Just had a lovely weekend visit with my sister, who drove in from Indiana, and her best friend from high school, who drove down from Maine.  My sister, Jim, and I made a visit to the best used bookstore I know, the Barrow Bookstore in Concord, and there I saw a copy of I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith.  Lisa’s teen book group read this a couple of months back and loved it, so I splurged and bought the copy (so much for my ban on purchasing books…). 

I’ve only read a couple of chapters so far, but I LOVE the book.  I’m especially intrigued to find out why Lisa thinks the narrator is a lot like me (so far I don’t see it), but mostly I’m just enjoying Smith’s writing style.

Also in my to-be-read pile:  Cyrano by Geraldine McCaughrean, and The New Policeman by Kate Thompson.  Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is at the bottom of my book pile, since I’ve already read the epilogue and was left rather cold and un-anxious to tackle that lengthy book.  Sometime, sometime, but not yet, thank you.


As far as home improvement projects go, this weekend has been a bust: it poured with rain on Saturday, and, more importantly, Jim has been knocked down by a really nasty sinus infection.  He’s hardly stirred from bed, hardly eaten anything besides jello and ginger ale; painting and residing the house were definitely NOT on the schedule this weekend.

Luckily, I had plenty to keep me busy in between mixing batches of jello.  I owed five reviews on eight books on the 8th, though I begged for, and received, an extension on the grounds of working overtime at my day (real?) job in preparation for summer reading.  So I settled down yesterday and today and polished off two of the three longest books, both young adult biographies of famous historical women.  All quality judgements on these books will be saved for the reviews I write, but I will say that I really enjoyed both of these books.  Not because of quality – but because they are both nonfiction books about periods in history, and two famous women, about which I knew relatively little.  I’ve come away from these books feeling better educated and better informed.

This is in sharp contrast to my feelings after reading several young adult fiction books for reviews over the last few months.  Bad fiction is bad fiction, but bad young adult fiction, with its tendency to didacticism, can be excruciating.  After finishing each of those inferior young adult novels, I felt more than a bit angry that I had wasted my limited and therefore precious reading time on books that stink.  Grrrrrr, I thought. 

But today I feel a bit smarter, after having read about and done supplementary research about C——–  and M————-.  Worthwhile time spent, and this might just keep me doing reviews in the future, if given the opportunity.

Young Adult Literature

Lisa and I spent a couple of hours yesterday going over reviews of newly published young adult books, deciding what to order, what to watch and maybe order in the future, what to forget about entirely.

Young adult books are, by many accounts, the healthiest area of the publishing field; one young adult author I know told me that it’s the fastest growing sector of the market.  I’ve also heard, from another author who had written what he thought was an adult novel, that his agent told him he’d have a better chance of being published if it was a young adult book, and that the book would last longer if it was categorized as young adult.  All very interesting, and very promising.  The books that Lisa and I looked at yesterday cover a broader range of subjects than I remember from eight years ago (when I was at Simmons) and are getting to be less “issue books” and more quality books.  In addition, we discovered a lot of great non-fiction books for young adults.

I’m especially excited about Respect: A Girl’s Guide to Getting Respect and Dealing When Your Line is Crossed by Courtney Macavinta and Andrea Vander Pluym.  Lisa discovered a review of this book somewhere, and requested a copy from another library, so we’ve been able to preview it.  Though at first it  seemed controversial (hence wanting to preview it), it is a thoughtful guide for teenage girls in how to assert themselves in a positive way, respecting themselves and their own opinions while still being kind to other people.  Particularly great is the chapter on Sex — I was a little worried at first that this chapter might get some knickers in a twist, but in actuality it stresses the emotional aspect of sex over the physical aspects.  The authors gently teach their readers that self-respect is a key element of sex, and ultimately their advice might keep girls from getting into situations for which they’re not yet ready.  Best of all, as in the rest of the book, the authors suggest specific wording to use in awkward situations/conversations (like the “If you loved me, you’d sleep with me” conversation).

Needless to say, we ordered this title today, along with forty-nine others.  A big order, yes, but it should keep us for a couple of months before we put in another big order.  Keep your eyes out for these new books to be hitting the library’s shelves in a couple of weeks (when our cataloger’s back from a well-deserved vacation!).