Sunday, January 15, 2012

2012 Week 1

I realize this is a week late. Apparently, my school reading is going to be a bit more time-consuming than expected this semester. I'll try to do better about posting over the weekend, but no guarantees.

Title: Hatchet
Author: Gary Paulsen
Publishing Date: 1987
Reason Read: required for YA Resources (previously read in 6th grade)
Awards: Newbery Honor 1988

I remember reading Hatchet for my 6th grade English class and hating it, so when it was on the syllabus for my YA Resources class, I cringed a bit, but decided that as an adult maybe I'd better enjoy the book. I was wrong.

The story of Brian, a thirteen year old who survives a plane crash after the pilot of the single-engine plane has a heart attack, has the potential to be captivating, but not enough details of Brian's civilian life are given. All we are told is that his parents are divorced, and Brian unwittingly was privy to the reason why: his mother's illicit affair. Additionally, the writing is extremely repetitive, using the same words and phrasing ad nauseum to the point where I questioned if Mr. Paulsen owned a thesaurus. I understand that the writing is meant to mimic Brian's thoughts, but I'd like to think that even a teenager lost in the wilderness is a bit more sophisticated than this.

Grade: C

Title: Annie on My Mind
Author: Nancy Garden
Publishing Date: 1982
Reason Read: required reading for YA Resources
Awards: N/A

The quintessential lesbian romance novel for young adults, Annie on My Mind tells the story of two New York girls, Annie and Liza, who have a chance meeting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The girls quickly become best friends, and the relationship evolves into something more.

Although this novel was written thirty years ago, it is still as poignant and believable today. While Annie has acknowledged that she is gay for some time, Liza's feelings are frightening and new, and she struggles to come to terms with them, as so many others do. And on top of the main romance plot, there is a major plot point involving two teachers at Liza's school who are lesbians and how the school administration reacts to this. While the acceptance of gays has certainly made strides since 1982, the events that unfold in this novel are still extremely plausible, especially in more conservative parts of the country. Highly recommended for any girl questioning her sexuality.

Grade: A

Title: Weetzie Bat
Author: Francesca Lia Block
Publishing Date: 1989
Reason Read: required reading for YA Resources
Awards: Phoenix Award 2009

Despite being only slightly longer than 100 pages, Weetzie Bat manages to cram non-traditional families, gay relationships, and AIDS in its plot without weakening it. Often described as a pop fairy tale, the story follows teenage Weetzie, her friend Dirk, and the life they build through the results of three wishes Weetzie makes via a genie in a magic lamp. I suppose it's a bit precious, but the writing is so ethereal and poetic, I found myself easily sucked into the story. My only real complaint is that more time is spent on surface details instead of building really deep characters, but that goes along with the fairy tale concept, as do the bizarre names (i.e. My Secret Agent Lover Man).

Grade: A-

Title: Monster
Author: Walter Dean Myers
Publishing Date: 1999
Reason Read: required reading for YA Resources
Awards: National Book Award finalist 1999, Printz Award 2000, Coretta Scott King Honor 2000

Written as a screenplay by the main character, Steven Harmon, Monster is a courtroom drama concerning a murder trial of a convenience store owner in New York City. While we are told that Steve served as a look-out of sorts, checking to see that no customers were in the store prior to the botched robbery, throughout the course of the trial, the defense tries to prove his innocence and save Steve from a life behind bars. A number of witnesses are criminals themselves, somewhat discrediting the case of the prosecution. And the entire trial both the jury and we the readers are left wondering if Steve is really innocent.

Given Steve's penchant for filmmaking, the screenplay concept is a nice touch. Had Mr. Myers chosen to write in a traditional format, the story easily could have become bogged down with legal jargon, but as a quick-moving screenplay, such terminology is dealt with much more easily. That the format fits the character so well is a credit to the author.

Grade: A

Title: The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Author: Stephen Chbosky
Publishing Date: 1999
Reason Read: required reading for YA Resources (previously read senior year of high school)
Awards: N/A

Maybe this was just something we did at my high school, but I remember reading Perks in my senior year and passing the copy around to people and having them leave comments in the margins. My own copy was just between my best friend (now husband) and myself, but I had friends who also did this with larger groups of friends. I think the epistolary format and confessional tone of the letters is conducive to this.

I think I'm a bit biased toward this book, not only because of how nostalgic it makes me feel, having grown up in the 90's and come of age soon after the millennium, but also because the book is set in the Greater Pittsburgh metro area. All the places that are mentioned in this book are familiar to me, so it ends up having a special place in my ya collection.

Despite this personal connection to Mr. Chbosky's novel, the issues presented, including homosexuality, teen pregnancy, and abuse are rather universal issues faced by teenagers everywhere, which is why it's such an appealing book. I truly feel that it's my generation's Catcher in the Rye.

Grade: A

Title: Gossip Girl
Author: Cecily von Ziegesar
Publishing Date: 2002
Reason Read: required reading for YA Resources
Awards: N/A

By far the worst book I've read in some time, Gossip Girl is about as mindless as I expected it to be. And while the writing is decent, at least if one likes the style used in gossip columns, what really irritated me was that the characters are almost described in terms of what brand-name they are wearing. If one has no concept of what a certain Prada dress looks like, he'll have little idea what to visualize.

Even worse than the lack of poetic description is the sheer lack of positive characters in the main cast. Nearly all of the major characters drink, smoke, and do recreational drugs. The only girl at the school that I can tolerate is the artistic misfit, Vanessa, but aside from attending a concert with the flighty Serena, she's a peripheral character at best.

I'm glad that these books are getting teens reading, I suppose, but there's so much wrong with them that I really worry about the negative influence the books could potentially have on young readers.

Grade: C-

Monday, January 2, 2012

New Year, New Format: 2011 Week 52

Given the amount of books that I read within a month, I often find that I simply don't have time to stop and write about all of them. So, rather than writing lengthy entries on the newest releases, I've decided to use a new format this year, writing a weekly entry with short reviews of all the middle grade and ya books I've read in a week. Posts will typically go up on Saturday or Sunday.

Nearly all of the books in this week's post were required for an upcoming class. Future weeks should be more of a mix of required and leisure reading; we were assigned 15 books to read by the first day of this particular class, but subsequent weeks have no more than three assigned.

Week 52

Title: The Ruins of Gorlan (Book 1 in the Ranger's Apprentice series)
Author: John Flanagan
Publishing Date: 2004/Australia; 2005/US
Reason Read: required for YA Resources
Awards:Aurealis Award for Best Children's Novel short list 2004

My older brother, who has recently started reading ya novels, had actually recommended this series to me over the summer, so I was glad to see it on the required reading list. Telling the story of an orphaned boy who becomes an apprentice to a ranger (think of the D&D class or Aragorn), The Ruins of Gorlan bridges the gap between The Prydain Chronicles and The Lord of the Rings, with a brisk enough pace to hold the attention of reluctant readers and enough action to satisfy them, as well. The story may be a bit cliche, but the characters are likeable and the writing above-average. While the first installment felt resolved, there are enough loose threads to warrant looking at the next volume.

Grade: B

Title: The Burning Bridge (Book 2 in the Ranger's Apprentice series
Author: John Flanagan
Publishing Date: 2005/Australia; 2006/US
Reason Read: I enjoyed the first book and wanted to see how the series would continue -- I plan on reading the first four books as of now
Awards: N/A

Within the first installment, the over-arching plot involving Morgarath was not resolved. This volume focuses on the impending battle with Morgarath and his minions. Will and his friend Horace are the protagonists here, along with a new character named Evelyn who they encounter on their journey. Both boys have an opportunity to shine, Will with his wits and Horace with his sword. Much of the same is present in this second book of the series, which ends unresolved (at least where Will is concerned). Not as strong as the first installment, but I can see why it remains popular.

Grade: B-

Title: Seventeenth Summer
Author: Maureen Daly
Publishing Date: 1942
Reason Read: required for YA Resources
Awards: N/A

Often considered one of the first young adult novels, Seventeenth Summer was actually written when the author herself was seventeen. The story is rather generic, concerning the first love of a girl about to leave home to attend college. At first, I found it difficult to read, as the dialogue is so trite and corny, but eventually its 40's charm grew on me. It's certainly dated and not for everyone (especially readers accustomed to today's steamy teen romances), but it's fluffy and cute -- perfect for someone who enjoys retro romance.

Grade: B-

Title: The Catcher in the Rye
Author: J.D. Salinger
Publishing Date: 1951
Reason Read: required for YA Resources (previously read junior year of high school)
Awards: Modern Library's 100 Best English-language Novels of the 20th Century

This book needs little introduction, as it's read in high school classrooms all over the country. I never really stopped to consider it as a ya novel before, and I still question that label, despite Holden's age and the issues he deals with in the novel, as I don't think Mr. Salinger's intention was to write for a teenage audience, but a universal audience. Despite its age, The Catcher in the Rye holds up rather well, although like Ms. Daly's book, some of the dialogue does seem a bit dated. I think I appreciated the book more the second time around, though.

Grade: A-

Title: The Outsiders
Author: S.E. Hinton
Publishing Date: 1967
Reason Read: required for YA Resources
Awards: N/A

Another example of early ya written by a teenager, The Outsiders is a bleak account of a band of greasers and the trouble that ensues when one of them kills a rich kid in self-defense. While on the lam, the killer saves a group of children from a burning building and becomes a hero, though gravely injured himself. The kids from the wrong side of the tracks are presented as victims of circumstance here, enabling readers to empathize with them, despite their background, which was rather ground-breaking at the time. I can definitely see why so many high schools require this to be read, as it's brilliantly written and remains poigant today.

Grade: A

Title: The Chocolate War
Author: Robert Cormier
Publishing Date: 1974
Reason Read: required for YA Resources
Awards: N/A

A realistic, albeit brutal, portrayal of the mob mentality present in high schools, The Chocolate War concerns a secret society at a boys' prep school and a freshman who refuses to follow their orders to participate in a chocolate fundraiser. Mr. Cormier's attention to gritty detail helps this work to stand out, although the ending left me cold, as the antagonists receive no form of punishment and the acting headmaster seems pleased with the lawless behaviour of the secret society. Perhaps I'm being too idealistic, but I would have preferred a more satisfying conclusion.

Grade: A-

Title: Forever
Author: Judy Blume
Publishing Date: 1975
Reason Read: required for YA Resources
Awards: N/A

One of the first ya novels to frankly discuss teenage sexuality, Forever concerns the relationship between two high school seniors, including their decision to engage in sex. It's a breezy read with relatively accurate portrayals of teenage love, although I question whether a girl would actually refer to a boyfriend's member by a silly name like Ralph and the parents seem a bit too open to the idea of their teenage daughter having sex. These details aside, it tackles not just sexuality itself, but the consequences that come from it, as well as the difficult question of what to do when a relationship ends.

Grade: B+