6.13.2015

An Open Letter to the Authors of Teen Fiction by Henri Lowe

The letter below was crafted by an amazing student. Her name is Henri Lowe, and I suspect you will hear big things from her in the future. And by future, I mean the immediate future because this letter is about to blow your mind.

To the Authors of Teen Fiction,

I am sixteen years old: a teenager by all accounts. Yet I cannot walk into the Young Adult aisle in a bookstore, full of your latest books, without sighing and walking out again in favor of the middle school fiction section. I am not opposed to all teen fiction, not in the slightest. I have been exposed to much of it. I have read the most popular books of your genre: Divergent, The Hunger Games, and The Fault in Our Stars are all on my bookshelf.

Yet I still have issues with the genre of teenage fiction. Why must you assume that my tastes change so dramatically upon becoming a “young adult”? I have matured quite a bit since my elementary and middle school years, but I still appreciate a well-written book. The books that you put on the shelves vary, but many of them are not worth any reader’s time. The change in my age means that I have entered a section of the bookstore where unoriginality reigns: all of the latest books are modeled after the last teen bestsellers. There are worlds upon worlds of vampires and werewolves, thanks to Twilight; dystopian futures after The Hunger Games, and, later, Divergent; teenage lovers battling disease and heartbreak, in the style of John Green. I don’t argue that these are all pointless and poorly written, but how I wish there was more creativity. The typical models are growing bland. Young adult books belong to a rotating wheel of ideas, which spawn hundreds of imitations, often worse than the first.

Perhaps you do write a decent book, or at least an original, thoughtful one. Chances are, the main elements will include those which you think are the prominent issues in my life: romance, death, uncertainty, betrayal, passion. The elements of the book will almost certainly include sex, likely include cursing, potentially include drugs, and possibly include current issues such as homosexuality. Do I exaggerate when I say “almost certainly”? No, I do not, because that is the current model. You assume that because I am a teenager living in a world of tumultuous emotions, I feel acutely these things of which you write, and act in the way that you assume teenagers act.

But I do not. You see, I don’t think it’s a bad thing that you write about these issues. I am aware that some teenagers do face these circumstances--but perhaps not as many as you think. You write of things that are culturally accepted, and socially accepted, or things that you assume to be so, but are actually not necessarily accepted among teenagers. The angst that you suppose among teenagers, with our cursing and relationships, is not quite as realistic as you assume. I become uncomfortable when every highschool relationship becomes overly graphic or physical, and saddened because that is not always true--but you make it seem as if it is. You often push your own agendas into books, in a way which diminishes or even eliminates your artistic integrity. Even if I find your plotlines monotonous, even if I don’t fancy your choices regarding characters and their actions, I will accept your decisions if they are necessary to the plot, or if they are true to the character. But too often I find these elements in your books unnecessary, simply thrown in to fit the model of the standard young adult book. You seem to jump on the bandwagon to sell copies—or you truly mistake the world of the teenager.

When I am in the Young Adult books section, I miss the inventive and well-written Harry Potter; the brilliant Artemis Fowl; the action-packed original Percy Jackson series; the witty djinn Bartimaeus; the intelligent young children who composed The Mysterious Benedict Society; the hilarious skeleton detective Skulduggery Pleasant. I find myself pushed more and more into the classics, or back into the middle school section. I find little for teenagers that interests me: the same poorly-written stories, over and over again, with melodramatic one-word titles and covers depicting passionate teenage lovers, or edgy girls thwarting a cruel fate. I want something clever, with good characters and an inventive plotline. Yes, you can add elements of a harder, more confusing teenage world, a transitioning to adulthood. You can even add elements of romance, or death, or sex, or cursing. But please make it relevant to the plotline. Make it relevant to teenagers’ lives as they are, not as you presume them to be—or simply write a book of fantastical fantasy, of magic and ideas and worlds. But whatever you write, please make it creative. Please make it thoughtful.

Please write me a good book.

Sincerely,
Your Teenage Reader

5.10.2015

Say What You Want About April...

Engaging God's World: A Christian Vision of Faith, Learning, and LivingCornelius Plantinga Jr.
In the Cold LightRichard Sonnenmoser
Great HouseNicole Krauss
The CrossoverKwame Alexander
ChaserJohn Collier
The Girl Who Fell From the SkyHeidi Durrow

Showers and flowers and the cruellest month and come she will and clocks striking thirteen. . . .What is it about April that makes us want to write about it? Is any other month name-dropped as often? 

This practice of writing only once a month has shifted my thinking about what I read and how it falls into these chunks of time. I've been keeping this reading log all year where I'm trying to capture my reading experience more fully, so the list can include single short stories or articles as well as the longer complete works I finish. Because I'm also recording the author's country of origin and ethnicity, I am more aware when my writing starts to trend western white male, and I can make adjustments. Seeing the list broken down by month makes some of those shifts more evident. In April, you can see me adjusting course after several titles in a row from WASPy authors of US origin. Kwame Alexander, Heidi Durrow, and Nicole Krauss are all from the US, but they do bring some ethnic and gender and cultural diversity to my reading life. 

The first title I finished in April was for work: Engaging God's World: A Christian Vision of Faith, Learning, and Living was a professional development requirement, and though I wasn't rocked by it, there was some good material with solid points for discussion. I started teaching at a Christian high school last year, but I had never experienced Christian education up to that point. Public elementary, middle, and high schools served me very well, and though my college has church-based connections, it is not ostensibly about Christian education. So this book provides a bit of an overview of what it means to learn through and with and by the Christian worldview. It wouldn't have been my choice to read it, but as I tell my students all the time, sometimes we just have to do things we don't want to do. And sometimes those things turn out to be alright despite our reluctance.

I read the Sonnenmoser short story in an old Crab Orchard Review that I've been chipping away at lately. When I cleaned out my old office last summer, I found a stack of journals I had never read, and I brought them home and put them by the toilet. Please tell me other people do this. It's the perfect way to read a lit journal because only maniacs sit down and read those things cover to cover. But a short story or poem at a time is a lovely way to break them down and really appreciate the good stuff. Sonnenmoser's story was some of the good stuff as was a poem by Marty McConnell that I read again this morning. It's called "the fidelity of disagreement," and you can read it here. Something about the quiet counting she uses and the "bird behind each knee" and the unique way she builds the momentum, a circling of sorts, and those last two lines? It's so good to stumble upon something so good. 

The Collier story ("The Chaser") is one a colleague uses with our seniors, and I was talking through it with a student - neither of us thought it was very good. He called it pointless; I called it bad writing. But then I looked it up and found that Collier is a relatively well-known writer with many respectable opinions of his work, and it got me thinking about how we are influenced by what people tell us we're supposed to think about a thing. I still uphold it's not good writing, and if a student turned in a story with that same first sentence, I would tell him/her to start again and avoid the overwriting and unnecessary adjectives. But, someone somewhere decided this story did it for them, and it got made into an episode of The Twilight Zone, and people seem to really appreciate it. Because I didn't know I was supposed to like it, I was free to dismiss it or appreciate it without expectations or obligations. This experience confirms my preference to enter into a work with as little knowledge of it as possible. I want my opinions to be informed by the work more than by outside expectations.

Admittedly, that's not exactly what happened with Nicole Krauss' Great House. Because I so enjoyed her The History of Love (I didn't tell you about this one, but trust me when I say it is delicious), I did start Great House with a few Great Expectations, and Krauss did not disappoint. Great House tells - it seems - the story of a desk. A most remarkable desk that has been a part of so many lives and spaces, and as most of the owners of the desk are writers, this book might speak especially to those who deal in words. Often I resist books that pander to the reading audience overmuch, but this one does not pander. It is a natural telling of an almost supernatural object, and Krauss is able to use the multi-vocal technique so skillfully and intelligently that it almost feels like an intellectual exercise to read her work. It's not a mystery, and you're not really trying to put the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle together, and there is no epiphany where you suddenly understand how it ALL. JUST. FITS. But it does all fit, and beautifully so. And that knife's edge of uncertainty (have I used this phrase before?) is what makes her work so compelling and so engrossing. 

Kwame Alexander's The Crossover won the Newbery Medal this year, and though I love the basketball and the novel in poem format - especially for branching out certain young readers - I am not convinced it would have been my choice for the top book of the year. Good, but maybe not great. Heidi Durrow's The Girl Who Fell From the Sky has been on my list and in my kindle for much too long, so I'm glad to have finally read it. I follow Durrow on twitter, and she is doing good work to increase the visibility and vocality of the mixed race experience. Her book does a great job of capturing that dual citizenship feeling, especially in the crucial identity formation stages of early adolescence. It is difficult, and it does not flinch at the difficulty, and I think it is a worthy read for anyone interested in thinking more about the racial divide in the United States and how common it is for some folks to find themselves straddling that line, one foot on either side.

I closed the month by starting Michael Ondaatje's The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, and if you follow me on twitter, you already know how amazing I found this book. It was the first of the Nick Hornby Told Me To Read It titles, and it set the bar pretty high. I'll tell you more about it (and my ill-advised decision to try to read all our school's summer reading titles) next month. 

4.06.2015

The (not-so)Mildness of March



Mosquitoland by David Arnold
Horten's Miraculous Mechanisms by Lissa Evans
Dinner: A Love Story by Jenny Rosenstrach
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien
Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane by Suzanne Collins
Skippy Dies by Paul Murray

There are people out there for whom going to the beach on Spring Break would be a normal, even expected, occurrence. I am not those people. Funny to note, then, that March has been bookended (see what I did there) with trips to the beach. The first was with a school trip, and we went to Florida to learn to surf. We had a great time, and when I came home raving about it, the family suggested we go back during our Spring Break. So we did. We camped, saw ‘gators, went to Legoland, and the kids learned to surf a bit. We also listened to several audiobooks about rats (more on that later), and I managed to finish the book (Skippy Dies) I had started on the first installment of this trip.

On its face, March looks like a mild reading month. Only one real example of adult fiction, and four of the titles are for young readers? Many would consider that a failed outing. Those many would be wrong.

I started Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies at the very end of February, and I read it all month, and like the best long books, it never felt long. It is brilliant. May I say that and be taken seriously? Because it really is an unlikely treasure, especially (but not exclusively) for those who overlap regularly with high schoolers. Murray understands the high school experience, and he captures the youthful voice beautifully, and though there is plenty of slang and profanity and stuff you wish you didn’t know about high school students, it is always coupled with insightful commentary and the prose of a true craftsman. It is no spoiler to tell you that Daniel “Skippy” Juster dies at the beginning of the book - it’s in the title. To reveal more than that, though, would ruin the unsurpassed experience of wading into a book with the same tentative steps one uses with the ocean. You’re not sure of the water temperature, or of your desire to be wet, and you’re never sure what you’ll find beyond the first break or under that endless water.  Skippy Dies is about a group of friends and their teachers and administrators, and there are girls, too, and it makes me want to read everything Paul Murray has written. Thankfully, I already own An Evening of Long Goodbyes, so I have that to look forward to.

Last night, I was playing around with my Google Play and found a bunch of old songs that I used to listen to on my mom’s records. One of those records is seared in my memory - its red Smash Records label; the small, black print; and every word of every song. This morning, I wondered what my kids will remember listening to. I’ve mostly avoided traditional kids’ music with them, so they have a fairly wide musical vocabulary, but the most enduring listening experience in their childhood has been audiobooks. Every time we travel, and sometimes just around town, we listen to audiobooks. This trip, I downloaded three books, all of which feature rats in some way. Interestingly, we listened to them in order from good to (unfortunately) not-so-good. We began with Newbery winning Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. The kids loved it, and I was reminded once again of how important it is for young readers to get strong, intelligent writing and a good story. I was also reminded of how uncommon it is. I didn’t particularly love the first Gregor the Overlander book, but the rest of the family enjoyed it, so I got the second in the series, Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane. Like all the Suzanne Collins I’ve yet experienced, the story is better than the writing, and there’s lots of action. I actually slept through a good portion of this one, so I can’t really respond to it, but I can tell you that it frustrates me no end that one of the main characters is a two-year-old whom Collins has written like an 10-month-old. I understand the variation that comes with children, but I just don’t buy this two-year-old, and besides being inaccurate, the dialogue written for her is annoying. I also don’t prefer the reader, so I’m hesitant to finish the series. We shall see. After Gregor, we started (but didn’t get very far in) Chris Colfer’s The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell. This series came highly recommended to us, but I was reluctant because I am a book snob, and I resist things written by people famous for things other than writing. Undoubtedly, their fame plays some role in getting the book published, so the quality of the writing does not fall under the same microscope as another emerging writer’s work would. And boy, does it show in The Land of Stories. My daughter is admittedly a seasoned reader, but even she was able to notice the bad writing. When describing the kids’ grandmother giving them an old book, he writes something like “it felt like someone giving you a family heirloom before they died.” Even the 10-year-old knows it’s not like that - it is exactly that. These pseudo-comparisons happened often, startlingly so. Also, words that don’t exist (and not in a good, fantasy-world-building kind of way). Also, a serious lack of editing. Also, well, suffice it to say I hope the kids don’t remember that we didn’t finish it now that we’re back to regular life.

Dinner: A Love Story was a fun, and even informative, cookbook experience. It has much to offer a beginner, but there’s good stuff here for even a seasoned cook. One thing I liked was the idea of starting a meal even if you weren’t sure what you were making. She says sometimes she just starts caramelizing an onion while she decides - it will enhance just about anything, and the smells get her inspiration moving. I haven’t tried any of the recipes yet, but I think there are several that will be a big success in this house. On the other hand, Horten’s Miraculous Mechanisms was not such a success - with this reader anyway. It was our Book Club selection last month, and while the girls all seemed to enjoy it, I found it decidedly meh. And that’s all I will say about that.

Finally, let me tell you about David Arnold’s Mosquitoland. I read Mosquitoland as part of my search for the perfect Summer Reading offering. Our school does a summer reading Book Group experience, where students pick a title from a large selection offered by the different faculty members, and then we meet in the fall to discuss. Last year, my group was not as successful as I wanted, and I blame my choice. This year, I wanted to make sure I had a winner, so I bought a big stack of titles, searching for just the right thing. Guys, I won. Or rather David Arnold wins. Mosquitoland is his debut novel, and it is amazing. I am so impressed with the characters, the pacing, the plot - everything. The main character, Mim, is one of the most unique voices I’ve read recently, and though she is quirky, she is also oh-so-familiar. I loved this book, and I cannot wait to share it with the high schoolers who pick it. Do read it. And love it. I promise you will.