I’m a YA Expert!

Bop-ba-da-daa!  I’m back (for now).  After a reading-intense semester of school, I have finally emerged with over 40 YA titles under my belt.  Now aren’t you glad I didn’t keep you continuously updated on my reading?  I have opted, instead, to give a quick list of notables from the class.  It’s worth noting that these books represented an overview of young adult literature, ranging from “classics” to contemporary.  So in no particular order, I give you 7 good books:

I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak

Under-aged cabbie, Ed Kennedy, lives an unremarkable life with his dog, Doorman, until one day he helps stop a bank robbery.  Shortly thereafter, the first playing card arrives in his mailbox with a list of addresses written on it, an unspoken assignment from an unknown source.  Ed’s life and the lives of many in his town are about to change forever, but Zusak keeps you guessing as to how right through to the story’s shocking conclusion.

I loved this book—instantly and completely.  The tone, narrative voice, characters, plotting, and pacing made easy work of me and kept me rooted to the couch for an entire day, allowing me to finish the book as I polished off my dinner.  The ending, however, is a humdinger and might make or break the book for you.  I wasn’t that crazy about it, to be honest, but the rest of the novel was exceptional enough to carry it past any qualms I had with the conclusion.  I will definitely be looking into The Book Thief when I get the chance.

Looking for Alaska by John Green

“Miles Halter is fascinated by famous last words–and tired of his safe life at home. He leaves for boarding school to seek what the dying poet Francois Rabelais called the “Great Perhaps.” Much awaits Miles at Culver Creek, including Alaska Young. Clever, funny, screwed-up, and dead sexy, Alaska will pull Miles into her labyrinth and catapult him into the Great Perhaps.” ~JohnGreenBooks.com

I appreciated Looking for Alaska because it was filled with real emotion, flawed characters, and hard questions.  Maybe the characters weren’t always the most realistic, but they did their job and got readers to to connect with them and the story being told.  Green writes well and while he occasionally strays into sentimental waters, he’s never there long and he doesn’t sugar-coat his story as a result. Looking for Alaska is frequently taught in high schools and likewise banned or protested for its content.  Personally, I think good literature that requires thought and explanation is precisely the kind of thing that should be on a high school curriculum.

That said,  I must acknowledge that  I am incredibly late in hopping on the John Green train and confess to this being my first exposure to Green’s writing.  His was a name I always knew and knew to be respected, but I hadn’t read him.  I certainly wasn’t aware of the huge fan base he inspired or that he and his brother, Hank, were leaders of the Nerdfighters and Vlogbrothers.  Don’t worry, I’ve fixed that all now.  I admire his work with the teen community maybe even more than the books he writes because he is truly connecting with teens as contemporaries and fellow humans. If you aren’t up to date on his activities, I recommend you check him out any of the following:

You Killed Wesley Payne by Sean Beaudoin

Detective noir gets a makeover in Beaudoin’s witty murder mystery, wherein we follow 17-year-old private eye, Dalton Rev on a job at Salt River High.  With a worn copy of his favorite detective novel in his pocket for reference, Dalton tries to uncover how the duct tape-bound body of a student came to be hanging from a goal post on the football field.  There’s a missing wad of cash and the distractingly cute girl who hired him complicating matters, as well.  Dalton must navigate the fierce clique racket controlling the school in order to crack the case.  This book gives an adoring, yet tongue-in-cheek nod to Hammett and Chandler and contains a high-octane story that never lets you pause for breath. Complete with clique chart and slang glossary, it’s impossible not to have a good time while reading it.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Lanai Taylor

“It wasn’t like in the storybooks.  No witches lurked at crossroads disguised as crones, waiting to reward travelers who shared their bread.  Genies didn’t burst forth from lamps, and talking fish didn’t bargain for their lives.  In all the world, there was only one place humans could get wishes: Brimstone’s shop.  And there was only one currency he accepted.  It wasn’t gold, or riddles, or kindness, or any other fairy-tale nonsense, and no, it wasn’t souls either.  It was weirder than any of that.

It was teeth.”

17-year-old Karou lives a double life.  In one, she is a blue-haired art student living in Prague.  In the other, an errand girl for chimaera (or demons, depending on who you ask), collecting teeth for Brimstone the Wishmonger.  When an angel attacks her during a routine errand, Karou finds herself drawn into an ancient war between heaven and earth.

Laini Taylor has produced a well-crafted novel which draws history and mythologies into the knotted fate of a pair of star-crossed lovers–a sort of Paradise Lost meets Romeo & Juliet.  The only thing that kept me from loving this book was that it was a little too heavy in the romance department.  When given a choice between the fluttering of butterflies in one’s stomach and the beating of angels’ wings on their way to battle, I’ll take the angelic hoards every time.  But that’s just me.  What I did love was the magical atmosphere of Prague, the imagery of the marionette theater, the mythology of the wishmonger–which as far as I know was Taylor’s invention. Correct me if I’m wrong on that score!  The way she wrote about these subjects made me want to see them first-hand, and I spent a delightful hour or so scrolling through photos of Prague and watching marionettes  and puppets perform on YouTube.  Daughter of Smoke & Bone really is a good book, and for those of you who aren’t put off by prominent romance, I highly recommend it.  A sequel is in the works.

Curveball: The Year I Lost My Grip by Jordan Sonnenblick

Most of this writeup actually comes from my review in Shelf Awareness:

Curveball is a snapshot of Peter Friedman’s life as he starts high school after a dream-shattering sports injury takes him from atop the pitcher’s mound and positions him behind the camera’s lens. As Pete adjusts to life on the sidelines as a sports photographer–his palm-stinging pitch now “plopped into the grass like a fat little dead pigeon”–he also watches in dismay as his grandfather begins to lose his grip on reality.  How could the man who taught him everything he knew about photography suddenly need a Post-it in the kitchen with instructions for making toast?

Curveball is not a superficial romp through adolescence. It has depth and substance, which Sonnenblick carefully balances with humor in a manner that will appeal to fans of John Green and Nick Hornby.  Though its young characters occasionally have a bit more wisdom than befits their years, they are still accessible; and Pete, who resembles a marginally cooler Sam of Freaks and Geeks fame, is a character to whom readers can easily relate. His attempts to come to terms with his injury, cope with his grandfather’s illness, and to simply not look like an idiot freshman will engage readers within the first few pages and will not let them go until the last.

Going Postal by Terry Pratchett

The book I found most enjoyable this semester was Going Postal, part of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.  Some of you may be thinking, Hey, that’s not a YA novel! And you would be right.  Pratchett, however, was one of the first “adult” writers to whom teens gravitated because his books were fun and intellectually stimulating.

My previous exposure to Pratchett was limited to his work with Neil Gaiman on Good Omens, but as that is one of my favorite books I was eager to see what his solo ventures were like. Like Good Omens, Going Postal  is marked by humor and satire; it tells the story of a con man who is forced upon pain of death to revive a town’s defunct postal service.  Stuck amidst the ridiculous plotlines and colorful characters is a critique of corporate takeovers and the perils of putting profit above people. I loved the main characters, through which Patchett exhibits his ability to make readers laugh and look upon an absurd world with hopeful eyes.

Some in the class could not “get into” the Discworld universe, but I had no such trouble. I hope to read more in this series and I have heard the audio productions are excellent.  I feel they would be a delightful choice for a road trip.

Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud

A non-fiction, graphic novel by renowned author/artist Scott McCloud on how comics are much more than framed pictures with words.

As a comics novice, I was happy to be assigned what was essentially a comics format guide.  That sounds rather dry, but its conversational tone and graphic novel format made it immediately engaging.  I still cannot get over how much information McCloud crammed into his book, information it would not have been possible to convey half as well if it were a text-only study of comics.  As such, the book itself became an argument for McCloud’s defense of the power and potential of comics.  I would also like to say that I have never had as many book-induced conversations—with friends and strangers—as I did by reading Understanding Comics in public.  All variety of people would approach me to tell me how awesome this book was, some making suggestions of additional titles to read.  I found the genuine pleasure and passion it inspired in its readers a delight and am happy to report that it has lead me to sign up for a comics advisory course this summer.

All right, that’s enough for now.  For those of you curious as to what else was assigned for this class, here’s the list minus extra readings for projects:

Anne of Green Gables – L.M. Montgomery

Seventeenth Summer– Maureen Daly

The Catcher in the Rye– J.D. Salinger

The Outsiders– S.E. Hinton

Weetzie Bat– Francesca Lia Block

Rules of the Road– Joan Bauer

Bucking the Sarge– Christopher Paul Curtis

The Chocolate War– Robert Cormier

I Am the Messenger– Markus Zusak

Ender’s Game– Orson Scott Card

Parrotfish– Ellen Wittlinger

Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice– Phillip Hoose

Looking for Alaska or An Abundance of Katherines– John Green

Boy Meets Boy– David Levithan

Crush– Carrie Mac

Feed– M.T. Anderson

Going Postal– Terry Pratchett

The Golden Compass– Phillip Pullman

Blood and Chocolate– Annette Curtis Klause

Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art– Scott McCloud

Stuck in the Middle: 17 Comics from an Unpleasant Age– Ariel Schrag (ed.)

American Born Chinese– Gene Luen Yang

Fallen Angels– Walter Dean Myers

Tamar: A Novel of Espionage, Passion, and Betrayal– Mal Peet

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian– Sherman Alexie

Speak– Laurie Halse Anderson

Catch– Will Leitch

A Yellow Raft in Blue Water– Michael Dorris


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