Reading Outside of my Usual

I am a pretty predictable person. Especially when it comes to books. I’ve read enough to know what I like, and I rarely finish a book that I’m not enjoying. There are too many books in my To Read pile to waste on something that isn’t resonating with my soul at the moment. My To Read pile is populated by realistic teen fiction with some historical novels thrown in for variety. I’ll read the books about tough teen issues and vary it up with a cute, fluffy romance. Other than a serious science fiction phase over ten years ago, I stick as close to realism in my fiction as I can get. That said, I have really enjoyed a few fantasy novels recently. This is so unusual that I can’t not share.

  

  • An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir. I had heard a lot of good things about this book, but I hadn’t planned on reading it until a copy fell into my hands. It’s a big book with a map of a fantasy world on the end pages. It’s probably the last book in the world I would expect to like, but I was there, it was there. So I started reading. To my surprise, I devoured the book. In a weird way, it reminded me of Ender’s Game, which I read during my science fiction phases all those years ago and still love, because of the militaristic setting and moral questions.  In any case, one the short list of fantasy novels that I highly recommend, An Ember in the Ashes is probably at the top.
  • The Glittering Court by Richelle Mead. I received a copy of the book after meeting the author, and I was intrigued by the idea that this would be the first book in a trilogy in which each book would tell the story of the same time period from different characters’ perspectives. Even more rare for me than reading a fantasy novel is me reading all the books in a trilogy. But I will probably not be able to resist the future installments of this one with its unusual concept. Lucky for me, it’s like fantasy-lite. The fantasy world is more like an alt-historical world (no magic or magical creatures), so it fits closer to my usual than I expected.
  • A History of Glitter and Blood by Hannah Moskowitz. This book drew me in by the way it was told. It is written as a history of a war between fairies and gnomes. It begins with “Once upon a time,” but it is far from a gentle fairy tale. There are photographs, drawings, and excerpts from other books, and it all served to immerse the reader (or me, at least) in the world, brutal as it was. The unusual narration and the depictions of sex and violence probably make this book one read with caution, but I found myself absolutely unable to put it down.

Here’s to being more open minded about genre. You never know what stories you’ll connect with if you give them a chance.

The Audience

sharkgirlShark Girl by Kelly Bingham is at once My Story and Not My Story. When I first read the book back in 2007, I focused on how much the story felt like mine. It’s true that I did not lose my arm in an animal attack, that I never had to re-learn how to do tasks one-handed, and that I don’t know anything about recovering from such a life altering event. But that wasn’t all there was to the story.

There was also Jane’s desire to live her life without an audience. She doesn’t want to be a hero or an interview subject. She doesn’t want eyes on her as she figures out how to do what she needs to do. But she quickly learns what I have known for a long time: amputees cannot avoid an audience. In his memoir We Should Hang Out Sometime Josh Sundquist said, “That’s what it means to be an amputee: You’re always putting on a show.” He’s right.

The audience might be a quick double take or a curious stare. It might be unnecessary assistance or an admiring gaze. The worst, in my opinion, are the apologetic audiences. The I’m-so-sorry-I-didn’t-realizes at offering the wrong hand to shake and other awkward moments are the story of my life.

In the book Jane gets letters from people who saw her story on the news. She struggles with the idea that she isn’t herself anymore. She is Shark Girl. That’s all people will ever see. I may not have a story like hers, but I do know how it feels to think that you’ll never be able to get beyond what people see. Jane put it this way:

“Missing an arm is like wearing a coat,

a really big, hot, ugly coat

that I can’t take off.

Ever.

It’s all that people see.”

Every amputee deals with the audience in their own way, I suppose. Sundquist, who had his leg amputated as a child, became a motivational speaker, exactly what Jane in the novel declares she will never be. It took me a while to figure out how I felt comfortable taking on the audience, but eventually I decided to lean in to it. As a teenager I would avoid eye contact with the starers or do something to purposely put them off guard if I thought they were being rude. Though that might have been easier or more gratifying in the moment, I realized that I wasn’t getting anywhere and I didn’t feel good about it. So I started seeking eye contact, answering questions, and sharing more about what it means to be me.

Much like Jane in the novel, I don’t appreciate an audience when I’m figuring out how to one-hand-hack a task I’ve never done before, but honestly, if you want to watch me tie my shoes, I really don’t mind. I’ve tied my shoes enough times in my life that I am completely fine with an audience.

Inspired by a true story

audancity“Inspired by a true story.” These were like magic words to me as a teen reader. I loved reading about real historical figures and events, but nonfiction never kept my interest. So most of my knowledge of history came from historical novels. As a teen I couldn’t get enough of novelized versions of kings’ and queens’ lives, of wars and tragedies, and whatever else I could find.

I still love historical fiction, but I have since learned that you can’t take everything you read in a historical novel as historical fact. Yes, I did learn this the hard way. Yes, it was embarrassing at the time.

Fortunately, these days there is plenty of nonfiction about historical people and events that don’t read like a textbook. I assure you that I have actually managed to occasionally glean some facts from reliable sources on occasion, but I am particularly delighted when historical fiction brings the reliable sources to me by way of back matter that differentiates fact from fiction. Audacity by Melanie Crowder is probably the best example of this that I have found. It’s a novel in verse that fictionalizes the life of Clara Lemlich, a union activist in the early 1900’s.  The book is extremely compelling even without knowledge of Clara Lemlich’s life, but the historical notes and interview with Lemlich’s descendants at the end of the book add to the power of the story. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in historical fiction from this era.

outofdarknessThen there are the books that introduce me to bits of history that I didn’t know about before.  Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Perez is set around the time of the 1937 New London school explosion, which I hadn’t known about before, but it is primarily the love story of Naomi and Wash. It is perhaps the most powerful teen novel I’ve read in a long time, but note that it has been referenced as a book that is very likely to make you ugly cry.  Read it with caution. But definitely read it.

I have yet to read any of Ruta Sepetys’ novels, but they are in my queue. Her new book, Salt to the Sea, is a meticulously researched fictional account of a little known maritime tragedy during World War II. It sounds like a book the teenage me would have loved, and frankly, I’m more than a little intrigued by it now. Learn more about the book and the event is is based on here:

Crocodile Stories

It seems to be a general rule that every story in which an amputee character gets any page time at all will also feature a crocodile. Or maybe a shark or a tiger. It doesn’t matter what wild animal one chooses, and it doesn’t matter what the truth of the story is. What matters is surprising people.

No one expects much from a less than fully limbed person, and I can speak from personal experience when I say that it can be rather draining to live a life in which people don’t expect you to be able to tie your own shoes or do much of anything for yourself. I surprise people on a near daily basis by my ability to accomplish the most basic of tasks.  In a world of such constant underestimation, there is an almost irresistible pull to really surprise people, to shock them into considering their assumptions, to change the story they’ve told themselves. That’s where the wild animals come in.  No one ever expects a crocodile.

While it is perhaps something of a cliche for an amputee character to make up some wild story about their limb loss, I can’t deny that it happens. I laughed when I read  the scene in A Time to Dance when Veda responds to rude people with a crocodile story. I’d have done much the same if I were her. I did much the same many times as a teen. I am, and always have been, happy to answer questions asked kindly, but there was a time in my youth when rude questions, comments, or staring were almost certainly answered rudely or with a crocodile story intended to shut down the conversation by surprising people.

In The Doldrums, Adelaide tells a crocodiledoldrums story with the words “chewed it clean off” when a man stares at her prosthetic leg. The man is so surprised he leaves the cafe without his coffee.  Later she finds that the story works initially with the other kids at her new school, but it quickly gets out of hand.  A word of advice: if your goal is to shut down the conversation, a crocodile story will only work with adults.  Kids will just be more interested and probably call you “crocodile girl.” That is exactly what happens to Adelaide. It isn’t exactly a winning strategy for getting people to leave you alone, and it definitely won’t make you any friends.

However, I have found that it is often the people who don’t react quite like everyone else who make the best of friends.  Adelaide’s crocodile story makes Archer, a wannabe adventurer, jealous. “It’s an odd thing to be jealous of a girl whose leg was eaten by a crocodile. Few people would be jealous of that. But Archer was few people. And it wasn’t so much the loss of a limb as it was the entire story.” That, of course, is the beginning of a real friendship, or at least, it becomes a real friendship when they eventually get past Adelaide’s story and Archer’s jealousy.

It has been a very long time since I told a crocodile story about myself. These days I am much more focused on keeping the conversation open, but there are times when I am tempted. Especially considering the real story of my limb difference is so boring. Of course, I’ve learned that the boring story is the most unexpected of all.  The truth is, I’ve gotten so much more surprise from “I was born this way” than I ever did from any wild animal story I told as a kid.

 

What YA Needs

Back in July, the #YANeedsMore hashtag turned my Twitter feed into a wish list of what librarians, readers, and book people wanted to see published for teens.  I’ve been thinking about it, and I want to add my own. YA needs more congenital disabilities.

Let me put it another way. YA does not need any more stories about tragic accidents or illnesses that affect the protagonists’ ability to do what they love most.  A few examples:

  • A runner loses a leg in The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen.
  • A dancer loses a leg in A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatramen.
  • An artist loses her drawing arm in Shark Girl by Kelly Bingham.

I like all of these books and recommend them often, but I want to tell future YA writers: this story has been told.  Let’s tell a new story.  Some people have had physical differences our whole lives.  Perhaps that could be a story, and I can tell you from experience that story isn’t a tragic one.

Monday Morning Music with Dolly Parton

dumplin“All the best things in my life have started with a Dolly Parton song.”

So begins Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy, which is easily one of the best teen novels this year, in my opinion.  Willowdean Dickson is a girl whose story is well worth being read.  Even if you (like me) don’t have any interest in beauty pageants, give this book a chance.

In honor of Dumplin’ now being available for purchase (and I do recommend you do purchase it), here is some Dolly.

If you like… Anne of Green Gables

anaofcaliforniaFirst of all, let me admit something: I didn’t read Anne of Green Gables until I was an adult, and I’ve never seen the beloved mini-series.  So I don’t have the connection to the story (or the crush on Gilbert Blythe) that many women of my generation do.  That said, I liked the book, and when I saw Ana of California by Andi Teran, which is being marketed as a modern retelling of Anne of Green Gables, I was intrigued.

I reviewed Ana of California for Margins Magazine. My review, in part:

“Look at the shelf of beloved books that mothers and daughters read together.  Anne of Green Gables. Betsy-Tacy. Ballet Shoes. The Secret Garden. Matilda. Harriet the Spy. Surely you notice what’s missing.

What would you change, if you could, about one of these books to make it more representative of your experience? What would you keep?

Andi Teran asked herself those questions about one of her childhood favorites, Anne of Green Gables.  There is a lot to love about the book.  Anne is a bold and spunky girl who makes things happen.  She has inspired many young girls to do the same over the years.  The book’s themes of family and belonging are still relevant today.  But it is all so gentle and sweet in a way that modern readers might find fantastic.  And the all-white world of the book doesn’t represent Teran’s Mexican-American heritage.”

So Teran created a new story that felt more true to her.  She kept pieces of the original material, and fans of Anne of Green Gables will have fun finding them and making the connections.  Will those long-time fans of Anne fall in love with Ana’s story in the same way as they did with the original?  Probably not.  But I expect they’ll find it fun and interesting, nonetheless.

Check out more of my reader’s advisory posts here.

Title Trends in Teen Fiction

One of the perks of the particular type of librarianing that I do is that I have access to lots and lots of advance reader copies (ARCs) at my office.  Recently I was scanning the titles of the teen fiction ARCs I had and noticing some trends.  Just for fun, here are some of my findings:

 Everything is big.

 It’s all about forever.

 Action words are hot.

 Secrets and lies are still in.

 

The truth is that I have been reading a lot of teen fiction lately, but I can’t blog, tweet, or anything about it because it is for an award committee which requires confidentiality.  So this is what blog readers get when it comes to teen fiction.  At least for a while. ;)

Thursday 3: The Near-Future in YA Fiction

NearFuture

 

The Hunger Games and Divergent offer a couple of possible futures for humanity, but they are set in well established futures that are removed from our world by an indeterminate number of years.  What about the near future?

In these three books, teens take on a world that’s kind of like ours but with a “what if?” at the center of the story.

What if an extreme religion took over?  In Vivian Apple at the End of the World by Katie Coyle, it doesn’t take long for the Church of America to become ubiquitous.  Vivian isn’t a believer in the predicted Rapture, but when her parents (and a lot of other people) disappear, she is determined to find out what happened.

What if a bank took over when the economy went really bad? That’s what happens in Hit by Delilah Dawson.  Too much debt? You just might become an indentured servant of Valor National Bank.

What if you could choose to forget? More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera is the least futuristic of any of these books, but the marketing material for this book sets it in a “near-future summer in the Bronx.”  In this future, there is a way to erase memories, and Aaron thinks that might be a way for him to forget a part of himself he doesn’t want to acknowledge.

Can you think of any others to add to this list?

Raising a feminist?

Somewhere in my social media feed a link titled 18 Ways to Make Sure Your Child’s a Feminist caught my eye.  Of course I clicked.  And found myself nodding in agreement at the suggestions (Lead by example, challenge stereotypes, watch your language, etc) most of which are things I’m doing or trying to do.  The one that stood out to me, though, was number 15:

“15. Teach them about inspiring women who’ve changed the world. It wouldn’t be the same without Amelia Earhart, Rosa Parks, or Anne Frank, now would it?”

radamericanomenNow there are a lot of great biographies of women who have changed the world.  If you’re looking for a particular woman’s story, I’d be happy to recommend one to you.   But if you just want to share the idea that there are a lot of different women who have changed the world in a lot of different ways, I recommend Rad American Women A-Z.  Not only does this book share one page profiles of women like education activist Jovita Idar, artist Maya Lin, and journalist Nellie Bly among many others, but it also encourages young people to be rad in their own way.  What more could you ask for?

For me, the book was a mix of names and accomplishments I knew with more than a few that were new to me.  As I turned the pages, I found myself happily surprised by the inclusion of musicians and artists along with activists and scientists.  Soon, my seven-year-old daughter was peeking over my shoulder.  The bright colors and bold text grabbed her curiosity, and she started asking questions about the women on the pages.  Almost none of the names were familiar to her.

It occurred to me then that I need to be more intentional in making sure she sees what women have done (and are doing) to make a difference in our world.  This book is exactly what I need to get started.

 

radamerican

 

 

Thank you to City Lights Publishing for the review copy of this book.