Confessions & Confusions

Unreliable narrators in fiction make for some fascinating reading, and what could be more unreliable than a confession? Strangely, I happened to read two such novels recently.

The first is a teen novel that I hadn’t had on my to-read list until it won a Printz Honor: The Passion of Dolssa by Julie Berry. I had heard the Printz buzz around this book, but it never sounded that appealing to me.  I mean, it is set in the 1200’s and is about religion/faith/miracles. The description just never grabbed me. But once I finally gave it a chance, I was engrossed from the very beginning. The book uses many voices to tell the story, but the primary storyteller is Botille, whose confession about what happened twenty-six years ago with regard to the heretic Dolssa is full of layers as she protects the people she cares about from the Inquisitors. What really happened and what is Botille’s invention for the Inquisitor is up for debate and that is only a part of what makes this book interesting.

The second is another historical novel—published for adults—set in the 1920’s: The Other Typist. I picked up this book because of my interest in the time period, especially women’s lives at that time. I really wasn’t expecting this strange (though not necessarily in a bad way) story that left me wondering what really happened even after I finished reading. The reader knows from almost the very beginning that things don’t end well for our main character, and the story isn’t suspenseful so much as it is filled with foreboding in a way that kept me reading despite knowing that bad things were bound to happen. Don’t get me wrong, it takes a while to get there. It is a confession after all, and it takes time to get to the juicy parts of any confession, as our narrator well knows from her employment as a typist at a police station where her job is to record and type confessions.  If you can stick with the story to the end, you’ll be left fitting the pieces of Rose’s story together to determine what you think really happened.

Both of these books were engrossing in a way that surprised me. They each ended up being yet another reminder to myself to be open in my reading choices. Hey Self: Even if a book isn’t what you were expecting or if it doesn’t seem immediately appealing, give it a chance. You might be surprised.

The Names We Know (and the ones we don’t)

As I read the ARC of Untwine by Edwidge Danticat back in 2015, I found myself scribbling notes to myself. Names, mostly. The book is full of references to art, music, and history that were new to me. I had to Google Jean-Jacques Dessalines to find out that he was a leader in the Haitian Revolution. Other names dropped into the story turned out to be real contemporary artists whose work connected to the story or the characters in some way. Jean-Michel Basquiat and Frida Kahlo were the only names that I knew.  By the time I finished the book I had a list of names—all people about whom I wanted to know more.

Imagining that teen readers of Untwine might be similarly inspired to seek out the stories behind these names, I looked for biographies I might recommend as an “If you liked Untwine” kind of reading list. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much to be found on teen nonfiction shelves for any of these names beyond Frida Kahlo. While I highly recommend Catherine Reef’s dual biography Frida & Diego: Art, Love, Life or Carmen Bernier-Grand’s poetic tribute to the artist Frida: Viva la Vida! Long Live Life! to teen readers who want to read about artists of color, two books aren’t enough to make a list or a display in a library.

It was, however, more than enough to make me think more critically about the biographies and histories I recommend for teen collections. There is power in art, music, and history that resonates with your own life, and I want those stories to be accessible to young people.

Perhaps no other book I’ve read has made the power of connecting with history more clear than Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson, which I read recently. In this book, another one I finished with a scribbled list of names to Google, Jade discovers and explores African-American history and art that inspires her own art and gives her the strength to speak out. She says after a trip to the symphony with a mentoring group for at-risk young women, “I did not know about James DePreist, and I’d never heard of Marian Anderson. But tonight I feel myself dancing with them. Feel myself traveling the world.”

An “If you liked Piecing Me Together” reading list might include biographies of Marian Anderson, Romare Bearden, and York (the enslaved African explorer who traveled with Lewis and Clark) among others if there are any. It would be a small list. Perhaps Russell Freedman’s The Voice that Challenged a Nation would be the only title on it. That isn’t enough. There isn’t nearly enough for teen readers searching for themselves, for their own histories, to connect the pieces of their lives together.

As Jade, in the book, spoke out about what she deserved, I had to consider how I might use my position to speak up. I’ll be talking about Untwine and Piecing Me Together for sure. I’ll be recommending the biographies listed above and watching upcoming publishing seasons for new teen books featuring artists and musicians of color and other little known history regarding marginalized groups.  I’ve reviewed, booktalked, and recommended books like Answering the Cry for Freedom and Rad Women Worldwide. It may never be enough, but I’ll keep speaking up because I am more convinced than ever that we need these stories.

A Sad Story & Songs to Match

ourchemicalIf you’re looking for a happily ever after, that was my last post. This one is about Our Chemical Hearts, or to be more accurate, it was inspired by Our Chemical Hearts.

Readers know going in that Our Chemical Hearts isn’t a Happily Ever After kind of story. The marketing material that arrived with my advance reader copy listed “10 Things You Need to Know about Our Chemical Hearts” with the number one point being “The book you’re looking at is not a love story.”
This is the book for when you want to cry and remember how love can consume you completely and then spit you out. So if you’re looking for tragic romance, this is the book for you. And if you don’t fall in love with Henry Page before the book is over, you are a different person than I am. ;)  The other side of the promo piece had a playlist of break-up songs for every stage of grief from Alanis Morrisette (anger) to Gloria Gaynor (acceptance).  Honestly, when you’re through with the sad story of Henry Page and Grace Town, you’ll probably need the playlist to help you through.

suggestedtunesYou may recall  that I’ve posted about break up songs before with a rather embarrassing story about a break up from my past and my break up song of choice (Bjork). I won’t repeat that here, but I will offer a choice from the Our Chemical Hearts playlist from the “Bargaining” section. Here is “Goodbye Goodbye” by Tegan and Sara:

Happily Ever After

I read a lot of realistic teen fiction. That may sound pretty benign, but when it comes to teen fiction “realistic” can seem like code for “issues.” So many of the teen books I read are about abuse, poverty, trauma, risky behavior, and bad decisions that lead to terrible consequences. Tough Topics, I used  to call them when I worked in a library. I had a huge bibliography of these books divided by subject. It was, frankly, depressing. My reading list can really get a person down.

This summer, I took a break from serious stories. I spent my summer reading the fluffiest YA romance novels I could find. One after another. I couldn’t get enough happily ever afters. Even when the path to that HEA was completely cheesy, I would keep reading and select another silly book when I was through. Sometimes that’s what you need. Or, at least, sometimes that’s what I need.

For those of you looking for similar books, I offer you the three standout teen romances I read this past summer:

unexpectedeverything shufflerepeat Yoon_9780553496680_jkt_all_r1.indd

  • The Unexpected Everything by Morgan Matson – An overachiever has her summer plans disrupted and finds herself finding happiness where she least expected it. Maybe that sounds cheesy, but I really enjoyed this story that explored family and friendships in addition to having a sweet romantic story line.
  • Shuffle, Repeat by Jen Klein – Reluctant friends with divergent taste in music find romance in this cute story. I have a particular weakness for books that feature indie music, so this was a fun read for me. There’s even a playlist to go along with the book.
  • The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon – Yes, technically this book doesn’t even publish until November, but I read an advance reader’s copy this summer so I’m counting it. It is easily one of my favorite YA novels of 2016, and it’s a National Book Award finalist. In addition to the romantic adventure that takes place in one day, this book also takes on some serious topics like race and immigration.

An one more bonus recommendation for those of you who prefer actually-published-for-grown-ups books: Dress Shop of Dreams by Menna van Praag is a sweet, magical story about second chances. Worth reading for a bit of HEA fluff that isn’t about teenagers, if that’s your thing.

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.