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.

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.

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?

Talking about religion…

I have been eagerly following the discussion of Faith and Spirituality in YA Lit going on at Teen Librarian Toolbox.  I haven’t been talking about religion very much anymore on this blog.  It is one of those awkward topics after all, like politics, that people tend to avoid.  But I am still reading about it a lot, and I am very glad that others are talking about it.   After all,  I spent most of my life (including all of my teen years) as a person of faith in a non-mainstream religion, and I seem to always be drawn to stories that reflect the feelings that I remember from my religious experience, including the feeling of not wanting to be part of the religious identity I had always known.

starbirdHere are just a few of the teen fiction titles that resonated with me, and my admittedly unusual experience, on the subject of faith:

  • Hush by Eishes Chayil – This story addresses issues of sex abuse in a minority religious community in which reporting to the outside authorities is discouraged.  It affected me deeply since it was an issue for my former religion as well.
  • Like No Other by Una LaMarche – While there has been some discussion of the problematic portrayal of Hasidic Judaism in this book, I thought that Devorah’s emotional experience struggling with her faith and strict religious community was beautifully written.  I think that is an important story to tell, and I saw this story as a way of sharing parts of my own.
  • Starbird Murphy and the World Outside by Karen Finneyfrock – Starbird’s situation in this book is even more different from mine than the previous two on this list–she lives in a cult–but, again, it is the emotional experience that resonated with me.  When she leaves her home and interacts with the Outside for the first time, she learns that Outsiders are not all bad and that her ideas about the world might not be completely accurate.  This is, perhaps, one of my favorite de-conversion stories that I’ve read for its grace in capturing a nuanced experience.
  • Eden West by Pete Hautman – While I’m on the subject of cults*, I’ll throw this book into the discussion even though it won’t be published until April.  There are already too many cults in teen fiction, but I’ll allow this one.  Yes, the cult has some weird beliefs, but Hautman lets his character figure it out slowly and reluctantly.  No matter how weird one’s beliefs are, the process of leaving them is slow and reluctant.  Too many teen novels don’t get that.  This one does.  Watch for it.

A few other titles that make the list: A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life by Dana Reinhardt (atheism/agnosticism & Orthodox Judaism), Devoted by Jennifer Mathieu (Quiverful Christianity; Publishes in June 2015), A World Away by Nancy Grossman (Amish). On the nonfiction shelves: Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson or Rapture Practice by Aaron Hartzler.  I have a running list going on my book list wiki.

None of these books is an exact match to my experience of religion or of separating from it, but each of them offers some glimpse into the world of making your own way in the world that is different from the way you were raised (or considering the possibility of doing that).  That is not an easy thing to do, and it is not easy to capture.  I am looking forward to the continued discussion on TLT, and I applaud them for taking up a topic that people often avoid discussing in mixed company.

Curious about my current religious identity? I shared that story here.

* When you are part of a minority group that isn’t often reflected in fiction, you tend to find similarities where you can.  There is an emotional resonance for me with these stories about cults because they are also a minority belief group. My discussion of these books should not constitute a commentary on religion in general or in specific.

A new look at the end of the world (or, another #YAlittrend)

“In the Bible, the end of the world went on for a whole book.  But the real and of the world, Aiden knew, would never be more than a paragraph or two. The real end of the world would just be small things piled up.” —Son of Fortune by Victoria McKernan

YA lit has explored all sorts of ways the world might end or change drastically in various post-apocalyptic and dystopian novels that have been popular in recent years.  The book I quote above isn’t about the end of the world at all, but I thought the quote was interesting since I’ve read several teen novels this year, including a few that will publish in the year ahead) that take on the Biblical end of the world in various ways.  The trendwatcher in me has been taking note of these:

  • vivianThis Side of Salvation by Jeri Smith-Ready explores the rapture and religious fundamentalism.  I liked the story and the suspense, and I think that the message that religious extremism should be avoided will certainly resonate with a lot of young readers looking for a middle ground.
  • Vivian Apple at the End of the World by Katie Coyle has a more satirical edge to it that I liked.  It’s basically a road trip novel with social commentary thrown in for good measure.  Not to mention a post-apocalyptic style world. (Pubs January 2015)
  • No Parking at the End Times by Bryan Bliss turns this trend on its head. This book takes place after the predicted End did not happen.  The family who banked their future on the prophecy is now homeless and navigating the challenges of the same old world. (Pubs March 2015)
  • Eden West by Pete Hautman is less about the actual end of the world and more about how it feels to live with the End hanging over you.  As someone raised in a non-mainstream religion with a similar focus on an End that could happen at any moment, I related to the story of being torn between the present and the possible future.  (Pubs April 2015)

I admit that my religious history might have me seeking out books like this out of personal interest, but it feels like a trend to me.  Or maybe it’s just the usual interest in non-mainstream religion (See also: Like No Other by Una LaMarche and Starbird Murphy and the World Outside by Karen Finneyfrock) that has always been a part of teen fiction.  Either way, I’m watching it.

See my previous discussions of trends in teen fiction here and here.

More trends in teen fiction

I have a few more #YAlittrends to add to the conversation started on Twitter months ago.  I added a few of my insights in this post, and here’s what I’m seeing in 2014 and ahead to 2015:

  • doubtfactGenre-blending – Is it magical realism or realistic fantasy?  Whatever you want to call it, it doesn’t fit neatly into one category like we are used to.  Some of the more interesting genre-blenders I’ve read recently: The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton, There Will be Lies by Nick Lake, and Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future by A.S. King.
  • Distortion of Truth – This could be lumped in with the Secrets & Lies category I identified in my previous trend post, but I wonder if we’ll see more books focus on the media like The Doubt Factory by Paolo Bacigalupi and How it Went Down by Kekla Magoon.  I think that teens are thinking about and paying attention to issues like the ones addressed in these books.
  • Verse – Novels in verse aren’t new (and there are lots of terrible ones out there), but I’ve read some particularly excellent or interesting verse novels this year.  The Crossover by Kwame Alexander is one that comes to mind as a standout, but I might also mention A Time to Dance, which I blogged about here, and The Red Pencil.
  • chanceyouThe Effects of Mental Illness – These books aren’t always the easiest books to read, but I’m glad that they exist.  The Chance You Won’t Return by Annie Cardi is a powerful look at one family dealing with a mental break.  All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven is a heart-wrenching story of suicide and bipolar disorder.  Whether it is about friends or family, the reality is that mental illness isn’t just about the people with the disease.  Also: Courage for Beginners by Karen Harrington and The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson.

Any other teen fiction readers seeing trends?  Use the #YAlittrends hashtag on Twitter or share here in the comments.

 

The difference a prosthetic can make

I am well aware that if I had been born in a different time or place my life would not be what it is.  I might point to my eyeglasses and reference my very poor unassisted vision as one way my life would have been quite different if I’d been born a few hundred years ago.  But I think that my prosthetic arm is the more obvious tie to the modern era that I rely on regularly.

I might argue that I can’t go without my glasses for more than a few minutes, and I can go without my fake arm for days if necessary, but the truth is that I don’t want to go without either.  There are plenty of one armed people who don’t use prosthetics– and most insurance companies will consider them cosmetic–but I can’t imagine my life without mine.

IMG_0140.JPGI wish I had a cool story like the girl in A Time to Dance who was able to live her dream of pursuing a career in dance even after losing her foot because of her prosthetic leg.  Yes, it’s fiction (teen fiction, to be specific), but there’s a real precedent there.  For Veda in the story, it is obvious how having a prosthetic leg changed her life.  It opened her to opportunities that were otherwise closed.  Sometimes I can forget that that’s possible.

My prosthesis is neither here nor there in my dreams, which revolve around books, libraries, and writing.  My story is nowhere near as dramatic as the usual inspirational novel.  And the truth is that if I’d never had a prosthetic arm, my life may very well be basically the same.

I have no idea what I would do with my hair without my prosthetic arm, but I’m sure I would have figured out something.

The real story is this: I have had my prosthetic arm since before I can remember.  It has always been a part of me.  I am not sure how much it has changed my life to have had it.  It simply is my life.  I could probably live without it if I had to, but I really don’t want to.  It does make my life much easier, and I definitely need it to put my hair in a pony tail.

My story isn’t an inspirational novel.  My story is set in a world where I haven’t had to consider “Ugly Laws” or other limitations.  I live after the Americans with Disabilities Act made accommodations available to those who needed them, and I’ve never need any anyway.  I was able to pursue whatever career I wanted, and I never had to worry if I would be barred from anything because of what I lacked.

I am very grateful that I live here and now. But even in the here and now, prosthetics are prohibitively expensive for many.

When I read stories like A Time to Dance, I am reminded of how powerful access to prosthetics can be, how it can truly change people’s lives.  I’ll never know how my life would be different without my prosthetic arm, if at all, but I am extremely grateful that my parents made it happen for me.  I would love to give someone else a chance to experience what prosthetics can do.  Perhaps it will be integral to their dream.  Or maybe it will be integral to their sense of identity.  Either way, I think it’s a worthy cause.

Consider a donation to the charity that made my prosthetic arms possible: Shriner’s Hospital for Children Twin Cities.  Or explore other options for limb deficient people who find that their insurance does not cover prosthetic devices or their repair such as Limbs for Life.

 

Note: This is not a sponsored post, and the book was a library copy.