Archives for category: Young Adult Fiction

Kara Newhouse has roamed the world and feels most at home among children’s books.

There aren’t many things I remember from “family and consumer sciences” classes in middle school. Topics like financial planning and family budgeting didn’t seem relevant to my life, and the dry manner in which such subjects were taught did nothing to entice me. One day in child development class has stuck in my memory, though. We were learning about teenage pregnancy. After watching a video about a teenage mom whose boyfriend left after the baby was born, our teacher began talking to us from the assumption that, in the majority of teen pregnancies, fathers don’t take responsibility. A classmate of mine spoke out in anger about the assumption — her brother was 18 and taking primary care of his 2-year-old daughter. Our teacher called the brother an exception to the rule, which only made my classmate angrier and disinvested in anything the teacher had to say on the topic.

Perhaps that family and consumer sciences teacher could use a little perspective from the world of young adult fiction. Specifically, from the book Boys Don’t Cry by Malorie Blackman. Published in 2010, this novel is written in the voice of Dante, a 17-year-old whose future plans are set dramatically off course by the revelation of fatherhood. Just months before he’s supposed to head to university, Dante’s ex-girlfriend, who left school a year prior, shows up at his door with a baby. She tells Dante that he’s the father and then she does a runner. (Blackman is a British author and hence the book is full of British lingo like “does a runner,” which sounds a bit nicer than “ditches her daughter in Dante’s living room.”)

A book written by a woman author from the perspective of a teenage boy, addressing an issue typically associated with teenage girls, Boys Don’t Cry is chock full of gender threads to discuss. The fact that Dante’s younger brother, Adam, is gay plays an important role in the plot as well. What the book really centers on is emotions and how the characters express, or don’t express their feelings. When Dante learns that he has a child, he goes through a convincing gamut of emotions, tied up with physical reactions ranging from horrible stomach knots to impulses to run far and fast. Mostly he feels scared and alone, not knowing how to care for an infant. When his father insists that Dante actually hold his daughter, he thinks,

Did he think I’d hold it in my arms and suddenly realize just how much I loved it? Well, I didn’t. I felt nothing. And that, more than anything else, scared the hell out of me the most.

But Dante isn’t actually alone. From the moment he finds out he is a grandfather, Dante’s dad, despite calling his son bloody stupid, kicks into high gear, guiding and demanding Dante in how to be a responsible single father. And he would know— since Dante’s mother died when Dante and Adam were small children.

Thus it happens that besides being about a teen dad, this novel focuses on an all-male, emotionally-stifled household into which a baby girl is dropped. It’s a fairly predictable trajectory, then, that by falling in love with and focusing on Emma, the boys and men of the house learn to share their feelings with each other and communicate about their relationships. A family that lost its mother misses out on the ability to be sensitive and expressive until a gal of another generation comes along! Prodding from a pushy aunt helps the process.

So I had to wonder, would this trajectory work if Dante’s baby were a boy? In the overall idea, perhaps, but it’s surprising for me to realize how, even at age one, I would imagine the character’s ways of relating to the other characters differ based on gender. Of course Dante and his family would love his child if it were male, but could a baby boy be written with the same sort of emotion-prompting charm with which Blackman endowed Emma? It’s possible, but it may make the story seem as if it were trying too hard.

Because the tricky thing about gendered behaviors is that — even though it’s eye-opening to understand them as the results of socialization and expectation — people really carry them out. While I don’t think it’s the only way boys and men can or do exist in the world, the stubbornly critical and secretly loving relationship between Dante and his father is a fair representation of the ways many men I know interact. Changing those relationships may take more than hanging out with babies and ladies, but it’s still fun to read about Dante and his family trying to figure it out.

Which makes me curious about what other books are out there offering stereotype-breaking models to young male readers. (Did I mention the title-worthy line that Dante says to his brother in one of the final chapters? “Boys don’t cry, but real men do.”) Maybe it’s not just my middle school FCS teacher who should read Boys Don’t Cry. What if, for instance YA fiction were used as curriculum material for learning about topics like teen pregnancy? Reading this novel certainly would’ve been more relatable to me than dull birth statistics, and perhaps less angering for my classmate. It would also have the potential to broaden teenage boys’ ideas about how to respond to their feelings and relate to others.

[Every Tuesday, Canonball revisits a Young Adult Fiction classic. Previously we featured Walk Two Moons, The Giver and The Westing Game. As always, email us if you’d like to contribute a piece.]

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Miriam Callahan can’t wait to watch the Eurovision Song Contest. She is also working on a monograph, tentatively entitled “Toward a Feminist Theory of Flower Arranging.”

I bought Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game out of the Scholastic book order catalog in first grade. I thought I was hot shit, ordering out of Arrow instead of SeeSaw, but when the book arrived I discovered it was way over my head. It wasn’t until fourth grade when I came to really appreciate how great Ellen Raskin’s writing was, and how rare it was to find a YA mystery book that didn’t treat the reader like a total idiot (I’m looking at you, Encyclopedia Brown). I’ve reread The Westing Game every year since then, more or less, and not just as an exercise in nostalgia, either — The Westing Game rewards rereaders, especially adult ones, with its complex and fascinating themes.

On the surface, The Westing Game is a classic whodunit in the vein of Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie. Instead of the 16 suspects being thrown together in an English manor house or on the Orient Express, they all live in Sunset Towers, a brand-new apartment building on the shore of Lake Michigan. They’re also all potential heirs to paper-products tycoon Sam Westing’s immense fortune. Whoever discovers the mystery of Westing’s death will win the whole inheritance.

Even more than a mystery story, however, The Westing Game feels like an American myth. Patriotic motifs abound — there are fireworks, an Uncle Sam costume, and a pair of crutches painted like the American flag. There’s also a Gatsby-esque tale of reinvention: rich old Samuel Westing used to be poor Windy Windkloppel, the son of immigrants, before he recast himself as a shrewd and ruthless businessman.

Even the game at the center of the novel has an explicitly American sense of meritocracy. All the characters — from the doctors and the appellate court judge to the cleaning lady and the woman who doesn’t speak English — have an equal chance to win, because differences of class, race, gender, physical ability, etc. don’t matter in the novel’s universe. Whoever is smart enough to figure out the clues (and they are tough! No boring/obvious Scooby Doo-type nonsense here) will win Westing’s millions.

As a fourth-grader, I was surprised at how easy it was to keep track of which character was which. But I didn’t think about how difficult it must have been to write 16 diverse and memorable characters in under 200 pages. Stereotypes about obvious differences in background and appearance are a potent form of shorthand, and it would have been easy to for Raskin to rely on them. Especially with a cast including eight women, five characters under 20 years old, six over 50, one African-American, three Asian-Americans, one character confined to a wheelchair, and one recovering alcoholic.

But Raskin instead created full, complex portraits of her characters by illustrating their interests, personalities, and imperfections in short but distinct strokes. (Indeed, Raskin started her career as an illustrator of children’s books.) For example, take the Wexler family. Tabitha-Ruth (aka Turtle) is an eighth-grade girl who breaks with gender norms, in addition to displaying a disturbing level of precocity, by playing the stock market and reading the Wall Street Journal. But she is also immature, arguing with her mother and ruthlessly kicking the shins of anyone who messes with her hair.

Turtle’s older sister Angela is beautiful, obedient, and engaged to marry a promising young doctor, but she feels trapped by everyone’s expectations of her and eventually lashes out in a surprising way (I refuse to spoil it for those who haven’t read the book — it’s just too good). Their mother, Grace Windsor Wexler, is introduced as a vain, shallow social climber, but eventually finds success and happiness as a business owner. And her husband Jake, a laid-back podiatrist and bookie, is the only person in Sunset Towers who takes the time to teach English to Madam Hoo, who speaks only Chinese.

Which brings me to the final and (to my mind) the most American element of the book. Sunset Towers is a kind of melting pot writ small, where people of Chinese, Greek, Polish, Jewish, German, and African-American descent form a community. Rereading the book last week, I noticed for the first time how the characters’ attitudes toward each other evolve from competition and mutual distrust toward camaraderie and mutual reliance. At the initial reading of the will, the characters warily size each other up, wondering which one of them could have murdered Sam Westing. At a wedding close to the end of the book, they enjoy each other’s company long after clues and heirs become irrelevant.

Reading the wedding scene, it occurred to me that any American myth has to have a fantastical element. Sadly, in a world where people in some identity groups have privileges that others don’t, Ellen Raskin’s egalitarian vision of 16 very different people learning to live together and respect each other is still very much a fantasy. But the prospect of escaping into that world, if only for a little while, will bring me back to The Westing Game again someday soon.

P.S. If you happen to be interested in writing a YA novel, you can read excerpts from The Westing Game’s manuscript and a listen to a lecture by Ellen Raskin online at the University of Wisconsin’s Cooperative Children’s Book Center.

[Every Tuesday, Canonball revisits a Young Adult Fiction classic. Previously we featured: Walk Two Moons and The Giver. As always, email us if you’d like to contribute a piece.]

Laura Zeugner lives in Allston, writes poorly and wishes she had used the pun “Young Adult Friction” more in this post.

Like most Young Adult readers, I was introduced to Lois Lowry via Number The Stars, an “edgy” book about a young Christian girl’s experience with the Holocaust in Denmark. I remember being completely obsessed with this book, along with every other YA Holocaust book. And then I realized that what I enjoyed about these books was not the genocide, but the dystopian-esque survival stories they all revolved around, and my mother recommended The Giver (yeah, before it was even on my summer reading list, because I was gifted – puns!).

Before I delve into an attack of the role of women in The Giver, let me tell you about Lowry. Because I know about Lois Lowry. You are talking to someone who not only met Lowry, but who cried in front of her and BOUGHT a copy of her autobiography (like $40 bucks!) just so she could sign something.

Like many other world leaders (okay, one) Lowry was born in Hawaii. She went on to do stuff, and fast-forward to her first novel: A Summer To Die. This is a seriously weird book – talk about not cool for women! The two main characters are sisters, one of whom is jealous of the other’s blond ringlets and then is made to feel horrible about that because blondie – spoiler alert – gets leukemia. (I know what you’re thinking: you’re thinking that Nicholas Sparks wrote this, but he didn’t, he couldn’t have, because he was only 10 in 1977, when this book was written.) Also there is such a long scene in which the jealous sister takes pictures of a live birth, which I guess could be kind of progressive but instead it’s just super awkward.

Lowry also wrote about one billion books in the Anastasia Krupnik series. I didn’t read those. Wikipedia claims she is the greatest female YA protagonist besides Harriet The Spy, but I cannot vouch for this. [Ed. note: I can and will vouch for this, especially as an Anastasia book was the first time I saw a swear word in Literature.]

In case you missed your entire childhood, here is a brief summary of The Giver: Jonas is an 11-year-old boy who lives in a weird futuristic/dystopian society in which literally everything is controlled in order to eliminate suffering of any kind. Upon turning 12, he is assigned (as all 12-year-olds are assigned their profession in this society) the role of “Receiver,” an usual job, because he demonstrates exceptionalism. He can see color, for example, while everyone else cannot. As Receiver, Jonas meets with an old guy named “The Giver,” who transfers memories into Jonas’ brain of a time before this society existed. Jonas is given memories of both happiness and pain (also things like animals and love, which don’t exist in the society) and is exposed to the reality of his community.

The Giver has only about three female characters who play a significant role. They are Jonas’s mother, his sister Lily and a girl in his age group named Fiona. I always identified with Fiona because her red hair is one of the first things Jonas sees, and because she loves to give elderly people baths. But, looking back, Fiona kind of sucks. She’s quiet and accepts everything around her without question, even when she is told to kill (“release”) her elderly patients (she is given the role of Caretaker, looking after old people – what an empowering role for ladies!). She also dismisses Jonas as a nutter early on. Jonas’s mother and sister, who are portrayed as more rowdy than Fiona, are equally dismissive of Jonas, lack imagination and repeatedly enforce the rules. Isn’t that soo like us girls? Always with our rules, so boring, holding dudes back from their true, awesome dudely potential.

My main argument against the The Giver as female-friendly YA fiction, though, lies in the Receiver before Jonas, who was female. Rosemary, who was selected like Jonas to become the Receiver of memory at age 12, ultimately replaced The Giver (who’s getting up there in age). However, Rosemary suffered a nervous breakdown after receiving memories of pain and sadness from The Giver and is implied to have committed suicide by throwing herself into a raging river. The Giver remembers Rosemary fondly, but claims that she wasn’t strong enough to receive memories and he should have chosen someone else. Just a coincidence that the weak, emotional character who kills herself in a dramatic, Victorian way is a woman? Once again the person who lets her society down and isn’t strong enough to be a leader is a female. Perhaps if there were other strong ladies in this book it might make up for the fact that Rosemary is so clearly weak. Instead we are left viewing her as the clear opposite of Jonas, who can Take It All.

There is not a single forward-thinking, imaginative, or strong female character in this book, while Jonas is all of these things. He’s not a perfect protagonist, for sure, but compared to these ladies, he’s Hercules. He is clearly contrasted to a lesser female character, and constantly negged (but not in the good, Pick-up Artist way) by the women around him.

In case you thought the sequel would be different, I’m here to tell you, no. There are two follow-up books to The Giver, called Gathering Blue and The Messenger, respectively, which I won’t go into except to say that neither portrays women in a great way either. As a Lowry lover and as a WOMAN, I had hoped to go back to my favorite YA book and find a long list of strong female characters. But so far The Giver has really let me down.

[Every Tuesday, Canonball revisits a Young Adult Fiction classic. Previously we featured: Walk Two Moons. As always, email us if you’d like to contribute a piece.]

[Editors’ note: Today we’re very excited to launch a new weekly feature: Young Adult Fiction Tuesday. Check back each week for a different writer viewing a YA classic through a feminist lens, and get in touch with us if you’d like to write a piece too. Tuesdays just got slightly more bearable.]

Katrina Brown is a graduate student who proudly reads more YA lit than any other kind of fiction.

Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech was one of those books my sister and I both read over and over and over when we were younger. I don’t have memories of what the book meant to me specifically at the time or why I was so deeply drawn to it. All I can say is that my copy of the book is pretty beat up, and the book itself fills me with warm fuzzies when I think of it.

The book is a story narrated by Salamanca Tree Hiddle, a 13 year-old girl from Bybanks, Kentucky who moves with her father to Euclid, Ohio about a year before she begins her narration. In short, Walk Two Moons is Sal’s retrospective look at the past years of her life that she undertakes for the purpose of making sense of the life-shaking loss of her mother. Much of her emotional process happens through a story she tells of her friend Phoebe Winterbottom while she is on a cross-country road trip to Idaho with her grandparents to visit the grave of her mother for the first time. The emotional depth of Sal’s narration is striking in both its simplicity and its accessibility. Sal’s honest grappling with feelings of denial, anger, frustration, loss, grief, betrayal, and the real physical ways that her life has changed since her mother left is powerful and moving, while being captivatingly adolescent and remaining intimately relatable. It is no surprise that this book won a number of awards, including the 1995 ALA Newbery Medal.

The theme of mothers and daughters and their relationships was what jumped off the pages to me most as I read the book this time around. The two main mothers in this book – Sal’s mother and Phoebe Winterbottom’s mother – are both women who struggle deeply with what it means to be a wife and mother. Their characters look to find where their actual selves fit in with the roles they have been given or taken upon themselves in their families. Both of these mothers end up leaving to find themselves and figure themselves out. Both of their daughters are left in the lurch in the meantime, struggling with the pain and betrayal of that absence and are forced to face their own feelings and questions of where they fit in their mother’s experiences and hearts.

Two things are clear in this story: it is damn hard to be a mother and a daughter, but both are also deeply profound.

Creech does a spectacular job in her writing to communicate the emotional experiences of both these generations of women without casting a light of judgment on anyone’s feelings or desires. She shows the complexity of self in relation to others in a world where expectations of what mothers and daughters should be and how family should look is a constant niggling pressure that permeates day to day life. No one ends up feeling good or winning the day, the story seems to say, when who we actually are gets buried in the details of the idea of roles we are often asked to play as women.

Some of this is shown in Sal’s observance of Phoebe’s family, where she is a daily presence during the time when Phoebe’s mother decides to leave the family for a bit:

Before I left Phoebe’s that day, Mrs. Winterbottom handed Prudence her brown skirt with the newly sewn hem, and all the way home I wondered what she meant about living a tiny life. If she didn’t like all that baking and cleaning and jumping up to get nail polish remover and sewing hems, why did she do it? Why didn’t she tell them to do some of these things themselves? Maybe she was afraid there would be nothing left for her to do. There would be no need for her and she would become invisible and no one would notice. (pg 89)

And other bits of this comes through in Sal’s memories of her own mother Chanhassen, and the events and conversations that led up to her leaving the family:

When she said she was going all the way to Lewiston, Idaho, on a bus, my father and I were astonished. I could not imagine why she had chosen Idaho. I thought perhaps she had opened an atlas and pointed a finger at any old spot, but later I learned that she had a cousin in Lewiston, Idaho. “I haven’t seen her for fifteen years,” my mother said, “and that’s good because she’ll tell me what I’m really like.”

“I could tell you that, sugar,” my father said.

“No, I mean before I was a wife and a mother. I mean underneath, where I am Chanhassen.”’  (pg 143)

Along the way, Sal comes to understand her mother as a being separate from herself, and that understanding is where she finds the first bit of peace and resolution within herself regarding her mother’s departure and death:

For the first time it occurred to me that maybe my mother’s leaving had nothing whatsoever to do with me. It was separate and apart. We couldn’t own our mothers. (pg 176)

When I step back and think about mothers and women and society and roles and all of the things that remain so often unspoken about these things outside of feminist circles, this book seems to me all the more profound and powerful. In this book, women of all ages voice and follow their feelings and subsequently make changes in their lives for the purpose of self-discovery, to break out of the prescribed role of “daughter” or “mother” in attempts to reclaim their selves. There are many shades of pain and joy, hurt and healing woven through this book. It is a rocky road that the women in Walk Two Moons travel, but a beautiful one that allows them to love, respect, and appreciate each other that much more at the end of the day. The profundity of this lesson that Creech leaves us in the stories of the mothers and daughters in this book is one that is so very worth learning.