Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Possible Printz award winners?

The library community eagerly awaits the upcoming announcement of the winners of various Youth Media Awards at the Mid-Winter convention of the American Library Association, held this year in San Diego January 7-11.  On January 10, authors and readers alike will gather for the awards presentation.  Of the sixteen different categories recognized, fans of young adult literature will pay particular interest to the results for the Michael Printz award: the national award that recognizes excellence in young adult literature. Although a complete list of nominees for this award is not publicly available, the following titles have garnered enough attention and positive reviews to be considered possible winners for the prestigious Printz.  Will one of these new YA fiction novels receive this year’s award?

Restoring Harmony by Joelle Anthony.

Another entry in the popular YA genre of dystopian literature, this novel opens in the year 2041, ten years after the Great Collapse of 2031. The world’s oil is depleted, and the border between Canada and the USA no longer open, but heroine Molly McClure must get to Washington to check on her grandparents and bring them “home.” The strong female character - resourceful and courageous -- makes this a great pick for teenage girls.

Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi.

Again, this novel is set in a post-oil world, where the few rich sail on enormous hydrofoil ships, and the many poor scavenge old ships and buildings for whatever they can sell. Nailer is a light crew scavenger tearing up old hulks of ships, living day to day, until a rich girl and her gleaming ship run ashore in a storm on the beach and his life gets more dangerous. Both this and the previous novel address our world's dependence on oil, and the possible future repercussions of that. No matter how adults feel about this issue, there is no denying that it is an important one for teens.

Star Crossed by Elizabeth C. Bunce .  

By 2010 William A Morris YA Debut award-winner Elizabeth Bunce comes a novel in the tradition of high fantasy. In a glamorous castle full of Llyvraneth's elite, Celyn Contrare serves as a lady-in-waiting to shy young Merista Nemair. Her days are spent dressing in velvet, attending Lady Merista, navigating court gossip, and charming noblemen over lavish feasts. And at night, she picks locks, steals jewels, forges documents, and collects secrets. Because Celyn isn't really a lady-in-waiting; she's not even really Celyn Contrare.  She’s Digger, a thief on the run from the King’s Inquisition.  Bunce won the Morris award for A Curse Dark as Gold, her version of the Rumplestiltskin fairy tale -- an excellent retelling.

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins. 

Few other YA series have generated as much attention in recent years as Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy.  In this third and final installment of the riveting series, Katniss becomes the symbol for the rebellion against the capitol. Although she is focused on assassinating the president, she fights personal turmoil in her feelings for Gale and Peeta, and in her role in the revolution. I've already blogged about this entire trilogy; though it's not typical for a third installment in any series to win awards, any mention of excellence in YA literature should include Collins' work.

Revolution by Jennifer Donnelley. 

Haunted by the death of her brother, Andi is taken to Paris by her estranged father where an encounter with a mysterious diary may bring her back from the edge. Author Jennifer Donnelley won a Printz honor in 2003 for her debut novel, A Northern Light; in Revolution, she artfully weaves the stories of two girls and two centuries in another potentially  award-winning historic fiction novel. I have not yet read Revolution; however, Donnelley's characterizations in A Northern Light were masterful, and I look forward to this second novel.

Incarceron by Catherine Fisher. 

Trapped in the massive prison world of Incarceron, Finn searches for his true identity; outside, Claudia searches for the truth about Incarceron and its warden, her father. Then Finn finds a crystal key that allows him to communicate with Claudia.  Finn is determined to escape the prison, and Claudia believes she can help him. But they don't realize that there is more to Incarceron than meets the eye. Escape will take their greatest courage and cost more than they know. If this story about a prison that actually lives and watches people isn't creepy, I don't know what is!

Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta. 

Marchetta won the 2009 Printz award for Jellicoe Road, her tightly-woven novel about three groups of teenagers growing up in Australia. She now attempts a different genre in this fantasy. Finnikin and his fellow exiles from Lumatere wish to return to their cursed homeland. Finnikin must go on an epic journey with a mute novice named Evanjalin to return home.

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver.

Sam’s seemingly perfect life has ended in a terrible crash. But, it turns out she has to relive the last day of her life seven times to get it right. As Samantha lives through multiple Fridays, desperate to prevent her death, she is struck by how even the most insignificant acts, like running late for school instead of being on time, can change everything. Suddenly she is noticing uncomfortable things about her friends, about herself she has never noticed before. In the tradition of Jay Asher's Thirteen Reasons Why,  this novel stimulates readers to think about the way they treat others, and the potential impacts of their actions.

The Cardturner by Louis Sachar. 

By the author of the immensely popular Young Adult novels Holes and Small Steps comes another winner. In this novel we meet a boy named Alton, who has just been dumped by his girlfriend and faces a summer of boredom. His pushy mother, however, has other ideas, and finds him an unusual summer job -- turning cards at bridge games for his blind great-uncle Trapp. Alton ends up learning much more than how to play bridge as a result. This novel won the approval of my second daughter, who prefers "boy books" to the more girly dramas; and you really can't go wrong with Louis Sachar.
Grace by Elizabeth Scott.
In yet another dystopian novel, the heroine, Grace, lives in a war-torn society where two sides fight for equally extremist causes. Grace has been raised to be an Angel of Death, a suicide bomber for her father’s cause. Yet, when the time comes for Grace to complete her mission, she finds herself questioning everything she has been taught. Compelling, thought-provoking, very short novel for our times.
The Last Summer of the Death Warriors by Francisco X. Stork.
Though the police say that his sister, Rosa, died of natural causes, 17-year-old Pancho Sanchez is convinced she was murdered, and he is looking to exact revenge. With no surviving family, Pancho is placed in an orphanage in Las Cruces, where he meets D.Q., a boy who is dying from a rare form of brain cancer. D.Q. is not just determined to find a cure, he's also equally set on training Pancho to become what he calls a Death Warrior. Together, the unlikely companions embark on a quest to Albuquerque, and though they travel for their own reasons, once arrived, each will have to come to terms with what it might actually mean to be a Death Warrior.  Stork has won a previous ALA Youth Media award, the 2010 Schneider Family Book Award, for his first novel, Marcelo in the Real World,  an engrossing exploration of a 17-year-old boy's struggles with Asperger's syndrome.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Getting Graphic

When I was younger, I passed many hours reading comic books, such as "Archie" and "Richie Rich" -- remember those?  These comics weren't considered "real" reading, however, and our collection of them was relegated to a box in the basement.  Bookshelves were reserved for "real" books, or for my dad's impressive collection of National Geographic magazine.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I started working at a public library and discovered an entire rack of our young adult department shelving devoted to graphic novels -- what I mistakenly first called "comic books."
Though I'd worked with teens and literature for most of my adult life, I'd never thought of these illustrated stories as anything more than light reading, impulse buys in the grocery store checkout line.

To be more clear, there is a difference between "comic books" -- such as the traditional Archie and Jughead titles -- and "graphic novels."  Comic books tend to be short, sometimes interconnected stories about a certain cast of characters.  Graphic novels are longer, more involved works with recognizable plot developments, thus earning the title of "novel." Although some of the more familiar characters may have originated in a traditional comic book series, they are presented with much more complexity in graphic novels. Nonetheless, I was skeptical when I first began working in the public library, and have rarely picked up a graphic novel to review.

Recently, however, a trend in the graphic novel publishing industry has me intrigued about the possibilities of this genre for parents and educators.  Certainly there are still ample titles featuring Superman, Batman, the Marvel characters, etcetera.  In addition to these, though, there has been a noticeable rise in the number of "classic" works of literature being re-published in graphic novel form. Titles like Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, Bram Stoker's Dracula, and multiple plays by William Shakespeare can now be read in pane-by-pane illustrations, complete with speech bubbles.

Scoff if you must, but consider that many of these "classics" pose an almost insurmountable obstacle for reluctant or struggling readers.  Have you ever opened a copy of Dracula and looked at the tiny print? Now try to understand the nineteenth-century English usage.  And Shakespeare's plays, with their Old English vocabulary and turns of phrase, have turned off more students than potentially any other works of literature. Consider that an illustrated version of these great stories may present an entry point for readers who simply cannot understand them any other way.

Today, I had an opportunity to review a graphic novel version of Homer's Odyssey.  In my years as an English teacher, the Odyssey was a core work for my Fantasy and Mythology class, and I struggled with ways to help my students understand it.  Usually, I would end up reading through the ancient poem aloud, stopping each little way to explain to my class exactly what was happening in the story. Without my help, very few of my students grasped the central concepts or plot line of the epic. 

How different that experience might have been if I had been able to use Gareth Hind's illustrated version of the classic.  Of course I would still have expected my students to read a recognized translation; Hind's abridged version leaves out some of the story, and his modernized language does lose some of the poeticism of the original.  However, to see the illustrated events of each Book of the Odyssey before reading, or to get the "gist" of the story in more modern usage before delving into the archaic language of older translations would have made such a difference in both my students' comprehension, and their engagement with the literature.

Graphic novel versions of classic literature are not a substitute for the actual works, and I don't present them here as such. Instead, they are useful pre-reading or companion reading tools:  they engage those students who exhibit visual intelligence, and they offer a framework for longer, more complex stories by condensing the plot and simplifying the language.  If you are a parent who has a child struggling to read a "classic" -- you'll find an abundance of them on high school required reading lists -- consider visiting your library to see if the title has been published in an illustrated form. If you are a teacher using the classics in your class, perhaps presenting a graphic novel version as a help, not a substitute, will ensure more success with your lessons. 

When it comes to literacy, and to reaching reluctant or struggling readers, we really can't afford to scoff at any potential reading tool.

Monday, November 8, 2010

For-Fun Historical Fantasy

I haven't blogged for several weeks, having been so busy with work and family commitments that I just haven't had time to write much.  I've been reading, though: professional journals, up-and-coming young adult novels, some nonfiction works by writers I know.  Most of what I've read has been rather serious, complicated work.  That's why I welcomed the mid-October release of Halt's Peril, book 9 of John Flanagan's Ranger's Apprentice series.

It's rare that I read more than one book in a young adult series; only those that are particularly well-written, and innovative enough to hold my sustained attention, will earn a re-visit.  Usually it's enough to read the first book of the series: from that point, most librarians will tell you, we can get the feel of the characters, events, and tone of the series.

Flanagan, however, along with a few others, have earned repeat visits.  For me, the lure of the Ranger's Apprentice series is the pure fun of it.  Flanagan has created a fantasy world set in medieval Europe:  instead of writing accurate historic fiction, he's instead taken actual places, events, and peoples, then played with them.  In the first book of the series, Ruins of Gorlan, we met Will, a young man about to turn 15.  At this point in his life, he will be apprenticed to a trade, and he has his heart set on apprenticing to the soldier school, in order to serve and protect his beloved kingdom of Araluen.  Unfortunately for Will, he is small for his age, and not brawny enough to be selected as a soldier-in-training.  Instead, he is chosen by Halt, the Ranger that serves Castle Redmond, where Will has lived since being orphaned as a young boy.  Will doesn't want to serve as a Ranger: for one thing, he doesn't understand their work; for another, the residents of the kingdom seem to fear the Rangers' skills, thinking they possess some sort of magic.

Of course, Will finds out that being a Ranger is a great honor: the Rangers are akin to the Secret Service of the kingdom, and his natural skills and talents fit well with the job requirements.  He becomes a master at tracking, hiding, archery, and knife-throwing.  His adventures take him from the hills and forests of Araluen, to the snowy, icy terrain of Skandia, to the shores of Hibernia.  Of course, these are all real places -- England, Scandanavia, Ireland -- and a great deal of the fun for me, as a history buff, is decoding which peoples and places Flanagan is writing about.  His writing team has even designed great curriculum guides to accompany some of the titles; a great resource for teaching history, though this type of historical fantasy is not the typical genre for such lessons. Homeschooling parents might be particularly attracted to this somewhat unconventional education.

From what I've researched, Flanagan, who writes from Australia, will be continuing Will's adventures for at least a few more books.  Personally, I can't wait to give the set of books to my son, who is now 9, just a little too young for the reading level.  I'd recommend these books for a 7th or 8th grade reader, especially outdoors-y kids who will enjoy the hunting/tracking/survival aspect of the adventures.  (Advanced 5th or 6th graders will be able to handle the story line, although they may need some help with vocabulary.)  The historical aspect of the stories keeps many of my patrons coming back through their early high-school years:  the mark of an excellent young adult series.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Getting Real

"Get real."  This admonition, most effectively done with a trace of sarcasm, was a favorite of the high school teens I was teaching five or six years ago.  Like most teen phrases, this gem served multiple purposes -- as an expression of disbelief, as a put-down, as a snappy comeback.  How it was used depended entirely on the context.

Context determines so much in teen literature.  This weeks is Banned Books Week; during the last week of September, those of us who choose to commemorate banned books are attempting to raise awareness of multiple local, national (and international) efforts to remove certain books from library and school shelves, to prevent access to entire works of literature.  So many of the books that have been challenged in the almost-30-year history of Banned Books week are works of young adult literature.  As a young adult librarian, I take this week pretty seriously, helping to design displays and activities that spotlight these works.  Anyone who works with teens knows that telling them a book has been challenged somewhere in the nation only serves to make them want to read.  For even the most reluctant of readers, a challenged book presents a temptation, even if they only read it to find the one or two pages that usually serve as the basis for the challenge.

It is those one or two pages that become most problematic . . .or the one or two words, or the one or two ideas.  My colleague designed our teen room display this year, and one of the books on it is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.  Just this morning, another lady asked me why that book has been challenged.  There have been several reasons, but the primary one is the prolific use of the word "nigger."  Now, anyone who has actually read the book will know that Huck's use of that word is simply an authentic reflection of how he spoke; indeed, Twain was one of the first American authors to use authentic dialect when writing his characters.  Dialect is just how people really talk; for a mid-nineteenth century, uneducated teenager in the South to use the word "nigger" is no more offensive than for my nine-year-old ranch-raised little boy to use the word "ain't."  It's just real -- just part of the story.  Taken out of context, however, and perceived through our 21st-century eyes, the word becomes offensive.

What about the context of another, more recently challenged book?  There are a few pages in Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian that might make a parent blush while reading.  Those pages, however, have little to do with the story, other than to make the character more authentic, more real.  Those pages have spurred multiple challenges in the last year or so, particularly because the book itself has won so many awards.  Taken in correct context, the problematic episode is little more than an aside, although it would present an opportunity for parent-child discussion of sexuality.  Taken out of context, though, challengers believe the entire books is vulgar and indecent. 

A final example:  There is a classic work of American literature, one of my favorites, that I think all American teenagers need to read:  To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee's masterpiece. Over the years, the challenges to this book -- and there have been many -- have fallen into two categories.  Some challengers take offense at the language in the book; there again, the phrases used are an accurate reflection of the characters who use them, and serve to complete our picture of the characters.  Atticus Finch would not use the phrase "whore lady," or any of the other seemingly offensive terms in the novel; this would be completely out of character.  For other characters to use these phrases is to make them real, to stand them in comparison to Atticus, and to illustrate their youth, their ignorance, or both.

Other challenges to Mockingbird have stemmed from the portrayal of the groups of characters in the novel.  Some challengers claim that the novel portrays African Americans negatively; others complain that Caucasian Americans suffer from a critical characterization.  Both camps are right:  there are negative characterizations of both racial groups.  Taken out of context, of course they could be offensive; but in the context of the novel, these characterizations only serve to drive home the book's major theme.  Black people are portrayed negatively through the eyes of the bigoted characters in the novel; while white characters come off as ignorant bigots only if that is the role of the character.   The characters we remember from the novel -- Tom Robinson, Atticus Finch, Boo Radley, and especially Jem -- stay in our collective memory not because of their bigotry, but because of their courage and compassion in the face of cultural bigotry.  We remember them because they are real, and their stories resonate with us years later.

Teen literature is about what teens are interested in:  relationships, cultures, prejudices, sexuality, the environment, war, drugs, school, gangs and bullying, guns, the supernatural .  . . .pretty much the same things adults are interested in.   Books that address these topics, in a way that feels real and authentic to teens, are the books they read, think about, talk about.  For parents, having a teen that reads is challenging -- because we also need to read these books, to address their entire context, to be prepared to discuss the issues these books raise.  No sugar-coating here; we adults need to "get real."

Friday, September 17, 2010

Music, Myth and Magic

Are you going to Scarborough Fair?  Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme . . .

As I was growing up, this old folk song was simply a pleasant tune to hum, an interesting, haunting melody to play on the piano, out of my older sisters' dog-eared songbooks.

It was, at least, until I read Nancy Werlin's masterful Impossible, an exquisite novel that turns the riddle in an old folk tale into one girl's key to saving her sanity, and her life.

In Impossible, we meet Lucy, a normal seventeen-year-old with a life she's happy with.  She lives with loving foster parents, enjoys her friendships, and has just been asked to the prom. The only dark spot in her life is her mother -- a mentally unstable woman who wanders the streets of Lucy's hometown, occasionally attempting conversation with Lucy.  It's an unusual circumstance, but Lucy possesses the strength to deal with it.  Life, for Lucy, is basically good.

Until the night she is raped.  Afterwards, as the novel turns from realism to fantasy, Lucy is confronted by the evil Elfin King.  He tells her that she is cursed, as have been all the women of the family.  The curse is this:  to become pregnant at age 17, to have a baby, and to immediately go insane.  This is what has happened to Lucy's mother, to Lucy's grandmother, to all the women of her family for generations.  It's what will happen to Lucy in nine months, and if she has a daughter, the curse will continue.

The only way to avoid her destiny, according to the Elfin King, is for Lucy to accomplish each of the impossible tasks described in the lyrics of a very old folk song, Scarborough Fair. Lucy, with the help of her parents and her oldest friend, sets out to somehow defeat the curse, to free herself and all the women of her line from the clutches of the Elfin King.  The creativity and intelligence she displays are breath-taking; I could not put this one down, my brain running through the lyrics as I read, wondering how she would unravel the next piece of the puzzle. 

This is one of my favorite types of fantasy:  a retelling, re-weaving, of a very old tale.  I was a child who read traditional fairy tales, who grew up listening to old songs; for me, a contemporary novel that twists an old legend captivates my imagination in ways that more realistic literature just can't.  I love the retellings of old tales:  recent favorites have included  Wildwood Dancing, based on the legend of the twelve dancing princesses, by Juliet Marillier; Hush, an epic based on an Irish folk tale, by Donna Jo Napoli; and Pay the Piper, a retelling of the Pied Piper of Hamlin, by Jane Yolen.

Besides appealing to teens who have loved fairy tales, these re-tellings of more traditional stories present a powerful reading tool for students who struggle with literature.  By being somewhat familiar with the original story, a reader then has a framework on which to hang the events of the re-told novel.  Comprehension increases because the reader is able to anticipate events and make logical predictions.  Even when the novel version of the tale differs significantly from the original, having that previous experience with the characters and plots can allow the reader to make connections and comparisons between the two versions, thus increasing their engagement.  Any reading teacher will tell you that the extent to which a student is engaged with -- meaning interested in -- a story is the extent to which the reader comprehends.  Besides Marillier, Napoli, Werlin and Yolen, try Cameron Dokey, particularly for young readers.

As for me . . . . well, Werlin just released Extraordinary, her follow-up to Impossible.  It's sitting on my bedside table right now, just waiting for me.  Personally, I'm hoping for a rainy weekend.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Fall & Football

Over the weekend, I finished reading Football Genius by Tim Green.  Admittedly, I am not a huge football fan; I'll watch the Super Bowl if a friend is throwing a good party, and I do attend high school games . . . but mostly to watch the marching band.  So, it was with reluctance - and a sense of professional obligation - that I picked up the novel. The book is one of fifteen nominated for Wyoming's Soaring Eagle youth book award this year, and I do try to read every nominee.

That much being said, the novel ended up being a pleasant Sunday-afternoon read.  The storyline moved along nicely, and I was able to skim through the more tedious (for me) descriptions of the football plays to get back to the actual plot.  The characters were predictable, for a YA novel, but the underlying tension -- a losing football team, a family drama, and even two budding romances -- provided a pleasant diversion.  For the right age group, there is even the possiblity of several lessons about truth, loyalty, and self-knowledge. I'd certainly try it for a younger reader -- say 5th to 7th grade -- who likes sports.  Be aware that the main characters are all in the 6th grade, so you won't have as much luck getting older teens to read it.  In the library, we notice that our teen patrons will read about characters older than them, but rarely about ones who are younger.

Keeping that in mind,  there are definite age-level distinctions among sports-related YA authors.  Green, Mike Lupica, and John Feinstein are three whose books bridge the juvenile/young adult fiction gap.  Choose their books for, again, a 5th to 7th grade student.

For older readers who can handle more mature sports-related content, you might try John Coy's Crackback, Pete Hautman's Rash, or Gordon Korman's Pop.  And for truly excellent story-telling, with sports always as a backdrop, read Chris Crutcher.  I lose myself in Crutcher's true-to-life characters and gut-wrenching stories so much that I don't even notice I'm reading a sports book.  Whale Talk and Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes are particularly good, and Deadline, a Soaring Eagle award nominee from 2008-2009, has been described to me (by a teen) as "life-changing." Be aware that Crutcher, who has worked with teens in a variety of professional settings, writes the way teens often speak; his books are frequently challenged, mostly for language.  If your teen is old enough to handle the language, these books offer much potential parent-child discussion material . . . even if you can't explain what first down is.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Hope Rising . . . and Falling

September is Hispanic Heritage month; upon that prompt, a few years ago I picked up a copy of Pamela Munoz Ryan's excellent historical fiction novel, Esperanza Rising.  For those of you who are not bilingual, "esperanza" means "hope", and is a particularly apt name for the main character of this novel.  Despite tremendous heartbreak, the 12-year-old Esperanza rises again and again in her story.

Esperanza and her mother, both accustomed to a life of wealth and indulgence in Mexico, are forced by various circumstances to flee to California and find work as agricultural laborers.  There, they face racial prejudice that gives already-limited jobs to displaced white Americans who have fled the Dust Bowl to also find work in California. The tiny family must fight not only to survive, but also to maintain their rich cultural heritage and ties to family still living in Mexico.  

Set as it is in the 1930's, the short novel really could be an excellent companion to larger works of Great Depression literature, such as John Steinbeck's classic Grapes of Wrath.  In fact, there are so many similarities between the stories of Esperanza and her family and Steinbeck's Joad family, that older teens could conceivably read both and write an excellent comparative essay on them.  (My daughter is taking American Lit right now, so you can see where my mind is!)

For younger readers, however, the story of 12-year-old Esperanza will serve as both heartwarming entertainment and a wonderful lesson about a specific time and place in American history.  There is much here to enrich cross-cultural learning, as well:  Esperanza and her mother strive to carry out Hispanic traditions despite the hard times in which they live.  For moms and dads, consider this book for readers from about the 5th grade up, especially if you want to encourage discussion about tolerance and diversity.

Unfortunately, not all Young Adult books about Mexican-Americans are as positive. La Linea, a 2006 title by Ann Jaramillo, presents immigration in a more desperate, realistic tone, and raises questions our country will have to consider about the actual individuals who are attempting to cross the border, whether legally or not.  The story of a brother and sister who have been essentially deserted by their parents, La Linea is, according to the author, fiction, but based on real-life events.

More recent titles include Mexican Whiteboy, by Matthew de la Pena. This story presents the racial prejudices and obstacles that so many American teenagers of mixed heritage are facing today.  de la Pena has several titles out; this one deals particularly with sports, and so is more appealing to teenage boys than Esperanza.  Try it for a reluctant reader, and especially for a teen who is himself (or herself) dealing with racism. 

Use Sherman Alexie's wonderful, and very funny,  The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian for the same type of audience.  This book deals with prejudice toward Native Americans rather than Hispanic Americans, but the underlying themes are the same:  How much should one's cultural heritage influence one's opportunities in life?  How much do we judge others by their culture, before knowing them as individuals?  How can the expectations of one's own cultural group, even one's own family, act as limitations in life?  Be aware that these last two titles are recommended for grades 7 and up.

Hope you find one of these books to open your own eyes, or those of a child you care about.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Hunger Games trilogy, Suzanne Collins

I write this on the eve of the release of Mockingjay, the third installment in this powerful trilogy by juvenile/young adult author Suzanne Collins. (The first two are Hunger Games and Catching Fire.)  If you've read any of the chatter about Mockingjay, you know that the second book, Catching Fire, left many cliffhangers that fans are anxious to see resolved.

Basic premise, without revealing much:  Katniss Everdeen, the heroine, lives in a society called Panem, loosely modeled on the United States.  There are 12 (or are there?) dsitricts, and one central Capitol.  Once upon a time in Panem, the districts revolted against the tyrannical Capitol . . .lost . . and brought about the Hunger Games.  As punishment, and as powerful suppression of further revolutionary activities, the Capitol forces each district to select one girl and one boy (aged 12 and up) to participate in the annual Hunger Games -- a fight to the death among teenagers.  Of course, in the first book, Katniss is the girl selected from her district.

Though quite disturbing, this is a book one cannot put down.  I've often said it makes me wish I was still teaching -- just the themes of power and corruption could keep me busy for weeks in literature classes.  That's not a death knoll for the series;  it reads as action/adventure, and it seems to be only the more mature readers who are catching what Collins is really doing here -- making some really uncomfortable comparisons to the society in which we are living today. It's just that some readers will need assistance to see those comparisons.

Thus, the series joins the realm of dystopian literature.  Remember reading "1984" by George Orwell, mainly because we were living in the 80's?  Remember asking, could this really happen? Remember realizing that government is pretty powerful, that we can't afford to close our eyes?  The Hunger Games trilogy will be that book for many of today's adolescents . . .if they can get past the silly "Gale/Peeta" controversy (modeled on the equally silly "Edward/Jacob" debate of last summer.)  All dystopian literature, while removed enough from our real society to remain fiction, still presents questions that challenge our comfort zone.  I'm glad this series has so much potential to do that for kids.

If you are a parent, I highly recommend you read this series.  If you have teens, read it and begin discussing it with them now . . . asking questions like who should rule a country, how much wealth is fair, why is there such a distinct and growing separation between rich and poor.  These are questions that older adolescents - as well as we adults -- should be thinking about now.  If you have younger children, read the series anyway, and be prepared to discuss it with them some day.  You won't regret it.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Teen Lit for Moms

Welcome and thank you for visiting my blog.  A few thoughts about what I hope to do here: 

First of all, I am a mom of six kids, ages 16 down to 6.  Five girls, one boy . . .and so, I am always trying to keep up on the things they are reading.  In this blog, I hope to point out great literature for kids, but particularly for teens to read.

That's because I am, secondly, a teen librarian at a small public library in northeastern Wyoming.  Now, don't think that our relatively rural location means I'm just reading Laura Ingalls Wilder . . .as any teens in this age, our patrons are very connected to the rest of the world via the Internet, and they want to read what other teens are reading, nationally and internationally.  As a result, I read a lot of teen literature, and have some thoughts about current trends, connections to "classics," and books I hope to see more kids reading.

 . . . And books I hope more adults read!!  So much teen literature offers great story lines, believable characters, and important themes.  This isn't just fluff, so I hope there are many mom and dads who will sample some of the books reviewed in this blog.  When possible, I will make connections between teen literature and adult literature, as well as connections between contemporary novels and classic works.  (That's because my third motivation is to satisfy the former English teacher that I am.)

Finally, as a mom and a librarian, I realize that the world of Young Adult literature -- the professional term for teen lit -- can overwhelm adults who aren't familiar with it.  Thus, I hope this blog offers guidance  about what books are a good match for certain age groups, and what books aren't.  I don't censor . . . but I do feel that content and reading level are an important part of reading satisfaction, so making an appropriate match makes sense. My greatest wish is that you as parents may have the pleasures I've had with my kids -- that of finding a great book, reading it (together or separately) and having exciting conversations about the literature, the characters, and the ideas. 

Please feel free to give comments, suggestions, and ideas for books!