Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Setting An Example: Strong Voices, Strong Women

Sometimes the list of Soaring Eagle nominees, since it is entirely based on nominations from teens throughout Wyoming, does not easily divide into genre categories. This week's list of books represent that fact:  the titles include historical fiction, historical fantasy, and nonfiction. All three titles, however, represent strong female voices telling their stories with dignity and intelligence.  All three present female characters fighting oppression within their respective societies.

The Royal Ranger, by John Flanagan.   We'll begin with the lightest of the three books:  the 12th in Flanagan's acclaimed Ranger's Apprentice series.  Whereas Will Treaty, the series' main character, has generally been presented as enthusiastic and optimistic, this title paints a much darker picture of Will. Due to a terrible tragedy that befell the Ranger in an earlier installment, he's grown morose and obsessed with the idea of revenge.  Will's saving grace comes in the form of a second main character, but she has her own troubles.  Madelyn, the daughter of Will's best friend, Horace, and Princess Cassandra, feels constrained by the restrictions of royal life, and battles against her parents and her lifestyle in increasingly risky ways.  Enter Halt, Will's former mentor:  he proposes that Will become mentor to Madelyn, and train her to become the first female Ranger in Araluen. Will reluctantly agrees, and Madelyn happily gives up her royal privileges to enter the Ranger force.  But when investigating a suspicious death leads Will to believe he's back on the trail of his nemesis, Madelyn's safety becomes a concern. Can Will pursue his enemy and still keep Madelyn safe?  Even more to the point -- can he satisfy his quest for revenge and still uphold the Ranger code of honor?  As stated, this is book 12 in Flanagan's historical fantasy series; find more backstory about the Ranger's Apprentice here.   However, since this title, Royal Ranger, introduces Madelyn as a new main character, it would not be necessary to have read the preceding eleven books to understand this one.

Between Shades of Gray, by Ruta Sepetys.  Lina is just like any other fifteen-year-old Lithuanian girl in 1941. She paints, she draws, she gets crushes on boys. But one night, Soviet officers barge into her home, tearing her family from the comfortable life they've known. Separated from her father, forced onto a crowded and dirty train car, Lina, her mother, and her young brother slowly make their way out of their beloved Lithuania with others from their communities.  Nobody knows what they've done to deserve the inhuman treatment they receive; they are given little food and drink and subjected to filth, violence and worse. After stops at several labor camps, Lina and her family slowly make their way north, crossing the Arctic Circle, to a work camp in the coldest reaches of Siberia. Here they are forced, under Stalin's orders, to dig for beets and fight for their lives under the cruelest of conditions.

Through it all, Lina makes secret drawings, desperately trying to capture the truth of what is happening to her family and culture.  Her prayer is that her drawings, which she sends away with various accomplices, will make their way to her father, wherever he might be.  Lina holds on to this scrap of hope when faced with losing her freedom and everyone she loves. This masterful work of historic fiction presents a story of humanity that is not well-recorded in young adult literature: that of the disappearance of millions of people during the Soviet occupation, and their forced relocation to the Siberian labor camps.

I am Malala:  The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban, by Malala Yousafzai. This nonfiction book, the only nonfiction to appear on this year's list of Soaring Eagle nominees, requires little introduction. Most people have heard at least something about the girl who was shot by a Taliban soldier, survived, and went on to be named, this fall, as the youngest person ever to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

However, there is more to the story than that.  Malala's memoir, co-written with journalist Christina Lamb, recounts the rich culture and history of Pakistan, her homeland.  For readers, particularly teens, who have trouble understanding complicated Middle Eastern politics, Yousafzai explains -  in the voice of a teenager - the gradual occupation of the Swat valley by Taliban forces, and the increasingly fundamentalist Muslim restrictions placed on society.  One such restriction was prohibiting education for girls over the age of 11. Yousafzai, with the support of her parents, rebelled against this restriction and continued to pursue her own education; it was on the bus home from school that she was shot, in October of 2012.  That she recovered is considered a miracle.

Yousafzai continues to champion the cause of education for women, and has been noted as a global symbol of peaceful resistance to oppression. Her story both inspires and educates.

As we look forward to celebrating Thanksgiving next week, let's remember to be especially grateful to live in a country in which females have unlimited opportunities. And let's take from the example of Madelyn, Lina, and Malala the strength to stand up against oppression in any form, in any society.


Wednesday, November 5, 2014

This is America? More Soaring Eagle book award nominees

One of the most prevalent trends in Young Adult fiction continues to be the dystopian adventure -- a novel that presents some sort of post-apocalyptic view of society, and the efforts of the protagonist(s) to make sense of, and survive in, their new reality.  With many of these novels, the setting is our country, the United States of America; however, these novels present an America forever changed from our country's founding ideals.  Since next week we celebrate Veteran's Day to honor all those who have fought to uphold these founding ideals, let's look at three Soaring Eagle book award nominees that present a chilling future for our country.

The Selection by Kiera Cass:  In this future society, "America" is only the name of the main character.  Our country is instead called Ilyria, and has reverted to being ruled by a monarchy.  In this novel, something of a cross among The Hunger Games, "Cinderella," and "The Bachelor," the time has come for the prince to marry.  Since there are no other royal options for his marriage, the palace will hold a Selection:  35 young women from across the country will move into the palace and compete for the hand of the prince.  Marrying the prince becomes the dream of most all eligible teenage girls in Ilyria: not only would the bride achieve title and prominence, but she would become a One.  Society in Ilyria is divided into levels, much like castes in some third-world countries: jobs, social position, and, of course, wealth are all determined by the number assigned to your family, and the only way to move up from the level of your birth is through marriage.  There is one teenage girl, however, who wants nothing to do with the Selection: America Singer, a talented Five who has been secretly seeing Aspen, a Six, for over a year.  When America finally succumbs to her mother's urging and enters her application for the competition, she discovers that everything she thought she knew -- about friendship, about her future plans, about the Prince, and even about Aspen -- has been turned upside down.  This is the first title in Cass' trilogy:  the following titles are The Elite and The One.

The Darkest Path, by Jeff Hirsch:  Six years ago, Callum and his younger brother, James, were kidnapped from their upstate New York home.  Since then, they've been living at the headquarters of The Glorious Path -- a militant religious group founded by a former U. S. soldier.  The Path has taken over control of several southern and western states, and the United States is now engaged in its second civil war. Cal, now 15 years old, has been trained as a deadly secret agent for The Path, but he is also considered rebellious; in an effort to control him, he is given the duty of cleaning the kennels of the fighting dogs raised by The Path.  He befriends one dog, and in an attempt to save him, ends up committing murder.  Cal and the dog are now on the run, and they head north - out of Utah, where The Path is headquartered, and into Wyoming.  There, Cal meets Natalie, part of a group of teenage rebels who are fighting The Path.  They are nearly killed in one battle; will they survive a second? And how will Cal rescue his younger brother, still in the clutches of The Path?  Hirsch says on his website ( that he is at work on a companion novel to Darkest Path; at this writing, the title is planned to be a digital-only release, and a date is uncertain.

Insignia by S. J. Kincaid:  14-year-old Tom Raines just wants to "be somebody."  Since he and his father live on the fringes of society, he's lived most of his life as a nobody; even his teacher at the virtual school he sometimes attends has called him a loser.  Kincaid's novel presents a view of the United States at a time when kids attend school by logging onto the Internet and attending a virtual classroom via their avatar; when gaming happens in virtual spaces that can be publicly viewed, again via the Internet; and when World War III is being fought, not between countries, but between huge multinational corporations who control all society.  Tom happens to be an expert gamer; he's had to be, because his gaming scams often provide the only money he and his dad have for food and hotel rooms.  During one brilliant match, Tom attracts the attention of one of the country's top military generals.  The general is interested in him because World War III is a different war from anything in history:  it's being fought in outer space, with unmanned drone-like battleships controlled from earth.  The soldiers controlling the battles?  Not traditionally-trained soldiers, but gamers -- kids, like Tom, who excel at video-gaming.  Tom is recruited, and he enlists willingly -- after all, he views this as his chance to "be somebody."  But at what cost?  Tom's about to find out. This is also the first of a trilogy, followed by Vortex and Catalyst.

So, teens in Wyoming have nominated three titles that present some disturbing views of the United States of America. Some would say the changes presented in these novels could never happen.  Some would say they are imminent.  What would you say?