The 15 of 2015

23 12 2015

I didn’t read much this year. For the first time in 5 years I didn’t reach my Goodreads Reading Challenge. I know, fuck goodreads a2015-04-01 16.00.31nd reading challenges, but I like to keep track of my reading and setting a challenge on Goodreads is the easiest way for me to do this. So, not a lot of quality reading time this year and even less time to keep up this blog of course.

Despite all that, here are my favorite 15 books of 2015 in alphabetical order (by author’s last name):

  • Mosquitoland (David Arnold): I’m a sucker for road trip books.
  • Between the World and Me (Ta-Nehisi Coates): if you haven’t read this, why the hell not?
  • Zita the Spacegirl (Ben Hatke): kid and me loved this series.
  • The Return of Zita the Spacegirl (Ben Hatke): 3rd of the trilogy and very sad to reach the end of the series. We have now begun reading Cleopatra in Space and the Amulet series together.
  • I Crawl Through It (A.S. King): bold, beautiful and completely wacky, but very readable.
  • The Death and Life of Zebulon Finch: At the Edge of Empire (Daniel Kraus): I am still reading this, but it’s so good it would be on this list anyway
  • Perfectly Good White Boy (Carrie Mesrobian): not the first book I read of Mesrobian (that was Sex and Violence), but this is my favorite of hers.
  • Cut Both Ways (Carrie Mesrobian): Carrie is my new fake girlfriend.
  • I’ll Give You the Sun (Jandy Nelson): a good (yet predictable in hindsight) Printz winner. That being said, I really loved this book.
  • Challenger Deep (Neal Shusterman): hard man, very hard, but so good. I hope this gets some Printz love.
  • The Alex Crow (Andrew Smith): So pertinent. And also read this here.
  • Stand Off (Andrew Smith): Do I need to explain? Really? Do I? Okay: the Abernathy. Plus: Middle Grade spin off?
  • Station Eleven (Emily St. John Mandel): thank you, Janna Rosenkranz for the tip.
  • We All Looked Up (Tommy Wallach): Some good old fashioned apocalyptic fun. Brilliant!
  • The Martian (Andy Weir): never has a science-y book been more fun.

 

 

 

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Favorite books of 2014

21 12 2014

In 2014 I read a lot less than in previous years. This was mainly due to a second sort of job. In 2012 I started working on an ESL method. I wrote 2 units (well, 3 actually, but one’s for the next book in the series) last year, but this year I was also asked to coordinate another book in that same series. 2014-12-13 17.14.53This meant I had to write units, edit my own as well as other people’s units and coordinate the whole thing (which is a lot like pretending you know what you’re talking about). That’s on top of a full time teaching job, of course. Anyway, water under the bridge… I read a lot less: still 97 books, but a good 6000 pages less than in 2013, for example.

First, for this “best of 2014” list, I am not going to count books I re-read this year even though they would have scored high on this or any list (so that means, no Maus or As I Lay Dying, which I both rated 5 stars, for instance).

Second, it seems I’ve really become more selective in my reading because I didn’t give any book just 1 star this year, which is definitely a first. There were plenty of books I didn’t particularly cared for, or authors who I thought had previously published a lot better books, but I just didn’t pick up a book I knew wouldn’t be for me.

Finally, I am not discriminating here. My list has everything thrown in together because that’s just how I read: so-called YA literature (most of what I read), picture books, graphic novels, and so-called Adult literature. Big deal. I don’t want to rate from 10 to 1 or from 1 to 10, so this year, it’s in reverse alphabetical order (by author). Also, books that were published in 2014 get an *.

 

  • The Free by Willy Vlautin *.
Willy Vlautin

Willy Vlautin

I saw Willy Vlautin perform with The Delines in November. Even before the gig, I knew this book would end on my end of year list. It’s really everything I want in a book: great voice, intertwining stories and lives, ‘ordinary’ people just trying to survive in contemporary society’s desolation… you know, the fun stuff of life J , but with a remarkable attention to hope and compassion.

 

  • Anything by Shaun Tan, especially The Arrival and The Red Tree. Simple: Shaun Tan is brilliant. Seeing one of his images on NCTE’s Annual Convention catalogue was a bit unexpected and otherworldly, though, like much of Tan’s own work.

 

  • Grasshopper Jungle* and 100 Sideways Miles* by Andrew Smith. Andrew Smith has 2 books on this year’s list, and I am currently reading an ARC of The Alex Crow. I have not made it a secret that I am a great admirer of Andrew Smith’s work, because his work has what I am constantly looking for when I’m reading: the voice of the author (see more about this later). As different as all of his work may be (Ghost Medicine is nothing like Winger is nothing like Grasshopper Jungle), there’s always the distinct ‘Andrew Smith’ signature all over the pages: twisted and chaotic at first glance, honest, thoughtful and incredibly smart at second glance. Even though I don’t love all of his books in the same way or to the same degree – obviously I have favorites, of course I do – I respect this author in the way he stands his own unique ground in the midst of so much mediocrity.

 

I want my hat back

I want my hat back

  • Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz. This book has a poetic quality to it that was so different to read from anything else I read this year. A true thing of beauty. A book about so many things (family, friends, war, sexuality) in the most natural and obvious way.

 

  • I want my hat back and This is not my hat by Jon Klassen. These books were published a few years ago, but I only bought them last summer in London. I love them. My kid loves them. I read them to her in these different voices, and she does them too, and it’s just totally hilarious every time we read them together. Subversive, hilarious, brilliant.

 

  • Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future by A.S.King *. I know pretty well what I want to get out of a book. Of course I want a good plot. Of course I want well-developed characters. Who doesn’t? But what I really want to get out of a book is personality. A book that says (!): “Here, this is me, read me!” For me, a book absolutely without a doubt needs to have personality. The personality of a book is not really something tangible, like a likable character or a satisfying conclusion to a plotline. For me, the personality of a book actually lies in the author’s ability to create a universe that is unique to that particular author, often book after book after book. I call it the voice. This is definitely not the same as the voice of the (main) character in the book. Rather it’s the voice of the book. By extension you could say that this is the voice of the author. It’s not that I think authors agree with everything mentioned in their own books (I really don’t, real authors are much smarter than that), but I believe that there really should be something of the author in each of their books: their voice if you will. To be really into a book I have to sense that voice.

    It’s also not something casual or flippant. Of course I recognize that every author has a particular style and what not. No , it’s more than just a unique style: there has to be a sense of urgency that goes along with that voice. There are a couple of authors who capture that sense of urgency for me (Matt de la Peña, Gregory Galloway, Adam Rapp, Andrew Smith, to name just a few). But the author who really personifies for me what it means to

We love bookmarks.

We love bookmarks.

have an urgent voice that demands to be heard is A.S. King. I know it sounds all new agey (ugh!) and I can’t really describe what it is exactly, but it’s something all over the pages. It’s why every one of her books has very firm ties to the here and now of this world (even though the book might be set in the 17th century or show snippets of the future). It’s why every one of her books betrays a concern with the state of the world as it is. Here. Now. For you to be read. Right now. A sense of urgency, as I said before.

I didn’t write a review of Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future, and I’m not going to now. The best review of that book has already been written, by Rick Yancey for the New York Times. Let’s just say that Glory O’Brien has everything I just mentioned about a book having a personality and a voice that betrays a sense of urgency on the part of its author. After drinking the remains of a petrified bat, Glory and her ‘friend’ Ellie start seeing snippets of the future and the past. The way the future is visualized is prophetic to say the least. And a veritable horror story, if there ever was one!

And as I said, of course I want well-developed characters and I got them. There is obviously Glory who is such a complex character: a complicated mess, hard to love, angry, hurt, so many things at the same time. But there is also Glory’s dad (I always love the dads in A.S. King’s books), and even Glory’s mother, who’s been dead since Glory was 4. Admittedly, this book is somewhat light on ‘plot’, but what it lacks in plot, it well makes up for in Questions about Big Ideas. I love that there are so many questions explored in this book: what is friendship, what is community, what is real, what is only perception, what is belonging, what are our rights as human beings, what are our rights (mine and yours) as women, … A.S. King keeps on asking the questions ( 😉 ) we are all asking ourselves (or should be asking ourselves!): those of the history of the future and what it means to be and to be seen as a whole person.

Wolf in White Van

Wolf in White Van

 

  • We Were Here by Matt de la Peña. I “discovered” Matt de la Peña and his books this year. We Were Here is incredibly touching. Touching in the same way as how you can’t NOT love Of Mice and Men. If you don’t, I don’t want to be your friend (anymore). I’m sorry, but certain books are just relationship/friendship dealbreakers. Added bonus: I heard Matt de la Peña speak at NCTE this year at the CEL luncheon.

 

  • Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle*. This is the second book of a musician-storyteller (John Darnielle of Mountain Goats fame of course) in this list of favorite reads. Wolf in White Van was longlisted for the National Book Award and deservedly so. It’s the type of book that is so brilliantly constructed that the only appropriate response I could come up with at the end of it, was a healthy “WTF was that crazy shit right there?” This guy can write. I loved it!

 

  • The gigantic beard that was evil by Stephen Collins. That title alone should be enough to make you read this graphic novel. But if that is not enough: it’s about hair and no hair and elsewhere and here, and evil beards,
    Look at this!

    Look at this!

    and neatness and structure and fear and chaos and society and life and… fuck, this was good. 

 

  • The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson *. I don’t think there’s been a year that I didn’t list a Laurie Halse Anderson book as a favorite read of the year. With The Impossible Knife of Memory she did it again. Damn, this woman is good.

There are also 5 honorable mentions:

 

  • The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. It had been years (definitely more than a decade!) since I last read a Julian Barnes novel. This one was stellar!
  • Better Nate than Ever by Tim Federle. I hate musicals. HATE them. But I LOVE this book.
  • The truth about Alice by Jennifer Mathieu *. Incredibly powerful story about cruelty and stereotyping. Sucked me right in.
  • Sex & Violence by Carrie Mesrobian. Carrie Mesrobian has balls. That’s all.
  • 17 & Gone by Nova Ren Suma. My surprise read of the year. Because of this cleverly deceptive story I cannot wait for The Walls Around Us.




Read in November 2014

3 12 2014

I didn’t read as much as I would have liked to in November. I also don’t have the time right now for more than sketchy impressions of the books I read, rather than the full reviews they rightfully deserve. So here goes nothing…

Power books by power women, or also: books that will kick your ass as they rightly should:

GloryOBrien

 1) Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future (by A.S. King aka the most missed author at NCTE/ALAN 2014)

I really hope to write a longer review of this, because this book and this author so deserves all the praise! This is a veritable horror story too. And can I be shallow and say how much I love my signed copy? Look at it!! But seriously. Read this!ASKingNCTE2014

4 stars (but really, it already has 6 starred reviews!)

2) The Truth about Alice (by Jennifer Mathieu)

There’s definitely an overarching theme in my November reads and that is cruelty. In this particular case, it’s cruelty in the guise of ‘slut shaming’. The Truth about Alice is Jennifer Mathieu’s debut YA novel and I was completely and shamelessly sucked in by it.

I “loved” every bit of this book: the multiple perspectives, the ruthless investigation of stereotyping people (and characters in a book), the way it unflinchingly shows how boys and girls are seen and judged in a completely different light. I also “hated” everything about this book: the way the boys and girls are shown and how stereotypes are reinforced. How some people have (too) loud voices and others don’t have a voice at all.

This is such an important book. For boys and for girls. And not in the least: for the adults raising those boys and those girls.

4 stars

3) Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass (by Meg Medina)

This is a book from the heart. It’s not a ‘nice’ story, though. On the contrary, Meg Medina wrote a harsh psychologically layered story about bullying and female relationships. It’s edgy – and I’m not even talking about that title (which, by the way kicks so much ass 😉 – and I’m sure not just girls will identify with Piddy Sanchez or possibly even the mysterious Yaqui Delgado. If there’s one thing that’s abudantly clear after reading this provocative little book then it’s that everyone has a story: the victim, but also the bully, even if we don’t know what that story is, as is the case with Yaqui Delgado. And more than being ‘just another bullying book’, what really stands out is Medina’s great rendering of female relationships.

3.5 stars

Power books by power men

1) Knockout Games (by G.Neri)

Based on true events, comes G. Neri’s Knockout Games. I read this one right before Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass and what the two definitely have in common is the violence. This one is a ruthless book. Set in St. Louis it’s all about a knockout club, a group of middle and high school kids who basically get into random violence (knocking out random people on the street for the fun and thrill of it). When Erica is uprooted to St. Louis after her parents’ divorce, she gets mixed up with the game (she’s good with a camera) and its leader, K (Kalvin), the Knockout King.

The narrative and the language are very straightforward. There’s no needless fancy talk, which wouldn’t really fit with the book’s topic anyway. Also like Yaqui Delgado, I see this being liked by a younger audience (Yes, yes, I know: there’s violence. And sex. Bite me). There’s also the same trope of the outsider trying to fit in, which that age group really seems to appreciate a lot. In this case, the protagonist is the white Erica who moves to a predominantly African American neighborhood and who’s trying to keep her head above water after her parents’ divorce.

3 stars

nctereads1

2) He Said, She Said (by Kwame Alexander)

This is described as a ‘hip hop’ novel and the language use of esp. the male protagonist Omar or T-Diddy (I did the same eye-rolling as the female protagonist!) in the book also reflects this. However, I can’t really say I was into it all that much. I also don’t like hip hop, so maybe it’s that. The story is too stereotypical for my taste: a good looking star football player (a real “player” too, of course) and a studious and responsible girl. Of course they’re destined to meet. Mixed in with this tale of destined yet too good to be true romance is a fight for social justice at the local high school.

I don’t know, it’s all very much in your face. I just couldn’t see past the shallowness of it all (maybe that’s the point?) and I just like my stories more nuanced and my characters with a lot more depth.

2.5 stars

Graphic novels:

1)  The Silence of our Friends (by Mark Long)

This graphic novel – also drawn by Nate Powell – is another (historical) graphic novel/memoir in the same vein as March Book One. It’s not quite as powerful as March Book One, but I can see this being liked a lot by my reluctant readers who’re really into history and the Civil Rights Movement.

3 stars

2) The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil (by Stephen Collins)

GET THIS BOOK NOW. GET IT! NOW! Absolutely brilliant graphic novel. What can I say? There’s the neat and orderly island of Here. The threat of a chaotic There. And there’s a *gigantic beard*. I repeat: there’s a gigantic beard. What more do you need? Brilliant artwork? It’s all there.

Gigantic Beard 1

Gigantic Beard 2

It’s the ultimate surrealist and eerily honest truth metaphor about the state of man in our current society (unfortunately it’s probably also the ultimate hipster book). This book is  awesome. Did I mention there’s a gigantic beard? That is evil?

5 stars

 

Up next: photo impression of NCTE/ALAN 2014





Read in October 2014…

27 10 2014

Wolf in White VanWolf in White Van (by John Darnielle)

This book is easily going to make my top 10 of the year. I haven’t read any of the other books of the National Book Award long list, but they must be darn good for this one not to be a finalist, because, holy crap, this is a damn fine piece of writing. Strongly recommended to people who like good shit.

4 whole stars

WeWereLiarsWe Were Liars (by e. Lockhart)

I admit to finally having given in to the hype (my first mistake, given my not so good track record with e. Lockhart’s books). Admittedly,the “mystery” kept me going until the end, and makes this a short little pageturner. But now I can say also once and for all that e. Lockhart’s books are just not for me. I absolutely hate the white privilege ‘woe is me’ rants of most of her main characters I have read. I have no sympathy for the main characters whatsoever and the literary techniques used by Lockhart here feel very try-hardy… It’s not about ‘sympathetic characters’ at all (I could care less about nice or not in a book, I don’t even care for nice in real life), I just find no connection between myself and this book…at all…ever. And I want to read books that *I* connect to, in whatever form: characters, style, world, anything…but here’s it’s just not there. I recognize that Lockhart can write a book, but they’re just not for me.

3 stars objectively / 2 stars for me

Out of the pocket (by Bill Konigsberg)

I think this is an incredibly important book content-wise but I was really disappointed with the execution of it. Konigsberg ‘s sophomore novel Openly Straight is in that respect clearly a step up from this debut novel.Out of the pocket

3.5 stars for story / 2 stars for style

Not exactly a love story (by Audrey Couloumbis)

Cutesy love/friendship love story set in the 1970s, which reminded me a lot of Natalie Standiford’s How to Say Goodbye in Robot for some reason. It has the same vibe going on, only a little more stalkerish… (that sounded worse than it was!)

3 stars

She is not invisible (by Marcus Sedgwick)SINI_CVR_FINAL

This is an ‘I liked it’ Sedgwick novel and not an ‘I loved it Sedgwick’ novel. There’s no denying that Sedgwick has talent coming out of his ears and is great at multiple genres over the age-ranges (I mean Revolver and The Raven Mysteries are so different and yet so very typically Sedgwick at the same time…)… but for some reason, I love Sedgwick a whole lot more when he does the whole ‘atmosphere’ thing, rather than the somewhat meager ‘whodunnit’ thing like we get in She is not invisible, especially when the plot is well…rather thin.

3 stars.

 

 

What is worth reading:

  • The piece A.S. King wrote for the ALAN Review:

2014-10-20 18.33.31

 

  • And look here:

Glory

 

Still in the pipeline: a review for Andrew Smith’s 100 Sideways Miles.





“Hope, I got it.” – An interview with A.S. King

1 06 2014

ASKingEveryone needs heroes, I once wrote. And in an age when there’s so much sameness, I enjoy hearing true and different voices about topics I find important, like reading, education and culture and tolerance, and having an open mind. This openness is something I have found in the books of A.S. King, so I have no reservations confessing that she’s sorta my hero. I am so glad when she wanted to share a little bit more of her awesomeness and was willing to answer my questions.

Staying true to yourself

You’ve mentioned in interviews that it took you a long time to get published. Can you talk a bit about your road to publication? Have you noticed any changes (in the publishing business) between the time when your first book was published and Reality Boy?

This answer could go on forever. It took me 15 years to get a novel published. I wrote 8 of them that never made it. I started writing before computers or the Internet, and I really didn’t think about getting published. Writing was a way to get my thoughts out clearly and to deal with emotions. Publishing back then didn’t even have email. I was living in Ireland and writing American stories, so I had very little chance of finding publication due to my situation. Plus, those early books sucked. Writing novels isn’t easy although 99% of people say they want to write a book. Writing novels is like learning to play an instrument. It takes years of practice to get good at it. And in some cases, like me and the cello, the talent isn’t there. As for the publishing business—it changes constantly. There is no way for me to get into all the ways it changed between 20 years ago and now. It’s a strange beast.

Who do you respect in your own line of work? What book do you wish you had written?

Because I’m a generally respectful person, I pretty much respect everyone in my line of work. How could I not? Even if they don’t respect me, I respect them. It’s how I operate. See also: Ask the Passengers. I wish I would have written Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith. I think he’s one of the best writers working today.

Despite the bad stuff that happens to almost all of the protagonists in your books, none of your books is down and out depressing, and they (and the characters) all exude this … hope. Where does this hope come from?

Hope, I got it. I don’t know why I have it. The human race kinda sucks, pretty much. Look at what we’ve done to each other! I dare you to read a comment section under any article on the Internet. 🙂 But I have hope because I think there are good people doing good things out there (and probably not wasting time in the comment sections on the Internet.) I know there are people out there trying to make the world a better place. Teachers are proof that we should all have hope.

How do you stay true to yourself as a writer? Do you feel any pressure to write about a certain thing or in a certain way?

I still write as if I’m on the farm in Ireland, writing for myself. I don’t take pressure from anyone and the market or trends within it are of no use to me because it’s a little like comparing an unbaked pie to a pie somebody else ate, but you never got to taste. Does that make any sense? I stay true to myself by letting the words and stories come out without questioning them. If my character does something weird, then I’m forced to write more to find out why vs. erase the weird thing. Writing is exploration. You can’t explore if you’re trying too hard.

When you do school visits, have you ever had to deal with an unresponsive audience?

Not yet. I tend to do very energetic school visits. I have heard more than once that my assembly “wasn’t as boring as I thought it would be.” When I ask why past assemblies were boring, the answer usually has something to do with the fact that the last author showed up and talked only about themselves and their books as if they were selling something. I don’t sell books at my school visits. I just come to be real with teenagers. Honesty seems to win every time.

Is there anything you regret in your own creative career?

Not a thing. It took me a long time. I failed a lot. And I don’t regret a thing.

Finding a connection

What does “reading” mean to you?WhereTheWildThingsAre

It means finding a connection in a book that lights the path a little brighter.

Did you read a lot as a child? Are there any books that you fondly remember?

I read like crazy as a child. As a little kid, I love Where the Wild Things Are and Harold and the Purple Crayon. As a older child, I loved mysteries. Once I hit teen years, I found Paul Zindel and reread his books over and over again. I am rereading Confessions of a Teenage Baboon right now and I am in awe of what he was doing with YA lit back in 1977. We tend to forget that writing for teens was always around in one form or another. We read how many articles in a week that say so-and-so invented YA lit, or so-and-so started this trend in YA lit. But all of that is rubbish. Paul Zindel was doing, in 1977, what I and pigmanmany of us do now. (And people were doing it before him, too.) His books have fully formed adult characters who interact with teen characters and his content had its share of Wild Turkey whiskey and skinny-dipping.

Once I hit high school, my reading dropped. I was very busy. I read what I had to for school and that was all. I still loved reading, but I never found the time. Then, in college, I started reading again for fun and I’ve never stopped.

What book(s) do you want your own children to cherish?

Good ones. I don’t care which ones. As long as they can hold a well-written book that lights their own path to their heart and say, “This book changed my life” then I’m a happy parent.

What is the best book (YA or other) that you have read in a long time? What are you reading at the moment?BuzzAldrinHarstad

My recent bests are: We Were Here by Matt de la Peña, Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith, Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing by MT Anderson (okay, that’s an old one for me, but I can’t NOT mention it. It’s so brilliant.) At the moment, I am rereading Zindel, as I said, and I’m reading two adult titles. Last January, I read a book called Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion?by Johan Harstad and it really rocked my world.

Tools for the real world

There are certain colleges and universities whose administrations have urged their teachers and lecturers not to send messages to their students that are longer than 3 sentences… because they say that students simply don’t have the attention span or the ability to read more than that. (Course)books etc. in secondary schools are being screened to make them more accessible, something which – unfortunately – often translates into dumbing them down. E.g. sentences longer than 10 words, passive constructions, so-called ‘big’ words have to be avoided…
How should we deal with this as educators, writers, parents…?

I think administrators whose goal it is to dumb down future adults is scary. Have they not thought this out fully? Do they really want the nurse who may tend to them in the hospital to be only capable of three-sentence-long instructions? I think that’s ridiculous. I dislike that society in general dismisses teenagers and belittles them with eye-rolls every chance they get. But limiting their education so as to not challenge them is a huge mistake. I used to play basketball. Even when I was little—seven or eight—when my arms didn’t have the strength to get the ball into a 10 foot hoop, we never ever lowered the hoop. I repeat: we never ever lowered the hoop. And by age 9, I was making free throws like a pro. I will never understand anyone who thinks that reducing challenge will grow competent adults. It’s insane. Should you react? Yes. Say no. Over and over again. Say no.

In your experience as a person who works with/for teens, who or what do you think influences teens most these days?

I will say that we recently had a discussion with a young teen who was sad because so many of her friends have been “eaten by technology.” When I asked what technology specifically, she mentioned all the usual suspects. Instagram, texting, online games, social media in general. That said, she is not influenced by these things because she doesn’t have them. She reads. She plays music. She draws and doodles and makes the most amazing crafts out of just about anything. But I think we can’t put teens in a box and answer this question fully. All teens are different.

I think one of the more universal things I’ve learned, though, while working with teens is this: Teens are very aware that adults are keeping things from them and yet they already know the things we are keeping from them. And so, why are we keeping things from them? They’re teens, not children. They need to know that bad shit is happening. If we keep them from a news story, why do we think they won’t hear about it at school? I reckon I’d like to be the one who tells my kid about awful things that happen. I’d rather have that responsibility. And books sure help. When my daughter was sad about society today, I gave her Maus. Depressing read? Heck yes. But did it show her that reality today is just as awful as reality in the 1930’s and 40’s was? Yes. And then I try to give her hope. Because she is the picture of hope. As a parent, that’s how I want to influence my kids. I hope other parents have this same idea: that they should be the ones most influencing their teens. These are the vital years to give them to tools for the real world and the humans who inhabit it. And you already know how I feel about humans.

Go get it.

Over here (in Belgium) – especially in the cities – the social and cultural gap between the haves and the have nots is getting wider by the year. The kids from the privileged families do have access to the ‘world’, but the group of people who don’t have those means is getting bigger and bigger. In my 10 years as a teacher, I also see how hard it has become to get these kids out of their comfort zone, out of their own (small) world which they think is so big (because they do have access to all sorts of social media). And education doesn’t seem enough anymore because we’re dealing with an obsolete 19th century educational system that needs to solve 21st century problems. Is American education any different? Do you have any thoughts on how schools can help to narrow that gap?

The gap is getting wider an wider here, too. And because of the media saturation and the strangely at-odds-with-itself “news,” what we have is a bunch of talking heads trying to figure out whose fault everything is versus just facts. And that argument is responsible for the state of just about everything. And it drowns out the reality that the gap between the haves and have-nots is widening at an alarming pace.

Politics irk me. And when politicians get in the way of education, it irks me even more because where would those politicians be without the teachers who taught them how to read? How to debate? How to write? So, for me, this is more a political issue because public (most) schools here are state funded and those very politicians are the ones who are wasting all the time arguing while the gap gets bigger and bigger and I’m guessing they don’t care much about the public education system because they are making a lot of campaign money by doing what the highest paying lobbyists are telling them what to do. The only way I can see it changing is for government to ask the professionals—the teachers—how to improve things. I can’t see that happening here, but I sure wish it would.

The older I get and the more I read, watch TV, follow media, etc. the more evident it seems to me that people in general don’t really look for things that stand out. They want the obvious, the easily accessible, what is right in front of them. Or at least, they think that is what they want and need. In David Levithan’s Two Boys Kissing there’s a passage that struck me:

“This is what you do now to give your day topography – scan the boxes, read the news, see the chain of your friends reporting about themselves, take the 140-character expository bursts and sift through for the information you need. It’s a highly deceptive world, one that constantly asks you to comment but doesn’t really care about what you have to say. The illusion of participation can sometimes lead to participation. But more often than not, it only leads to more illusion, dressed in the guise of reality. […] The headlines on Yahoo don’t require much of Peter’s head.”

But does mainstream media still require anything of us anymore? How would you encourage people, especially young people, to look beyond the obvious? That there is more than what is right in front of them? That it’s OK to disagree.

I don’t watch TV. This is not to say I care that other people do. I know most people enjoy TV and that’s cool. But cutting it out of my own life was what made me see those things—the different, not-obvious things. The stellar things. Because I didn’t have a cell phone until my late 30’s and a smartphone until my 40’s, I spent much of my life enjoying very simple things. I lived self-sufficiently on a farm for a decade. During those years, I enjoyed birds a lot. And the night sky. And dirt—the satisfaction of growing my own food (and chickens) from a seed (or egg)…and then making my own seeds so I could do it for free the next year. All I needed was dirt. And while these things are simple, they are, in their essence, very complicated. The night sky is a huge mystery. The life cycle of plants, the life cycle of chickens, the life cycle of humans is very deep and fascinating.

I was taught to think creatively early on because someone along the way asked: what do you think about that? My opinions weren’t always right or valid, but I did have them. As I grew older, I learned to love research. Research was not only a way to make sure I was right in my own opinions, but a way to learn fascinating new things. What I ended up discovering, as real news became this entertainment-whose-fault-is-it?-news, is that very few things we learn about on TV or a small internet article are the full story. Reality TV is anything but.

Most of the time, the generations who followed mine have been lied to and usually in order for them to want something. They were seen as consumers first. Always. I know a lot of people who bought into that. I mean, having stuff is still a big part of being alive, right? Always was. But the younger generations have the ability to see through it. They have to. They have larger college loans, and they have less money in their pockets. That said, those same generations grew up in the shadow of the generations before them. We all do. And those older generations always say the same stuff. “You’re too young to understand.” “You have it easy.” The issue is: that’s not true nor was it ever. But more importantly, it’s intimidating, not nurturing. It’s selfish, not selfless. It’s more about having power over young people versus realizing that younger generations are the future. When Generation X got its name and they started writing articles about us, they were awful articles. I remember walking around thinking nothing I could ever do or say would matter because everyone thought we were lazy and dumb. This same stigma has been given to the generations who followed and I think that kind of thing shuts people up. It’s like a huge newsprint adult saying, “You don’t deserve opinions, you don’t deserve a debate, what you say is 100% void.” And that’s utter bullshit.

I don’t care what age you are, you should be encouraging people of all ages to dig deeper, say what they think and disagree when they want to. Without that dialogue, we are all robots. Consumers. Gatherers of stuff.

So, how do we encourage younger generations to look deeper and disagree? We tell them: Hey. That stuff they’re writing about you in the media is utter bullshit. You deserve everything the world has to offer. Now go get it.

 

This or that?

Because I like silly trivia, I also asked Amy to choose between a couple of things… which she did, in her own way, sometimes 🙂

1. Tea or coffee?

I don’t drink caffeine. I used to love coffee. But now I drink chamomile tea with honey and it still wakes me up. So, tea—as long as there’s no caffeine.

2. The Beatles Empire_strikes_back_poster_vaderor The Stones?

Hendrix. I don’t mean to be difficult; I dig and respect both the Stones and the Beatles. But seriously. Hendrix.

3. Cats or dogs?

Neither.

4. Star Wars or Star Trek

Both. Unless you count episodes I, II or III as Star Wars. You’d think “This or that” questions would be easier, but Star Wars gets complicated because they went and made those prequels. So all I’ll say is: I love the original Star Trek series as well as Next Generation, but The Empire Strikes Back is the best movie ever.

5. Slacker or over-achiever?

Over-achiever.

6. Truth or dare?Pippi Longstocking

Truth.

7. Ninjas or pirates? 

How can you ask me this? I am both a ninja and a pirate. I can’t choose sides.

8. Pippi Longstocking or Matilda?

Pippi.

9. Past tense or present tense.

I like both. I can’t choose.

10. “This is a tale of a meeting of two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast.”
or
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

The first one. Vonnegut will always have my heart.

 

Thank you so much for answering my questions!

gobhf

A.S. King’s Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future is coming out later this year.

Buy it at Aaron’s Books. She’d love that.





The Buffalo Tree (by Adam Rapp)

9 03 2014

thebuffalotreeIn 2005, Adam Rapp’s debut novel[1], The Buffalo Tree found itself in the midst of what the New York Times called a Culture War. This happened in the Muhlenberg School District, where – coincidentally – another book riot went on (and is still going on) at the end of last year and the beginning of this year. The petition that was started on Change.org by some of the students themselves, explains how books are being ‘red-flagged’ and how class and school libraries are at risk of losing many of its books because they might contain “inappropriate” content.

In the case of Rapp’s The Buffalo Tree – as is the case in most if not all instances of book challenges or attempted bans – the main issue is that those who want to ban it never actually read all the material they are protesting, and in the case of The Buffalo Tree, the school board only heard some passages taken out of context.

The Buffalo Tree has all the hallmark signs of “an Adam Rapp novel” and already show his mad talent. I’d previously read Punkzilla, The Children and the Wolves and 33 Snowfish, and each of those reading experiences left me shattered. Not just because of the harsh story of the kids in those books, but equally so by the unmistaken talent of Rapp as a word artist. Voice is his strength, and it’s no surprise then he’s also a playwright, and a really good one at that (even though I haven’t see any of his plays, I have no doubt believing that).

His experience as a playwright is all over those 3 YA novels, in which each character gets a very distinctive voice. In The Buffalo Tree, Rapp isn’t quite there yet, but it shows how good he is at having a character “be” that character completely, voice and all, enhancing the reality of that character from the inside out. And in Sura’s case – the 12-year-old boy who’s locked up in the Hamstock Boys Center for 6 months for stealing hoodies (car hood ornaments) – that means that he speaks tough, in a sort of juvy vernacular. It’s also Sura’s stream of consciousness perspective we get when the other Spalding juvies are described: Coly Jo, Sura’s (unfortunate) patchmate (cell mate) and Hodge and Boo (two juvy bullies). But like in other Rapp novels, it is fascinating to see how a kid like Sura views the adults of his surroundings: the cruel Mister Rose, Deacon Bob Fly, the resident ‘psychologist’ who’s intent on ‘getting through to Sura’, and none of them are seen in a positive light, except maybe for Sura’s mom, Mazzie – who got pregnant with Sura when she was 15.

Let’s face it, what happens in The Buffalo Tree is grim and hits you hard, but it’s a real world. Sura’s world in the juvy center and outside of the center is a bleak one: cruel, violent, abusive adults, and kids who may end up the same way as those adults, or kids who do not find the inner strength to overcome their situations. That too is something certain teens experience every single day. Every day is a battle for Sura and even after his release that feeling stays with him: “You get that old feeling back up in your bones”, but the hopeful thing to keep in mind here, that even though he might still get that feeling, he’s out.

Is a book with an almost naturalistically drawn story reason enough not to allow teens to have the ability to read this? OK, so that’s the most absurd question ever, which is why I can only respond with an Elle Horowitz original: “So, OK. The Attorney General says there’s too much violence on TV, and that should stop. Even if you took out all the violent shows, you could still see the news. So until mankind is peaceful enough not to have violence on the news, there’s no point in taking it out of shows that need it for entertainment value.” And if you don’t believe Elle, then read this. Also, it’s really great to hear that there are students willing to support what they believe in and say: “We refuse to be idle,” they say in their petition. “We need to show them that young adult literature is a life-changing thing for young people to be exposed to. We won’t stop until every book on every shelf of our school is saved.”


[1] (I found 1990 on Wikipedia for the first time this was published, making Rapp 22 at the time!





The year 2013 in reading

22 12 2013

Sometime during summer the cat thought 2013 would be a really weak reading year. And there have been some major disappointments and some serious stinkers this year, for sure. I didn’t care for Allegiant (the last in Veronica Roth’s Divergent series). I definitely thought Lauren Myracle’s The Infinite Moment of Us was the biggest disappointment of 2013. I thought Melvin Burgess’s The Hit totally stank. I honestly don’t understand how people could rate books like Where She Went or Virtuosity more than, “Mèh, they’re OK…-ish.”

But, more than anything the books I read in 2013 have convinced me that there’s one thing I just can’t take anymore and that’s… mediocrity. I absolutely hate it when it seems like there’s no effort in the book I’m reading. And most of all, I want to see personality in the words I’m reading, I don’t just want to see craftsmanship (although it’s a big plus, obviously!), I want to see balls! I want to read character – not as in a well-rounded character or protagonist (although, again, that’s obviously a major plus), but as in: show me what you’ve got, show me your stuff, show me your fucking talent! Take a risk, don’t play it safe and show me you care. Your book doesn’t have to be perfect, but I want to see you care. I want to see authenticity and honesty and intellect in the writing. I want you to be an author, not just a writer. If that makes me a book snob, then so be it.

I absolutely loathe carelessness and disinterest when it comes to the book I’m reading. If you only write half a character, then don’t put that character into your book. If you only have half a plot, or dozens of half-assed developed plots, then cut them short and focus on the essential. If you show me fake sentiment, cheap thrills, or go for the lowest common denominator I really don’t care much about what you write. If you write a book because that’s what people happen to do these days or because they want to sit at the cool kids’ table, or if you write a book because a book packager has this great idea of what will work and sell, I cannot take you seriously.

So… on to 2013 and the books and authors that passed the one and only true feline test of authenticity! (books published in 2013 will be indicated in bold)

For the cat 2013 was absolutely the year of Andrew Smith, no question about it… I read all his 6 published books in 2013, starting with The Marbury Lens in February and ending with (his debut) Ghost Medicine in October. An absolutely highpoint was Winger in June. But also Passenger, Stick and In the Path of Falling Objects showed me the talent of a true author: fierce and intense, an authentic voice amidst an ocean of average wannabes. He does not always turn out ‘perfect’ books, but they always – always – make an indelible impression. I cannot wait for Grasshopper Jungle in February 2014!

If I mention Andrew Smith, I cannot not mention A.S. King, and not just because she pointed me in the direction of Andrew Smith. In October Reality Boy once again proved how she can see through the bullshit and is one of the most – if not the most – open and caring authors out there these days. She rocks and she’s my hero. And she writes like no other. Respect.

I have one book on my bookshelf, unread, that I’m afraid to touch, because I know that if I do, that’s it… I won’t have any left of that author and what will I do then, if I don’t have one of his books to fall back on… The first book to leave me completely drained and shattered this year was Adam Rapp’s 33 Snowfish. Rapp is the master of voice and in 33 Snowfish, stream-of-consciousness is the logical narrative device to carry the characters’ voices, giving the novel a certain cadence and musicality that is unique in YA literature today. Looking back on 2013, I do think that it’s not a big leap from liking Adam Rapp to liking Andrew Smith’s novels, though, in that both go places where very few YA authors dare to go. Again, balls, man, balls! *

One author showed that “Yes, it’s really OK” to have obvious literary ambitions as a YA author, and that’s David Levithan. His Two Boys Kissing was important not just because of its topic, but also because of its narration: daring and poetic. David Levithan definitely showed his talent once again in 2013!

Adam Rapp, Andrew Smith, A.S. King or David Levithan… these people are so good I want to keep them a secret, but I realize that wouldn’t be fair, so if you buy someone a book for Christmas this year, then make it one of their books… but if you have more money to spend, then there are definitely a couple of other authors and books that made 2013 worthwhile reading-wise:

I figured out you can’t go wrong with Chris Crutcher (Deadline, Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, Whale Talk) or with garden gnomes on book covers (Jordan Sonnenblick’s Notes from the Midnight Driver).

I don’t understand why Gregory Galloway’s The 39 Deaths of Adam Strand didn’t get more recognition. Well, I do understand, but I don’t get it… I read two extremely good debuts this year, namely Jesse AndrewsMe and Earl and the Dying Girl, and Evan RoskosDr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets . And Matthew Quick also confirmed this year that he’s so incredibly good at describing feelings of isolation from the world in Please Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock . But he doesn’t revel in the despair but shows what it means not to get stuck in that isolation and hopelessness.

I didn’t read a lot of Middle Grade fiction, this year, but what I read was excellent:

  • Gary D. Schmidt’s Okay for Now, which is MG and YA of course, because Gary D. Schmidt is just absolutely boss and can do no harm. Ever.
  • Anthony McGowan’s Hello Darkness confirmed that McGowan is the funniest British MG and YA writer around these days.
  • Jo KnowlesSee You at Harry’s scores big on integrity and humaneness (although I just noticed, I didn’t write a review of it).
  • Paul Zindel’s The Pigman: how good is this book! Totally withstands the test of time!

 

2013 isn’t over yet, and I’m still reading a few books, but it’s already very obvious that this ‘best of 2013’ or how you want to call it, isn’t the most standard of ‘best of YA lists’ of 2013…** but I don’t care, this is what I read, this is what I like. Take it or leave it.

 

 

*I totally get that I’m not being very woman-friendly here. But then, I don’t want to be PC. Fuck that shit 😉

** Yes, I only have 2 women in my ‘list’, but what women they are!








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