Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock (by Matthew Quick)

6 10 2013

fmlpMatthew Quick’s star has been on the rise since his debut, The Silver Linings Playbook, was made into a movie, starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. The Silver Linings Playbook, though, was written with an adult audience in mind, and to me, it’s by far Quick’s weakest book. In my opinion, his strength clearly lies in Young Adult fiction: Sorta Like a Rock Star, Boy 21, and now Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, all three are so overpowering, and leave an indelible mark long after the last line is read. And Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, especially, is a warning, a mirror and a gem of a book all at the same time. There’s no one who should not read this book!

I have to admit: I was thrown off by Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock. It wasn’t because I didn’t expect a good book from Quick – because I did! It was because, despite the incredible compassion in this book (something that was also present in his two other YA books), what stood out initially was the despair in Leonard Peacock’s young life. Usually, there’s that glimmer of hope that lifts Quick’s book from being completely despondent despite the very bad things that have happened to the main characters (like how Tiffany manages to break through to Pat in SLP or how Amber Appleton is really sorta like a rock star just by being who she is). But Forgive Me, Leonard Peocock just threw me off. I didn’t really see that glimmer of hope immediately. Leonard Peacock is depressed. Leonard Peacock wants to kill his former best friend and then commit suicide. He is intent on doing that. That’s how things are. There’s nothing that can change his mind. No, there’s no one that can change his mind.  He’s gone far beyond that point already. This is the day. The day he’ll walk into his school with his grandfather’s P-38 pistol.

But then, it’s there… that spark. Leonard wants to say goodbye to the people that have done right by him in some way before killing himself. People that mean something to him: his old next-door neighbor, a boy from school who’s a wonderful musician, a weird bond with the home-schooled Christian girl Lauren, a high school teacher… Slowly the reader uncovers the events that led Leonard to his drastic decision, and it’s not a pretty history. It’s a story of neglect (by his mother), it’s a story of abuse and bullying.

Leonard Peacock, whose voice is insistent, cocky even, is not an easy character to love: he almost intentionally scares off the readers, hellbent on proving that he’s got all the right reasons for his drastic decisions about other people’s lives and his own. And Leonard does get preachy too, enough to put off a lot of readers, I’m sure, but it works. I believed Leonard’s pain. It’s part of Quick’s plan to write his protagonist as real as possible. The footnotes he includes, the letters from the future with his (yes, scary) vision of the future, they all aim at establishing Leonard’s character. And Leonard is definitely a struggling protagonist: struggling with his past and his future. It should come as no surprise either then, that Leonard questions Lauren’s blind faith in religion – religion and faith has always been an important element in Quick’s writing.

Lots of YA writers want to get into the heads of the teens they are writing about and for. Very few of those writers can actually write authentic characters. Matthew Quick gets it. Those feelings of isolation from the world – such an universal theme in many a teen’s life – and the feelings of being abandoned by the very adults who are supposed to take care of them… that is what Matthew Quick excels at. But he is not stuck in the isolation and hopelessness. Even in Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, Quick shows he’s an optimist at heart. Leonard has some people around him who could give him hope, even though he doesn’t always believe it himself. But if he lets them, if he accepts what some people around him can do for him… then there may be infinite possibilities after all.





Geektastic: Stories from the Nerd Herd (Edited by Holly Black and Cecil Castellucci)

27 04 2013

geektasticIf you’re a nerd or a geek (self-proclaimed or not!), go all out an celebrate your geektastic nerdiness! “You’ve got the heart and soul of a geek or you don’t”, Holly Black and Cecil Castellucci must have thought and they knew they had friends who’d think just the same… so never too shy to try something completely out of this world, they asked some of their YA writer friends to contribute a story of their own (whether they be Klingon, Quiz Bowl, LARP or band-inspired). Sara Zarr, John Green, David Levithan, Garth Nix, Barry Lyga and a bunch of other secret or not so secret geeks jumped at the occasion et voilàGeektastic: Stories from the Nerd Herd was born.

There are definitely a couple of standout stories in this collection. The first highlight for the cat came with David Levithan’s “Quiz Bowl Antichrist” (in the middle of the book), about a boy’s own reasons for joining the quiz bowl team and secret admirations. Levithan is a master at characterization and proves that here as well. Barry Lyga’s “The Truth about Dino Girl” is at first almost “typically” geeky (the geek as outcast and victim), but then gets a very dark twist at the end – we don’t need to over-glorify “the geek”, you know, lots of them have mean streaks, just like those meanies out there… Plus you get the added bonus that it’s set in Brookdale! Wendy Mass’s “The Stars at the Finish Line” is a very sweet story about stars and love! There is a great dynamic between the two protagonists here. What more do you need? And then the collection ends with an absolute bang… Libba Bray’s “It’s Just a Jump to the Left”! You knew there had to be a story about Rocky right? And Libba does it right and manages to write a whole coming of age novel in the span of a short story!

There’s a story for every type of geek here, and obviously not all the stories will work for everyone (the cat admits to not feeling much for a couple of the stories here!). But I don’t think that was the point of the editors. I think they wanted to come up with a book full of stories of being passionate about something, and sometimes that passion can get out of control and become an obsession, and sometimes that passion is what defines you, but sometimes it’s not.  Sometimes you grow out of your passion or obsession, sometimes it’s the thing that will comfort you forever. Geeks, nerds, freaks… they’re not all the same, you know.  It just happens that it’s the geeks who end up being picked on all the time, or made fun of. But that’s alright because at the very least, they don’t forget to be awesome. And if you keep an open mind, and look past what exactly it is “the geeks” are passionate about (instruments, books, sci fi, The Rocky Horror Picture Show…), you’ll see that these stories are what a lot of stories for teens are about: finding love and acceptance, finding yourself, staying true to yourself. Isn’t that the most natural and universal thing in the world?





Wonder (by R.J. Palacio)

6 03 2013

wonderHailed as the next The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Wonder is NYC-based author R.J. Palacio’s debut novel about a 10-year-old kid, Auggie Pullman, born with facial deformities caused by a genetic disorder, and his everyday attempts to defy the odds. You’d have to be a brute not to sympathize or at the very least root for Auggie. Of course, this assures that this book will be (and is) a real crowd pleaser, and reaches an audience that is broader than at first intended (Middle Graders), which in turn is very much like what Haddon achieved with his Curious Incident …  Very clever marketing indeed!

Both books of course, are sort of like the definite safe Oscar winners playing on everyman’s sentiment and heart. That is not to say, however, that Wonder is a bad book. Not.At.All! But an honest reviewer looks past the sentiment and the cat, for one, thinks that Wonder is actually a good book but with definite shortcomings as well.

Up till now – the beginning of 5th grade – Auggie has been homeschooled by his mom. Now, though, his mom thinks it is time for Auggie to go to a real school (like “a lamb to the slaughter” his dad claims). At school Auggie is confronted with the myriad of ways in which the kids and the grown-ups look at him… the story of his life, unfortunately. As if starting (Middle) school for the first time ever wouldn’t be bad enough in itself, Auggie has to deal with people having all sort of emotions when they see how different he is:  from sympathy to pity to hatred even. Only a minority doesn’t care what Auggie looks like and is friends with him regardless. Wonder is told from the perspective of 6 kids and Auggie’s voice – clearly the focal point – is only one of them. The other 5 voices are often interchangeable, though, which is the cat’s biggest reservation when it comes down to narration with multiple points of view.

R.J. Palacio – who in a former life was the designer of Paul Auster’s book covers – hasn’t written an earth-shattering novel with Wonder, but she deftly plays upon a human’s capacity to care and to be outraged at the same time. As is demonstrated in the book, often it’s not really the kids who judge a person’s looks, but rather, the kids just have questions, and it’s the adults in their lives who label and judge.  Favoring kindness as the ultimate human value, “when given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind,” is actually the most important precept of this book – a precept the cat does not agree with, btw. If your book is written from that perspective, obviously criticizing it from a non-kind perspective, will make you seem…well, like a brute.

But favoring truthfulness over kindness, for the cat Wonder was a book about an incredibly important topic but the way this is dealt with is a bit too sugary and Disney for my liking. Everything wraps up too neatly. Characters also fall into the good-bad categories a bit too conveniently. And this is not cynicism and not about believing in the fact that literally everyone gets a happy ending.





The Marbury Lens (by Andrew Smith)

20 02 2013

marburylensAndrew Smith’s The Marbury Lens starts off in the harshest of ways as a contemporary urban horror story in which 16-year-old Jack gets too drunk at a party and in a weird turn of events ends up being kidnapped by a horrible man, Freddie Horvath. Horvath consequently plays brutal mind games with him, molests him and intents on doing so much more than that… Jack narrowly escapes death and in the aftermath of this kidnapping he and his best friend Connor actually kill Freddie Horvath. Yes, you get kidnapping, attempted rape and murder all in the first 50 pages of this book… but that’s only the start because things are about to get much much worse…

Jack is left with the conflicting feelings of relief and guilt when he leaves for London to spend some time there checking out a school with his friend Connor (who will join him a few days later, which means Jack’s on his own at first). The entire Freddie Horvath experience only seems like a horrific prequel to what is about to happen once Jack arrives in London. A mysterious man, Henry Hewitt, slips him a pair of weird glasses and soon Jack realizes that looking through them takes him into a whole different – ugly, brutal, devastating – world: Marbury.  From then on out, Jack is progressively slipping into and out of worlds: the world “here” and the one in Marbury. Looking into the glasses has other side effects: Jack is starting to experience time loss, he gets sick every time he comes back from Marbury. And even more questions arise: is Henry Hewitt who gave him the glasses real or is he just imagining him? And what about Connor? Why and how is it possible that in one world Connor is his best friend and in that other world Connor is like a vicious beast who tries to kill him? And what about the girl he’s met in London, Nickie? What is her link to Marbury? Why can’t she see Marbury through the glasses? The plot of this book is so dense (I haven’t even mentioned Seth and the ghost plotline and Ben and Griffin, Jack’s friends in Marbury) that you’ll be on edge just to grasp what’s happening from page to page.

Despite the fact that the cat was definitely compelled to read on, reading The Marbury Lens, cannot be called a very “pleasant” experience (not that every reading experience should be a “pleasant” one, of course). The main emotions that kept coming back were indeed negative. There was confusion because you want to know how everything is tied together and it seems like you won’t get that resolution you’re after. Is there a reason why you get the elaborate Freddie Horvath prelude? How is Seth tied to Marbury and to Jack? But it’s also a seriously disturbing and unsettling book, which in turn instilled me with feelings of unease and anxiety. Not only is the world of Marbury one of utter rage and violence and desolateness, the world that Jack lives in “here” and where he could have been the victim of someone like Freddie Horvath is seriously disturbed as well. Yet, the most obvious thing fucking up the cat’s reading experience came from Jack’s mind. Jack’s the main focalizer of the story and we’re definitely getting his story in the most un-straightforward way. For the most part we get the story through his first person narrative, but at some points he refers to himself in the third person and his narration becomes so disjointed that it is really indicative of his bizarre state of mind and his ever escalating lapse into a mental wasteland, and it left this reader wondering how much of what I was reading that’s going on in Marbury was “real” and how much was actually Jack’s coping with a very traumatic experience.

The cat doesn’t what to go into authorial intent too much – plus I haven’t read the sequel Passenger yet – but Andrew Smith lifts a little bit of the veil in a Q&A with Publisher’s Weekly: “In writing the story though I never for a moment entertained the possibility that what was happening to Jack wasn’t real. I always wrote, from my perspective, that everything that was happening to him was absolutely real.” If that really is the case, then it will be interesting to see how and why Seth’s linked to Jack, whether Henry Hewitt will make another appearance and whether there’s more to Nickie than we’ve seen so far… Even though The Marbury Lens reading experience inspired negative emotions, it’s intriguing and enticing enough to make me want to read the sequel. That is the strength of a true author.

The Marbury Lens is the type of book that will split its readership in half: it will have the most ardent lovers who will hail Andrew Smith as one of the most promising visionary authors today, but at the same time it will have the most zealous haters who can’t get past the darkness of this true horror story. The reasons for these strong emotions, though, might not even be all that disparate. The Marbury Lens is definitely a book that delves so deep into the darkest corners of the human psyche – corners that one reader will acknowledge truly exist – that it’s both scary and alluring to read about. Other readers will just abhor these dark corners so much that they can’t get past those nauseating feelings they get and will not even acknowledge how deeply different this type of book is from other psychological sci fi. Is it really sci fi even? Yes, in part, I mean seriously: glasses that show you a different world? Seems pretty far out to me! But also: no not really, because we don’t exactly know how much of everything is “real” in the world of the book, or just real in the mind of the protagonist(s), and as such it is more of a psychological thriller than a sci-fi fantasy horror tale…  Po-ta-to, po-tah-to…

The Marbury Lens is a book that divides, for sure, but all props go to Andrew Smith for attempting a whole different type of thing here. However, to be truly honest, The Marbury Lens does feel incomplete (the how and why or raison d’être, if you will, of Marbury *if* it’s an actual place, for one) and considering that it’s only the first part in a series of books can only be a part of the explanation. It also feels like Smith bit off more than he could chew. What The Marbury Lens really lacks at this point in the narration is a sense of cohesion, something to ground everything. This of course is something the cat hopes to get in the sequel…





Blending in or standing out?

23 01 2013

Lots of questions and hardly any real answers about diversity in YA literature.

It’s a touchy subject. Check last year’s NPR Best Ever Teen Novels. These are the results of a poll, so definitely not reflecting the opinion of “experts” in the field, whoever they may be, and really… to be honest, a lot of these titles are more than a little suspect on a “Best Ever Teen” list. That’s beside the point, though. What the cat wants to get at is this: How many “people of color” – to use a truly awful phrase – do you see on that list? The cat is counting 3.

Since 1970, “the Coretta Scott King Book Awards are given annually to outstanding African American authors and illustrators of books for children and young adults that demonstrate an appreciation of African American culture and universal human values.” And more recently, since 1996, the ALA has given out the Pura Belpré Award: “The Pura Belpré Award, established in 1996, is presented annually to a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth.”  So, though it’s not an absolute requirement for getting the reward, you kind of hope that the winners of both awards do stand out literary speaking. Isn’t that what they refer to with the adjective “outstanding”?

Here’s the list of winners of both lists (since 1996).

Coretta Scott King Award:

Year

Work

Recipient

Title

Citation

2012

author

Kadir Nelson

Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans

Winner

2011

author

Rita Williams-Garcia

One Crazy Summer

Winner

2010

author

Vaunda Micheaux Nelson

Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshal

Winner

2009

author

Kadir Nelson

We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball

Winner

2008

author

Christopher Paul Curtis

Elijah of Buxton

Winner

2007

author

Sharon Draper

Copper Sun

Winner

2006

author

Julius Lester

Day of Tears: A Novel in Dialogue

Winner

2005

author

Toni Morrison

Remember: The Journey to School Integration

Winner

2004

author

Angela Johnson

The First Part Last

Winner

2003

author

Nikki Grimes

Bronx Masquerade

Winner

2002

author

Mildred Taylor

The Land

Winner

2001

author

Jacqueline Woodson

Miracle’s Boys

Winner

2000

author

Christopher Paul Curtis

Bud, Not Buddy

Winner

1999

author

Angela Johnson

Heaven

Winner

1998

author

Sharon Draper

Forged By Fire

Winner

1997

author

Walter Dean Myers

Slam

Winner

1996

author

Virginia Hamilton

Her Stories: African American folktales, fairy tales, and true tales

Winner

Pura Bulpré Award:

Year

Work

Recipient

Title

Citation

2012

author

Guadalupe Garcia McCall

Under the Mesquite

Winner

2011

author

Pam Muñoz Ryan

The Dreamer

Winner

2010

author

Julia Alvarez

Return to Sender

Winner

2009

author

Margarita Engle

The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom

Winner

2008

author

Margarita Engle

The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano

Winner

2006

author

Viola Canales

The Tequila Worm

Winner

2004

author

Julia Alvarez

Before We Were Free

Winner

2002

author

Pam Munoz Ryan

Esperanza Rising

Winner

2000

author

Alma Flor Ada

Under the Royal Palms: A Childhood in Cuba.

Winner

1998

author

Martinez, Victor

Parrot in the Oven: mi vida.

Winner

1996

author

Cofer, Judith Ortiz

An Island Like You: Stories of the Barrio

Winner

Now check the list of previous Printz Winners and Honor Books, “an award for a book that exemplifies literary excellence in young adult literature”.

Year

Recipient

Title

Citation

 

2012

John Corey Whaley

Where things come back

Winner

1984

2011

Paolo Bacigalupi

Ship Breaker

Winner

1972

2010

Libba Bray

Going Bovine

Winner

1964

2009

Melina Marchetta

Jellicoe Road

Winner

1965

2008

Geraldine McCaughrean

The White Darkness

Winner

1951

2007

Gene Luen Yang

American Born Chinese

Winner

1973

2006

John Green

Looking for Alaska

Winner

1977

2005

Meg Rosoff

How I Live Now

Winner

1956

2004

Angela Johnson

The First Part Last

Winner

1961

2003

Aidan Chambers

Postcards from No-Man’s Land

Winner

1934

2002

An Na

A Step from Heaven

Winner

1972

2001

David Almond

Kit’s Wilderness

Winner

1951

2000

Walter Dean Myers

Monster

Winner

1937

4 out of 13 winners are “people of color” (not counting Libba Bray…): Gene Luen Yang, An Na, Angela Johnson and Walter Dean Myers. However, despite there definitely being a lot of diversity on the Printz Winners list (4/13 does make 30%), for some reason, there are hardly any overlaps between the Printz list on the one hand and the Coretta Scott King / Pura Belpré list on the other hand. Angela Johnson won the Coretta Scott King award 3 times, with The First Part Last also snatching away the Printz. Walter Dean Myers won the Coretta Scott King Award 5 times plus a lifetime achievement award. Monster, didn’t win the Coretta Scott King Award (Honor book) but landed the Printz in 2000[1].

When we get to the Pura Belpré award, we see a completely different picture. Not one of the winners appears on the Printz list: not as Winners and not as Honor books. Also, not one of the Belpré Honor books is on the Printz Winners or Honors List either.  A very baffling fact considering they all deal with publications for children and young adults in any given year… which is why I went and checked those stats against the Newbery.

If you check Newbery (I only went back until 1996, which is when Pura Belpré started), there’s about as much diversity in its Winners as in their Honor books. Cynthia Kadohata, Linda Sue Park and Christopher Paul Curtis, have each won a Newbery (3/17 since 1996), and on the Honors list, there’s also Thanhha Lai, Rita Williams-Garcia, Grace Lin, Margarita Engle, Jacqueline Woodson, Marilyn Nelson and Christopher Paul Curtis (9/55 or about 16%). The William C. Morris award, which has only existed since 2009, hasn’t had an African American, Hispanic, Asian-American… winner, but it’s good to see that Guadalupe Garcia McCall was at least an Honor book in the year that she won Pura Belpré (2012).

Although definitely not frequently enough, African American writers and Asian American writers do appear on the lists if we cross-reference them. But Margarita Engle as the only established Latina writer and Guadalupe Garcia McCall as the only debut-writer worthy of a mention? Why is that? Well, obviously the committees of those awards have different standards and requirements. Can’t see, say, John Green or Geraldine McCaughrean winning a Pura Belpré Award because the criteria of the award don’t allow for it. On the other hand, does it really take an African American writer to “demonstrate an appreciation of African American culture and universal human values” ? I’d argue that in e.g. Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains there’s plenty of appreciation of the African American culture. The same might be true for the Latino cultural experience. But again, I’m digressing into a whole different debate, that of cultural ownership. And then we’re getting into questions like: “Do you have to be black to write a black character?”[2] or “Are only Jewish writers allowed to write about the Holocaust?”[3] or even “Can a woman write a male character?” . I think that’s bull and I completely agree with Michael Chabon when he says: “If a white member of the workshop wrote something from the point of view of an illegal Guatemalan immigrant—as I recall someone did—there were some people who said there were issues of cultural imperialism involved in doing that, that you shouldn’t do that. I understand it politically. I understand the historical context, completely. Artistically, I don’t understand it at all. Because if I can’t write from the point of view of a black woman nurse-midwife, then I can’t write from anybody’s point of view. That’s why I do this. I use my imagination to imagine myself living lives I don’t live and being people who I’m not.”

In a response to an Atlantic Wire article, Sarah Ockler argues that since the vast majority of YA literature is written by white authors – with only about 5 per cent of work put out by “people of color” – it falls to those white authors to diversify. It is clear that not including any form of diversity (racial, ethnical, religious, etc.) risks alienating kids and teens from those diverse backgrounds even more than is currently already the case. As a school librarian, I have a pretty good view of who reads books voluntarily and which books they read. I wish it were any different, but the teens checking out the books at my school – an urban school, with a greatly diversified student body – because they want to and not because they have to  … well, they’re 95% white. And this has as much to do with exposure as it does with recognizability.

Getting back to the issue at hand (I got into all this, simply because I wanted to review Caridad Ferrer’s When the Stars Go Blue). It’s really curious that there are so few Latino/Latina writers on those awards lists and that these books hardly ever (never) feature Latina/Latino characters. In a country where according to the 2010 US Census, Hispanics accounted for 16.7% of the national population, and thus are the largest minority race or ethnicity (the same census accounted for 12.6% Black or African Americans), I’d at least expect to see more than 1 Latino/Latina writer on those lists. The fact that the actual output of all the authors of color amounts to a mere 5% of all the work published in a given year, sort of sheds a different – though still worrying – light on the whole matter. Should we only focus on that 5% or should we also look at the 95%? Both, of course.

It’s true that people don’t like to step out of their own comfort zone. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the comfort zone of many a literary critic has been “books by white male authors”[4]. YA literature, on the other hand, has to deal with the ongoing idea that it is being “dominated” by female authors, even though the term “domination” clearly has to be taken with a big grain of salt, as demonstrated by e.g. Casey Wilson: “while female authors appear in larger numbers on the best seller lists, male authors are likely to rank higher and last longer when they appear on the lists. This pattern offers support to both sides of the debate, because while female authors certainly dominate in sheer numbers, male authors are in no way invisible.”

But I’d like to ask a similar question when it comes down to racial and ethnic diversity, in books by and about people of color. How many are featured is simply a mathematical issue and anything can be proven with numbers. Like, how male authors are in no way invisible when it comes down to bestseller lists (despite there being a bigger female output), but what about these authors/characters of color? Are they invisible or not? Token authors and token books? And that being asked, how does that fit in with a writer’s comfort zone? And that of a reader? And finally a critic’s comfort zone?

Let’s look at the writer first. I do agree with Sarah Ockler when she says that “sometimes a tamale is just a tamale”. Ignore the rules that say you need to write about what you know – which by the way does in no way mean you should write lies or incorporate stereotypes or be lazy about your writing and write in “a different from yourself” character just to fill a quota. No, it means that you should be true to the story and write what you know to be true for that story, even and especially when it means getting out of your comfort zone. Think with your humanist brain here, rather than with your critical brain. And realize that a tamale sometimes really is just a tamale. I’m glad that most contemporary YA writers recognize that a book can be a book without A Grand Message about an Important Issue.  If every book by/about people of color has “a message”, then diversifying misses the mark. Diversity is reality, it is not about wanting to teach a lesson, because that’s when we get to deal with those issues of cultural imperialism that Michael Chabon mentions. Not every (YA) book by/about white people has a message or wants you to learn something, so why should books by/about people of color? Rules like these are as A.S. King would say “bullshit rules” and instigate fear in the writer and writers should never be fearful. Writers need to be daring. And if a 20-something female white author wants to write about a gay black kid, why not? Or if 30-something male Latino author wants to write about an Asian-American teenage girl with a shoe-fetish,… please let me know where I can find that book!

Next up is the reader’s comfort zone. And comfort zone really has nothing to do with the background of the author for this particular reader. If the writing is convincing, if the experience is narrated believably or beautifully or heart-wrenchingly or honestly and manages to grab me as a reader, I don’t particularly care who wrote it, whether it was written by a fourteen-year-old green-haired white girl or a 65-year-old bald black man or a 30-something tattooed punk rock Latina chick. But I realize that my comfort zone as a reader is not the comfort zone of every reader and that especially when we’re dealing with teenage readers, often any form of recognition and acknowledgment of their own situation might be the spark that makes them come into the school library that second time but with just a tad more conviction than the previous time[5]. I like seeing that spark happen. It’s what makes my day on any given day. And that point of recognition is something these teens might look for in both the author and the characters in the book. In this regard, there’s a really interesting guest post over at Stacked where Ashley Hope Perez talks about why diversity matters. In it she describes some of the experiences of her students and the fact that for a lot of them “the gateway book—that critical read that would persuade them of all that words can do—was missing. “I want a book that shows how my life really is,” I heard over and over. “Not just somebody brown, but somebody real,” and she goes on to say that the way she tried to write a book just like that… by listening. She rightly says that “the best diverse reads grow out of a sense of urgency and a sense of particularity.” And that “tokenism, where a character’s background is either basically arbitrary or is the only reason they are included” is really not what diversity is all about.  So all in all, writers and readers? Not all that different when it comes down to diversity and comfort zones. And you know what, once a reader has been grabbed by that one book, you can bet your ass off they will be looking for another fix! Or they might even be ready to get out of their comfort zones… and wouldn’t that open a whole new world…?

Are the critics then the hardest nut to crack? I honestly hope not (and I don’t really think they are), because aren’t critics in essence also just readers looking for that spark (and at about 16%, the lists are well over the 5% output)? I have no objective information either way, but I keep getting back to how surprised I was seeing so few “people of color” when cross-referencing awards lists. As I said in the beginning, African American writers and Asian American writers do appear on the lists[6], but it’s a whwhen the stars go blueole different story with the Latino/Latina writers and characters, and that’s still what surprises me now, considering this is the biggest “minority group” in the US we are talking about. I started this whole article because I had just read When the Stars Go Blue, by Caridad Ferrer, which deals with a 17-year-old Cuban American girl, Soledad Reyes, whose passion is dance. Instead of spending her summer teaching dance, she is going to be part of a corps group, performing Carmen, which is a whole new experience for her. When the Stars Go Blue is a modern retelling of the Carmen story, including the love triangle. I picked out this book on purpose. Even though in my school/country there are very few Hispanics, I’d been on a mission to “diversify” the books I bought for the school library because I believe in exposure being key to opening up the world. When the Stars Go Blue seemed to have it all. Latina author? Check.  Latina main character? Check. Cover photo representative for the protagonist and the story? Check. And yet, the book let me down in a big way. Not because the protagonist wasn’t believable (she was) but because I felt the story dragged on and a lot of the writing was redundant.  So I started looking into other works featuring “the Latino cultural experience”, to quote Pura Belpré. That’s how I figured out there even was a Pura Belpré award… Hardly any of these writers and/or their books had showed up on my (YA) radar, and then I checked this list, and referenced it with that list, and then… yes, I had to ask the hard questions: are these works not considered to be “literary” or “outstanding” enough by award committees to be on the receiving end of that award (16% diversity, but hardly any Hispanics?)? What exactly are these committees looking for? And how is that different from what these ‘diverse’ teens themselves are looking for? Or, have they just been greatly overlooked by award committees until last year when Guadalupe Garcia McCall’s Under the Mesquite was recognized by the William C. Morris committee – I mean, seriously, people, the books are there? And if they are being overlooked, why is that? Are these books too far out of the critics’ comfort zone? I had and still have no real answers here.

But I am also drawn towards something else here, though, … that pesky thing of marketability, profitability and culture/creativity as a commodity, which is in essence a total oxymoron. Let’s get back to the fact that only 5% of the work that is published on the YA market is by/about people of color. Who buys books? If publishers think something is not going to sell and they can’t make money off it in the short rather than long term, then they won’t trouble themselves to “diversify” the market. Rightly or wrongly (self-fulfilling prophecies and all that), publishing houses – by means of their marketing departments – still seem to assume that “white” sells better than “color” and as long as making money is their comfort zone, taking a risk isn’t going to be on the table for them. So if we get back to the 5% of the published works put out by “people of color”, and if there’s any blame to be given out, it’s to those business people refusing to say “to hell with market research, I’m taking a chance on this author and this book and those characters”. If there were more output, if there were more guts and more humanist brain involved, and less money in making those decisions, then teens would have so much more to choose from (yes!) and jury members would have more than 18 books to choose from to make up their best of lists (self-published book hardly ever count as “real” entries) and we might get to see more “people of color” on those lists, including Latinos/Latinas, both as author and as character. Because choosing between 2500 books or 18 books… well, obviously you’ll get skewed lists[7]!

Blending in is the norm unfortunately. Standing out is to be avoided at all times. That’s what is killing diversity. And I am not just talking about diversity when it comes down to race and ethnicity. I realize that I have asked more questions than I’ve answered here. But it’s important to ask them and to keep on asking them. So please, writers and readers, keep mixing it up. Write the risky book you have in your head. Read the different book. As for publishing houses? I’m not that naïve to think that anything is about to change big time with the major companies, so my faith is with the writers, the readers and the small(ish) publishing houses. Stand out!

 

Edited on 29 Jan 2013: Wow, someone’s been listening…  hah! The 2013 YMA announced that Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe won Pura Belpré and was also a Printz Honor Book!


[1] In a side note, it might be interesting to see who was on those committees when those books by people of color were awarded.  It’s obvious that absolute objectivity does not exist when it comes to book rating, and nor should it! Books need to move you and what works for one reader will not work for another reader. Like, I personally don’t see why American Born Chinese won the Printz, and M.T. Anderson’s Octavian Nothing and Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief and even John Green’s An Abundance of Katherines were mere Honor Books in 2007. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and my taste is different. But even if I purely went for literary merit, from that list, I’d probably pick Octavian Nothing – interestingly enough also a book about “a person of color”. That being said, when lists are compiled and several people’s opinions have to be weighed in, often the book that pops up the most might win despite it not being everyone’s “favorite”.  Might be what happened when American Born Chinese won over the other Honor Books.

[2] This right here is an interesting article about that.

[3] Here’s an article that caught my eye about that.

[4] BTW, a very interesting breakdown of gender diversity (authors and protagonists) in award winners can be found here.

[5] BTW, that spark might easily just come from the book’s cover. Googling “race + YA covers” will also give you a wealth of info about how it’s important that covers are “diverse” too.

[6] Would I be naive to think that it’s coincidence that the two African American Printz winners just happen to be “established names”? Or is this me being cynical? Because the situation is different for the other 2 winners…

[7] BTW, in this list at Stacked which I found after writing this, Kelly Jensen identified no less than 22 out of 89 books  by/with people of color in several “Best Of” lists of 2012. That’s almost 25%, so definitely above the 5% mark previously stated. She also identified 6/89 books with LGBT themes (about 6%). It’ll be an interesting comparison with the “awards” lists when they come out!





Amelia Anne Is Dead and Gone (by Kat Rosenfield)

5 10 2012

One of the buzz-books of that past summer was definitely Kat Rosenfield’s fiction debut Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone. With good reason too, because from the very first – uncomfortable – scene till the last page when the mystery surrounding Amelia Anne gets its – confusing – resolution, you get the feeling that this book is definitely something else.

Amelia Anne Is Dead and Gone is another type of mystery novel, another type of coming-of-age (the official blurb has it as an un-coming-of-age), and another type of YA literature. It’s the type of book of which you just know that the author has been brooding on for the longest time. And it definitely has a prose writing style which is not often seen in contemporary YA: lyrical to the point of poetic, haunting almost dizzy-making language that is shrouded in similes and adjectival and adverbial phrases almost as mystifying as what happened to the dead unidentified girl by the road of small town Bridgeton. There’s a sense of urgency and inevitability oozing from the language Rosenfield so deftly employs.

Becca just graduated as her high school salutatorian. At the end of this summer, the plan is to leave her small, gossipy and mind-stifling town behind, and to make a future for herself, anything that can make her not come back will do.  So Becca as at a point of transition in her life. There’s just one last summer separating her from freedom from close-mindedness, gossip and standing still. One last summer she can spend with her boyfriend James (who dropped out of highschool), one last summer which is rudely interrupted by a dead girl – Amelia Anne, known to the reader, unknown to Becca and the rest of Bridgeton – and all the insecurities her appearance invokes in Becca.

Becca’s stoy is that of someone running to escape. Likewise, once we get to know Amelia Anne, we see that her story too, was one of escape, an escape from a future that was all laid out for her, but which she gets an opportunity to escape from through going for an acting degree. That is, until she died of course, which is when her future was taken away from her.

The cat loves ‘small town’ books and Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone is another great example of one, very reminiscent of books like Stephen King’s Misery or Dolores Claiborne and even Lauren Myracle’s Shine, for the same sense of eeriness they evoke! The florid – sometimes even confusing – writing style may not be for everyone, though. You will find yourself rereading certain scenes just to make sure you didn’t miss anything vital about the plot. Obviously, this may be an obstacle to readers who prefer their mystery stories to be straightforward and fast-paced. However, if you’re up for the style challenge, and don’t mind being off the beaten track once in a while, then Amelia Anne Is Dead and Gone is your book!





Marcelo in the Real World (by Francisco X. Stork)

30 01 2012

Marcelo in the Real World is one of those novels that will appeal to a broad audience, from the more accidental reader to the most critical of voices. It definitely has a few perks that will attract the critical masses, almost in true Academy Award tradition: a protagonist with a slightly skewed point of view (cf. Rain Man), a bit of a (legal) mystery, a dash of sexual attraction. It is also one of those books that, because of its slightly different protagonist (who’s at the same time the narrator) will undoubtedly be likened to another YA book with more or less the same theme, namely Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, which also combined the unreliable narrator POV (due to the protagonist’s Asperger Syndrome) with mystery. Read the rest of this entry »








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