Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes (by Chris Crutcher)

20 05 2013

SFFSBChris Crutcher is a giant in American YA literature, having won the Margaret A. Edwards Award already in 1997. By that time he already had 8 publications under his belt (not counting individual short stories), but much of the Award was probably because of the vital Staying Fat for Sarah Burnes (1993), in which everything that makes Crutcher into..err Crutcher is present: a focus on sport, the supporting role of the coach/teacher in a teen’s life, the responsibility of the parents as the teen grows into adulthood and of course, the friendship between teens. Also, he does not shy away from what one would call “issues”: abuse, abortion, intellectual freedom… it’s all there in Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes.

Initially connected through their common outcast status, Eric (who was fat) and Sarah Byrnes (who has horrible burn scars in her face because of an accident that occurred when she was 3) have been friends since forever.  Once Eric – or ‘Moby’ as he came to be called – discovered swimming, he started to slim down. He stayed fat for an entire year because he feared he’d lose Sarah Byrnes’ friendship, if he suddenly wasn’t anymore, but Sarah Byrnes is a tough kid, who doesn’t care about that at all! That’s why it’s so painful for Eric to see how this tough person who didn’t let her ugly face (his and her own words) get the better of her, just stopped speaking one day and is now in a hospital, where she just sits and stares catatonically… Eric knows something else is going on and wants to find out before it’s too late.

Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes shows the personal growth of not one (main) character (Eric), but of several. Obviously there is Eric, but Crutcher includes an important storyline of Mark Brittain whose insistence on what is right(eous) and moral, and what isn’t, has landed him in big troubles. Now he has to take responsibility for his actions, actions which may have been instigated by the pressure he’s been under since he was born! It’s not hard to see why a topic like religion – always a hotbed of controversy USA! – is not often tackled in a YA novel, but to his own credit, Crutcher does it, and even has the decency to show us the different sides of the argument (although the “liberal” point of view is clearly the implied better option!). If you don’t agree with the implied message, you might take offense here (and judging from the many challenges this book has received, I’m guessing a lot of people have!), but the cat didn’t one bit. Chris Crutcher totally Judy Blumed his way into the cat’s favor!

And another poignant question, though, might be: given the fact that this was published in 1993, when today’s teens weren’t even born, does it pass the test of time? And, yes, it’s true, the kids today may not get all the references in the book. They might know about Rocky Balboa and The Far Side, but I don’t see them getting the winks to Raymond Burr, Leave it to Beaver or even Scarface. That being said, the book surpasses its temporal allusions and is definitely worth being called “a classic”. It’s the type of story that sticks. It’s about being more than what people would usually call “your shortcomings”, or “your handicap”. It’s about getting challenged and true friendship and loyalty and looking beyond the obvious, the apparent, the superficial… If that’s not contemporary, I don’t know what is!


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?

Gone, gone, gone (by Hannah Moskowitz)

30 12 2012

gonegonegoneIn times when the cat has to tell students that “No, 9/11 was not the day that Barack Obama was elected president of the USA for the first time”, a book like Hannah Moskowitz’s Gone Gone Gone may serve as a perfect way to connect that (this) generation of teens with a past that they only know from the History Channel or from a old(er) relative musing about “Where they were when they heard about the Twin Towers” (getting the one and only Ringo the Cat, btw).

That being said, Gone Gone Gone is not about 9/11. It’s also not really about the 2002 Beltway sniper attacks. Both of these events do provide the story with the perfect eerie-sounding atmosphere, an atmosphere of not really know what exactly is happening with the world you’re living in. Instead, Gone Gone Gone is about two 15-year-old boys, Craig and Lio, who are trying to figure out what their place in the world is and what they mean to each other.

Gone Gone Gone is alternately told from Craig’s and Lio’s point of view. They first met online, because Craig is an ambassador for his school, the type of kid that shows new students around. Lio recently moved away from NYC to DC, where Craig lives. After sort-of-but-not-really breaking up with his ex-boyfriend Cory, Craig has totally lost himself in taking care of his 14 stray animals, animals that escape after a burglary at his house. So Craig has to deal with finding back his animals, but he’s also trying to juggle the emotions of losing Cory (or not quite) after an event that is never made entirely clear and finding Lio (or not quite) and figuring out what Lio might mean to him. Lio, from his part, is also one messed up kid, even his therapist Adelle agrees… When he was 7, Lio and his twin brother Theo got leukemia. Lio survived. Theo died. Not only does he have to deal with being “a cancer survivor”, there’s also his fragmented family life to consider.

Rather than focusing her attention on an intricate plot, Moskowitz is the mistress of voice and characterization,… 2 characters to be more precise. She deftly uses the alternating point of view of Craig and Lio, giving both of them distinct voices. A criticism here could be that the other characters, such as Craig’s parents, or Lio’s sisters or Adelle, are not as fleshed out as they could have been.  To Moskowitz’s credit, it’s definitely something that works here. Of the two the cat preferred Craig’s voice, which was often very stream-of-consciousness-like, with Craig losing himself in his long even melodramatic sentences (not the negative kind of melodrama, though!). Even though Craig is 15, at times you get the impression he’s a very young sort of 15 (or maybe that’s just his almost OCD type of behavior concerning his animals), while at other times, he’s clearly the voice of experience.  Even then, it’s obvious that it’s a vulnerable sort of experience. Contradictory, yes, but flowing from Moskowitz’s pen (or errr keyboard…) it sounds very convincing. Lio’s voice, on the other hand, was often a lot whinier (despite his not talking) – an authorial choice, btw, that the cat can get behind, it just made it a lot harder to ‘like’ Lio the way the cat immediately connected with Craig as a voice and character.

Truth be told, I hadn’t really expected it (there are so many “new” voices in YA-land), but Hannah Moskowitz’s writing  definitely has a freshness to it that shows talent, conviction and a heart for character. The cat loves authors with a heart for their characters. Writing a great and intricately plotted story is one thing, but if you manage to give a character a voice so unique and special and flawed and true, then it shows you’re willing to go there as an author, and that is the hallmark of a true author.

Beautiful Music for Ugly Children (by Kirstin Cronn-Mills)

20 12 2012

bmucGabe was born as Elizabeth, but he’s always known that he’s a boy. Beautiful Music for Ugly Children sets out to be a bold book, by an author who definitely doesn’t shy away from tough topics like transgender kids. And although there is no doubt whatsoever that this topic – or Issue, for lack of a better word – is incredibly relevant in contemporary (high) school life[1], a book is not (or should not be) just “about an issue” and unfortunately that is exactly what’s wrong with Beautiful Music for Ugly Children.

The main culprit for that is firstly the clear intention of Cronn-Mills to educate her audience. Proof of that is also for instance the author’s note at the end of the book explaining the whole spectrum of transgenderism. Interesting to know, yes, but it gives away that Cronn-Mills is more interested in educating her audience than really grabbing a reader with unique characters and a great story.

This is even enhanced by the disjointed writing. Gabe’s narration feels forced somehow. There’s very little that made the cat really care for Gabe as a character. Sure, the things happening to him are singular, sure it’s a disgrace that there’s so much misunderstanding and hatred out there against transgenders, resulting in bullying and even physical violence. But the feeling you get is that it’s something “the reader absolutely has to sympathize with because it’s a bad thing that is happening to transgenders”, rather than that “it’s goddamn awful that Gabe who’s such a great person has to suffer all of this. I mean, come on people!”. What I want to say is that there’s a whole river between what the author wants me to feel about the main character and what the cat actually feels about the main character.

On top of that (and it’s a result of the mediocre writing) the problems that Gabe encounters (relationship issues, bullying, the problems his parents experience because of his transgenderism, the radio show, etc.) all feel like “And first this. Then this. Then that…” . There really isn’t any natural flow to the story. The tensions between Gabe and his parents, for instance. Gabe tells us that his parents find it difficult to accept who he is, but there’s very little interaction between Gabe and his parents for the reader to believe that… Also, when there actually is interaction, they keep on calling Gabe Liz, and Gabe doesn’t call them on it (I think he only does that once). Secondly, the DJ contest. Gabe is a self-proclaimed music nut. However, why does he connect with the songs on his show? The DJ contest itself is also glossed over in a mere paragraph or two, and never did Gabe discuss the relevance of the songs he chose. The main highlight of the music angle of the book were the chapter titles (all outlaying who was the new Elvis and why…).

Seriously, Beautiful Music for Ugly Children is probably an important book because of its topic. I’m sure lots of transgender kids will relate to or at least recognize what Gabe goes through. But as a piece of writing, a published book, it doesn’t really hold up, never transcending the label of LGBT or Issues book, which is a total pity. Other authors, like David Levithan or Emily M. Danforth prove that such a thing really is possible.

[1] According to this website, gender related bullying is staggeringly high: 9 out of 10 LGBT youth reported being verbally harassed at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation. There’s also a clear link between gender related bullying and suicide amongst LGBT youth.

Anya’s Ghost (by Vera Brosgol)

21 10 2012

The cat doesn’t read too many graphic novels, so there’s not a lot of stuff to compare this to, but one thing’s for sure: Vera Brosgol’s Anya’s Ghost sure as hell beats Ghost World, both graphically and story-wise.

Graphic style, of course, is something very subjective, but Vera Brosgol’s black and white drawn figures of Anya and her ghost have an appeal that is both creepy and tender, which made this graphic novel into a real page turner – unlike the aforementioned GW!

The cover of Anya’s Ghost  shows a blurb by Neil Gaiman, which isn’t all that surprising either, when you know that Vera Brosgol worked as a storyboard artist on the Coraline movie. And when you look at some of the stills of Coraline, I think you’ll recognize Brosgol’s touch.

Here are images of both Anya’s Ghost and Coraline:

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Anya is the oldest daughter of a Russian immigrant and single-mom of two. She has struggled to fit in for a long time, but she has finally reached a sort of point of ‘normalcy’ in her high school existence: she no longer has an accent, she cuts class (especially gym) like any other high school teen, she smokes and struggles with her weight. She attends a private school (the only one in the state her mom could afford) on the advice of her mom’s Russian (church-) friend, whose son, the complete fobby – fresh of the boat – Dima, got a scholarship there.  Her life gets a weird(er) edge when she falls down a well and meets a ghost, Emily Reilly. When Anya gets saved from the well, Emily manages to escape from the well too, courtesy of a small bone from her skeleton that ended up in Anya’s bag. Although she’s sort of cautious at first, Anya soon enjoys the advantages of have a ghostly BFF: Emily makes sure she gets good grades and that the high school’s most desirable jock she has a crush on notices her.

Vera Brosgol addresses a number of elements that contemporary teens often struggle with. She understands that the balance between family life and school life is a precarious one – something which gets even more complicated when you are the daughter of a Russian orthodox immigrant. She also deftly manages to incorporate a teen’s need to belong and the need to transgress (the thing about the plaid uniform skirts is so recognizable!).  Add to that the nice touch of fantasy, a smattering of mystery and intrigue, a great sense of (yes, snarky) humor, a main character who shows some actual growth and a incredibly cool no crap-taking side character (Siobhan), and the mix you get is a layered graphic novel the cat would recommend to anyone!

The Miseducation of Cameron Post (by Emily M. Danforth)

19 09 2012

The Miseducation of Cameron Post would be the cat’s entry for the William C. Morris award if she had a say in it. As a first break onto the YA – or any literary – scene it is definitely one hell of a statement, both topic-wise and literary wise. Giving us a brand new take on coming-of-age, Danforth introduces us to Cameron Post, who tells her story sometime after the event she’s narrating in the book, that of her finding her (sexual) identity.

At the age of 12, Cameron’s parents die in a tragic accident during a weekend trip up to Quake Lake. After the obvious initial shock Cameron can’t but feel relief…relief that now they will not find out that just the day before Cameron had kissed her best friend Irene Klauson. Having grown up in desolate, conservative, Miles City (aka Miles Shitty), Montana, Cameron is convinced that what happened to her parents is her punishment, and she no longer just feels relief, but also shame and guilt for having done what she did. Her parents’ death marks a shift in her friendship with Irene (the girls had previously been almost inseparable, the way 2 best friends can be in that innocent pre-teen stage of life). From then on the two drift apart – not just because Irene moves away to a fancy boarding school due to her family’s newfound richness – and Cameron tries to find solace in being cooped up inside, watching rental movies. The events surrounding Cameron’s first hesitant chaste kiss with Irene Klauson, her feelings for Irene before and after the kiss, the feelings of guilt and shame because of what happened to her parents are what determine the first part of the book. In the second part, Cameron’s aunt Ruth has moved in to take care of her. The kiss between Cam and Irene may have made Cameron feel guilty, the feelings which lie at the bottom of it don’t just disappear, and in the following years Cameron starts experimenting, mostly very innocently through the movies she rents (from Thelma and Louise to The Hunger). She also hooks up with Lindsey, a girl who comes to Miles City every summer for the swim competition. Contrary to Cameron, Lindsey is well aware of her sexuality, and seems to know all about the LGBQ-community (she’s from Seattle). In part 3 of the novel, things take a turn for the best and worst for Cameron when she gets to know Coley Taylor, a beautiful cowgirl who goes to the same church and youth group as Cameron. See, Aunt Ruth is a conservative person, conservative even in Miles City, and she has found God again (she’s a born again Christian), and she has Cameron join her when she attends Gates of Praise. Cameron has been in love with Coley ever since she first lay eyes on her. The two girls form a friendship, a friendship which of course gets complicated because Cameron clearly has romantic & sexual feelings for Coley, while Coley has a boyfriend and is (or seems) as straight as can be. Yet, the two girls bond, and when Coley’s boyfriend is away for the summer, they take their friendship to a new (sexual) level. But this is Miles City, Montana, and Coley exposes their relationship, overcome by feelings that she probably can’t explain herself, after which Aunt Ruth finds out, and ships Cameron off to “conversion camp”, God’s Promise… a de-gaying camp. God’s Promise is a religious school where Cameron is forced to face her sins, and where she will be “cured” of the sin of homosexuality. The stay and this camp and the way that Cameron has to deal with who she is forms the last part of the book.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post is bulky book, closing in on shy of 500 pages, but it’s exactly this broad scope that renders the books its authenticity. Cameron’s voice is nothing if not real and authentic. From the way she talks about the period when she was 12 (1989) to the period at God’s Promise when she’s 17 (1993-1994), there’s a believability in what she tells us she felt at those times, and the way she behaves. Cameron may have been a good little girl at 12 (except for the shoplifting, of course), but over the years she starts to behave like any other teenager, experimenting with drugs, alcohol and yes , … sexuality. The only thing with Cameron, though, she doesn’t experiment with teens of the opposite sex, but of the same sex. And, yes, the conflicting feelings of being gay in an all-out conservative town isn’t lost on Cameron. She even ‘tries out’ her friend Jamie, despite the fact that she feels that it’s not how or who she is.

What makes this book also one of the truest around is the way the antagonists are portrayed. It would be very easy to put the blame on Aunt Ruth and the people at God’s Promise. But that’s not what happens. All of them are so completely and utterly convinced of what they are saying and doing that any form or trying to tell them otherwise is futile. So it’s like 2 parties talking/not talking to each other, and the only thing either of them say is “you’re wrong”. Cam is who she is, there is no changing, or de-gaying, or converting her, and Aunt Ruth, Reverend Rick and even Lydia are who they are, despite Lydia’s secular Cambridge (England!) education. After a particularly horrible event at God’s Promise, Cameron observes: “I’m just saying that sometimes you can end up really messing somebody up because the way you’re trying to supposedly help them is really messed up.” (p.399) This is the farthest that Cameron herself goes in condemning and blaming the others for sending her to the camp. And even though this might not sound all that militant, it definitely reinforces the feelings of frustration that she feels, and that you as a reader will feel about what’s going on not just with Cameron, but with and to so many other real teens who go – willingly or unwillingly – to these types of camps. In a side note, the conversation that Cameron and aunt Ruth have when Cameron gets to go home for Christmas and when they reflect on Cameron’s ‘healing’ process is probably one of the most lifelike conversations ever between a teen and an adult who’s supposed to be the person with all the control and power over said teen (p. 342-344): neither of them know what the other feels and they just can’t get out of that situation.

Apart from an honest exploration of a teen’s sexual identity, The Miseducation of Cameron Post is also descriptively a beautifully written novel, yes slow-moving, but oh so atmospheric because of it. The detailed descriptions of the rural Montana setting will draw you into an almost alien world if you’re – like the cat – not accustomed to the landscape Danforth is describing. Likewise, when Cameron describes how the other girls make her feel, for instance, it’s like she wants you bring home that experience as much as possible so that it feels not just the most natural thing ever, but also universal, because ‘hey look, this is all how we fall in love, how we experience first kisses,…’: “There’s nothing to know about a kiss like that before you do it. It was all action and reaction, the way her lips were salty and she tasted like root beer. The way I felt sort of dizzy the whole time. If it had been that one kiss, then it would have been just the dare, and that would have been no different than anything we’d done before. But after that kiss, as we leaned against the crates, a yellow jacket swooping and arcing over some spilled pop, Irene kissed me again. And I hadn’t dared her to do it, but I was glad that she did.” (p.10)

The Miseducation of Cameron Post will be hailed as a great LGBQ-novel, but it’s more than just that. It explores identity and sexual identity, yes, but in doing so in transcends that mere label, which could (but definitely shouldn’t) limit its exposure. It’s also just a beautifully written novel with a great protagonist who’s at a turning point in her life. And again, what is more engaging and beautiful in a piece of literature than a character finding his/her place in the world[1]?

Dangerous Angels: The Weetzie Bat Books (by Francesca Lia Block)

2 06 2012

Dangerous Angels is a collection of 5 of the Weetzie Bat Books:  Weetzie Bat (1989), Witch Baby (1991), Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys (1992), Missing Angel Juan (1993) and Baby Be-Bop (1995). With this series of books Francesca Lia Block established herself as one of the most unique voices in the (relatively) short history that is YA literature. In the Weetzie Bat Books Francesca Lia Block sketches the urban landscape that is Shangri-LA, in a way that is both age-defining and timeless. Her stories are indeed urban fairy tales interweaving the complexities that made up the realities of 1980s and 1990s Los Angeles. What permeates the entire collection, though is love, the most dangerous angel of them all.

In the first novella we meet Weetzie Bat, a colorful different type of girl. At school she befriends Dirk, who – though he’s adored by all the girls at their school – does not show any interest in them because he is gay, something Weetzie likes because they can find boyfriends – Ducks – together now. Weetzie calls her ideal boyfriend Secret Agent Lover Man and when Weetzie gets a lamp from Dirk’s grandmother Fifi, it turns out there’s a genie in the lamp, Lanky Lizards, who grants her three wishes.  Because World peace is out of the genie’s league, she finally wishes “a Duck for Dirk, My Secret Agent Lover Man for me, and a beautiful little house for all of us where we can live happily ever after.” In true fairy tale style, her wishes are granted. The second novella Witch Baby, is about Witch Baby, the daughter of My Secret Agent Lover Man. She is also different from the rest, even within her own family. She doesn’t get on with her almost-sister Cherokee Bat, and she can drum very well. In the artistic Bat family, it’s also the music that sets Witch Baby truly free, that and her longing for her own angel, who comes to her in the form of Angel Juan, a Mexican boy. In Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys, the Goat Guys are Raphael ( Cherokee’s longtime boyfriend) and Angel Juan. Cherokee gives Witch Baby magical wings, which make her almost fly away when she’s drumming.  This part of the series has the most transcendental elements, as it also incorporates a lot of Native American elements. In Missing Angel Juan, Angel Juan has left Witch Baby and Witch Baby goes to New York to stay in the apartment of the deceased Charlie Bat who is now a ghost who helps her understand there’s life without Angel Juan. Angel Juan, though, returns to Witch Baby when he’s realized that love – though it might be a dangerous angel – is not something to be afraid of. In the last novella of the collection, Baby Be-Bop, we learn more about Dirk and how he came to be who he is when he met Weetzie.

Francesca Lia Block’s Dangerous Angels evokes an urban landscape where openness and infinite acceptance are key, and with topics like a.o. (homo)sexuality, AIDS and fluid families, it will have (and has had) undoubtedly as many fans routing for Weetzie, Dirk and the rest of the family as it has opponents condemning the pluralism of Block’s vision.  Weetzie and her elaborate family not only practice that openness, but Block’s prose itself contributes to it: it is lyrical yes, but mostly it is sensory. Once you start reading her writing, you can get caught up in it and you feel, smell, breathe Los Angeles and the Weetzie Bat family. Yet again, this is not always the easiest and safest route, but once you’ve opened up yourself, you’ll be enchanted by it as much as I was.

There are very few authors who have such a distinctive voice, but Francesca Lia Block has one. Even 20 years after the first publication of Weetzie Bat, the novellas have lost nothing of their power: evocative, creative, magical,… they still stand out from the crowd of mediocre YA supernatural romance novels.

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