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Happy Belated Banned Books Week!

October 3, 2011

Last week was Banned Books Week, and though I should have done a post on one of my favorite banned or challenged books I….didn’t.¬† However, I did respond to the challenge on the Banned Books Week website and YouTube channel and posted a video of me reading an excerpt from a banned or challenged book. (As you can see I obviously care tremendously about personal appearance on public videos ūüėȬ† Anyways, as stated in the video, I chose to read from A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle because I discovered on the aforementioned BBW website that during the 1990s when I was just a wee elementary school student (and voraciously reading Madeleine L’Engle books) MY HOME COUNTY–Catawba County, North Carolina– attempted to ban A Wrinkle in Time.¬† How sad is that?¬† So here, for your listening (but perhaps not viewing) pleasure, is an excerpt from A Wrinkle In Time.¬† Enjoy!

 

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Middle Grade vs. Young Adult Lit./Invitation to the Game vs. The Game by Monica Hughes

September 15, 2011

The other day I randomly happened to be at Borders Books in midtown Atlanta on what happened to be the last day of their going-out-of-business sale. Being me, I immediately searched for the children’s section but discovered there were no children’s books left, and that made me happy because I thought well, at least children know the value of a good book. ¬† There was, however, a section still left of young adult and teen books, and it was in this section that I made an interesting discovery. Nestled amongst the vampires and other supernatural teen romances was a book called The Game by Monica Hughes which I instantly realized was a re-release of one of my favorite middle grade novels, previously entitled Invitation to the Game. However, the puzzling part to me was that this middle grade novel was now being released as a young adult novel, and I wanted to know why. I then decided that this would be a perfect opportunity for us to have a good discussion about the differences between middle-grade literature and young adult literature.

  Middle Grade       VS.                  Young Adult

Firstly, I have recently rewritten both the tagline and About Me sections of this blog, because I had previously written that I was going to blog about young adult and teen literature, when in fact I have been writing about middle grade literature as well. This is because I have stubbornly refused to adapt to the new definitions of children’s literature. When I was a kid, what is now known as middle-grade literature was known as young adult literature, and what is now known as young adult literature was a very tiny sub-category of children’s lit called teen books. However, in the last couple decades books written specifically for teens have exploded in popularity and the definitions of children’s literature have changed.

Now, I am not in publishing or the bookselling business (except for the amazing six months I worked at Eagle Eye Books) so I do not have a professional opinion on this matter.¬† No, I am merely a former English major, struggling writer, and general nerd who happens to adore middle grade and young adult literature.¬† Because of this, I am first going to provide you with some links to other people’s breakdowns of the differences between middle grade and young adult lit:

Here is a good blog by some publishing agents that can explain the differences more fully…and here’s another one by a children’s author…

(Interestingly, while the two blogs give good descriptions of the genres, they disagree on a key difference: whether middle grade or YA novels are¬† more focused on the interiority of the character or on outward events.¬† I think I can propose a simple solution to this dilemma:¬† they are BOTH focused on the interiority of the character.¬† That is the nature of (good) storytelling.¬† It is simply how the character reacts and changes inwardly which determines whether the novel is middle grade or young adult.¬† Even the most precocious and mature middle grade character will still have an air of innocence about him/her which distinguishes the character from a YA one.¬† I cannot help but chuckle, though, at the thought that the disagreement might be because it is the differences in thinking between an agent and a writer….what do you think?)

If you just want a quick overview, then here we go:¬† middle grade literature is written for ages 8-12 while young adult literature is written for 13 and up.¬† Also, the protagonist for these books usually correspond to these age groups.¬† Middle grade books are usually shorter¬† than YA novels.¬† Furthermore, the material for YA novels can include more mature content such as romance, sexuality, and violence, and the vocabulary may also be more advanced.¬† These are the basic “rules” for determining how a book should be classified and they are not set in stone by any means.¬† Also, as mentioned above, there is disagreement about whether the type of internal changes the main character goes through and the plot devices that incite those changes are different in middle grade and YA novels¬† Certainly the plots and internal struggles for YA novels are sometimes more complicated because they are written for older readers, but that is not always the case.¬† As it is with any type of Art, the best books are often the ones that break all the rules.

You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.

-Madeleine L’Engle

Blurbology:  In keeping with the dual nature of this post I have written two blurbs, one for the young adult The Game and one for the middle grade Invitation to the Game.

What would you do if at graduation you were told that in a world where most work is done by robots there would never be a job for you?¬† What if you were forced to join the ranks of the Permanently Unemployed, confined to a Designated Area, and provided with only the most basic needs?¬† It is 2154 and this is what happens to Lisse and her friends.¬† If they want to survive they must stick together, avoid the gangs and the Thought Police, and make a home for themselves amongst the drug addicts and derelicts.¬† But even as they struggle to create and maintain a safe home for themselves, the friends find that they are overcome by boredom and hopelessness…that is, until they hear about The Game.¬† What is it?¬† Is it real? Is¬† it run by the Government or someone else?¬† No one knows for sure, but once Lisse and her friends start playing The Game they quickly get sucked in and it becomes their reason for living.¬† The friends eat, sleep, and breathe The Game but they don’t realize exactly what it is they’ve gotten themselves into until its already too late…

A unique vision of the future that comes alive for the reader– The Game is modern dystopic masterpiece.

A riveting and revealing read,  Invitation to the Game is an exciting science fiction story set in the not-too-distant future of 2154.  Lisse and her friends are devastated when they find out at graduation from the government school they have attended for ten years that they will not be part of the lucky few who get jobs.  Instead, in a world where most work is done by robots, they will join the ranks of the Permanently Unemployed.  Confined to a Designated Area and virtual prisoners in a dangerous city, the friends work hard to make a home for themselves and find meaningful work to do, but boredom and hopelessness threaten to tear their newfound family apart, that is, until they hear about The Game.  No one seems to know what The Game is, but everyone wants to be a part of it.  When the friends find an invitation slipped under their door they travel to a mysterious place called Barton Oaks for their first session of The Game.  What they discover, none of them expected.  Is it virtual reality?  Hypnosis?  Is it real?  The more the friends play, the less it seems to matter, but eventually  The Game will take Lisse and her friends on an adventure that is far beyond anything they could have ever imagined.

The Analysis:

There are arguments that could be made either way as to whether The Game/Invitation to the Game is a middle grade or a young adult novel, but I personally am going to argue for middle grade.¬†¬†¬† The most obvious argument for it to be a YA book is that it has teen characters.¬† The main character, Lisse, is 16 and it is assumed that her friends are all about the same age.¬† Another argument that could be used¬† to claim it as a YA book is that it is a dystopia novel (told y’all I had a thing for dystopia novels!) and therefore could be considered to be too complex for younger readers to understand, but here’s where that breaks down:¬† the prose is simple and everything is explained in a beautifully clear, straightforward way.¬† Humans developed robots to do work.¬† Once that system of using robots to do the work was in place, it was hard to stop it.¬† Now there are not enough jobs for people.¬† Something must be done with the people so they are confined to restricted areas and provided basic needs.¬† The Thought-Police keep everything under control.¬† It is that complex, yet that simple. ¬† No political or socioeconomic explanations are necessary to understand this world–that is the nature of both children’s books and dystopia novels in my humble opinion.¬† Furthermore, since the readers sees the world of the story through the main character’s eyes, and she is a teenager, one would expect there to be a lot of angst and other signs of a teenager’s stereotypical emotional turmoil, but again the book is not written that way.¬† The main characters certainly have emotions, but they are mostly shown through dialogue and action, and the book is very centered around plot.¬† Re-reading this as an adult, I found myself wondering more about the inner lives of the characters, but as a child I remember everything being very clear and reasonable but still exciting.¬† This is why I think this is more of a middle grade book than a YA book:¬† even though the characters are teenagers and the setting is an adult world, the viewpoint is that of a child.¬† As an example, the only mention of romance in the book is a vague crush that Lisse has on her friend Brad, but that quickly fades from the story and is not important.¬† As a child I accepted that without question, but as an adult I wondered why the romance was so unimportant to the character.

I really enjoyed Invitation to the Game, both as a child and now, because it is exciting in a subtle way.¬† The book is somewhat of a mystery novel.¬† Basically, the plot (and point) of the book is to figure out what The Game is, or rather, what the point of The Game is.¬† You figure it out as the characters figure it out. ¬† Now, since I have read it before and I am also now an adult, everything coming together at the end to make an explanation is not as exciting as it once was, but I remember being blown away by the ending as a child.¬† I loved that feeling!¬† Somehow I just cannot imagine teenagers having the same reaction…

So, those are my arguments for why The Game formerly entitled Invitation to the Game by Monica Hughes is in fact a middle grade novel, not a young adult  novel.  However, not matter what age you are, if you like amazing science fiction/dytopia novels then check this book out!  It is truly a unique and excellent story.

The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi

September 2, 2011

The Decatur Book Festival blows into town this weekend with hurricane-like literary force, and I along with many other bibliophiles will be roaming the streets of Decatur in search of presentations by various authors, workshops, and¬† good deals on some kick-ass books.¬† The whole thing begins in just a few hours (sorry, I’m a procrastinator) with a keynote address by the author Colin Meloy (who yes, also happens to be the frontman of the indie band The Decemberists) on his new young adult book Wildwood, the first of a forthcoming trilogy, with illustrations by his wife Carson Ellis (who yes, did the illustrations for The Mysterious Benedict Society as well as The Decemberists album covers).¬† It is extremely exciting to have a middle grade/young adult author be the keynote for such a prestigious festival and I believe it will help elevate the academic and professional perception of the genre.¬† But I am mentioning all this of this because I want to talk about another author coming to the festival, the award winning middle-grade author Avi who is coming tomorrow to talk about his newest book City of Orphans.¬† Unfortunately I have read neither Wildwood nor City of Orphans, but in honor of the Decatur Book Festival and Avi I have decided to review my favorite Avi book, the 1990 Newbery Honor winning The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle.

Why is it that as adults we love “rags to riches” stories but as children we loved “princes (or princesses) to paupers” stories?¬† OK, I’ll admit that these type of stories may be adults’ sneaky way of teaching kids humility.¬† And granted, the prince/princess-type character and the pauper-type character often end up rich together at the end…but still.¬† Didn’t we love those stories because of the excitement?¬† The princess escapes her tower to have grand adventures among the people?¬† We loved it.¬† The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle is just such a story.

The Blurbology:

It is the summer of 1832 when 13-year-old Charlotte Doyle steps onto the deck of the Seahawk for a trip across the Atlantic.¬† She is a girl on the threshold of being a proper lady.¬† After finishing her term at the Barrington School for Better Girls in England, Miss Doyle is sailing back to America to join her family.¬† In white gloves and petticoats and with a disdain for the filthy, uneducated sailors, Charlotte has no idea how dangerous, and transformative, this voyage will be.¬† Stowaways, mutiny, murder and betrayal await her on the high seas, but whose side is she on?¬† The refined but sadistic Captain Jaggery or the overworked mutinous crew?¬† Charlotte’s loyalties slowly change as the truth of who is truly savage on this ship emerges, and the consequences of her decision will lead to her being tried and convicted of murder. ¬† Riveting and almost painfully lucid¬† The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle gives readers an uncompromising heroine–one whose decision to go against everything she knows leads to a different kind of education, and ultimately, a new life.

The Analysis:

What is truly brilliant about Avi is that he can write about violence in a way that will not frighten or turn away children from his stories.¬† The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle is a brutally violent story, yet I read it as a child and was not traumatized.¬† What made the story so bearable to my young mind was that Avi tells the story through the lenz of a thirteen-year-old female character, and a very sheltered and refined girl at that!¬† The reader truly understands how Charlotte is thinking, and why she makes the decisions she makes.¬† And although some of Charlotte’s decisions would have been highly improbable in 1832, the reader is satisfied because it is what we want her to do, what she really should do to redeem her character and make her a better person. ” But isn’t that a bad thing?” you may ask, “to tell a child that something so unrealistic could happen?”¬† Of course not.¬† Adult literature can be a mirror held up to show us our true flawed human nature, but the role of children’s literature has always been to instruct and enlighten in a positive way. Charlotte must see past her bourgeois upbringing because we must, even if in 1832 it would be scandalous and dangerous for a young woman to do what she does.¬† Furthermore, Charlotte becomes a fantastic strong female heroine for any young girl who is afraid to pursue something seen as socially unacceptable, even in our much less restrictive 21st century world, and although it may just be my aforementioned feminist side coming out, I believe that type of character is both necessary and timeless.

The View From Saturday by E.L. Konigsburg

August 24, 2011

Notice anything about the title of this particular book?¬† Seems a little familiar…alright, you caught me.¬† I shamelessly stole the title of this blog (slightly modified) from this fantastic book by one of my favorite young adult authors, E.L. Konigsburg.¬† The View From Saturday won the Newbery Medal in 1997, smack dab in the middle of my adolescence (I was 11), and it has become one of my very favorite young adult books.

Fun Fact:¬† E.L. Konigsburg won a Newbery Medal¬† in 1968 for From The Mixed up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.¬† That’s 29 years before her Newbery for The View From Saturday.¬† It is the longest stretch of time between any two Newbery medals awarded to the same author.¬† Konigsburg also is the only author to win both a Newbery Medal and a Newbery Honor award in the same year.¬† Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth won a Newbery Honor award the same year From The Mixed up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler won the Newbery Medal.

The Blurbology:

Noah is a know-it-all with a knack for getting into strange situations, Nadia is stuck between two worlds after her parent’s divorce, Ethan is trying to emerge from the shadow of his nearly-perfect older brother, and¬† Julian is the new kid–a strange boy raised between cultures–between India, England, America and the High Seas, and who starts everything by inviting the others to a tea party. Meet The Souls: four friends who didn’t know that they needed each other, until they did.¬† Meet their teacher: Mrs. Olinski has just returned to teaching after a horrible accident which has left her in a wheelchair.¬† The five of them, teacher and students, begin a journey together after Mrs. Olinski unknowingly chooses the four members of The Souls to be on the sixth grade academic bowl team. To the astonishment of the rest of the school, the sixth grade team wins, and then keeps on winning until they are on their way to the middle school state championship.¬† Their success surprises everyone but Mrs. Olinski, but the real question of the story is this:¬† did she choose The Souls, or did The Souls choose her?

The Analysis:

It’s hard to explain why this book is so magical.¬† I think that as we become adults we automatically start becoming bitter about our relationships once we lose our innocence.¬† For example, we no longer believe in love at first sight–that magical feeling of belonging to another human being without even knowing why.¬† But, what happens to the four friends in The View from Saturday is like friendship at first sight.¬† As soon as Noah, Nadia, Ethan and Julian are together for the first time to have tea at Sillington House, as a kid, you just know.¬† They are friends, forever, whether they were before or not.¬† As an adult, it is hard to believe in such instantaneous trust and affection, but I remember reading this book as a child and even as a teenager (I’ve always been young at heart) and feeling a warm glow of belief in the power of true friendship.¬† And what’s more, you not only believe in the true power of¬† The Souls’ friendship, but you also believe in the power of your own relationships.¬† I think that’s why I loved this book so much as a child:¬† it made me believe that I too could have such powerful, true friendships.

(Now, let me cheat for just a second…)

In no other book this year were the potentials of both heart and mind in children laid out with such persuasive clarity…it’s a jubilant, unique tour de force.

-John Peters, chair, 1997 Newbery Committee

Above¬† I have given you a very nostalgic analysis of¬† The View from Saturday so let me give you a few reasons why this book is also good literature.¬† Konigsburg’s prose is simple and clear, and aligns with the communication style of the characters in the book:¬† when they choose to communicate, they do so very precisely. ¬† Her words tell no more and no less than what needs to be told.¬† This is not to say that the novel is without description or mood, this is to say that Konigsburg writes clearly without being verbose.¬† This in part is the “persuasive clarity” Mr. Peters mentions in his review.

In the book, the children use their collective knowledge, gleaned from individual journeys to help them win quiz bowl matches. ¬† The chapters containing the characters’ individual journeys are a result of the book’s origins as several short stories that E.L Konigsburg realized were related and melded together into a novel.¬† From these individual journeys and also the world of the story, you start to realize that all of the characters have relatives and friends in common.¬† The people in this book are knit together in community, and as a child I loved figuring out all of the connections that the characters had, especially when they did not realize it themselves.¬† It is these tiny puzzles and mysteries, and secrets the reader has from the characters, that I believe pushes the novel from a good one into a great one.¬† It takes great skill to weave such a tapestry.

Finally, as Mr. Peters says above, the book shows the potential of the characters.¬† The quiz bowl plot is not important, it is the development of the individual characters and their collective friendship that is important.¬† It is the relationship between teacher and students that is important, not the outcome of their practices.¬† In this way, by focusing so much on these wonderful child characters, E.L Konigsburg truly demonstrates “the potential of both heart and mind in children.”

So, go to your nearest independent bookstore, and buy a copy of this wonderful book, one of my all-time favorites, for your favorite young adult!!

Daughter of Smoke & Bone by Laini Taylor

August 16, 2011

For six glorious months I worked at a local independent bookstore, Eagle Eye Books, here in my adopted home of Decatur, Georgia.¬† While I was there I had access to Advance Reading copies of upcoming books that would soon be published.¬† Being in college at the time, though, I really didn’t have time to read them, no less write about them!¬† It was with surprise and pleasure then, that I recently was handed another Advance Reading copy at another local independent bookstore, the fabulous Little Shop of Stories, where I was browsing and moping about not having enough money to purchase a book.¬† Now I finally have the chance to write a review of a book that has not yet reached the general public, before zillions of others can chime in with their input.¬† We’ll see how my analysis and predictions pan out.¬† Well, without further ado, I present¬† my thoughts on a fantastic new book, coming out in October 2011, Daughter of Smoke & Bone by National Book Award Finalist Laini Taylor.¬† It is an AMAZING read.

The Blurbology:

Seventeen-year-old Karou’s life is split between two worlds: her life as an art student in the winding, enchanted streets of Prague, and her secret life through a magic portal in a shop run by monsters who have raised her since she was a baby. As Karou navigates her two worlds, running dangerous errands in foreign lands, dealing with obnoxious ex-boyfriends, collecting languages, making wishes, and wondering about her mysterious past, she is haunted by a feeling that there is something missing inside of her, an emptiness that cannot be filled. It will take an encounter with a beautiful winged stranger and the discovery of an ancient and terrible war to turn her world upside down and to take Karou places even she never expected. An intense, magical, and riveting read, Daughter of Smoke & Bone by Laini Taylor, will draw you in and make you question everything you’ve ever thought about the nature of good and evil.

The Analysis:

Ok, so after I read it I hesitated to write about this book because I feel the need to gush about it, and I want to be taken seriously as a critic, not mistaken for an overenthusiastic reader with no eye for the subtleties of the written word; however, this book is excellently written, with an intricate plot and well-developed characters.¬† It’s hard not to gush!¬† My adoration of this book is particularly strange as¬† I would firmly place Daughter of Smoke & Bone in the teen category due to the age of the main character and some of the darker aspects of the storyline.¬† Teen books do not usually impress me.¬† Let’s just say I’m not a fan of vampires and werewolves and teen romance.¬† My feminist side positively quivers with anger at the thought of young girls turning to romance novels at such a young age, with weak-willed heroines whose only purpose is to mold themselves into the image of what they think men will desire…but I digress. Daughter of Smoke & Bone is not a romance novel and Karou is an impressive antagonist, and while there is romance in the book, it does not define her character.

Karou plays many roles as friend, artist, keeper of paranomal secrets, and adopted daughter of beings whom she does not truly understand.¬† Taylor does a good job of reminding the reader that while Karou is a complex character with a mysterious past and familial connections to a paranormal world, she is still just a teenager.¬† Whether its dealing with her annoyingly persistent ex-boyfriend Kaz or dealing with art school friends who cannot understand why Karou is always disappearing to run errands for an unexplained “job,”¬† Karou reveals both her age and her faults.¬† From petty wishes made with a magical string of beads called scuppies (which she earns running errands for her demon father) to resentment at her parental figures, Karou is thoroughly human, which grounds both her character and the reader in the context of the bizarre dual world she inhabits.¬† And what a world that is!¬† Taylor’s descriptions of Prague make my heart long to visit that enchanted place, and her vivid imagery brings the characters and places to life.¬† Whether it is the heat of fiery invisible wings, a dusty shop where a demon makes strings of teeth, or a giant puppet show in the heart of Prague, Taylor’s words put you right where she wants you to be.

While I enjoy the characters and the imagery, the best part of the book is the plot.¬† I am always delighted to find something that¬† I find is lacking in most young adult books, and what is overdone and cheesy in most teen books, and that that thing is:¬† suspense!¬† At the conclusion of almost every chapter I learned something new about Karou or the worlds which her character inhabits.¬† I was always surprised!¬† When a character in a book feels that there is something missing in their life, it is too easy to let the reader know halfway through the book what the mystery is and then spend the next half of the novel watching the character figure it out.¬† I dislike this plot device.¬† I much prefer to be surprised; its more entertaining!¬† Daughter of Smoke & Bone does not disappoint.¬† When the reader and Karou discover the mystery of her past it is unexpected and shocking (unless you’re a much smarter cookie than I am!) but completely entertaining and it allows the plot to continue into more colorful and magical territory…but here is where I stop because I have vowed this will be a spoiler-alert-free blog.¬†¬† I hope that I have been informative without either giving away too much or being completely boring.¬† My prediction is that Daughter of Smoke & Bone will be a smash hit and hopefully (I’m crossing my fingers) it will distract some teenagers from vampires and werewolves.¬† We can only hope.

Pick up your copy of Daughter of Smoke & Bone by Laini Taylor in October at your nearest independent bookstore.¬† You won’t regret it!