In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

First loves: Cynthia Voigt

Dear Aunt Debbie,

While I find it hard to call Cynthia Voigt's books chick lit, they were another staple of my teenage years: intense, beautifully written, full of deeply memorable characters.  She's written a number of series, some of which I don't know at all (though the Bad Girls books seem like promising titles in light of our current thread).  But when I think of Cynthia Voigt, what leaps to mind are her Tillerman Cycle books, beginning with Homecoming, Dicey's Song, and  A Solitary Blue.  These books (there are seven in total) chronicle the lives of the four Tillerman children after they are abandoned by their mother and have to find their way to relatives who can help them restart their lives.  Dicey is the oldest: she's 13 in the first book, taking care of her sister Maybeth and brothers James and Sammy.

Voigt doesn't soft-pedal what it means to take care of kids when you're a child yourself; I remember the scenes on the road as both harrowing and specific.  (There's a peanut butter sandwich-making scene that sticks in my head.)  By the end of the first book, the Tillermans have found a place to live with their prickly grandmother, and in Dicey's Song there's a little more breathing room.  Dicey is a wonderful heroine -- strong, independent, responsible even as she's totally overwhelmed by the amount of responsibility placed on her.  She's also fairly androgynous -- short-haired, not into dresses, often mistaken for a boy.  In later books, she begins a relationship with Jeff Greene (the protagonist of A Solitary Blue, and one of the main men on my friend Cyd's literary crush list, at least through high school).

This is one of the great things about Voigt's books: like L'Engle, she writes a number of books set in the same world but with a focus on different characters.  The later Tillerman books can stand on their own, but if you've read Dicey's Song, scenes in A Solitary Blue and Come a Stranger take on greater resonance.  Come a Stranger focuses on Dicey's friend Mina, an aspiring ballet dancer who faces racism at a New England ballet camp (she's black and from Maryland; perhaps one possible answer to Denise's question in the comments about diverse YA chick lit characters?).

The other Voigt book that's stayed with me is a totally different genre:  Jackaroo: A Novel of the Kingdom.  The current cover art appears to be unfortunately romance-novel-y; what I remember doesn't read that way at all.  Jackaroo is set in a medieval-ish time and place called the Kingdom, and its heroine is a strong-willed, practical innkeeper's daughter named Gwyn.  She discovers the mask and sword of the legendary Jackaroo (a Robin Hood figure), and decides to use the disguise herself to help people in need.  It turns out that she's not the first person to have done this -- Jackaroo's identity is used by a number of people, for different reasons.  It's a good mystery. 

This thread is making me ridiculously happy.

Love, Annie


  1. I loved Jackaroo - reading it even now I keep finding layers and messages I didn't understand as a teen. But I guess that's a hallmark of great YA literature - still being captured by it when you are a not-quite-as-young adult.

  2. One of the reasons I love both Cynthia Voigt and Madeleine L'Engle are because of the way they create entire, coherent universes of characters. You read one book, and then another, and in the second a character from the first just happens through, sometimes in a central way and sometimes in a tangential way, and it feels like life -- walking down the street in a familiar neighborhood and seeing someone you know. As Annie mentioned, there's even this overlap between L'Engle's "Chronos" and "Kairos" books. It was magical to be able to escape into other worlds like this. I can't think of any other writers, YA or otherwise, who manage to achieve this effect in quite the same way. Annie? Aunt? Can you?