In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two small girls and a baby 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.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Gay lit 2: YA and younger

Dear Annie,

Many thanks to Tatiana for that great list of gay YA books.

I just read a new one written jointly by David Levithan, author of Boy Meets Boy (mentioned in Tatiana's list) and John Green:
Will Grayson, Will Grayson
.  It's told in two voices, of high school characters both named Will Grayson who have met each other  by chance.  One is gay and comes out during the course of the book.  The other is straight with a close friend named Tiny Cooper, a huge football player who's flamboyantly gay and during the course of the book writes and performs a musical about his life.  Tiny and gay Will fall in love.  There's lots of humor and strong emotion and feel of what high school life is like.  There are a few homophobic classmates, but the focus is on figuring out who you are and how to be in love.  Tiny verges on the edge of being overdone, except for the fact that he's such a likable character.  One cares about all the people in the book.

Geography Club focuses on a high school with a meaner student body.  Several gay and lesbian kids find each other, then create a club with a name so boring they figure they'll be the only members.

I'm working my way into the younger middle-grade area.  James Howe, best known for his Bunnicula series, has done a series which started with The Misfits, about four middle school kids, one of whom is gay, who have been called names and ostracized for years. They organize against it and go on an anti name-calling campaign. A little heavy-handed, but a good read for middle grade kids. Howe has done two different sequels on individual kids in the group:
Totally Joe
focuses on the gay kid. He has a crush on a boy who's not ready to come out, there's some harassment, but there's also lots of adult and peer support.

Howe's an interesting author.  He's also written early readers and picture books for much younger kids, including the Pinky and Rex series (written between 1990 and 2001).  I just re-read
Pinky and Rex and the Bully
the other day.  Pinky is a boy who loves the color pink; his friend Rex is a girl who loves dinosaurs.  In this book, a boy teases Pinky, accusing him of being a girl.  So Pinky decides that he'll stop liking pink and try to conform to the bully's perception of how one should be a boy.  He gets talked out of this idea by a wise elderly lady and stands up to the kid who's been teasing him.  Of course we don't know Pinky's or Rex's sexual preferences, but it's refreshing to have a book for young kids which hits the boys-can-do-many-things theme. 

Love,

Deborah

Monday, March 28, 2011

Guest blog: Gay YA

Dear Aunt Debbie,

How can I have missed Diana Wynne Jones?  Her name is familiar to me, but honestly, I'm not sure that I read a single one of her books as a kid.  Clearly someone who needs to go on my list now.

In expanding our discussion of YA books, I checked in with my friend Emily for her advice about YA books about gay teenagers.  Her first thought was Nancy Garden's Annie on My Mind, which I read in grad school and found...okay.  It was written in 1982, and feels a little dated; worth reading for being one of the first lesbian YA books with a (sort-of) happy ending, but nothing I wanted to reread the heck out of.

Emily contacted her friend and book maven Tatiana, who responded with an email so comprehensive and awesome that I immediately asked for her permission to turn it into a guest blog.  And here it is:

Okay, here's what I got.

First, graphic novels:


Skim
by Mariko Tamaki & Jillian Tamaki, super beautiful book about a HS Asian girl who falls in love with her female teacher.
Ariel Shrag has a series of four books called
Awkward, Definition
, Potential and Likewise that are basically a diary of each year of HS and her budding lesbianism (but oh my god is her girl-dating brutal to those of us who have dated emotionally brutal girls).

Book books:

Basically the holy grail of lesbian YA books is Julie Anne Peters.  She writes a ton of them and they're way better than what a lot of other people are putting out.


Keeping You a Secret
is the best one she's got.  She also has Luna, which is another transgender book, focusing on a girl and her budding M to F brother.  There's Far From Xanadu and Rage, which are more standard girls falling for unattainable girls stories, Rage with some domestic violence thrown in (very good, but issue-y).  There's Between Mom and Jo which is lesbian mom divorce told by son. 

Then there's a bunch of books by other authors that I though were just "eh", but I'll mention them anyway. Kissing Kate, Empress of the World, Crush, Girl Walking Backwards. These are much more your standard, "hey I'm in love with a straight girl I can't have," maybe I'm gay stories.  Except for Crush which, if I remember correctly is more "hey, I think I'm in love with a straight girl, I'm really not, I'm just a confused adolescent and my book is boring." 

Anyway, back to the good stuff. 

Dare Truth or Promise
, budding lesbians in New Zealand with some religious questions thrown in for good measure.  Very good.  There's
The IHOP Papers
, which I think is about an under-20 gay girl, but Ali Liebegott is a Michelle Tea protege so there's a lot of sex drugs & rock and roll.  Speaking of Michelle Tea, she wrote a YA book.  Rose of No Man's Land.  Not bad, very Michelle Tea-esque though.

If you want boys, I have a few recommendations I picked up from someone's teacher friend. 
Boy Meets Boy
and Finlater, Finlater I think is speficially about non-white gay boys.  Haven't read either of them yet, but will be getting around to them eventually (I have a soft spot for girls, obviously).

Moving on to books that I don't consider YA but have young protagonists, there's the absolutely insanely wonderful
Pages for You
, which is about a girl who moves off to college and falls in love with her TA.  Also Stir-Fry, another start-of-college hey-I-like-girls in Ireland book.

There's anything by Helen Oyeyemi, she is Nigerian and grew up in England, all her protagonists are girls in high school or younger and her books are sheer poetry.  Really amazing. 

There's the classic How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents which my mom handed to me when I was young much the same way older lesbians handed me Rubyfruit Jungle when I was young (I say don't bother with RJ, it's just not worth it, Dorothy Allison did it better and with way way more talent than the cat lady)

And I think that's it for now, but I'll keep my eye out.

:)

Thank you, Tatiana!  

Anything to add, especially on the gay boy front?

Love, Annie 

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Diana Wynne Jones

Dear Annie,

Diana Wynne Jones died last week.  She fits right into our discussion of teen lit books that survive the test of time.
Diana Wynne Jones has a unique record of producing books you can't forget. Her intelligent, imaginative brand of fantasy is, at root, down-to-earth – heroes win humanly, by acknowledging their weaknesses and playing to their strengths, and by behaving nicely to other people and giving them the benefit of the doubt even when they appear to be revolting. The fact that the heroes in question might be nine-lifed enchanters with power over space and time is incidental.
This quote is from an excellent blog entry in The Guardian by Imogen Russell Williams. She wrote it almost two years ago, but it stands as a memorial appreciation.  Jones wrote, among other things,  Howl's Moving Castle, The Dalemark Quartet, Dogsbody, the Chrestomanci series, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, and my favorite:
Dark Lord of Derkholm
.

Derkholm is a very funny send-up of a lot of fantasy cliches.  It's set in a world in a universe parallel to our own.  The world has magic in it, but is basically a fairly quiet agrarian society.  Mr. Chesney, from our world, has found a way to get to it, and to coerce residents to follow his bidding.  He runs a high-priced tour business for people from our world who want to see a dramatic magical world.  He forces the residents to stage battles, enchant farmhouses into complex castles, and generally make the place feel like a medieval fantasy world to entertain the tourists.  When Derk, a likable slightly muddled sorcerer who specializes in animal husbandry, is told he has to be the Dark Lord and run this year's Disney-esque production for Mr. Chesney, he sets out to figure out how to break Chesney's magical hold on the world.  It leads to riotously funny plot twists

Jones does families so well.  Derk's children are both humans and griffins.  He and his wife have some tension between them which leads him to worry constantly that she's bored with him, and the siblings all bicker with each other.  Everyone bumbles through many situations.  Jones studied at Oxford during the 50s, attending lectures by both C.S. Lewis and J.R.R.Tolkien (this according to wikipedia).  So at one point a minor character -- a very scruffy dwarf -- shows up, named Galadriel. "Derk had been wondering, ever since he discovered this, what Galadriel's parents had been thinking of."  And there are elves: elongated, elegant, aristocratic.  In one scene, a battered Derk arrives back home to be enthusiastically greeted by his flying pigs (he engineers a lot of flying animals), when he realizes a delegation of elves is waiting for him:
The effect on the elves was peculiar. The one with the circlet gaped and stood like a statue. His right hand was out, with its long, long index finger pointing stiffly at Ringlet [flying pig]. Derk would have been afraid he was trying to turn Ringlet to stone or something, except that the other five elves were falling about with laughter, crowing joyfully, slapping their elongated thighs, and hugging one another, as pleased as the pigs were. Finally, the laughing five swung the elf with the circlet around and hugged him, too, at which he joined in their laughter and began slapping the others on their backs. Old George, coming in hot pursuit of the pigs, skidded to a stop in the doorway and stared. Elves just did not behave like this normally.
   "Forgive us, oh my lord!" gasped one of the five lesser elves. "Talithan, my prince, has this moment seen his prophecy come true, and we are witness to it."
   "Yes, truly, my lord," said Prince Talithan. He was panting with emotion, and tears were running from his great greenish eyes. "Pray forgive me. I must tell you that my brother long ago went adventuring to our neighbor world, where Mr. Chesney has him a prisoner, thus forcing all elves to do his will. And when my father lately was sorrowing at this and saying that surely one day my brother must escape and come home to us, I answered him bitterly and scoffingly, saying, 'Yea, that day will come when pigs do fly!' for which reason my father grew angry and sent me to you, to become the Dark Lord's minion. And here, where I come, behold! Pigs fly!" He pointed again at Ringlet, who was still on the table.
"Well, I've been breeding them with wings for years now," Derk said. "Perhaps you shouldn't build your hopes on it."
This isn't a pivotal scene in the book, but it has a lot of the spirit of the whole thing.

Jones created complex worlds with a light touch.  And she did it with an affection for her characters that transfers well to the reader.

One last quote, this from Neil Gaiman, who was a close friend of hers:
She's a wonderful author to read aloud, by the way, as I discovered when reading her books to my kids. Not only does she read aloud beautifully, but denouments which seemed baffling read alone are obvious and elegantly set up and constructed when read aloud. "Children are much more careful readers than adults," she'd say. "You don't have to repeat everything for children. You do with adults, because they aren't paying full attention."
Love,

Deborah

Friday, March 25, 2011

Teen lit to pleasantly obsess both boys and girls

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Nice Publisher's Weekly piece!  I enjoyed your quotes.  It's always good to read an article that implies that the selling of real live books has a future.

I'm finding this conversation on YA lit for girls vs. boys fascinating.  I threw it out there to my network on Facebook, and got some interesting responses as well.  I'm going to summarize here (with few links, so I can get to bed some time tonight), and then focus in on three books which, in my experience, appeal across gender lines.

Male friends mentioned: Dungeons and Dragons rulebooks (tongue in cheek, but two more echoed it), Louis Lamour, Robin McKinley's The Hero and the Crown (dragon-fighting heroine -- I loved this one too), Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, Sherlock Holmes stories, Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan books, the Oz series, the Lloyd Alexander Black Cauldron series, Susan Cooper's Dark is Rising series, the EarthSea Trilogy by Ursula LeGuin, Agatha Christie, Ian Fleming, Gregory McDonald's "Fletch" mysteries, and Judy Blume.  This last bunch come from my friend Mark (husband of excellent guest blogger Cyd), who wrote about Blume and YA realism several years ago here, in the Times.

Female friends mentioned: Lois Duncan, Christopher Pike, Sweet Valley High (I admit, I read them all too, borrowing them from friends in junior high), Gone With the Wind, A Wrinkle in Time, Judy Blume, Nancy Drew, Jane Eyre, Constance C. Green's A Girl Called Al series, and Richard Peck.

Definitely more sci-fi going on on the male side, but I was heartened by the amount of crossover. 

Jeff's cousin Megan wrote that she, her husband, and her sister all loved a book I hadn't thought about in ages: The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, aged 13 3/4, by Sue Townsend.  It's the first book in a British series I discovered on my one childhood trip to England, and found massively funny.  Adrian Mole is a neurotic teenage boy, a fabulous unreliable narrator who keeps a diary recounting his obsessions and daily humiliations.  It's set in 1981-82, and I remember a great deal of focus on Charles and Diana's wedding.  I also read and loved the first sequel, The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole.  There are a bunch of other sequels following Adrian into adulthood.


My friend Zara mentioned another great junior high school love of mine.  Aside from Madeline L'Engle, the only science fiction I got truly obsessive about were Douglas Adams books: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy trilogy (which is five books long), and the Dirk Gently books.  Adams's brand of offbeat, deadpan humor made me dissolve into laughter, and I devoured the stories of hapless Arthur Dent, off with his towel in space with Zaphod Beeblebrox.  The only gender discrepancy I remember in the Adams fan base of my youth was that I had a soft spot for So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, the only book with a love story, while my male friends thought it was a little weaker.  It's also the one where Arthur learns the secret of flight: you fall, and forget to hit the ground.

Finally, there is The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin.  Raskin calls her book "a puzzle mystery": the six apartments in brand-new Sunset Towers on the shores of Lake Michigan are rented out to families chosen for reasons which are only explained by the book's end.

Who were these people, these specially selected tenants?  They were mothers and fathers and children.  A dressmaker, a secretary, an inventor, a doctor, a judge.  And, oh yes, one was a bookie, one was a burglar, one was a bomber, and one was a mistake.  Barney Northrup had rented one of the apartments to the wrong person.

The empty Westing mansion looks down at them from up on the north cliff -- Sam Westing disappeared fifteen years before.  Then, on Halloween evening, smoke begins to rise from the chimney....

The cast of characters is decently diverse -- the judge is a black woman, the family who owns the top-floor restaurant are Chinese -- and one of the protagonists is a spunky 13-year old girl named Turtle Wexler.  The mystery is such that I didn't fully understand the ending the first time I read it (probably at age 10 or so), but loved it anyway.  It rewards rereading.

So I read it, and reread it, and then for years I forgot The Westing Game, until one day a year out of college, shortly before I was leaving the Boston area to move to Seattle for a year, I noticed it again on the bookshelf of a male friend I was just getting to know better.  He happened to have two copies; he had been obsessed with the book himself; he gave me one of them.  Reader, I married him.

Love, Annie

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Teen lit, continued

Dear Annie,

I'm writing this from my brand new iMac: my first new computer since the girls were in middle school (or maybe before?).  The screen is very laaaaarge.

I too am loving this current thread.  The people who posted on your last entry are fascinating.  The Ender books and Tolkien are still steadily popular.  I recommend Ender and sequels a lot.  In addition to the ones you mention, I'm quite fond of Ender's Shadow, which replays the events of Ender's Game from the point of view of Bean, a minor character in the first book.  Very Rashomon.  And Ender, like Tolkien, appeals across gender.

Orson Scott Card is a prolific and interesting writer.  He's a Mormon, has done a series of novels on women of the Bible, a longer alternate history series set in the American west (the continent is divided into more countries, greater Native American presence, and magic), and Enchanted, which I really want to read. It mixes Sleeping Beauty, Russian folklore, and time travel.  I heard a chunk of it on book radio the other day: good sense of humor too.

Is anyone out there into the Piers Anthony Xanth novels?  They're another item on my I-should-read-these list.  Fantasy novels with a fantastic map of the magical world.

At Child's Play we organize fiction a little differently from most stores.  Between the ages of Early Chapter Books and Teen/YA/Adult we have two major categories which run parallel in terms of reader age, but separate by subject.  One side of the aisle is Science Fiction and Fantasy; the other side is more reality-based Fiction.  (A small Mystery section lives around the corner.)  We set it up that way back when we started the book section because Steven, my boss, felt fantasy books were really important to a lot of teenagers.  This was in the days before Harry Potter had transformed the children's publishing industry.   The belief was that fantasy worlds with their complex but knowable structures and rules are a comfortable escape from the messier more out-of-control adolescent reality.  Steven talks about fantasy worlds in books requiring more involvement on the part of the reader because those structures and rules need to be understood to grasp the plot and characters.

Child's Play, by the way, made it into the industry press this week: a nice piece by Publisher's Weekly.

Love,

Deborah

Monday, March 21, 2011

The male equivalent of YA chick lit?

Dear Aunt Debbie,

You and I are clearly on the same wavelength.  I was planning to write about Lois Lowry tonight, and then on Friday to talk about my conversation with Jeff on the same exact topic.  (I also have in the pipeline recommendations for YA books about queer teens and multicultural YA books -- this thread is inspiring a lot of great conversations in my life.)  So I'll save Lowry for another day, and get straight to the question: what is the boy version of YA chick lit?

When I asked Jeff what he read obsessively as a teenager, he didn't have an exact equivalent to the stable of authors I remember loving.  The closest, he said, was probably The Lord of the Rings, which led him deep into Tolkien's other works, the ones where he made up more than 17 complete languages and societal histories.   Tolkien definitely provided Jeff with immersion in another world.

Then there's Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card.  We have Jeff's old beaten-up copy on our main bookshelf; I read it a few summers ago and really enjoyed it.  Human society is at war with an alien race (the Buggers), and Ender is one of a number of kids bred to be a super-intelligent soldier.  He's taken from his family to a training camp where he plays intensely difficult war games (including battles in zero gravity) with a group of similarly talented kids, under the tutelage of a group of adults.  Ender is the boy version of some of the heroines we've been writing about: very smart, lonely, and sensitive.  The major difference, of course, is that he's fighting battles rather than engaging in more domestic questions.

*Spoiler Alert -- skip this paragraph if you don't want to know the end of the book.* In the climactic scene, Ender acts as the general in a giant video game simulation in which he successfully eradicates his opponents.  Turns out that it wasn't a game: he has, in fact, led the eradication of the Bugger race.  The triumph is tainted with intense guilt, which is explored in the sequel, Speaker for the Dead.  Orson Scott Card is extremely prolific, and he's written many, many other books, some of which also involve Ender and Ender's world.

From what I remember of Ender's Game, it probably feels a little dated in the way that some of my favorite old chick lit does -- but is that necessarily a bad thing?  Is it current teenagers who are determining that they don't want to read late '80s books, or is it publishers?

So there's a start -- historical war, historical war in fantastical places with newly-created languages, and science fiction video game-type war.  I'd love to hear from other people on this subject.

Love, Annie

P.S. This is our 200th post.  Pretty awesome, no? 

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Guys read...

Dear Annie,

Mona went through a Paula Danziger phase during the Domestic Fiction years.  I myself haven't read much of her, although one of my favorite book titles of all time is  Everyone Else's Parents Said Yes . Her Amber Brown books have always sold better for me than the older chapter books you talk about. I sometimes wonder if books talking about real-life situations age a little faster than some others. Most of the books you talk about were written late 70s/early 80s. Do the assumptions and language still speak to people born at the turn of the century?

I've been thinking about taking a brief break from Chick Lit.  I wanted to toss a question at you about your spouse.  What was he reading in middle school?  Does he have a L'Engle equivalent?  For Bob it was Rosemary Sutcliff, a wonderful British historical novelist.  She wrote an excellent trilogy about the Roman occupation of Britain, which starts with
The Eagle of the Ninth
(recently turned into a not-so-good movie, I think).  Her books cover British history from the Bronze Age on up to at least the 18th century.  I'll do a longer entry on her at some point (or will ask Bob to do a guest blog).  The combination of good writing and immersion in historical settings were what attracted Bob to her books.  Any guys out there who had/have seriously favorite books from middle school on up?  Or women who want to talk about their spouses' favorites?

All of this was on my mind tonight when a friend came to dinner with his quite remarkable 14 year-old twins.  We kicked around the names of a lot of books and authors.  It turned out that the book that the brother was totally in love with was Grapes of Wrath

Love,
Deborah

Friday, March 18, 2011

First loves: Paula Danziger

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I like Mona's working definition of chick lit.  Looking it over, I'm pleased to see that one of my other favorite YA authors fits quite nicely into the criteria Mona lays out.

I returned over and over to Paula Danziger's novels because I had so much fun reading them.  Most of them focus on truly dysfunctional families, and my favorites have ugly-duckling heroines with low self-esteem who turn out to be more interesting (and attractive to the right sensitive, intelligent guys) than the people who seem at first to be more popular.  Danziger's supporting characters are also awesome.

The Danziger book I reread more than any other is The Pistachio Prescription.  In it, 13-year-old Cassandra (Cassie) Stephens feels like an unattractive outsider in her attractive but dysfunctional family (she is flat-chested, and has mousy brown hair and asthma.  Boy, could I relate!).  Cassie finds solace in eating red pistachio nuts; hence, the title.  The action takes place just before and during Cassie's first year of high school.  Her parents are fighting like crazy, she and her perfect older sister don't get along, her younger brother is a sweetheart and collects animals, and her friends convince her to run for freshman class president.  There is a cute boy involved.  Cassie is a sarcastic, angry, funny narrator.  I don't have the book on me right now, so I'm stealing this excerpt from a nice review on the blog the stacks my destination:
I personally think all math teachers buy their clothes with the chalk dust already on them. Either that or they buy them clean and immediately step up against a blackboard, like the way lots of kids step all over brand-new sneakers to get them to look old. I personally think that math stinks. I can’t do it. Artists shouldn’t have to take it if they don’t want to. Meyerson the Messy is too fast. If I ever need to know anything about the dumb subject, I can use a calculator or hire someone.
   In history class, we have to write about “The American Who Means the Most to Me Historically.” Definitely one of the dippiest assignments I’ve ever gotten. I write about Lizzie Borden. 
My second-favorite Danziger book is her first novel, The Cat Ate My Gymsuit.  The heroine, Marcy Lewis, is overweight and not particularly popular.  She doesn't want to change for gym in front of other people because of her weight, so she makes up excuses not to participate (there's the title).  Her father is verbally and emotionally abusive to her, her mom, and her brother -- Danziger goes for the gut with the dysfunctional family stuff.  Marcy's life gets better when she connects with a fantastic and somewhat unorthodox English teacher, Ms. Finney.  There is a cute, sensitive boy.  The drama comes when Ms. Finney is suspended from teaching because of her refusal to say the Pledge of Allegiance, and Marcy is caught up in the fight to protest her dismissal.  Marcy gets more vocal and sure of herself, even standing up to her father about it.  Ms. Finney is reinstated, and then promptly resigns because of the atmosphere she'd be returning to.  Marcy is crushed -- another good exploration of a teenager working through understanding the disappointing actions of an adult she's seen as a perfect role model.  There's a sequel, There's a Bat in Bunk Five, in which Marcy's romantic relationship continues, Ms. Finney returns, and Marcy works for the summer as a C.I.T. at sleepaway camp (action during the summer!).

The primary thing I returned to Danziger for was pure enjoyment of her writing -- her narrators' sarcastic, self-deprecating tones, the combination of romance and humor.  Looking back on her books, though, I wonder if I was also attracted to the grittiness of the family problems she incorporated.  There aren't easy answers in her books -- parents get divorced (I also read, and enjoyed, The Divorce Express, about two girls who become friends riding  the bus from one parent's home upstate to the other parent's home in the city); new relationships are kind of awkward and don't quite work as well as you might hope.  The endings are happy for the heroines, mostly, but they're almost always bittersweet.

The one other Danziger book I returned to multiple times goes against most of what I've said above.  I don't know why I liked it so much, but a huge amount of the plot and details have stayed with me, so I must have read it a ton. This Place Has No Atmosphere is set in 2057.  14-year-old Aurora is pretty and popular and very happy with her life -- until her parents decide to move the family as settlers to the moon!  She is removed from her social life!  She must limit herself to 3-minute showers!  There are no cute boys!  But wait, there's one kind of nerdy guy who maybe isn't so bad....  It is a silly book.  It is chick lit.  And it's a really fun read.

Love, Annie

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Chick lit: Mona's definition

Dear Annie,

Back from travels!  Back to blog!

I've only read Homecoming and Dicey's Song -- got started on them in Lizzie's mother-daughter book group.  I like them a lot.  You've been talking about such great books.

I wouldn't call the Tillerman saga or A Wrinkle in Time chick lit, though.  Mona (pictured in hammock to right) developed a definition of gender and books some years ago when she was a big reader of what we call domestic fiction (think Beverly Cleary).  There are two kinds of books with girls as the main characters, she said.  In one kind, the girl's experiences, actions and thoughts have a universal quality: easy to identify with for both girls and boys.  I'd put A Wrinkle in Time and Homecoming in this category.  The Ramona books too.  The other category of book is one which focuses more on inner life and feelings of the main girl, often (but not always) including feelings somewhere on the romantic scale about boys.  I've found this a helpful definition when talking with parents about what books their sons will or won't read.

Now I'm going to fast-forward to this past weekend when I was talking with Mona at college about chick lit.  When she hit middle school, chick lit (including Joan Bauer and Sarah Dessen -- who I'll get to in one of these posts) became part of her reading.  Neither of my girls went over the deep end into Twilight land. So Mona offers to us this definition of the chick lit she likes:
  • good female characters
  • female characters are critical of other characters, they're not just mooning over boys
  • attractive male characters get together with deserving female characters in the end
  • the attractive male characters don't suck blood
  • male and female characters have meaningful conversations about life and love
  • then the characters get awkward because they realize they're in love -- but they get together in the end
  • good characters, especially good minor characters, are an important part of good chick lit.
  • and often the action takes place during the summer
 This is a working definition -- I invite anyone to work on it.

My jet-lagged self is going to stop here, but will happily pick up the thread in a few days.

Love,

Deborah

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

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Chick Lit, Part 3: Joan Bauer

Dear Annie,

I'm getting all enthusiastic about reading more L'Engle. Haven't thought of putting her and chick lit in the same sentence before.

I wanted to add another author to our chick lit list today: Joan Bauer.  My favorite of her books is
Rules of the Road
, about a sixteen year-old girl who takes a summer job driving an elderly woman from Chicago to Texas. The woman is the owner of a shoe company and her son is scheming to take over the business and cut corners in unpleasant ways.  Jenna starts the book working in one of the company's stores, with a joie de shoes that goes through the book:
I leaped onto the sliding ladder in the back room of Gladstone's Shoe Store of Chicago, gave it a shove, and glided fast toward the end of the floor to ceiling shelves of shoeboxes. My keen retailer's eye found the chocolate loafers, size 13, I slid the ladder to the Nikes, grabbed two boxes of easy walkers (white and beige) size 4 1/2 narrow, pushed again to women's saddles, found the waxhides, size 7, rode the ladder to the door one-handed. Children, do not try this at home. I am a shoe professional.
I think of this as a coming of age book with a sense of humor and without a love interest.  During the trip and events surrounding the takeover struggle, Jenna grows up and gains confidence in lovely ways.  She's helped along by the cranky Mrs. Gladstone and a handful of Mrs. G's elderly pals.  Bauer balances humor and intense parent-child conflicts throughout the book.  She always puts a capital-I Issue in her books.  In this one, Jenna's father is an alcoholic who's spiraling downward.  Part of Jenna's growing up is her learning to stand up to him.  There's also an older shoe salesman who's in AA, the if-only character.

I also love that her summer of discovering herself doesn't involve discovering a boy.  At one point, Mrs. G's friend Alice gives Jenna a haircut and a new dress and she briefly flirts with a young man.  Then she moves on, feeling good and not needy.

Bauer has a new book out this spring,
Close to Famous
, aimed more at the middle-grade crowd. Foster, the protagonist, is 12 years old and wants to be a famous TV chef. She's constantly inventing new muffins and cupcakes, even as she and her mother escape the mother's abusive boyfriend (an Elvis impersonator) and move to a small town full of endearing but stock small-town characters. The Issues in this one are spousal abuse and (separately) illiteracy. But again the book has to do with a girl understanding her own self-worth. I like this writer.

Love,

Deborah

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Madeline L'Engle as chick lit

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Yes, I'm a big L'Engle fan, and a bit of a completist: I'm pretty sure I've read every YA book she wrote, and own a copy of most of them.  I read and re-read a number of YA authors obsessively:  Cynthia Voight, Lois Lowry, Judy Blume, and Paula Danziger were my favorites aside from L'Engle.  More on them in another post.

The Austins books never really grabbed me.  They were well-written, but they didn't contain the spark that the Wrinkle in Time series held.  I think part of it is that I could never fully identify with Vicky Austin: too normal and pretty and well-adjusted.  Give me an outcast nerd poised to bloom, anytime.

L'Engle saw her YA novels as being written in two different frameworks.  I think of them as realistic and magical, but a little searching has helped me with the terms she herself used: Chronos and Kairos.  Wikipedia explains:

The ancient Greeks had two words for time, chronos and kairos. While the former refers to chronological or sequential time, the latter signifies a time in between, a moment of undetermined period of time in which something special happens. What the special something is depends on who is using the word. While chronos is quantitative, kairos has a qualitative nature.

Wrinkle in Time and the other books following the Murry-O'Keefe families are, of course, Kairos.  The Austins and their ilk are Chronos.  I remember buying one of L'Engle's later books in hardcover and finding a chart, a sort of double family tree, in the inside front cover.  It was wildly exciting, laying out all of the characters in both sets of books and their relationships to each other, and indicating the few characters that move between the two frameworks.  This was one of the pleasures of reading so much L'Engle: you keep finding characters you know at one age from one book at a completely different age in another.

So, a few favorites:

The Young Unicorns
is one of the Austin family books, but the character I remember most strongly from it is Vicky's friend Emily Gregory, a brilliant blind musician.  The book is set in New York, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and has some intense scenes in abandoned subway tunnels as well as at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where L'Engle worked for years..  It's a mystery, full of danger and intrigue.  It's my favorite Chronos book, hands down.

The second-generation Kairos books focus on Meg and Calvin's oldest child (they have seven.  And are professional scientists together.  How can you not love them?).  Polyhymnia is called Poly in some books and Polly in others; in any case, she was my second-favorite L'Engle heroine, after Meg.  My favorite of the Polly books is the last, chronologically: A House Like A Lotus.  It's a complex read, despite the cheesy cover picture on this now out-of-print edition.  Polly is 16 years old, working at a conference in Cyprus, mentored by an older lesbian woman named Maxa.  Maxa is terminally ill, and in a moment of misery and drunkenness she makes a move on Polly, which sends Polly running.  Much of the book is about Polly trying to work through what she feels was a major breach of trust, and coming to terms with the complexity of loving someone as a mentor even after she disappoints you personally.  It's a really good book.

Finally, there are L'Engle's two semi-autobiographical novels, The Small Rain and
A Severed Wasp
.  They're labeled as adult fiction, but I read them as a teenager and loved them.  L'Engle's alter-ego is a pianist named Katherine Forrester.  The first book focuses on her young-womanhood; in the second, she is 70 years old, returning to New York from a life in Europe.   I remember both as pleasingly sweeping and dramatic.

What a pleasure to revisit these books!  I really need to dig some boxes out of my parents' storage room.

Love, Annie

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Chick Lit, part 1

Dear Annie,

I didn't realize you were such a Madeleine L'Engle fan.  A couple of people have told me they were disappointed in The Austin Chronicles, her realistic fiction series.  But I've never tried them myself.  I love A Wrinkle in Time, although, as with the Narnia books, I wish it didn't have that injection of religion in it.

Denise left a bunch of questions on your L'Engle post that I'd love to answer.  She wants
books that young adolescent girls can read who are interested in romance and relationships - who need to stop reading "chic" lit - Gossip Girl-like books - and who are smart enough to read more challenging ones. I can only think of Jane Austen but would like to recommend more modern literature.
For the Jane Austen sensibility, there's
I Capture the Castle
by Dodie Smith, author oddly enough of 101 Dalmatians (another interesting kids' book, for a different audience). She wrote it in 1948, and I usually describe it as Pride and Prejudice set in Depression-era England. The writing is wonderful, as illustrated by the book's first paragraph:
I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining-board, which I have padded with our dog's blanket and the tea-cosy. I can't say that I am really comfortable, and there is a depressing smell of carbolic soap, but this is the only part of the kitchen where there is any daylight left. And I have found that sitting in a place where you have never sat before can be inspiring -- I wrote my very best poem while sitting on the hen-house. Though even that isn't a very good poem. I have decided my poetry is so bad that I mustn't write any more of it.
The narrator's father is an impoverished writer who wrote one brilliant novel 20 years earlier and has done nothing since. The family, including 17 and 20 year-old daughters, are living a hand-to-mouth existence in a decaying castle in the country. Then two wealthy young American brothers buy the estate next door, and the comedy of manners begins. It's quite wonderful, but probably not the first step when one is trying to entice Gossip Girls fans.

My favorite recent entry in this category is
The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks
by E. Lockhart. I saw her speak once and she introduced herself saying, "I write feminist Chick Lit," which is quite an accurate description.  E. Lockhart, I discovered only last week, is a pen name.  Under her real name, Emily Jenkins, she's written several wonderful books for younger kids, including Toys Go Out, a great early chapter book blogged about here.

Disreputable History was a runner-up for the Printz Award (YA literature) and the National Book Award the year it came out.  It's about a girl who becomes noticeably more attractive between her freshman and sophomore years at an upper-crust boarding school.  Boys who ignored her the year before now pay lots of attention to her, but after a while she realizes they don't actually listen to her.  She also figures out that a centuries-old secret society is still in existence at this school, but that it remains all-male, even though the school is now coed. So she sets out to get revenge -- through staging some wonderfully outrageous pranks.  It's wildly funny.

Next time I'll talk more about other authors in this category.  There are many ways to avoid the really trashy stuff, some of it with slightly classier trash, but some of it better than that.

Stay tuned..

Love,

Deborah

Friday, March 4, 2011

First loves: science fiction

Dear Aunt Debbie,

All these sci-fi dystopian world trilogies make me think of the first sci-fi trilogy I fell in love with: Madeline L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time and its sequels: A Wind in the Door and A Swiftly Tilting Planet.  (It's ultimately a quintet, but I still think of the first three books L'Engle published as the real ones.)

You recently posted a wonderful 90-second video version of the book here, and it plays a pivotal role in the recent YA novel When You Reach Me; it's no surprise to me that L'Engle's work would inspire this kind of creativity.  Like every other girl in the world who felt at times out of place among her peers, I identified to the hilt with Meg Murry, and there is nothing better in a YA book than kids (Meg's little brother, Charles Wallace, and their new friend Calvin O'Keefe) banding together to save an adult (Meg and Charles Wallace's father).  Plus, scientific concepts, and travel through space and time, and a kind of mysticism throughout -- these are such great books.

I can still remember exactly where I was when I first read the climactic scene where Meg finds the brain, IT, in the room with Charles Wallace on the planet of Camazotz: my mom and I had gone downstairs in my elementary school to pick Michael up from his pre-K room, and my mom was talking for a long time with the teacher, so I kept reading.  The brain sitting, pulsing, on its dais (that's where I learned the word "dais") is linked in my memory with the bright walls of the pre-K room, the tiny plastic chairs and school-issue table I sat at, devouring the moment and at the same time scared enough by it that I had to make myself conscious of where I was in real life.

A Swiftly Tilting Planet was my second favorite, or at some ages my first: it has Charles Wallace being sent into the bodies of four different people at different points in time in order to affect the future of the world, Quantum Leap-style, while Meg slips in and out of telepathic communication with him from her perch in her old room, where she's sitting hugely pregnant with her first child.  (Meg's happy marriage to Calvin, and her adult beauty and auburn hair, were always a big plus for me.)  There's a poem, too, that needs repeated reciting: St. Patrick's rune, which Calvin's worn-down, unhappy mother teaches Charles Wallace at the beginning of the book and which begins the time travel via unicorn:

At Tara in this fateful hour,
I place all Heaven with its power,
And the sun with its brightness,
And the snow with its whiteness,
And the fire with all the strength it hath,
And the lightning with its rapid wrath,
And the winds with their swiftness along their path,
And the sea with its deepness,
And the rocks with their steepness,
And the Earth with its starkness
All these I place
By God's almighty help and grace
Between myself and the powers of darkness!

Elemental.

I fell so in love with Madeline L'Engle because of these books that I went on to read pretty much every book she wrote -- and she wrote a ton of them.  Many are science fiction, many realistic fiction, and some characters move back and forth between the worlds.  I have other favorites too, a whole shelf full, but they're a subject for another night.

Love, Annie

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Across the Universe

Dear Annie,

Today I acted out a variation on what NPR calls a "driveway moment."  I've been listening to an audio book in the car -- as I almost always do when I don't have passengers.  Most of my driving consists of the 20 minute ride to and from work these days, which means it can take a while to get through a thick YA novel.  So today, when I was about eight hours into it, I popped the book out of the CD player and brought it home to listen to the last hour and a half because I needed to know how it came out.

The book is
Across the Universe
, by Beth Revis.  It's a heavily-marketed book which crosses many genres -- mystery, sci-fi, dystopian fantasy, even a little romance (although not as much as one of the covers implies).  Part of the marketing plan is a reversible book jacket, so that it can sell across all those genres.  I just discovered the book jacket thing today -- it cheered me up.  The one on the right is a cross-section of a spaceship that's been traveling for centuries.  All the action is in the spaceship, whose thousands of residents live in a classic over-controlled-for-your-own-good society.  One of the things I like about this book is that we learn the origins and motivations of the repressive regime, and on one level, their actions are understandable.  Into this completely closed world arrives a teenage girl, who's been there all along, but as part of a cargo of frozen people who are supposed to stay frozen until the ship reaches a distant planet.  She's mysteriously thawed out in what may be a murder attempt and rescued by the teenage boy who's being groomed to be the next autocratic leader of the ship.  Both teenagers narrate the action in alternating chapters. 

Revis has created a vivid picture of life inside a big metal ship -- one definitely identifies with the claustrophobic reaction of Amy, the recently-revived person.  Most residents are a mysteriously passive workforce; the obviously intelligent and creative people live mainly in a mental hospital.  Part of population control has to do with sex drive being chemically manipulated: everyone believes that humans have mating seasons like animals -- and when "the season" arrives, coupling couples are everywhere.  There's one horrific attempted rape scene.  The controlled society is built on layers of untruths: everything from mating seasons to self-serving re-writing of history.  Elder, the leader-in-training, discovers lies and secrets throughout the book, fueling his adolescent anger at the current leader/father figure.

This books doesn't have the depth of, say, The Knife of Never Letting Go, of which, as you know, I'm quite fond.  But it really pulls you in, and given that the humans are stuck inside of a space ship for centuries, it opens a lot of questions about how to structure a functioning society.  It's got a few twists at the end -- and lots of set-up for book #2 of what will eventually be a trilogy.

Love,

Deborah