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Category Archives: Teen Fiction

The Year They Burned The Books

The Year They Burned The BooksUnknown

by: Nancy Garden

Farrar, Straus, Giroux, New York, NY  1999

ISBN: 0-374-38667-6

I found this to be a surprisingly emotional novel.  It’s a high school drama seeped in political discourse.  The main characters are the student staff of the school paper.  These are kids who believe what they’ve been taught about journalism and freedom of the press. When local conservative Christians rise up to moderate the content of the school paper these students fight for their journalistic integrity.

I suspect this novel was written specifically because Nancy Garden had a previous book banned from school libraries.  The town meeting scene where they debate maintaining morality for the children could have been taken directly from a transcript.  This story manages to touch just about every imaginable red button topic that has caused books to be banned.

Having said that, I was impressed (and marginally disappointed) with where Garden drew her lines.  There is no explicit teen sex.  However, the sex education curriculum and the availability of free condoms in the high school nurses office make the issue of teen sex a large theme.  Several of the main characters are gay, and in various stages of acceptance.  Teen suicide is touched on, but we do not lose any of the characters in the book.  Book burning happens, but the people having the bonfire used books they’d purchased, not the library books they represented.

One of the issues is that an opinion piece in the paper should not have to present both sides of the conflict.  It’s an opinion, not the news.  The students actually work very hard to find contradictory opinions and even their articles nod at some validity in their oppositions viewpoints.  This book as a whole tries to do the same.

All of the characters, even the self righteous ones, are drawn with some depth.  Everyone is portrayed as trying to do the best they can for what they believe to be right.  The gay characters are harassed and struggle internally with their identities.  They are not “out loud and proud” and they are very aware of the risks of simply allowing themselves to be who they are.

This really is a teen driven story.  The adult characters have weight and impact, but it is the teens who are affected.  I would highly recommend this book as support for kids questioning their own identities.  I would also recommend this book to people who are friends and parents of those kids.

 

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The Chocolate War

The Chocolate Warunknown

by: Robert Cormier

Ember (Random House) New York, NY  1974, 2002

This is NOT a recommendation.  I hated this book (and eventually I’ll tell you why).  I am flabbergasted that it made the lists where I found it recommended.  After reading this book I wonder if any of the people who write those lists actually read this book or if they just read a good review, and the description, and put it on their list.  Even the copyright page has an endnote: “Random House Children’s Books supports the First Amendment and celebrates the right to read.”

This SOUNDS like a good book.  The basic summary: “A high school freshman discovers the devastating consequences of refusing to join in the school’s annual fund-raising drive and arousing the wrath of the school bullies.” seems pretty strait forward.  I’ll even grant that it is well written.  The characters are well developed.  The motivation for bullying is clear.  Even the demands of being a bully are touched on in the narrative.

However, there is no redemption.  The bullies are not just the teenaged boys, but also their teachers.  The bullies are not just running the school, they are apparently running the world.  The bullies win.  The bullies are rewarded.  The bullies become successful.   The bullies get the promotion and all their “dodgy” behavior is swept under the rug.  Give me Lord of the Flies (by William Golding).  At least there is some sense of “oh what have we done!” at the end.  Here we get bullying is the only way to really get ahead.

Maybe this is the book for our current political climate.  Maybe this is the way the world is destined to become.  Maybe this is who we are as a race.  I can’t abide that.  I need to live with a different world view.  I need to have teen fiction promote a different world view.  I need this to not be okay.

I hate this book.  It promotes this bad behavior, this horrible predatory attitude.  I can’t recommend it.  It may be a good place to start a discussion, but even in that context I don’t like it.  I don’t think a book should “require” a book club to be a good read.

I do believe in the first amendment and the right to read.  I don’t believe in promoting destructive behavior, and that’s what this book does.  It’s not an examination of cruel behavior patterns, it’s a propaganda piece for not “disturbing the universe”.

 

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The Magicians

The Magiciansthemagicians

by: Lev Grossman

Plume (Penguin Group) New York, NY  2009

ISBN 978-0-670-02055-3

The Magicians is currently playing on cable television.  I binge watched the first season on the recommendation of several friends.  I enjoyed it enough that I thought I should probably read the book.  This is the first in the series, of books.  The first book pretty much is the first season of the TV series, and even leaks a little into the second season.

It is rare that a visual media is successful at capturing the nature of a book.  Even when both are excellent work within their genre, there are compromises that must be made.  I was incredibly impressed with the choices the series producers made as they brought this book to the small screen.

One of the first things that often goes by the wayside is the physical description of the characters.  You have to go with the actors you can get.  In this case the casting was very close to perfect and all of the actors have gone above and beyond to incorporate the specific character quirks into their characterizations.  Q. is mopey, Elliot is trying too hard but very successful at it, Alice is too smart, too good, and too shy.

One of the differences that really works is the shift in setting.  In the book much or even most of the action takes place after Brakebills.  In the series the action is centered around Brakebills.  This works both because of the Harry Potter context most viewers are bringing to the table, but also because it facilitates the exposition of the magical system.  It’s easy in writing to take the time to explain how and why things work.  We’re not going to sit in for an entire episode that constitutes a class on basic magic.  We get to watch the relationships being built so that we will accept that these “college chums” will band together.

The difficulty of moving the story to Brakebills is that some of the action must truly take place in New York City.  This is where the series has expanded the scope and involvement of the Julia character.  The girl who was Q’s friend growing up, who “should have been accepted” at Brakebills, and wasn’t, is the catalyst for the “real world” impact of the threat to Magic.  I honestly found myself missing Julia as I read the book.  She wasn’t necessary, but I really liked that character.

I’ve been told she does have more to play as the story goes on, and I suspect that’s also why the series producers made the decision to bring her in at the start.  I may continue reading in the series (it’s easier than trying to keep up with a season on TV) but I suspect I will find myself binge watching again as the television seasons make their way to Netflix.

The story is simple.  The fantasy world that Q was enamored of as a child is a real place in the multiverse.  Magic exists, and people who are smart enough are tested, welcomed, and trained at magical colleges throughout the world.  Then they are set free to make whatever “grown-up” lives they choose.  Q finds Fillory, the world of his childhood fantasy, is the source of all magic in the multiverse.  That magic is threatened and it is Q and his peers that must become the rulers of Fillory and conquer the foe before magic is gone for good.

The way the story plays out, however, is not simple.  There is a lot of exploration of sexual abuse (in various forms) and the impact that can have.  There is the theme of “what if everything is too easy?”, do we every grow up if we are never challenged.  What ways must we be challenged in order to reach our true potential?  There is Elliot’s storyline about growing up gay, or bi, in a small conservative town.  There are real consequences to taking on the crowns of Fillory.  There is some debate about what is a God and what constrains them.  Big themes in a small story.

I found both the television series and the novel thought provoking, well told, and genuinely entertaining.

 

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Luna

Lunaluna

by: Julie Anne Peters

Little Brown and Company  NY, NY 2004

ISBN: 978-0-316-00127-3

 

Luna is a typical coming of age story.  It is a story of siblings in their teens each struggling to find who they are and each looking to move into a world outside their disfunctional family.  These siblings understand each other in ways no one else can.  Still, they are teens and neither is aware of the damage their own struggle is doing to their sibling.

Luna is an LGBTQ novel.  It is the story of a teen struggling with gender identity.  It is the story of how hard it is to find yourself in a world that expects you to be something you simply can not be.  It is about finding the strength and courage to be honest with the world about who you really are.

Luna is an outsiders tale.  There are no surprises here.  The transgender dynamic and sibling relationship is established in the first chapter.  The point of view character is the sister of the transgendered teen.  She is the protector, the peacemaker, the refuge for her sibling.  The story is about her struggle.  She accepts her sibling, but doesn’t believe anyone else will.  She is an outsider because she must stand by an outsider, be impacted by an outsider.

The author is very free with her use of gender pronouns.  The transgender character is identified as both he and she by the sister.  Some of the gender use is “situational”.  She uses the gender for her sibling that everyone expects.  Some of the gender use is “role based”.  She uses the gender based on how her sibling is actively presenting.  Some of the gender use is simply the sister coming to terms with the reality of who her sibling really is.

This is a sweet and honest look at some of the emotional struggles family members may have with a transgendered sibling.  Because of my exposure to the disability community I am very much aware that siblings and sibling’s emotions can get short changed when families are confronted with a “real” problem.  This story allows the sister’s experiences to be “real” as well.

On the other hand, it doesn’t offer much of a lifeline to the point of view of the transgendered youth.  There is definitely a sense of “It gets better”.   There is a clear representation of the repression of role playing and the freedom to be who you are. But for all of the LGTBQ content, this is not an LGTBQ story.  It is a sibling story.

I really do recommend this book.  It’s a point of view that isn’t well represented in the literature.   This book would be welcomed by the sibling of any “outsider”.  I also think that it’s a generally LGTBQ positive rendering of a difficult family story.

This book is about gender, not about sexuality.  There is some banter about being gay.  The name calling is teen typical (if inappropriate, it still underlines character and it’s interesting that as supportive of the sister is of trans/queer she doesn’t hesitate to call a teacher retarded).   There is teen attraction, but nothing beyond a kiss.   I would say that makes this book very appropriate for pre-teens interested in the topic.

 

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The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own MakingUnknown

Catherynne M. Valente

R.R. Donnelley & Sons Co. Harrisburg, VA  2011

ISBN:978-1-250-01019-3

I relished this book.  I just finished it and I already want to read it again.  The language is delicious.  The story is charming and the protagonist heartless, as: “All children are heartless.  They have not grown a heart yet, which is why they can climb tall trees and say shocking things and leap so very high that grown-up hearts flutter in terror.”

The child is carried away into Fairyland, at her own consent, by the Leopard of Little Breezes and the Green Wind.  There she finds herself in the middle of a story.  As is typical of Fairy stories September, our heroine, is given the rules and structure at the beginning.  She’s a bright girl and works very hard to keep in line.  She avoids eating Fairy food for instance by convincing herself she’s eating Witch food and Wyvern food and all sorts of things that couldn’t possibly be Fairy food.

As she enters into the land she’s given a visa, something all travelers to strange countries must have of course.  September’s visa reads: “Temporary Visa Type: Pomegranate. Housing Allotment: None. Alien Registry Category: Human, Ravished, non-changeling. Size: Medium.  Age: Twelve. Privileges: None, or As Many As You Can Catch.”  Which of course gives us the whole story, without giving away a thing.

There is an evil queen and odd beasts.  There are wonders to behold and an arduous journey.  There are things destined to entrap her and friends to be made.  There are choices along the way of course and there is the key.  The Green Wind tells September he came for her, only her.  She feels chosen, yet she doesn’t feel as though she is anything special.  Truth is she’s not chosen.  She makes her choices and those choices have consequences and in the end take her through the story and out the other side.

I have seen some of Catherynne Valente’s other work, but this is the first that I’ve actually read.  I have a fellow blogger to thank for recommending it. (If I could remember who (sorry, it took me awhile to get here) I’d throw in a link to their site.  If you read the comments maybe she’ll show up.)  Looking through listings of Valente’s work I can see she has a background and interest in fairy and folklore.  I’m intrigued enough by her writing style to look both further in this series and also at her more adult works.

I suspect this book would be a delight to hear read aloud.  It is a fairy story, but there are plenty of hints at things older children and adults might enjoy as well.  The allusion to mythic adventure is palpable, without this being simply a retelling of an old story.  Every little detail becomes relevant at some point in the tale, even the fact that September neglected to wave goodbye to her mother as the Leopard of Little Breezes carried her past the factory where her mother built airplanes.

There is something about being a twelve-year-old girl.  The composure and self-confidence in your ability to accomplish anything, standing on the brink of something you can’t comprehend but feel drawn toward, and desiring to escape yet needing the security of home that make them ideal for this kind of story.  Dorothy in the Frank Baum books was about this age.  Susan is twelve when she first steps into the wardrobe to Narnia.  September holds her own in her adventures along with the best of them.

 
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Posted by on August 25, 2013 in Fantasy, Teen Fiction, Uncategorized

 

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The Warded Man

The Warded ManUnknown

by: Peter V. Brett

Ballantine Books New York, NY  2009

ISBN: 978-0-345-50380-0

It seems I’ve gotten myself sucked into yet another series.  Luckily for me this book is not only the first in the series, it also stands on its own.  The sense I had at the end of the book was much like it is at the end of any book.  We know the world and the characters go on even when the tale is complete.  If we really like what we’ve read we sometimes wish for more story, or another book about what our favorite characters do next.  But it’s like having a great meal at a restaurant.  We’re satisfied, but would like to come back.

There are so few series these days that don’t end on a cliff-hanger.  I am so grateful to have found an author who respects his work well enough to give me a complete novel, even as part of a series.  It’s worth exploring the next books for that reason alone.

However, there are plenty of other reasons to appreciate this writing as well.  This is a story in that blending of science fiction and fantasy.  The world here is older than it seems.  Mythology has replaced science, but there are hints of a time where great science was prevalent, or perhaps it was great magic.  The warders use symbols, like runes or Chinese characters, to build nets of magic to keep out the demons that rise from the core each night.

During the time of technology the demons had been defeated and there were hundreds of years of peace and prosperity.  When the demons returned, civilization collapsed into a semi-feudal structure.  The farmers in the small towns on the edges have maintained wards that the city people have lost, and visa versa.  In the city only warders know the symbols, In the country everyone knows them but clearly there are those with a stronger aptitude for constructing them.  In the city placement of the wards is a science of geometry, trigonometry and physics.  In the country you eyeball them in, or maybe use a straight stick to get the lines matched up.

There are three characters whose stories are told.  Arlen, who is a master warder in a small town that would never recognize that.  He is young, and brash, and talented and wants to learn about the times when men would fight the demons.  He feels betrayed by the father he used to admire and runs away, eventually to the city.  He wants to become a Messenger and travel the spaces between the towns looking for hints of the past.

Leesha’s family is at best verbally abusive.  She’s a very bright girl with a strong ethic.  Humiliated by her mother and the man her mother expects her to marry, she runs to the old herbalist for refuge.  The old woman takes her as an apprentice and reveals records and secrets that the wise women have kept since before the demons returned.

Rojer is an orphan survivor of a demon attack.  His father was the inn-keeper who let the wards around the inn deteriorate.  At the time of the attack the inn was housing a Jongleur, a traveling player often found in the company of Messengers.  In spite of himself, the Jongleur takes on the responsibility of the small boy and raises him in the trade.  Rojer was crippled in the attack, losing a few fingers off of one hand to a demon bite.  He doesn’t make a very good juggler, but he has a surprising skill with the violin.

I realized I was looking at a series when I was past the middle of the novel and the three had yet to meet up.  When they finally do it is the demands that each of them makes upon the others, as well as the need each of them has for the others that allows them all to recognize what they have become in the course of the story.

This is the coming of age piece for all three of these characters.  At the end of the novel the demons still rise and the world hasn’t changed.  But the three characters have.  We’re not sure where they are going next, but we know that there will be work for all of them.  They have each come into their own and they live in “interesting times”.

 
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Posted by on July 10, 2013 in Fantasy, Science Fiction, Teen Fiction

 

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Speechless

Unknown

The back cover reads “Saying she’s sorry isn’t enough”

Speechless

by: Hannah Harrington

Harlequin Enterprises Limited  Don Mills, Ontario Canada   2012

ISBN:978-0-373-21052-7

Although there were points in this book where the parent in me cringed, this is teen fiction at its best.  The story is told from the point of view of the teens, and it reads true.  There aren’t lectures and the moral message remains an honest gray.  There are rewards for “bad” behavior and consequences for “good” that any high school student would recognize.

Chelsea, the main character, is very talented at maintaining her status as BFF of the Queen Bee of the High School, Kristen.  She has a knack for finding “dirt” on her fellow students and she can’t keep a secret.  Then at Kristen’s unsupervised New Year’s party a very drunk Chelsea walks in on a classmate (Noah) in bed – with another boy.

Chelsea’s inability to keep a secret, compounded by her drunkenness, has her thoughtlessly outing the boys.  When Kristen’s boyfriend’s promise to “talk to him” becomes the beating that sends Noah to the hospital in a coma, Chelsea has to accept her responsibility.  She chooses to tell her parents, and the police, what happened and also chooses to stop speaking.  Her mouth gets her into too much trouble.

The bulk of the novel addresses Chelsea’s struggles when school starts back up.  She predictably looses her status and can’t or won’t speak in her own defense.  She is bullied very much the same way she used to bully her classmates.  It’s eye-opening.

The “odd” students who are willing to give Chelsea a chance believe she did the right thing going to the police. But it’s not an easy acceptance.  These are also the students who are Noah’s best friends.

The story covers mean girls, privileged jocks, closeted students and the fantasy and reality of finding love as a teen.  Surprisingly it manages to stay focused, always coming back to Chelsea and her choices.  The characters may fall into classic social groups but they are not stereotypes.

The adults do not play a large role in the narrative, but they are present.  They miss a lot because they are distracted not because they are uncaring or inept. Chelsea’s parents protect her as best they can from the legal implications of coming forward.  Chelsea’s teachers may have agenda’s at cross purposes from Chelsea’s but they are fathomable and reasonable.

It really is a surprisingly good book.  Chances are any parent will find something that the kids do that they don’t approve of.  Chances are any teen will recognize all the characters in their own school setting.

 
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Posted by on July 1, 2013 in Teen Fiction

 

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