For the hyperlinks this week, I am connecting nine of the novels to their reviews on the Kirkus online archive of reviews and the tenth is linked to the author’s blog for a specific reason to be explained below. It is nice to know that young adult literature gets the attention of the Kirkus Review and has for a long time.
Just before the beginning of the fifth grade my family moved to Tucson, Arizona. I knew absolutely no one as school began. Fortunately, Michael Rein lived on the same small cul-de-sac. We became fast friends; before long we realized we shared something else. Michael was the only Jewish kid in the class and I was the only Mormon. As fifth graders, we had novice theological discussions about our membership in religious groups that were clearly in the minority. After the school year was over, my family moved from the house we had been renting to a new home several miles away. New schools and new friends caused us to lose contact. In the library, during the sixth grade I found the books of Emily Cheney Neville which led me to Berries Goodman, a book that reminded me of my friend Michael. This wonderful book is told from the point of view of a young Jewish boy who moves from the inner city to the suburbs. With this book I had my first introduction to Jewish literature and the viciousness of anti-Semitism. I quickly moved to Leon Uris and Chaim Potock; by college I was inhaling Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, Henry Roth, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and, my personal favorite, Saul Bellow. After one friendship and one novel by a Newberry Award Winner, my life was enriched by a host of Jewish novelists.
I can connect my list of ten memorable books to a personal story, but rather than outline them all (and risk boring you all) I will mention a couple of brief connections.
Number two on my list is The Contender by Robert Lipsyte. This novel is often considered to be one of the novels published in 1967 that ushered in the golden age of YA literature. Even as a young reader I realized the novel was much more than a book about sports. Here was a story about race, poverty, hard work, and mentorship. It has stayed with me and continues to hold up as one of the most important novels in the history of adolescent literature.
I found the third novel, I am the Cheese by Robert Cormier as a young English major. I know at the time many readers were all abuzz about The Chocolate War, but something about the mystery, complicated narrative, and the inclusive ending resonated then and continues to do so today.
Walter Dean Myers’ Monster fell into my hands in 2002 as I began my Ph.D. in English Education. It seemed like the book was everywhere. I hope everyone reading this post knows this novel. The narrative style and visual presentation set a new standard for YA fiction.
As I began reading more and more YA fiction, I eventually found the novels of Jacqueline Woodson. I found the tender power of From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun one of the moving explorations of how an adolescent deals with a parent’s sexuality.
In one of my teacher personas, I am a die-hard AP Language and Literature teacher. I loved teaching those classes but often found that my students didn’t enjoy everything they read and, furthermore, didn’t get a chance to laugh very much. Many of the novels of Gordan Korman can fill this gap. They are light-hearted and witty. My favorite is still Son of the Mob. Not only is it clever, but it fills my need to occasionally use YA fiction as a bridge to the classics (Hats off to Don Gallo, Sara Herz , and Joan Kaywell for their leadership in this area!) as it romps through a modern day re-imagining of Romeo and Juliet.
The next book was an assigned text in a graduate course on race, class, and gender in children’s and young adult literature. As part of a course assignment I began a close reading of Joesph Bruchac’s The Heart of a Chief . (This link doesn’t go to Kirkus, instead it’s a link to the author’s blog and a brief video about the use of Native American names and images as school mascots—one of the book’s major issues.) The paper kept evolving and became my first published paper in The ALAN Review. I loved the book and realized that the literary craftsmanship we tend to reserve for classic fiction exists in nuanced ways in YA literature as well.
For my eighth selection I go back to a memory of sitting in the ALAN workshop in 2005 and listening as Chris Lynch introduced, his then new book, Inexcusable; I was hooked. I went back to my classroom and asked two students to participate in an exploration of what it might mean to use this interesting novel in the classroom. This study eventually found its way into The ALAN Review as well.
I hope I am not the only one who still finds The Catcher in the Rye worth reading; but it is not part of my top ten. Instead, for my ninth book I pick King Dork by Frank Portman. Portman both lampoons and pays homage to Holden Caulfield’s legacy. If you love The Catcher in the Rye (or if you just can’t stand it) and rock and roll, this book will, in the words of John Green, “…rock your world.” Even more good news, the sequel, King Dork Approximately will be out soon. Look for it.
My last choice is a tie. Over the last ten years or so one of America’s literary giants, Joyce Carol Oates (http://www.usfca.edu/jco/), has written five adolescent novels and a collection of adolescent short stories. I think they are all interesting novels that deserve more attention than they seem to be getting in the academic world of young adult literature. Her fiction has always seemed to jump from the headlines or function as re-imaginings of cultural and historical events. My favorite is Freaky Green Eyes. As you read it, you will be caught up in Franky’s fragile family life that rushes to an unavoidable tragedy.
The book that completes the tie for me is E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars. Out of all of the books I have read in the last several years, this is one that I can’t let go. I want to talk about, I want to write about, and I want to figure it out. It finally dawned on me after a couple of weeks of contemplation that, with this novel, E. Lockhart reminds me of Joyce Carol Oates. The writing is elegant. The tone is sophisticated. She captures the dynamics of a family struggling for intimacy in the midst of a mystery that the narrative slowly unfolds, in a manner that reminds me of Oates at her finest. I am thrilled that, as a young adult novelist, E. Lockhart seems to be taking her place alongside novelists like Oates, whose accolades and accomplishments are too long to mention here or, perhaps, anywhere. Like Oates, Lockhart is proving to have a range of styles and audiences within her repertoire—she also writes children’s books under the name of Emily Jenkins. I hope they both keep writing; nevertheless, Oates has been at it for fifty years. I eagerly await what Lockhart might give us over the next couple of decades.
1. Berries Goodman—Emily Cheney Neville
2. The Contender—Robert Lipsyte
3. I am the Cheese—Robert Cormier
4. Monster—Walter Dean Myers
5. From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun—Jacqueline Woodson
6. Son of the Mob—Gordan Korman
7. The Heart of a Chief—Joseph Bruchac
8. Inexcusable—Chris Lynch
9. King Dork—Frank Portman
10. Freaky Green Eyes—Joyce Carol Oates
11. We Were Liars—E. Lockhart
Until next week,
Steven T. Bickmore