THE RETROSPECTIVE CONNECTION
Teri S. Lesesne, Editor
Department of Library Science, Sam Houston State University
Forget-Me-Nots: A Look Back at Books
You are driving to work in your new Lexus convertible (hey, we can dream can't we?) when suddenly one of your favorite songs comes on the radio. What do you do?
- A. Mutter, "Heck, I already know this song. I think I'll switch stations and find something new."
- B. Complain, "Gee, they just don't write songs like that anymore" (children of the 70s, are excluded from using this answer).
- C. Murmur, "Good one," and relish in the memories the song beings back to you.
- D. Yell, "All right!" and sing along lustily despite the weird looks from your fellow commuters.
I suspect most of you answered "C" or "D." We not only enjoy hearing our favorite songs, but we are also likely to change our allegiance to a station if it does not play those songs we know and love. This phenomenon knows no age limits. I recall when my granddaughters would demand that we do "I'm a Little Teapot" just one more time. Yet, when they demand the old familiar bedtime stories over and over again, I resisted. After all, how many times could I tell "Cinderella" before even I grew tired of the tale?
Likewise, when I am invited in area schools, my tendency is to select those books which are the newest and present those to students, teachers, and librarians. What about the other books lingering on library and classroom shelves, forgotten and dusty? They were once the "new" book on the shelf. Now, they wait hoping someone will discover them. Without the assistance of teachers and librarians, though, the chances of such a serendipitous discovery are slim. How many of you have watched as adolescents roam around the shelves of the library, seemingly aimlessly, and then arrive at the circulation desk complaining that there aren't any good books to be found? We know that is not the case, but think of this situation from the vantage point of the student: there are thousands of books, an overwhelming array from which to select ONE to read. Why not pull some of the never fail books from the shelves and highlight them in some way for readers?
What I hope to do in this column is to remind readers of those older books, the ones which perhaps won no major awards but deserve a second look. Those are the books I call "forget-me-nots." Some of you will be familiar with these titles; for others, they will be as new as the 1997 books arriving in bookstores today. This inaugural column examines 10 titles. Some of these books appear on the "Top 100 Best Books for Young Adults" list (School Library Journal, August 1994, pp. 10-11); others are International Reading Association's Young Adult Choices books. The remainder are simply favorites of mine: an eclectic list to be sure. In future columns, I may examine specific genres of YA literature and/or themes. In the meantime, add one or more of these titles to your next book talk; introduce the class of 1997 to the "class" of YA literature of the past.
Ten To Remember
In Cages by Peg Kehret (Dutton, 1991), Kit finds herself in trouble with the police after she is caught shoplifting. When Kit is allowed to choose between sentencing in juvenile court or a new community service program for young offenders, she opts for the latter, thinking it the easier way out of her predicament. Little is she prepared for what happens next: she is assigned to perform community service at the local Humane Society. Kit's task is to socialize the dogs so that they do not become too accustomed to living in cages. It seems an easy enough job. What Kit soon learns, though, is that becoming attached to the "residents" of the shelter can mean heartbreak. Kit begins to understand that she cannot rescue all of the lost and abandoned animals. She also comes to realize that all people are in cages of sorts. If they dare to break out of the confines of those cages, they must also accept responsibility for their actions.
When Jeremy Bloom oversleeps the first day of middle school, the consequences are far-reaching. By the time he arrives at school, all of the "good" electives have been taken. Jeremy was hoping for Music Appreciation to some other elective which might be more play than work. Maybe Pottery class would do. The hapless Jeremy arrives in class to discover that Pottery is, in reality, Poetry class: no amount of begging and pleading will release him from the clutches of the dreaded Mrs. Terranova. Thus is born The D- Poems of Jeremy Bloom by Gordon and Bernice Korman (Scholastic, 1992), a collection of the 44 poems penned by Jeremy during his semester in poetry class along with an hilarious narrative which chronicles the misadventures of young Jeremy. This is a logical next step to students raised on Silverstein and Prelutsky. Try reading aloud "Honesty is not always the best policy" as a Readers' Theater piece. "Definition," a brief poem, uses a series of metaphors and similes to define this elusive genre. The poems range from humorous to thoughtful; the narrative provides the background for Jeremy's inspiration.
The Leaving and other Stories (Philomel, 1990) by Budge Wilson was awarded the Canadian Young Adult Book Award for 1991. Nine stories, nine young women hovering on the brink between adolescence and adulthood: these are the requisite ingredients for the scrumptious feast which awaits readers. "The Metaphor" should be required reading for English teachers everywhere if only to remind us of the impact we have on our students even after they leave our classrooms. It also serves admirably as a model for would-be writers of this genre. Twelve-year-old Edna pours out her worries (about budding breasts which do not fit into any bra she has tried) and longings (to be discovered at a party by a mate from her childhood who is amazed at her metamorphosis) to an unknown pen pal only to learn that Hilary is not exactly the person she had visualized in "The Pen Pal." At turns humorous, bittersweetly poignant, and evocative, Wilson's collection is a gem.
Another Canadian writer, another story collection, Paradise Cafe and other Stories (Thistledown Press, 1988), by Martha Brooks, received universal praise from reviewers. Brooks possesses the ability to move readers from laughter to tears. This is perhaps most evident in the story "A Boy and his Dog." Buddy laments in the opening paragraph that his dog Alphonse has a problem with digestion, one so severe that Buddy must keep the window open when Alphonse sleeps on his bed. While the opening paragraph is sure to bring chortles and giggles, the mood turns somber when Buddy learns that his beloved Alphonse has cancer. The final paragraph notes how Buddy bids farewell to his lifelong companion. It is guaranteed to leave readers touched. Each of the 14 stories in this remarkable collection center on the theme of love. What sets this collection apart from other story collections, though, is that each story explores a unique aspect of romance from the adolescent angst of unrequited love to love which crosses generational boundaries. Brooks is a much needed antidote for those readers reared on Sweet Valley High and other romance novels which fail to deliver strong characters, universal themes, and realistic resolutions.
The Rain Catchers (Houghton Mifflin, 1991) by Jean Thesman has been on my required reading list for some time. A moving story of the familial bonds among several generations of women, the story of Grayling and her relatives is rich with detail and vibrant prose. Over the course of one summer, Grayling becomes a full-fledged member of the circle of women which is her family. Her membership involves some price; however, Grayling comes to recognize that life has its sorrows as well as its joys. The symbolism, the textured language, and the memorable characters combine to create a novel worthy of study in the classroom.
Though the title may certainly attract readers, it is the content of the novel which will remain fixed in their memory after reading. Sex Education (Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1988) by Jenny Davis chronicles a semester in the lives of two high-school students, David and Livvie, who work together on a project for their class in biology and sex education. Their assignment is to find someone to "care" for during the semester. David and Livvie select their new neighbor, a young pregnant woman who seems isolated from the rest of the community. Caring for another person can be risky, but David and Livvie are determined to complete their project. One of the two will not survive the semester; the other is left to tell what happened.
Aremis Slake is desperate. Always the target of harassment by other kids in school, Slake seeks shelter in the New York City subway system. This novel recounts his 121-day survival story. Interspersed with Slake's story is a second narrative; the two stories collide in a jolting scene at the climax of the book. This is a riveting survival story, one most readers find utterly believable. Perhaps that is the reason that some 23 years after its initial publication, Slake's Limbo (MacMillan, 1974) by Felice Holman, remains in print.
Unlived Affections (Harper & Row, 1989) opens with Willie Ramsey sorting through the contents of his grandmother's house before selling it at auction. He was raised by his grandmother; his mother died when he was two. His father has always been a mystery, one for which his grandmother would provide no clues. A box of old letters holds the key to the identity of his father. As Willie finds the answers to the secrets kept from him, new questions arise. Can a father he has never known change the way Willie sees himself and his future?
Reading aloud the opening scene to Wolf Rider: A Tale of Terror (MacMillan, 1986) by Avi never fails to motivate new readers. A phone call plunges Andy Zadinski into a murder mystery. Surely, it was a wrong number. Why would a murderer call Andy and confess. Andy is determined to keep the caller on the line long enough for the police to trace the call. When that fails, Andy tells his story to the police. They are skeptical, and Andy has no proof of what he heard on the other end of the phone. As he seeks some proof, though, Andy sets in motion a chain of events which leads to a chilling confrontation with the murderer in person. Tired of seeing kids reading nothing but "Goosebumps" and the like? Here is a hair-raising tale sure to wean readers away from the formulaic series books and toward the shivery mysteries of Avi, Jay Bennett, Joan Lowery Nixon, and others.
To label Wrestling with Honor (Dutton, 1989) by David Klass a sports book is to shortchange it in some way. Here is a meticulously crafted study of a young man coming of age, dealing with adversity, accepting responsibility, and asserting himself. Ron Woods is a championship wrestler and a straight arrow. This year could be a banner one for him in wrestling. However, Ron believes that mandatory testing of high school athletes for drugs is a violation of his rights. He succumbs to the pressure of his coach and teammates and submits a urine sample for testing. When the test comes back inexplicably positive, Ron refuses to take another test. He feels that his coach, his teammates, everyone should believe him at his word. He is disappointed when others choose not to believe his innocence. Klass combines slam bang scenes of wrestling with fully drawn characters in a novel that is as timely today as it was when it was first published.
Well, as I said, this is an eclectic list. However, it is also a list of those books I talk about frequently when I visit classrooms and libraries. Teachers and librarians report that students continue to check out these books long after my visit has passed. The fact that many of these books are available in paperback is an additional bonus as it makes it simpler (and cheaper) for teachers and librarians to add several copies to their collections. What books work for you? What are some other forget-me-nots? Let me hear from you. In the meantime, I'll see you in the stacks.
Copyright 1996, The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN # 0882-2840). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.
Reference Citation: Lesesne, Teri S. (1996). Forget-me-nots: A look back at books.The ALAN Review, Volume 24, Number 1, 61-62.