Teri S. Lesesne, Editor
Sam Houston State University
Books Worth a Second Look
Once the first of these "oldies" columns appeared a year ago, the debate began. Why was this book overlooked? What could she have been thinking when she decided to include that book? E-mail responses to the article were immediate and exciting. The spirited discussion that took place on-line and in the school corridors was engaging; it reminded me that we all have different perspectives, different tastes. We bring different selves to our reading of books. Therefore, part of our critique and analysis is personal and emotive.
Part of how we select those books that we will cherish and share with others is idiosyncratic. I love some genres and will only read others if coerced. It is likely, then, that some good books will slip by me unnoticed. Occasionally, the major book awards will call attention to one or more I have missed along the way. However, if you want to engage colleagues in spirited debate, begin a discussion of the dearth of awards for YA literature. The awards going to YA are nearly non-existent despite the wealth of quality writing present in the field today. So, in this column, I hope to present some of those quality books, books that deserve a second read, books that might enhance literature classes, books we need to share with our students and our colleagues.
Sometimes, I think YA is the "Rodney Dangerfield" of literature: it gets no respect. We can bring a measure of respect to it by honoring those beautifully crafted books of the past 15 years, by bringing these (and your favorites) to a new generation of students, by keeping quality literature alive and well.
Some Past Prize Winners
Since 1983, Delacorte Press Books for Young Readers has encouraged YA submissions with the annual awarding of the Delacorte Press Prize for a First Young Adult Novel. Some of the winners of this prize have gone on to successful careers in YA literature. Joyce Sweeney, A.E. Cannon, Dennis Covington, Joan Bauer, and Martha Moore continue to fulfill the promise of that first remarkable book. Three of my favorite books, however, were "Honor Books," runners-up for the prize.
Crosses by Shelley Stoehr (Delacorte, 1991. ISBN 0-440-21561-7) rivets readers from the unforgettable opening sentence to the final scene. It is not an easy book, not a book to "like" exactly. Yet some seven years after its publication, it speaks to students. In this uncompromising examination of the dark world of adolescents with emotional problems compounded by drug dependencies, Stoehr manages to create characters readers care about, characters who are fully three dimensional. Nancy and Katie are gradually drawn deeper and deeper into their dependencies; their self-destruction increases. Unlike some of its predecessors, this is not a moral tale. The theme seems not to be so much "be careful and make good decisions and all will turn out well in the end." Instead, the author tells us the unvarnished truth: "sometimes bad things happen, sometimes endings are not of the happily-ever-after variety."
Before there was a call for more multicultural books, there was Children of the River by Linda Crew (Delacorte, 1989. ISBN 0-440-21022-4). Sundara struggles to fit into two separate and disparate cultures: the culture of her Oregon High School and her home culture in which she is expected to be a "good Cambodian girl." Sundara feels torn between these two worlds. That pressure becomes intensified when she is attracted to an American boy. Sundara longs for those she left behind in Cambodia at almost the same time she longs to be with her American friends. Surely this feeling of being pulled in different directions is endemic among adolescents, many of whom experience the peculiar pull between the world of childhood and the waiting world of adulthood. Crew’s work, then, stands as an exemplar of how books about people different from ourselves can shed light on our own lives. This book would assist those students who are beginning to enter the vicarious experiences stage of reading development, students who are examining lives outside of their own spheres.
For those who complain that YA literature is too heavy, that there is a lack of humorous books for this population, offer Too Much T.J. by Jacqueline Shannon (Delacorte, 1986. ISBN 0-385-29482-4). Meet Razz, a young adolescent whose parents have been divorced for a while. Mom is dating, something that she finds nearly repulsive. To add insult to injury, Mom’s new boyfriend has a son, someone Razz’s own age. This is the last complication Razz needs in her life now. She and her closest friend Marty have vowed that their move from a private all-girls school to the world of co-educational classes will be a turning point in their lives. Razz sets her sites on T.J., the affable and popular star of the football team. The only fly in the ointment is that T.J. plays the field, in and out of his uniform that is. Still, Razz is convinced that she can change T.J.’s ways, make him a one-woman man. When she discovers that T.J. is about to become her new stepbrother, rather than being dismayed, Razz plans to make her dreams come true. In one of the funniest and most sedate seduction scenes ever to grace a YA novel, Razz carefully arranges herself coifed, manicured, and made-up self in a foamy bubble bath awaiting T.J.’s arrival home from practice. Despite the light touch, Shannon does deliver some powerful messages about blended families and the difficulties in adjusting to new family situations.
Short and Sweet
I make it a point when I go out to schools to present book talks to kids, to take along a few "short" books, books which Joni Bodart labels "world-class thin books for when the book report is due tomorrow." Don’t heap on the praise yet; I was one of those English teachers who insisted for quite a few years that my secondary students’s books had to be more than 100 pages. The books below are some of those which made me reconsider my stringent length requirement. Happily, I did so before powerful novels such as Nightjohn by Gary Paulsen, Drive-By by Lynne Ewing, and the magical realism of Francesca Block appeared on the YA scene. Here, then, are some relatively short books which are too good to miss.
Certainly the outstanding collections of short stories edited by Don Gallo are books not to be missed. Sometimes, though, I have wanted to provide students with an in-depth study of one author’s work in this genre. Chris Crutcher’s Athletic Shorts is one collection I use routinely in my YA literature class at the university. Another of my favorites, and a favorite of my students is Peter Sieruta’s Heartbeats and Other Stories (HarperCollins, 1986. ISBN 0-06-447064-4). Sieruta captures those moments in an adolescent’s life when, in the blink of an eye or the pulse of a heartbeat, she can change from awkward teen to sophisticated young woman, or he can shift from an outcast to a member of the "group." These nine short stories stay with me more than 10 years after I first read them. The wonderfully funny opening story "25 Good Reasons for Hating my Brother Todd" continues to serve well as a model for writing classes. As Emery recounts the 25 legitimate reasons he has for disliking his more popular older brother, the plot gradually unfolds. Kenny, in "Being Alive," sits longingly beside the track each day, locked into a wheelchair. The extraordinary courage of a gifted athlete allows him to feel fully alive. A substitute forever changes the life of one of the students he harangues. Humor, romance, sports — Sieruta’s stories run the gamut and serve to illustrate the range one author can possess.
Poetry is one of my passions. Unfortunately, I had a tough time convincing some of my middle school students to give it a try. Who could blame them when the anthologies we used offered up the usual chestnuts, poems written 100 years ago and probably disliked by the young of that generation. Trail of Stones by Gwen Strauss (Knopf, 1990. ISBN 0-679-80582-6) entices readers from the vaguely eerie cover (art by Anthony Browne) and continues to captivate with the dark and grim (no pun intended) poems based upon familiar folk tales. A wolf lies in bed awaiting Little Red Riding Hood; while he waits, he wonders how he will appear to her, how she will feel when she clambers into bed with him thinking he is her beloved grandmother. A mature Cinderella questions how the Prince could not know her immediately if he is so smitten by her. The Beast sits dying knowing his Beauty will not return. Here is an alternative for those students weaned on a diet of folk tale follies, students who need to know the more adult, darker versions of those tales told round the campfires long ago.
A Fate Totally Worse than Death by Paul Fleischman (Candlewick Press, 1995. ISBN 1-56402-627-2) offers a much needed antidote for YA readers who have overdosed on the serial "thrillers" that glut the market and strip shelf space from the more thoughtful offerings of YA literature. A wide-eyed, carefully coifed young blonde adorns the cover, asking readers to help save her. It seems someone in the book is out to murder her. An off-stage speaker advises her to relax. After all, this book is a take-off. And so it is, a wonderfully zany and sharply satirical take-off on all of those would be scary stories about hapless and helpless adolescents. Instead, Fleischman offers a heartier fare. Meet Brooke, Tiffany and Danielle, three young women who believe that their world is nearly perfect until the new foreign exchange student wanders in innocently. Quickly the three plot an "accident" for the new girl: they are old hands at this trade, having eliminated another of their competitors previously. Helga, however, refuses to fall off the cliff or tumble down the stairs. Instead Danielle, Brooke, and Tiffany encounter problems of their own — greying hair, stiff joints, memory losses — until they become convinced that Helga is the returned and revengeful ghost of a former victim of their abuse. The truth of the matter is one best left secret for readers to discover on their own. One wonders how Fleischman kept his tongue so firmly in cheek for the entire novel.
That "Other" Fiction: Informational Books Worth Noting
Bob Small often remarks that nonfiction is the only genre defined by what it is NOT. Yet, teachers and librarians know that students are reading lots of nonfiction on their own. Some research is suggesting that an interest in nonfiction begins early in the life of a reader. I have certainly witnessed this every night for the past three weeks. Our four-year-old granddaughter Natalie has a new favorite book: The Book of Slime . She wants it read to her each night as her bedtime story; she takes it along with her to preschool for the teacher to read; we have had to make the recipes for slime in our kitchen on rainy weekends. So, for all the Natalies of the world, here are three terrific examples of what this oft-overlooked genre has to offer.
How, students ask, can we change things we think are wrong? What power do we have? We are just kids! Phillip Hoose offers some answers to these questions in his powerful telling of stories of young people who made a difference in their schools and communities. It’s Our World, Too! (Little, Brown, 1993. ISBN 0-316-37241-2) not only offers readers tales of other young adults who have become active in politics and social change, in the appendices Hoose offers concrete step-by-step instructions for writing "power" letters, filing petitions, calling press conferences and similar activities essential for the young activist. Students who have started soup kitchens in their neighborhoods, who have organized a strike of football players to protest racial insults, and who collected monies from their peers to save endangered woods in Costa Rica should serve as prime examples of the power adolescents possess to address wrongs, to better conditions, to reach out to their peers across America and throughout the world.
Paul Janeczko is best known as a poet and anthologist. However, his book Loads of Codes and Secret Ciphers (Macmillan, 1984. ISBN 0-02-747810-6) is still a favorite of the young boys I speak to when I visit schools. From the history of codes and ciphers, to examples of current codes (i.e., Morse Code, Braille, the International Flag Code), to how to crack codes, this is a book students will pick up time and time again. A recipe for making invisible inks and instructions for putting together a telegraph key are also included.
Racism and sexism are problems teens may encounter daily in school and work and in the communities in which they live. Susan Kuklin’s Speaking Out: Teenagers Take on Race, Sex, and Identity (Putnam, 1993. ISBN 0-399-22532-3) begins with a brief introduction to the high school of the humanities which Kuklin used for her research into this topic. What Kuklin does is allow each student a chance to speak her or his mind about race, gender, and identity without any instant analysis or commentary from the outside. It is because of this concentration on the students that the book rings true for YA readers. Here they can meet other kids like themselves, kids who represent the diversity of our contemporary schools. And not all of the students speak with one voice. Jason is a member of the humanities club because, in his opinion, they need kids like him, kids who belong to the NAAWP (National Association for the Advancement of White People). The voices are real, the hurt and anger evident. Instead of offering up solutions to problems, Kuklin allows the students to voice their concerns directly to readers. It will be up to readers to discuss what they have learned and begin to solve the problems for themselves.
Let the Dialogue Begin
So, what do you think? What are those books we need to dust off and present to a new generation of readers? Which of the thousands of books published in the past decade deserves out renewed interest and attention? I invite your comments and extend an invitation for others to contribute to this column. Let me hear from you. Let the dialogue continue.
Copyright 1998. 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 in any form.
Reference Citation: Lesesne, Teri S.. (1998). "Forget-Me-Nots: Books Worth a Second Look." The ALAN Review , Volume 25, Number 2, 52-54.