December 2006

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

The Inevitable Coming of Age

The “coming-of-age” novel is one of the best things about the YA genre. Although we feel most comfortable placing all those questions and concerns about personal identity into the teenage years (and thus teenage literature) the ugly truth is that most of us are well into our thirties before we finally get the identity thing figured out. That might be why these particular books are so popular with adult reviewers -- we see ourselves in the characters and we often find some grains of wisdom in their searches for inner truth. These are the books that make readers think big thoughts about themselves and the world, thoughts that can lead to new choices and grand decisions, the best kind of thoughts a teenager can have

John Green earned an enormous amount of well deserved praise (and the Printz Award) for his debut novel, Looking for Alaska. There was obviously a lot of anticipation built up for his follow-up and he does not disappoint with An Abundance of Katherines. While many other reviewers have written about the wit to be found in this novel, what interested me upon reading it is that we seem to be entering into a bit of a renaissance for male protagonists in realistic teen fiction. After reading and loving Frank Portman’s King Dork, I find Green’s young Colin Singleton to be a young man written from the same complex and thoughtful perspective as Portman’s Tom Henderson. The stories are not the same, but the teenagers do ring true in a similar manner -- they seem to care about the world and their place in it in the same way.

Colin is a genius and has had to live with the accompanying burden of high expectation ever since he read a newspaper headline to his father at the age of twenty-five-months-old. Many of the predictable prodigy moments to follow: tutors, testing and awkward social moments with his classmates:

His favorite thing to do during recess was to pretend to be a robot. He’d walk up to Robert Caseman with a knees-locked gait, his arms swinging stiffly. In a monotone voice, Colin would say, “I AM A ROBOT. I CAN ANSWER ANY QUESTION. DO YOU WANT TO KNOW WHO THE FOURTEENTH PRESIDENT WAS?” Robert would then, of course, humiliate him horribly. That was the first grade and it just went downhill from there.

Colin persevered. He made one good friend, Hassan, and dated (sometimes in a loose description of the word) a string of girls all named Katherine. It is the break-up with Katherine #19 that prompts the car trip at the beginning of Green’s new book. Freshly graduated from high school and dumped by the love of his life, Colin has difficulty finding a reason to go on, let alone consider a summer class at Northwestern or learning Sanskrit, both suggestions from his father. He believes that as a young, and yet again dumped, genius he has now outgrown all that made him special and he no longer matters. Taking to the road on a quest for self-discovery seems to be crucial to his life.

Colin crafts a relationship theorem in the book, and tries to graph romance or predict the successes and failures of love. He focuses on solving the mathematical problems posed by attraction, dating and break-ups. Along the way he and his friend Hassan end up in Gutshot, Tennessee looking for the grave of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. They get jobs, make friends and begin to have a surreal and somehow meaningful existence in the middle of nowhere. It’s all about hunting wild pigs, visiting a nursing home and living in the town where tampon strings come from, as well as the big coming-of-age issues.

Katherines is really the perfect book for girls trying to understand how a portion of the male brain works. It’s all here – the need to fit in, but the compulsion to stand apart; the intense desire for love but also the frustration over the complexities of women (“It goes without saying that Katherine drank her coffee black. Katherines do, generally. They like their coffee like they like their ex-boyfriends: bitter.”); and the burning drive to make a mark upon the landscape of the world around them. Maybe it’s Sanskrit over the summer, or inventing the cure for cancer or throwing a football like no one else. But guys like records, and Colin is just like the rest of his brethren when it comes to his personal hopes for the future.

For author Amy Koss, her book Side Effects was written in response to insight gained when someone she loved was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Right now, cast aside any thoughts you might have about sick kid books. This is not, repeat not, Lurlene McDaniel’s journey into brave death of the week. What Amy Koss has done is written a book about the kid who lives -- the one who battles through, exchanges barbs with her little brother, gets frustrated by her parents and considers just why in the hell homework should matter when she’s facing another round of chemo. It is one kick ass book.

Eighth grader Izzy is a frustrated doodler/artist who is annoyed at having to get up early for school and suffering from a hopeless crush on her classmate Jared. In the first few pages of Side Effects her mother takes her to the family doctor for a check-up as her lymph glands have remained swollen long after she got over a recent sickness. Izzy finds herself checking into Children’s Hospital, having a biopsy and suffering through her first bout of chemo. It is a stark dose of reality that still manages to remain utterly unreal. But because she has no choice, Izzy pushes through the chaos that her disease brings and struggles to find her way to a new life. It isn’t easy because no one else seems to know just what to do with her, especially the friends she once counted on.

Izzy’s personality does not change -- she remains the same caustic, mouthy teenager she was before she got sick. That’s one of the things about cancer that is always so startling for survivors: you are same person the minute before and after diagnosis, but the rest of the world (and how it relates to you) immediately changes. People now treat you differently. One of the funnier examples of Izzy’s attitude about her disease is an exchange with her classmate Andy, someone she never took the time to even notice before her diagnosis but now proves to be a person she can relate to on a whole new level. Here’s how it goes one day in class (and is the perfect backflap copy for the book):

Andy Sigel turned around and said, "Want some of my notes on the stuff you missed?"

I shrugged. "Nah." I said. "I’m just going to dare them to flunk me for having cancer."

Andy laughed and gave me a thumbs-up.

I cannot imagine a more honest conversation and Koss is dead-on with her observations. Izzy says what anyone in her position would want to say, and through the whole book she excels at these kinds of moments. Side Effects is rich reading for any young adult and will be appreciated by those who recognize hypocrisy and have been yearning for literary heroes who don’t take any crap from anybody.

In Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow, Doria is the daughter of Moroccan immigrants who came to France looking for a better life. When the story begins, her father has returned six months earlier, as Doria is not the son he always wanted (and there are no more children on the horizon with his wife) and the Parisian projects are not the “promised land.” He has a new wife, much younger and as Doria puts it, “more fertile than my mom.” Meanwhile her mother is working as a motel maid for a horrible boss who refers to “all the Arabs as ‘Fatma,’ all the blacks ‘Mamadou’ and all the Chinese ‘Ping-Pong.’” Doria is seeing a counselor to cope with a new closed-off attitude. She’s not angry or suicidal or even obnoxious, she’s just disillusioned by life.

Doria hopes to win the lottery and thinks it would great to be generous with her windfall and buy a Romanian busker a camper that will “look just like the ones you can win in the showcase showdown on The Price is Right.” When she dreams of a different life it is often not only about living somewhere else but somewhen else, particularly with the Ingalls family from The Little House on the Prairie:

Dad, Mom, kids, dog that doesn’t bite, barn and ribbons in your hair for going to church on Sunday mornings. You know, happiness… The story, it all takes place in this pre-1900 period atmosphere, with oil lamps, the arrival of the railroad, prehistoric clothes, and other old stuff like that… The thing I like about the Ingalls family is that as soon as some big drama starts up, they make the sign of the cross, have a good little crying session, and by the next episode everybody’s forgotten all about it… It’s pure movie magic.

There are several times in the story when Doria expresses her frustrations over other people thinking they can fix her family or understand her life. And the reality of her life, with people who “don’t understand the first thing about social diversity and cultural melting pots” is much different than most of us can understand. This is life for Doria:

There’s still such a well-drawn line between the Paradise Estate where I live and the Rousseau housing development. Massive wire fencing that stinks of rust it’s so old and a stone wall that runs the whole length of the divide. Worse than the Maginot Line or the Berlin Wall. On the project side, the divider is covered in tags, drawings and concert posters and flyers for different eastern-themed evenings, graffiti praising Saddam Hussein or Che Guevara, patriotic signs, VIVA TUNISIA, SENEGAL REPRESENT, even rap lyrics with a philosophical slant. But me, what I like best on the wall is an old drawing that’s been there for a really long time, long before the rise of the rap or the start of the war in Iraq. It’s an angel in handcuffs with a red cross over its mouth.

Guene wants to prove, just as her main character does, that “the projects aren’t only about rap, soccer and religious tension.” This story might be set in France, but Doria reads like so many other teenagers around the world and in downtown America; she wants to find her way in the world and regardless of where you are born, that journey is universal.

All of the Above is about several teens in the same dreadfully boring seventh grade math class who end up becoming part of a record setting effort to build the largest tetrahedron. Math is not the sort of subject that comes up often in teen books (An Abundance of Katherines would be another exception to this rule), and the combination of a teacher trying to make a difference and a cast of inner city kids with little hope of success in their lives sends strains of Stand and Deliver running through my head.

Thankfully, author Shelley Pearsall seems to be aware of the cliché-ridden territory she is wading into and she does an outstanding job of crafting an original novel about some very creative and determined kids. Whether or not any of them are going to make it out of the inner city and rise above their struggling socio-economic class is not part of Pearsall’s tale, but she does show that by working together they learn to look at each other and themselves a little differently.

At its heart, All of the Above is about a very jaded math teacher who simply can not bear the thought of another pointless year. Mr. Collins poses the tetrahedron challenge to his class and the overachiever, Rhondell, who wants to go to college but has no idea how to do it. Sharice is there also, looking for someplace to belong and something to consume her time as she plods through life in yet another foster home. The main group is rounded out by Marcel and James who seems like a thug but really is an artist.

There are several moments in Above that impressed me with their honesty. For example, when Mr. Collins tries to encourage James in his art, he serves up the classic “school will save you” speech that every adult always wants to sell to teens. James isn’t interested though, because “I don’t like school, and I’m already good in art and there’s nothing else I feel like learning about it.” In his head, he has a valid point -- he can draw, so why does he need something like middle school math class? James needs a lot more time learning about himself before he’s going to believe the promise of art school and Pearsall shows how something like a math project can be a surprising link in that self awareness chain.

Ultimately it is not just the kids who are transformed by the tetrahedron, there are also several adults who participate and all of them open up and see the world a little differently as well after working on the thousands of triangles. You do not know for sure what the future will bring for the primary classroom crew when the book ends, but you do see how far they have come in the story.

Edward Bloor is one of my favorite authors and I always look forward to his latest release. London Calling is an original story of time travel, war, and personal courage. It starts with Martin Conway who is unlucky enough to attend an exclusive private school. The school is part of a larger “cult” around the heroic life of General Henry M. “Hollerin’ Hank” Lowery whose family is the school’s main benefactor. Martin is far outside the popular crowd and also an unfortunate target of the latest Lowery, one of his bullying classmates. Things take a grim turn in the opening chapters when a fight gets out of control and someone has to take the fall for what goes wrong.

There is now officially time for personal reflection, but this is Edward Bloor doing the writing, so the unexpected is just around the corner. London Calling was not going to be about an kid who plays video games and surfs message boards while bad mouthing his teachers and parents. There is an old vacuum tube radio that comes to Martin through his grandmother. It is via the radio, and some sort of cosmic promise involving God or quantum physics that Jimmy Harker arrives at Martin’s bedside one night. It has to be a dream but Jimmy is so insistent that Martin help him and seems to know him so well, that the episode can not be easily dismissed. And then another night, a few days later, Martin meets Jimmy again and this time he is the one who has traveled, right back to Jimmy’s time and place, London during WWII.

Martin begins to realize that history itself is full of questions, and with the help of his older sister Margaret, a researcher at an encyclopedia company, he starts to look into the story that Jimmy is showing him and surprising secrets about the Conway family past. Everything Martin thought he knew about himself and his grandfather and even “Hollerin’ Hank” is blown wide open. Through his efforts, and his sister’s help, he is able to rectify some very old wrongs.

I don’t know how to classify Edward Bloor’s books; they contain elements of so many genres that they defy easy definition. London Calling is the kind of book that I think will draw boys in particularly though, as they will want to hunt for clues and figure things out just like Martin. Boys don’t often read books when they are young that ask the big questions but London Calling with its basis in big and small battles and its theme of personal courage will grip them from beginning to end. More importantly, it will give them something to think about, and possibly learn from.            

I was lucky enough to get a copy of William Bell’s The Blue Helmet from its Canadian publisher just days ago. I have never seen a YA book in the U.S. about UN peacekeepers. I blew through Blue Helmet in one evening and am utterly impressed by this book. The best part is that it is not a war story, but a “what happens when soldiers come home” story and that makes it powerfully relevant to readers today.

Teenager Lee has been angry at the world since his mother died and his father lost himself in two jobs and endless grief. The latest incarnation of Lee’s rage finds him in the final initiation for a neighborhood gang known as the Tarantulas. He believes the gang will be his new family and it is with them that he will be able to exercise the hard fought lesson he already learned facing down a bully on the schoolyard: “You had to stand up to them. To everyone. No matter what the odds, never show weakness, always be willing to take them on, never give in. They had to know that it would cost them something, even if they won.”

Bell makes sure to not demonize the Tarantulas; they are merely the latest stop on Lee’s anger driven search for something to take all his frustration out on. He is unable to speak to his father on any meaningful level, his single serious relationship ended in a moment of violence he regrets and the gang offers him the chance to fight those who might dare to challenge his authority. He is one step away from high school expulsion and in trouble with the police. The only solution that does not include jail means going to live and work for his aunt in New Toronto. Lee swears he will not stay long, but soon enough he finds himself in a new life and tempted with a new way to live.

None of Lee’s changes come easy; he slowly meets smart and compassionate people as he works at her diner and begins a small bicycle delivery service on the side. It is through the deliveries that he becomes friends with Cutter, a brilliant recluse who suffers from severe paranoia. Cutter might not be well balanced but he knows a lot and Lee finds him fascinating company.

What Cutter does not share, not until he loses his grip on reality, is just how his world was shattered. Lee discovers Cutter's history in the Balkans (“Alice in Wonderland with guns and death squads” according to Cutter). You have to choose, Cutter wants Lee to understand, “when the darkness comes, from outside or from inside, and tempts you to mine the schoolyard, blow up the building, pick up the gun, throw the punch -- then you have two choices, the green helmet or the blue one. You can join the war, or you can keep the peace.”

Lee’s journey to peace is very compelling but it is the larger story of Cutter’s life and how it affects Lee that makes The Blue Helmet outstanding. Every character in this book is strongly written and well thought out – there is not a wasted moment as Lee wades into his brave new world following the path cut long before by his stricken friend. Even though you might have to pay shipping charges from Amazon Canada to get it, I can’t recommend it enough.

Finally, because it is the gift giving season, here are a couple of holiday ideas for those challenged in the “what to buy niece, nephew, stepsister/brother or otherwise hard to define young person” department. First up is a charming bit of a holiday trifle; a book that is small in size but possesses a lovely story that will bring a smile to all those who read it. The Van Gogh Café is not cheesy or stupid or silly but, and I hesitate to write this, has a certain sweetness that makes it the best kind of gentle reading. It’s a trifle. It’s not a wasteful bit of reading but a short (53 pages) and delicious break from heavier fare. I thought it was a delight and recommend it for all readers in search of a small and fantastic diversion.

The Van Gogh Café is run by Clara and her father Marc and it seems like the strangest things happen there. From a possum who sparks random acts of kindness to a mysterious lightning strike and the power of poetry, the oddest things seem to happen to the folks who eat at the Café. All of these little vignettes combine to form a cohesive tale about a father and daughter and a town that is one part Star’s Hollow and one part Deep Valley. It is a nice place to visit, to dream, to imagine; it is a place that you want to exist for the sheer wonder of what good things might happen there. It is a tonic to a troubled world and reminder of who we can really be, when we take a chance and try.

On the flip side of sweet and small is the oversized Exploratopia, a heavy duty encyclopedia-sized experiment and exploration compendium put out by San Francisco’s world renowned Exploratorium. This is the gift for the kids who want to take things apart, make messes, crawl through fallen logs and under houses and engage themselves fully in the world around them. From a meringue recipe to tips on crafting a secret language (like baseball signals and Navajo code talkers) to instructions on how to mummify a hot dog, Exploratopia promises dozens of different ways for kids to learn and enjoy the sciences. Homeschoolers in particular should love this book, but any kid who wants to know more will eat it up with a spoon. It’s a very cool package and one that has holiday present written all over it. (I mean come on, where else are you going to learn how to throw a curveball, make paper or what a human brain looks like?!)

If you need more ideas on what to give, I will be doing my “12 Days of Christmas” book recommendations over at my site (chasingray.com) in early December -- check it out and let me know if you’re still stumped.

Cool Read: One of the best holiday solutions for young adults, and one most often overlooked, is comic books. You can buy single issues for the stocking or trades or a big stack for an unexpected gift. Illusive Arts (who publish the stellar Dorothy) has a brand new comic out about a guy in a mental institution, Tony Loco. For everyone who ever thought the world was out to get them, well, here’s a guy who seems to be in that exact rotten position. I call this a cross between One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Magnificent Seven (minus the other six guys) because issue #1 hints at Tony having a bigger mission in life than being a mute member of the crazy society. And after reading this comic, I’m not so sure who’s crazy anyway. (Favorite quote: “It’s a zoo! We feed them. We clean them. We house them. We bill the state. It’s just that simple.”) Boys in particular will love it and appreciate you for turning them on to the latest nonsuperhero title all the cool kids will be reading.

For the younger gother crowd, then it is impossible to find a better heroine then Oni Press’s Courtney Crumin. The snarky, smart mouthed, fearless Nancy Drew we all wish we were, Courtney deals with ghouls, goblins and all matter of night creatures in her three collections. Perfectly safe for the 8 and up crowd, even the college kids will love this chick (she’s one of my idols). Oni also has a most original romance comic from Jamie S. Rich and Joelle Jones, 12 Reasons Why I Love Her. In a dozen separate chapters that move back and forth in time we learn all about Gwen and Evan and how hard it is to make a relationship work, even when you’ve found “the one.” It’s funny and sad, serious and silly. Teen girls everywhere, toss the Gossip Girls and find your way to Mr. Rich. I also love Oni for Local, the monthly comic that follows Megan on her quest for life and meaning across the U.S. and parts of Canada. She doesn’t really know what she’s doing, only that she needs to be doing something more. Each month she’s someplace new and immersing herself in the lives of a whole new group of people. It’s the anti Touched by an Angel and mandatory reading for the angry, confused and searching coming-of-age crowd. Check out your local comic shop and get the back issues. Trust me, there is a sixteen-year old in your family that will love you forever for this one.