Take a Chance
Cecil Castellucci strikes out into refreshingly new YA territory with her 1980s novel Rose Sees Red. She embraces the time period with a coming-of-age tale about one amazing night and a friendship that builds across the most seemingly insurmountable boundary of the time: east and west. There is also some sweet romance, political awareness, embracing of the arts and a lot of affection for New York City. (Rose is to New York as Mary Richards was to Minneapolis, just a little younger -- but the hat is flying just the same.) Mostly though, Rose Sees Red is all about love, both for this one particular place and the life you can have there.
Readers meet Rose as she struggles with her recent decision to break from old friends and attend the High School of Performing Arts. Lacking confidence in her dance skills, Rose has not connected with her new classmates and drifts along always on the fringes of every conversation until the night her neighbor Yrena sneaks in her window. The daughter of Soviet diplomats, Yrena is eager for a chance to be a “regular” teenager and enjoy an afternoon in the city. The two girls head out to a rumored party on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “From that moment on,” writes Castellucci, “there was no turning back.”
The afternoon turns into night, and as the girls meet up with some of Rose’s classmates, they find themselves clinging to their freedom as long as possible, especially after Yrena reveals her family is returning home soon and this is her last chance to experience the city. As each teen discusses her artistic impulses, what drives and inspires them, Rose finds herself reconsidering her motivations to dance, and losing her fears. In the end, the wild rush of being truly and completely away sparks all of them to think a little bit bigger about who they are and what they want to do. They remove every boundary set before them -- creating a moment where there are no countries, no cliques, no separations. And Rose decides, completely, that she is a dancer. One night and it changes her life, proof that a small leap of faith can be rewarded.
Castellucci excels at writing about teenagers -- she is one of the best at it in YA lit today (up there with Sara Zarr, and the very underappreciated Sara Ryan, in my opinion) and her titles are absolute must reads for all curious and determined teens, especially girls. She smacks heat and power into the tired “coming-of-age” storyline. Rose Sees Red is about the drama of choosing your life, not accepting the one that is given to you. It’s a strong story and Rose is a delightfully strong and irresistible protagonist.
From Here to There was on my nightstand while I was reading Rose Sees Red, and I couldn’t help but think it was exactly the sort of book that Rose and her friends would enjoy. Collected by Kris Harzinski, it draws from the archives of the Hand Drawn Map Association, and features the sort of ephemera that is all too often casually discarded. These are maps -- more than 140 of them -- all drawn by hand and featuring everything from party directions to imaginary worlds to personal timelines. They were drawn by accomplished artists exploring their own experiences or casual amateurs simply trying to get directions to local landmarks down on paper for visiting friends. I have some personal favorites from the collection, but they really don’t matter because everyone who opens this book is going to find something different they enjoy. In full color with accompanying notes, From Here to There is a celebration of seeing maps differently -- of appreciating an old style of observation in our GPS-addicted world. It also embraces creativity and making art and a small sense of wit and whimsy. Rose would have a copy in her backpack and pull it out for inspiration (and maybe some guidance). In fact, she would have dozens of maps from her night of adventure, memories of where she had been and plans for where to go next. Harzinski, I’m sure, would totally approve of whatever she produced.
With Adios, Nirvana, Conrad Wesselhoeft gives readers a protagonist who is on the edge between hanging on and giving up. Jonathan is devastated by the recent accidental death of his twin brother. He is sleeping through his junior year (when he bothers to show up) and staying up all night on a concoction of Red Bull and NoDoz. He plays guitar, ponders Greek myths, and occasionally responds to his mother’s entreaties that he paint the house. His close friends (who loved his brother as well) are beyond worried that he isn’t going to make it. As the story opens, he takes a flying leap off a twenty foot bridge into the snowy bushes below. Clearly, Jonathan is not sure he wants to make it, and the story unfolds as he decides to try.
The device for Jonathan’s awakening is a chance assignment. Having won a recent poetry contest, he is a local teen literary talent and his principal suggests he take up on an offer to write a book about a local resident. The man is dying and requests that Jonathan record his life story. Reluctantly (of course), he agrees that doing this will make up for his school absences and get him back on track. Once he meets David Cosgrove, and the other residents of the facility where he lives, Jonathan finds himself immersed in their stories and can’t resist letting them into his own life as well.
Adios, Nirvana does an excellent job of handling a somewhat traditional YA storyline (death of close friend/family member) and making it new. Wessehlhoeft uses a snappy writing style, keeping the narrative moving at the same pace of Jonathan’s caffeine-induced life. He only pauses when there is a reason in the story to pause and otherwise it has a rush to it. He also provides an excellent supporting cast, from the lifelong friends who are doing what they can to save their buddy, to a mother who is barreling along at her own frenetic pace to an interesting oddball collection of mentors, teachers, friends and a potential crush -- all of whom are worthy of their own novels. Adios, Nirvana is an interesting book to read that also happens to carry a significant message about what it means to grow up, do the right thing and not be afraid to move forward. The small World War II story with Cosgrove is also impressive, and well worth the purchase price of the book alone.
I rarely review poetry collections (simply because I feel inadequate while writing about them) but Kerry Ryan’s Vs. was a title I could not ignore. If I had my way, I would be standing on a street corner handing this to every teenage girl, especially those that walk hidden behind walls of hair, dressed in oversized sweatshirts and hunched under overpowering backpacks. I would be looking for the girls who don’t want to be seen, so I could dare them to do what Ryan did and share in her personal bravery.
Vs. is about a self-described “shy bookish woman” who decided to train for and fight in an amateur boxing match. Ryan writes about how she came to such a galvanizing decision (she had no ax to grind, no desire to compete) and can offer only “for the hell of it.” But as much as she wants to fight, Ryan wants also to understand what it is in herself that needs to do this and at the same time analyze every aspect of the experience of training and fighting. Here is a bit from “Excuses” that spoke volumes to me:
Because you spent those clumsy hours
of high school gym class
trying to be invisible
in sour, wrinkled shorts
You didn’t understand that sport
means setting a destination
in distant hills, building the road
then pushing further, roaring past
I could quote from dozes of poems in this collection (the ones about how her husband is so casually strong while she must struggle to put on muscle are deeply affecting), but mostly what I want to say is that it is honest and real and celebrates taking on a tough commitment in a way that should speak to anyone who ever hesitated on the edge of the room and dreamed of taking center stage. Ryan is saying “If I can do this, then you can do this,” and she makes a believer out of her readers -- she makes us all feel a little better about taking our own chances at being strong. Ryan’s poetry makes us want to be like her, and feel the experience of her brave moment in the ring. How could anyone resist such powerful words, or the positive message they contain?
In Pull, author B.A. Binns dares to have high school senior David Albacore consider that college may not be the best choice for him. The challenge David is weighing is very unique -- should he pursue being a construction worker, something he loves, as opposed to trying for a college basketball scholarship? Can you imagine a book that explains why building things with your own hands is a very smart and capable choice to make? It’s very nearly revolutionary, and Binns should be celebrated for taking this bold chance with YA title.
As the story opens, David and his two younger sisters are in dire straits since their father shot and killed their mother. To avoid being split up by the state, they persuaded an aunt to take them all, which has resulted in a move to a new apartment, new school, and tight family finances. David, a star basketball player, has quit the game for work and changed his name to distance himself from his father. His fourteen-year old sister Barney is struggling with depression, and little sister Linda is severely withdrawn. All of this is understandable, of course, and Binns explains the kids' struggle with post-traumatic stress very effectively -- although Linda is thinly written, and seems to be present more to place additional pressure on David then actually contribute to the plot. (She could be gone and the book wouldn’t have missed her for a second.) Trying to fit into the new school’s social scene and keep a low profile while holding everything together proves increasingly difficult for David and Barney when they come to the attention of the school’s mean girl pack and popular guy Malik. The verbal knives come out in the cafeteria everyday over who is doing what, wearing what and saying what. Things get worse when David falls hard for popular Yolanda, Malik’s main girl. Her secrets prove to be just as great as his however and crushing on Yolanda is the catalyst that blows everything apart. Then there is a family crisis and David must make a choice for who he wants to be and everyone hangs on his decision, with their futures in the balance.
There’s a lot to admire about what Binns is doing here, from providing a darkly realistic portrayal of teen relationships (from sex to sports to social death) to tossing aside cultural norms about what success looks like. The one character who rang false to me was basketball coach and counselor Kasili, whose casual dismissal of foster care as a place for David’s sisters to “grow into healthy, happy, productive adults” reads as unbelievable. His myopia on this subject seems designed, like Linda, merely to serve the plot and weakens what could have been an interesting dynamic between David and a significant adult in his life. Binns successfully does many interesting things with Pull though and the raw, sexy nature of the story will likely appeal very much to both genders. There are kids you love here and those you hate, and a lot of kids who are struggling to figure out just who the heck they are. That makes it perfect for high schoolers who will pull for David to be brave enough to go for be who he wants to be.
Two nonfiction titles that celebrate personal risk are Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution by Sara Marcus and Down and Derby by Jennifer Barbee and Alex Cohen. As an eighties teen, I was especially intrigued by Marcus’s history of female empowerment fueled by music and words in a frustrated response to the dichotomy between equal rights and reality. She has conducted an epic amount of interviews, focusing on everyone from the famous (members of punk bands Bikini Kill and Bratmobile) to teens from the Midwest just trying to reach out to other girls through stapling together their own zines. It is unnecessary to have any prior knowledge of the major players here -- Marcus does an excellent job of introducing everyone and providing some order to what was never an organized movement -- and the book’s value is as something more than a history or cultural study. With Girls to the Front, Marcus shows how you can take the reins and try to change your life through simply doing what you love and finding others who love it as well.
There were plenty of missteps along the way (and not everyone in Girls to the Front shines as a feminist heroine) but these were young women who wanted to make their music, write their stories and find support and they did it. They made a place for girls to “move to the front” and that is something to be both admired and emulated. This is feminism in a tone that any teen can understand and as in-your-face and angry as it might be at times, Marcus shows just why those feelings were often more than justified. As we recently learned from the Yale fraternity who sent its pledges out in October to chant “No Means Yes,” “Yes Means Anal,” and “I Fuck Dead Women” across the college campus, equality still is not a reality. There is no place on the planet where this sort of conduct should be regarded as a harmless prank and yet the boys didn’t get that -- not the ones who came up with the idea nor those who happily participated. (Did none of them have sisters?) The Riot Grrrls would have been right there yelling back at those idiots demanding they grow up and stop spreading such hateful, violent rhetoric. We need books like Girls to the Front to remind us how strong a teenage girl can be and to show the current generation how to grab their moment and not let it go.
If you are really ready to bust out of your rut and take on a big challenge then look no further than Down and Derby. This guide to the sport includes not only a thorough (and engaging) history but also a explanation of the rules, a rundown of common terms, a look at positions beyond the teams (referees, coaches, etc.) and a blunt chapter that allows readers to determine if they really have what it takes to play (and skating isn’t the biggest criterion). If you have thought about roller derby then you have to read this book; it’s the critical step before trying out for a team -- and you couldn’t ask for a wittier way to get on the path to what will be (from the evidence presented by Barbee and Cohen) a life-changing choice.
Oh -- and there is junior derby in a lot of cities for teens!
My first exposure to derby was, like a lot of other children of the TV generation, the Raquel Welch classic, Kansas City Bomber. The authors won points from me by mentioning the movie more than once, and while it has to be viewed as the star vehicle that it was designed to be, it brought derby to a lot of people who never would have seen it otherwise. An appendix includes overviews of several derby films (including the recent Drew Barrymore film Whip It, based on Shauna Cross’s YA novel, originally titled Derby Girl; see my review). This section, along with several pages highlighting past and current players and the dozens of photographs, makes Down and Derby a much more enjoyable read than the standard sports guide. Barbee and Cohen clearly understand that roller derby is as much a pop culture phenomenon (and I mean that in a good way) as it is a serious sport (and they make it graphically clear how physically serious it can be). This broad view will likely make derby more appealing to readers, especially those who might not want to join a team but do want to appreciate it more as fans. Barbee and Cohen are clear that derby is about being determined and persistent, which makes it irresistible in the face of top model dreams and photoshopping horrors. Derby is where the real girls live and play, and Down and Derby is everyone’s ticket to their world.
COOL READ: I dove into Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing: How the Apollo Theater Shaped American Entertainment with an enormous amount of glee and anticipation. This companion to the Smithsonian exhibit of the same name is a lushly-illustrated look back over the history of one of America’s proudest art centers. The photographs are stunning; from the famous to the ordinary this is a book full of people celebrating life. One of my favorite parts was discovering so many performers who have been passed over by history and are largely unheralded in modern times. The greats are especially awesome, though; I can’t get enough of seeing the likes of Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald hard at work or the Labelles and James Brown. With so many significant inclusions, it’s not just America’s history in this title; it’s America’s soul. How could you not want to learn more about them?
The text follows a standard chronological order with decades separated in chapters and then spotlights particular performers or musical genres (dance, funk, etc.). With an introduction by Smokey Robinson, who traveled to the Apollo with the Miracles in 1958 to perform with Ray Charles, readers will find contributions from more than two dozen others who place you in the center of entertainment history. It’s well written, beautifully photographed and a perfect example of the heights to which you can attain when you work hard and persevere. Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing is American history, and it cements just how significant one place can be a country, its music and who we are as a people. I wish I could see the exhibit, but this book is pretty darn close to perfect. Give your next history project a jolt -- your teacher will never forget, and if you’re a music fan, then this is a no-brainer.