Thoughts on writing and reading for boys and young men.
There comes a time in every rightly-constructed boy's life when he has a raging desire to go somewhere and dig for hidden treasure. -Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Featured Book: Goving Bovine

Going Bovine by Libba Bray won the 2009 Michael L. Printz Award. And since I believe the Printz (and similar awards for children/YA lit.) should always be about getting into the hands of young readers books those readers will love to read (and will make them want to read more), Bovine is a worthy selecion for the prize.

I admit, I was wary of Bovine at first, because I didn’t know how much a novel by Bray, best known for her Gemma Doyle Trilogy, would appeal to male readers, especially adolescent male readers.  But those familiar with Bray’s larger body of work, which includes stories about the band Cheap Trick and the musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show, won’t be surprised that Bovine is a quirky, random, twisted adventure with a cast of misfits, complete with its very own mad scientist. In short, it’s exactly the kind of story many adolescent boys might be interested in.

Going Bovine by Libba Bray
Delacorte Press, 2009
Cover art by Yuan Lee

Bovine opens on a moody, apathetic, and angst-ridden burnout named Cameron, who recounts a traumatic near-death childhood experience on the It’s a Small World After All attraction at Disney World. And whether it’s because Cameron is so young when it happens or simply because he’s listless by nature, the brush with death does nothing to spark a zest for life in him. Now sixteen, he goes through the motions at school, taking no initiative, and putting in as little effort as possible in everything he does, other than smoking weed and listening to Great Tremolo records (mostly so he can make fun of the artist). Cameron also fails to demonstrate much love or respect for his family. He suspects his dad cheats on his mom. He feels betrayed by his twin sister, who now runs with the popular crowd at school--the crowd by which Cameron feels tortured. He hates his job at Buddha Burger. He lazes about the house. And he smokes pot.

In short, the opening is not atypical of a YA novel. Other than the Disney World incident, of course.

But then things start getting weird. Cameron loses control of his faculties, even punching popular Chet (who happens to be his sister’s boyfriend) in the stomach. Inadvertently.

This, understandably, earns Cameron counseling and drug therapy.

Then come the fire giants. That’s right. FIRE GIANTS, raining fire from the sky. And a dark-armored knight coming after him with a sword.


Then, to the horror of his mom and sister, Cameron writhes on the floor in terror as the toaster starts on fire and the giants come after him again.

And this, understandably, lands Cameron in the hospital. Poking, prodding, and MRI-ing ensue.

Finally, we learn that Cameron has Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD)—better known as MAD COW DISEASE. That’s right. MAD COW disease. Hence the title—Going Bovine.  CJD is a degenerative neurological disorder—incurable and fatal.  Common symptoms—memory loss, personality changes. Hallucinations.

While in the hospital, awaiting his fate, a punk-rock angel named Dulcie (who he’s seen previously at Buddha Burger) explains that a scientist name Dr. X, who has traveled through time, unwittingly unleashed the evil that that is actually killing Cameron (not CJD).  She gives him a bracelet (a Disney World park pass) that will temporarily overpower the crippling effects of his disease (while the bands of the bracelet disappear over time) so that he can travel the country in search of Dr. X, saving himself (and the planet in the process). And, oh yeah—he’s supposed to take his diminutive and hypochondriac roommate along with him. 

What follows can best be described as Life on Mars (the original British version) meets Catcher in the Rye meets The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy meets Scott Pilgrim meets Don Quixote.  The story is filled with mythological and classical literature references (appropriate since Cameron’s mom taught classics and mythology before she had children), as well as fictional pop-culture references (like a bizarro-universe of our own pop culture from the last thirty or forty years), including an MTV-type network, a Carson Daily-like character, a Grateful Dead-esque band, and a Star Wars-mimicking movie franchise called Star Fighter). 

But the story also uses familiar settings like New Orleans and Disney World (where the story both begins and ends), but distorts them in a way (especially for readers who are familiar with the real settings) so as to make them dreamlike—or nightmare like. 

What emerges from this odd premise is a surprising, often hilarious, and sometimes touching story that tiptoes along the narrow, fragile line between reality and fantasy. We wonder, throughout the journey, what is real? What is an hallucination? But we realize that it almost doesn’t matter. Because Cameron slowly, reluctantly, but completely comes to appreciate life and living for the first time ever—an appreciation he didn’t gain from his first near-death experience as a child.

Recommended for boys ages 15-18.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Featured Book: Antsy Does Time

Antsy Does Time by Neal Shusterman is a sequel (or companion) to The Schwa Was Here. Like Schwa, this tale is set in Brooklyn and narrated by Antsy—Anthony Bonano—and, at least at first, seems to center on someone else’s crisis. When his stoic, Scandinavian classmate Gunnar reveals he’s dying of Pulmonary Monoxic Systemia (in which your body turns oxygen into carbon monoxide instead of carbon dioxide and you’re essentially poisoned by the very air you breath—p.s. it doesn’t exist IRL), Antsy offers Gunnar a month of his own life, trying to shake his new friend from his morbid, death-fascinated funk. This simple act takes on a life of its own, and before he knows it, Antsy becomes the center of a life-donation frenzy in which he draws up and distributes legal-ish looking contracts, collecting additional life for the fast-fading Gunnar.  In no time it becomes a school-wide obsession, culminating in a rally for Gunnar at which Antsy is the keynote speaker.
Antsy Does Time by Neal Shusterman
Penguin Group, 2008
Cover art by Steven Guarnaccia
But there’s something a bit off about Gunnar’s disease, and his obsession with it. There’s something off about the Ümlaut family, in general. There’s even something off about Kjersten, Gunnar’s older sister, who starts dating Antsy in the middle of all of this.  But Antsy can’t put his finger on it. When he has dinner at the Ümlaut house early in the story, there’s a palpable tension when Mr. Ümlaut joins them at the table.  Antsy assumes that it’s due to Gunnar’s fast-approaching death, but he’s confused as to why no one in the family (other than Gunnar) seems willing to talk about it. 

Antsy learns, as the story moves forward, that the family’s problems extend far beyond a son who says he’s dying. And just as the Ümlaut’s collective problems begin to boil, Antsy’s own life-and-death family crisis emerges.

All of this is told in Antsy’s familiar, energetic, and flat-out hilarious voice. Schwa is one of my favorite books, and I generally, unless it’s part of a trilogy or series, dislike sequels.  I put off reading this novel for some time for that reason, but I’m glad I finally did. This sequel works for me for several reasons.  First, the Bonano family is great—especially Antsy—and is definitely worth spending more time with.  Second, this story stands on its own.  It’s not following a formula from the first book, simply inserting Gunnar and his problems where the Schwa was in the last novel.  And finally—and most importantly—Shusterman, I think, successfully expands on a theme—a current—that runs through both of these novels.  Language. And meaning that comes from it.

I mentioned, a moment ago, Antsy’s great voice, which—of course—is all about language.  And there are several language-related jokes that pop up throughout both of these books.  I mean, in this one, we have the Ümlaut family.  An umlaut, of course, is that little two-dot symbol above vowels that represents vowel fronting or raising. The U in the family’s name has an umlaut, giving it the oo sound. The same symbol, incidentally, appears in the author’s last name on the cover of this book (but is not in the author’s name IRL). Similarly, a schwa, from the first novel, is an unstressed neutral vowel (or the symbol—ə—that represents it). And a schwa appears in Shusterman’s last name on the cover of The Schwa was Here. Clever. It doesn’t end there, though. Throughout the novel, Gunnar  spews 100% made up quotations, supposedly by famous people, making us question the importance of which words are said by whom.  And in chapter six, Gunnar asks Hakeem Habibi-Jones, “Doesn’t your culture ululate for the dead?” When Hakeem indicates he has no idea what that means, Antsy quips that cultural traditions are lost in hyphenation. Later, in the same chapter, when Ansty asks Gunnar if his sister likes him, they quibble over whether it’s Like with a capital L or like in italics, because the meaning apparently hinges on that distinction.

Shusterman plays with language and punctuation throughout, toying with the meanings of words, punctuation, and structure, and challenging us to understand how we come to those meanings and what our understanding of language says about us. I’ve heard it said that language is like a culture’s DNA, and I think that idea comes through in these novels.  Moreover, the understanding of language in this novel is through the POV of an adolescent. Presumably Antsy’s learning about language in school in a concrete, academic way. He learns that in real life, language is nuanced. And meaningful.

There’s larger, more obvious symbolic references throughout the story, like the Steinbeck project that Gunnar and Antsy create, using herbicide to make a dustbowl of the Ümlaut’s backyard (and half of the yards on their street). Or the name of Kjersten’s favorite band—NeuroToxin. Or the very disease Gunnar claims to have—a disease in which he’s poisoned by the air he breaths (or, figuratively, poisoned by the house he lives in, the family that surrounds him). All of these things are important, but, I believe, secondary to the focus on language. 

The importance of language is most obvious when Ansty’s family faces its major crisis of the novel—his dad’s heart-attack. When the doctor approaches the family in the waiting room, his first words to Antsy’s mom are “your husband has an acute blockage of the—” Antsy doesn’t hear or care about the rest. He focuses on the word has. Not had. His dad is. Not was. Present tense. Not past. His dad is alive.  Such a simple distinction, but in that moment, it’s all that matters to Antsy, to his family.

Shusterman has done good work here.  It’s a fun novel with some darker undertones, and a playful and healthy dose of language that challenges readers to think about the words they read and speak and the meanings behind them.

Recommended for boys ages 12-15.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Featured Book: Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes

Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes by Chris Crutcher
Harper Collins, 1993
I’ve long been a fan of Chris Crutcher. Deadline, Whale Talk, and his collection of short stories Athletic Shorts, are among my favorites. I decided this week to reread an oldie, but a goodie, one of his better-known novels, Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes. Originally published almost two decades ago, the novel has aged remarkably well and is as relevant and readable now as it was in 1993, managing to touch on such complex issues as adolescent obesity, bullying, conformity, pressure for perfection, abortion, religion, teen suicide, and child abuse (just to name a few) without 1) getting bogged down in too many ideas, and 2) seeming preachy, or even suggesting that there’s a perfect solution to any of these issues (or any solution at all).

The story, set in Spokane, Washington, is narrated by protagonist Eric Calhoune, a formerly obese teen who slims considerably after joining the school swim team (earning him, of course, the moniker Moby).  Only catch, he’s concerned that his newfound slenderness and skill (and subsequent boost in popularity) will estrange him from his best friend Sarah Byrnes, who 1) is burned at age three when she (allegedly) pulls a pot of boiling spaghetti onto her face, and 2) insists on being called by her first and last name at all times because of the way her last name is pronounced (Byrnes=burns), hoping to forgo the latent potential for even more jokes at her expense when people make the ironic connection between her name and her face. So for a time, Eric eats extra, trying to stay fat.  Sarah Byrnes tells him to knock it off, which he does, and they’re able to maintain their friendship, although in a slightly diminished capacity, if just for the fact that Eric spends a lot of time swimming.

But when Sarah Byrnes stops talking one day, stops communicating altogether, and she ends up in a juvenile psyche ward at the hospital, Eric is the only one to visit her. Well, Eric and Sarah Byrnes’s dad, but Eric is the only welcome visitor. Eric is sure she’s faking her stupor, but he doesn’t know why. She won’t talk, even to him. Dale, an enemy turned friend, indicates that the boiling pot of spaghetti story might not be entirely true—or true at all. Eric investigates, and when he discovers the truth, he faces some very difficult and dangerous decisions--and circumstances--to keep his friend safe.

Crutcher does many things well in this novel, but one of my favorite elements is how he weaves together the sublpots, which carry with them such emotional weight on their own but also make the punch—the climax and resolution—of the overall story so much stronger.  Many of the subplots grow out of Eric’s experiences in his Contemporary American Thought (CAT) class with Ms. Lemry, his ally and swim coach. For instance, Eric has several run-ins with Mark Brittain, a teenage religious zealot, both in the pool and in the class, including a battle over Mark’s (ex-)girlfriend, who leaves him for Eric. Also, Mark has the vice-principal (who goes to his church) on his side, a man who’s been on Eric’s case since junior high.

With the exception of vice-principal Mautz, who’s a tad one-dimensional, Crutcher gives us real, living, breathing, complicated characters, wholly authentic and unpredictable. The bully. The religious zealot. The preacher. The single mother. The boyfriend of the single mother. All different than we expect them to be, either at first glance, or at last. Even the terrifying Mr. Byrnes, Sarah Byrnes’s father, is captivating. Trying to figure out what makes him tick is the scariest part of the novel.

And everything holds together so well (remember what I said about all of the subplots?). Eric (and we) are antagonized by Brittain, and his father, and Mautz just enough that Eric (and we) have the strength to get through what’s coming.  And what’s coming is really bad. I even understand why Crutcher draws Mautz the way that he does. His pig-headedness allows the other characters to act in interesting and inspired ways, revealing their nuances, including Mark, Brittain, whose arc is among the most poignant elements of the novel.

Thematically, and even plot-wise, Sarah Byrnes reminds me of Until They Bring the Streetcars Back by Stanley Gordon West, a sort-of historical YA thriller that’s set in St. Paul. Although Streetcars is much darker, and has less comic relief.  But I think Sarah Byrnes is emotionally heftier, and more satisfying, especially for male readers. It’s themes of friendship, shame, and courage, are subtle, but unmistakable. 

And chapter five of this book absolutely breaks my heart. Ellerby, the son of an open-minded preacher, and a friend of Eric’s, brings a recording of the song "From a Distance" with him to class. They listen to it, and the class generally thinks it’s a nice, inspiring song. But Ellerby explains that what the song makes him think about his how far away God really is, and what He, She, or It actually thinks about us, sees of us.  His belief is that God put things into motion, but doesn’t regularly interact with us, and that explains why “bad things” happen (to good or bad people) better than “God has a plan” or “it was meant to be” does.  He uses Sarah Byrnes as an example.  Did God do that to her? Allow it to happen to her?  No. He says it’s out of God’s jurisdiction. How Sarah Byrnes is treated, though, that's firmly within the jurisdiction of humans. Ellerby talks about how, although he doesn’t recall ever being mean to Sarah Byrnes, he never, unlike Eric, ever gave her the time of day. And he could have.

So Ms. Lemry asks Ellerby, given the song and his speech, if his CAT project with be the juxtaposition of God and man in the universe.

He indicates it won’t.  He says, "My subject will be shame.”

Recommended for boys ages 15-18.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


It's the magic time. Late afternoon. Filled up and played out, our six-month-old is down for a nap. It's my writing time. Sometimes it's just a few minutes. Sometimes it's, blessedly, a couple of hours. Sometimes I have to do dishes or laundry. Or have something to eat, because I forgot about lunch. Or didn't have time.

But mostly I write.

Or sometimes nap.

Or often, like now, grab my walking shoes and BabyBjorn because I think I hear him waking up.

Featured Book: Shift

In Shift by Jennifer Bradbury, friends Chris and Win—known as Chrisandwin by everyone at school for their attached-at-the-hip nature, decide to take a cross-country bike trip from their home in West Virginia to Washington state following their high school graduation.  It’s both a last-hurrah before going off to separate colleges and a way to avoid the minimum wage drudgery of a summer job.  But something goes not quite as planned—at least for Chris. He and Win (short for Winston) get separated towards the end of the journey. And when Chris returns home, heads off to college in mid-August, he learns that his friend never returned home at all.  He faces not only the prospect that something terrible happened to his best friend, but also pressure from Win’s father (who’s hired several people to “tail” Chris—including an F.B.I. agent—and threatened to disrupt Chris’s education or even end his dad’s job) to give Win up, convinced that he knows where his son is, what’s happened to him. Or even that he had something to do with his disappearance.
Shift by Jennifer Bradbury
Atheneum Books, 2008
Cover art by Greg Stadnyk
The chapters alternate between the aftermath of Win’s disappearance on the bike trip and the bike trip itself. Bradbury uses this broken time effectively, offering pieces of the mystery just as we need them and staging the action for the most emotional impact when the mystery is finally “solved” (HINT: the why in this novel is the key to the mystery and the emotional heart of the story, as it should be with any good mystery novel—thanks for that lesson, Mary Logue!). I’m using a similar structure for a novel I’m currently working on, and Bradbury’s offered here an example of how it can work really, really well.

Friendship, obviously, is central to Shift. But I’ll get to that in a minute. I also want to talk about fathers, which are also an important part of this story.  Early in the novel, Chris’s dad pulls him aside and tells him to stop just talking about taking the bike trip. Set a date.  And no matter what happens, leave on that date. Apparently he had dreamed about, talked about, saved up for a driving trip along Route 66 when he was much younger. But that’s all he did—prepare. He never did it.  He doesn’t want his son to have that same regret. Later in the novel, both when Chris is on the actual trip and when he’s being harassed by Win’s dad, Chris’s dad is sympathetic, understanding, patient, wise. But believably so. He’s a father you don’t often find in YA literature. He’s refreshing. And I’m glad we have his moment of regret early in the novel, because otherwise he would have seemed a little too one-dimensionally “perfect.”

Win’s dad, on the other hand, is a father figure we’re more accustomed to seeing in YA lit.  Controlling, angry, concerned about family and personal image. He has incessantly chipped away at Win’s spirit for eighteen years.  But Bradbury tempers his otherwise unsympathetic antagonism by letting us see, through Chris’s eyes, him crack a little under the pressure of searching for his missing son. During a scene in which he comes to Chris’s college to bully him into giving up whatever information he has about Win, Chris sees that he’s shaken, almost panicky, under his seemingly cool demeanor. Chris wonders, and we wonder, if maybe it’s not just pride or his son’s shot at the Ivy Leage (Win’s late for reporting to school at this point) that he’s worried about. Maybe he’s actually—finally—worried about losing his son

But in the end, this is a story of friends. Of friendship. Of growing up. Of separation. They start their biking journey as Chrisandwin, together (as friends, as their fathers’ sons).  They end their journey, and the story, as Chris. And Win.

There’s a great scene in a barn in chapter twenty, in which Chris and Win have an all-out, no-holds-barred wrestling match.  They’re not angry at each other, exactly. They just wrestle, as boys do. But the reader senses there’s more at stake than just bragging rights in this match. Chris flashes back to a church revival they came across on their trip, in which the preacher talked about Jacob having to wrestle an angel.  The physicality of the boys working out whatever it is that they need to work out works well.  They’re boys. They don’t talk. At least not about emotion. They act. Even the Jacob v. Angel reflection works well. And when Win demands Chris let him go, we know he’s not talking about him letting him out of the near-pin he has him in. He means LET ME GO. For good.  Then he tells him he’s been a good friend.  A true friend. It's a powerful scene.

The wrestling sequence is just one example of how well Bradbury captures not only a teen male voice but the teen male world.  Chris is thoughtful, smart, and articulate, but he’s still a guy and thinks and feels as guys have been conditioned to (especially teenage guys, especially when it comes to emotion). There’s one point, during the end of the book, where she falters a bit, though.  Just preceding what is otherwise an excellent scene (which I’ll discuss in a moment), Bradbury has Chris recall, for several paragraphs, a long-sleeved T-shirt that he really likes and used to wear all the time. He’s literally outgrown it (oversimplified version: Win=T-shirt). This is a little too obvious. Too clichéd. And way too much telling.  Especially for a boy. Everything else in the novel is visceral. Punches we can feel. The wrestling match does the trick. As does the following scene. The shirt isn’t necessary.

Fortunately, this sequence is followed by the scene I just mentioned. Chris is alone with his bike at the end of the trip (Win has already bailed on him).  He rolls his wheel into the ocean and says, “We made it. To no one. Then he revises, “I made it.”  And between this scene and the barn scene, and the hundreds of hints all along the journey, we get understand: Chrisandwin—as noted above—is now Chris. And Win.

Recommended for boys ages 14-17.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Featured Book: Strays

In Strays, by Ron Koertge, Ted, a shy, mild sixteen-year-old, is thrust into the foster care system when his parents die suddenly in a car crash.  He meets Astin—long time foster kid at the Rafters’ (Ted’s new foster home), who is about to graduate and “age out” of the system—and C.W., who arrives at the Rafters’ at the same time as Ted and is both a wannabe gangsta and, as it turns out, a kind-hearted dog-lover.

The book is about Ted letting go of his parents. They didn’t treat him very well, but he’s nonetheless haunted by their gruesome and abrupt end. He didn't get to say goodbye. Or tell them off.

Strays is also about Ted finding real friends. Family. A “pack” to run with.

In fact, early in the story, Ted, who is awkward and unpopular at his previous school, finds his closest friends are animals, with whom he can inexplicably communicate. It just starts, without warning, around page 14 or so. At first, I wonder if Ted’s imaging it, making it up, or if he’s just plain crazy. Is this an ability he’s always had, or has it developed since his parents’ death?  As it turns out, it doesn’t matter, because it provides for Ted (and me) what’s needed, when it’s needed. At first, it’s only animals who know him, love him, care about him.  Then it’s people, and the animals can go back to being important to Ted in a different way. They don’t have to stand in for real human relationships.

Strays by Ron Koertge
Candlewick, 2007
I like how Koertge handles Ted’s outward emotions throughout the novel.  Ted’s a guy. A teenage guy. He doesn’t want to talk about his feelings. Not to his social worker. Not to the Rafters. Not to Astin or C.W. He even lies to several of these people, claiming he’s “talking things out” with the others. But he really, really needs to talk. And as willing as animals are to listen, their open ears are not enough. Then Megan, Astin’s girlfriend, sets up Ted on a sort-of “friend date” with her pal Wanda.  Even though I thought the relationship between Ted and Wanda will bloom into a romantic one (several times), it doesn’t.  They’re friends. And each can talk to the other about their parents, or any number of other things, that they can’t talk about with anyone else, including Astin and Megan. 

Each character in Strays is well drawn—odd, unique, and authentic. Ted’s foster mother treats a doll like a real child after having lost her own. The father doesn’t particularly like kids, and doesn’t really want to be a part of the foster care system, and might just be in it for the money or to give his wife kids in a non-biological and non-adoptive way.  And he has tons of unreasonable rules. But the foster parents are demonized as foster parents often are. Neither is abusive, and both do pretty much exactly what they say they’ll do.  They’re irritating and predictable in almost a comforting sort of way, and Ted knows where he stands with them—more so than he did with his biological parents.

Astin, Megan, Wanda, and C.W. all reveal themselves to be multidimensional, too.  Astin is a tough biker who’s figured out how to live successfully with the Rafters. He decides to take Ted under his wing, even though he’s out of this place (and the system) very soon.  Megan is wealthy and can be haughty, bossy, but she cares enough for Ted to introduce him to Wanda, and she’s insightful enough to know they’ll hit it off.  C.W. constantly criticizes Ted for his clothing and strives for a tough “street” image, but he falls in love with a stray dog who he puppy-talks to, and is visibly moved when Ted offers him his seat on Astin’s bike following a shooting that C.W. witnesses.  And Wanda is bitter about her parents ditching her and somewhat ashamed of her weight, but she’s warm, witty, and kind, always being up front with Ted about their relationship while only being somewhat of a tease—no more than Ted can handle, though.

All of them are strays, lost, abandoned in some way or another, by the adults that are supposed to be responsible, in charge. Supposed to love them. But they find each other. And even though their relationships aren’t permanent, they remind them that they can have friends, family, meaningful connections, even without parents.

Recommended for boys, ages 14-17.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Electric Tuna

So my son and I go for a walk (usually several) every day. It's nice. He usually falls asleep in his Baby Bjorn, and I listen to This American Life, or some such, on my ipod.

Sometimes these walks are very early in the morning.

A few days ago, on one such early morning walk, we strolled past an automotive shop I must have walked by several hundred times.

And I completely misread its sign.

The incident, of course, inspired a sort of Americanized haiku.

Tired eyes first glance lies.
"Electra Tune," Riley--not
"Electric Tuna."

Thursday, July 22, 2010

I'm Back!

Sorry about the serious lack of posts. Since mid-February, my wife and I each completed our respective graduate programs; I finished my thesis; we had a son, who's now five months old; and we packed up and moved 1,200 miles across the country.

So we've been busy.

But we've settled into our new digs and routines. And I'm ready to get down to business.

Watch for regular posts soon!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Featured Book: Rats Saw God

Steve York is the son of an astronaut. A famous astronaut who rubs elbows with former presidents and military Who’s Who. An astronaut who, Steve feels, treats his son as a trophy, someone to be displayed, someone to impress others with. Steve now lives with his mom and sister in San Diego. But for two years, he lived with the astronaut in Houston.

In Rats Saw God by Rob Thomas, Steve tells two stories simultaneously (or perhaps alternately is more accurate). We witness the action in his current life, in which he’s become a pot-smoking senior in San Diego who’s barely passing his classes (but somehow manages to be a National Merit finalist). And, from a 100-page essay he writes to get credit for English and graduate on time, he tells us about his sophomore and junior years of high school in Houston where he’s a straight-A student with a great group of friends and a fantastic girlfriend.

Rats Saw God by Rob Thomas
Simon & Schuster, 1996
Cover art by Chris Raschka

Steve’s voice is strong, narration tight (if unreliable). The dialogue is interesting, clever. Characters rich. And I love the parallel structure of the story, the way Steve’s present and past lives unfold together, so that we (and he) can see where he’s been, how he got there. And, most importantly, we realize Steve’s flaws, just as he does. His attitudes change, as ours do. By the end of the story, both the reader and Steve see the world a bit differently, see Steve’s parents differently. Especially Steve’s Dad.

And both narratives manage to be compelling without being gimmicky. The structure serves the story, not the other way around. Steve’s transformation is earned. We feel his pain and his anger at the lowest point of his high school life, but we also share in his redemption (which is much subtler than I’m probably making it sound).

The relationships between characters are also well defined and understood. Thomas shows us, in action and dialogue, how the characters feel about one another. And here’s what I mean about the unreliable narrator: Early in the novel (both in real time and in Steve’s 100-page essay), Steve tells us how he feels about the astronaut (the name he uses for his father). We then see the astronaut through that lens throughout the novel. After a critical conversation between Steve and his sister (as well as some insight Steve gains from writing his essay), Steve (and we) see the astronaut in a new light.

Steve’s friendships (and girlfriendships) are complicated and fascinating, from his membership (or, non-membership membership) in GOD (Grace Order of Dadaists) and friendship with group leader Doug, to his more intimate relationship with Dub. Then there’s Sky, the really cool supportive teacher who all of the non-conformist kids love. Sky was really the only character from the novel that really bothered me. His story arch seemed a little obvious (the only inorganic feeling part of the novel). That said, the result of his story arch is still gripping, emotionally devastating, and crucial to the novel.

This novel was published in the mid-1990s, but (despite some dated references to the Seattle grunge scene), it holds up. Rob Thomas later made a move to television, writing first for Dawson’s Creek then creating and producing Veronica Mars. His talent for dialogue and insight into the complexity of teenage life continue to make his work relevant to teens.

Recommended for boys, ages 15-18.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Featured Book: Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie

In Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie by David Lubar, we’re reminded that high school is exhausting. In addition to homeworking and fretting about becoming a big brother, Scott writes for the school paper, serves (briefly) on the student council, and works behind the scenes for the all-school play. Poor kid hardly has time to sleep.

Endearing, sympathetic, and clever (without being too clever), Scott narrates the ins and outs of his first year of high school—the loss of his three childhood friends (to girls, wrestlers, and Texas), the pursuit of his kindergarten chum (who’s become the cutest girl in ninth grade), the awkward dances in which all the guys stand to one side waiting for the painful ordeal to end, and his accidental friendships with a senior bully and a girl everyone calls a freak. The movement through the novel is spot on. We cover an entire school year in 280 pages, breezing through when we can, slowing when we need to focus on important moments. Scott is reflective, but not distractingly so. We understand Scott in the way that he speaks to and interacts with others, NOT by him TELLING us who he thinks he is.

Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie
by David Lubar
Speak, 2005
One of the most charming elements of the novel is the relationship Lubar establishes between Scott and his unborn kid brother. He writes him letters, telling him about school, offering him advice and reflections about his own mistakes and misfortunes. What’s great is that Scott is able to write these things to his baby brother (who may or may not actually ever see the letters) that he doesn’t feel he can say to his dad, older brother, or former best friends. Guys don’t talk about feelings. Scott, although sometimes suspicious, and even jealous, of this strange thing growing in Mom’s belly, obviously cares about him. And his scrawling to the little alien helps him understand his own world a little better.

Finally, Lubar does a fine job with the classroom scenes—especially English class. Not only does he authentically depict interactions between students in class (when the teacher’s not looking), but he presents a teacher that all book lovers dream about having. Also, Lubar cleverly works discussions about the elements of craft into his text. For example, Scott narrates the beginning of chapter twenty-six from first-, second-, and third-person during the class’s discussion of viewpoint. This sequence is a perfect example of how Scott (and Lubar) manages to be quite clever without being gimmicky or over-the-top.

Recommended for boys, ages 13-15.

Friday, January 29, 2010

On YA Lit, Human Contact, and the Spirit of Holden Caulfield

Following J.D. Salinger’s death, writer and YA editor David Levithan wrote of The Catcher in the Rye:

Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Little, Brown and Company, 1951
Cover art by E. Michael Mitchell
Holden Caulfield is the embodiment of what we mean by the phrase “young adult” – too young to be a grown-up, but too wise to the world to be completely innocent. He’s caught in the in-between, and that in-between is what all young adult authors write about. The Catcher in the Rye was one of the first books on the shelf of our young adult literature, and for almost sixty years we’ve written plenty more in an attempt to keep it company.

Salinger’s passing is, of course, unfortunate, but the thing about great writing is that it lives on, well past the end of a writer’s life.

And the spirit of Holden Caulfield lives on in contemporary YA.

Not long ago, I read Peter Cameron’s fine novel Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You. The protagonist, James Sveck, is oft compared to Caulfield, and the novel itself has got me thinking about Salinger, Catcher in the Rye, and the collective experience of reading and writing.

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You
by Peter Cameron
Frances Foster Books, 2007
In Catcher, Caulfield feels disconnected from the world, his family, everything and everyone. James Sveck feels similarly isolated in Someday, caught between the child and adult worlds (as Levithan writes), confused about who he is, how he fits into the world. And while we don’t know if Salinger felt alone, we do know that he spent a large part of his life (more than fifty years, I think) by himself, physically isolated.

While reading and writing are often solitary acts, they are still a shared experience. The written word taps into our collective conscience. Writing means nothing if it’s not read, understood, shared.

Just like life means little if not shared. Because I think identity and interpersonal communication are inexorable. Meaning comes from what we share with others.

This is what Caulfield has trouble understanding. And James.

And maybe even Salinger.

While I respect Salinger’s want and right of privacy, I think it’s unfortunate that so much of his life (especially his writing) has been kept in private. I understand that his home is now filled with writing that was never (and will likely never be) published. I respect that, but it’s sad.

Because we all need someone. A friend. A family member. A neighbor. A confidante. A reader.

James sure does. But in Someday, he alienates everyone, even the one person he sees as a friend. We alternate, out of chronology, between significant days/events in James life, leading up to his possible departure for Brown (although he’s still on the fence about going to college). His greatest desire, he thinks, is to move away, escape everything and everyone, buy a house somewhere in the Midwest and settle down.

He wants to be alone with his thoughts.

James even articulates that, to him, reality is what and how we think, not how (or with whom) we interact. He says, “Most people think things are not real unless they are spoken, that it’s the uttering of something, not the thinking of it, that legitimizes it […] I think just the opposite—that thoughts are realest when thought, that expressing them distorts or dilutes them, that it is best for them to stay in the dark climate-controlled airport chapel of your mind, that it they’re released into the air and light they will be affected in a way that alters them, like film accidentally exposed.”

I agree with part of that. Our thoughts are real, serious, and meaningful. And sometimes expressing them (the wrong way) can destroy them, and confuse even their thinker.

And I think we sometimes over-communicate. Words dilute our thoughts.

But that doesn’t mean thoughts shouldn’t ever be shared. We simply must chose our words carefully, deliberately. Thoughts and words are valuable. What James doesn’t realize is that he needs to find a way to transform the valuable abstractions of thoughts into meaningful words so he can be acknowledge by others. So he can participate in the world.

And not so isolated.

But James pulls more and more away from others, and further and further into his own mind, until he starts losing his sense of self.

Late in the novel, when James tentatively admits to himself that he’s gay, he’s unsure of it. He’s unsure because he’s only—as he says—“theoretically, potentially” homosexual. He’s never engaged in any homosexual acts. He’s never even spoken the words “I’m gay” out loud (even when his parents have asked).

I’m not suggesting he isn’t gay because the thought isn’t expressed in the shared world. He is gay. But what does it mean for James to be gay in a world that doesn’t know he’s gay?

James is even more isolated.

And, as I mentioned before, he alienates the only person he sees as a friend—the man in charge of his mom’s gallery—by orchestrating an elaborate and hurtful stunt. He doesn’t mean to be hurtful. I think the stunt is James’ misguided way of coming out. He is incapable of communicating more effectively.

Near the end of the novel, during a trip to his grandmother’s (the one person with whom James is comfortable--like Holden is only comfortable with his sister), a boy mowing a lawn smiles at him. The flash, that small bit of human interaction, makes James think, wonder, about what he might be missing. He remembers a woman on the train who sat reading a bible. He wonders what she might be doing now. He knows it would have been wrong to follow her home, but he’s worried he should have. What if she was supposed to be someone important to him?

He says, “I think that’s what scares me: the randomness of everything. That the people who could be important to you might just pass you by. Or you pass them by. How did you know?” He wonders if he should talk to the boy mowing the lawn. Maybe they’d share an interest.

James has spent his whole life walking away, abandoning people. And he acknowledges a sour truth: “I realize it makes no sense to feel that and yet never make any attempt to interact with people, but I am beginning to think life is full of these tragic incongruities.”

His shortcomings are obvious to him. He seems to understand that interactions, relationships, actions, words are important, necessary. But he simply can’t get over who he is.

I wonder if the same was true for Salinger? Is much of the world’s image of Salinger as a recluse accurate? Did he connect with a select few? What did he think of himself? Did he understand himself?

The world is a lonely place for everyone, but especially for teenagers, who, again, feel caught in between and left out, belonging neither to the world of adults or children. When faced with such isolation, we can turn inward on ourselves and our own thoughts, or we can risk communication.

Contact with other people can be scary, especially for boys. We feel vulnerable. But bringing our thoughts into the world through speech, writing, or action, is necessary not only so that others know who we are, but so that we may also better understand ourselves.

Click here for full Levithan article.