June 14, 2005

Summer Reads: Just A Little Paperback

I may have to rethink the idea of "summer reads." Are summer reads trashy books you read at the beach because if you read them in company you'd have to glue on a fake cover? Are they always light on the intellectual side? For me, summer reads are simply books that fit into my straw beach tote along with my cell phone -- which just means paperbacks, mostly. (Which I guess used to mean trashy: pulp fiction, after all.) But I digress! -- Here's a couple of non-trashy beach reads in the YA section that are less pulp and a lot more staring-out-to-sea,-thinking fiction than some other summer reads:

You've probably already read it, but it's time to pull it out again: Ellen Wittlinger's wrenching
Hard Love, which won all sorts of awards for its soul searching truth and just all-round good writing. Depending on my mood, it either reminds me of my high school poetry writing self, or of my freshman year in college during which time I declared unfailing love to a guy who was - yes, duh, - gay. *Sigh* It more often reminds me of why ink is the most important bodily fluid we have -- it's all about opening the aorta to bleed out those "magic words."

Another choice slim volume is Lara M. Zeises'
Contents Under Pressure. This was a little predictable, but not oppressively so -- mostly it was a chaotic novel, in which Zeises depicts first kisses and the incipient delicious tensions of boy-girl relationships really, really well. I also like how she handled the sibling relationships in the book; the narrator idolizes her brother, and when he falls off the pedestal, the wrench is painfully realistic.

More tote bag fodder: E.L. Koningsburg's
Silent to the Bone and Gordon Korman's Jake, Reinvented. Koningsburg's Silent was about as scary a book as I've read in the past several months, and I'm not sure why Benicia had it in the JFic. section of the library when it is about an au pair gravely injuring a child and blaming it on the child's infatuated adolescent brother. There's a lot of ugliness implied in the story, and implied by the lying sack of an au pair, so much so that I almost felt like it was a book for adults. (And then I got a grip.) Granted, this isn't a book for middle grade kids, but it is a tremendous statement on the power of friendship, and on a person knowing their own boundaries and their motives for behavior. It's about mental health, and cool older sisters, too. The prose gets a bit one-sided (and not just because the narrator's best friend has elective mutism), but achieves a fair balance at the end. Disturbing, definitely only for older middle graders or teens, but worthwhile.

Jake was distressing on a couple of fronts. First, the level of self-deception involved with the title character was painful. His obsession was almost unbelievable -- but I suppose Korman was making the point that a mental giant applying that big brain to the problem of winning a girl would make him just as obsessive about the girl as he might be about, oh, physics. (Does that mean that Korman is making a statement about the lack of socialization of smart kids? Dunno.)

The second thing that distressed me touches on the YA genre as a whole. Now, I've read a lot of YA fiction about people changing, but Jake deals pretty punitively with the idea of a guy changing social circles. Jake ends up in jail, and kicked out of school, and his house blows up. I remember making this point in my YA novel class at Mills when I read a Judy Blume book in where a fat girl gets pregnant and only when she's thin and has given away the infant does her life straighten out and she gets to go to Smith. So, what's the story here? Is the nerd never allowed to get the girl? It's like the overarching theme of high school YA is that people are not allowed to change.

You know how we all used to complain about YA books in which if a girl has sex she automatically gets pregnant and/or dies? Or if a person was gay, they automatically had to be persecuted within an inch of their life and be chased out of town with burning tar and chicken feathers? Why is it that teen characters can't become popular without all the walls caving in on them? I'd have to do an exhaustive research on YA novels to bear this out with proof, but it seems like we're making a statement about popularity here -- like, either you're born with this indefinable "it," or you won't ever achieve it. I don't know.

Anyway, I was impressed with Korman's grasp of a serious topic; when we saw him at the SCBWI L.A. Conference last summer he was highly entertaining and on sort of this fast-forward thing; it was hard to take anything he said seriously, and he had everyone rolling in the aisles practically. However he seemed, he really knows his stuff when writing male characters involved in the intricacies of the high school 'high life:' parties, football, and more parties.

My writing is going pretty badly lately - (couldn't tell?) - but at least I'm putting in some good time catching up on some reading. Find something good for your own tote bag, and don't forget the sunblock.

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