Sunday, September 2, 2012

YA Reading, Round 1: Classics

You're going to start seeing a lot of YA books on this blog.

This semester, one of the classes I'm taking is called Materials for Young Adults...and basically that just means reading a lot of YA books. The purpose of the class is simply to make one familiar with YA materials—based on genre, interest, ethnicity, reading level, certain issues, etc, etc. While I've never been averse to YA books, and read them voluntarily from time to time, much of the genre does not pique my interest. Teenage angst, dystopian realities...these are just things I don't really care to read about. But now I am going to have to...and there are a lot of them to read! Since this is going to take up a good chunk of my reading time, and these are books I'm supposed to sort of remember for my future career, this is going to be the start of a little series I'll just have to call "YA Reading." I'll mix in my opinion with some comment on its appeal to its intended audience.

These first two titles are labeled "Classics" by my course syllabus, and I haven't read either of them before. (That is the point of this class—read things you haven't encountered.)

Robert McCormack's The Chocolate War was one I'd heard of but always surmised it to be similar to the good-humored The Pushcart War. It is not.

The Chocolate War tells the story of one boy, Jerry Renault, who refuses to sell chocolates during his (boys' Catholic) school annual fundraiser. It starts out as a simple enough prank, masterminded by the school's not-so-secret society, The Vigils, but his continuing refusal defies the very structure upon which the school and its students run.

This is definitely one of those typical required reading books for the 7th or 8th grade, because it is filled with tons of the 'themes' and 'motifs' and 'metaphors' that junior high English teachers love to analyze. In fact, I can hear my own 7th grade English teacher as she drilled the phrase "man's inhumanity to man" into our heads, because it would apply to this story. Ultimately, it's about groupthink, to a degree, and mental manipulation; how evil exists, and the only thing you can do is try and fight it; and how powerful an agent fear can be. Lots of parallels can be drawn to goverment control and historical events, but honestly, I think all of this would just make this book boring to a lot of 13-14 year olds--analyzing the heck out of a book is the worst. But I also think this is one that, if you had to read as a teen, you'd probably understand it more once you go back and read it as an adult.

Seventeenth Summer by Maureen Daly, like The Chocolate War, is a timeless story, one in which the plot isn't dependent on a particular time and place in history. The story is set during the summer after Angie Morrow's high school graduation. She has always gotten by as sort of an 'outsider' to her peers--never popular enough to be found at the local hangout with a group of people, but not unhappy either; she's always just been off the radar. It's surprising to her, then, when popular and attractive Jack Duluth takes a sudden interest in her. They start a summer romance which serves as an awakening to Angie--what it means to grow up, what it means to love, and what it means to really think about the future.

Aside from some dated evidence of mid-century innocence, the sentiment of Seventeenth Summer still rings true. Angie is an eloquent, pensive character, and all her thoughts are put on paper; the narrative is wonderfully descriptive. There's just something about adolescence that makes everything feel heightened; emotions feel stronger, experiences feel more memorable. It's a time where details mean a lot, and you can tell Angie's voice was written by an author aware of this. [Daly was 17 when started writing this.] Some teens may have a hard time getting past the simplicity of a time where hand-holding was something to swoon about, but I think if they ignore the small nuggets of the 1940s, they'll find universal thoughts, feelings, and experiences.

An interesting sidenote: some consider Seventeenth Summer to be the start of the YA genre; it's one of the earliest books written about adolescents specifically for adolescents.

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