Saturday, December 26, 2015

Love & Hate: Adverse Opinions on YA Adventures

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My days and reading habits are so often filled with middle school level that it's rare I move above and beyond into the realm of YA. Recently, though, I read two more titles that I ultimately found to be similar but of which I had COMPLETELY different opinions!

I grabbed a copy of David Arnold's Mosquitoland at a local librarian event late last spring, a title I'd been eyeing from internet buzz. The cover, I think, is just phenomenal, and its discovery road-trip premise seemed promising. Mim Malone's life has recently been thrown out of whack, what with the separation of her parents and being dragged against her will to live in middle-of-nowhere Mississippi with her dad and new stepmom. Once she finds out her mom is sick back home in Ohio, Mim hops on a bus and heads north, back to her real home. Naturally, the trip doesn't go as smoothly as she plans, and quirky, dubious characters ensue.

I am going to be blunt—I really did not like this book. I found it banally, cloyingly predictable. It was like Swamplandia in YA format (which I end up disliking more as time passes), with its absurdist plot that drowns in its own assertions of self-awareness. I think I would've been okay with the general premise and characters, but the purposeful disinterest of the narrator's voice and the excessive use of Writer's Workshop metaphor had me rolling my eyes at every chapter end. I keep seeing non-fans of this book use the term "special snowflake" to describe it, and YES. Why is this such a trend in YA fiction? Look, I get everyone is unique and needs to find confidence in their own sense of self, but not every teen is such a complicated anomaly that will magically find one person who just "gets" 100% of their thoughts, feelings, and actions. Whatever happened to stories of people that deal with serious issues but not EVERY serious issue? (Seriously: divorce & remarriage, moving, substance abuse, mental illness & medication, suicide, tragic accidents, child molestation, assault, abandonment issues, AND mental handicap...ALL OF THAT IS IN THIS.) It frustrates me that these snarky attempts at mature adolescent voices are often praised for their "realism," because I think they are anything but.

On the contrary, though..

I recently hosted an 8th grade lunch time book club in my library, and we read John Green's Paper Towns. High school senior Quentin has been in love with his childhood friend and neighbor, Margo, for as long as he can remember, but they don't exactly run around in the same crowd anymore. One night, though, she climbs in through his bedroom window and enlists his help for a night of adventure to complete 11 tasks of revenge. He thinks everything will be different at school the next day, but it turns out, Margo has disappeared. With the help of his two loyal best friends, Q embarks on his own journey to find the clues he believes Margo has left behind that will lead him to her.

My 8th graders loved this book, and I have to admit that I was also completely sucked into it. There is a great mix of action and introspection here. The only other John Green book I've read up to this point was The Fault in Our Stars, which was okay but a bit sappy for my jaded tastes. Paper Towns, though, I thought possessed an important variety of perspective. High school is, obviously, complicated, and most of the drama comes from the way different people read and react to the same situation. Green reminds his readers that people are not always only what they appear on the surface; there may be another side to everyone's story and experience.

The most considerable difference between these two books is, without a doubt, the narrator's voice. Q is a Ted Mosby-esque character, and he'd probably be written off as an insufferable, whiny wimp by many a reader. Unlike Ted Mosby, though, Q is still just a kid, so we'll cut him some slack. Through his narration, we hear and feel an adolescent male's uncertain introspection, and that perspective is often lacking in any form of literature or pop culture. It's a total gender stereotype, but usually it's teen girls credited with the dramatic internal monologues. It's refreshing to hear a similar male voice, because it's does a great discredit to a whole gender (not to mention is pretty unrealistic) to believe that perspective simply doesn't exist.

The other greatest difference between the two is the ending to each, specifically how the author decided to handle this manic pixie dream girl character to which the novels' pages have been dedicated. To be slightly *spoiler-y* without giving away too much, it's the difference between a "happy" ending and a realistic one. When my 8th graders finished Paper Towns, they were, as a whole, disappointed that there was no "happily ever after." And that, I told them, is exactly why I loved it, because Green's whole point was that this fearless, eccentric, unobtainable character of Margo is entirely a persona—and what Q realizes is that, no matter the image she has cultivated or how people perceive her, she is simply, entirely, just a girl. There is validity, authenticity, celebration, even, in ordinariness and normalcy, and that is a perspective that, when done well, is rare and valuable in YA literature.

Monday, December 7, 2015

The Power of Reading What You Want!

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I encounter a lot of hilarious, incredible, ridiculous situations and interactions as a middle school librarian, but sometimes there's a really poignant one mixed in that stops you in your tracks and begs to be shared (or at least remembered). Today I'm going to share a story about an 8th grade boy named Chris*.

Chris is a jock, popular, and a pretty smooth talker. He's likable, polite and respectful, but not super academically inclined. He's frequently frustrated by school—his reading level is a whole handful of grade levels below where it should be.

All of our 7th and 8th graders were assigned an independent novel study each quarter this semester. They were to choose their own book, appealing to their own interests, that was to be approved by the teacher (basically, not way below their reading level; and no Diary of a Wimpy Kid). Teachers brought their classes to the library so we could work one-on-one to help kids find something they liked. They then had a list of projects to complete (of which they could choose) within a 4-6 week time period.

Chris has told his English teacher he's "not a reader." This quarter, he went with a sports book by Mike Lupica and has been working on it diligently, way before this mad rush to finish as the deadline approaches. He came in the library this morning to check out another book and grabbed another sports title by Tim Green. He told me the cover looked like it’d be good. I asked how his project was going, and he said he’s almost done, and that he “really liked the book—it was really good!” I went back later and checked his records; he didn’t check out a single item all of last year. Or his 6th grade year. Here’s a kid who’s “not a reader” and probably doesn’t read very well anyway, but he WILLINGLY CAME TO GET ANOTHER BOOK and was EXCITED about it.

If that’s not success, I don’t know what is.

I can't say enough good things about this assignment and how it has positively affected our students' reading habits. Most simply, it has drastically increased checkouts! We're two weeks away from the end of the first semester and nearly have as many checkouts already as we did for the entirety of last year. Students are coming in to check out other titles in the series they picked up or other similar stories. More impressively, they're learning how to specify what they like and want to read. Instead of saying they want something "interesting"—which is the generic answer of all middle schoolers when you ask what they want to read—they're learning to describe what genres they like, what kind of story or character appeals to them.

I'm not saying it's as easy as just assigning this project and watching it inspire reluctant readers. It requires specialized attention on each student to find a good fit—and a certain amount of trial and error with finding that right book. It requires project options students will find relevant and demands accountability for completion (sometimes utterly impossible). And cooperation with the library and librarian strengthens the connection to reading beyond a classroom assignment and reinforces the importance of finding the right book for the right reader.

I try and make sure my students know that every book is not for every reader; there are a lot of boring books out there, but if you find one that appeals to your own unique tastes, reading becomes less of a chore and more of a way to explore your interests and expand your curiosity.