On New Year’s Day 2015, prompted by my own interests in YA, by my desire to have better recommendations ready for my students, and by my good friend Jennifer Buehler‘s upcoming ALAN presidency and meeting planning, I resolved to read one book for young adult readers every month for the year. I had inertia on my side; immediately upon returning from NCTE14 in Washington, I read Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, AS King’s Everybody Sees the Ants and Ask the Passengers, and Matt de la Pena’s We Were Here. But I vowed not to count any of those in my 2015 totals.
So, here we go, in chronological order: A rundown of what I read (14 books and 2 audiobooks) along with a (really quick) response to each. I’m writing this instead of planning for the week, so I need to be brief, though the additional opportunity to procrastinate is appreciated.
January | How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon
This multi-narrator story of an African-American male gunned down in the street by a white man continues to be all too topical. How it Went Down is a perfect counter-argument for people who claim that YA literature isn’t complex, challenging, or worthwhile, as Kekla Magoon creates dozens of characters with distinct voices and points of view, weaving them together as everyone in the neighborhood (and beyond) tries to figure out what really happened to Tariq Johnson.
February | When I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds
I liked, but didn’t love, this Brooklyn-set story about Ali and Noodles (and his brother Needles). I was immediately able to recommend it to some students, though, one of whom read it, liked it, and told me it was the first book he can remember reading all the way through. So, it was definitely worth it. I also need to check out Jason’s The Boy in the Black Suit and All-American Boys (co-authored to great acclaim with Brendan Kiely).
March | Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper
With a protagonist who’s 11, Draper’s novel seems to have a somewhat younger audience in mind, and tells the story of Melody, who can’t speak or walk, but is fully aware of her self and the world around her. I liked the set-up to the novel, when Draper was creating the character and developing her voice and point of view, better than when the plot about a scholastic bowl tournament took over. Definitely a worthwhile read.
April | We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
I liked her earlier novel The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks (about a girl at a boarding school who uncovers and shows up an exclusive all-male secret society) so much, that I was surprised at how long it took me to get in to We Were Liars. I started to care a little bit about the (mostly) ultra-rich characters about two thirds of the way through, but by then it was too late for me to admire the big twist too much.
May | It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini
I came across this title while looking for YA set in New York City. This one’s about a kid named Craig who gets into an elite Manhattan high school and buckles under the pressure, checking himself into a mental hospital when he fears he’ll kill himself. I’m sure other people have said this, but it’s basically a hybrid of Catcher in the Rye and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (minus Nurse Ratched, but complete with a cast of zany characters in the ward). An engaging enough read, this one made me question the line between YA and “not YA.” Certainly not every book with a protagonist under 18 is meant for readers under 18. Not that it really matters.
June | Gone Crazy in Alabama by Rita Williams-Garcia
I’m not going to say a word against this third installment in the trilogy chronicling the growings-up of Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern. This book takes them down south to Big Ma’s and becomes an uncovering (and covering) family history. There was nothing wrong with this one; it just didn’t capture me the way the earlier two: One Crazy Summer (in which the girls fly to Oakland to spend the summer with their mother) or P.S. Be Eleven (my favorite of the three, featuring written correspondence with mom back in Oakland, but set in Brooklyn and featuring a lot of laughter and heartbreak in the family). My opinion doesn’t matter, though, because when I gave it my student who had read and loved the first two, she told me it was just as good. So there you go.
July | Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor
This one’s an oldie, a classic, and I’m grateful I crossed its path thanks to Tayari Jones‘ Facebook post reminding everyone that in the frenzied anticipation over Harper Lee’s new/old book, we overlook a Depression-era story of injustice and family from an African-American perspective. I absolutely love this book and can’t imagine assigning To Kill a Mockingbird without it (or instead of it). But, wow, did they used to write long chapters in YA back in the day!
August | Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell
My UIWP buddy Allison Cox recommended this one, and am I glad she did. I don’t usually go for a love story, but this one is so quirky and drenched in school bus culture and 80’s references, I read it in just a couple days; the voices were so consistent and engaging that I didn’t want to put it down or for it to end.
September | The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights by Steve Scheinkin
I bought this one for Colin over a year ago, and it still hadn’t made it to the top of his reading pile. I needed something to read while he played with friends in the park one day, so I grabbed this. Scheinkin came across the story of the Port Chicago 50, an all African-American naval unit charged with mutiny after a massive explosion and its aftermath, while researching his arguably more famous Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon. It’s a really engaging, well-researched read and a powerful way to introduce kids to the reality of structural racism in the workings of American government.
October | The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party by M. T. Anderson
I read and enjoyed Anderson’s Feed years ago, but that did nothing to prepare me for the truly astounding feat of historical fiction that is the first volume of Octavian Nothing. The story and character of Octavian, Anderson’s masterful control of voice and language, and the commentary the novel makes on the nature of education made this one a real stand-out for me. One section of the novel shifts from narration by Octavian to letters about him, a structural necessity to be sure, but I missed his voice there. This book is a fantastic account of race and humanity set in Revolutionary War-era Boston. Volume II is waiting for me in 2016.
November | The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier & The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
Part of my goal of this reading adventure was to read back into the field and well as into the good stuff of contemporary authors, so I started The Chocolate War, planning to finish it on the plane ride back and forth to NCTE. One canceled flight and a road trip to Minneapolis later, I narrowly made my November goal by listening to the audiobook of The Crossover on the way home. Colin read this one in the Spring, but way undersold it to me in his assessment of it. It’s a great story of a young basketball player and the dynamics with his brother and parents. Told in verse, I feel like I need to read it again, this time with text in front of me.
I did eventually finish The Chocolate War. I can’t believe a book like this came out before I was born. Sure, some aspects of the story are dated (the school-centric setting, the concept of “gangs” at a Catholic school, all of the telephones!), but the emotional rawness of Jerry’s story and the complexity of the multiply narrated structure definitely made me see why people hold this book in such high regard in the field.
December | Show and Prove by Sophia Quintero, Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M. T. Anderson, Paper Towns by John Green, and A Thousand Nights by E. K. Johnston
Oh, sweet, sweet December with all your time to read and listen.
Show and Prove alternates narration between Smiles and Nike, two teens growing up in the Bronx in the early 80s. I worry a little that contemporary readers will be turned off by the deeply specific way in which Quintero treats the setting, because the resonance to contemporary politics and pop culture is actually quite rewarding. Each of the young men face different problems in his family and with figuring out a path in life, and they overlap in interesting and satisfying ways.
I can’t believe how engrossed I got in M.T. Anderson’s enormous book about the Siege of Leningrad and Dmitri Shostakovich’s life during the rise of Stalin, the attack by Nazi Germany, and eventual Soviet victory. A testament to Anderson’s intellect and versatility, this book taught me so much about the specifics of a life and historical event but moreso about deeply disturbing aspects of human behavior and the intersections of a culture and its art. Don’t let the unfamiliarity of the subject matter dissaude you from picking this one up. You’ll also want to listen to lots of Shostakovich while you read. Anderson does a good job describing the pieces that he focuses on, but of course there’s no substitute for hearing them.
I listed to Paper Towns on audio. I’m going to have to plead the Thumper rule on this one.
And at last, a book that I 100 percent expected not to like and indeed almost gave up on: E. K. Johnston’s A Thousand Nights. I ordered this one because of some of the buzz its getting in the field, but felt no affinity to its source material or, at first, its style. But I was so underestimating this one. Once I figured out what was going on–a smart and really stylish retelling of the One Thousand and One Arabian Nights with a mystical backstory woven in to explain why the Prince was killing all the wives in the first place–I was hooked. I’m not completely satisfied with the ending, but the book was so well written and well plotted, with lots of visions and dreams prompting development in character and story down the line and great interchapters from the demon at the beginning of every section, that I almost feel compelled to start over and appreciate its craft from the beginning.
But 2016 calls…