Monday, March 03, 2014

What we're reading: Trends in fiction

There seems to be a trend in fiction (within the past couple of years) to cast a precocious pre-teen or barely teen girl as the smart, bouncy, feisty heroine who overcomes difficult or sometimes ridiculous (adult) odds to triumph over something, someone, or life in general. Some of these are billed as teen books, but many are written for adults and happen to star a teen protagonist, so some reviewers recommend them as crossover. I have discovered that some are, and some definitely are not.

Titles that come to mind, off the top of my head, would include the recently teen-reviewed for the YA blog book The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender, starring a precocious nine-year-old with a special gift (crossover); Joyce Maynard's 13-year-old Rachel, obsessed with the serial killer her detective father is trying to catch, in After Her (not crossover, in my opinion, though a riveting read); the Alex award-winning Where'd You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple (possibly of interest to teens, but since much of it is told from the viewpoint of the mom, I'm not so sure); and the inimitable chemistry-mad young sleuth Flavia de Luce, who is 11 in her first literary outing, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, by Alan Bradley, and ages appropriately in the four sequels (some teens might like it).

Having read all of these (and having become slightly bored with the premise), I inadvertently added two more to my list of books that fit the trend: Tell the Wolves I'm Home, by Carol Rifka Brunt, and Counting by 7s, by Holly Goldberg Sloan.

I read Tell the Wolves I'm Home because it was an Alex Award-winner (books written for adults but singled out for their uniquely teen appeal) and my co-teen librarian, Anarda, wants us to propose as many of these as possible to our 10-12 Book Club (that's grades 10-12), since their reading level is fairly sophisticated and their taste for "typical" teen books (i.e., fantasy or dystopia with the inevitable insta-love) is waning. I'm not sure I agree with her that all of these Alex books will be hits; while we had great success with last year's Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline, and 2011's The Lock Artist, by Steve Hamilton, the club was distinctly tepid when it came to a book we both loved--Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloane--and the 2012 nominee The Language of Flowers, by Vanessa Diffenbaugh, got the widest spread of votes ever (from a 2 to a 9 rating, out of 10) for a book club book. So I'm still thinking it's just luck!

Having read Tell the Wolves I'm Home, I'm uncertain about introducing it to book club. My review:

PLUSES: The images, and the language with which Brunt creates them, are beautiful, and there are some GREAT quotes. I liked the characters, particularly the interactions between them. And it was a well-spun-out story that held my attention.

MINUSES: It's harder to be concrete here, but it just felt a little…precious. This is definitely the "precocious girl" story--the 14-year-old who's way smarter than anyone in some ways but incredibly (almost unbelievably) naive in others, and gets/has to learn a big life lesson. The whole time I was reading this, I was feeling weary of that story angle. Also, some of it was frankly unlikely or even far-fetched, verging on manipulative.

Finally, it's the subject matter--which is both a plus and a minus. The story, set in the 1980s, is about a girl whose favorite uncle is dying of a mysterious disease. After he's gone, she discovers that he had a whole other life about which she knew nothing, and a life partner her parents made her uncle hide from his nieces, or else give up having a relationship with them.

Historically significant or not, even after 30-odd years some material is still, for me, just too painful to poke at. I had many friends who died in the '80s before anyone knew what AIDS was, before AZT, while it was still "the gay disease" that made a whole community into pariahs. If I had known that was a major theme of this book (I dove into it without reading the dust jacket), I might have avoided it. Not because it wasn't well done--Brunt evoked it well and thoroughly, and also quite poignantly--it was just emotionally difficult for me to read. And I wonder, for teens, if it would resonate at all, or if they would react too much from a perspective in which gay people are a fact of life and HIV is treatable, and wonder what the fuss was about? I'm tempted to hand it to one of our more prodigious teen readers as a test case and see what he thinks, because it was a good book....

I read Counting by 7s because I loved the author's first book, and I can say without reservation that this one was a delight, and completely restored my faith in the precocious girl trend! Could I get nit-picky about a few implausible things upon which the premise for this book is built? Sure. Am I going to? No. I loved it!

Willow Chance, 12-year-old genius, is unique, and I never use that word carelessly. Her particular situation (she is adopted at birth and abruptly orphaned at age 12) is tragic, and yet she meets it with aplomb and dignity (and quite a lot of humor). I loved all the other cleverly developed and completely individual quirky characters. The writing was simple and spare yet incredibly dense in detail, and I couldn't put the book down. Seriously good story, and such an elevation above this apparently now-common trope. I want to read it again already!

The book's author, Holly Goldberg Sloan (who also wrote my "best of 2012" nominee for teen book, I'll Be There), will be paying us an author visit at Burbank Public Library on Thursday, March 6, at 7:00 p.m. (at the Buena Vista branch). She will speak, answer questions, and autograph her books, both of which will be for sale at the event. I urge you to attend this program and find out what else Holly has in store, because so far she's two for two!

1 comment:

EMME said...

Just to circumvent any possible misunderstanding: I did not mean to imply that we should not TRY to interest teens in books that discuss issues for which they have no context; I only intended to say that I didn't know whether they would understand this book, given their lack of context, and so it might be more challenging to engage them with it.