ASU English Education
Kenneth Donelson, James Blasingame Jr., and Alleen Pace Nilsen
Anyone who assumes that literature for teenagers is all the same or that it exists "out there" apart from general adult interests and events should take a close look at this year's Honor List. The books are as current as the morning headlines about cloning or troubles in the Middle East. They are as futuristic as the latest computer games, and as historical as Biblical warnings against hubris and the taking of God's powers unto oneself. The authors range from the well known (Joyce Carol Oates and Aidan Chambers) to the not-so-well-known (M. T. Anderson and Garrett Freymann-Weyr), while the settings range from thirteenth-century China to the cells of a state prison and to the campus of an ordinary American high school.
Big Mouth and Ugly Girl Joyce Carol Oates. New York: HarperCollins, 2002. 226 pp. $16.89. Grades 10 and up. ISBN 0-06-623756-4.
Ursula Riggs is the ugly girl with few friends and a most unsportsman-like attitude towards the one thing she does well, which is play basketball. Then something happens at Rocky River High School that seems to have nothing to do with Ursula Riggs. Matt Donaghy is quietly removed from school, not so quietly taken to police headquarters, and accused of threatening to "bomb the school." Other students believe what they hear. Ursula emails Matt to tell him that she will be a witness in his behalf. Matt is cleared, but when a column by him is turned down by the newspaper staff, Matt's anger explodes. That, coupled with the decision of Matt's parents to sue the school for mental distress, makes him even more unpopular. But it also draws Matt and Ursula together. They come together believably, maybe even permanently. Ursula says about Matt, "the more you got to know him, the more complex he was." And all that leads slowly to the first kiss-on appropriately enough-the last page where Ursula observes, "The first kiss didn't work out too well, I guess. We'd be trying others." (KLD)
Feed M.T. Anderson. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press. 2002. 236 pp. $16.99. Grades 9 and up. ISBN: 0-7636-1726-1.
Imagine a time when if people think of something they want to know the information immediately comes to them. How will this be possible? In M.T. Anderson's futuristic Feed, all young people and most adults have Internet "feeds" implanted into their brains. Every citizen's consciousness is flooded nonstop with consumer ads, instant messaging, and social guidance from an anonymous corporate entity that is more puppet-master than government. The significance of all this has been lost on the protagonist, Titus, his friends and family, until Violet enters the scene. Violet's father has a feed that is an external unit; he can put it on and take it off. Father and daughter are passive/aggressive resistors of the consumer culture foisted on society by the feed, or actually by the corporations that control the feed. Anderson does a lot with slang and fashion trends that are as authentic as the lingo and styles seen in after-school hours at a mega-mall. His knack for imitating nuances of social behavior is entertaining, but the book can hardly be described as lighthearted. Instead, it is true to its dystopian genre and the author's desire to present a cautionary tale portraying a dark future that grows out of human foibles manifested in the present. (JB, Jr.)
Hole in My Life Jack Gantos. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2002. 200 pp. $16.00. Grades 9 and up. ISBN 0-374-39988-3.
Writing about an experience that is seared into his brain is the key to the success of Gantos's Hole in My Life, which is the story of the 15 months that he spent in a federal prison between high school and college. This somber story is so polished and so well written, that it is obvious that Gantos has written and rewritten it-if not on paper, at least in his mind-over the past 25 years. He first wrote the story when he was in prison where journals were not allowed. He borrowed the biggest book he could find in the prison library, Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, and recorded his thoughts in the margins and between the lines. When Gantos came to ASU and spoke to our YA literature students, he granted that the book was a cautionary tale, but not so much for young readers as for adults. Gantos offers his own story as living proof that with a little bit of help and encouragement, along with a healthy portion of luck, it is quite possible that teenagers who find themselves in deep trouble can find their way out and go on to have productive lives. (APN)
The House of the Scorpion Nancy Farmer. New York: Atheneum, 2002. $17.95. ISBN 0-689-85222-3. 380 pp. Grades 10-up.
People who bought this book after the January season of prize-giving could hardly appreciate the cover design because it was plastered over with so many medals of honor: The National Book Award, a Printz Honor Book, and a Newbery Honor Book. We were surprised about the Newbery Award, not because the book is unworthy, but because we judged it to be for young adults rather than for children. In fact, before you introduce The House of the Scorpion to high school students, you might want to remind them of Ray Bradbury's statement that he writes science fiction not to predict the future, but to prevent it. Farmer's grim, futuristic novel is set along the Southwest border between the United States and Mexico, most of it on an opium farm. Readers meet Matt, the protagonist, when he is six-years-old. Matt's life is on a speeded-up scale because he is a clone. The book is full of reversals that draw the reader up sharp as when in a tense situation one of the characters says about Matt, "The important thing is to get this clone to the hospital, where it can do some good." Readers are so accustomed to taking people to the hospital for their own good, that it is a shock to realize that the reason for taking Matt to the hospital is so that his organs can be harvested. The ending is almost too happy to be believed, but readers who have suffered through over 360 pages of a basically grim story, probably won't object to the change in Matt's fortune and what it portends for the whole region. (APN)
Kite Rider Geraldine McCaughrean. New York: HarperCollins,
2002. 272 pp. $15.90. Grades 7 and up. ISBN 0-06-623875-7.
My Heartbeat Garret Freymann-Weyr. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 2002. 154 pp. $15.00. ISBN: 0-618-14181-2.
Ellen, the fourteen-year-old protagonist of My Heartbeat often thinks of one of her father's favorite sayings: "Geeky people often have that which is most valuable in this life . . . A mind with its own heartbeat." Ellen has suddenly vaulted to 5'10" and evolved from an introverted elementary school student with "an unwillingness to form any firm social attachments," into a young woman with a mind of her own and a worldly understanding of what defines the boundaries of each individual person's identity. Link, however, is the real problem for their father. Link's sexual identity remains grounds for struggle throughout the whole novel, not just for their father, but also for Link, and everyone involved. Freymann-Weyr creates a marvelous protagonist in Ellen, who serves as a constant throughout novel's conflict and its resolution. Freymann-Weyr has successfully created a story that addresses the intersection of many issues faced by young people: Conforming versus rebelling, exploring issues of identity and sex, dealing with contradictions from family and friends, and finding an acceptable life path.
Postcards from No Man's Land Aidan Chambers. New York: Dutton Books. 1999 in England, 2002 in U.S. 312 pp. $19.99. Grades 10-Up. ISBN: 0-525-46863-3.
In Chamber's story, told in two voices alternating between 1944 and 1995, the significance of the title is not revealed until the story's end, and neither is the secret upon which the plot is based. One half century after his namesake's death in World War II, seventeen-year-old Jacob Todd travels to Holland for the 51st anniversary of the Battle of Arnhem to pay tribute at his grandfather's grave and to pay an invited visit to Geertrui Wesseling, the last surviving person to see his grandfather alive. What should be a simple and polite, if boring, visit turns into a complicated experience for Jacob as the real reason for the invitation slowly unfolds. Transitions between the past and the present are easily made, and the reader will find it interesting to read about residents of 1995 Holland and Britain paying tribute to those who gave their lives for freedom in 1944. At the same time young Jacob's experiences in trying to navigate the complicated social and sexual culture of Amsterdam provide an appropriate backdrop for the complications of two families and their history that all began with Geertrui and Jacob's grandfather, 51 years earlier. Once readers get into the story, Chambers' book accelerates nicely to its conclusion. Although never graphic, there is a sexual subtext, both heterosexual and homosexual, that probably makes the book more appropriate for older readers. (JB, Jr.)
Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East by Naomi
Shihab Nye. Greenwillow/HarperCollins Books, 2002. ISBN 0-06-009765-5.
$16.95. 142 pp. Grades 10-up.
When Nye was growing up as an American teenager, her father would ask her if she knew how lucky she was, "and of course I didn't." In explaining why she put this book together, Nye writes about her Palestinian grandmother, who lived to be 106, and now after September 11 has swarmed into her granddaughter's "consciousness, poking my sleep, saying, 'It's your job. Speak for me too. Say how much I hate it. Say this is not who we are'" (p. xviii). Nye's free-verse poems were not written specifically for young readers, and several of them have been previously published. The advantage of the collection is that together they present a composite picture that isn't there in any single poem.