Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Reading Report: Studies in Young Adult Lit, Part 1

Here are brief overviews of the six books we've read so far. 

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros.  This one came out the same year I graduated from college (1983), but even though I'd heard about it for years, I'd never actually read it.  It's a series of vignettes told by Esperanza Cordero, a young Hispanic girl who lives in a low-income neighborhood and longs to live somewhere else.  The (chapters? stories? episodes?) are very brief, sometimes just a page, sometimes 3-4 pages, so it reads very quickly.  Cisneros is a genius at discussing big ideas about adolescence, domestic violence, poverty, race, emerging sexuality, dreams and aspirations in such beautifully crafted prose that you don't really notice what she's doing if you're not paying attention. In fact, you could just race through it, skimming through and getting the high points.  But you'd miss much that way-- the vignettes reward careful reading and even re-reading.  Beautifully done.

How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff.  Set at some vague time in the not-too-distant future, How I Live Now is the story of 15-year-old Daisy, a New Yorker who is sent to England to live with her aunt and four cousins when she can't get along with her new stepmother.   A war with an unspecified enemy breaks out, and she and her cousins must eventually fend for themselves.  It sounds dreary and depressing, but what makes it work is Daisy's sly, cynical humor and her four endearingly nutty cousins.  I loved this book, even though the ending left a bit to be desired-- many unanswered questions and a back-to-the-land idyll that was described too quickly to be believable.  (Trigger alert:  there is underage consensual cousin-to-cousin incest. I didn't find it offensive given the way it is described, but some people in the class did, so I thought I'd let you know.)

Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse.  This is another one that I'd heard about for years but never read (like Mango), and that should be depressing but somehow isn't (like How I Live Now).   It's told in blank verse, but after the first chapter, you don't even notice that-- which I think is a sign of very carefully crafted verse.  It's the story of Billie Jo, a 15-year-old living in Oklahoma in the Dust Bowl in the 1930s.  There is dust everywhere-- they set the table with the dishes turned upside down so they won't get coated with dust before they sit down to eat.  Billie Jo's passion is playing the piano, which she must fit in around school and chores.  Then a horrible accident turns her world upside down and threatens her ability to play the piano ever again.  The story of how Billie Jo fights through the trauma to a new acceptance of herself and her life is just plain old beautifully told.  It's like looking at really good black and white photographs-- stark and plain and piercing.  This is another one that merits a second reading.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.  Ditto what I said on the last one-- I'd heard about it but never read it, and it should be depressing but isn't.  It's the story of Arnold (Junior) Spirit, a Native American who lives on the Spokane Indian Reservation but decides to attend school at a white high school 22 miles away.  He must deal with being the only non-white at his new school at the same time that the entire reservation sees him as a traitor.  Junior wants to be a cartoonist, and the book is filled with drawings of his friends and family. He is also a basketball player, and two key basketball games play a major role in helping him understand the tensions between his two worlds.  Like Daisy in Rosoff's book, Junior is a terrific, funny narrator. 

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead.  This one won the Newbery Award in 2010.  It's the story of Miranda, a 12-year-old New Yorker who starts receiving mysterious notes on crumpled bits of paper and must solve the mystery of who sends them and why.  There is also her mother, who has been accepted to appear on the $20,000 Pyramid with Dick Clark, and her best friend Sal, who suddenly doesn't want to be her friend anymore.  Miranda's favorite book is A Wrinkle In Time, and although you don't have to have read that book to understand the story, many of the themes and ideas carry over.  This might be my favorite one so far--like Daisy and Junior, Miranda is an endearing, precocious narrator with an interesting story to tell.

So after five terrific books, there had to be one that wasn't so great, and that one is Hoot by Carl Hiaasen.  It's not a bad book, but the characters are two-dimensional, and the plot is entirely predictable.  By comparison to the others we've read so far, it fell flat-- not a single student in our class liked it.  It's the story of Roy Eberhardt, who has recently moved to Florida and must deal with all the typical new kid issues:  bullies, who to sit with at lunch, making new friends, learning his way around town.  He soon becomes involved in a plan to stop the construction of a national chain restaurant on a lot that is home to a group of endangered burrowing owls.  The morals espoused are so convoluted that it's difficult to make your way through them, and yet it is clearly moralistic in tone-- this a Book About An Issue.  It might be a fun read for fourth or fifth graders, but otherwise, not recommended.

There you go.  I'll post another one at the end of the semester.


  1. Thanks for the book reviews. The only one I've read is Hoot, interestingly enough. One of my kids had to read it in middle school. I'm going to see what our library has . . .

    1. I read YA books on a pretty regular basis, so I was surprised he came up with a list of 14 books and I hadn't read ANY of them. Apparently I haven't been keeping up very well!