Category Archives: YA fiction

The Hunger Games Trilogy

Suzanne Collins, 2008-2010,

(1) Hunger Games, (2) Catching Fire, (3) Mockingjay

YA science fiction

Note to filmmakers: Please use the tagline “the revolution will be televised” and make these movies sleek, dark, gritty, and grimy—the cinematography and overall tone should be Blade Runner, not Tim Burton. In other words, notch up the realism and naturalism and tone down the surrealism and camp.

Note to talk show hosts: Please interview Suzanne Collins alongside former contestants of competition reality shows like Survivor or Biggest Loser. Ask them what it really feels like to be on camera all the time, how the camera (and the expectations of the viewers and show creators) shape how they present themselves, what kinds of personas they feel pigeon-holed into, and whether they have felt used or exploited. Then have Collins talk about Katniss’s behavior during the televised parts of the Hunger Games and, later, the Districts’ uprisings.

Note to teachers: Put the first book on a summer reading list and/or ask your librarian to facilitate a book group. But please do not teach it in the classroom; instead, teach about actual oppressive governments and real-life uprisings and revolutions. Keep teaching Fahrenheit 451 and Lord of the Flies. And keep teaching critical thinking and analytical skills related to media literacy and gender roles.

Note to YA authors: In our post-Harry Potter world, the doors are wide open—young readers will read longer books and producers and moviegoers are ready to spend. In our Twilight and True Blood cultural moment, it is smart for female protagonists to have two handsome love interests (are you on “Team Peeta” or “Team Gale”?). And it always helps to think ahead of time about the kids who will dress up as your characters for Halloween. Make sure you describe their costumes in great detail so the marketers can have them on the shelves in time.

OK, 24 hours later, I am thinking–dang, why am I so cynical? Clearly I have been engaged enough in this series to read the whole thing, and I have enjoyed these books. I like Katniss, and I also like Gale and Peeta. It’s just that the whole thing seems a little too movie and merchandising-ready. And for teachers, I think there are better books out there. Maybe that’s me being a literary snob rather than a YA enthusiast, but I’m still learning how to read YA. So there you have it.

Going Bovine

by Libba Bray, 2010

I do not do zany, madcap, sprawling road trip/philosophy novels with science fiction bents and trippy endings that make you question whether any of the events of the book actually happened. This book may be perfect for teens who will later fall in love with Hunter S. Thompson and the Beats, but it sure isn’t for me.

The protagonist is a white disaffected teenage boy who learns he has Mad Cow Disease, and then, in the hospital, learns from his hot-teen-girl guardian angel that he must save himself and the world by escaping from the hospital with a hypochondriac dwarf and hopping on a bus to New Orleans. Later, they pick up a garden gnome that is actually a trapped Norse God, and these dumbass fire-being things keep popping up out of the roads and threatening to kill the ragtag crew. There is a good deal of looping language–like an obscure band name that shows up in each chapter–and Bray’s writing style is perky, snarky, and loony–everything I hate in a writer.

The message of the book seems to be “seize the day” and don’t let a terminal medical diagnosis stop you from running away from the hospital on some kind of insane mission to save the world, befriend little people, and make love to a hot angel before you die. The ending does hint at deeper, more sane meaning, which may be partly why this book has won the 2010 Printz Award, whose committee chair called it a “wildly imaginative modern day take on Don Quixote [which] is complex, hilarious, and stunning.” I have never read Don Quixote, but I bet I would like it a ton better than this.

Frankenstein: The Graphic Novel

Mary Shelley; Script Adaptation: Jason Cobley, 2008

This is my first foray into a graphic version of a classic text, and I like it! I was a bit leery when I flipped through and saw the modern, stylized way the monster is drawn–the art is in classic comic book style, and this just did not match my imagination of what this monster, or his female version, should look like (rotting, mismatched body parts). But I pushed on, and I really enjoyed the reading experience. For me, this was a quick and satisfying way to encounter Shelley’s entire original plot, which I had forgotten major chunks of, along with key excerpts of her wonderful language.

The original Frankenstein story is so rich and fascinating, especially in the ways in which the monster haunts Dr. Frankenstein for months and years during his lonely existence in forests and caves. It is powerful to see the monster begin as a kind and gentle being who transforms over time into a brutally marginalized creature whose deep pain eventually becomes anger, resentment, and murderous violence. Personally, I will always prefer the full original text of this work, but I am also DYING to teach this story to high school students (along with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), and this would be a great way to do it. A medical ethics unit has been on my mind all summer. . .

Classical Comics is a UK-based publisher that creates texts in three versions: Original text, which uses the author’s original language in excerpts on the page; Plain text, which converts each bubble of text into modern English and cuts down on the number of words; and Quick Text, which just puts the essential meaning of each text bubble into modern English–usually in one quick sentence. The artwork and pagination remain the same across all three versions, which makes these great teaching resources for classes in which students are reading at different levels, or just for examining two versions with the same students, akin to using No Fear Shakespeare.

The House of the Scorpion

Nancy Farmer, 2002, 380 pgs.

YA science fiction

A National Book Award, a Newbery Honor Award, and a Printz Honor Award. Holy cow, there are so many awards on the cover that the reader runs the risk of setting his/her expectations too high. This is a big, sprawling, dystopian thriller—The Giver meets Harry Potter meets Holes meets Cormac McCarthy meets Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It takes place in the future on a strip of land on the Texas / Mexico border. Matteo Alacrán, also known as El Patrón, the drug lord over this opium estate, captures and computer chips people who attempt to cross the border so that they become zombie-like “eejit” slaves who will tend to his fields and manufacture his crop. The narrator is young Matt, El Patrón’s clone, who has been created to . . .(SPOILER ALERT). . .supply organs to the boss when his own fail.

Matt is scrappy and good, and gets into many epic adventures. People treat him badly, and he suffers much. He has a rag-tag group of “Lost Boys” who follow him as he escapes over the border into Mexico. He has a true love.

The northern Mexico of the future is called “Aztlán” here—is this not offensive to Chicano/a readers? Farmer, born in 1941, seems to be a white super-progressive Californian; is it okay for caucasian writers to use a place name that has such deep ancestral and spiritual roots for Mexicans and Mexican-Americans?

I found the book tedious. The world Farmer creates is not nearly as fascinating and rich as Harry Potter’s world, nor is the long-winded family saga as compelling as those of Marquez. The gritty borderland atmospherics cannot come close to McCarthy. But the pacing, characterization, and tenor is very similar to Holes, and I guess this is where I confess that I am not a lover of young adult fiction. I think I need to learn that this style of writing is quite fitting in terms of meeting the cognitive development and attentional needs of younger readers. It is just not my thing as an adult reader.

Stormbreaker

Anthony Horowitz, 2000, 192 pgs.

YA spy novel

The first in the Alex Rider series. If I had this series when I was 12 or 13, I would have swallowed it up. Alex Rider is a 14 year-old British boy, handsome and athletic, whose mysterious uncle has just been killed, leaving him newly orphaned. Soon, Alex is swept into his first assignment as a spy with the M16, and he learns that his uncle had been training him all along to finish the job he started—tracking down and stopping a Lebanese millionaire from unleashing a deadly virus hidden in the gift of computers for all British schoolchildren.

This book is full of MacGyver-like gadgets–zit cream that eats through metal, a yo-yo with string strong enough to carry a boy. It has motorcycle racing scenes, airplane chasing and jumping scenes, and mineshaft crawling scenes. It has bad guys shooting at Alex, but Alex never uses a gun–instead he uses karate and his gadgets to disable the bad guys and escape capture.

On the last page, a contract killer says to Alex, “Killing is for grown-ups and you’re still a child.” Um, what? I guess this is the moral line that young adult authors must straddle when writing thrillers that include lots of people being killed–their adolescent protagonists should not be killing, but the killing happens anyway. Plus, do we really still have to be writing books in which the bad guys are Middle Eastern, with names like Yassen and Herod?

Heist Society

Ally Carter, 2010, 287 pgs.

YA heist novel

Yuck. This book was recommended by teens on the New York Public Library blog, and the idea of an art heist thriller with teen characters appeals to me, but YUCK. Disney publishes this book, and it seems ready-made for a Disney movie with the usual merchandising roll-out. Picture a teen Julia Roberts in a black turtleneck, tight pants, a mini-mag flashlight, and Audrey Hepburn shades. She has a rich and infamous art thief dad who has been accused of stealing from a really bad guy, who then gives her two weeks to get him back his paintings. . . or else. Plug in scenes at a posh private school, posh hotel rooms, limousines, cute guys, and museums in Paris and Rome, and you’ve got the gist of it.

What happens next? I have no idea. I couldn’t stomach it anymore, so I stopped reading.

Living Dead Girl

Elizabeth Scott, 2008, 170 pgs.

Starkly written, swiftly moving, and totally disturbing. Alice was kidnapped by Ray when she was ten and is kept as a sexual slave in his trailer home. Now she is 15, and he sends her to a playground to find a new little girl for him, since she is growing curves that he despises. There are many scenes of forced sex, and his verbal abuse and control over her is disgustingly real. She has a survivor’s spirit, though, and begins to plan her escape. The lost and horny teenaged boy she enlists as her aid adds another depressing layer to the plot.

If this book were in my library, would I feel compelled to put a warning on it? I am not usually disturbed by texts and images that haunt many of my peers, but the violence here was shocking and unrelenting. Since sexual violence towards children and adolescents does exist, however, this compelling and well-written book deserves to be on library shelves for high school students to read.