So this happened:
I graduated. High school. My first two years of college. I made it. I still can't believe it. Guess I can hardly say I'm a YA anymore. And it's terrifying.
(Apparently I can't smile for pictures without looking like my face is breaking.)
Forgive me while I go cry more happy tears.
May 10, 2012
May 8, 2012
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YA/Adult Crossover, Literary/Historical, 168 pages, West Virginia University Press
- Series: stand-alone
- Pub date: October 1st 2011
- Disclosure: Received a review copy from the author. Thanks!
Jason Stevens is growing up in picturesque, historic Harpers Ferry, West Virginia in the 1970s. Back when the roads are smaller, the cars slower, the people more colorful, and Washington, D.C. is way across the mountains—a winding sixty-five miles away.
Jason dreams of going to art school in the city, but he must first survive his teenage years. He witnesses a street artist from Italy charm his mother from the backseat of the family car. He stands up to an abusive husband—and then feels sorry for the jerk. He puts up with his father’s hard-skulled backwoods ways, his grandfather’s showy younger wife, and the fist-throwing schoolmates and eccentric mountain characters that make up Harpers Ferry—all topped off by a basement art project with a girl from the poor side of town.
Ugly to Start With punctuates the exuberant highs, bewildering midpoints, and painful lows of growing up, and affirms that adolescent dreams and desires are often fulfilled in surprising ways.
I firmly believe that literary fiction and YA are not mutually exclusive. I've read plenty of YA novels I'd call literary (Brooklyn, Burning by Steve Brezenoff, anyone?), and plenty of literary bildungsroman novels I'd call YA (White Oleander by Janet Fitch being a prime example). As someone who writes and reads literary and YA about equally, I'm always sad to see the bitter battles that seem to be waged between the two, with both sides just as firmly in their trenches. That's why I was so excited to get a review request for Ugly to Start With: a collection of short stories previously published in literary journals, gathered together to form a cohesive narrative of a young boy growing up in West Virginia in the 1970's. It was pitched to me as a double-dipper, at the forefront of genre-mashing, and I was happy to say yes.
And at the beginning, I wasn't disappointed. Cummings' writing is a little rambly, but his setting is rendered so pitch-perfectly, and his characters so relatable and heartbreaking, that I couldn't help but fall in love. Here's something great, I thought. Finally, finally, a bridge between two genres to show that they aren't so far apart after all.
And then. (You knew there was going to be an "and then.")
And then I read two stories that colored my impressions of the rest of the book, and left me thinking it wasn't so great after all. The first, "Carter," is about the friendship (and eventual sexual relationship) Jason strikes up with the neighborhood homosexual. The second, "The Scratchboard Project," is about ("white trash") Jason's flirtation with a poor black girl. Both fail utterly at nuance, and instead come across as merely ugly. There is a difference, I feel, between telling the world as you see it, and telling the world like you feel others will see it--and these two stories, I feel, fall into the latter category.
The story of the gay pedophile who causes the young hero to question his sexuality is an extremely tired (and sickening) cliche, while the story of the white boy changing his perception of "The Other" by falling in love is equally problematic. I refuse to sit back and get called oversensitive on this one--I call a spade a spade when I see one, and through their refusal to critique and broaden the cliche instead of just fumble into it, these stories border on bigoted. The author clearly writes with experience--couldn't he have found more human stories to tell?
I truly wish they both had been simply left out of the collection, because the rest of the book is enjoyable and interesting--but now, instead of being able to recommend them wholeheartedly, I'm just left with a bad taste in my mouth.
...and the Short:
An interesting bridge between literary fiction and YA that's ruined by a couple of cliched, ugly stories.
The Final Word: Meh.
May 7, 2012
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Middle Grade, Historical, 272 pages, Harper
- Series: stand-alone
- Pub date: February 22nd 2011
- Disclosure: Received as a gift from Lyn Miller-Lachmann, author of Gringolandia. Thanks!
Absolutely perfect in every way. The illustration is gorgeous, and the mood perfectly conveys the tone of the story: bittersweet, sad, but ultimately hopeful.
No one would believe me but at times I would choose wartime in Saigon over peacetime in Alabama.The Long...
For all the ten years of her life, HÀ has only known Saigon: the thrills of its markets, the joy of its traditions, the warmth of her friends close by . . . and the beauty of her very own papaya tree.
But now the Vietnam War has reached her home. HÀ and her family are forced to flee as Saigon falls, and they board a ship headed toward hope. In America, HÀ discovers the foreign world of Alabama: the coldness of its strangers, the dullness of its food, the strange shape of its landscape . . . and the strength of her very own family.
This is the moving story of one girl's year of change, dreams, grief, and healing as she journeys from one country to another, one life to the next.
The Vietnam War is a recent fascination for me. The experiences of veterans have become so ingrained in the American psyche that it's hard to remember that we were far, far, far from the only ones affected; that the ordinary people of Vietnam were endlessly uprooted and persecuted and forced to say goodbye to everything they had ever known. I recently read Duong Thu Huong's Paradise of the Blind, post-war Vietnamese angst for grown-ups. In Inside Out and Back Again, we get the conflict told in verse through a child's eyes, and the result is desperate and heartbreaking.
Novels in verse, especially YA and middle grade novels in verse, are something of a crapshoot for me. It either really works, or it really doesn't, without much ground in between. Thankfully, Inside Out and Back Again falls into the former category, and its luscious wordplay was enough to make me long for papaya as much as Ha does. Ha's tumultuous year, beginning and ending on the Vietnamese New Year (called Tết), accomplishes what few historical and multicultural "issue" books do--it makes us not only aware of conflicts and problems, but rather gives us a stake in them as well.
In fact, my biggest problem with novels in verse--my lack of emotional connection--was a non-issue with Inside Out and Back Again. Ha's story (also author Thanha Lai's story) is incredibly affecting, mostly because of its verse style: prose would have taken it dangerously close to melodramatic territory. The simple and light way Ha sees the world, even in the most desperate of times--asking the "cowboy" who sponsors the family when she can ride the horse he doesn't have, fighting with her brothers, learning English, waiting for her father to come home--brought the Vietnam War home in a way that nothing else has for me.
I cried twice, which surprised me. Maybe a 'Nam story hits too close to home now, when my country is embroiled in yet another conflict far away where foreign civilians bear the brunt of the casualties. Maybe it's because it's a coming of age story, when I am in the midst of coming of age myself. Either way, Inside Out and Back Again is one of the few middle grade novels I've read recently that I can wholeheartedly recommend for all ages. Thanha Lai has a story to tell, and she tells it so well that your perception of the War, of refugees, of immigration, and of yourself can never be the same.
...and the Short:
A luscious coming-of-age story that is both well-written and emotionally affecting; a bittersweet glimpse at an ugly chapter of history.
The Final Verdict: Loved it.