Tag Archives: young adult fiction

Sarah Dessen, Revisited

Whenever I finish reading a new Sarah Dessen book, I want to reread some of her earlier work. Usually I resist because I want to keep up with my reading goals. Not to mention, with thirteen books published, there are almost too many choices. However, this summer saw me with more free time than usual, which meant more reading. In a time of transition I once again turned to a favorite book. And then another. And another. It was all Sarah Dessen, all the time.

The Truth about Forever

I reread The Truth About Forever, Just Listen, and Saint Anything. The Truth about Forever is a fan favorite, one that I loved at the age of 15 and had certainly read more than once in the past. Just Listen is one of the few Dessen novels that I had mediocre feelings about, only to hear multiple coworkers and friends list it among their favorites. Saint Anything is her second-to-last book, released in 2015. I really liked it at the time but had only read it once. It was an interesting cross-section of her work, which I’ve been wanting to revisit for years.

Back in 2004, I remember being nervous about The Truth about Forever. I had loved This Lullaby with such a passion, and I didn’t want my favorite author to disappoint me. Then she published a novel that was equal to, if not better than the previous book. As an adult reader, the premise is still appealing. The crew at Wish Catering is one of Sarah’s best supporting casts, and who wouldn’t want to be whisked away into a quirky new social group. Wes is also one of her most swoon-worthy love interests: the thoughtful, artistic boy with a checkered past. It’s still a humorous and touching book with amazing character details.

Just Listen

Just Listen was her very next novel, and in my mind the stakes finally got too high. It may have been the similarities of Annabel’s problems to those of the previous narrator, or I may have been bothered by the made-up musicians and band names. Quite possibly I was just a jaded seventeen-year-old who was a bit of a music snob and transitioning to adult fiction. For whatever reason, Just Listen flopped for me in 2006, and I hadn’t read it since. In 2017 I’m still a music lover but significantly less snobby about it. I also have an easier time accepting a fictional reality in a realistic fiction book. More than ten years later, I could finally see why so many other readers connected with this story.

I wasn’t planning to move on to Saint Anything, especially since I noticed during my first two rereads that all three of these books cover themes of holding in emotions and feeling unheard. I also remembered drawing comparisons between Mac and Wes when I first read Saint Anything, along with some of the other supporting characters. Of course, there’s a limit to the varieties of floppy-haired teenage dreamboats, and authors tend to touch on similar themes throughout their work. Despite having just read the other two books, the similarities in Saint Anything didn’t really bother me. And not just because I’m completely biased! Isn’t the struggle to feel understood and to be seen the way we want to be seen a central part of the adolescent experience? Nobody ever got mad at Hemingway for writing about the psychological aftermath of the First World War.

Saint Anything

I was curious, and admittedly somewhat afraid, to see how my tastes had changed over the years. And while there were moments that affected me differently, I found myself more open to enjoy plotlines and characters that had once disinterested me. As a teenager, I also considered The Truth about Forever to be quite profound. The philosophizing didn’t seem as mind-blowing now, but it didn’t prevent me from enjoying the story. Finally rereading Just Listen reminded me that I probably wasn’t very attracted to Owen as Annabel’s love interest. But tastes change—thank God—and it’s easier to see the appeal of a boy with a penchant for honesty and a beyond-obscure public radio show.

Rereading these books was a way to get back in touch with myself, to see how I’ve changed and how I’ve stayed the same. It always helps to feel grounded in yourself when your life is going through changes. I’m so glad that sixth-grade Courtney picked up her first Sarah Dessen book and found an author whose work would be with her sixteen years later.

 

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A New Wave of YA is Coming

After several years of being less engaged with the world of young adult books, I find myself looking forward to new releases from many of my favorite authors. 2017 has already been a brighter year for YA with a new book from Sarah Dessen and the discovery of Sabaa Tahir’s series-in-progress. Join me in nerding out over four upcoming books and admiring beautiful cover art.

There’s Someone Inside Your House on September 26!

There's Someone Inside Your House

Stephanie Perkins is a delight in her Anna and the French Kiss trilogy. Having briefly met her at NerdCon: Stories, I can also vouch for the fact that she’s a delight in person. She’s been teasing this book for a while now: like a teen slasher flick but with plenty of kissing and googly eyes (she promises!). It took some time for me to warm up to the idea, but now I’m pumped. I love that she’s willing to work outside of her established patterns. Given the humanity that she can bring to a teenage romance in Paris, I predict that There’s Someone Inside Your House will have more emotional resonance than the average horror story.

Turtles All the Way Down on October 10!

Turtles All the Way Down

By the time this book comes out, it will have been almost six years since the release of The Fault in Our Stars. Honestly, I wasn’t sure if John Green would ever publish again, at least in the YA genre. He’s certainly been keeping busy with creating educational online video. In this case, I’m glad to be wrong. Turtles All the Way Down deals with mental illness, which according to John himself, is inspired by his own experiences with OCD. Although I keep up with John through his online content, I look forward to learning what his brain has been working on these past six years. It’s sure to be thought-provoking.

Truly Devious on January 16!

Truly Devious

As blog readers probably know, my deepest wish is for Maureen Johnson to publish the fourth Shades of London book. Well, it’s vying with a few other literary wishes, but it’s right up there. Luckily, Truly Devious sounds like it has the potential to fill the void. It continues Maureen’s trend of boarding school settings, this time at an American school with ambitious students and a mysterious founder. If I can’t have ghost detectives in London, I’ll take a regular teen detective in Vermont. Not to mention, the cover art is on point!

A Reaper at the Gates on April 10!

A Reaper at the Gates

This is the third book in Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes series. Since I just caught up with the series this spring, a year isn’t too long to wait for the next installment. However, there was much confusion when I saw the cover. A quick search revealed that the entire series is be re-released with new cover art. I’m not a huge fan of the high fantasy mood of the new designs, not being a frequent fantasy reader myself, but this interview with Sabaa explains her motivation for showing the faces of her diverse characters. The second book left the three main characters in unexpected places, so I’m excited to see where she takes them.

It’s worth noting that only one of these books is a sequel. There are fresh ideas brewing in the YA world, and I’m all about it.

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A Young Adult Fantasy Gem

An Ember in the Ashes

It’s been a while since I was truly excited about a young adult book, in part because I haven’t read very many in the past year or two. There was a stretch of time when every new book was reminding me of The Hunger Games or The Fault in Our Stars. However, when a book is independently recommended to me by two well-read lady friends, I take notice. That book is An Ember in the Ashes.

Young adult, like every literary genre, is lacking in diversity. This applies to both authors and character representation. So it’s wonderful to see a Pakistani-American author receiving well-deserved recognition for this book. In An Ember in the Ashes, you will find a society based on the Roman Empire in a desert climate with a variety of characters who aren’t white (!). Tahir builds an immersive world with a strict class system, slavery, and soldiers who are trained from childhood. The stakes are high for characters in every social sphere.

The narration is split between Laia and Elias. Laia was born into the oppressed Scholar class. When her brother is arrested for suspected collaboration with the Resistance, she is forced to become a slave in her attempt to save him. Laia isn’t the typical heroine found in fantasy adventure stories. She doesn’t start out as tough, capable, and fearless, but circumstances push her to challenge her fears. Most importantly, her understanding of herself and her family evolves as she faces these trials. Hers is a classic coming-of-age journey.

On the other hand, Elias has been trained since boyhood to join the ranks of the Empire’s most lethal assassins. Although Elias holds a privileged position, his ambiguous parentage and nontraditional upbringing give him an outsider’s perspective. He can’t speak out against the brutality of the Empire without risking death. Tahir is highly successful at bringing out the contradictions and messy emotions in this character as well. Elias objects to the role he’s expected to play, but he also loves the comrades with whom he grew up.

My friend Emmie and I were discussing how authors sometimes struggle to continue a series after a promising start. She suggested that those authors didn’t have a specific idea of where they were headed when the began the series. In addition, I think that the pressure to make each book more epic and action-packed sometimes causes the emotional threads of the story to get buried. Sabaa Tahir has planned four books for this series. I will be reading A Torch Against the Night soon and hope to love it nearly as much as An Ember in the Ashes. Even if she falls into some of the fantasy series traps, she’s a young writer with tons of potential for the future. I look forward to following her career!

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Carry On, Rainbow Rowell

Carry On

No one can accuse Rainbow Rowell of being lazy. Or un-inventive. Or un-awesome…but I digress. In the past four years she’s published five novels, three young adult and two regular adult. She’s written about 1980s misfits, the first year of college, and falling in love through technology. Yes, she always writes about love and relationships (among other things), but she approaches the subject from a unique angle each time. As her first foray into the fantasy adventure genre, Carry On proves that she’s only becoming more ambitious.

I’ve really enjoyed trying to explain the premise of Carry On to people, including a random girl at NerdCon. If you haven’t read Fangirl, it’s confusing. Cath, the protagonist of Fangirl, is heavily involved in the fan community for Simon Snow, a series invented by Rainbow to occupy a similar space as Harry Potter in Cath’s world. Fangirl includes short passages from the Simon Snow books, as well as snippets of Cath’s fan fiction. A key component of the fan fiction is that Cath writes about Simon falling in love with his archenemy Baz. (Yes, there are serious Harry Potter/Draco Malfoy undertones, except that Baz is also a vampire.) Then Rainbow became so interested in Simon and Baz that she decided to write her own book about them. As I said, confusing.

Luckily nerds tend to like things a little complicated. Wrapping our brains around the relationships between a fictional book series, fan fiction about that series, and a real-life standalone book is our idea of fun. (Hopefully when I say our, I’m not just talking about me. The verging-on-mob scene before Rainbow’s signing at NerdCon would suggest that others share my feelings.) All this to say that I was fully on board to read about teenage wizards falling in love. And read about them I did, but to my surprise, the romance was secondary to the plot more so than any other Rainbow Rowell novel. I have no problem admitting that after a certain point I was asking, “But when will there be kissing?!”

Simon Snow is the Chosen One who has no idea how to fulfill his role. Rainbow has discussed in interviews how she’s read many Chosen One stories over the years, and Carry On was an opportunity to explore her opinions about the whole concept. As she said to The Toast, “How would it really feel to have a strange old man take you away from everything you’ve ever known because he needed you to fight a war that started before you were even born?” The mages in Carry On are more in touch with the normal world than, for instance, the wizarding world of Harry Potter. While allowing Rainbow to make her signature pop culture references, this connection also gives her some freedom to critique the genre in which she’s simultaneously participating.

As a reader, I found the critique to be the most successful aspect of Carry On. Rainbow is an astute observer of storytelling patterns, and she proved in Fangirl that she understands how people can be critical of something while still loving it immensely. The Simon and Baz relationship originated from the idea of finding romantic subtext where it’s probably not intended by the creator. The romantic aspects of Carry On sometimes felt more subtextual than I would have liked, but since it’s Rainbow Rowell, there are still moments worthy of a swoon.

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The Stephanie Perkins Admiration Society

I have mixed feelings about romance in young adult novels. I mean, I love it, but I have mixed feelings. When romance is well-written, it can make your whole world seem brighter. Yet when I read about teenagers finding true love, I can’t always forget that in the real world this experience is the exception, not the rule. I think of Joseph Gordon-Levitt in (500) Days of Summer when he confronts his coworkers at the greeting card company: “It’s these cards, and the movies and the pop songs, they’re to blame for all the lies and the heartache, everything. We’re responsible. I’m responsible. I think we do a bad thing here.” His character is speaking from a broken heart, but he makes a compelling point about the romantic expectations created by stories and songs.

I certainly don’t think it’s wrong to tell love stories in young adult novels (or anywhere else). Love is a wonderful part of life, and escapism is a perfectly valid reason to read a book or watch a movie. I just hope that young people can internalize the fact that these stories aren’t reflective of all high school experiences. (Then again, that unreality is probably one of the reasons we enjoy them.) Despite my moments of cynicism, sometimes I come across a YA romance that turns my heart to mush. Anna and the French Kiss and its sequels are the best example of the past year. And if loving Stephanie Perkins is wrong, I don’t want to be right!

Anna and the French Kiss

I was feeling a little down recently, and some reread therapy seemed like the perfect antidote. I picked up Anna and the French Kiss and then Isla and the Happily Ever After about a month later. In an uncharacteristic decision for me, I skipped Lola and the Boy Next Door, the second book in the series. Each book has a different narrator, and some characters reoccur between books. Lola is an outlier because it takes place in San Francisco, rather than the School of America in Paris. On the other hand, the male lead of Isla is one of Anna’s friends in the first book, so there’s much more crossover between the two. Even though I’m not much of a Francophile, in these books I’m a sucker for the Paris setting.

Since the characters are in boarding school, their lifestyle is closer to college than seniors in high school. It makes them seem older and probably keeps some of my cynicism at bay. More importantly, the interactions and development of relationships feel so genuine. As Rainbow Rowell put it, “Stephanie Perkins’s characters fall in love the way we all want to, in real time and for good.” Anna and the French Kiss shows particularly pleasing relationship growth, with all the awkward moments and miscommunication that are typical of young adult relationships. (And okay, some adult relationships, but let’s not go there.)

Isla and the Happily Ever After

Isla and the Happily Ever After warms the cockles of my heart for somewhat different reasons. Isla has always had a crush on Josh, and a painkiller-fueled encounter in the summer before their senior year finally brings them together. Throughout Anna and the French Kiss, Josh is in a tumultuous relationship with a different girl, and Isla deals with insecurities about his ex that are all too real. I find my younger self hardcore identifying with some of their issues, at a level that I can only compare to Cath in Fangirl. Josh is also an aspiring graphic novelist, which is both relevant to the story and an enjoyable nerd factor.

Sometimes I like to put my finger on why I love something. What sets it apart? Even though some reasons are probably intangible, it’s fun to articulate a few.

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It’s Not Summer Without Sarah Dessen

Saint Anything

Between The Moon and More and Saint Anything, Sarah Dessen was very open about the fact that she had to set aside a novel that just wasn’t working. She seemingly shared this to warn her fans that, in contrast to her typical two-year spacing between publications, there might not be a new novel in 2015. Instead, she channeled her feelings of helplessness into the story of Sydney, a girl whose charismatic older brother is sent to prison after a drunk driving accident.

Saint Anything is Sarah Dessen’s twelfth young adult novel. She’s a key role model for me, so I tend to pay as much attention to her career choices as the books themselves. The press for this book hinted that it was darker than her previous work. As something of a Sarah Dessen connoisseur, I found this claim irritating due to its improbability. As if she never wrote a novel about an abusive relationship. Or teen pregnancy. Or parental abandonment. However, her book covers and marketing in recent years have been fairly bright and cheery, focusing on the romantic aspects despite other storylines that are also present. Barnes & Noble also started shelving her books in Teen Romance, which I found reductive and possibly sexist. Her books always always have more going on than just the romantic relationship.

Of course, I had no way of knowing if Saint Anything takes a darker turn until I read it. Now that I have, I can confidently say that it does not. Sarah was in a more vulnerable place while writing it, which perhaps colored her perception of the book itself. All marketing schemes aside, I would deem this novel a success. She deals with themes that I’ve tried to explore in my own writing, particularly as Sydney struggles to become her own person in relation to her brother. There’s a South Park episode that’s primary joke is “The Simpsons already did it!” My personal equivalent is “Sarah Dessen already did it!” After twelve young adult novels, you can cover a lot of contemporary teenager topics. Sarah has said that she doesn’t know how many more high school stories she will write. I admire her for being brave enough to consider a new career direction.

The make-or-break moment for me with any Sarah Dessen novel is whether the characters gel. There have only been a few times where the world didn’t feel real, like I could see the mechanisms at work instead of getting lost in the final product. To be fair, I probably pay more attention to the mechanisms than the average reader. In the case of Saint Anything, the characters clicked within the first few chapters. Focusing on a character who’s struggling to be heard within her own family could have been a massive flop, as passive narrators can be risky, but Sarah pulls it off by raising the stakes and surrounding Sydney with a dynamic supporting cast. If anyone can pull that off, it would be her.

I was sad to reach the end, which makes me want to reread some of her others. What I would really like to do is reread all her books and do a personal ranking, but that’s too big of a time commitment. I may indulge the whim to reread one or two. I think I hear The Truth About Forever calling my name…

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An Evening with Rainbow Rowell

Last month I wrote about my new-found love for young adult author Rainbow Rowell. Last night I met her.

I only learned about this event on Sunday when she posted it on Tumblr. I was momentarily thrilled until I realized that I was scheduled to work on Wednesday night. I was very disappointed, but I knew that I might just have to live with it. That is, until one of my coworkers generously offered to trade shifts with me. I guess my love for Ms. Rowell is so obvious that my coworkers knew this would be a special occasion for me.

Fall 2013 008

The event was at the pavilion on Harriet Island in St. Paul. Having never been to an author event, I was expecting rows of folding chairs and a podium. All credit goes to the librarian organizers for making it a much more pleasant atmosphere. There were round tables with colored tablecloths, and each table had notecards for writing messages or questions to Rainbow. Oh, and also cookies.

Fall 2013 007

I arrived absurdly early, as is in my blood, and popped into the restroom. Whose voice did I hear but Rainbow Rowell herself? Yes, I will happily admit that I was fangirl-ing in a bathroom stall. I followed my instinct, however, and did not accost her in the ladies’ room.

Rainbow was introduced by Anne Ursu, a children’s book author who teaches at Hamline University. In her brief introduction she made a statement that echoed something I have tried to articulate about Rainbow’s books. Her characters display real emotions, and as Ursu put it, “she gives these feelings such dignity.” Way to say it better than I ever could.

Fall 2013 016 (2)

After a brief reading from Eleanor and Park, the majority of the evening was spent taking questions from the audience. Topics ranged from her writing process to specific characters to dealing with negative criticism. Rainbow gave full answers to each question, which made me feel like I learned a lot about her by the end of the night. She talked about deciding whether her books should be categorized as young adult or adult. When having those discussions with publishers, she wants to say, “Put them in the both section!” I like the idea that most stories are just plain human, and limiting ourselves according to certain categories is, well, limiting.

After the question and answer session, it was time for book signing. Being early came in handy when I was part of the first group to get in line. Meeting Rainbow was just lovely. I gave her a little note that I had written at the table, and she thanked me for recommending her books at my job. Nobody made me feel like I had to rush. Rainbow’s equally friendly sister was there helping out, and she took our picture.

Fall 2013 019 (2)

Out of some vague sense of security, I’ve hesitated to post photos of myself on this blog. Well, now I say forget that because I have a photo with Rainbow Rowell! This was my first opportunity to meet a big-time writer, and it was definitely a rock star moment for me. Okay, true confessions time. I picked my outfit with the fantasy that Rainbow would say she liked my shirt, and she actually did!

From her books and internet presence, I had an impression of what Rainbow would be like, and this night only confirmed it. She is a talented woman who doesn’t take herself too seriously. She treats her characters warmly, and her fans as well. If you could, you would want to be her friend. I certainly do.

Fall 2013 002

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