Tag Archives: young adult fiction

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Tales from the Teen Section, Part 2

Summer is the perfect time for young adult books. I might not be in the mood for serious literature, but I can enjoy some fast and fun teen fiction. Naturally I have another batch of titles to review and recommend.The Madness Underneath

The Madness Underneath is the second book in Maureen Johnson’s Shades of London series. I started it shortly after finishing The Name of the Star, which made me realize that I was perhaps more invested in the series than I thought. My opinion of the book changed from beginning to end. The first half or so felt like a reaction to the previous book without much cohesive plot to make it interesting in its own right. However, the narrative strands came together in the second half for an exciting conclusion. Okay, Maureen, I’m still on board.


Divergent is one of those books that I read because I felt like I should. The series is big in the young adult world right now, and the film adaptation of the first book is currently filming. And of course, everyone loves to ask, “Is this the next Hunger Games?” After reading the first book, I doubt that it will reach that level of popularity. I was engrossed in the plot early on, and Veronica Roth certainly creates some dramatic action sequences. The problem is that I found myself questioning the logic of her dystopian world, which shouldn’t happen with quality sci-fi. I might still read the second book, but I’m not confident that my questions will be answered.

Eleanor & Park

This book. Oh my goodness, this book. I would have been obsessed with it when I was fifteen, and I still kind of am. In Omaha circa 1986, two misfit teenagers find each other and take tentative steps toward love. The plot could veer into Manic Pixie Dream Girl territory, but Eleanor and Park turn out to be wonderfully well-rounded characters. Eleanor is dealing with an overcrowded house and a creepy stepfather. Park struggles to find himself as the only half-Korean in the neighborhood. These characters have capital-E-Emotions, but I find them realistic rather than grating. I remember being sixteen when every emotion felt epic. The 80’s setting gives the story extra charm with cassette tapes, record stores, and no cell phones in sight.

After seeing these titles at the bookstore for months, it was great to finally discover what they’re all about. The best is a book like Eleanor & Park that fully meets my expectations. Of course, to-read lists have a tendency to never shrink, and there are plenty of other books on my radar. I hope to have another trio of young adult gems to share by the end of the summer.

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Dessen Delivers the Moon and More

The Moon and More

The Moon and More is Sarah Dessen’s eleventh novel. I have eagerly anticipated many of their releases, going back to my middle school days. When a person has written eleven books, they can’t all be brilliant. Even Sarah Dessen, one of my favorite young adult writers, has a few books that don’t work for me. I will admit that I was afraid The Moon and More would be one of them.

It was the book’s description that concerned me. Emaline lives in Colby, the beach town featured in several Dessen books, and she seemingly has a charmed life with a long-term boyfriend and supportive mother, stepfather, and sisters. Of course, her biological father thinks that she deserves more, in the form of an Ivy League education. And so does Theo, the boy in town for the summer with a documentary film crew.

Okay, I thought, so what exactly is this girl’s problem? She has a great boyfriend and the chance to go to a great college? Fortunately this plot summary belies a lot of the book’s drama. Emaline’s mother became pregnant as a teenager when her father was spending the summer in Colby. She thinks of her stepfather as her real dad, and her biological father only becomes involved in her life when they can relate in the safe zone of academics. The Moon and More deals with the tension between remembering where you come from and imagining how far you can go. Those themes of family loyalty versus personal achievement certainly resonate with me, and Dessen has crafted a story that explores them beautifully.

One of my favorite aspects of the novel is the parallels Dessen draws between Emaline’s romantic interests and her father figures. Her boyfriend Luke is a working class guy like her stepfather, both good-natured and practical. Theo is a visitor to Colby, just as Emaline’s father was years ago. Dessen picks the perfect details to bring her characters to life, and that skill serves her well in illustrating the similarities and differences between these men.

On her website, Sarah Dessen shares her inspiration for The Moon and More. Plus there’s an adorable video with her daughter playing in the background. I also enjoyed this Slate article where she and her editor discuss—what else?—the editing process. Just when I think I couldn’t love Sarah more, she gives me another reason.

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Tales from the Teen Section

Recently I was given some added responsibility at my bookseller gig. Along with one of my coworkers, I’m now in charge of monitoring the teen section. I guess a passion for young adult literature makes you somewhat unique in literary circles, or at least in my particular group of booksellers. For me it was an easy offer to accept.

My recent reading efforts have been mainly in adult literature, so I’ve enjoyed this motivation to get back into the YA scene. I started with Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, which has been a bestseller alongside The Fault in Our Stars since 2012. (That’s especially cool because Ransom Riggs and John Green attended Kenyon College together.) Miss Peregrine’s is a rare book that is truly difficult to compare to anything else. Riggs used vintage photographs, often of the creepy variety, as inspiration for a school full of children with “peculiar” abilities. The narrator Jacob is investigating his grandfather’s past, leading him to England and the peculiar children. This book is proof that inventiveness can thrive in the YA genre.

Miss Peregrine's

Next I ventured into the Teen Fantasy and Adventure section. Last year Juliet Marillier, my favorite fantasy writer, released a new teen book called Shadowfell. It’s the first in a series about a girl named Neryn who lives in a kingdom where magic is forbidden. This is dangerous for someone like Neryn with an uncanny ability, in her case to see and speak with magical folk. Shadowfell had many of the hallmarks of Marillier’s adult novels, but the story felt simplified for a younger audience. Marillier has such a lovely writing style that I enjoyed the book even when I thought I could predict what was coming next. Even better, my predictions were sometimes proven wrong. It won’t win my devotion to the extent of the Sevenwaters series, but I’m looking forward to reading the second book in July.


Most recently I finished The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson. She is another friend of John Green’s, so you can tell where I go for YA recommendations. This book is about Rory, a Louisiana teenager who spends her final year of high school at an English boarding school. Someone begins recreating the Jack the Ripper murders, and Rory gets caught up in the mayhem. I enjoy how Johnson approaches a classic subject like ghosts with a modern, snarky tone. She isn’t necessarily trying to be deep, but her writing is well-researched and entertaining. The Name of the Star is also the first in a series called Shades of London. The Madness Underneath,  the second book in the series, is high on my to-read list.

The Name of the Star

The floodgates have opened. I have a list of at least ten more YA books that I want to check out. As if that wasn’t enough, Sarah Dessen’s new book comes out a week from today! The teen section is often the butt of jokes, and admittedly there are some superficial and copycat titles out there. Like any genre, YA has its good and bad examples. And Gentle Readers, I will continue sharing the good examples with you.

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No Fault in These Stars

Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book. And then there are books . . . which you can’t tell people about, books so special and rare and yours that advertising your affection feels like a betrayal.

In a recent video blog, John Green said that he wanted The Fault in Our Stars to make readers “feel all of the things.” That is, it cannot be easily categorized as a sad book because it has moments of humor and romance and irreverence. But ultimately, it’s a novel that deals with Big Questions, and I can’t talk about it without getting all serious on you.

The Fault in Our Stars is about a pair of teenagers who meet at a support group for kids with cancer. That’s the one-sentence synopsis that John Green has been using, and it’s perfectly accurate and free of spoilers. But it should be mentioned that this book has little in common with a certain genre of weepie novels about cancer. I mean, I never read Lurlene McDaniel in middle school, but I can only assume her books are of the sort that John is rebelling against. (Anyone who publishes a book titled Don’t Die, My Love should be regarded with suspicion.) Hazel and Augustus aren’t symbols or martyrs; they’re normal kids who have been dealt a bad genetic hand.

What gives John Green the authority to write about young people with cancer? Well, he worked as a student chaplain at a children’s hospital in his younger days and has been trying to use the experience in a novel ever since. Hazel, the novel’s narrator, is concerned with many of life’s Big Questions. Seems perfectly natural when you’ve been terminally ill since the age of thirteen. What I love is how John intertwines Hazel’s soul-searching with an examination of the relationship between reader and text.

Okay, that sounds incredibly heady, but the topic is approached in a manageable way. Like, you don’t have to be a nerdy English major to enjoy this book — I promise! The theme presents itself this way:  Hazel is obsessed with a book called An Imperial Affliction, which is also about a girl with cancer. Green invites the reader to think about how we use made-up stories to make meaning in our own lives. As a creative-type person and a lover of media, I can strongly relate to using books and movies and music as a lens for figuring out the world. Who hasn’t latched on to a certain song or album because it precisely fits how they’re feeling at that time?

John Green isn’t arguing that it’s wise to take any piece of art as the be-all, end-all in our search for meaning. But he does portray it as innately human to look for a point of connection with something outside of yourself. This is his greatest novel to date. If these are questions that interest you, or even if they don’t, I would recommend it without reservation. It might make you cry, but it will do much more than that. You may even FEEL ALL OF THE THINGS, which is satisfying in itself, I think.


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John Green, John Green

The reasons why I love John Green could fill many a blog post. He’s a talented writer who chooses to work in the young adult genre. His books are highly intelligent and full of literary and historical references — no talking down to teenagers here. He clearly loves and respects his wife. In college he was an English and religion double-major, and as scholars of Courtney lore know, religion is the one major that briefly tempted me to abandon English.

But I admire him most for the way he uses technology to connect with fans. As previously mentioned, he does a series of video blogs with his brother Hank. However, the brothers don’t just use the videos as a way to promote their respective careers. The videos have served as a rallying point for young people who share John and Hank’s passion for books, the environment, and general nerdiness. He proves that a novelist can do so much more than just, you know, write novels for publication. They can be a catalyst for positive change in the world! And isn’t that an exciting possibility?


I read my first John Green novel, An Abundance of Katherines, this fall. Naturally his other two books were on my Christmas list. Because I’m rather neurotic about such things, some planning had to take place before I could dive into my small stack of new books. I wanted to spread out the John Green love, maybe read one of the books and then a different author in between to cleanse my palette. After all, I wanted to give each book a fair shake.

Then I completely caved. I started with Looking for Alaska because it was John’s first novel, and then read Paper Towns immediately afterward. Winter break turned into an utter John Green binge. I don’t think either book suffered too harshly from the close proximity to each other. Any author has common threads that run through his or her body of work. To me that has the potential make reading more, not less exciting.

For instance, John Green is interested in a common problem of personhood: accepting that other people are as real and complex as you. His main character tends to put someone, usually a girl, on a pedestal, imagining her as an adventure or a mystery or an answer. It shouldn’t be too big of a spoiler when I tell you that she is invariably human. But since this is a universal and complex problem, he could easily spend his entire career grappling with it and still have more to say.

My friend Gabe once told me that first novels are the most autobiographical. I have no other source to cite on that, but it seemed reasonable to me. It certainly seemed to be the case for John Green. As he himself will tell you, Looking for Alaska is about a boy from Florida who goes to a boarding school in Alabama and is obsessed with the last words of famous people. Word for word, this could also describe the life of young John Green. Paper Towns and An Abundance of Katherines are less obvious in their autobiographical points, but any Vlogbrothers aficionado (that would be me) can recognize places where art is imitating life. And at least for me, as an English major and writer, that kind of insider knowledge is fascinating.

I should mention that John Green’s latest novel was released last Tuesday. It’s called The Fault in Our Stars, and my need to possess it grows ever stronger. I’m not just being a fangirl here, although admittedly that’s part of it. John Green is currently my favorite example of what being a young adult novelist can mean. Naturally I have to know what comes next!


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An Abundance of John Green

Of my three library picks, the first book that I chose to read was An Abundance of Katherines by John Green. The concept was intriguingly quirky, and I had a hankering for some young adult fiction.

Colin Singleton is a highly intelligent — and highly neurotic — high school graduate, who has managed to only date girls named Katherine. From a one-hour elementary school fling to the most recent girl to break his heart, they are Katherines all. Perhaps even more significantly, they have all dumped him. In search of an answer to his Katherine conundrum, Colin decides to write a theorem that predicts the outcome of his relationships. He sets off on a road trip with his snarky best friend, and as you might imagine, colorful characters and personal growth ensue.

The only difficult part about this book is the premise itself. You have to accept that one guy could find nineteen women with the same name and have some sort of romance with all of them. Accepting the premise is well worth it though because the story itself is a lot of fun. There was plenty of humor to be found in Colin’s overly intellectual approach to romance. I mean, only an emotional dunce would try to convert his relationships into a mathematical formula. As someone who has known her fair share intellectually mature but emotionally stunted people, this was a character type that I could appreciate.

John Green found creative ways to express Colin’s neurotic tendencies. He used footnotes to relay extra information and provide mathematical explanations for the Theorem of Underlying Katherine Predictability. This technique mirrors the way that Colin can’t resist inserting random trivia into his conversations. As English professors love to remind us, form is content! One of the coolest things about writing, I think, is that the story can be expressed not just through words, but through how the words are presented.

Now that I’ve read one John Green novel, I would love to check out the others. When my friend Jenny was recommending him to me, she had some reservations about whether An Abundance of Katherines would be the best starting point. As it turned out, it was the only one of his books at the library branch that I visited. So there you go! It certainly left me wanting more. Hopefully Looking for Alaska and Paper Towns will be in my future.


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