sabotabby: (books!)
[personal profile] sabotabby
As promised/threatened, I spent my weekend in part reading YA fiction for work and writing down my recommendations as to which books I felt would work well for senior-level English classes. Because I basically have no life, I ended up writing a bunch of mini book reports about them.

Important note: I think I kind of hate YA fiction. There are some very obvious exceptions, but I find a lot of the tropes insufferable. I wasn't interested in reading YA when I was a YA, and I don't think that books written at a low reading level, regardless of how mature their content might be, are necessarily the best way to engage students in the study of literature. If I never read another story about a teenage girl who doesn't fit in at school, it will be too soon. (So here are three such books.)

I've also included a recommendation for something that does the thing that each book does better. Only one of these could remotely be called YA fiction.

Also, here be unmarked spoilers.



the hate u giveThe Hate U Give, Angie Thomas
****1/2

Summary: Starr Carter lives between two worlds and doesn’t fit into either. She lives in a poor black neighbourhood, but after the murder of one of her best friends, her parents send her, along with her two brothers, to a posh, primarily white private school. At home for a Spring Break party, she witnesses the murder of her friend Khalil at the hands of a white police officer, and as the only witness, finds herself at odds with the justice system, the media, and the local gangs as she fights to have the truth about her friend’s life and death known.

Overall impressions: Loved it. It’s topical, the politics are solid, and the characters are interesting and engaging. There’s no shortage of curricular relevance. There’s a film in production.

I tend to be wary of political fiction aimed at young adults because it’s almost always didactic and there’s typically a temptation on either the author or publisher’s part to present a compromise between the protagonist’s sense of injustice and the system they’re struggling against (“I won’t stop wanting X, but I’ll get it in Y way,” where Y is more socially acceptable than rebellion). This novel does occasionally veer into the didactic, but fortunately avoids the latter pitfall, and launches its young protagonist into activism by any means necessary. The historical debate shown between the father’s admiration for the Black Panthers and Malcolm X and another character’s conservatism falls squarely in favour of the former. Starr is not forced to make up with her white racist friend, nor are the riots in the wake of the grand jury’s decision entirely condemned (though organized community activism is shown to be a more productive mode of resistance).

Criticism: This is probably going to be true for every YA novel I read, but I found the prose flat and uninspired. I have an allergy to first-person POV, and particularly first-person POVs where an unrealistic number of paragraphs are devoted to describing the protagonist’s appearance. (This is the kind of thing that is likely to only bother me and no one else.)

I did feel that the dialogue was a problem. Given the centrality of code-switching to the story, both the POV descriptions and the relatively generic, albeit slang-peppered, dialogue felt like they’d been cleaned up for a primarily white audience. I also found some of the references oddly dated—the characters seem overly invested in 90s properties like Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Space Jam, which gave the impression of someone my age attempting to write for the Tumblr generation. While the content is boundary-pushing, the language is not. I’m not saying that the entire book needed to be written in AAVE, but if I, as a middle class, pushing 40, white Canadian did not once have to consult Urban Dictionary for the meaning of a word, I suspect a teenager might cringe. Since the author’s background is as a poet, I wonder if this might have been an editorial or corporate decision.

Finally, the resolution felt unearned to me. With little explanation as to how two working parents living in a poor neighbourhood could afford to send three children to private school, they were then able to afford a house in the suburbs? Nor were there repercussions for Big Mav snitching on the neighbourhood’s drug lord and sending him to prison.

Curricular tie-ins:
Obviously, Black Lives Matter and activism in general. This novel references contemporary police brutality and American racism, as well as historical movements, including the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Panthers.

Culture and identity—Starr has to negotiate multiple identities to avoid seeming “white” in her neighbourhood or “ghetto” at her school. She polices her language, her clothing choices, and her relationships, at a heartbreakingly tragic personal cost. And of course the titular reference to Tupac; you could also look at hip hop as poetry, the role of social media and the mainstream media in framing narratives around race, identity, and violence.

Further reading: Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehesi Coates.

the stone houseThe Stone House, A.K. Benedict

***

Summary: Tanya and her friends are accustomed to supernatural events, given the interdimensional rift in their school. She’s drawn to an abandoned stone house nearby—the source of a number of local urban legends—where she catches a glimpse of a girl’s face, pressed up against the window, screaming. Determined to unravel the mystery and rescue the girl, she convinces her friends and teacher to investigate, only to discover that the house has plans for her too, and doesn’t want her to leave.

Overall impressions: This is a tie-in novel for the BBC show Class. I happen to love the show, and accordingly, I enjoyed the book, but I’m not sure it would even make sense to someone who isn’t familiar with the set-up and characters.

This said, it’s a cool story. It’s a nice update of the creepy haunted house trope, with a mystery centred around refugees both human and alien. Amira’s escape from Syria is both timely and harrowing.

Criticism: Without watching the show, it would make no sense whatsoever. Rather than burden the reader with exposition, it leaps right into the story, expecting you to know about the space-time rift, that Miss Quill is an alien and Charlie is a prince, and everyone accepts the existence of extraterrestrial life (if not ghosts as such).

If you do watch the show, some of the characters feel a little off, particularly Miss Quill, whose defining characteristic on screen is that she not-so-secretly would like to murder most of the other characters and isn’t allowed to do so.

Curricular tie-ins: Refugee narratives, Syria in particular, would be one of the obvious themes to explore. Ghost stories and urban legends. Gentrification, if you really wanted to push it. You could show an episode or two and talk about storytelling across different mediums.

Further reading: The TARDIS Eruditorum, Philip Sandifer

The Female of the Species, Mindy McGinnisthe female of the species
**1/2

Summary: Another story about a teenage girl who doesn’t fit in at her school. In Alex’s case, there’s a good reason: Her older sister was raped and murdered, and she tortured and killed the man responsible. No one suspects her, and her sister’s death is only the first and most obvious injustice that Alex can fix. Told in alternating first-person POVs between Alex, Jack, the high school athlete who falls in love with her, and Peekay, the preacher’s daughter who becomes her new best friend, it’s ostensibly an examination of rape culture and revenge.

Overall impressions:This novel starts with two murders and a bag of dead puppies, so I wanted to like it. Edited down, there would probably be a compelling story in here. Alex is an intriguing character, as is Peekay, and to some degree Branley, Jack’s cheerleader ex. It had hints of being a vigilante murder mystery, but it’s bogged down by a complicated series of romantic subplots and an unsatisfying conclusion that felt like the author couldn’t come up with another way to end it or decided that it would be ethically wrong to have Alex get away with it.

In terms of prose, it’s probably the most well-written of the three; there are some genuinely great turns of phrase and metaphors.

I suppose I just wanted to read more teenage girls murdering rapists and taking care of abandoned animals and less romantic drama.

Criticism: Much of the character interaction makes no sense. It’s a small town, and yet Alex doesn’t know any of the names of the classmates she grew up with? Jack is a completely superfluous character; he could be cut out entirely and the story would be better for it. His sudden, out-of-the-blue crush on Alex makes only slightly more sense than Alex reciprocating it when she clearly has more important things on her mind. The friendship between Alex and Peekay makes much more sense—they have a reason to interact, and I would have liked to see that tentative, push-and-pull dynamic in the romantic relationship as well.

The pacing was terrible. I burned through the first few chapters, but the middle felt like a slog, with breakups and reconciliations and more breakups padding the narrative.

It aims at gritty, but falls short. We’re meant to feel catharsis through Alex’s vigilante killings, but she is far too guilty about them for them to be fun, and far too competent for them to be realistic. To cap it off, she’s rather abruptly killed at the end, and the message—likely inadvertently—is that rape culture is bad and women who stand up to patriarchal violence are heroes, but if you fight back too hard, you’ll end up dead.

Curricular tie-ins: The obvious topics would be gender and rape culture. You could look at the history of revenge narratives. Some readers have compared Alex’s character to Dexter; you could address how popular culture depicts violence and psychopathy.

Further reading: Love Is the Law, Nick Mamatas

Date: 2017-04-17 04:10 am (UTC)
ironed_orchid: pin up girl reading kant (Default)
From: [personal profile] ironed_orchid
With little explanation as to how two working parents living in a poor neighbourhood could afford to send three children to private school, they were then able to afford a house in the suburbs?

The school thing struck me straight away. It wouldn't be hard to have the parents show something about commitment to the neighbourhood out of sense of solidarity, until it impacted their kids too much...

I love your further reading recs.

Date: 2017-04-17 03:06 pm (UTC)
lapinlunaire: (Anna May Wong)
From: [personal profile] lapinlunaire
I mean, there are shitty private schools in the states and schools with scholarships but I think overall private schools are still expensive, considering where it's a place where you need to get into heavy debt just to go to college.

Date: 2017-04-17 03:08 pm (UTC)
lapinlunaire: Asta Nielsen looking your dream poet boyfriend because she's so perfect. (Die Asta)
From: [personal profile] lapinlunaire
None of these books sounds like my cup of tea, but thanks for the reviews. I'll look into the "does what each book does better" section ones, since I see it includes Love is the Law*. :D

* Isn't it technically considered YA? I feel like that would be a good rec too.

Date: 2017-04-17 07:52 pm (UTC)
lapinlunaire: (Garbo)
From: [personal profile] lapinlunaire
I would assign it if I were a teacher. SO THERE.

Date: 2017-04-17 09:25 pm (UTC)
lhrh37: (Default)
From: [personal profile] lhrh37
Extensive character appearance description in first person POV novels is a pet peeve of mine too.

Date: 2017-04-18 04:17 am (UTC)
minoanmiss: Nubian Minoan Lady (Nubian Minoan Lady)
From: [personal profile] minoanmiss
It's a peeve of mine too.

On being able to afford to send their kids to an expensive private school: i have some experience with this. Through a combination of a great deal of personal sacrifice on my parents' part* and scholarships awarded because 1) I was smart and 2) the school wanted to import some melanin, my parents sent me to an expensive boarding high school. They stayed in our home community because they have deep roots there -- church, fellow immigrants, also church, and did I mention church? -- and quite literally wasted spent the money they could have bought a house with on my education. But/and if they bought that house it would have been a sacrifice as well to leave their community (and they would have told me so, often and ad nauseam).

So the author could have made it plausible with a little world building. .

(Sorry for all the editing, I wanted this to look like a remotely intelligent person wrote it, even though my parents are quite clear that they Wasted all their money and effort they spent on me.)
Edited Date: 2017-04-18 04:19 am (UTC)

Date: 2017-04-18 04:57 pm (UTC)
minoanmiss: (Default)
From: [personal profile] minoanmiss
Oh huh, I thought they bought a house in a suburban Good School District so they could send the kids to suburban public school.

As they are presented I don't think they could do it (and see the American Mythos ridiculousness you noticed) but if the author had world built a bit more carefully they could have made it plausible, I think.

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