Monthly Archives: October 2013

“Will” Power

Let’s talk about Will. For whatever reason, a surprising number of cute male characters in YA bear the name Will. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, Elizabeth Scott’s Perfect You, Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising sequence. And of course longtime BookEnders know I would never leave out Will from Melina Marchetta’s Saving Francesca and The Piper’s Son. Maybe it’s some deep-rooted nostalgic fondness for the Will I maintained a misguided, quite unrequited crush on throughout my high school years. Maybe it’s just a coincidence that so many of my favorite YA boys share a moniker. Or maybe authors and I love it because it’s more than a name or a love interest, it’s a tense. The promise of a future. Will.

If that’s the case, then it’s the perfect fit for Maria Boyd’s young adult novel, Will. Its titular protagonist, Will Armstrong, has made an art form of never quite capitalizing on his potential. But since his home life took a turn for a worse last December, he’s gone from St. Andrews’ well-respected slacker to the kid who can’t help pushing things too far. When he takes it upon himself to moon a busful of girls from Lakeside, the nearby girls’ school, his teachers decide to get creative with their punishment.

Although he’s spent years avoiding the stigma of associating with the school band, he is sentenced to play in it for a full two months while St. Andrews and Lakeside mount a joint production of 1953 musical, The Boy Friend. Though he longs for a return to normal life, eventually the company of Year Seven outcast, Zachariah, new kid and male lead in the musical, Mark, and leading actress, Elizabeth, have him starting toward a new normal. But how long can he keep it together now that a single misstep spells expulsion, and worse, no one will leave him alone?

I’d definitely recommend this to fans of Melina Marchetta’s Saving Francesca. It deals with many of the same topics – family, grief, deciding whether to blend in or stand out – in a way that is equally honest, funny, and best of all, unpatronizing. Not to mention both are set in Sydney area boys’ schools. Will also reminded me a lot of Andrew Smith’s Winger as well, probably due to the similarities between supporting characters Mark (Will) and Joey (Winger), as well as their protagonists’ tendency to take action before thinking about the consequences.

Will wasn’t technically perfect. The dialogue could be confusing sometimes, since there were never any speech tags and characters’ lines weren’t situated in a way that always made it clear. I thought a few of the secondary characters could have been consolidated, since there were quite a few of them and some served overlapping purposes. I was torn between a four and five star rating. But I went for the full five because it had that spark. The one that keeps you up until four in the morning, even though you promised yourself you’d “just read the first chapter or two.” The unquantifiable something that makes you cry in that painful way where your chest hurts because you can’t quite breathe, and the only thing left to do is keep reading.

Although Will was released in 2010, I honestly hadn’t even heard of it in passing before now. Perhaps like many other Aussie YA books, it simply hasn’t received as much publicity or marketing in the U.S. I stumbled across it when playing around with the subject headings for The Piper’s Son on the Seattle Public Library’s online catalog. Nonetheless, it was a wonderful debut from Boyd, and I sincerely hope to see more from her soon. In the meantime – Will Armstrong reinforces my love for the Wills of the world – well, those of the fictional variety, anyway. And you, my dear BookEnders, are left with one last question – Will you or won’t you?

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Reader’s Block

It’s impossible to get a degree in creative writing without hearing the phrase “writer’s block” approximately 10 bajillion times. After constant discussion of it, I’ve come to the conclusion that writer’s block is kind of like Santa Claus – he sneaks into your house in the middle of the night, distracts you with shiny new playthings, and you run out of cookies a lot faster when he’s around. Most of all , the older I get, the less I believe in his existence. Nevertheless, he’s in so many stories and ringing bells on so many street corners, it’s hard to escape the idea of him. He might as well be real.

See? Lying in wait, always watching for any moments of weakness. Photo from here.

This post is not about writer’s block or Christmas (or my weakness for creating increasingly labored metaphors). It’s about a phenomenon I personally have never heard discussed, but have experienced several times. It’s like Santa Claus’ evil twin, the one who secretly goes around punishing those on the Naughty List and suppressing all the elf uprisings. Every now and then, I find myself locked in a fierce battle with him: reader’s block.

I first encountered him when I was eight and several chapters into Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. There was a creepy disembodied voice only Harry could hear and students were being attacked every which way. Simply put, I was so scared for Harry, Ron, and Hermione* that I couldn’t read on for several weeks. My father had been reading the book at the same rate and I eventually had to let him read ahead of me, a tremendous blow to my childhood pride.

Fast forward twelve years and The Book Thief, once I finally started it, nearly drove me to a complete reader’s block relapse. I generally read a lot like I eat – not necessarily fast, but singlemindedly. While I usually finish a book like The Book Thief in a sitting or two, it took me a month. The book was set in Germany during World War II, centered around a family who harbors a Jewish acquaintance in their basement. I could only read it in bits and pieces, a sense of familiar dread growing as I couldn’t help getting more and more emotionally attached to the characters.


Trailer for The Book Thief‘s upcoming movie!

Why do I bring it up now? Because almost a month after the release of Battle Magic, a new book by one of my favorite authors of all time, I’m only halfway in. I haven’t touched it in weeks… I’m never “in the right mood.” Battle Magic is a novel set in between already-released books in Tamora Pierce’s Circle universe. From reading the The Will of the Empress, I know that this story is about the time that Briar, Rosethorn, and Evvy – characters I know and love – get caught in the middle of a war. I know the experiences they have in Battle Magic are enough to give them all nightmares and PTSD.** As much as I love Pierce’s writing, it’s hard for me to know that these characters, who I think about like I do my own friends, are about to go through something so horrible.

It makes me wonder what it’s like for a writer to do something like that to her characters. You have to, or else there’s no story. You have to know them, and you have to make them suffer. You may not always have to kill your darlings, but you always have to at least torture them a little. I’ve never gotten to that point in my own fiction writing. With short stories, I feel like I always catch my characters before they hit rock bottom. I write a lot more poetry, usually, a different beast entirely. And with creative nonfiction, well, it’s writing down the things that have already happened. Though there’s still that same impulse to try and protect my characters.

Which books have you gotten stuck on? Any advice you have for getting yourself to move past it?

*Which I then read as “Hermy-own,” which my entire family persisted on until Goblet of Fire set us straight. I also read Neville as “Neh-veal,” a pronunciation I’ve never heard of anyone else ever using.

**Not spoilers, by the way. This emerges very early on in The Will of the Empress, and doesn’t give anything away about the earlier books in the series.

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Mental Health Awareness Week

Hello BookEnders! I know I updated only a few days ago. But I was just scrolling through my tumblr dashboard, and in the midst of all the gifs and quotes and articles about reading and writing and librarianing, one stood out for a moment. “I’ve decided to pick three books for #read for mental health week.”

"I decided to pick three books for mental health week." Original post here: http://iwouldratherbereading.tumblr.com/post/63400696540/i-decided-to-pick-three-books-for-read-for-mental

Click here for the original post.

I haven’t read all three of the books in that post. I’ve been meaning to read The Bell Jar for ages, hadn’t heard of I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, but loved It’s Kind of a Funny Story. First, I had to look up when Mental Health Awareness week even is (for 2013, it’s October 6th through the 12th). Mental Health Day itself is coming up on Thursday, October 10th. There’s something a little sad about becoming aware that you were unaware of mental health awareness.

But although I didn’t know there was a special week or day designated to mental health awareness, it’s a topic that’s been on my mind a lot this past year. And while I won’t go into details, I have a lot of people in my life who’ve dealt (and are still dealing) with mental illness in one form or another. And I include myself in that group.

That’s something I’m hesitant to admit on this blog – probably because we’re socially conditioned to view mental illness as some kind of shameful secret, a sign of weakness. But to me, it seems like another unavoidable part of the human condition. Like with physical illness, some of us just get sick for a little while; others face more chronic conditions. We get better and we relapse – and (hopefully) we get better again.

I’m not qualified to talk about mental illness beyond what I’ve learned from my own experiences and that of my friends and family. And it’s often hard to know what to say when you’re not sure how (or if) you can help someone you love. But I always know how to talk about books. So, taking my cue from the above tumblr post, here’s a few books I’d recommend for mental health awareness week.

1)      Saving Francesca, by Melina Marchetta – There are dozens (perhaps hundreds) of reasons to love this book. One of them is its exploration of depression and its effects on an entire family. The story starts when Mia Spinelli – driving force of the Spinelli family and mother to sixteen-year-old protagonist Francesca – can’t get out of bed. Although Mia’s major depression drives the larger storyline, her depression is reflected in Francesca’s life, as well. I think it generally gives a really complex look into what depression means for different people.

Quote from Saving Francesca:

The depression belongs to all of us. I think of the family down the road whose mother was having a baby and they went around the neighborhood saying, “We’re pregnant.” I want to go around the neighborhood saying, “We’re depressed.” If my mum can’t get out of bed in the morning, all of us feel the same. Her silence has become ours, and it’s eating us alive.

2)      The Nature of Jade, by Deb Caletti – In this novel, high school senior, Jade, begins to pursue her interests – such as volunteering in the elephant house at the local zoo – in spite of the anxiety and panic attacks from which she suffers. I especially love this book now, because a) it’s set in Seattle and b) it helps me feel close to the friend who recommended it to me, although she is pretty far away geographically. If you have a hankering to read about elephants, Seattle, or a smart, funny girl who happens to have anxiety, check this one out.

Quote from The Nature of Jade:

I am not my illness. “Girl with Anxiety,” “Trauma of the Week” — no. I hate stuff like that. Everyone, everyone has their issue. But the one thing my illness did make me realize is how necessary it is to ignore the dangers of living in order to live. And how much trouble you can get into if you can’t.

3)      It’s Kind of a Funny Story, by Ned Vizzini – I know that the post above includes this novel, but I have to second it. Craig Gilner is an overachiever determined to get into the prestigious “Executive Pre-Professional” school of Manhattan. The only problem – he’s not sure how to cope once he’s actually there. Craig enters a downward spiral that brings him into a mental hospital, where he meets others suffering from mental illness in one form or another. There, he learns not only why he’s there – but what happens once he gets out. It’s sad, it’s honest, but most of all – well, kind of a funny story.

Quote from It’s Kind of a Funny Story:

“I’m going to be here until I’m cured?”
“Life is not cured, Mr. Gilner. Life is managed.”

I know I always say this at the end of blog posts, but I would truly love for readers to add to the discussion in comments; what books have contributed to your understanding of mental illness? This is by no means a comprehensive list, just a few books that have stood out for me. In the meantime, make sure to do your best in supporting those in your life struggling with mental illness – this week, or any other time of the year.

National Institute of Mental Health’s Website – This site provides a pretty broad array of different resources and information. If you have any other resources to share, please leave them in the comments.

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Sorting in YA Lit

Next week in class (“The Life Cycle of Information”), I’ll be leading a discussion on how influences such as culture and language shape the frameworks through which we organize information. It relates strongly to the human impulse to categorize. Our entire thought processes tend revolve around putting “like with like.” I think this partially explains why people sometimes have trouble accepting people or ideas that exist within more than one existing category, or outside of the established categories altogether.

The reading and my preparation for the discussion got me thinking about some wildly popular young adult books, and how they include “sorting.” Harry Potter* is the obvious example. In the first book, each new Hogwarts student goes through a public sorting ceremony, which places him or her in one of four houses. Each house has a particular set of attributes. Similarly, in Veronica Roth’s dystopian YA novel, Divergent, all of society is based on five different factions (Abegnation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless, and Erudite) to which people can belong. Again, each faction draws a different kind of person. Even with The Hunger Games, there’s the divide between the (tyrannical) Capitol and the twelve Districts it rules. And each District has its own distinct culture.


The trailer for the upcoming movie version of Divergent. It doesn’t come out until 2014, but luckily the third installment in the trilogy (Allegiant) comes out in only a few weeks.

What interests me most is not so much the existence of these different sorting systems in the books (though I think it’s fascinating how both Divergent and Harry Potter both take on the limitations and problems caused by having such fixed social categories). I’m more curious about the way fan culture incorporates these aspects of the books. When WB debuted the interactive online reading experience, Pottermore, one of the most discussed features was its official** sorting quiz. I personally had somewhat of an existential crisis when it placed me in Slytherin, the house known for its members’ evil cunning and ambition. After months of internal struggle, I came to the conclusion that the quiz did not take into account my strong rejection of Slytherin’s trademark traits, and thus I consider myself a Ravenclaw.


This song and video really captures the depth of fans’ attachments to their Hogwarts houses for me.

Likewise, many tumblr posts, fanart and quizzes are dedicated to studying the faction system within Divergent. In fact, before I even read the book, I kept seeing different posts about these mysterious “factions.” Curious about which one I would fall into, I finally read the book. Similarly with The Hunger Games, there’s a wealth of quizzes about which districts people are most suited for. Again, it’s to a lesser extent as residence in each District is a matter of dictatorship rather than personal choice. But I still find it intriguing that all three of these bestselling series incorporate worlds where people live in formally defined categories.

It reminds me of something one of my favorite musicians, Alex Carpenter (see above), said in a recent video blog he did about rivalry.

“We’re saying to someone, ‘Hey. We both like the same thing, pretty much. We both like this sport, or this book, but we’re going to create a division within that just so we can yell at each other and pretend that we don’t like the same thing.’”

This brings me back to the reading I’ve been doing for class, and the way we seem to instinctively categorize and subcategorize both ourselves and the world around us. There are people who like books, and within that, people who like certain types of books (fantasy, dystopian, young adult, etc.), even people who like specific series. But within that already pretty specific category, it keeps on dividing. Into people who sort themselves one way or another.

Do you have any other examples of popular series that have the attraction of sorting? If you have your own sorting story, share it in the comments!

NOTES:

*Harry Potter is a bit ambiguous in terms of it’s designated reader age. It’s a children’s book series with some very adult themes and crossover appeal. I DON’T KNOW WHICH CATEGORY TO PUT IT IN. But since its protagonists are teenagers and many young adults read it, I’ll include it.

**J.K. Rowling herself approved and tested it, which gave it much more authority than if it was just a quiz WB had created without her input.

 

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