First of all, and I’m really tempted to capitalize it, The Boneshaker is a YALSA Best Book for Young Adults! (Look at that. I even managed to restrict myself to only one exclamation point. It was tough, I’ll tell you.)
Here’s the rest of the list, which contains my wonderful crit-mate Heidi Ayarbe’s Compromised as well as some other books I well and truly loved in 2010.
Another cool thing that happened to me last week was that I got to participate in a Children’s Literary Salon at the New York Public Library, along with Adam Gidwitz (A Tale Dark and Grimm) and Michael Teitelbaum (The Scary States of America). Betsy Bird acted as ace moderator for the panel, entitled Blood, Bones and Gore: Horror and the Modern Children’s Book. It was a ton of fun! I had already read A Tale Dark and Grimm (and LOVED IT. LOVED IT LOVED IT LOVED IT), and after hearing Michael Teitelbaum talk about The Scary States of America I went right out and picked it up. It will be my subway reading, starting tomorrow. I expect to love it just as much.
Oh, also, work is going swimmingly on The Broken Lands. I am pretty sure I am going to change the date the story takes place from 1883, when the Brooklyn Bridge was completed to 1877, when it was very definitely still in pieces. Why? Oh, so many very good reasons I think I’d better not spoil the surprise by sharing. Suffice to say some awesome stuff happens when I stick the story in 1877, and I think I like that stuff a lot.
Current research reading:
No, I did not make any of that up or embellish it. That’s literally what the front title page says.
That’s all for now. Happy (belated) New Year, everyone!
So far, not my most productive Christmas season ever. I guess I figured once I no longer had a full-time non-writing job, I would suddenly have All The Time In The World. Not so. Generally, in order to keep the insanity and stress of managing a retail store through the holidays from permanently altering my brain chemistry, I:
This year, I sent one of my best college friends a box that literally held two little gifts and a bottle of liquor, not wrapped at all and padded with–wait for it–plastic grocery store bags. Then I sent it to the wrong address. It has not surfaced, probably because it is too mortified to show up and be opened by its intended recipient. This was back in early November, and my holiday execution has pretty much gone downhill from there. Today I only managed to have breakfast because my friend Carrie sent me brownies a couple days ago. How do I have fewer obligations, fewer drains on my time, and yet somehow I am getting absolutely nothing done?
I suspect this is one of those things that just doesn’t have an answer. This year I think I just have to accept I am not a functioning adult. (This year, after all, I am a Professional Writer! Turns out that means more than just living out of pajamas and skilfully ignoring sinksful of dishes.)
Oh, well. Here’s hoping the two plum puddings still left in my fridge from last year (when, in October, I candied citrus peel, made homemade bread crumbs, and turned out no less than six plum puddings) have sufficient liquor in them to be edible on Saturday. I suspect they do. If there’s one thing I do right at the holidays, it’s sauce things with liquor. Anyhow, they’ll be steamed and set on fire before they’re eaten–that should kill any remaining microbes off. I think.
Happy holidays, everyone! May the insanity in your household be of the joyful kind.
It’s Nebula Time, and I have a vote to be informed about! That’s right, from now until February 15th, SFWA members get to cast their votes in support of their favorite SciFi and Fantasy works of 2010. Are you an SFWA member? Then get off your duff and start thinking about your ballot.
For those who don’t know, there are two rounds to the process. This first round, everybody nominates their favorites, and the six in each category (Short Story, Novella, Novelette, Novel, Screenplay, and Young Adult Novel) with the highest number of votes make it to the final ballot. Votes can be entered and even changed right up until the February 15th deadline. Then the second phase begins, where SFWA members read the finalists and cast a second round of votes.
Admittedly, I started this project way too late last time around, when my goal was simply to read all the finalists and blog about what I read (I did manage to get the reading done, but I didn’t manage to get my comments up on every category before the voting deadline). This year I am actually getting to cast a vote to help determine those finalists, and while I certainly can’t possibly read the entire field, I am going to use it as an excuse to get serious about catching up on my TBR pile, and maybe to occasionally remind anybody who cares that my book came out this year and is eligible for the Norton Award for YA lit. I would bat my eyelashes at you, but I have no makeup on and am just finishing my first cup of coffee and it wouldn’t have the effect I was looking for. I will, therefore, settle for tossing out the reminder and also pointing out that SFWA members can read the text free, along with the work of lots of other hopefuls, via the SFWA message boards. There. Self-indulgent message completed.
Books I’m really excited about reading? A Tale Dark and Grimm, by Adam Gidwitz. Sarah Beth Durst’s Enchanted Ivy. Paolo Bacigalupi’s National Book-nominated Shipbreaker, of course–although I suspect he won’t need my vote to make it to the finals, much like Megan Whelan Turner’s Conspiracy of Kings, which it’s about time I read, too. Cherie Priest’s Dreadnought. The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart by Mathias Malzieu, which I have to double-check the rules about (it hit the US market in 2010, which I think makes it eligible). China Mieville’s Kraken. The Dark Deeps by Arthur Slade. Ian McDonald’s Ares Express. That’s just off the top of my head. How many is that?
Books I’ve read this year that I loved? Jean-Christophe Valtat’s Aurorarama. Mistwood by Leah Cypess and Shade by Jeri Smith-Ready. Mockingjay, the final installment of the Hunger Games trilogy, which I also probably won’t vote for because, again, it’s not going to need my vote to place (which may be a crap way of doing things, but hey, it’s my vote, so deal with it). Monsters of Men, the final installment of Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy, which anybody who liked The Hunger Games should start reading immediately if not sooner. Bruiser, by Neal Shusterman. Matt Kirby’s The Clockwork Three. I’m resisting the urge to get up and check my bookshelves. I read so much good stuff this year.
And then there’s the short fiction. I am so bad at actually reading short fiction. I love it when I make the effort, but I will be the first one to admit I’m bad at making the effort. So it’s time to start making the effort. I would love to hear your suggestions about short stories, novellas, and novelettes to start my reading off with.
So welcome to Nebula Season, and the Informed Voter Project! I’ll be posting comments on my reading in the coming months, and would welcome your comments and suggestions. Happy holidays, and happy reading!
Since many if not most of my readers are old friends, many if not most of you know about my obsession with roadside attractions, small towns, and things old and weird and forgotten. For those of you who didn’t, consider yourself informed. For Thanksgiving, Nathan and I took our beloved little car, Faye Valentine, and drove to spend a few days with his folks in Missouri. We picked a couple places to stop along the way out and on the way back, and here they are!
Sunday, November 21: The Mercer Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Basically, there’s this castle in Bucks County and it’s full of early American ephemera. I mean, stuffed full. This is how I killed the battery in my camera, I think. Later I’ll put up a slideshow, but for now, this gives you the basic idea.
Monday, after much driving through the wilds of West Virginia with my husband experiencing the general freaked-outness of a Midwestern boy accustomed to flatlands when he is forced to spend hours getting through the mountains (where, to his horror, the speed limit is 70 and there are no guard rails), we wound up at the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Kentucky and took their “Hard Hat” tour. Nathan was in heaven.
After that, it was off to Louisville, where thanks to the amazing folks at RoadsideAmerica.com, I found this amazing yard to kill the rest of the camera battery with:
Again, slide show coming to give you a better sense of how cool it was, but basically both the front and back yards were just full of weird stuff–cigar store figures, a life-size (I guess) E.T. in a red phone booth, a few dinosaurs, King Kong, that kind of thing. Then we drove to Cave City, Kentucky, and made camp here for the night:
Tuesday we drove from Cave City to Hannibal, Missouri, stopping here and there along the way. On Wednesday, right before leaving the hotel to visit Mark Twain’s boyhood home, we got a phone call from my agent, Ann Behar–but more on that later.
From there it was on to Kansas City to spend Thanksgiving and the day after with Nathan’s folks. On the trip home, we made two stops (leaving out the assorted antique shops and flea markets I dragged Nathan to): Clairton, Pennsylvania, which has some very ghost-town like stretches of street dating from days when it was thriving, and Roadside America, the Attraction.
You can probably figure out which was which. By the way, Roadside America is on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, which, in certain areas, has geographical features like mountains in common with West Virginia. I found the drive beautiful, but this is what my husband had to say about it: ”If Frodo had to take the Pennsylvania Turnpike to get the ring to Mordor, it would’ve been a very different story.”
Oh, and that very exciting phone call I received in Hannibal? The Very Important Announcement? In 2012, Clarion will release the next installment of the story begun with The Boneshaker, which is currently going by the title The Broken Lands. I am very, very excited about this book–so excited that I think the news and the story merit a post of their own. Stay tuned for more information, but in the meantime, safe travels wherever the holidays take you, and don’t forget to stop for the weird stuff along the road.
I am a nerd for history and a nerd for weird stuff. I like the forgotten, I like the lost. I like things that have the feeling of the vaguely strange and secret. And I love, love, love my borough of Brooklyn, which has been home to me now for almost ten years. So this year for Halloween, Nathan and I decided to do something we’d been meaning to do for a while. We signed up for a tour of the world’s oldest subway tunnel, running under a stretch of Atlantic Avenue from Court Street to Henry Street. It was completed in 1844, relieved traffic along this (even back then) congested stretch of roadway with steam trains until 1859, and was sealed up two years later, but never demolished. The tunnel was re-discovered in 1981 by Bob Diamond, who conducts the tours. In its lost time, the tunnel did service sheltering bootleggers, pirates, even (according to less-likely legend) John Wilkes Booth, who, if you believe the conspiracy theories that have him escaping north to NYC and thence to freedom and a longer life than history books would have us believe, hid pages of his journal in an abandoned train in the tunnel that revealed the other conspirators in the Lincoln assassination.
So here we go!
First step: through a hole in the street.
We were told to bring flashlights, and this is why. At the bottom of the ladder is a little antechamber with a brick ceiling, well-lit. Then there’s a very small hole in the wall with stairs on the other side, also relatively well-lit.
After that, it looks like this.
Once you add in about a hundred people with flashlights and your eyes start to adjust, though, things are easier to see. By the end of the tour we could pretty well see where we were and what we were looking at.
There were two sets of tracks in the tunnel for steam trains. Below you can see where the railroad ties were on the south side of the tunnel (the wavy surface).
The ones on the north side are less-well defined because they were removed in order to fix the south tracks and their persistent snakehead problem. That’s right. Snakehead problem. Seems cast iron rails could warp in a seesaw motion, causing one end of the occasional iron bar to seesaw up as the other end was compressed and sending a piece of iron through the floor of the train and resulting in the potential for some gruesome occurrences. Snakehead problem.
This is the Henry Street end of the tunnel, which hasn’t yet been excavated. This is about the midpoint, so beyond this wall there are about six blocks of unexplored tunnel. Mr. Diamond suspects there is at least one abandoned train on the other side.
Then once again up the stairs…
…and up the ladder and out into the world.
The rest of my photos are below, for those who are curious and don’t mind indulging me as I attempt to get exposures in a dark space without a tripod.
If you’d like to see the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel for yourself, details and lots of more information and links are available at the Brooklyn Historic Rail Association’s tunnel website here. I highly recommend it.
It took me a little while to cool down after I read Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak. This was for a couple of reasons. The first was that Speak is the kind of book that makes you stop cold in your tracks. The second is that, several weeks after reading Wesley Scroggins’ op ed piece calling Speak (among other books) filthy and verging on soft-core porn, my anger had pretty much died down. Reading Speak with his comments in the back of my head, though, made me madder than a hornet all over again. Then, of course, having said that I was going to write this as a discussion rather than as a rebuttal, I had to wait for my anger to cool off. So here I am, finally ready to write my post. Fortunately, I’m pretty sure nobody’s been waiting around for it.
Speak is narrated by Melinda, a high-school freshman who begins her first year with all of her former friends–and just about everyone else in the student body–silently hating her for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. We eventually learn that during the summer, she called the cops on a party, and her new world will not forgive her. We learn, in bits and pieces, that Melinda called the cops not to call a halt to the teenage revelry, but because she was sexually assaulted by another one of the partygoers and did the first thing she could think of: she called 911. But she did this from the house, where she was caught in the act, so instead of getting help, Melinda became the girl who busted the party. Instant outcast. Nobody but Melinda and the perpetrator know about the assault, and Melinda carries her secret in silence.
We follow Melinda’s inner monologue throughout the year, watching her withdraw into herself, refusing to speak to her parents, cutting school–in essence, turning herself into that most difficult of creatures for parents/teachers/principals/friends to deal with: a really troubled kid who won’t talk about what’s troubling her. To be fair to Melinda, nobody, nobody asks the right questions. In fact, precious few of the people around her bother to ask anything at all. Isn’t it true that human nature seems to be to ignore what isn’t waved on a flag right in front of their faces? At least when it comes to interpersonal relationships? Plus, it’s so much easier to chalk weird teenage behavior up to the fact that…well, teens are just weird.
You might think that following Melinda’s train of thought as she becomes increasingly withdrawn, would be torture. Far, far from it. Melinda is a sharp, witty, hilarious. Example: her observations on her school cheerleaders (Jennie, Jen, Jenna, Ashley, Aubrey, Amber, Colleen, Kaitlin, Marcie, Donner, Blitzen, and Raven), in whose lives Melinda senses the work of a divine miracle:
There is no other explanation. How else could they sleep with the entire football team on Saturday night and be reincarnated as virginal goddesses on Monday? It’s as if they operate in two universes simultaneously. In one universe, they are gorgeous, straight-teethed, long-legged, wrapped in designer fashions, and given sports cars on their sixteenth birthdays. Teachers smile at them and grade them on the curve…In Universe #2, they throw parties wild enough to attract college students. They worship the stink of Eau de Jocque. They rent beach houses in Cancun during Spring Break and get group-rate abortions before the prom.
Okay, yes, I included that quote because Wesley Scroggins called it out specifically, implying that Speak endorses group-rate abortions. I hope it’s clear there’s disapproving sarcasm meant to be read into that, folks. Back to your regularly-scheduled post now.
In a happier story, some of Melinda’s observations on high school life would be laugh-0ut-loud funny–but of course, this isn’t meant to be a laugh riot, so we are left aching for this girl who has so much to say and yet will not speak up. Because she knows full well that nobody knows what she is going through–because she hasn’t told anyone–there is no self-pity, no whining about how nobody understands. Melinda withdraws and occasionally acts out (for example, cutting class to build a sanctuary in an unused janitor’s closet) not because she wants attention, but because she feels her best mode of survival is to disappear. Until, of course, something happens that forces her hand: the Beast, the popular kid who assaulted Melinda at the party, asks Rachel, one of Melinda’s ex-closest friends, to the senior prom. Even though Rachel has done nothing but ignore her all year, Melinda doesn’t want to see anyone else hurt, and it is this that finally pushes her to find ways to break her silence and crawl out of the shell she has built, which turns out not to be as simple as finding the courage to speak up.
I could not, could not put this book down. There are books that I cannot help but talk about once I’ve read them, and when I start talking, goosebumps come up on my arms and I start sounding inarticulate. This is one of those books, which is another reason this post took me so bloody long to write. Everyone should read it. Seriously, everyone. High school students should read it–there is the message about speaking up rather than building a shell of pain, and the message about taking note of each other’s pain and asking the right questions, even if they hurt, and messages about bullying and clicquishness, and even a rather beautiful note about how important it is to support arts in our high schools. Everyone should read it. There is so, so much to learn from Melinda. And–shocker–it’s even an entertaining book to read. Melinda’s voice is so wonderful, so funny and heartbreaking and true. Her sarcasm reminded me so much of one of my cousins I found myself having to remind myself that I was reading fiction from time to time.
So now, the daughter test. I haven’t got one, but someday I might. Would I let my daughter read this? What would I want her to learn from it? Yes, I would let her read it. Melinda is entering high school, so I’m thinking even tweens might find this important reading. What would I want her to learn from it? See above. See everything above. I’d want her to learn that no one, no one should suffer in silence. I’d want her to know that sometimes parents don’t see the obvious, even though they really should, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want to know. (There’s a really beautiful scene where Melinda almost tells her parents what happened to her because for Christmas they give her a sketchbook and charcoals because they have noticed her drawing. This single act of awareness brings tears to her eyes. And it brought some to mine, too.) But here’s the other thing: I think parents need to read this book, too. I think I learned as much from reading it as an adult as I would want my imaginary daughter to learn. If we want our children to speak, this is the kind of book that can help us find a common language.
As a final note, you can–and should–learn more about this book and its author at Laurie Halse Anderson’s website. One article I particularly like is this one, in which the author talks about a dedicated Twitter feed started by English teacher Paul Hankins to discuss the book’s banning. Speak loudly, friends.
I know, I know, Wednesday’s post on The Chocolate War was really long and super-involved. Don’t worry. I won’t put you through that again. As a quick refresher, this week I’m reading books chosen during Banned Books Week. Wednesday’s was chosen from the ALA’s lists of the top banned and challenged books of the last twenty years. Today’s was chosen because it was one of the books called out as “filthy” and equated with “soft-core pornography” by Wesley Scroggins’ op ed piece from two weeks ago in the Springfield Missouri News-Leader. Mr. Scroggins objected to Sarah Ockler’s Twenty Boy Summer being in the library on the grounds that it “glorifies drunken teen parties, where teen girls lose their clothes in games of strip beer pong. In this book, drunken teens end up on the beach where they use their condoms to have sex.” I had not read Twenty Boy Summer, so I picked a copy up and read it last night and this morning.
Now, as a reminder, I don’t tend to voluntarily read a ton of contemporary, realistic fiction. I like weird cities and bizarre worlds and bending reality. I’m not generally moved to pick up a book unless there’s an element of the uncanny to it. That said, I have stumbled into reasons to read a number of books outside my usual comfort zone in the last couple months and I’ve had reason to be grateful afterward (Bamboo People and The Last Summer of the Death Warriors pop immediately to mind). Twenty Boy Summer is another one I would probably never have picked up, but I’m so glad I did.
On Anna Rieley’s fifteenth birthday, her best friend Frankie’s brother Matt (who Anna has been in love with since she was ten) kisses her. For one month they keep their new (and, I should mention, very chaste) relationship secret, because Matt wants to be the one to tell his sister. Then Matt dies of a previously undiagnosed heart defect. Because Frankie still doesn’t know about Matt and Anna’s fledgling relationship, Anna keeps the secret. For a year the two girls mourn their respective losses, only superficially mourning together. Anna cannot bring herself to tell the secret, and Frankie slowly spirals out of control. Then Frankie’s family decides to try returning to their annual California trip, with Anna invited for the first time. Frankie’s grand plan for the trip is for the girls to meet twenty boys in the hopes that one of them will be the right guy to help Anna get rid of her “albatross”–her virginity (Frankie claims to have lost hers months before). Anna, who still writes letters to Matt in her journal and who (like the rest of the family) feels his presence everywhere, cannot imagine so much as kissing another boy. Then she meets Sam, and despite her best efforts to stay aloof, finds herself drawn to him.
Is it a book about sex? “Soft-core pornography” for teens? Nope. There’s sex in it, but it’s the most gently, gracefully rendered interaction I’ve ever read. It’s not about seduction or sensuality at all–it’s about the decision to have sex for the first time, not about the act. There is some wonderful discussion of the pressure Anna feels (even from her best friend) to shed her virginity–and I hope we all understand that teen girls really do feel that pressure. We see Frankie fling herself desperately at every male who pays attention to her (and Frankie, beautiful and desperate, gets plenty of attention). We see Anna disgusted with this behavior and refusing to involve herself with it. And then we see her fall slowly and reluctantly for Sam, who is so absolutely kind and patient that he winds up being the first person Anna speaks to honestly about Matt. If only every girl held out for her first time until she met someone who actually cared about her, actually engaged her in real conversations, and actually respected her–well, that would be a big step in the right direction. (And yes, Mr. Scroggins, they use condoms, thank goodness. Yes, there is a beach involved. No, they are not drunk. Settle down.)
But this is a book about friends and families, first and foremost. It’s about how friendships change, about how teens and families mourn, and about how what we choose to say (especially when it would be easier not to speak at all) can save us in the end, even if the act of speaking means more pain before things start getting better. It’s also a book about how to move on after the death of a loved one, a book that promises that you never truly lose those you have loved. I actually felt my eyes prickle a little at the end. I kind of hate to admit it, but there you go. It was lovely.
One of these days I’m going to have kids. As I read this book I tried to think of what might concern me if I was a parent rather than a writer. I think, were I to discuss this book with my daughter, I would want to talk about the teenagerish stuff the girls get up to and discuss how lucky the girls were that nothing went horribly wrong as a result. There is some sneaking around, there is some light smoking and drinking, and there is a lot of flirting with strangers, and I would feel like giving a basic “this is not behavior I approve of” speech. But none of it is glamorized, and most of it is done by Frankie, who is so obviously out of control that Anna spends a good amount of time trying to protect her. I think it’s made abundantly clear that one of them is on a downward spiral, and that her behavior is potentially dangerous. But, being a parent, I would probably want to make sure my daughter didn’t miss the point. On the other hand, I think she’d have to be pretty stupid not to. And there is plenty that I would be very glad to have my daughter discover in this book: things about friendship, about how families can fracture and come together again, about how the memories of our loved ones stay with us forever but must not keep us from living.
Last week, inspired by the great discussions about banned books that were taking place out there on the intertubes, I decided it was time to read me some subversive literature. I picked three titles, one from the ALA’s top ten lists of banned and challenged books and two from an op ed piece written the week before that really ticked me off. Today I read the first of my picks, The Chocolate War. Now my head hurts worse than it did this morning, and for context I woke up very, very hungover (public service announcement: even at age 33, too much wine is too much wine). It took an entire pint of espresso ice cream to make the hurting stop. On the other hand, having read Robert Cormier before, I pretty much knew what I was getting into.
My previous experiences with Cormier both hurt: I Am the Cheese and The Rag and Bone Shop. I read each one in a single sitting and then passed each one on to someone else. They are totally different stories, but they have certain things in common: they are both cautionary tales, deep and unsettling warnings. They are pessimistic. They portray teens at the mercy of adults at a time in their lives when they lack the awareness and confidence to know how to stand up to the grown-up aggressors in their lives. Cormier’s teens are not the feisty, scrappily resourceful kids that readers encounter in current YA. Cormier’s teens are everyday kids. They could be anyone, the kid upstairs, the kid down the street, or the kid you were at fourteen. In fact, having read three of his books now, I’m pretty sure the protagonists are pretty much interchangeable. The point is how they are manipulated, and the horrors that result. The kids could be anyone, because the point is that these things could happen to any kid at all. Unfortunately, Cormier knows that most kids, put into the situations he puts them into, will lose. The only hope is not to get into the situation in the first place. So, with that uplifting stuff in mind, let’s talk about The Chocolate War.
The Chocolate War was written in 1974, and more than 30 years later it’s still controversial. According to the ALA, it was the fourth most challenged book of the decade 1990-1999 and the third most challenged book of 2000-2009 due to offensive language, sexual content, violence, nudity, religious viewpoint, and the popular but nebulous unsuited to age group. Many negative reviewers on Amazon said they thought teens should not be asked to read this book because they understood the message to be, conform–that no good comes of rocking the boat.
The plot goes this way: Jerry Renault is a freshman at a Catholic prep school. The teachers turn a blind eye to the secret society called the Vigils, who harass the student body by giving “assignments,” very involved pranks which non-Vigil students are expected to complete or else. Brother Leon, the calculating, manipulative algebra teacher, enlists the help of the Vigil’s Assigner, Archie Costello, to make sure the school’s annual chocolate fundraiser doubles the previous year’s sales. At the same time, the Vigils assign Jerry the task of refusing to participate in the sale for the first ten days, which he does. The trouble is, when the ten days are up, he continues to refuse, for reasons he himself cannot articulate. At first the students, all of whom hate Brother Leon and are sick of the year-round fundraisers, cheer him on. But when chocolate sales begin to drop, the Vigils get involved again and turn the entire school against Jerry, with violent consequences.
I understand why people have problems with this book. I also can’t really say I recommend this book, but for one very subjective reason. I just didn’t like the writing. It’s the best example of bad use of multiple points of view I’ve ever encountered. It puts us in the heads of characters for entirely unnecessary reasons. Without digressions about Kevin and Danny, Tubs and Howie, the book would probably have dropped a flabby twenty pages without breaking a sweat, and that alone would’ve been a substantial improvement. It dwells obnoxiously on boys obsessing obnoxiously about girls and has several (imho) entirely unnecessary references to masturbation. I can only imagine that this was Cormier’s effort to put himself back into the head of a boy in his early teens (he was fifty when The Chocolate War was published), but it just made me roll my eyes. Cormier is great at evoking the self-doubt and despair of his young characters, which I think evokes the internal world of teens much better than a million references to masturbation and how a girl’s breasts bounce under a sweater (although, not ever having been a teen boy, maybe I’m wrong). The unnecessary and the obnoxious aside, from a story perspective, I also take a little bit of an issue with the fact that Jerry’s rebellion begins by following the instructions of the Vigils and continues afterward for unspecified reasons. Jerry himself doesn’t know why he does it, and never seems to come to any realization other than dimly to have a wish to disturb the universe. Now, I could easily buy a kid doing something and not being sure why, and then sticking to it because going forward is easier somehow than going back. I could also well understand the dim wish to disturb the universe, especially given Jerry’s vague despair at the idea that adulthood means winding up living the disaffected life his father leads. I would actually have found the latter very compelling, if Jerry hadn’t initially refused to participate only because the Vigils told him to. It’s kinda hard to get behind a rebellion when it begins with following bad orders and lacks any kind of conviction.
Here’s my biggest complaint, though. I just don’t think the author succeeded in getting his message across. I don’t think Cormier wrote this book intending the message to be conform, but I can see why people read it that way–and a lot of people do. I also don’t think the message was, kids, do your own thing like Jerry does. I think the intended audience isn’t the potential iconoclastic kids of the world, but their peers and classmates–the kids who have the option of speaking up when they see injustice or allowing themselves to be manipulated by their own fears into silence or worse. But I don’t think that’s remotely clear in the text. Which is maybe the best argument for this book being used in a classroom setting, where discussion can help tease out that message. One voice of reason can be enough to break the momentum of a mindless mob and inspire others to speak up, too.
What about the rest of it?
Nudity? Can’t remember any actual nudity. Sexual situations…meh. Despite my complaints, they’re pretty tame. I don’t think there’s a single character in the book that’s actually sexually active. Self-abuse references–and by the way, we are mercifully not asked to read about any, shall we say, completed acts–and one kid speculating that his girlfriend might let him “get under her sweater” on her birthday. Color me shocked. Maybe it feels more gratuitous than it would be otherwise because it also feels so unnecessary? I don’t know. It’s lame, but it’s hardly explicit.
Offensive language…honestly, less than five hours after finishing the book I honestly can’t remember any offensive language. The phrase “jacking off” is used, and “goddam” at least once, but other than that I really don’t remember anything. Violence? Oh, my, yes. At the end. But even that’s not terribly horrifying–it’s doesn’t touch, for instance, any of the horrific scenes in Lord of the Flies. More importantly, I think the descent into violence made sense from a story perspective, so I give it a pass.
Religious viewpoint: well, it’s a Catholic high school with at least one truly awful brother teaching algebra, a man who displays some shockingly non-Christian behavior. Archie gives a little speech at the beginning in which he calls Jesus “a guy who walked the earth for thirty-three years like any other guy but caught the attention of some PR cats.” And there are those pesky references to a certain sin that involves spilling certain bodily fluids. Meh. Whatever.
So, my entirely subjective verdict? It’s disturbing on a number of levels and presents its story more or less without hope. As far as I’m concerned, the best argument against this book’s being used in a classroom is the sub-par writing. I wish The Chocolate War was as lean and mean as either of the other two Cormier books I’ve read, because I think it would’ve been a much more powerful book, but I do think there’s an important message in there, one teens can benefit from. You’ve just got to get past the distracting stuff, all of which, distracting though it is, is pretty tame by any but Victorian standards.
So I concede flabby writing, unnecessary obnoxiousness, and unclear message, but does that really justify this being the 3.5th most-challenged book of the last twenty years? Seems a little silly to me. What are your thoughts?
It’s Banned Books Week! Wooohooo! Because I do like the fact that we take a week to discuss banned and challenged books, here goes me. I thought I’d pick a few frequently banned or challenged books that I haven’t read before and see what the horror is all about. Results to come in a Subway Literature post next week.
My first stop was to the American Library Association’s Banned and Challenged Books resource pages. There’s a great little section where you can see the most-challenged books by year as reported to the ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom. There’s also a page listing banned and challenged classics. From these pages I picked The Chocolate War (Robert Cormier), firstly because I like Cormier but I’ve never read The Chocolate War, and secondly, because this book, first published in 1974, was one of the most-challenged books seven of the last nine years.
The second and third books I picked were Speak (Laurie Halse Anderson) and Twenty Boy Summer (Sarah Ockler). This is why.
Last week I wrote a post over at the Enchanted Inkpot called Not Recommended for Younger Readers. I wasn’t really talking about banned books, just the frequent disparity between much of what’s written for kids and what many adults think kids should actually be writing and/or thinking about.
Last week, somebody else wrote a blog post, too. If you’re involved in the kidlit social media world, you’ve already read Wesley Scroggins’ post in the Springfield, Missouri News-Leader calling for the removal of (among other books and topics) Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, and Sarah Ockler’s Twenty Boy Summer from the curriculum of Republic schools on the grounds that they are “filthy” and “should be classified as soft-core pornography.” I’ve read (and loved) Slaughterhouse-Five, but it was his comments about Speak that really incensed me–but that was more because I already knew what it was about than because I’d, you know, read it. I decided if I really wanted to rant, I’d better read the books first so that I could comment in an informed fashion. If you haven’t already read the post, just go read it. I don’t have time to dignify the comments of a man who calls a book encouraging teen rape victims to speak up as filthy, or phrases his article in such a way to allow the reader to conclude that he just might be referring to this same book as qualifying as soft-core porn. I’d rather just read the books and tell you about them, not as a rebuttal to Mr. Scroggins, but as (hopefully) objective and thoughtful reviews.
Okay, I tried to end the post there and I can’t do it. Mr. Scroggins, I am disgusted. I almost care less that you seem to think you should be able to decide what every child in your district reads (although I really, really hate that) than the fact that you would dare to suggest that a book encouraging rape victims to find their voices and seek help is in any way filthy or pornographic. Frankly, I find that horrifying on many levels, but let’s just start with this: rape victims do not need to be told that their experiences are filthy or pornographic. They do not need to be told that people should not be hearing or talking or thinking about them. And whether it was your intention or not, regardless of what your op ed piece says about the state of education or the books in the curriculum, it also says books and discussion of rape are filthy and pornographic. Way to go, Mr. Scroggins. There are uncounted thousands of people out there, suffering in silence, who need to believe what they’ve experienced isn’t their fault and doesn’t make them dirty or less of a human. They need to believe that they won’t be judged if they come forward and get the help that they need. And you just told them to shut up.
I get that open debate is the natural antidote to censorship, but I’m going to say this anyway, because I want to:
How about this. You shut up.
Every time I go on a long drive without my husband (who prefers, when faced with an eleven hour plus drive, not to extend it by four more hours), I pick some weird detours and a couple dive restaurants and try to get out the door that morning before ten to better my chances of making it to all of them. But every time, I leave later than I plan, I try to fit too much in, and I get there (wherever my final destination is) far later than any sane person would find reasonable. I always have a great time, though. This time I failed to make it to any of my planned stops. I didn’t get to a single one. But there were beautiful September days for driving both ways and no need to hurry, and really, that’s enough for me. I like to drive with the windows open, so that I can smell and taste the air changing.
Disclaimer: this is not a post with a point. While I drive, I keep a notebook open on the seat next to me with a pen clipped to it, so that I can scrawl notes when I need to. What follows is what was going through my head, or rather, it’s what sense I could make of those notes, things I wrote without looking while trying to stay in my lane. I make no claims about its interest or relevance to anybody else. I’m not even going to bother editing it much.
Monday, on the road. The plan is to make it to Virginia Beach in time to photograph something cool in a park before the sun goes down, hit a restaurant I found in Roadfood, then arrive in Topsail, North Carolina, where I will be vacationing with my best friend and her family, sometime around midnight. I got off of 95 in New Castle, Delaware (where, if you are so inclined, you can look off to the right as you come off the Delaware Memorial Bridge and see the huge stainless steel virgin Mary out front at the Holy Spirit Catholic Church—roadside stuff, wooooo!), then proceeded to drive alongside a set of railroad tracks for hours. I mean hours, down through Delaware and into Maryland, then into Virginia, through the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel and ultimately into North Carolina (after arriving at the park in Virginia Beach at sunset, too late to hike to the location I wanted to photograph).
But never mind that. Right now, I am still driving alongside the railroad tracks, possibly on the Charles M. Lankford Memorial Highway, and abruptly I realize I am driving through familiar territory. Not that I’ve been here before (although maybe I have; the mid-Atlantic is not all that big a world), but this is the kind of landscape I grew up in. I was born near Virginia Beach, and right before my little sister was born we moved to Riva, outside of Annapolis. Riva is no longer as rural as it used to be, back when my school bus drove past open fields of corn or (yes, really) grazing llamas. There used to be a little, dirt-paved airport with little planes lined up, and across a gravel road from it was a huge barn where, in season, you could see giant masses of tobacco hung inside to cure. All those little farms are gone now, have been for ages; now they are housing developments. But here on Lankford, the farms still line the roads. There are busted barns, still standing, it seems, only through the good graces of weedy trees and ivy. There are rusted tractors, the chassis of an old truck or two, sometimes forgotten, sometimes decorative. There are listing farm stands with hand-lettered signs, small businesses (hair salons, florists, pet groomers, handcrafted gift shops) with Klever Kountry Names. Every now and again, with the windows open and the air streaming in, I catch a particular smell, half cut-grass, half mechanical (I think)—I don’t really know what it is, but weirdly it takes me back to this novelty store that used to be in the strip mall a couple miles from my childhood house with our local grocery and hardware stores and a consignment shop where I once bought a teddy bear. This novelty shop was the kind of place where you could buy a rose in a glitter-filled globe of water for Valentine’s day, and for Halloween they had these little sticks of greasepaint that I remember having that same smell.
Saturday. On the way home, I manage to convince the GPS that I don’t want to take 95 back to New York, and I find myself taking the same route in reverse. I pass fields of cotton, roadside businesses selling prefabricated housing, listing farm stands that in North Carolina advertise peanuts and fireworks (always with yellow signs—why is that?). North of the Bay Bridge Tunnel, peanuts give way to pumpkins and yet more fireworks, cotton fields give way to yellowing tobacco plants. I stop at “award-winning” Stingray’s for food and to change into a shirt that covers my sunburned shoulders. I am still too far south for what I consider to be the optimal crabcake, but I’m far enough north to take a chance, and even if it isn’t lumpy enough for my very high grew-up-in-Annapolis standards, it’s good, and the place feels just enough like a roadside dive (it is, after all, both a restaurant and a gas station) to make me feel better about missing every pit stop I’d intended to make. I still want to stop and photograph every crumbling, abandoned house I pass, but I keep driving, trying to convince myself that it’s enough that I’ve seen even if I can’t stop to take a picture of the late afternoon light falling through the damaged roofs. Nathan is waiting for me at home, after all, and it will be a miracle if I find parking.