Great Storytelling: The Perfectly Constructed YA Novel

Meg Medina’s Burn, Baby, Burn is an example of great storytelling. This didn’t surprise me as I’d loved Medina’s Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass. I’d recommend Burn to any teen looking for a good read. I’d also recommend it to any writer looking for an example of a perfectly-constructed novel. It’s a particularly good choice right now because the world Medina recreates has many of the same issues we struggle with today. 

Francis Bacon pin
Burn, Baby, Burn is a book to be digested. Note: Medina mentions that Nora and her best friend, Kathleen, collect buttons with slogans. During the period that the book takes place, I also collected and wore buttons. I thought it would be fun to bring out a few that remind me of the book and of Nora, because they fit the ideas and themes of the book.

Great Storytelling

Burn has great characters, plotting, and pacing. Medina achieves this trifecta by creating a sort of Venn diagram of three overlapping problem areas, each with stakes for the protagonist, Nora López. While most writers introduce these three problem areas—societal, close-to-home, and romantic—Medina maintains the stakes for the protagonist in all three areas throughout. Her ability to keep each one in the foreground throughout the novel assures that all the important characters are well developed. Plotting and pacing rely on this balancing act, so when done well, the story moves as it should. 

No Disco pins
Nora is a big fan of disco music and dancing. It looks like I had a different opinion on that.

Nora is a high school senior living in Queens (New York City) during the spring and summer of 1977. That’s a tough place to be at that time. The city appears to be on fire with frequent arson and blackout incidents, followed by looting. There is constant heat and racial tension. A serial killer is on the loose and targeting young girls. In addition, Nora is shouldering too much responsibility for her dysfunctional family. She hopes that turning eighteen and getting out on her own will be the answer to her problems. She and her best friend, Kathleen, budding feminists, want to be free to dance and fantasize about the deceased TV star Freddie Prinze. But Nora is adrift about future plans and has very little money, despite having a part-time job at the local deli. Her first experience in love was a disaster. But when Nora meets Pablo, a new coworker at the deli, she is smitten. However, Nora is unable to share her family troubles with either Kathleen or Pablo, as this feels like an act of betrayal. Her silence creates distance from those she needs most.

Societal Problems

Chaos pin
The intersection of the three problem areas show a chaotic world, one the author must resolve.

An infamous serial killer known as ‘Son of Sam’ was on the loose in New York City for the year in which the novel takes place. Nora and Kathleen, as well as Kathleen’s parents, are afraid every time the teens leave the house because Son of Sam kills young girls. The girls’ fears intersect with their dating lives: Son of Sam kills couples who are making out in cars. Nora continually has this in mind: 

“I think sheepishly of Mima [Nora’s mom], who always tells me not to walk this way alone, especially not at night. A thousand times she’s warned me, and I always sneer at her dramatic lectures about this patch of weeds and broken glass, about the dark corners where a girl could be pushed, dragged off to the dead end, and then God Knows What. It has always seemed so stupid, so Mima. But now . . .”

Though plainclothes police women hang around the neighborhood, Nora doesn’t feel any safer. “Fake lures don’t fool the prize fish you’re trying to catch. It’s always the real worm, hopelessly writhing on the hook, that draws what you want from the dark.”

Close-to-home Problems

Nora’s close problems center on family life with Mima and Hector, Nora’s brother. Equally important is her father, Papi, who is utterly outside her family life.

Nora lives with her mother and her brother Hector in their small apartment in Queens. Nora shares a bedroom with Hector. Yet her father lives with his new wife and new son in a high rise with a doorman–in greater safety than his first family. He rarely speaks to his older kids and is often late in paying their rent. Meanwhile, the son he has with his new wife goes to “private kindergarten for geniuses.” Even though he ignores his older kids, everyone tiptoes around him. Nora’s mom never speaks to him but commandeers Nora’s mediation. 

Nora’s mother and father expect her to be the adult, constantly taking care of the family’s problems.

“My parents haven’t spoken directly since the day they signed their divorce papers. Guess who’s their messenger pigeon?”

Papi says over and over that rent checks are lost in the mail. Nora pretends to believe him. Papi has no idea how anything is going including Hector’s bad and even criminal behaviors at school and at home. Meanwhile, Nora’s relationship with her mother is complicated by the silence surrounding Hector’s problems and Mima’s endless judgment of Nora.

“Hector snaps like one of his lighters. His cheeks go blotchy, and he shoves past me into the entry hall, where Mima’s purse hangs in the coat closet. He grabs it and digs inside, tossing out her eyeglass case, her pens, her citizenship card, used tissues. ‘¡Pero hijo!’ Mima stands helplessly at the doorway as he empties her purse. Soapy water drips from her hands onto the floor. ‘¡No lo tengo!’ My stomach squeezes into a familiar knot as I try to figure out the puzzle, fast. I could give him the ten bucks to cool things off, or I could hide in our bedroom and let them combust.”

Explaining why Nora hides this from Kathleen and Pablo, she says, “How can you make people understand about brothers who hit and spit? How do you explain why you listen at your own front door before going in? How do you explain that it’s not only parents who beat kids, but sometimes the other way around, too?”

Romantic Problems

As Nora is beginning to date her coworker, Pablo, there’s real suspense in her efforts to keep him from learning about her family. In addition, any possible make out scene has the Son of Sam lurking in the background. 

Of a recently murdered couple, Nora says, “They were eighteen and twenty years old, more or less like us. They went to the movies and found out that the city isn’t huge at all. In fact, it can shrink down to the size of a gun barrel, just like that.”

Pablo eventually learns more about Hector’s behavior. Nora tells him it’s none of his business. This appears to be a romance breaker.

Long Live Love pin
Nora overcomes the many obstacles to her romantic life.

Add Problems Together to Create Suspense

Writing teachers will warn that surprise or shock is not suspense, and that’s true. But sometimes writers have a suspenseful story in hand without understanding where the suspense comes from. In the case of Nora’s universe–1977 New York City–there is the suspense of a serial killer roaming the streets and killing young couples. But when Nora learns about arson, burglaries, and drug dealing in her neighborhood and apartment building, the problems of society at large hit home. A writer might think the suspense lies in the question of whether Nora’s brother, Hector, is involved in criminal activity. But really, Medina is showing her hand in placing hints early and often. The suspense for me, as the reader, was in something I really didn’t know: what will happen to the family when they learn what Hector has done? How can an absent father and a mother who refuses to see her son’s behavior for what it is (partly because she isn’t empowered to change it) have any influence over the future? They are unjustly placing the burden in Nora’s lap. What will happen to her? This sort of suspense is the best because Nora doesn’t deserve to be made responsible, doesn’t deserve to be harmed. What teen hasn’t felt the same impotence in facing their parents? Everyone who reads this novel will be in high tension about Nora’s future throughout. We want her to tell Papi what he needs to know because, in a sense, this would be speaking truth to power. We are wanting it, waiting for it, will revel in it. That’s high stakes suspense.

Finish with Important Questions–and Answers

A good YA novel comes to some resolution. In order to do so, mentors and friends have to be introduced early and show up repeatedly. Nora has adults who care about her, and more importantly, act to direct her into a better future. Ms. Friedmor, the school’s head guidance counselor, and Mr. Melvin, the woodshop teacher, are two of the most important. Kathleen’s parents are always welcoming and are ultimately instrumental in her plan to become independent.

Some of the larger societal questions create conflict: The fear, fires, and looting bring disagreement between Stiller (an African American feminist and activist) and Kathleen’s father (a firefighter) to the surface. Their argument over safety and privilege will strike a cord, mirroring today’s news. Equally familiar is the characters’ exhaustion with what feels like innumerable, endless issues:

“But here’s what’s really weird. We’re all too hot and tired to even care. In fact, no one acts surprised because, face it, what disaster hasn’t happened this year? We’re burning. We’re broke. We’re laid off. We’re ripping each other off or being murdered or pulling the trigger.”

“Every rule I know is gone, and we’re in chaos. There are no rules for how a family should work. No rules for how far loyalty should reach. No boundaries on stealing or looting. No limits on how people ruin one another’s lives or how we blame one another for our pain. . . . Now no rules for how we kill each other, either.”

I Don’t Do Normal pin
Nora is afraid of anyone finding out about the extreme dysfunction in her family.

Answers

I don’t want to give away all the many resolutions, but ultimately Nora finds her way–with help, but on her own terms.

“Maybe the things that scare us seem more powerful than they truly are when we keep them secret.”

Ms. Friedmor’s words are something of a theme for Burn, Baby, Burn. They can be a reminder for writers as well: “Remember to reach. You’ll surprise yourself.”

Afterword

Medina includes an afterword about the setting and action of Burn, Baby, Burn. As writers are living through the same sorts of tension and social justice issues today, they may take to heart her purpose in writing the novel and get to work on a similar exploration of their own.

“In so many ways, this is a novel about people at their worst. It is a story of family pain and of juvenile domestic violence, a chronically underreported issue. It’s the story of community pain — and all the ways that people try to cope in the face of fear. But for me, this novel is a celebration of people who find their strength even in the worst circumstances. I wrote this story because young people everywhere sometimes find that they have to fuel their hope against a bleak backdrop and outpourings of rage.”

Note: For other examples of great YA fiction writing, I posted about The Miseducation of Cameron Post and Challenger Deep

High School Housekeeping

Sometimes high school research paper assignments start with a work of fiction set in a historical period. Students read the fiction and then research the events around which the novel is set. If you’re in high school and receive such an assignment, Burn, Baby, Burn would be a great place to start. If you’re a teacher librarian helping students with such an assignment, Burn, Baby, Burn is a great recommendation because the number of things mentioned in all areas of life–social justice, pop culture, clothing, etc.–will smooth the path of the project. There’s so much to look into: the discussion of the crime rate in New York City in the mid to late 1970s; the serial murderer ‘Son of Sam;’ arson; drug addiction; the mention of a police shooting of a youth who was simply standing outside his apartment building; the National Organization for Women (NOW), Carmen Vivian Rivera and reproductive rights. In pop culture, there’s mention of the movies Carrie, Rocky, Annie Hall, and Star Wars; the TV shows Baretta and Chico and the Man. Musicians include the Ohio Players (funk), the Ramones (punk), Vicki Sue Robinson (disco), and David Bowie (glam rock and more). The girls long for clothing brands like Sasson and Calvin Klein. 

Posted in Family Problems, Fiction, Human Rights Issues, Romance, Young Adult Literature | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Teen Voices and The Poet X: Keep a Journal

"Submerged" by Shaina Boal, winning artist for the Spring 2020 Teen Issue of Inlandia.
“Submerged” by Shaina Boal, winning artist for the Spring 2020 Teen Issue of Inlandia.

Note: This is a YA book review as well as a comment on teen writing, so I added it here from my personal blog

A recent experience with a teen writer had me going back to The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo. I’d originally purchased and listened to The Poet X on audiobook–a powerful narration by the author herself, which I highly recommend. A few months ago, I finished putting together the third teen issue of Inlandia: A Literary Journey, the journal sponsored by the Inlandia Institute. These two experiences connected for me when one of the teen authors emailed to ask that I remove her work from the issue.

With the two previous teen issues of Inlandia, wrapping up the experience meant having an in-person celebration on the library lawn in downtown Riverside, California. I’d spend the weeks before the gathering making all sorts of cookies. On the evening of the live reading, I’d meet with the institute director, the programs coordinator, the teen editors and several of the teen authors, who read from their work to a live audience. It was a joy to meet the authors and connect their voices to their published work. It was a joy to meet their proud parents and siblings, and even some of their teachers who had encouraged their writing journey.

This year, because of the pandemic, we had an online gathering. While I missed meeting the writers, parents, and teachers (the online audience had the opportunity to chat by text only and were not visible), it was fun to have some of the distant authors read. We even had girls from Shanghai, China and Bristol, England.

Still, the pandemic had a depressing effect on me as I was working on the teen issue. Having been both a teacher and high school librarian, I know what the daily routine of school means to teens whose family life is broken. Some of these teens were submitting work to us. About seventy-five percent of them were being rejected by the teen editors. The letters declining their work would come from me. What would I say in the midst of these losses? My draft of the decline letter grew ever longer.

Thank you for sending us your work. We are very sorry, but it does not quite fit with this issue. We realize that this season is difficult for so many of us and in so many ways. And while your work was not chosen for this issue, the editors enjoyed its admirable qualities. You are doing the hard work that creative endeavors require. Thank you for your willingness to offer your work to others, to contribute to the artistic conversation that means so much to us right now. 

And then I added notes on what we liked about each piece and suggested edits. Because here’s the thing: most teen work truly is work in progress and, if continued, will find its way to an audience.

“If continued” is the key. Think of The Poet X. It’s a work by an adult about the experience of a teen. 

The girl who withdrew her short story from the teen issue of the journal had been delighted to have it accepted. She was one of the few authors who wrote to me to talk about it when she received the acceptance letter. Her byline included her first, middle and last name. Her fiction was a sweet story about two young lesbians who meet accidentally and over time, realize that they are in love. It was innocent stuff, but ended tragically, in a way that keeps the lovers apart. When I first read it, I thought of the influence of Romeo and Juliet since its required reading in most US schools.

But I came to see this ending differently as my correspondence with the author continued. After I sent her the unpublished link to her story for a final review, she worried about having her full name in her byline. Would it be too much trouble to remove her middle name and use just her first initial? “I’m sorry,” she said. “I have a relative that I don’t want to see it. I’m thinking about the person searching my name online.” No problem, I told her. 

The story was published, the online celebration was over and recorded. This author did not read her work or even attend. But a few days later, she emailed me again. Would it be too much trouble if I removed her story from the issue? She was having difficulty with the relative and needed the story to disappear. Though young, she understood specificity of language, and I thought her use of the words “a relative” rather than ‘mother,’ ‘father,’ ‘uncle,’ or ‘cousin’ was telling. 

I told her how sorry I was, but ultimately, I removed both her story and her author bio. I was not her teacher, a trusted adult who could advocate for her with her parents. I’d never even met her. I’d only read her story and was glad to see that the teen editors had selected it. We emailed a few more times. I told her I hoped that she would continue to write. I hoped, too, that she was keeping a journal of her experiences because the time would come when she would be able to speak and write freely. She would need to reference her teen emotional state. She answered that she was, indeed, keeping a journal. That she would continue her writing journey.

My hope for, and her assurance of, the journal writing is what triggered thoughts of The Poet X. As the novel tells us “Xiomara” (the protagonist’s name) means one who is ready for war. What better readies a writer for the fight for their voice than journal writing? I decided to get a print copy of the novel and look back at the language and passages that had moved me in the audio version.

Caterpillar by Avalon Anderson, another artist featured in the Inlandia Spring 2020 Teen Issue.
“Caterpillar” by Avalon Anderson, another artist featured in the Inlandia Spring 2020 Teen Issue.

The Poet X

Xiomara is a high school sophomore living in Harlem with her ultra-religious (Catholic) mother, her reformed but previously philandering father, and her twin brother. Her mother cleans an office building in Queens. Xiomara says “I look at her scarred knuckles./I know exactly how she was taught faith.” (17) Xiomara and Twin (Xavier) were conceived years into their parents’ marriage and considered to be answered prayers. Nonetheless, Xiomara’s delivery was very difficult and she has been considered difficult ever since. “‘Pero, tú no eres fácil.’/You sure ain’t an easy one.” (10)

A major reason her mother finds her difficult is that Xiomara does not have the religious fervor of her mother, but would rather write poems. Religion, the Catholic Church is “A friend I just don’t think I need anymore.” (13) The Confirmation instructor, Father Sean is sympathetic, but clearly has no intention of confirming Xiomara if she doesn’t feel it’s right. (Quick note: The sacrament of Confirmation is one in which the recipient accepts God–particularly the Holy Spirit–of their own free will. The Catholic Church has infant baptism and other sacraments for the young such as Reconciliation and First Holy Communion, but Confirmation is the first time the person will choose the church of their own accord.) Xiomara asks, “What’s the point of God giving me life/if I can’t live it as my own?//Why does listening to his commandments mean I need to shut down my own voice?” (57)

In the fight to use her own voice, Xiomara has an ally in Ms. Galiano, her English teacher, who is also the advisor for the poetry club. She sees Xiomara’s talent and creativity and encourages it. Xiomara’s other allies include Twin and Caridad. Twin is a slight, church-loving altar boy and excellent student who has skipped a grade and goes to high school for gifted kids. He’s also gay, and Xiomara suspects it but is afraid of openly discussing it–and really afraid of what will happen if her parents find out. Caridad, Xiomara’s best friend, is deeply religious and still follows the rules of her parents and the Church. The girls are the opposites that attract and have known one another since they were babies. 

It is her desire to attend the poetry club meetings, which happen to be at the same time as Confirmation class, that brings Xiomara to break her mom’s rules regarding piety. “Tuesday has become my equivalent/to Mami’s Sunday. A prayer circle.” (283) It is Aman, Xiomara’s lab partner in biology class, for whom she breaks her mother’s rules on not dating.

At first, Xiomara finds her voice in her journals, gifts from Twin. Later, she will fight to have that voice heard at poetry slams. The things she writes about would drive her mother crazy if she saw them. Her lack of conviction in the face of Confirmation. Her first period and how her mother told her that only cueros (whores) use tampons. Her feelings about having a mature body, curvy and busty, one that makes her stand out in all the sophomore class and drives male response about her.

I am unhide-able. 

Taller than even my father, with what Mami has always said

was “a little too much body for such a young girl.”

The other girls call me conceited. Ho. Thot. Fast.

When your body takes up more room than your voice

you are always the target of well-aimed rumors,

which is why I let my knuckles talk for me.

Which is why I learned to shrug when my name was replaced 

by insults. (p. 5)

Sometimes it feels

All I’m worth is under my skirt (14) 

I should be used to it.

I shouldn’t get so angry

when boys–and sometimes

grown-ass men–

talk to me however they want,

think they can grab themselves 

or rub against me

or make all kinds of offers.

But I’m never used to it.

And it always makes my hands shake.

Always makes my throat tight.

The only thing that calms me down

after Twin and I get home

is to put my headphones on.

To listen to Drake.

To grab my notebook,

and write, and write, and write

all the things I wish I could have said.

Make poems from the sharp feelings inside,

that feel like they could

carve me wide 

open. (52)

(I love the way this part of the poem looks on the page–much like a curvy girl.)

See, a cuero is my skin. A cuero/is just a covering. A cuero is a loose thing./Tied down by no one. Fluttering/and waving in the wind. Flying. Flying. Gone. (206)

Readers of The Poet X will also fall in love with the poetic language 

That incense makes bow tie pasta of my belly./That all the lit candles beckon like fingers/that want to clutch around my throat. (62)

And their words are like the catch of a gas stove,/the click, click while you’re waiting/for it to light up and then flame big and blue. (110)

On the train ride home/Twin steps into his feelings/like they’re a gated-off room/I don’t have visitation rights to. (176)

My mother’s face scrunches tight/like someone has vacuumed all her joy. (229)

Ultimately, writing (in a larger sense, one might substitute “creating”) matters. It is the creative life which often presses against the spiritual life, that engenders faith and hope.

Hiding in my journal

is the only way I know not to cry.

My house is a tomb.

Even Twin has stopped speaking to me

As if he’s afraid a single word

Will cause my facade to crack. (237)

Because so many of the poems tonight

Felt a little like our own stories.

Like we saw and were seen.

And how crazy would it be

If I did that for someone else? (282)

My experience is that there are not many outlets for teen voices, almost none during a pandemic. As adults, our goal for teen voices is that they be heard. I hope teachers and school librarians are talking up books such as The Poet X to remind their writers of the value of their work. I hope school libraries have found a way to check out books to students even when they are distance learning. And I also hope that teachers and librarians have devised contests where all the participants receive journals. Because, again, most teen work truly is work in progress and, if continued, will find its way to an audience.

Note: The page numbers given above are from The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (New York: HarperCollins, 2018).

I’ve discussed previous teen issues of Inlandia here and here. I’ve written about books centered on teen voices on my School Library Lady blog. Some of the earlier ones, such as Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, still have much to say.

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AudioSync: Are You Getting Your Free YA Books?

AudioFile Sync Audiobooks now available
The last day for these books is tomorrow, June 17.

Free YA Audiobooks from AudioFile

After tomorrow, the AudioFile Audiobooks for Teens Program will be half way through. There have been some YA great titles, so if you haven’t signed up for the program yet, do so now! The titles pictured above will only be available through tomorrow. But when you register, you will get a weekly notification of new titles. You can still get 14 free audiobooks if you start today. This week’s themed pair is on life-changing decisions. There’s a new theme each week.

How to Register for AudioSync Free YA Books

Registration instructions for AudioSync Program
Register, then get the app.
  1. Go to Audiobooksync.com
  2. Get the Sora App.
  3. Get these books by tomorrow, June 17 and then check for weekly notifications for upcoming books.
  4. Remember: each pair is available for only one week, so download them right away. Then they are yours to keep. You can always listen later!
Posted in Fiction, Young Adult Literature | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Time to Support the Local Literary Scene

Books by local authors

Note: I have this up on my VictoriaWaddle.com blog, but am adding here because several of the books recommended below would be great for teen reads and in high school libraries.

As shut down orders were put in place to stem the coronavirus contagion, many of us became cheerleaders for our best-loved local businesses. Once we step back out into public life, we want to continue to enjoy our favorite foods, receive services from our favorite salons, and buy from our favorite shops. We need to support our much-loved local literary scene in the same way, not only by buying from our favorite bookstores, but by buying titles published by local publishers, including those written by local authors. 

Support Local Authors in Online Venues

Six Feet Apart

Just months ago, we were still celebrating our local authors in public venues. In February alone, I was able to attend several: the monthly “First Sundays” poetry open mic at Ironbark Ciderworks in Claremont; a wonderful reading by IE poets Romaine Washington and Eric Devaughnn at the Riverside Public (Main), sponsored by the Inlandia Institute; and the Writers’ Week Conference at UCR, where I spent a day listening to talks by and interviews of local authors. At each of these events, I was able to purchase books and literary journals.

Though we can’t go to see and hear our local publishers and authors, we can still attend online events and order from websites. Under “Books” on the Inlandia website, you can find book titles by Inland authors, including those published by the institute.

Support Local Presses Online

Image of book cover ‘Behind the Red Curtain’

Going directly to the websites of local presses is a good way to discover new writers. Los Nietos Press  publishes work that helps us understand “the lives and history of the people who make up the diverse community of Southern California.” One of their most recent titles, Behind the Red Curtain by Hong-My Basrai, is a memoir about the author’s escape from Communist Vietnam.

Image of ‘California Continuum’

At past events, I’d purchased books published by Pelekinesis Press including Unfortunately, Thanks for Everything, a collection of poems by T. Anders Carson; MASS: A Sniper, a Father, and a Priest by Jo Scott Coe, which probes the psychological sources of the 1966 University of Texas, Austin clock tower shootings; California Continuum, Volume 1: Migrations and Amalgamations byGrant Hier and John Brantingham, a collection of very short fiction and nonfiction on California history dating back through prehistory; and My Bariatric Year, Part I by Tim Hatch. I enjoyed poetry, nonfiction and fiction alike, so I looked for a few new titles that I could order from Cellar Door Books in Riverside and have delivered to my home.

Local Press Book Recommendations : Calls for Submissions

Happily, I was able to meet a few reading goals by ordering Pelekinesis books: to read more female authors and try genres that I usually neglect. Calls for Submissions by Selena Chambers is a horror story collection that warps time and crosses decades.

I enjoyed the references to Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, as well as stories squarely in the monster tradition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

“Of Parallel and Parcel” is written from the point of view of Edgar Allan Poe’s child bride, Virginia. “The Şehrazatın Diyoraması Tour,” set in the Ottoman Empire, has at its center a Victorian automaton. One of my favorite stories in the collection, it gives a nod to “Frankenstein,” but also reminds me of “The Invention of Morel” by Argentinian writer A. Bioy Casares. Also favorites are “Dr. Lambshead’s Dark Room” with its “jars of mood;” “Descartar” with its “glass of crushed pain;” and “The Last Session” with its strange lesson in letting go. “Dive in Me” about Florida teens who decide to explore the ‘Suicide Sinks’ (vast sinkholes connected by underwater caves) is worth the price of the book. I’m planning on using “Calls for Submissions” as my next pick for the family book club, certain that we will all enjoy it. (We are all adults.)

Local Press Recommendations: The Dog Seated Next to Me

Kudos for Meg Pokrass’ stories
The Writer Magazine, June 2020 shoutout to Meg Pokrass

The Dog Seated Next to Me by Meg Pokrass is a collection of flash fiction. My sweet old retriever had just crossed the rainbow bridge when I read it, and I was hoping that some stories would feature dogs. There is plenty of irony (in three very short paragraphs, the story “Curse” turns the beloved Longfellow poem “The Children’s Hour” upside down). There is a dose of the absurd. And there are dogs. Dogs, cats, otters, bunnies, rats, and even spiders. I enjoyed the language of the book, the original metaphors and sensory appeal. However, my favorite aspect of The Dog Seated Next to Me is that it invites the reader to consider the ways that the landscape alters when animals enter. 

Just as we have committed to saving our local businesses and workers during this period of isolation, may of us have promised ourselves to explore new things. By reading books published by local presses and written by local authors, we can do both. Why not order something recommended above from your local bookstore?

Posted in Biography/Memoir, Fiction, Hi-Low/Quick Read, Human Rights Issues, Mature Readers, Multicultural, Non-fiction, Short Stories | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Inlandia Journeys Teen Issue is Live!

Submerged by Shaina Boal

I’m so excited about the latest teen issue of Inlandia, which is live now!

“Despite the notion that we are voiceless, it seems to me that the challenge of a good creative writing instructor is to teach students that they do indeed have a voice and that their voice, that all our voices in concert, have meaning. … We should be struggling with our students as writers, and students of writing, to leave behind something worth protecting, worth defending, something that contributes to the growth of this culture.”–Jon Chopan, Glimmer Train bulletin 137, June, 2018

Renewed Popularity of Poetry Leads to Teen Issue

According to findings by the National Endowment for the Arts, in under a decade, the number of poetry readers in the United States almost doubled to a total of 28 million adults–and that was before self-isolation during the pandemic began. I saw a similar increase in teens wanting to read poetry in my school library over the last several years. The most popular events each year were an open mic night for all writers (including songwriters) and a blackout poetry contest. Wouldn’t it be great, I thought, to give our teens a venue for their work? Thus, three years ago, we launched our first all-teen issue of Inlandia.

Caterpillar by Avalon Anderson

Teens Being Heard during a Pandemic

As the coronavirus pandemic has affected so many, this particular launch has been a tough one. While I hope that their families and friends are healthy, our teens had to exit school and leave off regular interaction with their friends. They lost their proms and graduations. I’d like this issue to remind us all that we can still make connections through the creative arts. Teen stories matter.

Hummingbird
Colibrí Libre by Kimberly Saucedo-Montoya

Editors’ Choice Winners Spring 2020

Congratulations to all the teens whose work was selected. A special shout out goes to our editors’ choice winners in four categories:

Poetry : Lauren Kawecki for “Persephone” and “Dichotomy of Light

Image: Shaina Boal for “Submerged

Nonfiction: Sydney Burr for “This Political Op-Ed is Not About Trump

Fiction: Max Endieveri for “Leda and the Swan

Advice from Teen Inlandia Issue Editors

We had a wonderful group of teen editors for this issue, all of whom had thoughtful responses to the submissions. Our teen editors-in-chief have been with us from the first teen issue in 2018. I appreciate Kiyani and Stephanie more than I can say! If you are a teen writer, check out the interviews with the teen co-editors-in-chief to see what they look for when they read submissions. Their comments are very insightful and an emerging writer will find them very useful. Please check out their thoughts on what they admire in the work they select, what books they recommend to our readers, and what resources they recommend to writers. Stephanie Martinez-Beltram is interviewed here. Kiyani Carter is interviewed here.

As we complete our tenth year of Inlandia: A Literary Journey, I wish you joyous and insightful reading! Thank you for taking this journey with us.

Other Teen Issues of Inlandia: A Literary Journey

Note: If you are a classroom teacher or a teacher librarian, please share the teen issue with your writers, artists, as well as book and writing club members. It’s great summer reading and the advice on submissions is valuable.

To have a look at our other teen issues, see 2018 here and 2019 here.

Posted in Fiction, Grief, Non-fiction, Short Stories, Young Adult Literature | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

School’s Out? Time for Audiobooks

Home page image of AudioFile Sync
https://www.audiobooksync.com/

In the past, I have posted about the great AudioFile Sync Audiobooks for Teens program. While it’s advertised as a summer program, it begins April 30 and goes for thirteen weeks.

Typically, a great YA book (fiction or nonfiction) is paired with another book that is thematically similar. The second book may be another YA book or possibly a classic.

You’re probably out of school right now, practicing social distancing. Now is a good time to sign up for the Sync program. Because you have time.

If social distancing continues, your parents will involve you in spring cleaning around the house. And while you’re cleaning, you can listen to great books. If you can’t get library books becasue your library is closed, thsi will be one option.

Each pair of books is only available for one week. If you miss it, you can’t download it. Catch it and it’s free—and you can listen at anytime. Sign up now and you will receive emails each week. You won’t miss a single one!

Happy listening!

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Communist Rule in South Vietnam: Behind the Red Curtain

Cover image of “Behind the Red Curtain.”

The Fall of Saigon

Behind the Red Curtain by Hong-My Basrai details the life of a Vietnamese family during and after the 1975 fall of Saigon. As the book opens, Hong-My is a thirteen-year-old girl with typical concerns about puberty. However, her life is soon to become anything but ordinary. Her Northern Vietnamese parents had escaped the Vietminh in 1945, settling in Saigon, ‘the jewel of the orient.’ They never believed it would fall to the North. 

“The first waves of evacuees from different parts of the South caused confusion, then for the first time, panic in people like my parents, people who had been too busy raising their families, too naïve in politics, uninformed, trusting their government and the might of America. Still, they continued to be in denial. Saigon would never fail, could not. America was on our side, and America was undefeatable.”

Even as the Vietminh enter the city, the Les believe they have time to escape the country. Tragically, their wait with the crowd outside the American Embassy is futile. It is just the beginning of a seven-year nightmare. 

Communist Rule in South Vietnam: The Loss of Privacy and Property

When Communist rule becomes an imminent reality, the Les know how bad things will get and prepare by erasing the evidence of their affluent lives—burning journals, books, and photographs and by giving away possessions. When the country changes currency and sets a maximum on what is allowed, the family loses much of their lifetime savings. Common necessities such as soap and toothpaste become luxuries; living space is condensed. Representatives of the state—real or masquerading—violate privacy, steal property and frighten residents. While the state party line is that, now, all countrymen are equal, “[t]he people of Saigon concurred: ‘We are all equal slaves of the State.’”

In a family with nine children, Hong-My is the eldest of the ‘second set.’ The five older siblings are out of the country receiving western educations and establishing themselves in professions. As the remaining family members struggle with privations under the Communist regime, they learn to rely on gifts and packages from their relatives outside the country—items that they can sell on the black market. 

Communist Rule in South Vietnam: Education and Professional Lives Destroyed

When school resumes under Communist rule, a large part of the day is consumed with lessons on ‘Uncle Ho’ and the new regime. The irony of having religious icons replaced by the photo of Ho Chi Minh in every household is not lost on young Hong-My. She sees that this new life is controlled by “a merciless and ignorant government that starved its citizens and deprived them of food, fuel and medicine.”

While the Le parents do as much as they can to continue with their past lives, their professions are destroyed. Mrs. Le is referred to as ‘Madame Pharmacist’ by all her neighbors, but she can no longer secure medicines to sell. Still, Hong-My and her three younger siblings have moments of normalcy between repeated storms. They play imaginative games, beg for ghost stories from her grandmother’s maid, and pray with their pious Catholic grandmother.

The heart of Behind the Red Curtain consists of the nearly unimaginable difficulties of escaping to freedom; the details of repeated failed plans; the brushes with injury and death by land and by sea; the loss of savings; and the work to start over and over again. The tenacity of the family, their collective will power as they help one another through everything, including imprisonment, is inspiring. 

The Difficulties of Escape from South Vietnam

Escape plans and the glitches that can’t be anticipated lead family members to prison more than once. There, the simplest tasks such as bathing or using the toilet become all consuming.  Hong-My’s last imprisonment in Chí-Hòa, Hồ Chí Minh City’s massive prison—widely known as Hỏa Lò Bát Giác (the Octagonal Oven)—is the nearest to spirit-breaking. 

Yet through her many trials, the author becomes convinced that “as long as the mind was not affected, in it was a person’s salvation. In it was the ultimate refuge. In it shone our sanction. If it still aspired for beauty, it could create heaven from thin air, a reasoning creature from dust, like God.”

Refugee Stories Connect Us to Humanity

Reading the stories of refugees is always important, perhaps now more than ever. They remind us that people don’t put themselves in danger, hoping to enter the United States, because they’re bored with their homelands. They escape because life without freedom is not worth living. Learning the nightmare details of escape connects us to humanity—others’ and our own.

“She had to tell the world what had happened after the last helicopter left Saigon, after the curtain had come down. How her family and she—the young girl who no longer dared to dream—had survived the collapse of the only world they had known, to face the Red Regime, the loss of freedom that came with it, the deprivation of basic rights, and how they had clawed their way out.”

High School Housekeeping

Behind the Red Curtain is a good choice for an assignment with the purpose of understanding immigrants and refugees: why they leave home, what they suffer in order to begin a new life. It’s a good choice for a middle school (junior high) or high school library purchase

Posted in Adventure Stories, Biography/Memoir, Family Problems, Fiction, Grief, Human Rights Issues, Multicultural | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Parameters of the YA Novel: Is Bridge of Clay Still YA?

Image of book cover for Bridge of Clay

Bridge of Clay and YA Novels

What are the parameters of the YA novel? Is Markus Zusak’s Bridge of Clay still YA? I asked myself this as I read this gorgeous novel. If you’re writing a novel that focuses on the protagonist(s) during the teen years, you might wonder if this automatically makes it a Young Adult work. Looking at Bridge of Clay helps us to understand that the answer is no. Whether a book is YA depends on much more than the age of the characters. Though the parameters of the YA novel have changed over the years, this truth remains: teens read to find themselves in books (as do we all).  

Over the past two years, I’ve collected a stack of YA novels that I haven’t had time to read because real life has been interfering. (Full confession: I actually have about two hundred unread books on my book shelves at home, but most are not YA and most have been there for more than two years. You are a reader/writer, so I know you have the same addiction/hoarding problem and that your sympathies are with me.) Bridge of Clay was published in the US in 2018. I picked it up because I loved The Book Thief and figured it was a good bet that I’d love this one, too. 

I was right on the bet—and next week I will talk about some of the things Zusak does in the novel that make it such a moving reading experience. But I’m puzzled about why it has been marketed as YA. I asked some other teacher librarians. Two have Bridge of Clay in their high school libraries, but no one (including them) has read it. Another read it and loved it, but doesn’t have it in their grade 6-12 library. The last, who is retired, read it and loved it. He noted that Bridge of Clay is marketed as an adult book outside the US. (He wrote a review of the novel here.)

Bridge of Clay Overview

The outline of the story: Five Australian boys are deserted by their father after their mother dies of cancer. They become pretty wild, are a rough and tumble lot. They are desperate for meaning and for love. “We swore like bastards, fought like contenders, and punished each other.” There are, of course, secrets and the author shifts and sifts through time in order to bring them out. In order to fully understand their lot and the outcome, we need to encounter many weird pets, a piano, problems at school, running in a self-punishing manner, Greek tragedies, horse racing, girlfriends, the deadbeat dad, the dad in the days when he was a better man, the history of the mother all the way back to the Soviet Union, and finally the building of a mortarless bridge.So, yes–it’s a long book, wandering book. As it’s not my objective to write a review, have a look at the Washington Post’s Ron Charles’ take for a thoughtful one.

The Parameters of YA Change (a bit)

I spent many years as a high school teacher librarian. I’ve read many hundreds of YA novels, booktalked more than I could count, and have reviewed some of those I’ve enjoyed. I’m currently writing a contemporary YA novel.

Having spent so much time with YA fiction, I’ve recognized some changes over the years. In my earliest foray into YA, I found that parents were absent, emotionally absent, or, if present, often the cause of all the conflict that made the novel interesting. All the novels centered on teen problems–family issues, drug addiction, emotional or physical abuse, school problems, bullying. In an Atlantic article on what “YA” means, Michael Cart, well-known expert on YA Literature, is quoted as saying that YA traditionally discusses “problems, issues, and life circumstances of interest to young readers aged approximately 12-18.” 

It’s still true that, in some way, the kids in YA are being tossed to the curb. Whether the book takes place in contemporary life, in another world, in the past or the future, teens have troubles and usually lack competent helpers. The Hunger Games is a truly horrifying (and riveting) example. But all the way back, decades ago, I can remember simple setups using the above mentioned issues–Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, The Chocolate War, The Outsiders, Summer of My German Soldier. Periodically, more nuanced adults appeared. An example is in Judy Blume’s Forever, (even though elements of the novel read like a cautionary guide on STDs and pregnancy). Deliver Us From Evie by M. E. Kerr, the 1990s story of a gay girl living in a small conservative and judgmental farming community, includes parents who are ahead of the fictional parenting curve. 

Current Parameters Include Adult Emotional Complications

Yet, it seems to me that more recently YA books have gotten more emotionally complicated. Either that or by sheer luck I am just reading more complicated ones. There will always be a place for the long, repetitive bloody hell of books like those in the Divergent series. But when I read a novel like The Field Guide to the North American Teenager, I think it’s more nuanced. We have the set-up with the main character expecting to move through all the teen drama cliches, but the author flips these over. And the parents flip with them. Their lives are also complicated, and they are trying their best. Sometimes, as in this novel, that’s all a lot of fun. In the Atlantic article mentioned above, Michael Cart, also says that these days, young adults encompass the ages between 10-25 years. When we consider that people up to the age of thirty are regularly reading YA fiction, we can see why adults are now portrayed differently than they had been in earlier works. 

Why Bridge of Clay is not YA

Yet, even with the changes to YA fiction, I don’t see Bridge of Clay as belonging to that group. I’m afraid to say this because I think someone will conclude that I find teens mentally dull, incapable of working through (or of loving) a difficult piece of literature. This is far from the truth. I’ve spent too many years around teens both as an English teacher and a high school librarian to be able to ignore the deep thinkers. August by Bernard Beckett comes to mind when I want to recommend a weirdly philosophical book.

My issue more or less boils down to this: When readers select books outside their age category, it appears that adults read ‘down’ to an earlier age. Teens don’t read far ‘up.’ This makes sense. All adults were once teens and before that, children. They have the real life experiences that are the topics of the books. They may still be trying to work out some of their childhood and teen issues. Think of the popularity of Wonder with adults, which really is a middle grade book. If teens read to find themselves in books, they might not be able to do so when the characters are significantly older. (Be honest: did you want to read about a midlife crisis when you were sixteen?)

So–it’s not that there aren’t teens who would connect with this wonderful novel. But I think they are the same ones (the few, in my experience) who read mostly adult fiction.

The Lesson for the YA Writer

This is my point for YA writers: if your novel has adults looking back over the entirety of their lives, and if they are reflecting on it with adult sensibilities; if you are coming at the action, characters and theme through an oblique message and style, you probably aren’t going to have many YA readers. You are writing an adult novel. 

Quite possibly a very good one. Bridge of Clay is an example of that circuitous walk through youth into adulthood. 

Note: On my writing blog, I continue to look at some of the things that Zusak does that make his writing so lovely. (Less about the book and more about the words, sentences, and use of figurative language.) I’m not going to post that here as this blog is more about the books, but if you are interested in discussions of writing, please subscribe to VictoriaWaddle.

Posted in Family Problems, Fiction, Grief, Over 375 pages, Young Adult Literature | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

One Important Secret: Balance. Character, Emotion, and Story in Far from the Tree

Image of road signs.
Photo by Victoria Waddle

Since I am on a YA fiction jag, I want to have a quick look at why National Book Award winning Far from the Tree by Robin Benway is so good. Happily, all the things that make this novel work are things that will work for anyone writing at any level and in any genre: a balance of character, emotion, and story. (While I typically review books here, this post is one I wrote for writers. I want to share here as well as on my writing blog because Far from the Tree is a book for so many YA readers and makes a great booktalk for librarians.)

As stated on the book cover, Far from the Tree grapples with the question “What does it mean to be a family?” It’s the story of three half-siblings who were all given up by their biological parents. The two girls, Grace and Maya, are adopted into two families. Grace remains an only child whereas Maya’s parents received a ‘second miracle’ within months of her adoption and become pregnant with Maya’s younger sister Lauren. The boy, Joaquin, remains in foster care throughout his life, but has found a couple who would like to adopt him as a teen.

Balance: The even appeal of the three characters

Image of book cover for Far from the Tree.
Photo by Victoria Waddle

The key to the beauty of Far from the Tree is balance. I’ve never read a novel that so evenly handles all aspects of character, plot, and emotional range. All three of the main characters are fully developed and equally empathetic. Each of them has significant joy and pain. Each has a deeply developed internal as well as external life. These are the elements that appeal to readers. When each is fully realized, the reader falls for everyone–so every chapter is interesting, and there’s no lag in the storyline.

Keeping that one important secret: Grace

Image of baby doll.
Photo by Victoria Waddle

The reader is introduced to Grace first. She got pregnant in her sophomore year of high school. She delivers the baby, whom she thinks of as ‘Peach,’ the following school year on the night of Homecoming–as her ex-boyfriend is being crowned Homecoming King. Grace’s parents are supportive of her decision to give Peach up for adoption. And though she believes Peach will have a better home and parenting, Grace loves and misses the baby. This is the reason she seeks out her siblings and looks for her biological mother. It seems strange that she wouldn’t tell her newly found siblings about Peach, but she has been called names like ‘slut’ and been told that her former boyfriend had found a ‘nice girl,’ as though she managed to produce the baby by herself.

Keeping that one important secret: Maya

Image of beer bottle with flowers.
Photo by Victoria Waddle

Maya has a girlfriend named Claire, and her family is very supportive of their relationship. But both she and her sister Lauren are keeping the secret that their mother is an alcoholic. They often find hidden bottles around the house. So, not only does Claire not know about Maya’s mom, but neither of the newly discovered siblings know. Lauren is worried that Maya will dump her as a sister now that she has found biological half-siblings. Despite Maya’s propensity to talk a lot when she’s nervous, she skips what matters most to each of the people she values. 

Keeping that one important secret: Joaquin

Image of wishing box.
Photo by Victoria Waddle

Joaquin has a few secrets, but they all involve his fear that he is unadoptable because of his temper. He has much more serious trust issues than the two girls, naturally. He’s lived in seventeen foster homes. We learn quickly that in adoptions, girls are more desired than boys, and white girls are most desired. So Joaquin, whose father is Latinx and whose skin is darker, has less of a chance at adoption. When his current foster parents, who genuinely love him, ask him if they can adopt him, he’s afraid that someone will get hurt. He doesn’t tell anyway that they have asked him. He breaks up with his girlfriend, Birdie, because he thinks he’ll never be able to give her what she needs.

Letting Go of that One Important Secret: Joy

Image of dog checking out a heart made of pebbles.
Photo by Victoria Waddle

The fact that each of the three characters keeps a major secret seems very natural–they have good reasons for being on their guard–but by holding back, they are giving each other an entirely wrong idea of who they are. This is just one example:

“Maya wondered if Grace was lying. Grace seemed like the kind of girl who would wait her whole life so she could lose her virginity on her wedding night, who would read Cosmo articles about how to give him the best blow job of his life! But never actually say the word blow job. Which was fine–Maya wasn’t about to start telling someone what they should do with their body of whatever–but being next to someone that perfect made Maya just want to be messier, dirtier, louder.”

Once the three siblings reach out to one another about their issues, they have the opportunity to develop trust. And through trust, they can find love and joy.

Balance: Uncommonly well done

Image of Channel Island poppy.
Photo by Victoria Waddle

As Grace, Maya, and Joaquin negotiate the territory between their Internal and external lives, Benway propels the story in a straightforward/chronological manner. Each of the three siblings are given their own alternating chapters. They very soon connect emotionally and their care and concern will drive them to take chances with one another and with others in their lives. Grace has a tenacious desire to find their birth mom. Since she misses Peach, she believes their mother must have loved and missed them. Maya and Joaquin don’t hold the same view–the fast talking Maya points out that their bio mom gave the toddler Joaquin away to strangers. But what they discover about their origins will give them all a sort of peace and trust that will help them throughout their lives.

This beautiful balance is something that any writer (of any genre for any age group) should strive for. A reader who is all-in throughout the novel is probably going to pick up and read the next one too.

Other Sources for Hints on Balanced Writing

For more advice on how to tell a good story, see my post on recent books for writers. If you want to read other YA fiction that strikes balance in a very different way, try Challenger Deep (mental illness/the real and unreal) and Not a Drop to Drink (the need for survival in a permanent, climate-change induced drought balanced against the need to continue to trust and love).

Posted in Family Problems, Fiction, Young Adult Literature | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Hope in the Mail

Image of “Hope in the Mail”
A good choice for pep talks.

Wendelin Van Draanen, author of Hope in the Mail: Reflections on Writing and Life, wrote one of my favorite YA novels, The Running Dream. (I wrote a review of The Running Dream here. Check it out–and check out the book!) She’s also the author of the perennial teen favorite Flipped as well as the super popular middle school mystery series Sammy Keyes. I was delighted to see that she’d written a book about writing–Hope in the Mail: Reflections on Writing and Life

Hope in the Mail: Focus Topics

I’ve read a variety of books for the emerging writer, and each focuses on different topics. Van Draanen is very good at showing how ordinary life experiences build the sort of character it takes to weather the writing life (think tough experiences that build grit or tenancy). Although she does discuss her experiences in the publishing industry (more on that below), this is not a book about the business of writing. If you are interested in that as the main topic, see my review of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Writing and Kristen Lamb’s Rise of the Machines.

Van Draanen grew up in a large Dutch-American family, one that suffered major tragedies when she was young: the loss of the family business to arson and the death of her father. She began to write after the burning of the family business because she “needed to kill off some bad guys.” She has an “unshakable belief that writing saved [her] life.” I know many writers feel this. If you are a young writer, particularly one who is interested in writing for tweens and teens, you many find some good advice in these pages. “No matter how young you are, you have experience. You have knowledge. You have feelings and observations and thoughts that are worthy of exploration. . . . It’s often the small stories with universal messages that touch us most deeply.”

Some of the topics the author covers include developing the things that readers notice and will evaluate when they discuss the book: author voice; characters modeled on the people around you; looking at the world through the eyes of the characters; developing setting; being clear on backstory including that of villains; building your world; and allowing weird events (and dreams) to open up writing possibilities.

Writing Advice: Underlying Issues

Van Draanen also helps the new writer to understand underlying issues in writing that may be less evident to the reader: hidden architecture; just what theme is in a novel (and how much young people hate overt ‘message’ books); the need for both great plots and beautiful language. A major issue that a new writer may not have considered is how hard it is to finish a novel in what can seem like an endless ‘revise, rinse, repeat’ cycle. She also cautions the writer about research: “A novel is not a how-to manual or a dumping ground for information. It’s a story. If your research contributes to the believability of the story or adds to its texture, use it. Once your reader senses that they’re being ‘educated’ you’ve gone too far.”

Advice particular to authors of chapter books (ratio of illustrations to text), authors of series and sequels is especially helpful to those writing for young people. By showing the specific influences of the writing of each of her own novels, both stand-alone and those in a series, Van Draanen give wonderful examples of how her ideas/suggestions/advice work in real life.

The Experience of Being a Published Author

Lastly, Van Draanen discusses what it’s like to be a published author. Again, she doesn’t tell you how to publish and promote yourself, but rather narrates her experiences with agents, editors, book titles and covers and more.

“Putting hope in the mail means putting yourself–your work, your wishes–out there however you can. It means actively creating the possibility for good things to happen.”

Hope in the Mail: Writing Advice for Young Writers

High School Housekeeping: If you are a teen writer looking for advice, this is a great book to start with.

Note: I wrote this post for my blog on writers and writing. Since Hope in the Mail seems to be the perfect book for teens hoping to write novels–and is written by a favorite YA author–I decided to add it here as well.

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