Books That Win: Put *These* On Your TBR Stack & Smoke ‘Em!

When I was a kid, my dad spent countless hours teaching me how to play two games: Backgammon and Pente. Eventually I reached a certain awareness and skill level and no longer expected him to simply let me win, and he started playing for real. Whenever he’d make a winning move, which was basically every time we played because I was, like, 8 years old and not yet privy to the wily ways of the world, he’d set down his piece emphatically and say, “Put that in your pipe and smoke it.” I had no idea what he meant, but from then on, I dedicated my young life to perfecting my board game strategy so that one day, I could co-opt the winning phrase.

By now you’re like, “Okay, Sarah, that’s a really cute story about the roots of your extreme board game competitiveness which by the way is the sole reason Pet Monster refused to play Monopoly with you for ten whole years (a streak broken just last month, mind you), but WTF does that have to do with books?” And the truth is, I have no idea.

But I did want to tell you about three upcoming contemporary YA books I had the pleasure of reading early this summer. Books that need to go on your To Be Read stack immediately. Books that win so hard that if I had them in my lap and you were sitting at the table across from me, I’d pick them up and slam them on the table and go, “Put these in your pipe and smoke ’em!”

So without further stretching an already thin metaphor, bring on the smoke-worthy books!

Catching Jordan, by Miranda Kenneally (December 2011)

Catching Jordan, by Miranda KenneallyMeet Jordan, high school football captain, quarterback, and… girl. This book is about football the way Friday Night Lights is about football. Yes, it’s there, and it’s a big part of the characters’ lives. But at its core, this book is about one girl standing up for her dreams and tackling any obstacle thrown in her path — sometimes successfully, sometimes not. It’s about expectations, family, friendships, love, and a healthy dose of straight-up girl power.

Anyone who’s ever questioned her path in life will connect with Jordan’s struggles and ultimate triumphs.

Added bonus: Competitive drive that rivals my dad vs. kid Backgammon days, cute football boys, and awesome sexual tension FTW! Also, this book totally reminds me of aforementioned Friday Night Lights, on which I recently got hooked. But I’m only up to season 4, so don’t post any spoilers in the comments! (P.S. Heyyyy Tim Riggins! *blushes*). Anyway, yeah. Loved CATCHING JORDAN!

Virtuosity, by Jessica Martinez (October 2011)

Virtuosity, by Jessica MartinezCarmen is a world class, grammy-winning violinist. Despite (and partly because of) her many achievements, Carmen is under constant pressure to be perfect — from the music industry that’s come to expect so much from her, from the violin instructor who won’t ease up until Carmen gets it just right, and most of all, from her mother, an overbearing force desperate to relive her own stunted music career through her daughter’s successes. Carmen’s used to doing whatever it takes to win, but as she prepares for the biggest competition of her life, she’s starting to unravel, physically and emotionally. Reading this book was like diving down the rabbit hole. I truly felt Carmen’s highs and lows, her anguish and fear, her hopes, and I couldn’t stop reading until I saw her through to the end.

Added bonus: I could totally relate to Carmen because I, too, played violin as a teen. Of course, I quit at the start of 9th grade when I decided that carrying around a big black case and practicing every day was just, you know, too much work. But still. Okay, seriously, the musical element of this book was super authentic and cool.

Wintertown, by Stephen Emond (December 2011)

Wintertown, by Stephen EmondEvan and Lucy are childhood best friends. Ever since Lucy’s parents split and she moved to Georgia with her mom, Evan only sees her over winter break. When Lucy shows up this winter, she’s completely changed — she’s sullen and moody and rockin’ a totally new goth style, and Evan just can’t get her to open up. As the story unravels, their friendship is severely tested, simultaneously growing closer and breaking apart each time they hang out. I had no idea how things would end — I just knew that I was rooting for them either way. Part graphic novel, part romance, part adventure, WINTERTOWN is the perfect story for a chilly winter’s night. It comes out in December, just in time to grab a mug of hot chocolate and curl up under your fave fuzzy blanket (dare I say Snuggie)!

Sarah Ockler, Super Tweeter, by Stephen EmondAdded bonus: Boy and girl POV, cool book, music, and zombie references throughout, and interesting, authentic adult characters. And also, perhaps most importantly, Mr. Emond is an awesome artist, and he totally cartooned me last year. See right, Sarah as Super Tweeter. I mean, he gave me a cape, you guys!

Put that in your pipe and… okay, okay. No smoking. Just go over to Goodreads or whatever and add them to your list of cool YA to read this fall and winter. You can also visit Miranda, Jessica, and Stephen online to learn more about them and their work.

Banned, But Never Shamed

I woke up this morning to the news that TWENTY BOY SUMMER, along with Kurt Vonnegut’s SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE, has been officially banned from the Republic, Missouri school district.

That’s right, the crazy train has finally derailed. You all might remember the SpeakLoudly issue from last fall, as it took up lots of blog space here after the book was initially challenged in the district by Wesley Scroggins, a parent whose own kids don’t even go to the public school, along with Vonnegut’s book and Laurie Halse Anderon’s beautiful novel, SPEAK.

Not surprisingly, the whole thing caused a major uproar (particularly among the great citizens of Republic, most of whom find Scroggins’ actions as deplorable as I do). But that was just a challenge. Last night, nearly a year after the challenge was issued, after convening committees and discussion groups and who knows what else, the board made their decision. SPEAK stays (thankfully!), but Vonnegut and I are out. You can read the whole article in the News-Leader, but here are a few juicy tidbits:

“We very clearly stayed out of discussion about moral issues. Our discussions from the get-go were age-appropriateness,” [Superintendent Vern Minor] said.

Minor also stated:

“Most schools stay away from this and they get on this rampage, the whole book-banning thing, and that’s not the issue here. We’re looking at it from a curriculum point of view.”

Um, okay. Let’s just get this on the record right now: Twenty Boy Summer was never part of the curriculum. It was simply available in the school library for students to check out and read on their own time. So clearly, this wasn’t about the curriculum.

The article goes on:

Minor said feedback [from the committee] for “Twenty Boy Summer,” available in the library, focused on “sensationalizing sexual promiscuity.” He said questionable language, drunkenness, lying to parents and a lack of remorse by the characters led to the recommendation.

“I just don’t think it’s a good book. I don’t think it’s consistent with these standards and the kind of message that we want to send,” he said. “…If the book had ended on a different note, I might have thought differently.”

So… just so I’m clear on this (forgive me for not catching on right away — I’m a little slow, since my brain is so addled by the long hard hours it puts in each day devising ways to sensationalize sexual promiscuity and questionable language and whatnot), you’re staying out of a discussion about moral issues, yet stating that if the characters in Twenty Boy Summer had been remorseful about sex, language, or lying to parents, then you might have thought differently? That it’s not consistent with messages you want to send?

Again, I’m a little fuzzy on how morals work, obviously, since I’m so busy making sure my books influence teens not to have any morals, but… how is that not a moral discussion? How is that not a moral judgment?

Look, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it a million times more. I get that my book isn’t appropriate for all teens, and that some parents are opposed to the content. That’s fine. Read it and decide for your own family. I wish more parents would do that — get involved in their kids’ reading and discuss the issues the books portray. But don’t make that decision for everyone else’s family by limiting a book’s availability and burying the issue under guise of a “curriculum discussion.”

But you all know my views on banning books — any books. What I really want to say today is this (close your eyes, Dr. Scroggins, as you’ll likely find this content alarming):

Not every teen who has sex or experiments with drinking feels remorseful about it. Not every teen who has sex gets pregnant, gets someone pregnant, or contracts an STD. Not every teen who has sex does so while in a serious relationship. Not every teen who has sex outside of a relationship feels guilty, shameful, or regretful later on. And you can ban my books from every damn district in the country — I’m still not going to write to send messages or make teens feel guilty because they’ve made choices that some people want to pretend don’t exist.

That’s my choice. And I’ll never be ashamed of my choice to write about real issues.

You know what, just for Dr. Scroggins, I’m giving away 2 copies of TWENTY BOY SUMMER to random commenters. Happy reading, all. And thanks for speaking loudly! Update: the winners have been chosen and notified by email, but please keep those comments coming! I appreciate the discussion and I’m so grateful for the outpouring of support! THANK YOU!

All This Darkness! What to Buy The Grownup Reader? (A Parody)

Note: this article is a parody of the stupidness going on over here: Darkness Too Visible, by Meghan Cox Gurdon

Contemporary fiction for grownups is exploding with explicit abuse, violence, depravity, scandal, lies, casual sex, crime, conspiracy, oneupmanship, financial ruin, loose morals, overt glorification of generally bad ideas, and boobs.

Why is no one talking about this?

I recently stood slack-jawed in the adult fiction section of my local big box book store, having decided that supporting my community while getting personalized recommendations by professionals who generally adore books and make it their business to know exactly what sorts of things a reader will love was just not on my to-do list this year, feeling stupefied and helpless.

I was searching for a gift for a grownup friend (at the risk of sounding tokenistic, some of my best friends are grownups and I have a great relationship with “the grownups” as a whole), but at every turn, my poor and tired eyes were met with red-and-black covers with proclamations in huge typeface that screamed IMPENDING DOOM. The titles alone gave me instant nightmares: BURIED PREY? SIXKILL? THE FINAL STORM? THOSE IN PERIL? It was all, like, conspiracy and apocalypse and vampires, murder and incest, thinly veiled racism that seriously undercuts our upstanding moral code as a nation — especially when it comes to the impressionable sensibilities of our country’s adult population.

I was astonished and more than a little appalled, frankly, that adult fiction had gotten so dark. How dark, you ask? Well, as a person who doesn’t actually read adult fiction, and doesn’t remember what it was like to be an adult, and in fact categorically looks down on adults as out of touch and unable to think a single original thought without their mass media drip feed, I’m obviously very highly qualified to answer this question: adult fic is so dark, why, just writing this blog post about the darkness requires a sun lamp, a clove ciggie, and a bottle of chilled Bombay Sapphire, lest I become apathetic and socially disengaged by all the dark-mongering and partake in some totally grownup coping mechanism like, IDK… spawning an illegitimate child with my housekeeper, tweeting pictures of my crotch and lying about it and then not lying about it, sexually assaulting a hotel staff person, shooting at people with an AK-47, deciding that forced sexual intercourse isn’t actually rape if the woman said no but didn’t physically fight back, taking away health benefits for the really old people, causing the collapse of the free market economy, or any of the other “that’s sooo grownup” activities I’ve read about in today’s news. It’s so dark that in a single book, let’s call it Martin’s GAME OF THRONES, the first few chapters alone cover the alarmingly black topics of incest, rape, slavery, beheading, something with magic wolves, dragon eggs, forced marriage, poisoning, and native women dressed in all-too-revealing animal skins, every curve described in such excruciatingly vivid detail that the book may as well be called GAME OF BOOBS.

If books are a lens unto the world, the adult section at my local big box bookstore is a magnifying glass unto the ass of the ant of decency, people. Obviously not every book aimed at tender-minded grownups is pure evil, but for the careless old reader, or one who actively seeks out licentiousness and vice (yes, those rare tainted souls certainly exist in the world of grownups, much as we’d like to stick our heads in the sand and pretend otherwise!), the path to the wicked world of horrendous literary indecency and exalted iniquity is a mere swipe of the overextended debit card away.

I mean, look at Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD. Total effing downer, man! Books like that are why people like Harold Camping ring the doomsday bells every few years. He probably picked up that story looking for a fun armchair travel read, or perhaps hoping for a movie-still of Viggo Mortensen’s naked ass (who hasn’t! That movie was called Eastern Promises, though, FYI), getting instead a bleak tale of violence and cannibalism, roving gangs of rapists and murderers, death and mayhem and utter hopelessness on every page. Rapture? Don’t bother. Might as well just off yourself after reading something like that, bud.

Speaking of gratuitously morally bankrupt books made into movies, have you read Dan Brown’s bestselling THE DAVINCI CODE? He practically accuses Holy Mother Mary of cashing in her V-card. Talk about blasphemy! And what’s up with this Sookie Stackhouse person, anyway? Come on, Charlaine Harris! Don’t you know that grownups are feeble-minded, easily spooked, and downright impressionable? You think you can just write about vampires and sex and sex with vampires and not impact — dare I say, shatter — the entirely too delicate worldview of adults?

I realize these authors believe they’re validating the grownup experience, giving comfort and succor and a real voice to an otherwise subverted, subjugated, sublevel subgroup. But hasn’t anyone considered the obvious fact that such stories, rather than validating a terrible yet ultimately rare experience, in fact normalize a collective thirst for blood, no pun intended? Feed the flames of sickness and immorality? Infect the weak-minded with negativity and self-loathing? Give otherwise good, well-meaning grownups some really bad ideas, the consequences of which the soft folds of their brains simply can’t comprehend?

Honestly, folks, let’s call this complete lack of censorship and mind control what it is: lazy, lackadaisical, inexcusable buck-passing in an era where none of us wants to claim any responsibility for ensuring that our adult population survives this difficult transition. You’ve all heard the rhetoric: it’s not our job to raise other people’s parents — their own kids should do it! Their bosses and teachers should do it! CNN should do it!

No, friends. I’m afraid it’s down to us. For if not we — the wise and knowing and all-presumptuous — who will take a stand against authors and publishers and booksellers who insist on filling the heads of old people with filth, flarn, and smut? Who will save the lives of those endearing yet ultimately etiolated adults who learn how to commit rape in books like BASTARD OUT OF CAROLINA or how to fake a nervous breakdown after devouring THE BELL JAR? What if they read the original, unedited version of THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN and learn the dreaded n-word? What if Kerouac’s ON THE ROAD inspires them on a road-tripping, poetry-writing, substance-abusing bender?

If it’s true what the experts at the Wall Street Journal (that bastion of journalistic integrity and forward-thinking) say, “Entertainment does not merely gratify taste, after all, but creates it,” then frankly, I’m concerned for our future as a people. Because if authors and publishers and booksellers don’t stop shoving misery and depravity down grownups’ tender pink gullets — if they can’t come up with more appealing, relevant, and appropriately non-dark works of substance for the adult reader — if they can’t write and sell stories that stop encouraging rampant extramarital fornication, brutal criminal acts, the rape of our natural resources by corporate giants run by hapless adults, and the near-complete and utter effing-over of society by a bunch of grownups in suits who obviously learned the how-tos and justifications of bad behavior from novels glorifying such debauchery and turpitude — the adult reader, and those slack-jawed gift-givers like myself, will be forced to make the most immoral, appalling, and dangerous choice of all: to shop in the YA section.

Let’s all pour a little out for the collective loss of innocence, shall we?

*Takes another swig of Sapphire.*
*Spits on the floor*

Brown & Caletti: NYT Book Review Misses the Point (Again)

BITTER END by Jennifer BrownThis weekend’s Sunday Book Review featured two of my favorite YA authors: Jennifer Brown and her new release, BITTER END, and Deb Caletti and her latest, STAY. Both novels deal with abusive relationships—a brutally tough subject to tackle in fiction, especially in fiction for teens.

Stories like Brown’s and Caletti’s are important, and I’m thrilled to see the books covered by the New York Times. But the article, Novels About Abusive Relationships by Lisa Belkin, goes off the rails right in opening line:

The purpose of young adult literature is often twofold: to tell a story, and to send a message, usually in the form of a much-needed lesson.

Cringing yet?

STAY by Deb CalettiThis broad categorization of YA as Establisher of Morals and Teacher of Wayward Youth (there should totally be a cape and a catchphrase, right?) is as outmoded as my Sony Walkman (no offense to those of you still rockin’ cassettes, but…). As soon as I read that opening line, I knew Belkin would miss the point of Brown and Caletti’s books and any YA titles she chooses to review.


She just doesn’t get it.

Like I tell my students in our YA novel workshop, the purpose of young adult fiction is singular: to tell a story. Period. Learning lessons and adjusting moral compasses might be an outcome of the reading, but that’s entirely up to the reader. If it’s going to happen it all, it will happen organically as she’s experiencing the journey of the story along with the characters. Of course authors should care about their subject matter, and should always write with something important to say. Call that an underlying message if you’d like, but much as the “do as I say, not as I do” lectures from parents, the moment a novel is crafted with the specific intent to send messages or teach lessons, the audience tunes out.

Belkin assumes:

When today’s parents were themselves young adults, they were reading books about adolescents but written for grown-ups (“The Bell Jar,” “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” “Go Ask Alice”). The books their children are reading, though, don’t even pretend to appeal to grown-ups — which is, of course, part of their appeal.

This is just another example of a grown-up—one who doesn’t understand or like YA fiction—dismissing the entire category as trite, unimportant, non-literature (*cough* Julie Just and the Parent Problem, anyone? *cough*). Belkin misses the mark here, too. YA doesn’t have to pretend—lots of it does appeal to grown-ups. It’s one of the reasons the category turns a profit year after year despite all the gloom-and-doom news from the publishing industry: teens aren’t the only ones buying up (and devouring) those books.

Belkin wraps it up with these thoughts about BITTER END and STAY:

Moreover, the need to tell a good story gets in the way of the message… Any girl who needs guidance navigating a threatening relationship will probably not find it here. But this assumes teenagers are more interested in morals than in sex and drama…

The need to tell a good story trumps all else in fiction. And in music, art, dance, photography, poetry, and arguably any creative expression. We create to share stories and make real human connections to universal truths and experiences, not to teach finger-wagging lessons. Sex and drama? Yes, please. More, please. That’s part of real life. Ask a teen if she’s interested in reading morals and lessons or real life stuff, what do you think she’ll say?

(Hint: If you’re still pondering the answer, you might want to reacquaint yourself with teen culture by snagging a few YA books on tape for your Sony Walkman.)

When it comes to girls who need help navigating an abusive relationship—or sex, sexuality, parental divorce, grief and loss, peer pressure, drugs and alcohol, mental illness, eating disorders, falling in love, friend betrayals, or any number of real life challenges teens face every day—I encourage Ms. Belkin to resist the urge to assume she knows where they’ll find guidance. Like any novel—YA, adult, or otherwise—STAY and BITTER END won’t be right for every reader. Some won’t like the characters, or they won’t connect to the story, or the writing styles won’t appeal to their individual palettes. But one of those stories might be the very thing someone reads before she finally understands she’s not alone. It might help her deal with her issues and get out of danger.

It might save her life.

That’s why it kills me when adults who don’t even try to understand YA so casually dismiss these stories, blaming their own inability to relate to, connect with, and appreciate the narrative not on personal reader taste or issues with the construction of the story, but on so-called “pitfalls of the genre.”

Pitfalls of the genre? More like pitfalls of adulthood, particularly when adults don’t remember what it’s like to be a teen. I’m all for debate and critical reviews, especially when those reviews are thoughtful and engaging. What I’m not for is unilaterally dismissing YA novels based on ridiculous and outdated expectations of what young adult literature is supposed to be or do. Every novel is unique, and each deserves to be read and reviewed for its individual storytelling merit, not for its ability to spin the “proper” cautionary tale.

Dessen in Denver!

Update: The winner of the autographed copy of WHAT HAPPENED TO GOODBYE by Sarah Dessen is Angela Huang! Thanks for participating, all, and for sharing your heartfelt stories.

Just got back from dinner following an awesome event at Tattered Cover in Highlands Ranch with Sarah Dessen, on tour for her latest, WHAT HAPPENED TO GOODBYE!

You all know about my Dessen-love from the early days, right? Well, in case you’re new around here, let me tell you, because it’s pretty simple.

She’s the reason I write YA. Without her books, TWENTY BOY SUMMER and FIXING DELILAH wouldn’t exist.

Sarah Dessen & Sarah OcklerNo, really. Her books THAT SUMMER and SOMEONE LIKE YOU, which were combined in the movie tie-in edition called HOW TO DEAL, were my first YA reads as an adult (because at the time, I was like, hey, two books for the price of one, with Mandy Moore on the cover? Sweet!), soon followed by Laurie Halse Anderson’s SPEAK and Deb Caletti’s THE QUEEN OF EVERYTHING. After that, I knew I was born to write for teens. These lovely ladies are like my trifecta of fangrildom, and now I can honestly say that I’ve appropriately (or maybe inappropriately) fangirled all three in person. All that and I got to eat something called “adult mac-n-cheese” for dinner and bring home a whole container of chocolate chip brownies from my friend Meredith. Now I’ll spend the next two days reading Sarah’s WHAT HAPPENED TO GOODBYE, turing pages while alternately jamming brownies into my mouth.

Do you realize what this means? That even if the world ends next Saturday like all those crazies keep saying, I can go out with a smile and a sigh, because my life will be complete.

What Happened to GoodbyeHow can your life be so complete, you ask? Well, I can’t send you brownies, but tonight I snagged an extra autographed copy of WHAT HAPPENED TO GOODBYE for one lucky reader!

To enter for a chance to win, leave a comment here and tell us about a time you had to leave without saying goodbye. Take it as literally or as figuratively as you’d like — maybe you had to rush home after a party, or you got into a fight and stormed out, or you forgot. Or maybe you found yourself at a new place or a new part of your life and realized you never really let the old part go. Or maybe you ate the last brownie only didn’t know it was the last brownie, and your spouse was all, “I can’t believe you didn’t save me any brownies!” and you were all, “What? I didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye to that last brownie, and now they’re gone!” Not saying that the last one’s a true story or anything… just for illustrative purposes… *anyway*

Enter your comments below for a chance to win, and if you tweet, blog, or Facebook about the giveaway, mention that in your comments and I’ll give you an extra entry. Fine print: autographed book does not come with brownies. I can probably add some brownied fingerprints though, if you ask nicely. 🙂

Sarah Dessen

Sarah Dessen at Tattered Cover

Dessen Fangirls

Thanks again to Sarah Dessen for being so gracious in the face of my nervous and possibly borderline stalkerish babbling, and thanks as always to Jinx, Mickey, and the wonderful staff at Tattered Cover who make reading and writing in Denver so impossibly great.