Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman

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“It’s not like the car manufacturers are much help. I mean, with modern technology, you’d think our cars could diagnose themselves, but no, all there is on the dashboard is this moronic ‘check engine’ light that comes on whenever there’s anything wrong – which proves that automobiles are more organic than we think. They’re obviously modeled on the human brain.

There are many ways in which the ‘check brain’ light illuminates, but here’s the screwed-up part: the driver can’t see it. It’s like the light is positioned in the backseat cup-holder, beneath an empty can of soda that’s been there for a month. No one sees it but the passengers – and only if they’re really looking for it, or when the light gets so bright and so hot that it melts the can, and sets the whole car on fire” (Shusterman, 2015, p. 107).

As I mentioned on my Goodreads account, this book was quite a wild ride! I didn’t know much about it when I first started reading, besides the fact that it dealt with mental illness. Because of that, it took me a few chapters to get the hang of Shusterman’s writing style. The story focuses on fifteen year old Caden Bosch, a boy who has (up until this point, at least) been a brilliant student and blossoming artist. From the very beginning of the story, however, it is apparent that something is not quite right in his mind. The story is separated into short, chapter-like segments, constantly switching from our reality and the reality in Caden’s head.

In reality, Caden is admitted to a mental hospital, where he meets a colorful cast of characters, including Dr. Pierot (his doctor), Carlyle (his group counselor), and Callie (a fellow patient). In his mind, however, Caden is on a ship headed for the deepest part of the ocean (known as Challenger Deep). Each of the characters he meets in reality has a counterpart in this narrative, which is both a metaphor for his illness and a way for him to cope with that illness. The novel is punctuated at different parts by artwork from Neal Shusterman’s son, who himself once struggled with schizophrenia and mental illness. The drawings add a sense of realism to the work that would not be present otherwise, and the work gives us a very real glimpse into the mind of a mentally ill person.

Once I understood the writing style (and what the two realities meant), this book was not at all hard to understand. Even the initial confusion is, in my opinion, necessary, as it gives the reader an idea of what it might be like to suffer from debilitating mental illness. We are meant to be confused, and to not know which parts are reality and which are not, as that is what Caden is feeling until he seeks help for his illness.

Throughout the novel, I had fun piecing together the conflicting realities in a way that made sense. As the novel progresses, Shusterman slowly reveals who each character from Caden’s mind represents, though I won’t spoil any of them here. The most intriguing figure, and one who does not have a real-world counterpart until the very end, is the captain; when I finally discovered who he is, I was both shocked and saddened. It really gave me a new perspective on the complicated world of mental illness. I also thought the metaphor of mental illness being a deep abyss (from which one has to claw his or her way out of) was extremely brilliant; supposedly, this idea came from a quote from Shusterman’s son, in which he said that his illness sometimes felt like he was at the bottom of the ocean screaming at the top of his lungs (where nobody could hear him). This, to me, is an extremely accurate way of looking at mental illness, as it is something that only those who have suffered from it understand. While I have never suffered from mental illness as extreme as Caden’s, I appreciated the glimpse this novel gave me into that mindset.

This novel portrays mental illness in a sympathetic, yet unflinching way; it is not sugar-coated or glorified, and it is probably the most realistic look at mental illness I have ever seen in a young adult book. Part of that is probably due to the fact that Brendan Shusterman (the author’s son and the inspiration for this book) was able to provide insight into the world of mental illness. As Neal Shusterman himself says at the end of the book, “Challenger Deep is by no means a work of fiction” (2015, p. 310). The entire work is inspired and informed by real experiences, and that makes the work all the more credible. It’s very easy to see why this title won the National Book Award.

That being said, I would not recommend this book to a reluctant or struggling reader. The writing style, though beautiful and poetic, is highly complicated, and not something that everyone will enjoy or appreciate. I believe it could be extremely helpful for someone facing mental illness, as I believe that it does a great job of portraying the confusion and pain of mental illness. A teen going through something similar could easily say, “Hey, this author understands me.” At the same time, this book gives those of us who have not experienced mental illness an idea of what it’s like, thus creating empathy and understanding from those who suffer from it. If you’re an avid reader, or someone who has been touched in some way by mental illness, you will definitely appreciate the pure beauty and poetry of this book.

Reference:

Shusterman, N., & Shusterman, B. (2015). Challenger Deep. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

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Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

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“It is definitely annoying that straight (and white, for that matter) is the default, and that the only people who have to think about their identity are the ones who don’t fit that mold. Straight people really should have to come out, and the more awkward it is, the better. Awkwardness should be a requirement. I guess this is sort of our version of the Homosexual Agenda?” (Albertalli, 2015, p. 147).

“The Homosexual Agenda? I don’t know. I think it’s more like the Homo Sapiens Agenda. That’s really the point, right?” (Albertalli, 2015, p. 148).

Welcome to the new and improved version of this blog! I’ve decided to keep it going after the conclusion of my class, as I’ve really enjoyed sharing my thoughts on YA literature with the world for these last few weeks. As a caveat, however, these posts will not be nearly as formal as they were when I was being graded for them, though my thoughts will remain real and unfiltered. I will also only be posting here on SOME of the books I read; for the rest, feel free to check out my Goodreads account. Even when I don’t post here, I will always post my thoughts there! But enough house-keeping; let’s get on to my review!

This book follows the story of sixteen-year-old Simon Spier, a boy who is grappling with the decision to come out to his friends and family. For the past few months, he’s been e-mailing back and forth with someone known to him only as “Blue,” another boy who goes to his school. The two have a strong, almost instant connection, and help one another to navigate the harsh waters of high school. When one of Simon’s e-mails to Blue is accidentally discovered by Martin, a classmate with a reputation for being the class clown, Simon is black-mailed into helping him land a date with Abby, one of Simon’s best friends. What follows is a story about friendship, love, family, and the trials that come with high school.

I absolutely LOVED this book. Simon is perhaps the sweetest fictional character I have ever come across, and I loved following his journey throughout the novel. I had a lot of fun trying to figure out who Blue was as the story progressed, and I’m proud to say that I had it pretty much figured out before I’d even reached the halfway point. That being said, I love that this novel focused much more on the emotional connection between the two characters than it did a physical relationship; so many young adult novels tend to skip this part of a relationship, but I think it’s the most important for truly getting to know someone. I also love that this novel did not stereotype any of the characters, and this applies to more than just the LGBT characters in the book. Martin, for example, could have easily been a one-note bully, but he actually forms a friendship with Simon as the novel progresses, eventually feeling extremely guilty about choosing to black-mail him.

I also loved that the novel portrayed not only completely normal LGBT relationships, but completely normal interracial relationships as well. I hate to say this in our day and age, but interracial relationships are far less common in literature than I would like. This book has absolutely no problems tackling “taboo” subjects, and I appreciate the author’s willingness to portray these issues honestly and without a filter. While some parents might take offense to the fact that there is cussing, alcohol, masturbation, and discussions about sex in this book, I found it all to be entirely normal. High school is a time period when many teens are questioning everything: their religion, their sexuality, and their identity as a whole. Books like this are instrumental in helping them to see that the struggles they are facing are entirely normal, and nothing to be ashamed of.

While it might not have been extremely realistic in conservative Georgia (where the novel takes place), I’m glad that Albertalli gave both Simon and Blue (who I will not reveal here for the sake of having a spoiler-free review) supportive parents. I think it’s incredibly important for teens questioning their sexuality to know that there are supportive adults out there, and many places for them to turn if their parents are unsupportive. Just like with heterosexual relationships, it’s also important for LGBT teens to see representation in the form of positive, healthy relationships between gay and lesbian teens; seeing themselves portrayed respectfully in literature is a monumental step towards normalizing their sexuality, something that is exceedingly important in today’s intolerant society. This book portrays a wonderful message about having the courage to be yourself, and it does so with both wit and humor. I loved every second of this book, and I definitely recommend it to fans of YA literature everywhere!

Reference:

Albertalli, B. (2015). Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda. New York, NY: Balzer Bray.

Week 13 – Keeping the Moon by Sarah Dessen

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“While spending the summer at her eccentric artist aunt’s house, Colie reinvents herself with the help of two older girls who waitress with her, regaining the confidence she lost when she was overweight and picked on. Supporting characters tend to steal the show in this first-person novel, because the narrator is bland and timid by comparison, even after her transformation occurs” (The Horn Book Guide, 2000).

What better way to finish off this blog than to read another book for teen girls? I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised by this book. I’d never read Sarah Dessen’s work before, but I’d heard great things about her from the teens who frequented the bookstore where I used to work. I had always assumed that Dessen’s work was “chick lit: those often (though not always) humorous novels aimed at female readers in pursuit of romance and/or designer labels” (Cart, 2010, p. 89). Chick lit, as the name implies, is not a very flattering label: books marked as “chick lit” are usually seen as being shallow and lacking substance. While it is very clear that this book was marketed towards girls, however, I found it to be much neither shallow nor lacking in substance. I suppose this was a case of me judging a book by its cover, which I should have known better by now than to do!

Keeping the Moon focuses on the story of Nicole Sparks, known to her friends and family as “Colie.” Colie has recently lost a great deal of weight, all thanks to her mother’s new-found fame as Kiki Sparks, fitness instructor. When her mother chooses to go to Europe for the summer on a tour to promote her products, Colie is forced to live with her eccentric aunt – essentially her worst nightmare. What she discovers, however, are two new friends, a budding romance, and a new-found confidence that she didn’t know she possessed.

I’m going to start my critique of this book by comparing it to the first book that I read for this blog, Judy Blume’s Forever. Though both are written by women, and feature female protagonists, the two could not possibly be more different. While Forever focuses on a young teen navigating the tricky world of sex and dating, Keeping the Moon is much more about self-esteem and discovering oneself. At the beginning of the novel, Colie has just lost forty-five pounds. No longer overweight, she finds herself suddenly unsure of how to open up and let herself make friends. As Colie puts it, “the weight was like a force field, shielding me as I was plopped into one new school after another […] Now, almost fifty pounds lighter, I had nothing left to hide behind” (Dessen, 1999, pp. 5-6). Colie is naturally shy, perpetually afraid that the world will judge and mock her for who she is.

Despite the fact that I am now twenty-three years old, while Colie is fifteen, I found myself really relating to her struggle. I was bullied almost constantly in middle in high school, though less for my weight and more for my shy, awkward personality. I was never what anyone would call “popular;” in fact, I saw myself as a social outcast for much of my teenage life. Colie’s struggle to make friends was painfully familiar to me; it reminded me of the years I’d spent eating lunch alone and praying to remain invisible. Like Colie, however, I eventually found my way, though my transformation from a “caterpillar to a butterfly” (used as a metaphor for both losing weight and gaining self-confidence throughout the novel) did not happen until I was halfway through college (Dessen, 1999, pp. 98 – 99).

The theme of earning self-confidence is not a particularly heavy or controversial issue, as with the themes of sex and consent in Judy Blume’s Forever, but I could still see this book helping immensely for a young teenage girl who can see herself in Colie. While boys could certainly enjoy this book (as the themes of bullying and self-esteem are almost universal), I feel that this book would do best in the hands of either a shy teenage girl or one who might not be the strongest reader. The language is simple, the metaphors clearly identified, and yet the message is strong: it is incredibly important to stand up for and love yourself, as you are the only one who can transform yourself into the person you want to be. Colie’s lack of confidence and self-esteem almost cause her to miss out on the chance to find romance and friendship; it is only after she is comfortable being herself that she finds happiness. This is an important lesson for young girls to learn, especially with pop culture and media constantly telling them that they have to look and act a certain way.

I think the most important metaphor from the book can be found in the character of Colie’s aunt Mira, the eccentric artist who never lets the words of others get to her. Mira has a strange habit of collecting mismatched and slightly broken objects, leaving Colie to wonder why she doesn’t just use her inheritance money to buy things that actually work. Colie later realizes however, that this is all intentional; Mira sees untold value in the things that aren’t perfect: “For Mira, there were no lost causes. Everything, and everyone, had its purpose. The rest of the world, too often right, might have missed that” (1999, p. 119). As Mira herself states, “We’re all worth something” (p. 119). In fact, it takes Colie the entire novel to learn what her aunt knew all along; that nobody is perfect, and that everyone on earth holds worth despite that fact.

While this message is very different from that of Forever, both hold equally important value for teenage girls. I would absolutely recommend this to anyone struggling with issues of self-esteem, especially teenage girls. Navigating high school is hard enough without the constant pressure to be perfect, and I think Dessen hits the nail on the head with her portrayal of those insecurities we likely all held as teens. This is the absolute last time I will ever judge an author’s work before I get to know it; this book ended up being a rare gem that I would never have discovered if I hadn’t branched out to give it a shot.

References:

Cart, M. (2010). Young adult literature: From romance to realism. Chicago: ALA.

Dessen, S. (1999). Keeping the moon. New York: Viking.

Keeping the Moon. (2000, Spring). The Horn Book Guide, 11, 93.

Week 13 – Stella by Starlight by Sharon M. Draper

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“Eleven-year-old Stella is a deep thinker who often sneaks out of the house and writes under the starlight. Writing helps Stella makes sense of life in segregated 1932 Bumblebee, North Carolina. There’s plenty of action: cross burnings, house burnings, a snakebite, a near-drowning, and a beating. But at its core, this story is one of a supportive African American community facing tough times” (Schneider, 2015).

While this book is not technically a young adult title, it is one of many titles I’ve read for this class that could be considered “crossover” fiction. Much like Fairest by Gail Carson Levine, and El Deafo by Cece Bell (other titles I have reviewed on this blog), I feel as if this is a book that could be enjoyed by both children and teens. Where Fairest and El Deafo were much lighter and more suited for children, I feel as if Stella by Starlight is suited more for mature children and young teens (though I also thoroughly enjoyed it as an adult). It focuses on very serious historical issues, and deals with heavy themes such as racism and prejudice, which might be difficult for younger or weaker readers to understand.

The story focuses on Stella, a young girl growing up in the segregated south in the 1930s. Her small town of Bumblebee, North Carolina has been mostly peaceful in recent years, but trouble begins to brew the night she and her brother Jojo witness a clan rally taking place by the pond near their house. The Ku Klux Klan, angered at the prospect of African Americans being given the right to vote, have become much more active, setting Stella’s community on edge. This story, told from Stella’s perspective, presents the outrageous events of the 1930s through the eyes of an innocent child. While there is no murder or lynching in the story (though lynching is mentioned briefly), a great deal of the violence of this time period is shown: a black family’s house is burned down, Stella’s friend Tony is viciously attacked by grown white men, and a white doctor refuses to help Stella’s mother when she is bitten by a deadly snake. Overall, it is an excellent introduction for younger readers to the history of the segregated south; it is tastefully written, but does not skirt around the historical issues.

During my time working in the children’s section of a local bookstore, I was constantly being asked for new and exciting works of historical fiction for children. Unfortunately, I had never read much of this genre as a child, so I never had many suggestions. Lately, it seems as if more and more intriguing works of historical fiction are being written for children and teens, and I think that’s wonderful. Children, just like adults, need to know about our nation’s history, especially the darker parts that we don’t usually feel comfortable discussing. I was surprised at just how relevant this book is to our own time, as there is still a great deal of prejudice and racism in the country today. In the deep south especially, there are still heavily segregated communities, and areas where the two races almost never mingle. In writing fiction that focuses on this difficult part of our history, Sharon Draper is shedding light on a time period that, as much as we’d like to forget it, is a period that we absolutely have to talk about today.

Besides the heavy themes in the novel, I also really enjoyed the narration provided by Stella. Because she is young, Stella is a little naive, but she has  wisdom and intuition beyond her years. Take the following quote, for example, as Stella is attempting to write about herself: “Besides, sometimes things that look pretty, like secret fire in the darkness, are really pretty ugly” (Draper, 2015, p. 67). In this quote, Stella moves from discussing her looks to talking about the burning cross she saw at the beginning of the novel. As the story progresses, we see this idea played out over and over again: the pristine white hospital has a sign on it that says “white patients only,” and the doctor’s beautifully decorated saddle and freshly pressed KKK robes symbolize the darkness and hatred that comes from racism. That is a powerful connection for an eleven year old girl to make, but one that is absolutely believable during a time when even African American children had to fear for their safety around white people. As I said before, these issues are still extremely relevant to our own society; while we have made great progress, racism is still alive and well, and it shows in both the formation of the Black Lives Matter group and the increased interest in issues of police brutality and white-washing in Hollywood.

The reason I believe that this book is suited for both children and teens is because of the darker issues it deals with. While the blow is softened a little by the child’s point of view, the realities of history are not sugar-coated. The white doctor (and revealed member of the KKK) does not mend his ways at the end; in fact, it is revealed that he is abusive to his own wife and daughter as well as being highly racist. These are extremely heavy issues for a children’s book, but issues that absolutely need to be discussed. I would gladly use this book in an elementary or middle school history class, as it is an excellent book for starting a dialogue about racism and prejudice. This book would also be a wonderful addition to any Black History Month display, as it deals with a part of history that is not often talked about in children’s fiction. While some parents might feel uncomfortable with their children reading this book, I think it’s crucial that they sit down and read it for themselves before deciding, as this book has the potential to be an excellent teaching tool for issues of race and racism.

References:

Draper, S. M. (2015). Stella by Starlight. New York, NY: Atheneum Books for Young Readers.

Schneider, D. (2015, Fall). Draper, Sharon M.: Stella by Starlight. The Horn Book Guide, 26(2), 80.

Bonus – Looking for Alaska by John Green

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“The Printz Award-winning novel that kickstarted John Green’s career and introduced a whole generation of teens to a new era of YA literature is turning 10 this year. Though the text itself remains the same, there are many extras included in this edition. There is an introduction by Green himself, a helpful Q & A section, and, perhaps most interesting for scholars, portions of the original manuscript that didn’t make it into the final book, along with correspondence between Green and his editor. Purists may gasp to hear that the now-iconic “smoking” cover has been redesigned. But take heart; the new jacket, created by Rodrigo Corral, pays homage to the original with a deep black background and a subtle wisp of smoke. Replace worn copies and introduce a whole new crop of teens to this new classic” (School Library Journal, 2015).

Although I have not read this book in about a year, I remember absolutely loving it. In fact, I was so enamored with the themes and messages in it that I decided to write an entire paper defending it against potential censors for my LIS 614 class (for which this entire blog was created). Even though I did not read Looking for Alaska specifically for this class, I thought I would post my review of it here anyways as a “bonus entry.” Fear not; this blog is by no means complete. I’m just adding this entry to share my thoughts on what I believe is one of John Green’s best works of fiction.

Looking for Alaska follows the story of young Miles Halter, a boy who has just chosen to attend a boarding school in Alabama for his junior year of high school. Miles is a bit peculiar; he has very few (if any) friends, and is obsessed with knowing the “famous last words” of historical figures. When he gets to the boarding school, known as Culver Creek Preparatory High School, he meets a cast of colorful characters who quickly become his closest friends. First there is his roommate Chip Martin, known throughout the novel as “The Colonel.” The Colonel then introduces Miles to his friends: Takumi Hikohito, an emcee with a love of hip-hop, and Alaska Young, a mysterious beauty with a troubled past and a unique outlook on life.

Alaska, though troubled, shares Miles’s obsession with famous last words, and opens up an entirely new world for him as they get to know one another throughout the novel. The events in Looking for Alaska ultimately lead up to a single, climactic event, and the novel is organized into two segments focused around that event: a “before” segment and an “after” segment. Though filled with controversial topics (such as sex, smoking, and the consumption of alcohol), the entire novel focuses primarily on both the trials of growing up and what it means to truly live.

Among the many issues that Looking for Alaska tackles is mental health, as the titular character Alaska grapples with what could be considered either depression or bipolar disorder throughout the novel. Though never expressly discussed, it is clear to both Alaska and the other characters around her that she is suffering from some sort of mental illness, something that becomes painfully clear in the second half of the book (as we near the “After” segment). Without giving away the ending, the novel climaxes in one singular, tragic event, leaving all of the characters to attempt to process what has happened. Another big theme in this book, relating to the concept of mental illness and suicide, is the theme of mortality. Miles, the protagonist, begins the novel obsessed with “famous last words,” and seems to focus (as many of Green’s characters do) on the idea of mattering and leaving something worthwhile behind after he leaves the world. These are incredibly deep issues for a young adult book, and could be immensely helpful to a teen struggling with mental illness or the concept of his or her own mortality.

In my opinion, the best quote in the book comes near the end, as Miles is reflecting on his experiences with Alaska: “And then something invisible snapped inside her, and that which had come together commenced to fall apart” (Green, 2005, p. 196). In this scene, Miles and his friends are desperately trying to piece together what happened before the tragic event. Though mental illness is not the focus of this story, the novel does an excellent job describing the way it often ebbs and flows. Throughout the novel, Alaska has moments of both hysteria and clarity, reflecting on the world in the way only someone with an immensely different experience of it can do. The idea of suicide is also mentioned briefly, and though nobody ever comes to a definitive conclusion on the matter, the way the characters work through the concept is both moving and powerful. While some might criticize these subjects as being “too heavy” for teenagers to bear, I believe it’s an excellent resource for someone who may be struggling with these ideas. As John asserts in his “I Am Not a Pornographer” video (which is directed towards censors of Looking for Alaska), teens deserve a lot more credit than adults usually gives them when discussing these topics.

If I were to use this book in either a classroom or library setting, I would absolutely want to use it to talk about issues like sex, mental health, and struggling in school. Though Miles is clearly smart, he sometimes has trouble expressing this in an academic setting, and it’s important for teens to have that type of character to relate to. Alaska, on the other hand, represents an intelligent, unique, and deeply troubled individual who teaches Miles how to open up and live his life to the fullest (teaching him to “seize the day,” so to speak). I can most definitely see why this book is often used in high school classrooms, as it talks about these issues in a way that both respects the intelligence of teens and teaches important lessons (without feeling preachy). One of Green’s greatest skills is writing books that teens can connect to, and weaving subtle lessons into those books that leave teens feeling more like he understands them and less like he’s trying to “teach them something.” Even ten years after it’s publication, it’s easy to see why Looking for Alaska has remained a modern classic; it rightfully propelled John Green into a writing career that I fervently hope he continues to embrace.

References:

Green, John. Looking for Alaska. (2015, January). School Library Journal, 61(1), 62+.

Green, J. (2005). Looking for Alaska: A novel. New York: Dutton Children’s Books.

Vlogbrothers. (2008). I Am Not a Pornographer. Retrieved April 01, 2016, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fHMPtYvZ8tM

Week 12 – Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out by Susan Kuklin

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“Rather than attempting to convey the spectrum of transgender experience through a multitude of voices, Kuklin focuses on just six young people whose gender identities are something other than what they were labeled at birth. Photographs (of most of the subjects) are candid and winning; appended material, including a Q&A with the director of a clinic for transgender teens, is valuable” (Sutton, 2014).

This was the second book I’ve ever listened to in audio format, and I have to say that I really enjoyed listening to these stories. If I had to choose again, however, I would prefer to have the physical book, as it includes both pictures of some of the teens and useful appended material (as the review above mentions). I found myself having to look up pictures of each of the participants as I read, wanting to be able to put a face to the story. I found the book itself to be extremely powerful, however, and feel as if I learned a lot more about the needs and struggles of the transgender community. This book does not tell the story of every transgender person (as that would likely be an impossible feat), but it provides an excellent entry point into their unique world and experiences.

The book tells the stories of six teens: Jessy, Christina, Mariah, Nat, Cameron, and Luke. These teens have either made the transition to another gender, are currently in the process of transitioning, or have identified as gender neutral. While I really enjoyed hearing their stories, my criticisms are the same as many others who have read this book. I understand that Kuklin was not using these six teens to represent all transgender individuals, her scope is extremely narrow. For one, most of these teens come from the same general area (New York City), and while their experiences are very different, they only really represent one area of the United States. It would’ve been nice to see a teen from a state in the Bible belt, for example, as their experiences are necessarily going to be very different from someone who grew up in a more progressive area.

Another issue I have with this book is that it has a surprisingly sexist view of gender. Almost all of the young participants make unsettling statements about what it means to be either a girl or a boy (for example, according to the teens in this book, girls have to be sensitive and enjoy gossiping, while boys have to be tough and into sports). I understand that these teenagers were young, and had been told their entire lives what the expectations are for each gender, but I was hoping they would be a little bit more open-minded about what each gender can and can’t do. I suppose this is an extremely valid commentary on the way our society views gender, but I would have liked the author (Susan Kuklin) to address these issues for young readers who might agree with these societal gender standards.

That being said, I honestly really enjoyed this book, as it’s the first I’ve seen that features candid, real stories of transgender teens. I don’t personally know anyone who is transgender, so it was extremely intriguing and interesting for me to get a glimpse into this world. Despite my issues with the work, I think this book would be an excellent resource for teens who are questioning their gender identity, as it presents the stories of teenagers who once faced the very same questions. One of the teens, Luke, had a very poignant view on the subject of being transgender, as can be seen in his poem found near the end of the book:

“They told me, ‘No.’ Said, ‘What are you?’ Said, ‘You gotta choose,’ said, ‘Pink or blue?’ And I said I’m a real nice color of magenta. Everyday extremists that made this world just black and white solid stripes of a penitentiary uniform, imprisoned ourselves with nothing but the ideas of who was on top and who was on bottom” (Kuklin, Chapter 12, 1:02).

While this is only a small part of the poem, I found it to be incredibly moving and powerful. It made me wish that I could give credit to the original author, though he is known only as ‘Luke’ in the book and his personal information is not revealed. In all of these stories, a common thread is the way that society perceives anyone who is different. Almost all of the teens mentioned their parents, peers, or other adults telling them that they could not choose who they wanted to be: instead, they were assigned a gender at birth and were expected to conform to that gender role.

With that in mind, I can see why so many of the teens in this book had very stereotypical views of gender; we as a society are taught that there are two genders and only two genders, and that deviating from these set paths is “abnormal” or “wrong.” As the poem says, it’s very “black and white,” and not at all descriptive of the real world (which is far more nuanced and complicated). I, like the author who compiled the stories, applaud these teens for their bravery and courage, and I’m grateful to them for giving me a small glimpse into their extraordinary lives.

As I’ve said for many books in this blog, Beyond Magenta is an excellent book to show teens that they’re not alone; I think it would be an excellent addition to the non-fiction section of either a school or public library. Librarians and educators could direct teens interested in transgender issues to this book as an introduction to the community. It is also an excellent source for reluctant readers, as it features the actual words of the teens who are telling their stories. Overall, Beyond Magenta is both accessible and informative, and will leave teens and adults alike wanting to know more about the culture of this unique community.

References:

Kuklin, S., Eby, T., Edwards, J., Haberkorn, T., Hernandez, R., Podehl, N., Ramirez, M., Wu, N. (2013). Beyond magenta: Transgender teens speak out. Grand Haven, MI: Brilliance Audio.

Sutton, R. (2014, Fall). Kuklin, Susan: Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out. The Horn Book Guide, 25(2), 141.

Week 11 – An Abundance of Katherines by John Green

an-abundance-of-katherines-by-john-green

“Green follows his Printz-winning Looking for Alaska with another sharp, intelligent story… The laugh-out-loud humor ranges from delightfully sophomoric to subtly intellectual, and the boys’ sarcastic repartee will help readers navigate the slower parts of the story, which involve local history interviews. The idea behind the book is that everyone’s story counts, and what Colin’s contributes to the world, no matter how small it may seem to him, will, indeed, matter. An appendix explaining the complex math is “fantastic,” or as the anagrammatically inclined Green might have it, it’s enough to make “cats faint.” (Dobrez, 2006).

Ever since I first read John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, I have been a huge fan of his work. While this one was not nearly as deep or heavy as his other novels, I found myself loving it nevertheless. The book focuses on the story of Colin Singleton, a child prodigy with a particular love of math, reading, and creating anagrams from unusual words. Colin also has a very particular type when it comes to dating: namely, girls named Katherine. At the beginning of the novel, he has just been dumped by his nineteenth Katherine, known throughout the story as “K-19.” Feeling lost and heartbroken, Colin turns to his best friend Hassan, who suggests that the two embark on a road trip in order to forget their sorrows. They eventually end up in Gutshot, Tennessee, a far-cry from their home city of Chicago. There, the two meet Lindsey Wells, her eccentric mother, and her group of friends. Zany adventures ensue when Colin and Hassan are enlisted to help interview older residents of the town, finding themselves caught up in a world where stories are sometimes the best way to be remembered.

Like I said, I loved this book, though there were quite a few problems. For one, I would not recommend this book to a reluctant or weak reader, as its full of rambling footnotes, random facts, eccentric language, and enough graphs and math formulas to make your head spin. While I enjoyed the quirky style in which John Green wrote this book, even I sometimes found it hard to stay invested due to all of the math and rambling. For example, on one page there is an enormous footnote dedicated solely to the ninety-nine word sentence Colin created in order to help him memorize the first ninety-nine digits of pi (Green, 2006, pp. 63 – 64). While I found this relatively funny, I can easily see how some readers might find this boring and monotonous. Like other John Green novels, the characters are also very quirky and unique, which can be either a good thing or a bad thing depending on the reader. Colin, the main character, is a child prodigy, and spouts off random facts and figures at often inappropriate times. As the novel progresses, he slowly begins to develop his own math theorem to explain his failed relationships, and that’s just not something that most teens can relate to (though they can probably relate to either dumping or being dumped by someone). The most realistic characters in this book are Lindsey’s friends, who talk and act more like average teens.

That being said, I loved this book for several reasons. First, it is entirely funny, unlike John Green’s heavier novels (namely The Fault in Our Stars and Looking for Alaska). After reading so many books with heavy, dark themes, it was nice to take a break and read something zany and fun. While there is a bit of heaviness near the end (which I won’t spoil), the novel ends on a relatively happy note, with the characters exploring what it means to truly matter. Secondly, this novel features a character (Hassan) who is both a Muslim and slightly overweight, which is an extremely rare combination in young adult literature. And, while being Muslim, Hassan is not perfectly devout: while he follows his religion, he is also realistic in that he curses and sometimes bends rules, much like any other religious teenager might. One of my favorite things about him is that he is not defined by his religion, and is seen as being much more than the “token” diverse character in the novel. In fact, the sub-plot involving Hassan has to do entirely with him choosing whether or not he wants to go to college, as he tends to be (as he calls it) a “not-doer” (Green, 2006, p. 195). Hassan is both smart and witty, and I applaud John Green for including such a diverse character in his work.

As I mentioned above, this novel seems to revolve around the central theme of “mattering,” and of contributing things to the world that will be remembered. Colin struggles with this idea throughout the novel, making distinctions between geniuses (who create new things) and prodigies (who simply re-hash facts that everyone already knows). Colin desperately wants to be known for more than just being a child prodigy; he wants his accomplishments to mean something on a much larger scale. My favorite quote in the book can be found near the end of the book, as the characters are discussing storytelling:

“Even if it’s a dumb story, telling it changes other people just the slightest little bit, just as living the story changes me. An infinitesimal change. And that infinitesimal change ripples outward – ever smaller but everlasting. I will get forgotten, but the stories will last. And so we all matter – maybe less than a lot, but more than none” (Green, 2006, p. 213).

As an avid reader, this quote really spoke to me because I am often touched by the stories I read. To me, this is the entire purpose of reading, to share in someone else’s experiences and to be changed in some small way by the stories that we read. If I were an author, I would find no greater pleasure in life than to be the one who changes someone else, even if it’s only a little bit. I really loved the message that we “matter as much as the things that matter to [us],” as it has the potential to comfort teens who might feel the same as Colin does at the beginning of the book. I guess, in that sense, Colin is pretty relatable, as he dreams of doing something worthwhile with his life. Don’t we all? While I would have a hard time recommending this book for classroom use, it would be a great book for either a teen book club or a “quirky and funny” book display in the library. While it might not be the easiest read for reluctant readers, fans of John Green and unconventional storytelling will love this book; it certainly took me on quite a journey!

References:

Dobrez, C. (2006). An Abundance of Katherines. Booklist, 102(22), 75.

Green, J. (2006). An abundance of Katherines. New York: Speak.