Revisiting The Baby-Sitters Club Series, a Seminal Classic
Let me tell you about my friend Riley. First thing you should know: it's totally her fault that right now you're looking at a picture of Kristy's Great Idea, the seminal classic that launched a series so infamous it is often spoken of in hushed and reverent tones. Yes, that's right. The Baby-Sitters Club series.
Riley and I share many obsessions: Suits, BookBub, puppies. But the obsession we probably spend the most time bonding over is our mutual love of children’s and YA lit. We both spend hours of our educator-lives talking about it. I write it. Riley reads it with a voracity that sometimes makes me wonder when she has time to eat. And we’re not picky: picture books, middle grade, YA every-genre-you-can-imagine. If it’s out there, one of us probably either has read it or wants to read it.
So when Riley sent me a link to The Baby Sitters Club Club podcast, it seemed immediately clear what she was going to suggest we do: re-read the series together while listening to the podcast for each book.
Yup. I was all over that idea like Claudia Kishi on a neon-colored fedora.
I don’t claim to be an expert on many things, but if there was one thing I knew during the course of my childhood, it was The Baby-Sitters Club series. I had the board game. The videos. (Little-known fact: there wasn’t just movies. There were also television-length episodes, which I owned on VHS.) I recently unearthed my collection of the first sixty-odd books, complete with Super Specials, whilst going through my parent’s attic. I made frequent Kid-Kits for the approximately zero baby-sitting jobs I was ever hired for. (Little-known fact: I sucked at baby-sitting. Kids made me nervous. But I sure did like reading about it.)
These are, truly, the books that made me a reader. Ann M. Martin was my gateway drug into much harder stuff: Morrison and Chaucer. Taking a trip down memory lane with my most beloved author of all time and her experiments with tween handwriting? I cannot wait.
And because it seems a given that Riley and I will spend a majority of this adventure texting each other back and forth with every weirdo thought we have while reading/listening, it only seems fair we share a window into our utterly bizarro book communications. So whenever we have a particularly fun or irreverent text convo about our BSC adventure, I’ll post it here for your book loving enjoyment. Consider this the birth of the Johanna and Riley Re-Read Stuff Sub-Blog.
(Are sub-blogs an actual thing? If not, I’d like credit for creating them.)
Feel free to follow along as we join the men (yes, you read that correctly: two dudes make this podcast) of The Baby-Sitters Club Club and text each other relentlessly about how many times Stacy’s blonde hair gets mentioned per book or why Kristy and Bart have such a hard time admitting their feelings for one another. I hear someone on the podcast has discovered themes of great religious significance in Dawn’s storyline. I anxiously await that revelation.
So here we go. Personally, I can’t wait for us to relive our childhoods while I try to figure out why I ever identified with Mary Anne.
Warning: this post has some very general spoilers for both my books and for Bill Konigsberg’s books Honestly Ben and Openly Straight. VERY general. You’re not going to find out who killed JFK or anything. But if you’re the type of person who hoped for Titanic to have a surprise ending, maybe stop reading here.
Warning #2: I’m in a rambly mood, and this blog post definitely shows it. I suspect Rafe’s writing teacher in Openly Straight would leave me some very critical feedback.
I’m having one of those writing weeks where I’m thinking a lot about endings. About when endings should be specific and when they should be vague. When they should be happy or sad or thrilling or cause great anger on the part of the reader. Endings are hard—in so many ways they define the message and purpose of a novel. What makes them even more complicated is that most our stories don’t have nice clean endings, no matter how unhappy or happy they are. So I spend a lot of time considering how I can be true to the reality of my characters’ lives and still tell the story I want to tell.
My solution? I spend a lot of time writing what I half-jokingly call happy-but-ambiguous endings. The happy-but-ambiguous ending is any story ending which leaves the character in a generally good place emotionally and physically but without definitive clarity that everything has “worked out” for them. It’s the kind of ending that leaves you, the reader, to write the details in your mind of what likely happens next, even though the story itself left you with no question that the character is going to be a-okay.
As a writer I have more than a small affection for the happy-but-ambiguous ending, and I’ve written several YA novels with endings that play in this ballpark. For me, these types of endings just feel more authentic. I’m writing about people’s lives, and the ends of the chapters in our lives rarely come with every problem wrapped up nicely or all questions answered. But I also tend to write more hopeful stories, so my novels also usually end on more optimistic notes—hence the happy-but-ambiguous tagline.
While I may love writing a good happy-but-ambiguous ending, more than one reviewer has expressed some dislike after hitting the last page in one of my novels. If you’ve read Thanks a Lot, John LeClair, you know that there’s a key detail I left very obviously unsaid at the end of the book…and not every reader on the planet was thrilled. That’s okay. I get it. Sometimes we read for escape, right? Sometimes we read because we’re looking to find one the happy little bows that isn’t tying things up nicely in our own lives. We want our characters to find the closure and clarity we’re desperately searching for.
Case in point: this past Sunday I was thinking about endings and reading Honestly Ben, Bill Konigsberg’s new companion to Openly Straight. First of all, if you haven’t read Honestly Ben or Openly Straight, I highly recommend both books. Konigsberg tackles so many important themes and questions in both, and the characters he creates are incredibly likeable. (Even the ones who are not always so likeable are quite likeable, if that makes sense.)
So there I was, moseying through Honestly Ben, and my Kindle was indicating I was near the end of the book. Already I could sense what was coming: the happy-but-ambiguous ending. All signs were pointing toward it. For one thing, I was too far into the book for all the various plots and subplots to be wrapped up perfectly. For another, Openly Straight also features a happy-but-ambiguous ending.
And yes, I am a lover of the happy-but-ambiguous ending. When I am writing them. But what happens when I read them? Let me tell you: I hit the last page of Honestly Ben, and it took all my strength not to either a) throw my poor Kindle at the wall or b) write Bill Konigsberg asking for a third book to be released immediately. I was left with a hundred question. What about the_____? How will Ben _____? Will Ben ____ now?
That’s the thing about human beings, I guess. We all know our stories are complex and dynamic and that happily ever afters only happen in fairy tales. But that doesn’t mean we ever stop wishing for those happily ever afters to appear.
I’m sure I’ll go on to write more happy-but-ambiguous endings, and I’ll always appreciate when great authors like Konigsberg do the same. I suppose the moral of the story is this: be grateful when the writers you love are realistic and honest, and never throw your Kindle at the wall.
This fall, I'm excited to be participating in the YA Scavenger Hunt for the very first time! What's the YA Scavenger Hunt, you ask? Um, it's a chance to win BOOKS. Lots and lots of FREE BOOKS. You know you want in.
Head here to get some quick directions about how to join the fun. Basically: you visit a bunch of authors' websites looking for secret numbers. Find all the numbers for a chance to win. There are six different teams of authors, so there are a LOT of chances to win. I'm on the red team this year, and I'm excited to be hosting the wonderful Colleen Nelson, author of Finding Hope. Stop by next week for a bonus scene and other nifty schtuff from Colleen.
The hunt begins October 4th and ends October 9th. Good luck, everyone!
So, BookCon! BookCon was last weekend in Chicago. To be perfectly honest, I had very little idea what I was getting into when I signed up to go. But hey. Can’t go wrong attending any convention with the word “book” in the title, right?
As it turns out: RIGHT.
BookCon was amazing and intimidating and fun and terrifying and all the other important adjectives that should describe any great life experience. For me, this year’s BookCon will go down as….
1. The time I gave out about a bazillion rainbow-colored hockey pencils.
2. The time I signed lots and lots of books and met readers from all over the country, including the fantastic mother-daughter team who came wearing THESE SHIRTS.
This is apparently what my face looked like when I first caught a glimpse of the line "spread those pages, baby."
3. The time I shipped home a giant poster of my own face after the publisher gave it to me, because ego, and also what better souvenir is there than a giant awkward picture of yourself trying not to look awkward? (And has anyone figured out how not to look completely awkward in a head shot? If so, I'd appreciate a how-to guide.)
4. The time I met so many amazing authors, including…
Julia Ember, internet and book guru extraordinaire. Also brilliant author of UNICORN TRACKS, which I’ve been looking forward to reading for so long now.
Audrey Coulthurst, whose fantastic sense of humor makes me want to read every book she ever writes. First up: OF FIRE AND STARS, which comes out in November. Here’s a picture in which two –hursts hung out.
Mia Seigbert, who also writes books about gay hockey players! I cannot wait to read JERKBAIT. Naturally, we battled with hockey pencils. Then I think she tried to talk me into becoming a Devils fan? Didn't stick, but points for effort.
Leigh Bardugo, who is super kind and told me how excited she was that my teacher friends are getting students into SHADOW AND BONE. She even signed something for one of said teacher friends.
Sherman Alexie, who I quickly fangirled all over. As one does. It’s basically just a miracle I didn’t cry as he signed my copy of WAR DANCES.
Matt de la Pena, who I accidentally met at a different event the next day. After reviving my inner fangirl one more time (she was so up to the challenge), I got to listen to him read from his amazing picture book THE HOUSE ON MARKET STREET.
5. The time I realized that no matter how often I feel like a failure as a writer, I am incredibly lucky.
I’m lucky that Elizabeth North, Anne Regan, and all the rest of the fine folks Harmony Ink Press took a chance on publishing my books in the first place. I’m lucky to go to places like Book Con where people who love the written word as much as I do want to drool all over books with me. I’m lucky to meet readers who actually want to read anything that I put on a page.
Writing isn’t a perfect business, and it sure isn’t an easy business. Three days out of seven I wake up and wish I’d gone into accounting. But then I get working on a solid chapter and I think holy crap, I can’t imagine how this life could get any better.
And then I get to go to places like Book Con and hang out with other people who love writing and reading as much as I do, and somehow it does.
So maybe Book Con will mostly go down as the time I remembered to be grateful for everything I have. Especially on days when being grateful is hard.
And it will definitely go down as the day a FedEx worker and I had an intense conversation about the facial expressions teenagers make when they see West Side Story for the first time while she boxed up a three-foot tall picture of my face and prepared to ship it across the country. We agreed our favorite verbal reaction is this: “But they’re fighting…so why are they dancing?”
Then she packed my face into the box and Book Con was over.
I already can’t wait to go back.
I don’t get to read a lot during the school year—at least not nearly as much as I would like. Between writing and making sure I don’t completely suck at my job in edumacation, I often spend the months of August to May just building up lists and piles of books and dreaming of the day I can finally read them.
But SUMMER. Summer is when the reading happens! And this summer, my husband and I are taking our dream vacation to northern Italy—which means lots of time to read on planes and trains and on balconies overlooking piazzas. (Not that I've built this trip up in my mind or anything.)
I like to be organized, so I’ve already begun planning my summer reading, just to ensure that I allot this precious time to books I’ve been wanting to read but haven’t yet been able to. Yup, there’s totally going to be a folder on my Kindle titled FOR SUMMER 2015. (And before you start judging, YES I read on a Kindle. Who wants to haul 16 pounds worth of books across an ocean? My back wouldn’t thank me for that. Learn to take advantage of technology, people.)
So! Here’s the YA side of my summer reading list. Do me a favor and ask me in August how many of these I actually finished; I need to be held accountable for things. And if you get a chance, weigh in and share your own summer reading list!
The Improbable Theory of Ana and Zak by Brian Katcher
AHHH!!! Brian Katcher has a new book out!!
Katcher’s basically an auto-buy for me. I’ve been saving Ana and Zak for this summer because plane rides are long and annoying, and I’m fairly certain I’ll be able to forget I’m on a plan while I’m reading this book. Katcher’s humor and character-building should be the perfect distraction from my husband whining about the fact that his legs don’t fit into planes anymore. (In his defense, they don’t. Apparently you have to be under five feet to fly comfortably now.)
Siege and Storm by Leigh Bardugo
DID YOU READ SHADOW AND BONE (THE FIRST BOOK IN THIS SERIES) YET AND IF NOT HOW IS THAT POSSIBLE GET ON THAT RIGHT NOW.
That is all.
Seriously. I ended up staying up all night reading Shadow and Bone because…well, I think that one explains itself. Just do yourself a favor and dive into this series with me.
Love Spell by Mia Kerick
This book just came out, but I’ve been looking forward to it for a long time. I love reading books that explore the complexity of gender identity, and this one looks like it’s going to do that through the lens of some fantastically fun characters and great comedy. Exactly what I need to distract me during airport layovers!
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
Books in verse make me happy, and Jacqueline Woodson makes me happy, so there’s basically no way this one won’t be a winner. Also, this just won the National Book Award. So there’s that.
Spinner by Michael Bowler
This one’s written by Michael Bowler, who writes this prose that sort of just pulls me into a book…as such, I can’t wait for this read to come out on August 5th. But here’s the catch: it’s horror, and I do not do well with horror. It took me, like, six tries to finish watching Silence of the Lambs. Here’s what’s likely to happen: I’m going to start reading this, get sucked in, and then have to stop reading it eight times or so—basically whenever I begin having panic attacks. But I also won’t be able to stop reading, so I’ll get there eventually.
It’s good to step out of your comfort zone sometimes.
As long as I never run into Anthony Hopkins in real life.
Slaying Isidore’s Dragons by C. Kennedy
Sometimes you just need to have a good cry. Since I essentially sobbed from the beginning to end of Kennedy’s Omorphi, it’s a good bet that my tear ducts are going to get a generous workout during this one. I fell completely in love with the characters in Omorphi and then had my heart run over every single time they had their hearts run over.
Good thing that’s basically why I read books.
Perfect Ruin by Lauren DeStefano
I swore off the dystopia/utopia genre after an unfortunate binge a few years ago, but I think I’m finally ready to come back. The first few pages of this book completely sucked me in, so I’m sure this will be a can’t-stop-reading book within a few more pages. I love DeStefano’s writing style: she captures description beautifully, and her world building shows such meticulous attention to craft.
Stand-Off by Andrew Smith
Technically this comes out in September, not the summer…but I had to put it on the list because I am so freaking excited that Andrew Smith finally wrote a sequel to Winger, one of my favorite books of all time. There’s going to be RyanDean, and rugby, and probably the same heartbreaking and hilarious prose and left me simultaneously crying and laughing all through Winger.
September 8th, do hurry. Oh, except that’s the end of summer. So maybe find a way to hurry and not hurry at the same time.
I haven’t been on the internet much lately, because I’ve been writing lots and lots of words. Shiny things like the internet distract me, so I tend to avoid them when I’m writing lots and lots of words.
Then I popped back onto Twitter a few days ago, and realized the young adult reader/writer part of the internet had exploded while I was gone. Seems it all started when Andrew Smith did this interview, in which he said this:
“I was raised in a family with four boys, and I absolutely did not know anything about girls at all. I have a daughter now; she's 17. When she was born, that was the first girl I ever had in my life. I consider myself completely ignorant to all things woman and female. I'm trying to be better though.”
I wasn’t around for the direct fallout of this interview, but it seems to have gone something like this:
1. Lots of angry responses from people who felt Smith’s comments were anti-feminist and destructive to women
2. Lots of angry responses to those responses from people who like Andrew Smith and/or his writing and/or didn’t find his comments anti-feminist
3. At some point in the debacle, Andrew Smith removed himself from social media entirely
I thought long and hard about whether or not I should blog my own thoughts about this controversy—largely because I hate conflict, and being associated with conflict in any way makes me pace my living room heavily. But in the end I decided I should I weigh in. I needed to. I’m a woman, so issues of feminism matter to me. I’m a writer, so issues of language matter to me. And I’m a human being, so the feelings of other human beings matter to me.
So for what it’s worth, here are my thoughts. And they are hinge on two words: “oops” and “ouch.”
About four years ago, I was involved in founding an English class for 8th graders that focused heavily on ethnic and gender studies. Early in the founding of the class, another teacher gave me a trick for facilitating heavy discussions about complex issues: set a norm for using the words “oops” and “ouch.”
Here’s the idea. When Person A says something in a conversation that hurts Person B, Person B says “ouch.” This is the cue for Person A to realize that they just said something hurtful. Maybe Person A realized they said something potentially hurtful; maybe they didn’t. But either way, it’s now out in the open that they did, and it’s up to them to learn more from Person B why their comment was hurtful.
“Oops” is essentially the flip side of the scenario. When someone says something that they’ve just learned is hurtful, or that they worry may be hurtful, they cue the group in by saying “this is an oops” (or whatever works…it can be a weird word to fit into conversation at times). It’s a way of offering reparation or asking for support with better understanding others’ feelings.
Basically, the point of the exercise is to separate intent from impact. My 8th graders never really got into the whole “oops” and “ouch” thing (they still don’t appreciate The Sandlot either…kids these days), but the concept is definitely something that’s stuck with me over the years. As I’ve started to use social media sites like Twitter and Tumblr more, I’ve often wished there was such a thing as an “oops” and “ouch” hashtag specifically for conversations like these. Let’s face it: the internet is filled with people who say hurtful things without meaning to. It’s also filled with people who are hurt by those comments and either don’t express their hurt or express it with such vitriol that they end up saying very hurtful things. I’ve been on basically all ends of this spectrum at some point, so I speak from some experience here.
Here’s the thing about Smith’s comments in this interview: what’s spurring the hurt feelings is language. As author Maggie Stiefvater brilliantly tweeted not long ago:
"I'm not sure why people act as if HE is on trial rather than our culture's language."
This is a LANGUAGE issue, people. Our culture uses language all the time to insinuate that women and men are inherently different and therefore can never be understood by one another. There was a bestselling book called Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, remember? This isn’t a new ideology in American culture.
So it’s worth noting if you’re one of the women in the world who finds this language and ideology hurtful. It’s definitely worth nothing, because you are a human being and your feelings matter, and this ideology will not stop being a part of American culture unless people speak up and say that this type of language bothers them. So “ouch” that moment for sure, and let the world know.
But this is also a moment where Andrew Smith and the rest of us need to be able to ask questions. We need to learn more about why you’re upset and hurt. We need to be able to apologize that you’ve been hurt and ask to know more about your feelings—otherwise nobody learns. I say “we” here because—quite honestly—I don’t fully understand all the painful reactions to the ideology behind Smith’s comments. And I’ve got two X chromosomes. So clearly I can stand to learn something here as well.
Basically, I’m “oopsing” for everyone out there who also is confused by this dialogue. I’m asking to learn.
Why is it important that we have norms around these types of discussions? Because otherwise, these conversations can breed a lot of anger and a lot of hurt. I’ve seen some tweets out there indicating that some people think it’s “not the responsibility” of a person who’s been hurt by someone else’s comments to educate those doing the hurting—especially not politely. Another YA author had this reaction to Smith’s words:
“I’m not asking for boycotts or apologies, I’m asking that we keep talking about this, keep pointing it out, keep making it shameful and at least annoying to say things like this.”
If that’s the world we’re turning into—a world where people deserve constant shame for their actions and words—I’m truly screwed. Because there are a lot of ideas and people and feelings in the world I don’t know or haven’t come in contact with yet. As such, I’m bound to say something hurtful to another person at multiple points in my life. And if that person doesn’t tell me when I’ve done that, I might do it again. And while you certainly don’t have to educate me politely…well, it would be nice if you didn’t berate me, either. I am a human being, just like you are. And I want to learn from you. I will always understand if you’re angry at me for something hurtful I said; you have every right to your feelings. But no matter how hurt you are, please don’t make my learning come at the expense of my dignity and self-worth.
Let’s take the shame out of these conversations and have some conversations about what’s really at stake here. Like the way we, as humans, use our language to write and speak about each other. Or the way we, as humans, treat each other. Or the way we, as a race of more than two genders, all talk about issues of gender. Let’s be as honest as Andrew Smith was in that interview, and lets stop being shameful when other people say honest things that hurt us. We’ll all have some “ouch” moments, and some “oops” moments, and hopefully that will be okay.
And then let’s all get together and watch The Sandlot. Because my 8th graders just don’t know what they’re missing.
I’m about to do that trick where I start talking about one topic and end p on a completely different one. Get excited.
The good news is that it all starts here, with one word: ECCENTRICITY.
Yes! Eccentricity. So, I’m visiting my parents right now, and I love them very much. I am less crazy about their house, which is filled with piles of old newspapers and magazines and boxes and prettymuchanythingelseyoucanimagine because my father dislikes throwing things away. Strongly.
The word “hoarder” has been bandied about. On more than one occasion. Last time I visited, I told him I wasn’t too worried—I’m pretty sure that if he is a hoarder, he’s low-grade. (I’d been watching a lot of TLC at the time.)
Today, as Dad was fishing some boxes and packing materials out of my brother’s old bedroom, so that I could mail a gift, he informed me that I don't need to worry anymore—he heard a psychologist on the radio talking about hoarding, and according to the guy, Dad’s not a hoarder. He just has hoarding “tendencies.”
“Actually,” Dad informed me, “the psychologist also said that in the old days, I just would have been considered eccentric. I mean, I’m not keeping trash in the bathtub or anything. Here, I found some of those bubble sheets that will keep the fragile stuff from breaking.” He then also proceeded to hand me a perfectly-sized box, and I felt like a huge jerk. Because really? I never have proper packing supplies handy and available when I need them. I would have needed to make a trip to the store.
All of which got me thinking about the word “eccentric.”
What does “eccentric” really mean? I tend to associate it with people society has deemed as being outside of the definition of “normal” in some way. Like my father, because he won’t throw away old packing materials. Or sometimes my husband, because he smokes a pipe (corncob even, on occasion), and is wont to go on forty minute treatises about topics like the true definitions of the words “fate” and “freewill.” (And please, don’t you even get him started.) But if that’s what eccentric really means, then we’re all eccentric by some definition—it just depends on who’s writing the definition of normal in the first place, correct? I mean, I’m the one who can never find a box to mail things in when I need one, right? Who’s really the normal one here?
Later on, I was reading emails and thinking about a few very important discussions I’ve been having with various people lately about diversity in literature—what diversity really is and what is now considered mainstream in literature (particularly YA literature) and what still isn’t. I started thinking about what incredibly important conversations these are, because so much of this whole discussion is, at times, relative to people’s definitions of the words normal.
I float in a lot of different corners of this world at different times. In some corners, a YA book with a gay white character has become so mainstream that it’s a given such a book would end up in a public library. It’s not even worth talking about. People in those corners of the world want to know when they’re going to be able to find more books about gay people of color and intersex people and other groups of people that are still woefully underrepresented in literature. And these questions need to be asked—they’re extremely important questions that must be asked. Because in those corners of the world, normal has been redefined already, and it needs to be consistently redefined to be more inclusive and less marginalizing.
And then I was thinking about how in other corners of the world, normal isn’t necessarily redefined yet, and how a lot of libraries (Singapore, I’m looking at you at your hatred of penguins) are kicking out books with characters that even remotely touch the alphabet-that-shall-not-be-named. And how in those places, the people defining what normal is still need to see as much as they can of any other version of normal outside of their own. So those are the places where just getting any queer character into a public library is important. And meaningful. Because it gets people thinking. It changes beginning definitions. It opens up conversations to further definitions of the word "normal".
So I hope we—and by “we” I mean readers, writers, teachers, librarians—keep having lots of difficult conversations about what diversity in literature (both YA and otherwise) really looks like. I hope that we continue to disagree with each other and push each other to see different points of view on the subject. I hope that we continue to support each other when that support is needed. But mostly, I hope that we just keep talking about the need for diversity in literature.. Because that’s the best way we can ensure that all readers and writers out there keep redefining and thinking about what the word "normal" really means.
I mean, if you’ll forgive the cliché metaphor ending here (I just can’t let one go), sometimes we need to be reminded that our version of eccentric is someone else’s version of normal. I could never live like my father. I like space, and order, and I would rather go out and buy packing materials every time I need them than be surrounded by them. But my father isn’t me. He likes having things at his disposal. He likes not spending the extra cash and time to go buy something he could already have. Still, I’ve spent a lot of years raising my eyebrows every time he refuses to throw a magazine away.
Sorry, Dad. Thanks for the perspective. And the mailing labels.
Did anyone else read this amazing interview with YA writer A.S. King? Well, you should. In it, she talks about the history of YA books, and her teenaged love of Paul Zindel, a YA writer who wrote some amazing books in the late 60s and 70s. His most well-known novel is probably The Pigman. In this interview, King talks a lot about the tendency of the YA genre to forget its own history. A quick snippet to give you the big idea:
Brenna: Ok, I’m going to just frame this up. You and I were talking on Twitter one day about Paul Zindel and his influence on YA and how he seems to be lost in the conversation about young adult literature.
A.S. King: At the moment, yeah. I mean, we have a lot of people like that, and there were people before that. Judy Blume, of course, and so many people even before that who I can’t name right now because it’s a little early in the morning! But Paul Zindel, for me, was my biggest influence.
And, as the best interviews do, this one immediately made me go HUH.
I grew up with a small town library that was drastically underfunded and usually about ten years behind any other library in the world. So in the summer, I read a LOT of YA lit from the 60s and 70s…even though I myself am not from the 60s or 70s. And during the school year, when our slightly-better-funded school library was open, I read a lot of 80s and 90s YA. I have always considered many of these books to be the “classics” of YA lit. And yet, when I read this article, it occurred to me that none of my students have read most of the authors I grew up loving. And isn’t that what makes a book classic? That it’s read by generation after generation after generation?
I’m not sure why those of us who read and write YA allow our history to be forgotten. It doesn’t seem to me that other genres do this. Mystery has its Agatha Christies; fantasy has its Tolkiens. But in YA-land, we so often seem to live in the moment. What lessons are we missing—both the readers and the writers of YA—by letting go of decades of great literature?
You all know by now that I love a good list, so here’s a short list of my "classic" YA authors. This list certainly isn’t comprehensive—there are so many books with names I can’t remember, because they’ve since gone out of print or were probably never in great circulation to begin with. But it’s a list of the authors I remember best—the ones that influenced me at different stages of both my reading and writing life.
Okay, caveat: Paula Danziger hasn't really been forgotten. Just today I was in a store looking at a copy of her middle grade book Amber Brown is Not a Crayon. But I almost never see a teenager reading a Paula Danziger book. And dude. DUDE. During my teen years, Paula was MY Judy Blume. No offense to Judy, of course. She’s awesome, and I definitely still worship at the alter of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. But Paula Danziger was definitely my go-to author for whatever angst plagued me from ages 13-17. When I was lonely, I read This Place Has No Atmosphere and remembered that loneliness is really relative. When I felt ugly, I read The Cat Ate My Gymsuit and felt instantly supported. To this day I will randomly utter “Hoo ha, six-o-clock” for virtually no reason in very random situations. (Bonus points if you have any idea what book that quote is from.) And this woman’s penchant for puns! I think I owe any and all punning ability I have solely to her.
Plus, Danziger deserves some serious credit just for naming a book Can You Sue Your Parents for Malpractice?
Did anyone else think, when they were 13, that The Day They Came to Arrest the Book was the most insightful thing they’d ever read? This book was my Farenheit 451 before I read Fahrenheit 451. I imagine you can guess the premise of the story from the title, but I’ll throw you a bone and add that The Adventures of the Huckleberry Finn plays heavily in the plot line.
The sad part of adding Hentoff to this list was that when I searched him on Amazon, I couldn’t find any of his other YA titles besides that—and he wrote so many more. A jaunt down Wikipedia reminded me that Jazz Country , Does This School Have Capitol Punishment, and This School is Driving Me Crazy were some of my other faves from him. I remember Hentoff as being one of my first dives into character diversity in literature, as he often set his books in cities with more diverse populations than the small Vermont town I was living in. Sure wish I could still read ‘em.
Robert Newton Peck
If you live in Vermont, Peck actually might still be part of your reading life. Otherwise, I tend to doubt it. A Day No Pigs Would Die is still one of my all-time favorite books, but it’s really the Soup series that I’d like to see in more middle grade libraries today. Great stories, great characters, and usually some great built-in American history lessons. What’s not to like?
John D. Fitzgerald
Was anyone else OBSESSED with The Great Brain books during your middle grade years? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? These books had everything: a conniving brother, important lessons about loyalty and true intelligence, and a few more built-in history lessons. (I apparently really liked my history lessons when I was a kid.) Fitzgerald is a lesson for all writers in how to build younger morally ambivalent characters in a very authentic way. And his HUMOR. I laughed all the ways through most of his books.
Frances A. Miller
I WORSHIP AT THIS WOMAN’S ALTER EVERY SINGLE DAY. When I struggle with plotlines, I look back at how she constructed hers. When I’m concerned about character development, I re-read passages from her books for inspiration and ideas. All of which makes it quite sad that my favorite series of hers, The Truth Trap series, has been out of print for years. This depressing fact makes me constantly wonder how many amazing books there are that, for some reason, just never got read by enough people
Okay, I don't actually think Robert Cormier is all that forgotten. I mean, we still teach The Chocolate War in the schools I work in—because it’s amazing. But in her interview, A.S. King references the fact that so many people talk these days about how dark YA literature is getting. And really, if ANYONE on the planet is saying that, they don't know how long Robert Cormier's been around. Because really. His books are about as dark as it gets. And anyone who says that YA always has happy endings clearly doesn’t know the history of Robert Cormier’s literature. Also, fun fact: I recently learned that the T.S. Eliot quote “Do I dare disturb the universe?” is a big part of the Delirium series by Lauren Oliver. (Haven’t read it, but I’m getting there soon. I promise.) Well, guess what? That was a central quote of The Chocolate War when Cormier published it…in 1974. I bet Lauren Oliver knows that, so we all should.
What’s your YA history? I’d love to know of other “classics” that I haven’t read yet. Let’s make them true classics and ensure the best YA books are read for generations to come.
A long time ago I went to a talk given by the phenomenal YA author Gordan Korman, and he said something I’ve never forgotten. He said that when he’s coming up with an idea for a novel, he tries to ask himself a “what if” question. As in, “What if a mobster’s son fell in love with the daughter of an FBI agent?” (That’s the premise for his novel Son of the Mob, in case you’ve never read it. And if you haven’t, you should. Stat. As well as everything else Korman’s ever written.)
So I play with that question a lot in my head when I’m coming up with story ideas. Recently I was playing around with it in my head as I was going through my Facebook and Twitter feeds, catching up on what I’ve missed while Hubs and I were on vacation this weekend attempting to ignore the world. (Don’t worry—I’m sure I’ll find a way to work pictures into this blog.)
Anyhoo, I was going through my social media life and playing the “What If” game, and I started to wonder…
What would happen if people were physically unable to be passive aggressive on social media?
YOU ALL KNOW WHAT I AM TALKING ABOUT. Those insanely aggressive-yet-not-outwardly-so status updates and posts. We’ve all seen them from time to time. Heck, we’ve all made them from time to time. All of the examples below are made up by me, of course, because if they weren’t...well, that would make me pretty passive aggressive.
Made-Up Example #1: Ugghh!!! Why are people so annoying sometimes?
Made-Up Example #2: Just don’t understand why some ppl can’t mind their own business.
Made-Up Example #3: The world has way, way too much anger in it. (P.S. That’s TOTALLY the type of post I’m likely to put up somewhere. In case you were curious.)
Okay, to be fair, there’s plenty of outright aggressiveness also out there in social media. But still, I like the “What If” game…so I began playing, and here’s what happened. Again, this is all made up. Duh. Because it could become part of a book plot. Who knows?
So in WHAT IF PEOPLE WERE PHYSICALLY UNABLE TO BE PASSIVE-AGGRESSIVE ON SOCIAL MEDIA world, here’s what happens to Made-Up Example #1.
Alexis Maryland: Uggghhhh!!! My annoying ex-best friend Jamie Louis keeps talking to my ex even though she said she was on my side!
Jamie Louis: Did you seriously just post that?
Alexis Maryland: Oh…uh…oops. I meant to just say that people are annoying.
Jamie Louis: Yeah, but you didn’t. You said that I am.
Alexis Maryland: Well, you ARE. Why were talking to Brian in the grocery store?
Jamie Louis: Because I’m an adult, and he’s the father of my godchild? What are you, twelve?
Alexis Maryland: You’re the one having this conversation on Facebook!!
Jamie Louis: Yeah, because you started it here!!
Alexis Maryland: Look, just PM me.
Jamie Louis: Why didn’t YOU just PM me?
Maggie LeBruin: Ladies, you guys are BOTH awesome. This is all just some kind of misunderstanding!! Call each other. I’m sure everything will be fine.
Jamie Louis: Maggie, thanks for trying to keep the peace. I’ll take this off of Facebook because I have some manners and Alexis doesn’t.
Alexis Maryland: Oh, real nice, Jamie.
Jamie Louis: Wait!! I wanted to say that I have some manners, unlike some other people!
Maggie LeBruin: How is that really any better, Jamie?
Jamie Louis: Because I didn’t want to say her name!!
Maggie LeBruin: Yeah, but she still knows it’s about her. Wouldn’t you have, Alexis?
Alexis Maryland: Of course I would have!!
Maggie LeBruin: Right. Just like Jamie probably would have known what you meant if you just said “People are annoying” instead of saying her name. Or she would have figured it out eventually. Or wondered if it was her.
Alexis Maryland: So what?
Maggie LeBruin: So….never mind. You guys carry on. I’ll see you both around.
Yeah. So I was going to play “What If” with the other two made-up examples as well, but frankly, I’m already exhausted.
For this record? Playing this game in my head likely won’t actually reduce my own passive-aggressiveness on social media in the future. Because, as the above exchange indicates and reminds, aggressiveness on social media can be really tiring. But this whole thought experiment sure has made me wonder about the point of social media in general. Why would I ever tell hundreds of people, some of whom I know much better than others, that “the world has too much anger in it” instead of just coming out and saying that I don’t like the way people on both sides of the Common Core Standards argument are treating each other? (Oh, don’t worry teacher friends—that blog is totally forthcoming.) And if I’m really worried about seriously peeing off people I respect and like by just directly saying that, why don’t I talk to those people directly? You know, as opposed to talking indirectly to them in front of hundreds of others?
Great. Very helpful game of “What If” there. Thanks, Gordan.
NOW, I’m off to play “What if George R.R. Martin stopped writing 50 pages before he finished the final installment of Game of Thones?”
KIDDING! JUST KIDDING!
Oh, and here’s a picture taken in the mountains above Ouray, Colorado, which is one of the places Hubs and I visited this weekend. Doesn’t this just put that entire fake social media exchange into perspective?