Leverage(ing) Teen Boy Readers

October 11, 2011

When I sold So Not The Drama in 2006, among YA’s hot topics were not enough books featuring African American teens outside of the historical fiction or inner city blues realm and never enough “boy” books. I’m glad to say that based on this year’s Cybil nominations things are (have?) taking a turn.

Leverage, by Joshua C. Cohen is a “sport” book. I never know if I’m marginalizing the book by calling it that or if because it centers around athletic main characters deeply involved in their sport that it is in fact that. I hope it’s the latter. Leverage is swelling with testosterone. Yet rather than being portrayed as the typical male gymnast or football player, the two main characters are three-dimensional individuals who also happen to be athletes.

Be warned, some of the journey is gritty and downright hard to swallow. What I loved most was this is the sort of YA novel that will appeal to the older teen reader. No hand holding, here. You get the full monty whether you want to see it or not.

The story is told from alternating POV: Danny, the talented sophomore gymnast and Kurt, the new-kid and hulking fullback of the school’s football team.

Worried you might get bored with the sports talk? Don’t. The escalating friction between the gymansts and the football players is the real action. The gymnasts want respect, the football team dominance. And if it weren’t for the football team’s steady consumption of steroids, Leverage might be the typical story of high school food chain and the domination of one clique over another. It’s not.

The tension reaches frightening heights then goes beyond. With bullying an ever present problem in our nation’s schools, Leverage is as much a must-read for adults so they understand just how horribly wrong it can go, as it is for teens. Surely no reader can absorb this story and not realize how essential it is to stop or report bullying, immediately.

Leverage delivers a timely and much-needed story. Unfortunately, the ending is wrapped up too neatly. The entire book had a dark, foreboding vibe to it. For me, arriving at the end was akin to being on an isolated pitch black winding road overgrown with overhanging dead tree limbs threatening to invade my car only to turn a corner and end up safely, smack dab in the middle of the well-lit and very busy city. The abrupt progression from dark and foreboding to whew, thank goodness didn’t just disappoint me, it was jarring. Even if things had ended up badly for both characters at least it would have felt genuine to the trajectory of the rest of the story.

Hollywood ending aside, Leverage will grip you and remind you that for some kids, being popular isn’t even on the top 100 list of their concerns as they navigate high school.

Cybils YA Brown Books

October 6, 2011

I may have to hurt my library system because they don’t seem to have (m)any of the Cybils books by brown authors.

I will not rant about it. I will not rant about it. I will not…

Some of these books are new and I understand that procuring them isn’t as easy as me walking into B&N. But gimme gimme gimme. I want to get my hands on these books.

*sigh* Looks like I’ll be copping a squat at my local bookstore to read them.

I haven’t done that since I was a little girl. Might be nice.

So far, the brown books, below, have been nominated for the Cybils YA category. I’ll go back and fill in with reviews once I actually get my paws on them.

Bronxwood by Coe Booth

Under the Mesquite by Guadalupe Garcia McCall

What Can’t Wait by Ashley Hope Perez
I always know when a book is good – I start getting emotional on behalf of the character. In the case of seventeen-year-old Marisa, I was pretty much pissed at her family throughout the entire book. What Can’t Wait is a tale of struggle against familial culture. The more Marisa strives to make a life of her own, the more her family sucks her into their vortex of neediness laying the guilt on thick if she ever dares to take a moment to do anything but work and earn money.

For every teen who wished they had parents who didn’t care about them earning good grades, there’s a Marisa. All she wants is to get into college and pursue engineering. Shouldn’t be a problem for a near-straight A student. Only problem is Marisa’s parents see her pursuit of college as a potential hole in the household income. They not only don’t support her dream, her father outright attempts to squash it. Most stories focus on the success of second generation immigrants because they benefit from their parents pursuit of the “American dream.” What Can’t Wait is about the flip side – when a kid of two immigrant parents is expected to help maintain the dream by equally contributing to the household.

Marisa is genuinely dedicated to her submissive mother, flighty sister, strict father and slacker brother. Readers will root for her to find her way. I even found myself wanting her to risk turning her back on them for it. But at the heart of it, you want her to work it out with the family intact.

Dreaming of Significant Girls by Cristina Garcia

Island’s End by Padma Venkatraman (this one they had)
I’m always fascinated by cultures untouched by modern man. There’s something incredibly awe-inspiring about people who live the way man lived millions of years ago…by choice!

Yes, there are many modern-day conveniences I often feel I couldn’t live without (take away my iPod at your own risk). But at the heart of it, I periodically yearn for a much simpler existence. Island’s End is about the En-ge, a culture of people living on the remote Andaman Islands. Fifteen-year-old Uido, is selected to be her tribe’s next holy woman. A weighty job for a child, but it’s very believable that Uido could not only succeed in the job but is also destined for it.

Venkatraman weaves a delicate story about the En-ge’s traditions, Uido’s fight to preserve those traditions while allowing for the reality that the outside world cannot be kept at bay forever, and the impact Uido’s new role in the tribe has on her relationships.

My only gripe (and I term that lightly) was the final outcome of the sibling rivalry between Uido and her older brother, Ashu. I won’t get spoilerish, so I’ll leave it at that.

I enjoy YA where the protags come off as a realistic teen. Uido has a special calling and she’s as excited as she is anxious about that. Venkatraman strikes the right balance throughout the entire book of a character that is simultaneously blessed and burdened.

Thanks to Edi for shouting out the other brown books. I promise to get to ’em all.

Pull by B.A. Binns
Hurricane Dancers by Margarita Engle
Illegal by Bettina Restrepo
Karma by Kathy Ostlere
Now is the time for running by Michael Williams
My own worst frenemy by Kimberly Reid
Orchards by Holly Thomspon
Putting make up on the fat boy by Bil Wright
Queen of water by Laura Resau
The Latte Rebellion by Sarah Jamila Stevenson
This Thing Called the Future J.L. Powers
Trouble with Half A Moon by Danette Vigilante
When the Stars go Blue by Caridad Ferrar

Madame Judge, If you Please…

October 5, 2011

Okay, by show of hands, how many bought my YA Bootcamp challenge post yesterday?

Up until now, I couldn’t reveal that in fact I’ll be judging the YA category for the Cybil’s this year. I’m really excited about this. Not only is YA a competitive category, but I’ve always felt strongly that you have to be a part of a process to know its strengths, weaknesses etc…

Every year (well except maybe last year because I had a new job and was swamped) I’ve gotten out my megaphone and encouraged folks to nominate brown books for the Cybils. And here’s why:

How do brown books rate?
Being a brown author is no different than real life as a person of color. You’re perpetually stuck between wanting to be accepted just for who you are and being identified by your race, no matter how subtly. The fact is, getting our books in front of a variety of readers (like the Cybils panels) helps, in a sense, to make sure our books can compete.

The Boost
Judging literature is a sticky wicket no matter what. It’s subjective, I know. But there’s a basic measuring tool that emerges, within these sort of panels, and if our books aren’t meeting the standard among bloggers and librarians who push kiddie lit, we’re not being talked about. And God knows we need the boost.

Next best thing
Cybil judges are the next best thing to reaching our readers direct. They are active bloggers (many of them librarians, booksellers, authors, teachers) who are passionate about books and want to uplift good stories. Why wouldn’t we want our books being discussed in these circles?

The sister/brotherhood
Reading In Color, Crazy Quilts, Cybils, Readergirlz and Brown Bookshelf are all very different but they all share the same goal – we want to guide readers to good reads. It’s a sisterhood. We validate one another. And the more voices that support children’s lit overall, the harder it is to drown us out.

Although the boot camp post was a thinly veiled way to start blogging about some of the YA noms I’m reading, I will in fact be blogging about these books here at BBS throughout this first round of judging. And it is like a bootcamp. I read three books last night! My husband’s already feeling neglected and there’s no light at the end of the tunnel because it’s expected we’ll receive about 200 nominations.

So, light a candle for me (and him) and I’ll see you on the other side.

Pee’s YA Bootcamp – Day 1

October 4, 2011

As the resident YA chick here (shout out to the resident YA Dude, Varian Johnson) I’m left to uphold the banner for all things YA. See, our compatriots here at BBS are legit children’s writers. They write for children. While V and I write for those elusive creatures who are not quite adults but lest you doubt it, are certainly no children.

I’ve often said that if YA were a sub-genre of Adult fiction instead of children’s people would view it differently. I mean, I’m sort of glad it’s not because I LOVE the children’s lit community. So warm. So sincere. *kisses all around*

Don, Kelly, Gbemi and now Gwen and Crystal often defer to Varian and I when talk of what’s happening in the YA community arises. Just like we all defer to Don when we need insight into Illustrators. Having a literary lane is a good thing. Means we cover all bases.

Unfortunately, I’ve slept on my game lately. How can the resident YA chick not be up on what sort of work is out there selling, popular, edgy, controversial etc…? Simply not acceptable.

So I have thrown down the gauntlet and accepted my own challenge to get up to speed on the world of YA via a boot camp. I will read as many of the Cybils YA nominations as possible and post as many mini-reviews as possible.

Mini because boot camps are about intense workouts. It’s about building up your endurance to withstand heavier lifting.

What I’m finding is that 1) we need MORE brown noms for the Cybils. People, didn’t we have this discussion last week? Nominate brown books in ALL categories, please. 2) My stance on what is YA vs MG or Tween novel is even tougher than before. You’ve been warned!

First round…go:

Blink & Caution by Tim Wynne-Jones
I love a good suspense novel. Among the adult fic I read, it’s my go-to genre. So, I was looking forward to reading a story revolved around young characters.

The premise of Blink & Caution sets the reader up well – two “street” kids find themselves in over their heads. What I thought right away is – wow how will they get out of it? Suspense novels are all about the ride you take as you see how the characters emerge (or not) from the mess they stumble upon.

That’s where I walked away unsatisfied. I overlooked the revolving POVs even though Blink’s chapters – told in second person – distracted me. Caution’s chapters, in third, flowed more organically.

I cared about the characters, but can’t help but wonder if Blink would have been more rounded out had his chapters not been in second.

That lack of well-roundedness played a part in why I felt the story was wrapped up too neatly and there were some character trait inconsistencies (Caution vacillated between tough girl and innocent) that stilted my believability.

I’ll admit, as a hard core suspense fan my expectations were pretty high. It kept me turning the pages – and for sure that counts for something, but in the end I walked away less satisfied then I’m used to when I read that genre.

In all fairness, if the next two books were among the MG noms, I would have felt differently altogether. Instead, recall I’m reading what is supposed to be YA and that impacted my outlook.

The Absolute Value of Mike by Kathryn Erskine
I know that mature characters such as fourteen-year-old Mike not only exist but may be more the norm than the not-so-worldly characters often portrayed in fiction. Problem is, there’s maturity because of circumstance and there’s maturity because every adult around the protag is so loopy and over the top, that the character is forced to be the most reasonable person in the room. Both exists in Absolute Value, but the latter takes center stage and sets the tone.

Nearly every adult Mike comes into contact with is portrayed as half off their rocker or rocked by some past tragedy, so it tends to come off contrived.

The Absolute Value of Mike is a warming story. Kid goes to live with distant relatives and finds himself needing to help an entire rural town get its act together. Nice, right? Yes. Pee isn’t heartless, after all.

The Absolute Value of Mike came off as one of those books that adults want kids to read. I’d recommend this for an avid 9 or 10 year old reader. But the average YA reader may find it too tame.

Flirt Club by Cathleen Daly

Flirt Club is cute.

I almost ended that review there, then thought – wait, that’s not fair. Used the wrong way, cute comes off as a total back-hand compliment. And I don’t mean it that way.

Flirt Club’s story is told through letters and emails passed between the characters and journal entries. I think the story’s structure will really appeal to eleven year old readers. I’d say ten but these young ladies are dealing in matters of the heart, so for parents who don’t want their ten-year-old discussing the art of flirting…it may not be for them. Eleven-year-olds are either most definitely dealing with that in middle school or know a friend who is.

The note passing and journal entries are ultra girly and I think most tween readers will relate to the characters’ silly, yet edged with growing maturity, outlook on school, friends and flirting. But its structure would likely turn off older readers. If this were an MG book, this mini-review would be all positive no neg.

Because of the book’s style it took about 50 pages before the actual story emerged. Once it did, I found myself wanting to know the outcome. But 50 pages is a long time to wait for the “real” story to begin.