QuickLit: Far, Far Away, by Tom McNeal. For Better or Worse, Fairy Tales Do Come True

Far Far AwayFor a book in which fairy tales figure very prominently, this book took a very frightful turn, sort of like fairy tales themselves. For teachers or writers interested in the topic, this one is worth reading if you or your students are studying the conventions of folk tales, archetypes and symbols, and literary techniques of foreshadowing and building tension. It is full of artfully employed examples of all of them. For upper middle grade and older.

 

S = 0

V = 2

? = 1

This is what young love feels like: Eleanor and Park, By Rainbow Rowell

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In this keenly observed teen romance, Rainbow Rowell provides an emotionally charged, and deeply satisfying story about the way love transforms the world. Park, the half-korean/half-Irish taekwondo expert, comes from an intact family and takes little things for granted –like comic books and family dinners. He exists on the fringe of the cool crowd in high school. Eleanor’s family, on the other hand, could hardly be more dysfunctional. Living with an emotionally abusive step-father, and her four siblings, there never seems to be enough money for healthy meals, let alone decent clothing or batteries for music players. To make matters worse, Eleanor is bullied and harassed, at school, on the bus, and at home.

Told in alternating chapters from both Park’s and Eleanor’s points-of-view, Rowell’s story reveals the inner life of two young people learning about love. Neither character has it easy. Park’s mixed-race identity causes confusion both at home and in school, and Eleanor struggles with body image. Slowly, however, they begin to recognize the other’s beauty – both what’s on the outside and on the inside. Park and Eleanor’s relationship blossoms over the course of a school year. As they sit side-by-side on the bus, to and from high school each day, Park begins to open up Eleanor’s world by sharing first comic books, then music. Rowell’s prose offers intimate passages through which we witness their confusion, surprise, joy and vulnerability at falling in love.

In the mean time, we also watch in horror what Eleanor endures at home. The contrast with the gentle warmth that permeates Park’s, even when he and his parents disagree, makes Eleanor’s plight and her refuge in Park’s love the emotional core of the story.

Much of the non-relationship tension in the story comes from the mystery about who is writing foul, often graphically sexual messages on Eleanor’s notebook. In the final devastating reveal, Eleanor and Park must choose between safety and being together. Most of Rowell’s characters are deeply drawn. While Eleanor’s step-father is never anything but angry, evil and dangerous, it is easy to believe that people like him actually exist. Because of the dual voice nature of the narrative, Rowell allows the reader to see that even some of the minor characters, classmates with whom Eleanor clashes throughout the year, have more to them than she is willing to believe earlier in the novel.

This is a romance well worth reading, for those just experiencing the thrill and intensity of first love, and for those who can still remember what it felt like.

Sexual Content –SS– mostly because of the offensive nature and content of the mysterious notes Eleanor receives.

Violence — V – Park gets into a fight and Eleanor and her family live in fear of their step father’s abusive outbursts. Their mother frequently turns up in the morning with fresh bruises.

Questionable Behavior — ? – Very little teen drinking, although there is frequent reference to the parents’ drug use and alcohol abuse.

Zorro, by Isabel Allende. Swashbuckling without the swagger.

Zorro, By Isabel Allende

Isabel Allende’s tale of the legendary defender of justice, the famed masked crusader Zorro, takes its time in the telling. In addition to following his life from birth to old age, Allende sprinkles her text with historical background, commentary about the ways of men, women and governments. While it is a story worthy of the time it takes to read, it does require a certain patience and taste to appreciate fully.

Refreshingly centered on a character who hales from a Hispanic heritage, this story meanders from the shores of Alta California, when Los Angeles was a mere pueblo, to the battlefields of Europe during the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte and back again, coming full circle, as the “eye-witness” first-person narrator peers omnisciently into the minds of characters historical and fictitious. Reading the motives and thoughts of all, we are privy to the pure and impure thoughts of everyone we meet. Nevertheless, the story remains firmly grated, allowing for the steamiest of scenes to occur “off-screen” and leaving them open to the reader’s interpretation.

Although there is a lot of sword-play, and some very real discussions of the horrors of the slave trade, the mistreatment of Native populations in both the Caribbean and the American West, and war, the violence is tame.

The only disappointment rests in its failure to recount the true adventures of daring-do familiar to fans of Zorro as recounted in other popular versions of the story.

Sex = S

Violence = V

Questionable Behavior = 0

Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races will leave you breathless

With a steady hand and lyrical voice, Maggie Stiefvater retells the legend of the capail uisce, the famed water horses of the North Sea Islands. But Stiefvater’s novel is no mere retelling. Told from the perspective of two riders, Sean Kendrick and Puck Connolly, the story centers as much on the love between a horse and its rider, as between the riders themselves. Both orphaned by the very race the two set their sights on winning, Puck and Sean narrate, offering details of race lore and island culture. Through these two pitch-perfect voices, the reader can taste the sea and feel its spray on one’s face.

Sean, master horse trainer, has won the race four years in a row, but in order to gain his freedom from a tyrannical boss and his jealous son, “Mutt” Malvern, Sean must win the race one more time. Only with the winnings from the race can he afford to purchase Corr, the water horse he has trained and nurtured since his father’s death in the race nine years earlier. Mutt’s rage at his father’s preference for Sean leads him to despicable acts that threaten not only Sean’s chances at victory, but his life and his horse, as well.

Orphaned, as well by the races, Puck, too must win the race, in a desperate attempt to save what is left of her family. But no woman has ever dared race before, and the efforts to keep her off the beach the morning of the race begin long before race day. In a tentative alliance Puck and Sean help one another, and their shared love of the horses they will ride binds them together with a single purpose. But only one of them can win the race and the prize money.

Stiefvater’s story, in her signature combination of fantasy and reality grounded on rock solid details of setting and character, tells of courage, grit, determination, and love.

Highly recommended. Grades 6 and up.

V (1)

V= Violence; S= Sex; ?= questionable behavior)

Real Details For Real Readers

Welcome to the I Live For Young Adult Literature blog and my first post. Because I am a librarian and a writer, I read a lot of books, in just about every genre you can think of: realistic, dystopian, sci fi, graphic novels, silly, stupid, and just plain boring. By far my most favorite genre, though, is Fantasy. I love losing myself in another world, especially if there’s magic involved, and if there is a love story, well that’s okay, too.  (Of course I’m the one who’s been arguing with young people since it came out that Suzanne Collin’s The Hunger Games Trilogy is not about who Katniss will pick, Peeta or Gale, (what do I know) but a cautionary tale about the horrors of totalitarian government, the dangers of messing with nature, and the slippery line we all walk between kindness and cruelty —more on that in another post.)

My purpose, then, in starting this blog, is not to add my opinion to the thousands out there that discuss YA literature (although you will find that, too.) My purpose is to give readers actual data about a book. I will rate what I’ve read on the facts so that parents, teachers, readers and librarians will know just what they or the children who are entrusted to their care are getting into when they read a book.

I have tried to use neutral language in devising my rating system. I do not intend to be a censor or an enabler. I do not intend to offer advice or warnings, nor to dismiss adult concern for what children read. What you do with the data is your business. My intent is to be clear, concise and reliable. Let’s face it, there are a lot of really great books out there. And there are a lot of books that are worth reading even if the content might not be right for a particular child. My hope is that with a little bit of information readers can make informed decisions about what to read or to suggest to the young people they know and love.

I have been talking to children and their parents and teachers about what to read long enough to know that just because a kid can read a book, does’t always mean that they are ready to read it. When a fourth grader who is reading Twilight doesn’t actually realize that Edward is a vampire, you know the book is over the child’s head.

I hope to help you avoid confusion, discomfort, and to maybe inform you about the kind of issues a book might bring up (sex, drugs, and rock and roll) so you are ready for the discussion.

The other thing to keep in mind is that I can’t read everything. If you have a suggestion for a book that I haven’t read, but you’re dying for info about, leave me a comment, and I’ll do my best to either read the book or get more information for you on it. That’s the best I can do, since I do have a full time job, a family, and my own writing to do. Oh, and did I mention that I also am finishing up a doctoral degree on, you guessed it, YA literature.

With that said, here’s what I’ve come up with as far as how my rating will work. I rate books on a scale of one to three on all of the big categories of concern to most readers: Violence (V), Sex (S) , substance/alcohol abuse/troubling behavior or difficult issues (?) and the maturity level of the material (Grade). The greater the number of the V’s or S’s or ?s, the greater the amount of material that falls into those categories you’ll find in the book.

So for example, one V means there is moderate violence, three S’s means there are passages with body parts mentioned or specific actions described explicitly. And a question mark or two will tell you that some of the behavior the characters engage in may bring up some questions for you to discuss with your students or children. Occasionally I might have to invent a category.

I am not here to judge. My goal is give you a scale to inform you about what to expect. Remember, there’s no harm in suggesting that a child wait a year or two to read something. Sometimes they just need some time to grow up a little. The beauty and pleasure of a good book is that it will still be around when the child is ready.

So with those ideas firmly in mind, I’ll just get on with it, then.

Oh, one more thing. You certainly can and should comment if you disagree with me. Comment if you agree, too, of course, it’s a (relatively) free country after all. All I ask is that if you do leave a comment, you keep it specific, clean, and announce any spoilers before hand. That way this little rivulet in an eddy of the vast ocean of information about books for young people out there can remain a relatively safe and focused place for those of us who just want to know what we’re getting into when we open a book. I promise to tell you the truth, if you’ll promise to remember that these ratings are not rocket science and reasonable people will disagree.

It’s just a place to have a conversation, folks.

Ok? Great.