Similarly to the way I spent all of my allowance money of the late 1990’s on “Official” books about Leonardo DiCaprio’s life (Lovin’ Leo, anybody?), I think about kids of this decade as being hypnotized with love for books about vampires who make out, werewolves who make out with vampires, and Justin Bieber biographies (this Amazon bestseller, which is subtitled “First Step 2 Forever”, is a hearty 240 pages and claims to be”100% official”). I’ve just assumed that the Twilight kids were the ones responsible for the YA industry’s big sales boom of the past few years. But when you take a look at the New York Times Bestsellers list for children’s books, it is a refreshing surprise: there is not one Twilight book in sight, and only one book’s tagline makes mention of a werewolf. In fact, the top three bestselling children’s book paperbacks of the moment deal with rather serious and consequential themes– censorship, the absence of love (ok, it’s close), and being different (and accepted for it), respectively. Meanwhile, the NYT Bestseller’s list for adults is rounded off by James Patterson and two Stieg Larsson books– granted, adults don’t have schools buying mass quantities of books to teach in English classes but still, whatever this contrast says is interesting to think about.
I’ve taken an interest in Young Adult fiction ever since I realized how many books I read as a child have stuck with me in ways that a lot of literature I’ve read in the past five or so years has not. And when I say “stuck with me” I don’t mean just books I remember– I mean these books have impacted, subconsciously or not, the things I write about now. When I googled the entire list of Newbery Award winners (1922-present), I realized that I distinctly remember reading and enjoying most of the books that won or were honored by the award’s academy between the years 1993-2000. Even now, looking back to Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars or Jerry Spinelli’s Maniac McGee, I am not simply fond of the nostalgia these titles generate, but of the stories these books told.
And I suppose ogling at ALA’s Newbery list is how I found/decided to read Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me, which won the 2010 Newbery medal and is also #7 on the NYT children’s bestseller list mentioned above.
Stead’s When You Reach Me takes place in slippery-sketchy 1970s Manhattan and tells the story about a mature-enough sixth-grade girl who begins to discover mysterious notes left for her in places only she would think to put them. The book’s genre is tricky to delineate– I suppose it is marketed as being part mystery, part sci-fi, but only because time travel plays a part in the crafting of protagonist Miranda’s journey. The most refreshing part of the book, I found, is that it doesn’t rely on its sci-fi twist to make sense of the story– the book is, above all things, a story about life– specifically, observing it.
What I enjoyed about this book is that because you go into it looking at Miranda’s life as if the entire thing is the scene of some crime (Miranda herself is looking at it that way as she tries to figure out which person is suspicious enough to have left the notes), the book at first seems like some sort of typical, formulaic mystery. Until you realize that Miranda isn’t really getting anywhere with her findings. All Miranda is trying to figure out, really, is how to live and how to keep living. She’s dissecting and dissecting, making astute (not just for a sixth grader) observations about the girls in her class or the guy who works at the deli around the corner– as a reader you become interested in the mystery of the notes she’s trying to solve, but simultaneously, and more importantly, you become invested in the indirect ways she’s attempting to solve the inviolable mystery of life.
There’s something existential going on in this book, which is surprising for a story whose target audience is ages 10-13. As you’re reading it it might not seem so at first until you finish it and you’re kinda just like …. “Woah?” It’s quite a story, and it’s different, and it confirmed my suspicions that YA books can do the same things that literary fiction can, except in a more straightforward, honest way.
There’s my suggestion of the week. Quit being haughty, read more YA.