Holden's Children

In one of my favorite young adult novels ever, Celine, by Brock Cole, Celine Morienval just can’t seem to make herself rewrite her paper on The Catcher in the Rye. Here’s her brisk take on J.D. Salinger’s classic:

It’s about this boy who is terribly sensitive and is having trouble adjusting to the world. His name is Holden Caulfield and I don’t very much like him because I think he whines just a little too much, and sometimes when he says this very moving stuff I definitely have the feeling that he is congratulating himself on what a sweet, misunderstood kid he really is. (As I think of it, I realize that he would probably admit I’m right, and that he is just a rotten phony like everybody else. He would feel good about admitting this for a while, and then realize that that made him a sort of phony to the second power…honestly, he wears me out.)

The funny thing is that I’d forgotten all about that part of Celine when I sat down to write this post in memory of Salinger, who died this Wednesday. What I remembered—and what Celine doesn’t realize—is that even though she dislikes him, she is just like Holden Caulfield in so many ways: she’s a smart, sensitive, wry 16-year-old who is quietly appalled by the selfishness and hypocrisy of the adults around her, and who is basically alone in the world. Like Holden, who finds redemption only in childhood—in memories of his dead brother Allie, and in his very much alive little sister Phoebe--Celine comes to rely on the no-holds-barred truth-telling of her 8-year-old neighbor, Jake, who’s been dumped on her by his distracted divorcing parents. In fact, if you really want to know, the real reason Celine can’t write about Holden Caulfield is that Celine IS Holden Caulfield. Or at least a very, very close relative.

And she’s not alone. Every year or two, it seems, some new young adult novel is compared to The Catcher in the Rye, which, even though it was meant for an adult audience at its first publication, has come to be considered the first work of what’s now called young adult fiction. Salinger’s best-loved young characters, in Catcher and in his short stories, long to be special, to live exceptional lives, and then despise themselves for that very longing, for their egotism and attachment to the world, for their looming ordinariness. And while the period details might change, that kind of angst—and  fiction chronicling it—are now perennials in the landscape of adolescent literature.

Probably the book that’s been mentioned in connection with Salinger most often in recent years is The Perks of Being a Wallflower; the author, Stephen Chbosky, has called out The Catcher in the Rye as an influence, and his introverted, alienated, hero has a lot in common with Holden Caulfield. But for my money, James Sveck, the narrator of Peter Cameron’s Someday This Pain Will be Useful to You, comes even closer: like Holden, James is lonely, cynical, and reeling from a grief he barely mentions and masks with caustic wit. Salinger’s hero wants to “build myself a little cabin somewhere with the dough I made and live there for the rest of my life;” James is convinced that if he can just buy a house in a small town in the Midwest, instead of going to college and learning a lot of useless stuff, he can escape the messy hypocrisy he sees all around him, and live happily. Would that it were that simple for either of them.

John Green, who has posted a stunningly smart analysis of Catcher in the Rye in a series of three videos, is a very, very, very Salinger-eque writer. His books are painful and funny and incisive, and his teenage characters throw themselves into the big questions, like: can we ever truly know another person? Is the pain of life worth it at all? And, what does it all mean? The tormented title character of Green’s first novel, Looking for Alaska, is probably the most like Holden Caulfield; but Colin Singleton, hero of An Abundance of Katherines, is my favorite.  Like the children of the Glass family, featured in Franny and Zooey and a number of Salinger’s short stories, Colin is a former child prodigy who finds himself panicking—and delving into a flurry of anagrams and far-fetched mathematical models--at the prospect of becoming an ordinary, non-prodigious adult.

There’s more. Much more. Salinger himself, who’s so strongly associated with a certain style of realistic fiction about wealthy, white, mostly male New Yorkers, could never have predicted the range of his influence. There’s a little bit of Holden in the dissolute, tormented hero of the futuristic Feed, by M.T. Anderson, and in Coe Booth’s Tyrell, who’s desperate to protect his little brother from the meanness of the world in general and their Bronx homeless shelter in particular. Cyd Charisse, who gets kicked out of her boarding school and heads for New York City in Gingerbread, by Rachel Cohn, is a Salinger relative for sure, as is Cameron Smith, the cynical Mad-Cow-Disease-stricken hero of Libba Bray’s 2010 Printz-winning Going Bovine.

I don’t know if the authors of most of the books listed here would claim Salinger as an influence, or if they even like his stories. All I know is that, as a 30-year Salinger fan, what I love about these books, and about much young adult literature, is what speaks to me in the best of his writing: the way it takes on, along with the scorn so many young people feel for the compromises that almost invariably accompany adulthood, a wholehearted yearning of for a kind of purity of soul, and a struggle to figure it all out and live a life that has meaning.  Whether in 1940’s New York or 21st-century Texas or a future dystopia on the moon, those struggles, and the poignancy and appeal of the characters who embody them, don’t go away.

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Newbery Winners, Part 2: the Great Kid-Friendliness Debate

A few days ago I wrote a little about the perennial debate over the “kid appeal” of many Newbery Medal winners. Now, I’m of the opinion that the Newbery isn’t meant to be given for the title that will appeal most to the average kid, any more than the purpose of the Nobel Prize for Literature is to highlight the next escapist beach read for adults. The Newbery is awarded for outstanding writing and contribution to literature, and the question of popular literature and its overlap with “great literature,” for kids and adults alike, is a big one, way bigger than any controversy over the Newbery Medal.

If you look over the overall list of medalists since 1922, though, it's true that historical fiction with a tragic overtone does seem to dominate the last few decades. Kira-Kira, A Single Shard, and Out of the Dust, for example,  are three recent winners; they’re all beautiful books, but very very sad, and maybe not the most appealing to the majority of kids. I have personally met kids who read and enjoyed all these books—I remember one 5th grade girl asking if there were “any more books like Kira-Kira”-- but it's true that if you ask most kids what kind of books they like, "sad historical ones" is probably not going to be first on their list.

So, herewith, a list of my ten favorite kid-friendly Newbery Medal winners, old and new. These books have plot, and humor, and child protagonists who you’d want to spend some time with. Of course, your mileage may vary, but if your kid is under orders to read a Newbery winner, chances are that one of these will enable him or her to get though the experience unscathed and without a general visceral hostility about "medal books."

  • A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle (1963) What is there to say? A classic of classics, beloved by kids, parents, teachers, librarians, and—for all I know—otherworldly time-travelling entities, too.
  • From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E. L. Konigsburg (1968) I wrote a few months ago about reading this with my kid. It really holds up.
  • Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert C. O'Brien (1972) SO much better than the movie.
  • The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin (1979) A mystery wrapped inside an enigma and sprinkled with bizarre clues.
  • Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry (1990) Okay, this is about the Holocaust (sort of) but mainly it’s about ESCAPING, which is always exciting.
  • Maniac Magee, by Jerry Spinelli (1991) Mysterious and brilliant runaway kid, fastest runner in the world, inspires racial harmony in a little town. What’s not to like?
  • Holes, by Louis Sachar (1999) The poster book for kid-friendly Newbery winners.  It is magic, I tell you.
  • Bud, Not Buddy, by Christopher Paul Curtis (2000) Curtis has a sly way of making what could be a tragic situation (mistreated orphan kid runs away from home, during the Depression) into a genuinely funny book.
  • The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman (2009) Only Neil Gaiman could write a story about ghosts and graveyards  as a heartwarming coming-of-age tale.
  • When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead (2010) And so we come full circle, with a book that pays homage to A Wrinkle in Time, while gorgeously holding its own.

Do you have a favorite Newbery winner? And is it a book that kids tend to like, too?

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Newbery Winners, Part 1

I went to bed Sunday night hoping, hoping, hoping that When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead, would win the Newbery Medal, and lo and behold, Monday morning when I woke up and Googled, my wish was granted! It wasn't a terrific surprise; When You Reach Me has been the odds-on favorite to win the Newbery ever since it was published earlier this year. One feeling among many librarians I know is relief that the 2010 Newbery winner is a gorgeously written and plotted book that is also one they're fairly sure many kids will actually like.

This comes up a lot with the Newbery, more than with other children's book awards: the sense that since the medal is specifically given for literary merit, often the winners appeal more to adults who appreciate a fine turn of phrase than to kids who are more apt to want humor and action and characters they can relate to. I'm generalizing wildly--kids like as many different things in their books as adults do--but the point holds: every year or two, it seems, there’s an article by an adult complaining about deadly dull or depressing books that their kid is forced to read because they have that shiny gold medal on the cover, followed by ripples of fervent print and online agreement.

My take on this is that assigning kids to read a Newbery Medal winner because it's a Newbery Medal winner is a misuse of the award (although I admit that I did this, once, early in my school librarian career-- it wasn't a success and I never did it again). The award really is mandated to be for "distinguished" literary quality, not for intrinsic appeal to the average kid. Better to have kids read, and vote on, a couple of nominees from one of the many regional children's choice awards, like the Pacific Northwest's Young Reader's Choice Award, than to force a Newbery winner down their throats. Or have them read a bunch of current kids' novels and try to game the Newbery for themselves: which one will win? Why? Then when the award is announced, they'll have some idea of how hard it is to pick a "best" book, especially in collaboration with a bunch of other people with differing opinions.

One thing I like about the Newbery is that sometimes it gives staying power to a book that is truly a gem but that might be too odd, or too uncategorizable, to stay in print long just on the basis of demand from kids themselves. Laura Amy Schlitz’s Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!, the 2008 winner, is a great example of that. I'd be surprised if many kids were rushing to check this book out, at least not without an exceptionally juicy booktalk or recommendation from a trusted teacher or librarian: it's a collection of monologues about kids in the Middle Ages, which is just not the kind of topic that has kids battling each other to borrow a book. It's also, if you take the time to read it, wry, funny, tragic, haunting...an amazing piece of writing. Without the Newbery, Good Masters might have fallen into obscurity within a few years, and that would have been a terrible shame. That said, when a kid comes and asks me for "a good book" I don't automatically push Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! into their hands-- it's a rare kid who will fall for this book on first flipping through it. But the ones who will, will fall hard. I'm very grateful that the Newbery has helped assure that it will be there for them for a long time.

More on the Newbery in the next post; in the meantime, here’s the ALA’s official press release listing all the Youth Media Awards announced yesterday. Congratulations to all the winners, including Scholastic titles The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg, by Rodman Philbrick, which won a Newbery honor; Siebert teen award winner Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco Stork, and Geisel honor book I Spy Fly Guy, by Tedd Arnold, as well as Scholastic authors Walter Dean Myers, who was awarded the first-ever Coretta Scott King – Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement, and Jim Murphy, winner of the Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime achievement in writing for young adults.

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New Year's Confessions, Plus One More Thing

  • After discovering last week that one of my favorite series-book heroines, Allie Finkle, of the “Allie Finkle’s Rules for Girls” series by Meg Cabot, has a website devoted to her and her books, I have spent way, way, way too much time playing the geode game. It is a lot harder than it looks, especially since so many of the geodes are slight variations on a few different colors (mostly pink, purple and green). If you get caught too, here’s my tip:  say the colors out loud as you click on each geode; it makes it easier to remember where they are.
  • Speaking of series books, I confess that I never read a Baby Sitter’s Club book until a few years ago, when the release of graphic-novel versions of the first few BSC books prompted me to pick up the chapter-book original of Kristy’s Great Idea for comparison. I have to admit (another confession) that it didn’t grab me as much as either the graphic novel or Ann Martin’s later, stand-alone books, like A Dog’s Life, but my librarian-self, and my kid, are both very excited at the news that the original books are being reissued. This series was incredibly popular the first time around, and I bet they it will be again when the first few books (and new prequel) are re-released this spring.
  • The Cybils finalists for 2010 are posted! That’s a celebration, not a confession; my embarrassed confession is that I’ve only read four of the 50+ nominated titles: Watch Me Throw the Ball, by Mo Willems; 11 Birthdays, by Wendy Maas; Operation Yes, by Sara Lewis Holmes; and Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains. I liked all of them a lot, so that bodes well for the others, which I’m going to start hunting down so I can read them. I’m also quite sheepish because not only did I not volunteer for any Cybils panels this year, but didn’t even nominate any titles. But—New Year’s resolution!--I’m going to start noting down the copyright year for every book I read, so  it’ll be easier to nominate next year. Now, if I can just stop playing the geode game, I’ll have more time for all that reading.

Finally, not a confession, but very cool news:

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