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Now Entering River Heights

January 18, 2013 in Fiction, Mystery Writers, Travel, YA Fiction, Young Adult Literature

“Half an hour later she turned into the beautiful country road which wound in and out along the Muskoka River”  –  The Secret of the Old Clock

Some of the literary journeys I wish I could take would be impossible to pull off. Not because of time constraints or travel expenses, but because the destinations simply don’t exist. At least not in reality. But as literary travelers, that has never stopped us.

As a child I spent countless hours traveling around the country without leaving my porch swing. Now, as an adult, I miss those nostalgic literary adventures.  So recently I decided to pay homage to the books that sparked my love of literature. Join me as I set out on this bookish “staycation”–no need to bring a sweater, what you’re wearing will be fine.  The weather in Sweet Valley, California, is lovely this time of year.  Accommodations in Silver City may be a little pricey, but I hear there’s a boxcar that is quite comfortable.  And if you have children, not to worry, there are plenty experienced babysitters in Stoneybrook, Connecticut.  Of all the stops on this road trip through fictional America, however, no destination holds the same allure as River Heights, Ohio…or Illinois…or, err, New Jersey.  Unfortunately, its exact location remains a mystery –which hurts tourism, wouldn’t you say?.  Good thing it’s the home of one of the finest fictional detectives ever…Nancy Drew!

Welcome to River Heights.  Established in 1930 with the publication of the first of the Nancy Drew Mystery Stories, the town is itself an enigma. Many an amateur detective has taken a page from the area’s most famous resident and done a little sleuthing into its geography. While most argue that it’s somewhere in the Midwest, others claim the town has moved east in recent years.  Some hypothesize that it depends on which ghostwriter inhabiting the infamous Carolyn Keene wrote the particular text.

The original Nancy Drew books often read like compelling travel guides to River Heights and its surrounding areas. Amidst the pursuit of unscrupulous characters, Nancy and her friends are whisked away to various country estates and charming inns where there is always time for a well-prepared luncheon.  For a quaint little town, the crime rate is quite high, but I’m sure the River Height Chamber of Commerce makes it a point to highlight the area’s positive attributes in their hardback yellow-spined travel guides.

Looking for things to do while you are in town?  A scenic drive down Larkspur Lane in a little blue roadster can make for a lovely afternoon.  At one time the home of nefarious schemers, it is now known for its flourishing horticulture.  Don’t mind the electric fence surrounding that old rustic estate, it’s most likely deactivated now.  Bring a picnic, if you dare.

For a romantic weekend with the Ned Nickerson of your life, book a getaway at the Lilac Inn.  Make use of the in-room safe and store your valuables out of sight from lurking jewel thieves. Don’t mind the ghostly apparitions that appear sporadically on the ground, they add to the property’s historic charm, don’t you think?

While you are in town, make sure to stop in at Red Gate Farm.  The cider is top notch, but don’t feed the animals.  And if you venture off the property and run into any lingering members of the Black Snake Colony, don’t drink the Kool-Aid.  Word is that they may be in the counterfeit business as well.  I knew I shouldn’t have made change for that twenty.

River Heights thrived in the 1960s and 1970s (when most of the original 56 texts were written or rewritten).  It was a simpler time, when an afternoon ride down a winding country road in Nancy’s convertible would be followed up with a light lunch at one of the town’s tearooms. Yet the landscape of River Heights has changed throughout the years; criminals using intricate webs of carrier pigeons upgraded to landlines and eventually, in the latest YA volumes, the internet.

After every literary adventure, as I return to reality always slightly jet lagged from the trip, I am sad to leave the intangible world, but I remember that I can return anytime. River Heights may be impossible to place on a globe–my GPS may never calculate its route–but as Herman Melville states in Moby Dick, “it is not down in any map; true places never are.”

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If you are looking to travel by the book, indulge in a little girl sleuth nostalgia by participating in one of the annual Nancy Drew conventions.  Much like River Heights, they change location every year.  Each event takes its theme from two geographically appropriate titles – one from the original fifty-six and one from the later paperbacks.  This spring journey to Boston and join other Drew devotees as they immerse themselves in the settings that provide the backdrop to The Secret of the Wooden Lady and The Case of the Vanishing Veil.

 

Fauxscar Nominee: The Hunger Games

January 2, 2013 in American Authors, children's literature, Contemporary Literature, Fauxscars, Fiction, Film, Literary Movies, Movies, YA Fiction, Young Adult Literature

I will clear the air right away and say, I was a fan of Twilight.  It seems that this question has been on the tip of bibliophilic tongues everywhere and a pro-vampire stance confessed to the wrong person will have you ostracized to a community of lowbrow lepers doomed to wander the colony with a scarlet V on your chest.  Many a debate has been had amongst readers over the merits of these now iconic young adult novels.  Are they literary? Are they well-written?  I typically shy away from this line of questioning the same way I shy away from talking politics or religion on a first date.  Nothing good can come from it.  Maybe they aren’t literary, but they are addictive and a fine guilty pleasure.  Actually, my only problem with the series is its protagonist Bella. A hormonal teenage girl mooning over the emotionally unavailable bad boy is nothing new to literature, film, or life for that matter, but to have said character mope about for the span of an entire novel, acquiesce to Edward’s every overbearing whim and ultimately sacrifice her human life to be more compatible with him? As a role model for the novels’ target audience, Bella is lacking in a seriously unhealthy way.  Regardless to say, I was “Team Jacob” and doomed to be disappointed.

Despite my obvious bitterness over the outcome of the series, however, there were more important things at stake. If Twilight was to be indicative of today’s youth, I felt that we were certainly in trouble. How do we reconcile a world where girls look up to a character like Bella, who spends most of New Moon despondent, only prying herself away from her armchair to attempt personal injury in hopes that she might glimpse a hallucination of Edward?  My friends, don’t fret, the future of female empowerment in not doomed. It can be found in a dark corner of a distant post-apocalyptic universe. Enter Katniss Everdeen.

Katniss is powerful, responsible, knows her way around a bow and arrow, and doesn’t need protection from either of the strapping gentlemen who make up her very own Twilight-esque love triangle.  The difference between the two young women: Katniss doesn’t really care about hers.  Not initially, anyway.  She has bigger things to do, like save her sister…and save the world.

Suzanne Collins’ novel is set in a dystopic future where the United States has become the twelve districts of Panem.  There were originally thirteen, but a failed mutiny left District 13 to serve as a cautionary tale to those remaining.  As a punishment and reminder, each year the districts must send two children to “The Hunger Games” – a Survivor type reality show where only one victor comes out alive.  While the subject matter is disturbing, the story quickly grabs hold of readers.  It is almost impossible to stop reading until you have gone straight through to the end of the third book.  And despite its morbid undertones, it presents a powerful story of hope.  As the evil President Snow states in the filmic version: “Hope, it is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective, a lot of hope is dangerous. A spark is fine, as long as it’s contained.”  The viewers quickly learn, as does the villainous Snow, that Katniss’ fire cannot be contained.

Her male counterpart in the Hunger Games, and one third of the aforementioned love triangle, is Peeta Mellark. I loved the character of Peeta for every reason I loved Jacob, and every reason I couldn’t stand Edward.  Peeta might not sparkle, but he also won’t climb through your bedroom window and hover over you while you sleep.  He compliments Katniss in the best ways, and their relationship is one of genuine adoration and respect; it’s believable, real, and something we can all aspire to, whether we are 15 or 65.

For these reasons and more, I was ecstatic to find out a movie was being made based on the books. While adaptations can cause the original material to get lost in translation, this was not the case for The Hunger Games.  This book, full of eerie landscapes, futuristic inhabitants, and an arena where no one is safe, was begging to be adapted for the screen.  Between the elaborate costumes and the incredible settings, the faultless casting was the cherry on the sundae.  Jennifer Lawrence easily slides into the role of Katniss, a strong, capable character whose healthy body is a refreshing alternative to the stick-thin waif.  (Bella, just because Edward can’t eat food, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t).  The role of Peeta seems as though it was written especially for Josh Hutcherson; his flawless blend of self-deprecating humor, charm, and authenticity is unparalleled.  But the absolute scene-stealer of the movie has to be the unexpected, yet perfectly executed performance, of Woody Harrelson as Haymitch Abernathy, the alcoholic former Hunger Games victor-turned-mentor.  Elizabeth Banks, Donald Sutherland, and Stanley Tucci round out an ensemble cast that cannot be beat.

I recommend the books to anyone with a taste for well-written YA Fiction—I recommend the film to anyone, period.  There isn’t much from the book left on the cutting room floor, and the plot is easy to follow without any prior knowledge of it.  Male, female, teen or adult, The Hunger Games has something for everyone and will surely provoke discussion about our culture’s disturbing fascination with reality television, among other topics usually reserved for the second date.

As we begin to choose nominees for our 2013 Fauxscars, I say to The Hunger Games: “May the odds be ever in your favor!”

Post originally published here on the Literary Traveler website, in the Books section.

Fauxscar Nominee: The Perks of Being a Wallflower

December 19, 2012 in American Authors, Book Review, Fauxscars, Film, Literary Movies, Young Adult Literature

The movie adaptation of Stephen Chbosky’s well-loved 1999 novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, tries really hard, but doesn’t really succeed. Interestingly enough, Chbosky wrote and directed Perks himself, which could have resulted in a perfect adaptation, but which actually seemed to contribute to some of the move’s shortcomings. The story, as you probably know, is about the of the trials and tribulations of Charlie, an awkward adolescent boy, the very epitome of the shy, intelligent teen who can’t get out of his own head, who feels like he doesn’t belong.

The movie opens with his entry into high school, where he’s awash in an unforgiving and harsh landscape. Logan Lerman, the actor who plays Charlie, is far too good looking to be cast as a misfit, and his attempts at looking shy come across as emotionless and blank. His smile is too perfect to find the bullying he endures believable. Allusions to his troubling past (his best friend’s suicide, the death of his beloved Aunt Helen and a possible mental illness) are made throughout the movie, but due time is not given to his past, so Charlie’s current state of confusion and sadness is hard to empathize with or fully understand. Mostly by accident, Charlie is adopted by the other kids at school who don’t “fit in,” including the odd stepbrother-stepsister duo of Patrick (played by the dynamic Ezra Miller) and Sam (played by the charming Emma Watson). Patrick and Sam welcome Charlie into a world where he feels accepted, safe and loved. Things begin to look up for him—he learns how to eat a weed brownie, he goes to some parties, he exchanges Christmas gifts, and yes, he falls in love with Sam. His naïveté and earnestness is endearing, and, at times, a bit painful to watch—perhaps, in part, because the moments in which these things materialize remind us of our own adolescence.

Ezra Miller, with his gorgeous, sculpted cheekbones steals the show as the openly gay Patrick, who puts on a mean rendition of Rocky Horror Picture Show, a moment well worth watching. A cameo from Judd Aptow’s go-to, Paul Rudd, as the Charlie’s English teacher (you know, the one who “believes in him”), doesn’t carry the depth it should; instead, the character ends up just another corduroy-wearing-To-Kill-A-Mockingbird-reading English teacher. And while certain elements are cliché, the soundtrack is very well done. Featuring David Bowie’s Heroes and teen dream classics by Sonic Youth and The Samples, the sound track helps move the movie along, but still falls somewhat short of the mark.

As much as we want to care about Charlie, the reasons for his issues are left largely untouched, and addressed only through snapshots and brief flashbacks. As we watch him gain self-confidence, secure a girlfriend (even if he’s still in love with Sam) we find ourselves wondering, Does this kid really have it that bad? His family, (while maybe ineffectual and under involved) seem to truly care about him, and he doesn’t struggle with intellectual affairs. But as the movie comes to a close, and we watch Charlie’s life start to unravel, his problems seems to be somewhere far off.

Emma Watson does her darndest with the role of the bubbly, but somewhat lost, Sam, and the connection between Charlie and her is one of the more believable relationships Perks has to offer. Ultimately, Perks the movie attempts to make us feel something we can’t: a connection to the emotionally and philosophically advanced psyche of a young man. It was a heroic try, but the movie, unlike the novel, is easy to dismiss—something like closing the lid on a shoebox full of yearbooks and graduation tassels.

Get Your Sparkles Here!

November 19, 2012 in Book Series, Literary Movies, Movies, Young Adult Literature

Hi Literary Travelers,

What do you think about Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight? Is the series “literary”? Are the movies any good?

Today’s article, How Twilight Took Me Places I Never Thought I’d Go, asks whether Bella’s “sole ambition was to spend eternity in her vampire-boyfriend Edward’s sparkly presence”, and, if so,  “What kind of message does that send young readers, especially girls”? And, does traveling to places of fiction “cheapen” the experience?

Read the article and let us know! Or post on LT’s Facebook page.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts!