I wasn’t going to have a break from posting blog posts over Christmas – New Year, but I have now decided that I will. I’m just too tired not to have a break. So at some point I’m going to go bush, throw up the tent and read some books (modern-style). I could really use the break right now. Still, from time to time I may post something I come across. This will be an extended period, from the time I post this update, through to the middle of January 2018. From that point I’ll get back to more regular posts.
So let me take this opportunity to wish you all a great Christmas and New Year, and enjoy the time with family and friends if you can. – now something for a parting laugh
The link below is to a book review of ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy,’ by Robert Burton.
Young adults who are, perhaps, still figuring out their needs don’t need to be overburdened with books they won’t like. The last thing we want is for a young reader to get turned off and lose out on the immeasurable benefits reading provides.
As a researcher looking at diverse representations in young adult literature, I often get asked for book recommendations.
Since I believe all readers are looking for an emotional connection to a story, I start with authenticity as my keystone. In order to form a connection with the experiences of characters, including their travel and journeys to new places, the writing should emerge from a place of authenticity.
Diversity plus critical issues
Author Corinne Duyvis started the hashtag #Ownvoices in 2015 to promote this idea of authenticity and “to recommend kidlit about diverse characters written by authors from that same diverse group.”
Very basically, when an author shares one or more of the marginalities of their diverse protagonists, it is considered to be included in #Ownvoices. In terms of diversity, most publishers use the definition put out by We Need Diverse Books: “…including (but not limited to) LGBTQIA, Native, people of colour, gender diversity, people with disabilities, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities.”
The hashtag has taken on a life of its own since Duyvis recommended its use. Many published books now market themselves based on #Ownvoices. And Goodreads lists have taken up this call as well. Readers looking for #OwnVoices will find many suggestions – and many more coming in the new year.
I hope this is a turn in publishing and that the well of marginalized stories written by authors most qualified to tell them never runs dry. It’s the surest way to an authentic, empathy-promoting experience for readers.
The current Top Five
Many of the teachers or parents asking for recommendations are hoping to give young adult readers an exercise in critical literacy to provide them with the opportunity to think about something long after the final page is turned. By “something,” I mean an important social issue or nuanced knowledge about a difficult concept or historical time period.
If a book meets both of these criteria — and if I’ve read it myself or have placed it on my “to be read” shelf — it warrants a recommendation.
Here are five books, very recently published (between September and December of 2017), that have made my list. At the end of each book description, I’ve included a question that might serve a critical thinking discussion once the book has been read.
This list is clearly not exhaustive and I present these as suggestions — ones that may warrant further research. Teachers or parents who know the readers they’re offering books to may need to look up any trigger warnings beforehand.
I recommend adults read books along with younger readers: It’s vital to meaningful conversations. I have left questions in my descriptions to prompt some discussion. Furthermore, I think adult readers may be pleasantly surprised with the rich and important storytelling happening in the young adult literary world.
Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman
Starfish (Simon Pulse) features Kiko, who suffers from anxieties. She’s waiting to escape an abusive family situation by getting into the art school of her dreams but when she doesn’t get in, she takes the opportunity presented by a childhood friend to tour other schools.
Kiko, the main character who is half-Japanese, takes a journey that ends up being one of personal growth. The journey allows Kiko to embrace who she is, to learn more about her heritage and to speak up for herself. The writing is lyrical and endearing and we get a lot of Kiko’s internal thoughts and feelings.
There’s a love story here too. I would have liked it if Kiko’s path to self-love was not so knotted up with her childhood friend. But perhaps that’s me being old and young adult readers will like this aspect the best. What will you and your young adult readers think?
They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera
They Both Die at the End (Harper Collins) is an interesting genre mashup — both speculative and contemporary. With the whole “there’s an app for that” times we live in, it feels very timely.
In an alternate reality, two teen boys spend a day together after learning it will be their last. There’s diverse representation here and definitely a message that seems suitable for young people attached to their phones at the expense of experiencing the world and making real connections.
In my literature classes, we talk a lot about how classic children’s books tend to have “didactic” elements – morals embedded into them and modes of socialization or teaching children how to be in the world. Thinking through themes a writer develops, how do contemporary didactic modes operate here or in young adult literature more generally?
Dear Martin by Nic Stone
Dear Martin (Crown Books) takes up the story of Justyce McAllister, a full-scholarship, Ivy League-bound, Black 17-year-old boy who learns that when it comes to racism, none of these accomplishments matter.
The title takes its name from the letters Justyce writes to Martin Luther King, Jr. while he grapples with racial tensions and police oppression. It’s a story that seems ripped straight from the headlines and has been compared to The Hate U Give, this year’s very successful YA book by Angie Thomas. Both of these books are important and necessary, and sadly, deal with inequalities that plague young adults of colour. How can literature combat systematic oppression and social ills?
Warcross by Marie Lu
Warcross (G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers) has already wracked up a record number of positive reviews from readers. It’s a new series by the author of other YA favourites, including The Young Elites series.
In it, teenage hacker Emika Chen finds herself embroiled in a virtual reality game that’s taken over the globe. It’s an international spy adventure with a diverse cast in a near-future sci-fi world and it’s pretty awesome!
I think this one will organically prompt a discussion about “global virtual crazes” – and while its clear these virtual crazes might be ‘bad’ I wonder if there are positives to be found also?
Whichwood by Tahera Mafi
Whichwood (Dutton Books for Young Readers) is the second book set in the Furthermore world. The first was a middle grade book but this one has been aged up to Young Adult. Inspired by Mafi’s Persian culture, it tells the story of Laylee, a 15-year-old with so much tragedy in her life, tasked with washing bodies of the dead to prepare them for the afterlife.
I’ve long been a fan of Mafi’s — her writing is lush and her worlds are so imaginative. Moreover, it always feels like everything she writes is a metaphor for something larger. But because her plots are so gripping, it’s not always apparent what exactly. Notwithstanding that themes in literature vary depending on individual reader’s responses to content, what do your readers find are the takeaways in this one?
Editor’s note: What better season than winter to curl up with some interesting books? We went to ScotiaBank Giller Prize nominated novelist and University of Toronto English professor Randy Boyagoda and asked him to recommend to us five of his personal book choices from the shelves of Canadian literature.
Randy Boyagoda published his first novel, Governor of the Northern Province, in 2006, followed by Beggar’s Feast in 2011. His new novel, Original Prin, is forthcoming in 2018.
Randy surveyed his shelves and here are his five idiosyncratic choices:
Written by Brian Moore (1985)
Black Robe is historical fiction set in the 17th century Canada — meaning New France. It’s a novel involving an encounter that French Jesuit missionaries have with members of the Algonquin, Huron and Iroquois.
What I found so remarkable about the book is its potential contribution to our contemporary conversation about truth and reconciliation especially given that it was written in a very different cultural moment. I think the book is honest and bracing and has a certain spaciousness of vision that attempts to provide full and meaningful lives for every character.
Arrival: The Story of CanLit
Written by Nick Mount (2017)
Arrival (Anansi) by Nick Mount, has rightly been generating a great deal of both public and critical attention this fall.
Nick’s book is an ambitious and readable effort to tell the story of how we went from being a nation without a literature to a literature without a nation. The book explores a specific interest in what we might think of as the “boom time” of Canadian literature, from the late ‘60s through the early ‘70s.
What I found especially interesting about Nick’s book is his willingness to offer a series of evaluations, ratings even, of various Canadian novels. We live in a culture that sometimes shies away from making aesthetic and critical judgements. I think what’s great in Arrival is that Nick invites us to read these books and disagree with him.
The Great Canadian Novel
I’m trying to decide whether I disagree with Nick when he says in his book, Arrival, that The Double Hook by Sheila Watson (1959), which is a slim and complex mid-century Canadian novel, is the Great Canadian Novel.
That’s a big claim. If I were going to make the same claim, I’d assign that honour to Solomon Gursky Was Here by Mordecai Richler (1989).
I’ve decided to read Double Hook in the coming weeks and decide if I agree with Nick or not.
The Way of the Strangers
Written by Graeme Wood (2017)
The Way of the Strangers is a work of striking literary journalism. It recently won the Governor General’s Award for non-fiction. Wood is best known for his cover story in The Atlantic two years ago, on ISIS. His book is a series of first-person essays, travelogues and analyses of radical Islam.
Wood goes to various Middle Eastern states, places in the U.S., and elsewhere. There’s wide, personal contact with people in various forms of radicalization and he’s also subjected to various attempts at conversion—reading about that is also fascinating.
Wood’s care, seriousness and persuasive criticisms of radical Islam shows that understanding his subject only in political terms or as a misrepresentation of Islam does not do justice to the complex and riven reality of contemporary Islam. As an outsider who’s interested in these matters, I found the book really engaging.
A news-minded audience would find a book like this of real interest. It really does give you a sense of the inner lives of people who have committed to a radical interpretation of Islam and are trying to live that out in the world around them.
The quality of writing and reporting is excellent and the book is especially timely now for obvious reasons. I think that it will be an important historical document in global affairs thirty years from now.
Fifteen Canadian Poets x 2
Edited by Gary Geddes (1978)
My last pick involves a family tradition.
Most Sunday nights, the Boyagoda family gathers in our own library and we each read a poem. I choose my Sunday poem out of Fifteen Canadian Poets x 2 edited by Gary Geddes. It came out in 1978. The book was a very important and timely anthologizing of new Canadian poetry and also at that point, established poets. There are people in there ranging from E.J. Pratt to then emerging voices, such as Michael Ondaatje and Margaret Atwood.
When I pick a writer out of that anthology, the writers I go for most often are poets like P.K. Page, Raymond Souster and Alden Nowlan. Here are people who write beautiful, arresting, strange and funny poetry. Reading from it is a double break: it’s a nice break, frankly, from the usual suspects, and it also introduces my American-born wife, who has a PhD in twentieth century American and Caribbean poetry, I add, and our American children, to all the wonders of Canadian literature, poetically.