The line between teen and adult fiction has always been blurry. Hot Young Adult titles like The Hunger Games are as popular with women in their 30s and 40s as they are with actual teens. And teens certainly devour adult fiction. Most popular at my library are spy thrillers, mysteries, and science fiction, with occasional classics: Jane Austen, Dickens, Jules Verne, etc. thrown in.
Every year the American Library Association designates the Alex Awards, for adult fiction with high interest to teens. I can’t help wondering: do teens actually read these books?
I decided to try out a recent Alex Award winner.
I had dangerously high expectations when I picked up this book. For starters, I got to know and really like author Maria Padian when we were both guests on a recent call-in show about teen fiction on Maine Public Radio (listen here). I am already a fan of Padian’s other teen books, Brett McCarthy, Work in Progress, and Jersey Tomatoes Are the Best, which are excellent teen books about strong, non-stereotypical female characters. To top it off, I have followed stories of Somali immigrants in Maine for years, and figured teen fiction on the subject would be pretty interesting.
High expectations sometimes set me up for disappointment, but not this time. Out of Nowhere is a terrific book.
One for the Murphys is the story of Carley, a tough, clever twelve-year-old who has always lived with her scrappy, care-free single mother in Las Vegas. The two of them have a decent life, stealing clothes from Salvation Army bins and cutting school when they feel like it. Until Carley’s mother decides to get remarried, and makes a series of awful choices that land her in the hospital and Carley in a foster family. Carley’s life, just like that, is turned upside down. Her mother is out of reach, and she is living with complete strangers. Enter the Murphys: picture perfect American family.
Carley has been through terrible things. She has a right to be angry, and angry she is–at everyone and everything: her mother, her stepfather, her new house, her new school, and this new family that seems too perfect to be real.
But real they turn out to be.
When Things Come Back is an Ode to Teen Angst.
I understand the niche for these books, because, after all, much of the work of adolescence is grieving childhood. This is real work, hard work, and angst is appropriate. I just think a book needs more than angst to glue it together.
Cullen Whitter lives in a dull Arkansas town, with dull parents, and few prospects of ever getting out. He is surrounded by people who are depressed about their own losses and slim prospects, and his whole life is stuck in melancholy neutral. Then a birdwatcher shows up and spots a woodpecker that was thought to be extinct, and the rest of the town perks up. Suddenly there is a festival, a burger, and even a haircut named for the Lazarus woodpecker. All around him people find something to hope for.
Though only sixteen, Prudence Galewski is no stranger to death. This is New York City, in 1906. Not only is New York teeming with unsanitary, crowded conditions, but Prudence acts as assistant to her mother, a midwife in a time when childbirth was dangerous business. Her father went missing in the Mexican war, and she watched her brother die of infection after he was injured by a horse. Rather than causing fear or aversion, all this death turns Prudence into an activist. When the time comes for her to go to work and help support her family, she asks, “Can a girl find work fighting death?”
It turns out that in 1906 New York, a girl can.
My kids are 10 and 13 now, and we still read out loud at night. Not every night, of course. We have the same swim practice/music lesson/homework continuum as other families. But we read aloud when we get the chance; sometimes two, sometimes four nights a week. I firmly believe no one is ever too old to be read to. As a matter of fact, hearing formal language spoken aloud increases literacy skills, even at an older age. And if you wonder if people outgrow the read-aloud, look at the proliferation of choices in audio books. Even grownups love to be read to.
Mostly, our family read-aloud is just like the old days, when my kids were young: there is the cuddling in our big bed, the tussling over pillows, the begging for just one more page. My daughter needs busy hands, so she knits or felts or draws. My son often looks over a comic book.
It is absolutely the best part of my day.