Tag Archives: YA

Five Must-Read Blogs


Young Adult Fiction – YA, to those of us in the know – is all the rage right now. With Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay recently released and following in the age group-transcending footsteps of Harry Potter and Twilight, everyone seems to agree that it’s okay for a grown-up to read a kid’s book. Even the New York Times Book Review concedes that adults – even smart, literary adults – need have no shame about enjoying YA.

What a relief.

As someone who has been reading YA books for quite a while (I started when I was about ten and I haven’t stopped yet), I’m glad that my reading habits are finally on trend. I’m very much enjoying watching some of the most talented storytellers in the publishing business get the rockstar treatment.

Sometimes, I can’t get enough of my favorite authors between the covers of their books. Fortunately, many authors write wonderful blogs. Here are five of my favorite blogs by YA authors. These are a must-read if you are interested in YA fiction, want to learn more about how to be a fiction writer, or simply love reading the musings of interesting folks.

  1. Kristin Cashore, author of the best-sellers Graceling and Fire (Graceling), blogs about everything from the fun – trapeze lessons – to the political – gay rights – at This Is My Secret. Her blog is always thought-provoking and has, I’ll admit, sometimes even moved me to tears.
  2. Maggie Steifvater’s newest book Linger (the follow-up to the wonderful Shiver) debuted at #1 on the New York Times Bestseller List this summer. Read her blog The World According to Maggie for funny, inspiring, and PRACTICAL advice on how to draft, revise, write a query letter, and, most importantly, make the time to be creative.
  3. Laurie Halse Anderson’s writing is powerful and haunting – from her YA fiction like Wintergirls
    to her historical thrillers like Fever 1793. And her blog Mad Woman in the Forest is pure inspiration. It is a community of writers with Anderson herself at the helm, equal parts teacher and cheerleader. In August, Anderson encouraged her readers to join her in a month-long challenge to write for fifteen minutes each day. If you have a writing project that’s stalled or you’d like to jump start your creativity, I highly recommend partaking. The challenge can happen any time at all – just start with Day 1.
  4. You know Sarah Dessen for her best-selling books such as The Truth About Forever and Along for the Ride. But do you know Sarah Dessen? Her blog is a personal and funny account of motherhood, writing, and life. She doesn’t sugar coat or pretend that she doesn’t watch TV. In fact, she’s a very vocal fan of Friday Night Lights. Like I said, she’s real. And I love her for that.
  5. John Green is the author of several books including Looking for Alaska and the co-author (with David Levithan) of the recent Will Grayson, Will Grayson And he happens to have the funniest and smartest vlog (that’s video blog to you) in the world. John and his brother Hank – the “nerd fighters” – roam the world making stream of consciousness videos “to decrease the overall worldwide level of suck.” They also post videos to their  vlogbrothers YouTube channel.

It is important to have heroes and mentors, and the writers listed above are a few of mine. I hope you all know – or know of – people who are doing something that you aspire to do, perhaps a few steps (or, in my case, a few hundred steps) ahead of you. Seek out people who inspire you to be better at whatever you aim to do – whether it’s writing a book, running a faster race, baking a cake, or standing up for your beliefs.

Book Notes: Looking for Alaska

After finishing John Green’s book Looking for Alaska, that’s still what I’m doing. Alaska promises to be a deeply interesting character, but the reader never gets to be in her experience enough to know her. The idea of her – and of finding out her secrets and truths – kept me turning pages but, in the end, she is the mystery that can not be solved. Not by the reader, and not by the characters who are similarly intrigued by her.

In the first pages of the book, narrator Miles leaves his home for boarding school. He seeks “the great perhaps,” and is determined to leave behind the boredom of his life and re-invent himself. Then, almost as if he wishes them into existence, the first people he encounters are his roommate Chip (nicknamed the Colonel) and his friend Alaska Young. Alaska and the Colonel are both unlike any of the boring and rule-abiding kids Miles knew back home. They are brilliant, articulate, irreverent, impulsive, and borderline dangerous. They induct Miles into a life of forbidden cigarettes, drinking, and pranks. Miles holds on tight and rides along on their reckless adventures. Never the instigator, always the willing and curious participant, Miles is ever aware that he is acting a part, willing himself to be the person – confident, articulate, experienced – that he always wanted to be.

Miles’ infatuation with his new life springs, at heart, from his immediate and consuming infatuation with Alaska herself. Beautiful and articulate, mysterious and mercurial, Alaska embodies the epitome of teenage angst. She’s a storm pulling everyone into her center. Miles – and, it seems, every other boy in their acquaintance – can’t help but be obsessed by her. But, Alaska is more than just an object to be fantasized about. The bravado and recklessness are a carefully constructed facade, hiding grief, fear, guilt, and sadness. Alaska’s life is bookended by tragedies, and as the book unfolds so, too, do the details about the depth of her depression.

Well, some of the details, anyway. It’s clear that Alaska never allows even the people who love her most to know and understand her. Perhaps her secretiveness is a function of her depression or guilt, or perhaps she intuits that the mystery is what keeps them – these lovesick boys – attending to her, enabling and justifying the risks she takes with such abandon. Green’s observations seem to deal with the intrinsic nature of love – that loving is not the same as understanding – and about the complexity of a teenager’s inner world. Or, perhaps, he is simply saying that he, too, understands the allure of mystery. He certainly weaves it well, covers it with cigarette smoke and hormonal overtures, and then withholds the satisfaction of an answer. When the mystery, itself, is the object of infatuation, the answer can never bring satisfaction, anyway, just disappointment.

Trolling the book reviews, I often hear about a new book that I want to read and, sometimes, upon further investigation, I find that the author has written previous books that I also want to read. If those previous books are already in paperback, or are available at the library, or for any number of other reasons are easier to get my hands on, I read those first. And so, I often read an older work of an author’s even though the present work is the work that is getting the buzz (or acclaim, or warm fuzzies, or whatever you want to call the general book love that some books receive when they get out in the world). For example, I read Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies before reading Leviathan, and Laurie Halse Anderson’s Fever 1793 before Wintergirls. On the one hand, this means that I get to read the books in chronological order, which I enjoy for the sake of seeing the through-lines in a body of work. I also like to see how authors change and grow. The downside is that I also like to read a book as it’s hot off the press, so that I can be part of conversations about the book as they evolve. If I put off reading a new book, chances are that I won’t get to it while it’s still new. By the time I’m ready to talk about it, the rest of the book folks have moved on.

I came to Looking for Alaska along a similar route. I was – and still am – eager to read John Green’s new book Will Grayson, Will Grayson (co-written with David Levithan, of Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist fame). But when my friend Sara suggested we read Looking for Alaska together, of course I agreed. (I’m a sucker for a book club, even it only has two people.) Green wrote Looking for Alaska two years ago. Now I’m even more eager to read Will Grayson, Will Grayson, though I have to admit that my eagerness has as much to do with enjoying Green’s writing as it does with my continued fascination with Alaska. I’m hoping that reading Green’s later work will help me understand what Alaska meant to say, if indeed she had anything to say at all.

YA Beach Reads

My friend Peter asked me to submit a new list for his site Flashlight Worthy Book Recommendations. I like Peter, I like Flashlight Worthy, and I like making lists, so I didn’t have to think too long before I said yes.

Because it’s summer, Peter is highlighting lists of books that make great beach reads. Like anyone else who adores reading, I don’t want to read bad books, regardless of where I am. So, a beach read must be a wonderfully entertaining, well-written book. For most people, a beach read is not something you want to work very hard at – for example, I would never choose to bring my copy of The Divine Comedy along with me to the beach. (Others might disagree with me, but my beach read would never contain footnotes!)

Not surprisingly, I chose my books from among the enormously inclusive YA genre. (Have you met me? That’s pretty much what I read these days.) The books are not fluff, though, not at all. They are smart, sometimes even serious (two are about what happens after we die), and all entertaining. I’d take them to the beach – or anywhere else – in a heartbeat.

Check out my list of 7 Beach Reads You Can Grab Off Your T(w)een’s Shelf, and then check out the rest of the Beach Reads book recommendations at Flashlight Worthy.

Book Notes: The Forest of Hands and Teeth


I was so ready to love this book. Has a plot ever been written more tailor-made for my personal enjoyment? A village with mysterious history is operated by a group of strictly religious women called Sisters, who make the rules for everything from marriages and births to punishments and deaths. Only one girl thinks to question their authority, daring to love her heart’s desire and aching to see what lies beyond the fences that surround the village. Of course, one thing for certain exists beyond the fences: zombies, people who contracted an infection that killed them, then brought them back to a hellish sort of shadow-existence. These zombies stink of death and moan with their need to consume the flesh of the living.

Yes, yes, and yes!! I got my hands on this book and cleared my reading agenda for a couple of days. I was ready to be gripped and pulled in to the story. But, I wasn’t. I kept waiting for the story to step it up. Plenty of things happened: the village is breached by the undead, the main character Mary escapes down a mysterious path with a few survivors. But, I kept having the feeling that the real story had more to do with what had happened before. How did the Sisters establish control of the village? Why did they tell the villagers that they were alone in the world? Why did they mercilessly destroy evidence of human life outside the fences?

Ryan hints at these questions, and more. The hints got tiresome, as did Mary’s constant warring with herself and wondering what to do. The writing felt redundant, almost like its sole purpose was to introduce the concepts and hook the reader for the sequel. In fact, it read like a too-long preview for the second book.

I was struggling to articulate my feelings about this to my sister. I kept saying, “She has a story to tell, but she’s saving it… She just needs to put it out there and write THE story.” Then, I read an article by NY Times film critic A.O. Scott  about movie sequels.  Scott writes, “…such forestalling and foreshadowing was annoying, as if we were being conned into future ticket purchases rather than given our money’s worth.” I realized that this was precisely the issue. I’ve been feeling this way about books – yes, and movies and tv shows, too – that I just want my money’s worth. I don’t mean that I want to put an actual dollar amount on my experience, but I want the creators to honor the contract between writer and reader (or viewer). I settle in for the story; I’m ready to be entertained. To then be given a story that is basically nothing more than hints and questions is like the ultimate, most aggravating, bait-and-switch.

It reminds me of  a quote from Annie Dillard that I used to have on my classroom wall when I was teaching writing to fifth graders. Dillard says:

One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now.

It’s a lesson for any writer to keep in mind. Don’t squirrel away the good stuff, saving it for later or holding it like a carrot so your audience will follow along. They won’t (or, I won’t, anyway). But, tell me a good story and, sister, I’m yours for life. Or, should I say, I’m yours for undead.

Book Notes: Next to Mexico

About a decade ago, my friend Tara took me to see a one-woman play called Lylice, written and performed by Jen Nails at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater. I couldn’t get enough of Lylice. I saw the show four more times over the course of the next year. And it never, ever got old. Jen nailed – ha! – her performance of this precocious middle-schooler. Did I mention that the play has a musical number? If Jen didn’t charm me with the cupcakes Lylice served, she completely won me over with her song “Susan B. Anthony/Freud,” in which she sings, “Dear Mr. Freud, I know your name / I heard you are a genius / But Mr. Freud, I’ll tell you something / I don’t want a penis / I don’t want to hear / any more about puberty and phalluses / and you know where you can shove / your psychoanalysis.” (Go to the bottom of the post to hear the whole hilarious song.)

Through a happy coincidence, I recently re-met Jen at my friend Randi’s daughter’s birthday party (thank goodness my friends know such awesome people). Jen told me that she’d written a book featuring Lylice, and she kindly offered to send it to me when I told her about my passion for children’s and young adult literature. I eagerly awaited the book, as much for the thrill of reading a book written by someone I actually knew as for the chance to hear more from Lylice, who I’d come to think of as a friend of mine.

At the beginning of Jen’s book Next to Mexico, Lylice has just found out that she will skip fifth grade and go straight to the 6th grade, which means leaving her beloved elementary school and going on to middle school. Lylice’s intellect and uniqueness (it’s not often you find an eleven-year-old who is as comfortable with political demonstrations as Lylice is) label her an oddity among her peers, and she’s a lonely kid despite her many interests. Then, she meets a new student named Mexico. The two girls form a bond as Lylice helps Mexico with her homework, Mexico introduces Lylice to home-cooked mexican food, and together they plot to save the arts program at school. The joy that the two girls find in their friendship speaks movingly to the mooring and healing that friendship can give us. I especially love the fact that none of the characters in the book is simple. The mean, popular girl turns out to be deeply sympathetic. The boy who Lylice has a crush on might not be worth all the trouble. And, even Lylice is not as simple or as good as she at first seems to be. When she thinks that something she wants is within her grasp, she finds that she is able to hurt her friend to get it. But true friends don’t just share laughter and good times. They make mistakes, and they forgive.

Lylice has shades of other beloved literary characters. She’s a little Anne of Green Gables, with her extraordinary intellect and her stubborn refusal to conform to society’s expectations of what girls should be or want. She’s a little bit Ramona B., with her tendency to talk too much when she’s nervous or excited. She also reminds me of Jenny Han’s Shug, with her honesty and emotional vulnerability. In the end, though, Lylice’s humor and voice are all her own.

I adored this book. Nails has portrayed her characters – both children and adults – in a funny, realistic way and written a beautiful story about the power of friendship. It would make a great addition to my Books for Strong Girls in Middle School list over at Flashlight Worthy. And, when I write the second installment of the list, I’ll make sure it’s there.

Check out Lylice’s awesome song!

01 Susan B. Anthony_Freud

Balloons in the Bathroom

I’ve mentioned that I enjoy making lists. This week, I have a pretty typical sort of to-do list happening in my notebook. Items like “buy diapers,” “roast veggies,” and “vacuum rugs” feature prominently. Then, somewhere down near the bottom of the page, in small – yet hopeful – print: “First draft of baseball girl story.” “Write new Huntress chapter.”

Not surprisingly, those tiny, polite items on my list don’t seem to get finished. I’ve come to realize that if I relegate my writing to I’ll-do-it-when-I-have-spare-time status, the opportunity never materializes. I’m thinking a lot about time management these days, so I was glad to see Young Adult author Maggie Stiefvater provide her view on the subject on her (quite excellent) blog. Lately, I’ve been falling neatly into that category she describes of people who claim not to have any time to write because they have kids. Not only do I tell myself that I ought to devote the bulk of my time to Winnie, but I also tell myself that I need to spend my time and energy making sure our home looks a certain way and that we have home-made baked goods and dinners and the like. My idyllic image of parenthood is getting in the way of “me-hood,” and it could quite possibly be the most efficient means of procrastinating that I’ve ever come up with (and, believe me, I majored in procrastination).

There are balloons in the bathroom, for goodness sake, and that’s not even the half of it. (Also, please don’t ask how they got there. The truth is, I don’t know.) Time to give writing top billing on the ol’ to-do list, eh? I’ll get to the balloons – and the vacuuming, and the cooking – but they’re closer to the bottom of my list now. So they’re gonna have to wait, and in the meanwhile I’ll just say it’s festive and leave it at that.

Sarah Dessen: Writing the Real Girl

The Truth About Forever by Sarah DessenIf you’ve spent any time among the Young Adult fiction shelves at your local library or bookstore, you’ve most likely heard of Sarah Dessen. It’s hard to miss the work of this prolific writer. Two of her books – Someone Like You and That Summer – were turned into the movie How to Deal starring Mandy Moore. By most anyone’s measure, she’s developed a very successful writing career for herself.

I’ve only read a few of her books so far, but I can already see why she’s got such a good thing going. For one thing (and in my mind, this is the Most Important Thing), Dessen writes well-developed characters who hum with life. In The Truth About Forever, the hairs on my arm stood up when Dessen describes the character of Macy’s fierce, loving, controlling mother. The anger! I had to put the book down for a minute because I was having flashbacks. (Note to Sarah: When did you meet my mother?)

Dessen also has a knack for locating her stories in the exact, most heart-rending crux of a character’s struggle. The moment just before something big, something life-altering, happens. Whether they are grieving, confused, withdrawn, or anxious, her main characters are also smart, funny, and kind. And they have at least one other thing in common: they’re trying to be real. This struggle to go from perfect girl to real girl was especially apparent in The Truth About Forever. Macy continually subverts her own desires, avoids confrontation, hides her true feelings, and even tries to grieve for her father in a way that pleases those around her. Turns out, those aren’t easy habits to break. There’s something appealing about doing what someone tells you to do; when things go awry, the risk is not your own. Ultimately, though, if Macy wants to own her life – surprises, joys, complications, failures, and all – she has to learn how to look inside and figure out what she needs. Then, she has to ask for it.

Three cheers for an author who writes about smart girls who deal with realistic problems. One more cheer for an author who can make a darn entertaining book out of it. Okay, and one more for stories in which the smart, real girl gets her romance on! (Hmm… number one best thing about being a writer = the ability to make the world work exactly as you think it should.) Sarah Dessen’s books are like awesome beach reads for the thinking girl. As they say in her native North Carolina, that dog’ll hunt.

Kristin Cashore, You Should Be My Friend

cashore_fireI know that one usually doesn’t go around lobbying for friends, but I have a compelling case to make.

You might not know this, Kristin, but you have been wooing me with your blog. After I read Graceling, I looked you up on the Internet because, well, that’s the first thing I do when I want to know more. And I happened upon your blog, where you proved to be witty and funny. Oh, so funny! Your blog makes me laugh. More surprising, though, sometimes your blog makes me cry. Especially when you post about how much you love the planet. And this post here. Oh, that one made me weep.

Hmm, I thought. Witty and funny and passionate and sensitive. A good combo. You blogged about books, and recommended some of your favorites. I picked up many of those, and your recommendations were wonderful! It’s a true friend, indeed, who puts books like this into my hands.

But, then, Kristin, oh then. Once you had piqued my interest, you started to blog about Buffy. And, Kristin, I was watching Buffy, too. For a while there, we were watching the same episodes. (I knew this because you would refer to your burgeoning love for a certain blonde vampire. My love, too, burgeoned.)

Just when it seems that all of this might have been a coincidence, that perhaps lots of people are reading YA and watching Buffy and loving Spike… then you write about watching the Olympics, and how much you love the Morgan Freeman Visa commercial with Dan Jansen.  And, you know.  It’s not that I’m saying that thousands of people aren’t watching the Olympics and weeping at that commercial right along with us.  I’m just saying that you should be my friend.  We could talk about books and drink tea and watch figure skating.

And, by the way, I’ll be looking for a character who bears a resemblance to Stephane Lambiel in your upcoming books.  He has a very princely quality, eh?

For any of you who don’t know, Kristin Cashore is the author of Graceling and its companion book Fire, both of which have won numerous awards and been listed on the NYT bestseller list.  She blogs at This Is My Secret.

Book Notes: The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly
The Newbery Awards were announced just a couple of weeks ago, and The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate
by Jacqueline Kelly was named as a Newbery Honor book. I’d already intended to read it, despite the fact that there is nary a mention of vampires, secret anarchist districts, or, even, romance.  However, it is a Young Adult book, it’s historical fiction (set in one of my favorite time periods – just on the cusp of the 20th century), and the protagonist is a girl.  So, it had a lot going for it in terms of my ARE (Anticipated Reading Enjoyment and – yes! – I just made up that silly acronym).

Turns out there was a bit of romance, just not the kind of romance I’d grown accustomed to reading about in YA novels.  Eleven-year-old Calpurnia – Callie – falls in love plenty in this book.  She falls in love with micro-organisms.  She falls in love with grasshoppers.  With a plant called hairy vetch.  With the whole natural world, in fact.  And Callie falls in love with her grandfather.

It’s this romance, between granddaughter and grandfather, that is so moving, and reminds me that we find what we need in unexpected places, but we do find it.  In her grandfather, an eccentric, intimidating recluse, Callie finds a much-needed teacher.  He opens her eyes to the scientific method and to the wonders around her.  He gives her the controversial book The Origin of Species by a scientist named Charles Darwin.  Callie’s grandfather has lived enough of his own life to see her for who she is, without needing her to fulfill his expectations of her.

Even though she is only eleven, Callie chafes against the constraints placed on girls of her time and, particularly, in her socially important family.  Why should she, and not her brothers, have to spend precious hours learning to cook and knit and sew, when there are discoveries to be made with microscope and net?  Why should she face the prospect of “coming out,” being shopped around to potential husbands just so she can have a life like her mother has, when she has a mind that longs to puzzle over scientific questions at the University?  And, while she has plenty of cause to revolt against the constraints, she feels conflicted because she also loves the instruments of her constraint – loves her mother, loves her home.

In the end, the book seems to me to be about discoveries.  Callie lives in a time in which the many important discoveries were an exciting indication of progress and industry.  She and her Grandaddy make plenty of discoveries of their own, some scientific and some personal.  And Callie’s family – in particular, her mother – is on the verge of discovering Callie, just as I did.  Discovering the smart, confused, frustrated, angry, and jubilant girl that she is was a joy for me.  Callie is about as “real girl” as it gets.

If I were still teaching 5th grade, I’d read this book to my class.  Since I’m not, I’ll simply recommend it for girls in 5th grade or older.  Plus, it’d be a really nice addition to my recommendations for mother-daughter book clubs on Flashlight Worthy Book Recommendations.

This post also appears on the Girls Leadership Institute Blog.

Digging God and Marcelo

Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco Stork
I know I don’t look like the destructive type, but I once totaled my husband’s nativity set.

Well, I didn’t destroy it personally, but I did call in some hired muscle in the form of a disturbed dog. When the job was done and the wise men’s dismembered bodies were strewn around the kitchen floor, I secretly did a jig.

I celebrate Christmas, but you won’t find a nativity scene at my house. It’s not because I’m so private about my religion, or because Banana Republic and Zales have killed my spirituality with their ubiquitous marketing campaigns. In all honesty, I believe in God, and I love the story of Jesus’ birth.

But I keep it quiet. Because, let’s face it, it’s just not cool to dig God.

I recently read the wonderful book Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork, about a boy named Marcelo with a diagnosis that lies somewhere on the mild end of the autism spectrum. Marcelo has managed to create a world for himself that is comfortable and familiar. He goes to a special school, lives in his tree house, works with horses, delves into religious pursuits, and retreats to his “internal music” whenever life gets to be too much for him. Then, one summer, his father demands that Marcelo enter the “real world,” which translates into taking a job in the mailroom at his father’s law firm. Marcelo’s eyes are opened in some alarming ways, and seeing the real world – our world – through Marcelo’s frank and naive gaze is a little uncomfortable for the reader, because it’s so true.

In one particularly interesting scene, Marcelo and his dad are traveling on the commuter rail together for Marcelo’s first day at the law firm. To calm his nerves, Marcelo takes out his rosary and begins to pray quietly. His father calmly explains that praying is not appropriate public behavior. It’s just not done. I was thinking that the dad was a real jerk, and then I realized: if he’s a jerk, so am I. The dad is right. We live in a secular world, and there are rules we must follow to succeed. In general, people who are considered successful don’t make a fuss about their faith.

I don’t have any need to evanglize, but I don’t want to hide an aspect of myself that is becoming increasingly important to me. It’s hard to imagine feeling comfortable even mentioning prayer, church, or God in a group of my peers, the vast majority of whom do not practice religion. It’s not comfortable to admit it, but even though I’m all “grown up,” I still want to fit in. Shouldn’t I have outgrown this feeling by now?

Acknowledging faith in God makes me feel vulnerable, so I resist. I’ve been too embarrassed to be enthusiastic about religion or, really, about anything that makes me seem less than strong, less than self-sufficient. It’s the same way I used to feel about therapy Getting over that was a necessary step in helping my marriage thrive, and I’m so grateful that I did.

It’s scary to admit to believing in something that’s invisible, or to get help when you need it, or to build a life around loving someone else. It’s scary to need anything, period. People might laugh or, worse, judge me.

Seems a bit late, but I’m finally realizing what people mean when they say, “live your life for you.” My self-consciousness has gotten me nothing, except a bubble of protection from the mockery that I fear. Yet, how many things has that self-consciousness cost me?

Well, church, for one.