Saturday, September 8, 2007

Favorites from the Summer

I meant to write more about books I've read, but unfortunately did not have time. School started today, so I'll have much less time to read. I'll post my final installment of summer reading to complete the list another time.

For now, here are some of my favorite of all the books I've read:

The Queen of Attolia and The King of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner. Only going back one day before the semester ended, I could include the first book in the series, The Thief. I spend the first hundred pages of The Thief wondering where the author was going with her story. For the last twenty pages, I was realizing the author's brilliance. I love the political complexity of the imagined world, and Gen is one of my all-time favorite characters. His wit and humor are great. I want to reread these again soon.

The Chronicles of Chrestomanci by Diana Wynne Jones is one of those series that wasn't written in order, so I accidentally read it a bit out of order, though it didn't really matter. Each book stands alone well. These books, and the others I've read by the same author, suit my sense of humor. The world, or more correctly, universes imagined in these stories can be pretty complicated, but it's fun.

Austenland by Shannon Hale. Is this really the same author as The Princess Academy? I'm in awe of her ability to write such different novels so well. Austenland is about a single woman who can't seem to find true love. Why? Well, because boyfriends just don't measure up to Mr. Darcy. You know, the one played by Colin Firth in the 5-hour-long Pride and Prejudice. When her eccentric aunt sends her on vacation to Austenland, she just might be able to find true love -- or at least an actor who's willing to be Mr. Darcy for a few days. This was a really fun, quick read.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J. K. Rowling. Though a bit boring in the beginning, I thought this was a fitting end to a fantastic series. I'm debating when I should reread the books in order.

The Looking Glass Wars by Frank Beddor. Probably one of the reasons I enjoyed this reimagining of Alice in Wonderland so much is because I don't really care for the original. In this version, Charles Hodgson got it wrong, and Alice Liddell is really Alyss Heart, princess of Wonderland. Inventive and fun fantasy, and I am looking forward to reading the sequel, Seeing Redd.

The Shakespeare Stealer, by Gary Blackwood is exactly the sort of historical fiction I like -- a believable premise, historical facts presented without changes to suit the story, and a good story that is not overwhelmed with historical facts. I thought this story was a great blend of facts about Shakespeare and theater. A young boy who knows a type of shorthand is sent by his master to steal the play Hamlet.

And lastly, sneaking under the wire is Faeries of Dreamdark: Blackbringer by Laini Taylor. This is the only fantasy I've ever read about a faerie (yeah, it's spelled like that in the book) who travels with crows. Creative yet fully convincing through the details of history and legend in this imagined world, Blackbringer is one of my new favorite books, and was quite a satisfying end to my summer reading.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Unique Among Award Winners

Rereading my last blog post, I started thinking about Alex Awards I have read. My Sister's Keeper, as I mentioned in my comparison with The Floor in the Sky, was a title I did not originally realize was an Alex Award winner. In fact, I first picked it up because some teens who came to talk to one of my classes last semester mentioned that they had read and enjoyed it. The multiple copies in my library are constantly checked out, and My Sister's Keeper remains the only Alex Award winner that a teen recommended to me. Is this just a random anecdotal incident, or are there truly differences between My Sister's Keeper and other Alex titles, like The Floor in the Sky, Never Let Me Go, Anansi Boys, and The Thirteenth Tale?

The difficulty of identifying what makes a book popular is that every reader has a different reason for liking or disliking a story. The Floor in the Sky, for instance, might be more successful in rural areas than the suburbs, and My Sister's Keeper, though popular in my town, will certainly not resonate with every teen. At the same time, I believe there are characteristics that make this novel unique among Alex Award winners I have read.

Here's what comes to mind:
  • The book is more of a standout on the shelf. Before a reader cracks the cover, he or she has to notice the book. The title and the cover (two teen girls leaning back-to-back) work well together and look more interesting than, say, a stack of antiquarian books a la The Thirteenth Tale.
  • The story is narrated in first-person, present-tense. A first-person narrator is more common in young adult literature, and while this alone is not unique, other stories like The Thirteenth Tale and Never Let Me Go involve an adult looking back on the teen years rather than teens telling their own stories.
  • The events of the story have immediate bearing on teen characters. Since the story is the present, not a memory, the events of the story do not explain how the past affected the present but how the present will affect the future. Furthermore, while The Floor in the Sky emphasizes the adult characters' decisions over Lila's, My Sister's Keeper spends equal time exploring adults' and teens' decisions and their complex effects on each other.
  • Finally, one of the major themes in My Sister's Keeper in the relationship between independence and dependence in a family. Anna's attempt to be more independent from her parents is central to the plot and resonates with teens who struggle to find a balance with being more independent but not being fully adult.

When it comes down to it, I think, as I've mentioned before, that adults just can't read like kids anymore. I don't mean to denunciate other award winners, because I have enjoyed every book I've mentioned in this post. On the other hand, I think we have a tendency to recommend books we think people should read rather than what really interests them. This is not only true of book lists for children and teens, but for adults as well. There's a marked difference between "best book" lists and best sellers across all age groups. It's too bad we can't often step back and see the good qualities in popular books more often.