Book Club Spotlight — The Breakfast Club (YA for Grownups)

imgresA children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.
C.S. Lewis

Last year, journalist Ruth Graham published a provocative article (“Against YA”) in Slate that inspired a tedious debate about whether adults should waste their time reading books written for young people. This isn’t a new dispute — 15 years ago,  in a New York Times essay called “Besotted With Potter”, William Safire said:

The trouble is that grown-ups are buying these books ostensibly to read to kids, but actually to read for themselves. As Philip Hensher warns in the Independent newspaper, this leads to ‘the infantilization of adult culture . . .’

It seems to me that a greater concern is prematurely exposing children to adult culture.

You can waste hours of your life googling “adults reading YA” — you’ll find countless impassioned responses to Graham’s piece. Or you can spend that time actually reading a YA novel and decide for yourself. Make sure you choose one that’s critically acclaimed, not the latest dystopian vampire thriller (unless that’s your thing). Read a recent award winner, or reread a favorite from your teenage years, and then decide if young adult literature is worth your time. I’ve reread A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and A Wrinkle in Time many times, gaining new insights with each reading.

Pamela Paul, editor of the New York Times Book Review, is a member of “Kidlit”, a book club that reads children’s and young adult fiction. Paul says of the group: ” . . . none of it feels like homework. The themes are serious and the discussions intense, but the books are fast-paced and fun.” Author Gretchen Rubin started the group when she found that many of her friends and colleagues in the publishing industry shared her passion for children’s literature. Similar groups have sprung up all over the country — I’ve heard of groups called “Young at Heart”, “Forever Young”, and “Never Too Old”.

9781631060229In homage to movie director John Hughes, who understood adolescents so well, we at Lake Forest Book Store named our YA book group “The Breakfast Club”. (We meet in the morning, before the store opens.) After his retirement, Hughes lived in Lake Forest and was a frequent visitor to the bookstore. Always impeccably dressed in a beautiful sport coat with a pocket square, he was an avid reader and fascinating conversationalist. I highly recommend Kirk Honeycutt’s recent book,  John Hughes: A Life In Film: The Genius Behind The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Home Alone and More.

We’ve meet three times (September, October, and November). The books we read this fall, all award winners, inspired interesting discussions and would be good choices for any book club, whatever the focus of the club.

51VH2IQT8AL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson

High school senior Hayley, daughter of an emotionally damaged Iraqi war veteran, struggles to live a “normal” life when she and her father, Andy, settle into his childhood home. Anderson’s father, who was stationed at Dachau during World War II, inspired her to write the story of a family affected by post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Odysseus had twenty years to shed his battle skin. My grandfather left the battlefield in France and rode home in a ship that crawled across the ocean slowly so he could catch his breath. I get on a plane in hell and get off, hours later, at home.

A good companion adult book would be Phil Klay’s short story collection, Redeployment, which won the National Book Award for fiction last year. 

51LOhJFau8LBelzhar by Meg Wolitzer

Jam’s parents don’t know what to do with her when she can’t seem to recover from her grief, so they send her to the Wooden Barn, a boarding school for “emotionally fragile, highly intelligent teenagers”. In a very unusual English class, she and her classmates begin to heal. Wolitzer skillfully incorporates fantasy into a novel that at first seems like a straightforward prep school story.

But it’s never just been the journals that have made the difference, I don’t think. It’s also the way the students are with one another . . . the way they talk about books and authors and themselves. Not just their problems, but their passions too. The way they form a little society and discuss whatever matters to them. Books light the fire—whether it’s a book that’s already written, or an empty journal that needs to be filled in.

Belzhar isn’t a retelling of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, but The Bell Jar plays an important part in the story. Wolitzer’s adult novels are excellent — particularly The Interestings, which follows a group of friends from adolescence through middle age. 

515e3HFpceLI’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

Teenage twins Noah and Jude, both artists, are as close as two people can be, but they compete for the love of their parents and the attention of a new friend. Nelson, a poet and literary agent turned YA author, gives us each twin’s perspective in this thoughtful, but well-plotted exploration of art and love.

Meeting your soul mate is like walking into a house you’ve been in before – you will recognize the furniture, the pictures on the wall, the books on the shelves, the contents of drawers: You could find your way around in the dark if you had to.

Irving Stone’s classic biographical novel, The Agony and the Ecstasy, is a perfect companion book, since sculpting out of stone plays an important role in I’ll Give You the Sun — and the twins’ mother has written her own book on Michelangelo.

We’re deciding now what to read for the first quarter of 2016. The 2015 National Book Award winner for Young People’s Literature, Challenger Deep, by Neil Shusterman, seems like an obvious choice. (I’m also intrigued by one of the finalists, Bone Gap, by Laura Ruby.) My co-leader Diane, who reads lots of YA, just read and loved the historical novel Salt to the Sea, by Ruta Sepetys (due February 2), recommended to us by our Penguin children’s book rep, Sheila Hennessey. Sheila also suggested Mosquitoland, by David Arnold, which has been on my list for a long time. We’d love other suggestions of YA books that grownups can learn from and enjoy!

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14 thoughts on “Book Club Spotlight — The Breakfast Club (YA for Grownups)

  1. I’m always sad when book labeling discourages reading individual books. Though genre labels can be helpful, really each book deserves to be judged on its own merits. Your club sounds like a great way toward achieving that! From my recent reading I would recommend Symphony for the City of the Dead by MT Anderson: Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad, a riveting nonfiction read. The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz is sure to be one of the acclaimed books of the year. Jane Gardam’s A Long Way from Verona was reissued in 2013 and is so funny and brilliant. I also love her Bilgewater (not sure if it’s in print).

    • I just bought M.T. Anderson’s book — looks wonderful, and I think my husband will enjoy it too. I love Jane Gardam but haven’t read the books you mentioned. The Hired Girl sounds fantastic — I’ve read other books by Laura Amy Schlitz. (How did I miss this one?) Thanks for the recommendations!

  2. These all sound really good. I love the John Hughes films. I live with a veteran with PTSD so it would be interesting to read about multiple generations too.

    • Heather, I think you would be interested in The Impossible Knife of Memory — and I’d also like to recommend The Hummingbird by Stephen P. Kiernan. It’s about a hospice nurse who is married to a veteran with PTSD and is caring for a World War II veteran. One of the best books I’ve read this year, and hasn’t received nearly enough acclaim.

  3. I don’t read a lot of YA at least in part because I have a hard time zeroing in on those books I think I’ll really enjoy. I have Belzhar on my stacks, so I’ll probably start there, but all of these sound amazing. And that John Hughes book….swoon.

    • I was a bit of a YA snob until fairly recently. Maybe i was scarred by Twilight? But I’ve discovered recently that there is some really well-written fiction to be found if you choose carefully. (Also, if there are vampires involved, STAY AWAY!) >

  4. I love The Breakfast Book Club concept – wish we had something similar here.

    Of all the great recommendations listed, the one that will go to the top of my TBR list will be, I’ll Give You the Sun.

    • We started this club because several of my bookstore coworkers and I enjoy reading YA and were all in different book clubs that read other kinds of books — plus, we noticed we had quite a few adult customers reading YA. And we are all getting OLD and like to be in our PJs when the sun goes down, if possible, so discussing books over coffee works better for us than discussing them over a glass of wine in the evening! We don’t have the same people come each time — each meeting is open to anyone. No commitment, no pressure.

  5. I was a teen in the 80s so I can appreciate the John Hughes love. Sounds like you have a wonderful book club and the books you’re reading sound really good. I don’t read a lot of YA, but I do like fantasy and find the line between YA and adult fantasy is pretty blurred a lot of the time. I’m a fan of Scott Westerfeld’s books (the Uglies series, Leviathan, Zeroes). They are not as weighty as the ones you are reading though! Honestly, I think anyone who doesn’t like a whole genre of anything is really limiting their choices.

    • Sorry, somehow in the Thanksgiving chaos I missed your comment! I will have to try Scott Westerfeld’s books — and I totally agree that anyone who dismisses a whole genre or category is really missing out.

  6. I just reacquainted myself with A Wrinkle in Time and had a lot of fun with it. I still like these children’s classics.

    • Nothing better than children’s classics — there are certain ones, like A Wrinkle in Time, The Secret Garden, and Harriet the Spy, that I read over and over. So comforting — and I actually discover something new each time.

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