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!


We Were Liars — Book Review

coverTime shall unfold what plighted cunning hides,
Who covers faults at last with shame derides.
Cordelia, to her lying sisters in King Lear

If E. Lockhart’s remarkable new novel, We Were Liars, is typical of its genre, I might become a YA convert. Actually, I dislike the term “genre” when it comes to reading. When Gillian Flynn was asked by a New York Times interviewer, “Do you have a favorite genre? Any literary guilty pleasures?”, she said:

I read all kinds of novels, as long as they’re good. I get a bit piqued when people say, “I don’t really like that kind of book. It’s akin to marking yourself as proudly poorly read. I like westerns, fantasy, sci-fi, graphic novels, thrillers, and I try to avoid the word “genre” altogether. A good book is a good book. And as far as guilty pleasures, I don’t ever feel guilt if I’m enjoying reading something.

I certainly didn’t feel any guilt when I was reading We Were Liars. I knew from the first page that I was reading something extraordinary. Lockhart’s writing is lovely — simple and poetic, with dialogue worthy of a screenplay. The voice of the narrator, teenager Cadence Sinclair Eastman, is completely authentic. Cady’s story takes place on her grandfather’s private island off the coast of Massachusetts, where she spends every summer with her extended family. The island setting is important to the plot, but even more crucial to the otherworldly atmosphere of the novel. Everything that happens in the book seems to take place in an almost magical realm, with little connection to the outside world.

Cady introduces herself as the “eldest Sinclair grandchild. Heiress to the island, the fortune, and the expectations.” Her mother is one of three daughters:

yhst-137970348157658_2313_1375965663Granddad’s only failure was that he never had a son, but no matter. The Sinclair daughters were sunburnt and blessed. Tall, merry, and rich, those girls were like princesses in a fairy tale. They were known throughout Boston, Harvard Yard, and Martha’s Vineyard for their cashmere cardigans and grand parties. They were made for legends. Made for princes and Ivy League schools, ivory statues and majestic houses.

The island has always been a refuge for Cady, but one summer (“summer fifteen”, she calls it), something traumatic happens to her there; something she can’t seem to remember. Now,  more than two years later, she is suffering from “selective amnesia” and  “migraine headaches caused by traumatic brain injury” and trying to piece together the events of “summer fifteen”.  She recalls the beloved fairy tales of her childhood: “So many have the same premise: once upon a time, there were three . . . I have time on my hands, so let me tell you a story. A variation, I am saying, of a story you have heard before.”

9780140714760MThe story she tells — interwoven with pieces of her own story — is “Meat Loves Salt”, the tale of a farmer with three daughters who rejects his youngest daughter because he doesn’t understand her love and her honesty.  A Publishers Weekly interview with Lockhart points out that “Shakespeare liked this one too; it’s the same tale thought to have inspired King Lear.” (It’s worth noting that when Cady starts giving away her possessions, one of the first things she donates is a copy of King Lear.) Lockhart says “as a child, I was captivated by these beautifully illustrated collections my mother owned . . . Fairy tales have been a preoccupation of mine for a very long time, and for a long time I wanted to write a contemporary story with a fairy-tale structure so I could unpack some of what I had spent so much time thinking about.”

After I finished We Were Liars, I spent a lot of time thinking about it. I wondered about the significance of the title. The “liars” of the title are Cady, her cousins Johnny and Mirren, and Gat, a family friend: “The family calls us four the Liars, and probably we deserve it. We are all nearly the same age, and we all have birthdays in the fall. Most years on the island, we’ve been trouble.”  But the irony is that the adults in the family are the real liars, as Cady (and the reader) gradually discover. Their lies are numerous and their reasons for lying are complicated.  Cady, evoking King Lear’s honest daughter, Cordelia, is the only person who is trying to learn the truth about herself and her family. Her father left the family because “he couldn’t smile, couldn’t lie, couldn’t be part of that beautiful family in those beautiful houses.”

I deliberately haven’t talked much about the plot of We Were Liars. In the letter that came with the ARC, the publisher said:

It’s not often that I write a letter asking a reader to do this, but please trust me. I won’t tell you the plot of this book. It is better for you to just read it. We Were Liars is a dazzler. It’s suspenseful, literary, and romantic . . . You don’t need to know more. More would spoil it . .  Whatever you do, don’t spoil it for the people who haven’t read it yet. And if anyone asks you how it ends, just LIE.

Marketing hype? Maybe. Still, I won’t ruin it for you by telling you any more.  I’ll echo the publisher and ask you to trust me. And I’m not a liar.

For more reading:

An Adult YA Addict Comes Clean (New York magazine)

Why I Read Young Adult Literature (Book Riot website)

Review of We Were Liars (New York Times)

Interview with E. Lockhart (Publishers Weekly)





10 Gateway Books for Teenagers

I have to admit that I’m not a YA reader. I would like to be, but there are only so many reading hours in the day, and my list of Old Adult fiction and nonfiction just keeps growing. I know that YA is a huge phenomenon in the publishing world, and I need to learn more about it.

What exactly is YA? That’s the question that I saw on Twitter a few days ago. Someone else asked, “Is Tell the Wolves I’m Home YA”? Multiple people responded, all with variations on the same answer: “No, it’s coming-of-age”.  What is the difference? My guess is that YA fiction is written with a teenage audience in mind, whereas literary fiction isn’t targeted toward a particular demographic group. The recent phenomenon of adults reading YA is fascinating to me. Does it reflect our youth-oriented culture in general? When I was a teenager, I was more interested in reading “up” than my mother was in reading “down”. She didn’t cvr9781416914631_9781416914631_lgread my copies of Forever and Go Ask Alice, but I did read her copies of The Godfather and Ordinary People. (Then again, I was more interested in borrowing her clothes than she was in wearing mine. I think mothers today aspire to dress like their daughters.)

Now parents are borrowing their children’s copies of Divergent and Twilight, or even buying those series for themselves. Certain books are “crossover” novels, published as YA in one country and adult in another. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time  (Mark Haddon) and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (John Boyne) were marketed as YA in Great Britain and adult in the United States, while The Book Thief (Marcus Zusak), sold as YA here, was originally published as an adult book in Australia.

9780062225443When customers ask me for books that will appeal to their teenagers but are not “YA” books, I have some tried-and-true favorites I suggest. You could think of these as “gateway” books to grown-up literature. (Back when I was reading Go Ask Alice, marijuana was considered the “gateway” drug to heroin. Now you can legally buy marijuana in Colorado!) Often, the customer will say, “Oh! I have a copy of The Secret Life of Bees (or The Help, or Into Thin Air) at home . . . maybe he/she would like that.” Here are 10+ other books that appeal to young people:

Durable Goods, Joy School, and True to Form by Elizabeth Berg: A trio of books about army brat Katie Nash, growing up with an abusive father.

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand: Still in hardcover more than 3 years after publication! Teenagers are amazed and inspired by Louie Zamperini’s story. Have them read it before the movie comes out.

cover-1The Bean Trees and Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver: Two books about spirited adventurer Taylor Greer and her adopted Cherokee daughter, Turtle.

Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight: Page-turner about a mother investigating her teenage daughter’s apparent suicide.

The Pact (or anything, really) by Jodi Picoult: No need to elaborate. Teenagers love Jodi.

Who’s Your Caddy: Looping for the Great, Near Great, and Reprobates of Golf by Rick Reilly (his new book, out in May — Tiger, Meet My Sister . . . And Other Things I Probably Shouldn’t Have Said sounds like it will be perfect for older teenagers too): Sports Illustrated writer Reilly has written many very insightful and funny golf books.

37333cb0909ab45f2302dcbb83df4127The Yonalohssee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton DiSclafani: Who doesn’t love a boarding school book? This one is set in the 1930s, at a school for equestriennes in the mountains of North Carolina.

Me Talk Pretty One Day (or anything except Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk) by David Sedaris: Hilarious, and even better on audio.

Maus and Maus II by Art Spiegelman: Graphic novels of the Holocaust.

Old School by Tobias Wolff: Another boarding school novel; this one has a cameo appearance by Robert Frost.

What are your favorite gateway books for teenagers?