L.K. Madigan

L.K. Madigan, author of Flash Burnout and The Mermaid’s Mirror, died this week.

I knew L.K. Madigan as a reader. I read and enjoyed Flash Burnout; interviewed her for the YALSA Blog; and stood in line to get a copy of The Mermaid’s Mirror signed. As a reader, as someone who knew her through Twitter, I am sad and angry and I cannot begin to imagine what her family and friends are going through right now. My thoughts and prayers are with them.

Her husband posted at her blog, including information about a college trust fund for her son. As he explains, “One of Lisa’s wishes is for our son Nate to attend college. To help ensure that dream comes true, a trust fund has been set up to provide for Nathan’s college education.” Checks can be made payable to the Nathan Wolfson Trust and sent to Becker Capital Management, Inc., Attn: Sharon Gueck/John Becker, 1211 Fifth Avenue, Suite 2185, Portland, OR 97204. Donors will be sent acknowledgement letters

From School Library Journal: YA Author L.K. Madigan dies at 47.

Madigan’s friend and agent, Jennifer Laughran, A Very Sad Day and Thank You.

The Oregonian.

GalleyCat: LK Madigan Has Died.

April Henry about the trust fund and the request to please share the information about it; and she also shares some videos of Madigan.

Some bloggers and authors share their thoughts and memories: Green Been Teen Queen, Malinda Lo, Novel Novice, Megan Crewe, Kate Messner, and thanks to Gwenda Bond, I found that Mary Kole at Kidlit.com has a list of links.

Really Creative Writing…Or Not

As I’m reading my Google Reader this morning, a post over at Blog of a Bookslut grabs my attention — a teacher writes a self-published book, includes her students, includes sex and drugs, and it doesn’t end well for her.

The full Guardian article is Teacher who put pupils into their own sex’n’drugs novel awaits tribunal result.

I read the article, anticipating that this was going to be about self-publishing — but it isn’t. It’s about teaching. Go, read the Guardian article, come back so we can discuss. (All quotes below are from the Guardian article).

The teacher, Leonora Rustamova, is pretty self aware at the moment: “”I am an idiot but I had good intentions.”

The good intentions: Rustamova had a group of students who were using  “sexist and racist language and showed little interest in learning.” Her innovative idea to get them interested? Create a story with the students and herself as the main characters! “She wrote five of them and herself into a plot involving a drugs gang which was foiled by the pupils, but with sexual fantasies, bad language and truancy along the way.” Rustamova read the book aloud to the students and they began participating in the creation. As the Guardian observes, “Inevitably, this ratcheted up the tally of swearwords and risque episodes.” Rustamova’s lawyer defends the project, stating “the book did not subvert “positive attitudes and values” and its denouement involved the teacher and her “five favourites” calling in the police.”

The self-publishing bit comes in when Rustamova and her students completed the 96 page story and Rustamova’s husband used a self-publishing website to get a small number of copies bound as final books for some students and staff. Apparently unintentionally, the story remained publicly available on the website.

The Guardian reports that some parents and staff support Rustamova’s teaching methods and successes, while the school defends her termination by saying the reasons “did not only involve the book . . . but also out-of-school activities with the boys and a “failure to acknowledge or comprehend sufficiently the seriousness of the school’s concerns.“”

This isn’t about a self-published book. It’s about a teacher attempting to be reach teenagers that had “largely been written off.” I understand that motivation — I see it at schools and libraries, well, with any adults that work with teenagers. But how far is to far? When is a line crossed? When does the adult working with teens need to remind themselves, “I am the adult”?

At this point in time, to all of us reading this story, the line seems obvious. Including sexual fantasies in the street lit book you’re writing with underage students? Not a good idea. Yet, I can almost see the classroom (or library). The banter, the back and forth, the laughing, the connections, the joking, the engagement, the excited reporting to colleagues, and the moment when the line was crossed coming and going unnoticed.

The New Yorker also addresses the teaching element of the story, asking “How far should a teacher go to get her students to read? To extreme lengths, one might argue, since engaged literacy provides the framework for social and professional success in adulthood.”

Other news links: The Daily Mail, The Telegraph.

Booktalking

Booktalking is one of my favorite librarian things to do. I’m going to share my typical preparation for day of booktalks at a school. I would love to hear other people’s techniques!

For those non-librarians, booktalking is what librarians do to do promote books to teens and kids. It can be one-on-one with teens (or parents) in the library, but what I’m talking about is the school visit booktalk. It’s a full day and can be exhausting! Ideally, to reach as many teens as possible, I talk to several classes during one class period. Because it’s multiple classes, booktalking usually takes place in the school library but it can also be in the auditorium. So, first thing first – scheduling the booktalks, figuring out how many teens you’ll be talking to, setting the dates, what grades, where, the time, where to park, what door to go in, etc.

Next is selecting the books. Because booktalking like this involves hundreds of teens, it’s important to have enough books in the library for when the teens come looking for the books. I like to have a minimum of three copies, ideally more, on hand for teens to take home right away. For libraries that are part of a larger system, extra copies can be brought in from other locations. It is extremely helpful if the library /library system encourages input about collection development, so a librarian can say, “I want to booktalk x book, please buy multiple copies.”

Creating the list involves balance: older books, newer books, nonfiction, various genres, diversity, etc. I go through, counting, removing some books that are overrepresented and brainstorming areas that are underrepresented. Especially if it’s a school or teens who don’t know me, I include at least one or two books that are already popular. Including books that the teens already like helps the teens trust me about the books they don’t know. If I talk to six groups of teens, I’m going to mix up the books used in each group so that I don’t get bored and also so I don’t have the same groups coming in for the same books. This makes for a longer list. If possible, I coordinate with the school librarian to include books in the school, so if teens go to the school library they can find the books. Part of the brainstorming includes using professional resources (see below).

Here’s a secret: I don’t read all the books first. I know, I know. I’ve read a lot of them, but sometimes it’s just not possible to read all. So what I do is research the hell out of the book to ensure it’s a good fit. I read all the reviews, I read blog reviews, I go to websites, I skim the books (first 50, middle 50, last 50), and I use the books and websites dedicated to booktalks.

Then I prepare the booktalks themselves. Usually, a good number are already prepared because they are ones I did in previous years. I prefer short booktalks — brief plot, ending with a hook. Basically, it’s a commercial that leaves teens thinking “I want to go to there.” How short? I go old-school, preparing index cards (3 x 5) which on one side has the info on the book (title, author, pub date, age) and on the other the booktalk. So, the talk has to fit on the back of the index card. Each index card goes in the copy of the book I’ll bring with me. I read over all the ones I’m going to use. I don’t so much memorize as re-familiarize myself with the books. Sometimes, I hit a wall and just cannot figure out the right way to “sell” a book. Luckily, there are a ton of resources available, both in selecting the books to use and preparing the booktalks.

Resources for selecting books and creating the booktalks include NoveList and publisher websites, as well as Nancy Keane’s Booktalks and Joni Bodart’s Booktalker. YALSA has a list of resources. Another list of online booktalking resources.

Next, I create booklists to take with me to hand out to the teens. I put them in alphabetical order by title. I hand them out at the start of the booktalk, so teens (and teachers!) can follow along and mark the books they are interested in. Every now and then, there’s a teacher who won’t cooperate with this because the teens will be “distracted.” I’m about to talk thirty books in forty five minutes — who is going to remember what I talk about without a booklist in front of them? The booklist also has the library name, address, my name, contact information and the date of the booktalk.

Before I go, I have the library prepared. Multiple copies of books are in one area on display. Using a bookcart helps, especially if you have limited display space. Signs are key and extra booklists. I also let all staff know about the booktalks so they can direct teens, teens and parents to the display.

The day of the booktalk, I bring the books, water, Tylenol, throat drops, a breakfast bar, and lunch. I know some people use a PowerPoint of books instead. This saves on bringing copies of books to the school, but it cuts back on the spontaneity. I stand in front of the class, with a table or two. The books are in front of me, lying down. I introduce myself and the library. Ideally, I visit schools twice a year and the first visit will have more on getting a library card; the second will be about promoting the summer reading program.

Then, I start. I pick up a book, show the book jacket, read the title and author and go into my booktalk. At this point, I don’t really need the index card; it’s more there in case I need it. Also, I tend to forget character names so it’s terrific to have that right in front of me. I may not even take the index card out of the book. Once I’m done with that book, it goes on the table but this time standing up so that the teens can see it. I make eye contact with the teens, try to judge the reactions to the titles, and use that to decide what book to pick up next. I also try to mix it up, going from adventure to sad to fantasy to nonfiction. Ideally, there are a few minutes at the end for the teens to come up, look at the books, ask me questions.

Bell rings, teens leave, I have a few minutes. The books that I didn’t booktalk, I move closer to where I’m standing as a reminder that I didn’t talk about them yet. I put all the books flat on the table. Take a drink of water, find the cough drops, and start again when the bell rings. See why I don’t use a PowerPoint? It ties me in to what books I’ll talk about and the order I use. Between groups and during lunchtime is a great time to network with the staff at school for future joint projects. There’s a creative writing club? I can come with books by teen authors or poetry books during April. A big research project is being planned? Let’s work on a school trip to the public library that includes the resources available.

Day ends, everything gets packed up (unless it’s a two-day visit) and I return to the library. Then the fun part really starts — watching the books on display disappear, seeing the holds on books pile up, and talking to the teen who come in looking for books. I note what books go first, what books don’t go at all, wonder how I can adjust book talks or just accept that not all books will be as popular.

So, how do your booktalks go? What suggestions do you have for me for using PowerPoint and being spontaneous? What are your favorite resources?

Review: The Uninvited

The Uninvited by Tim Wynne-Jones. Candlewick on Brilliance Audio. Narrated by Angela Dawe. 2010. Candlewick. 2009. Listened to on audiobook supplied by publisher.

The Plot: It seemed like a good idea. Mimi Shapiro escapes New York City after an eventful freshman year that included an affair with an older professor who won’t stop calling. Mimi goes to the Canadian cottage of her father, artist Marc Soto, expecting solitude. Instead she finds musician Jackson “Jay” Page, 22, who has been using the cottage as a music studio.

Jackson, rather than reacting like a squatter who has been caught, acts as if Mimi is the intruder. He suspects her of the odd things that have been going on: a dead bird and snake skin left at the cottage.

What Mimi and Jay don’t know, as they eye each other with suspicion, is that someone is watching from the shadows.

The Good: Count this as one of those hard to write reviews, because I don’t want to give too much away!

There are three main characters to this story: Mimi, Jay, and Cramer Lee, the watcher. The prologue begins with Cramer’s story, a young man whose life is all about taking care of his mother. Cramer’s mother is an artist, who has good moments and bad moments and tends to have bad boyfriends. Cramer is always there to pick up the pieces, to work the steady jobs to pay the bills. At twenty two, he’s in low wage jobs because instead of going away to college he stayed home to take care of his mother. The reader would think, then, that this is Cramer’s story so that he is the hero. The prologue ends with his mother demanding he steal a necklace.

Suddenly, the story shifts to Mimi in her car, on an adventure, a road trip, to the cottage her father hasn’t seen in over twenty years. It says a lot about her father that he never tells her that he had given permission to Jay to use it as a studio; and he never tells Mimi about Jay at all. Mimi and Jay’s friendship begins with the shared cottage and the odd happenings. Is there anything scarier than realizing that your home is not safe? That it’s been violated? That someone has gone through your things? All the worst by, well, nothing big really happening. A dead bird outside a door? A rock missing from a window ledge?

The story shifts again, to Cramer’s point of view, to his own explanations for what he has done.

Who is the uninvited? Mimi, Jay, Cramer?

The suspense builds and builds, almost unbearably. As the reader watches Cramer watch Jay and Mimi, it seems like Cramer is more villain than hero, that he is a stalker. And yet, and yet — there seems to be more to him. And Cramer has his reasons. As the summer goes by, the reader learns more about Jay, about Mimi, about Cramer. The suspense becomes not just “what will happen next in the cottage,” but, also, what will happen with these three? Will their paths all cross? What about the professor who won’t stop calling Mimi? Is Cramer’s mother finding her path as an artist, or slipping into darkness?

In addition to the friendships, relationships, and mystery of this book, The Uninvited also offers something not always found in books for teens: three college-age students. Mimi has just finished her freshman year, Jay has just graduated, Cramer is in his early twenties. They are old enough to be on their own, old enough to work. Yet, they are still all their parents’ children. Jay is taking a year off before graduate school because his mother supports his music. Mimi has left New York City for an independent summer, but it’s independence made possible by her father’s house and, one assumes, both her parents money as she never worries about a job to pay for groceries and bills. Cramer works two jobs to pay the bills, watches others follows dreams, yet remains tied to his mother. He cannot abandon her, as so many others have. Their age allows all three to have a certain level of freedom from parental oversight, but each still is caught in familiar child-parent patterns and dependencies that a teen reader may identify with.

Cybils

On Valentine’s Day, the Cybils winners were announced. Full information on each title is at the Cybils website.

For YA, the winners were:

Non-fiction: The Secret of the Yellow Death: A True Story of Medical Sleuthing by Suzanne Jurmain, Houghton Mifflin

Graphic Novels:  Yummy; The Last Days of a Southside Shorty by G. Neri, illustrated by Randy duBurke, Lee & Low Books. My review.

Fantasy & Science Fiction: Rot & Ruin by Jonathan Maberry, Simon & Schuster

Young Adult Fiction: Split by Swati Avasthi, Knopf

Review: Jazz in Love

Jazz In Love by Neesha Meminger. Ignite Books. 2010. Review copy from author.

The Plot: Meet Jasbir “Jazz” Dhatt, high school junior. She’s book smart, part of the Future Stars and Leaders Program at her high school. She has two best friends, Cindy Reda-Rodriguez and Jeevan “Jeeves” Sahota.Then there’s Tyler R., the cute new boy at school. A pretty good life.

Except for that little arranged marriage thing. No, seriously. Jazz’s parents have decided that the way to ensure Jazz’s future happiness is to arrange a marriage.

Really.

All Jazz has to do is figure out how to be true to herself (which means hanging out with her friends and flirting with Tyler R.) while being the good daughter at home who plays along with her parents’ arranged marriage plans.

The Good: Jazz to her friends, Jassy to her parents, Jazz tries to balance both worlds, both sets of expectations, and her own desires. The desire is not just her crush on Tyler R., but also her desire to wear make up and cut her hair and date.

I love how Jazz’s background is specific. Not just “Indian,” but Punjabi. I’m reminded of my own family (Irish) and how the second question asked of Irish and Irish Americans is what county their people are from. It matters, whether Limerick or Mayo or Sligo. So it matters that Jazz and her family is Punjabi, so certain terms (Babaloo) may be “a very special term of endearment among us Punjabis.” The Dhatts are Sikh, and this matters not just in who Jazz is but also in one of my favorite plot points. It’s against her religion to cut her hair. Her best friend’s family owns a beauty salon, so don’t understand. “Not even a trim,” Jazz explains. Her friend’s sister responds, “funny how your dad is immune to the strict religious doctrine.” Yes, her father has cut his hair: “My dad had a beard and turban in some of the old pictures my parents had from India, but ever since they’d been in the U.S., the pictures were of a clean-shaven, short-haired Dad.” With a few simple sentences, Meminger reveals the complexity of religious observance, how personal it is, with shades of gray. A lesser book would have turned this into a didactic message on how a properly raised person who is Sikh wouldn’t even question this and would never, ever cut their hair. 

Speaking of questioning, on to the arranged marriage!  Both Hush by Eishes Chayil and the film Arranged include arranged marriages. Jazz in Love is a different take. First, Jazz is younger than the characters in Hush and Arranged. Second, Jazz’s parents truly believe that by helping her find a husband now, it will avoid the chance of her making a mistake. They think she is close to making such a mistake because they saw her hugging a boy. Her mother has files for different boys whose families likewise want to find just the right girl for their son. As her mother explains, “You’ll meet the boy, spend some time together, and Daddy and I will be right by your side the whole time, accha?” Her parents think they are being “modern” by not rushing Jazz into marriage and allowing Jazz to go through the files and pick those she is interested in. “You have no idea how lucky you are to have modern parents, Jassy. We are letting you pick. Completely your choice.”

Jazz’s parents are happy in their marriage, but Meminger offers a balanced view of arranged marriages with the inclusion of Auntie Kinder, a close family friend. Kinder’s marriage was arranged and it did not end well. She, along with her young daughter, fled her abusive husband. When Jazz points this out to her mother, her mother responds that “your father and I would never allow that. We would interview the boy and the family very carefully, and you would spend as much time as you like getting to know him before anyone made any commitments. Remember, you won’t have to get married right away. Kinder’s parents rushed her marriage….”

Enough of arranged marriages! Jazz in Love is about other things. It is also about falling for a boy, that delicious period of time when the boy you like just saying your name can make your heart stop. “My heart was pounding so hard, it was going to rip out of my shirt and flop around on the ground like a fish. . . . [His kiss] turned everything liquid inside me. It made me feel beautiful and special and important and . . . wanted. I didn’t know how else to explain it. When Tyler kissed me, it was almost like I got to see a part of myself reflected under different light. I got to see a part of me I hadn’t ever seen before. It was addictive.” It’s all encompassing.

Finally, it is about Jazz: falling in love with Tyler, but also in love with her family and friends. That love can lead to some missteps along the way, such as her grand plans to help her Auntie Kinder by finding Kinder’s old boyfriend. It can also backfire when — but no. Enough. I’ll leave some surprises for the reader to discover.

2011 Morris Award

The Morris Award is one of two YALSA Awards that work a bit different. It (and the YALSA Award for Excellence in NonFiction for Young  Adults) announce a shortlist about six or so weeks before Midwinter. Then, at Midwinter, the announcements are made about the winner and honor books. The announcements are made on Monday morning, and that same night, a reception is held.

This year’s winner was The Freak Observer by Blythe Woolston. From my review: “the real strength of the book is the fascinating character of Loa and the glimpses into the people around her. Any one of them is strong enough to support their own book, because each has their own story or motivation or damage and we only see glimpses, the glimpses that Loa knows, and part of Loa’s growth is when she realizes that people do things for reasons that are not all about her.”

The finalists were Hush by Eishes Chayil; Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey;  Hold Me Closer, Necromancer by Lish McBride; and Crossing the Tracks by Barbara Stuber.

YALSA‘s webpage explains the use of a shortlist: “The shortlist will help raise awareness of the award and allow for new promotion and marketing to raise awareness about debut books for teens, ALA and YALSA.”

What do you think about the shortlist method for a YALSA award? I’m a bit torn. On the one hand, it is nice to have the list beforehand, to find the books, and to read them with an eye towards “why is this on the shortlist.” But, on the other, after awards are announced books are tracked down and read the same way.

Does this build excitement the way, say, that the Oscars build excitement? Are people debating both what title will win, and what did and didn’t belong on the list, the way they do the Oscars?

From the point of view of an author, does it matter whether one’s book is a finalist that wasn’t selected as a winner? Is it different to think of something as an “honor” book?

If you attend YALSA Midwinter Meetings, do you usually leave Monday or Tuesday? Have you attended a Morris Midwinter Reception?

Teenage Wastelands

The Good News: The New York Times Magazine has an article about YA literature!

It’s called Teenage Wastelands by Charles McGrath and is in “The Way We Live Now” section. There is some good stuff. With the recent release of the I Am Number Four film, another reminder of this being a movie and book series factory-created for teen dollars is a good thing. (For more on the factory element, see my posts here and here.)

The Bad News: Readers of genre fiction, including YA fiction, have, I think, one thing they like to see in articles about the genre they embrace. No, it’s not for everyone to love it. Rather, it’s for the genre to be written about with respect. Because so often the genre is disrespected, sometimes the reader is a bit over-sensitive to slights, or to someone who doesn’t seem to “know” the genre. Criticism is good –but criticism grounded in respect.

To continue the good, McGrath mentions some better, recent YA books so that the person reading has a good starting place of what to read beyond Frey (Matched by Ally Condie, Uglies by Scott Westerfeld, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins). Unfortunately, the latter part of the article seems to reflect an overall view of YA as being lesser-than: “What distinguishes this kind of dystopian fiction from its adult counterpart — beyond its being less dire and apocalyptic — is a certain element of earnestness, even preachiness, and the moral is pretty transparent: be yourself. That’s because most young-adult novels are not written by young adults. They’re grown-up guesses or projections about what we suspect or hope might be on the minds of teenagers, or they’re cynical attempts to plant a profitable notion there. Frey didn’t have to do much more than think “vampires = aliens” before calling in someone to write it up for him.” McGrath earlier asserts that “In the realm of Y.A. fiction, the series is the grail; the single-volume one-off is a lost franchise.”

Goodness knows, I think some trilogies would be better served being edited down to one book. But you know where else “series is the grail”? Mysteries. Or, as I look at my next to-be-read book by Nora Roberts, romance. In other words, the desire to have a series is not limited to the young adult book world. For that matter, cynical attempts at profit isn’t limited to young adult books. And isn’t a writer who writes fiction always projecting, or guessing, or (insert word you prefer her) about their characters? I mean, most mysteries are not written by serial killers or FBI agents. Don’t those writers guess or project what they suspect or hope (or again insert word you prefer) into the minds of serial killers and FBI agents?

One last point. An article such as this lives or dies on the examples used, and the books compared. McGrath’s example of adult dystopia? Literary writers like Margaret Atwood and Cormac McCarthy. Yet, does he mention the recent literary young adult dystopia Ship Breaker? No. It won the Printz Award winner and National Book Finalist, is clearly a dystopia, yet does not meet the McGrath-given label of young adult dystopia as one where “civilization feels an awful lot like high school and everyone is under pressure to conform“.

Yes, I know it’s unfair for me to be snarky and to deconstruct this sentence by sentence. Young adult literature is given such little coverage that when the coverage is given, one hopes for something more.  There is good news, though. Young adult book blogs and websites, especially those that write critically and deeply about young adult books, will continue to grow and gather readers because they are providing something that is not served elsewhere.

Review: Night Road

Night Road by Kristin Hannah. St. Martin’s Press, an imprint of Macmillan. 2011. Reviewed from ARC borrowed from a friend.

It’s a three day weekend! So, like my Iron Duke review in November, here is a treat, something different, a book that is not young adult. That said, I think Night Road is a book that teens will be interested in. It’s about friendship, family, forgiveness, mistakes, redemption, and love, with a tragedy or two for those who want their heart ripped out of their chest and stomped on. Dear reader, I cried at the end of this book.

The Plot: Lexi Baill is 14 when she goes to live with her great aunt Eva in Port George, Washington. An absent, drug addicted mother and foster homes have taught her to not rely on much or expect much, especially from a relative she didn’t know she had. It turns out that Eva has what Lexi needs most: love, support, family. It doesn’t matter, not to Lexi, that Eva has little money.

Jude Farraday is the mother of fourteen year old twins, Mia and Zach. “She’d been criticized for holding the reins of parenthood too tightly, of controlling her children too completely, but she didn’t know how to let go.” For Jude, her investment in her children is proof of her love. It’s also the way to ensure that their lives are as perfect as she can make it. A stay at home mother, wife to a successful doctor, she has created the perfect home, perfect house, perfect life to ensure happiness and love for her children.

The lives of Lexi Baill and the Farradays intertwine, ending in a tragedy that changes all of them and makes them question just what love, motherhood, and forgiveness mean.

The Good: If I had to pick one reason why Night Road is adult and not young adult, it would be the portrayal of Jude Farraday. This is Jude’s and Lexi’s story: Lexi grows from child to adult; Jude’s story is more subtle, that of a parent. And not just any parent — a controlling “helicopter” parent who believes she can create the perfect world for her children. Take, for  example, when she first meets Lexi. Mia, less popular and self-assured than her brother, is overjoyed at finally having a best friend. Jude drives Lexi home to the trailer park and learns of Lexi’s background. Lexi, wise at fourteen, says “So I guess you don’t want me hanging around with Mia anymore. I understand. Really. I wish my mom had cared who I hung out with.” Jude thinks, “it did worry her, all of it, but she didn’t want to be that kind of woman, the kind who judged a person by his or her circumstance. . . . Jude could make it easy for Mia and Lexi to stay friends, or difficult. What was best for Mia?”  Jude realizes what is best for Mia is for Mia to have a best friend and so decides to allow the friendship to grow. She even helps it along, inviting Lexi along on family trips, having her stay for dinner.

I’m not sure if Jude realizes quite how involved she gets in the friendship of the two girls. Not in a hanging out with them way; rather, in an almost manipulative type way. Jude tells Lexi, a fourteen year old child — and an impressionable, needy child at that — that Mia is shy, was heartbroken over a friendship betrayal the year before. Jude talks to Lexi almost as if Lexi is an adult, getting her to promise never to do anything to hurt Mia.

No parent wants their child hurt be a friend, but think on this a moment. Imagine you’re a teen; imagine your mother tells this to your new friend. Or imagine being the teen who has finally met a possible best friend, and that friend’s mother asking you make such a promise. Things happen, friends do hurt each other, but going forward Lexi will always know that her friendship with Mia and her inclusion in the Farraday family is contingent on not hurting Mia. Mia, of course, has not been told the mirror of this — has not been told to promise never to hurt Lexi. Mia is now privileged, by money, by family, and finally by having a friend who will never hurt her, thanks to Jude’s intrusion. Perhaps Jude does not realize the level of manipulation she has engaged in with Mia and Lexi, but she turns to social manipulation later when her children are high school seniors. Jude deliberately turns her home into “an attractive web,” to make it “easy for her kids’ friends to spend the day and night here, under her watchful eyes.” She has made her house the hang out house, in order to keep tabs on her children. Never mind what they would want, or that the other parents may want to be the “watchful eyes” for their own children.

Through all of this, Jude is and remains a sympathetic character. Her primary goal, always, is the happiness of her children. While she may be controlling, or manipulative, or over-involved, she is never mean or cruel. She is operating under the mistaken belief that a person can create a world, isolated and protected and safe. If only Jude does x, her children will have perfect lives. Jude finds out that somethings are beyond one’s control, no matter what one does or doesn’t do. Jude’s world is shattered, not just from loss, but also from the truth of not being able to protect her children.

Lexi’s journey is different. She is the outsider, the poor girl, looking for love and acceptance and family. Not quite jealous of the Farradays and all their golden perfection, but, rather, admiring it and wanting it. Her friendship with Lexi is real and true, and Lexi is grateful. When Lexi has feeling for Zach — feelings that could jeopardize her friendship with Mia and her relationship with the Farradays — she does not know what to do. What is best for Mia? For Zach? For the Farradays? Does she ever get a chance to wonder, what is best for Lexi?

Lexi and Jude are at opposite ends of the spectrum of privilege in every possible way, and Jude’s privilege and Lexi’s lack is important. Take, for instance, college. Mia and Zach can apply to any school, certain in the knowledge that all they have to worry about is getting in and then deciding which one fits them best. Lexi is smart, smart enough to win some scholarship money but hardly a free ride. She can be close to the Farradays, included in family events and birthday dinners, but at the end of the day, her home is the trailer park, her finances are her great-aunt’s job at Wal-Mart and her own part time jobs, her future is more limited.

I am trying not to give away what happens, to talk about Lexi and Jude without revealing too much of the paths they each take. The Farradays and Lexi have hard truths, hard facts to face. It is easy to love, to even forgive, when the stakes aren’t that high. When the stakes are high, when what is most important is lost, suddenly, love and forgiveness isn’t so easy.

Review: Please Ignore Vera Dietz

Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A. S. King. Alfred A. Knopf Books, an  imprint of Random House. 2010. Review copy from publisher. Printz Honor.

The Plot: Vera Dietz, 18, hates and loves Charlie Kahn, her dead ex-best friend. Hates, because he died. Because before he died, he stopped being her friend, started hanging out with people who hated her and tried to make her life miserable. Hated, because he abandoned her. Loved, because from the time she was little, he was her best friend. Loved, because she was always in love with him and was just waiting and hoping for it to be something more. Loved, because she knew his good and his bad.

As for Charlie — his life and death haunts her. What happened in those twenty four hours before he died? Did he really burn down the pet store at the mall? All she has left of Charlie is his secrets. Should she tell? 

The Good: The structure of Please Ignore Vera Dietz is fabulous, just the kind of “confusing but not really” storytelling I enjoy. Part One, The Funeral: Vera at Charlie’s funeral. The next chapter is three and half months later. A few chapters later, Ken Dietz (Vera’s dad) has a “brief word” to share. And then the local Pagoda talks. Vera shares some history from the past. Of course, every now and then the dead kid — Charlie — speaks up. Because, yes, he is haunting Vera. As he explains, “I regret everything that happened with Vera. . . . As far as I was concerned, I didn’t have a choice. I war born to a man like my father and a woman like my mother, and I had to save Vera from myself. . . . Loving Vera Dietz was the scariest thing that ever happened to me. She was a good person from a good family.”

Charlie’s perspective, especially this, shows us a Vera we didn’t know before. Because the Vera that starts with the funeral is a Vera who is tough, lonely, and drinking. It’s a Vera who has a father who thinks she should be working full time while going to school. It’s a family history where her mother left when Vera was twelve, going to Las Vegas with a new husband and sending Vera one birthday card a year. Vera’s mother Cindy Sindy was 17 when Vera was born, Ken just a year older. When Vera turned thirteen, her father told her, “When you were just a little baby, your mother took a job over at Joe’s. . . . A strip club. It was only for a few months, Vera. She wanted her freedom back after dropping out of school, getting kicked out of her house, and having — uh — a baby so young. I was still drinking then.” You can just imagine what Charlie’s family is like, if he thinks Vera comes from a good family.

These are the times in the book where I had to remind myself that Ken Dietz was  young when he became a parent (just 18), had pretty bad parents himself, was drinking for the start of Vera’s life, but that he stopped drinking, went to college, provided for his family, and, most important, stayed. He tries. But he really doesn’t realize what he told Vera — or what she heard — because later he thinks, “she’s too young to understand the situation Cindy Sindy was in when she was born and I was drunk.” What Ken eventually tells the reader is what the reader probably already figured out: “I was drinking our rent.” Ken really intrigues me, for his own back-story, for staying, for the mixed messages he gives Vera about her absent mother, for his always doing the Cindy/Sindy thing with her name. Turns out, Cindy Sindy changed her name when she left her family. What days it say about Ken that for the entire book, he calls her Cindy Sindy? That I am obsessing about a side character like this shows the strength of the characterization.

The story isn’t told in a linear fashion, but life isn’t linear. Wait, yes it is, you may say. I am seven, eleven, thirteen, very linear. No, not really. Stories and lives are shaped and told in various ways. So Vera tells the story, and it begins with Charlie’s funeral, and as the year goes by, it is linear but she is thinking on past events, past moments, which is something we all do every day. We remember a meeting, a party, a kiss, a moment and so our own story is full of flashbacks. Just like Vera’s story.

Please Ignore Vera Dietz has been nominated for an Edgar Award by the Mystery Writers of America. The mystery surrounds Charlie’s last twenty four hours, and Charlie’s secrets. Vera knows the secrets, knows the truth, but is reluctant to share what she knows with the police, with her father, even with herself. She is the child of an alcoholic, and Ken Dietz has tried to be a good father, the father he never had, but parents teach things they don’t mean to. Ken Dietz has taught his daughter to keep secrets, to not talk, to not share. To so fear becoming when nature and nurture have in store for us (alcholism, teen pregnancy, poverty, violence, abandonment) that the lesson Vera learned was to be invisible.  That, too, is part of the mystery of Vera Dietz: why does she want to be invisible? What will happen when she no longer ignores herself?

Check out the review at Reading Rants, which talks more than I do about the wonderfully wry language and dark humor.

The Book Smugglers sum up Vera Dietz and Vera’s and Charlie’s world as “a horrible, poisonous environment they live in where the idea of destiny (and genetics even, as idiotic as it may sound from outsiders who know better) keep them both trapped in a vicious circle and because they are both failed by the ones that would help them getting away from it, i.e. their parents it is all down to Vera and Charlie to try and break away on their own. We know that Charlie didn’t and this is part of what makes it heartbreaking. Because it leaves Vera in such a lonely, cumbersome life where breathing is hard, getting away is hard, trying to see is hard but by the end of the book, there is definite hope in the horizon.” It’s a great description of the physical, mental, and emotional trap that Vera is stuck in. Ignoring it all, ignoring herself, just makes it worse.