Coming of Age

High Seas Adventure (and so much more)!

"An action packed historical novel set on the high seas!" claims the book jacket for Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus.  Normally these aren't quite the descriptors I am looking for in a good book, but this Young Adult novel has amazing visual appeal and lying underneath the "high seas adventure" is a true heart of gold. 

Preus tells a fictional account of a true story: Manjiro, a young man from a small fishing village, becomes the first Japanese person to set foot in America.  Japan at the time had closed borders and a deep distrust for anything foreign.  When Manjiro is rescued with his friends after being shipwrecked on an island by an American whaling ship, his life is changed forever.  Captain Whitfield sees that Manjiro is a quick study, both in language and sailing and takes him under his wing.  The more Manjiro sees outside Japan, the more he wants to learn and explore eventually ending up attending school in New Bedford, Massachusetts living with the Whitfields.

Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly

Grace Brown, a 20 year old skirt factory employee, was murdered in 1906 just outside an Adirondack mountain resort by Chester Gillette.  Gillette was arrested soon after Grace's body was recovered in a lake and he was later executed in a New York prison. 

This gruesome true story serves as part of the backdrop for the very non-gruesome and excellent young adult novel, A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly.  The main character, Mattie Gokey, receives a bundle of letters from a guest at the resort and makes a promise to burn them.  But when Grace's body is later pulled out of the lake, Mattie becomes unsure what the right thing to do.  Maybe the letters hold answers? 

Mattie is also torn between her duty to her family and her dream of going to college.  Her family lives in a rural area and they work extra hard making a living off of the land, made especially difficult since her mother has passed away and there are three younger girls to look after. 

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

In 1885 the year of its US publication, a number of public libraries banned The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from their stacks. According to the American Library Association, it was the fifth most-frequently-challenged book in the United States in the 1990s. Despite strong arguments that the book supports positive racial themes, Huck Finn has been controversial from the beginning.  Last year NewSouth Books published a sanitized edition, effectively keeping this book in the news and on the minds of both those who have loved and hated this classic American book.  When was the last time you visited Huck Finn? Interested in learning more and sharing your ideas?

Join us next week for a panel discussion of this story that continues to both attract and repel members of our community. Does Huckleberry Finn belong in the literary canon and in our schools? What does it reveal about race relations, art and the power of language?

Split by Avasthi

Some of the best fiction books take a situation of which you have very little first-hand knowledge and through sympathetic characters and solid storytelling create some sort of understanding of what living that life would be like.  Swati Avasthi's first Young Adult novel about domestic violence and abuse, Split, is a great example. Avasthi is able to allow the reader to care about the main character and his struggles with both the violence of his father and the legacy he is hoping to avoid.

Teenage Jace leaves his parents' house with almost nothing after a particularly brutal fight with his father.  He sets off from Chicago with his camera and the New Mexico address of his older brother who disappeared several years earlier.  Jace's brother Christian is less than thrilled to see him with a bruised face despite having come from and escaped the same back ground.  Their transition is rocky and a lesser book would have trivialized this time. Instead their difficulties felt genuine.

Because I Am Furniture by Thalia Chaltas

Told in brief (one or two page), intensely personal poems, this novel manages to be both fast-paced and agonizingly slow. Anke's character bounces between a life on the volleyball court that makes her shout for joy and a home life where keeping her father from noticing her is the difference between feeling unloved and being beaten (or worse, as she begins to realize her sister knows all too well). The contrast between the two Ankes makes the transition from school life to home life at times almost violent, and Chaltas manages to do this by using a quiet, tense voice for Anke at home and a loud, exuberant voice at school.  Two very different romantic interests and the choice she makes between them add insight into how her relationship with her father is influencing her first interactions with boys.

How Beautiful the Ordinary, edited by Michael Cart

How Beautiful the Ordinary, edited by Michael Cart, is a welcome addition to the small but growing collection of young adult fiction exploring gender identity and sexual orientation. Being a young person is difficult, what with all the changes physical, emotional, and social. Most of us spend our whole lives getting to know ourselves, and those initial explorations in our youth are some of the most confusing and painful (and exhilarating and profound) because they are so new. All of this can be overwhelming, and when you throw in societal condemnation of some of these identities and/or lifestyles it is especially hard. This collection of short fiction by well-respected young adult authors takes a loving and unrelenting look at the struggle not only to discover what we are as young women and men, but to accept and own that identity as well.

Whip It

No, this post is not an ode to Devo (though I do love that song), but rather a look at the world of roller derby. I attended my first bout the other night and had the opportunity to see Bloomington's Bleeding Heartland Roller Girls win. Afterwards, I was inspired to pick up the feature film Whip It, a look at one teen's coming of age through the roller derby.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

I admit to being a streaky reader - I think this time last year I was on a World War I fiction kick. And this winter I read three books in a row about the Johnstown Flood including both fiction and non-fiction titles - Three Rivers Rising, In Sunlight In a Beautiful Garden, and The Johnstown Flood. The latter is by David McCullough, a famous historian and two time Pulitzer Prize recipient who is from Pittsburgh near the area where the flood occurred.

Recently though it seems I am reading a lot of coming of age novels featuring girls as the main character. E. Lockhart has written some wonderful contemporary coming of age novels, but for something historical I also have recently fallen for The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly.

Newest Most Favoritist Young Adult Author

The teenage female protagonists of E. Lockhart's novels are funny, smart, interesting, questioning and underneath it all resilient and strong. They don't always make the best initial choices, but are willing to learn and adjust as they go. These coming-of-age novels feature a romance (or two), but not at the cost of ignoring other similar and frequently troublesome themes of any young life - parents, school, friendships and finding your niche.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

I wasn't sure what to expect when I first put Scott Pilgrim vs. the World in my DVD player. It was not even close to what I got. For those who are not familiar with the plot Scott Pilgrim [Michael Cera], the bass player in a small band, has fallen for the new "cool girl" in town, Ramona Flowers [Mary Elizabeth Winstead]. In order to date her he must first defeat her seven "evil exes".

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