I’ve been utterly neglecting this blog, but mostly in a good way. Since I last blogged, I was able to publish several pieces of writing that began as blog posts: one on these two books, one on Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and one on Where I Write (plus, this little piece on Lady Gaga). But I thought I’d get back in the blogging game by writing a bit about some of the books I’ve been reading this year, which was a major impetus for this blog in the first place. (I just can’t get into GoodReads for some reason.) I’ve broken down my reading round-up into several thematic posts, which I’ll put up over the next few days (weeks?). This one is about the several amazing young adult novels I have recently read.

Dream School (Figment.com) By Blake Nelson

As an avid Sassy reader in my teens, I read Blake Nelson’s novel Girl when it was serialized in the magazine. [As was Jeffrey Eugenides The Virgin Suicides. So amazing! (Anyone reading the new Jane website btw? Is it still relevant with everything else out there?)] I bought Girl as soon as I could probably at the B. Dalton at the mall when it came out in 1994 when I was 16.

This was before the Internet, so all I knew about Blake Nelson was what was written on the back of the cover. I didn’t even get if he was a boy or a girl, and if he was a boy, how he got exactly what it was like to be a suburban girl trying to be cool. There is a scene when Andrea Marr has sex with Todd Sparrow, the uber-cool grunge rocker that she’s in love with and he holds her hands above her head and she finally gets “sex”—that moment literally stuck with me through all my early sex experiences until I had my own Todd Sparrow moment. Anyway, even though I grew up in Dayton, Ohio where—where, if there was a burgeoning grunge movement, I only occasioned it very briefly at a few downtown coffee shop where I like never went—I really felt Andrea and I remember it as one of the few young adult novels I actually read when I was a young adult.

I spent years waiting a sequel, since Nelson leaves you hanging a bit at the end of the novel when Andrea is getting ready to go to college, but then I went off to college myself and started reading, you know, Foucault and shit. Only in the last three years of so did I think of Girl again and this time when I looked up Blake Nelson, I came upon a treasure trove of YA novels, and then saw the crazy-good Gus Van Sant rendition of Paranoid Park, which was beautiful and abstract and perfect. But only after I read Jessanne Collins’ awesome Millions article about Blake Nelson did I discover there WAS a sequel to Girl, and it was FREE ONLINE!

I feel like it is so hard to write properly about the college experience, which is where Dream School picks up—at Andrea’s exclusive East Coast liberal arts school, which sounded like Wesleyan or Vassar. But Nelson nails the insecurities of being a Freshman and trying to find a niche and not understanding what is going on in classes, but I especially love Andrea’s struggle to become an artist and eventually a writer. I mean, at the same time, Andrea’s self-involvement and white girl-ness is a little grating. Poor Latina Juanita, who lives on her floor, doesn’t belong and eventually leaves to go live in Latino House, which I guess is an accurate description of college life, but a little annoying. But regardless, it was so enjoyable to catch up with Andrea 17 years later.

The Pattern of Paper Monsters (Back Bay Books) By Emma Rathbone

I read about this novel on The Millions (okay, I’m a little obsessed with this site) and was fascinated, since I think there aren’t enough books about young people facing incarceration. When I would work with young people who were locked up and would hear their stories of being on the run, falling in love, dealing with intense violence and parenthood and losing loved ones, I was always telling them that they should be novelists. So, I was really interested to see how this book would read. The book follows Jacob Higgins, an 17-year-old kid from Virginia, through several months of his incarceration in a juvenile detention center. I mean, since he’s a white kid in a juvenile facility surrounded by what seems like all white people, it was a little bizarre, since that hasn’t been my experience. Plus, some of the other details about interactions with girls and being able to leave the facility to have dinner with a mentor seemed outlandish after actually seeing how American juvenile institutions are run. But, otherwise, Jake’s experiences were pretty close to most of the young people I’ve met who are incarcerated: he’s poor, from an abusive family and he committed a violent crime. The novel is supposed to be a journal Jake’s writing, and Emma Rathbone really gets the zoned out, angry, bored thing down perfectly and also manages to bring about a realistic redemption. I read an interview with Rathbone where she talks about how she heard Jake’s voice in her head and I am impressed by how she was unafraid to write so far out of her own experience. [Even though I am putting this book under the YA category here, it actually isn’t a YA book, and I don’t really understand the distinctions.] I’d be really interested to hear what others folks with experience of working with young people think of this book.

Recovery Road (Scholastic Press) By Blake Nelson

After I read Dream School, I was reading all these blog posts from Blake Nelson being on the road with Sister Spit – um, HOW AWESOME! (Can Sister Spit please come to India?) And just hanging out on his blog, when I read about Recovery Road, and I had just read Pattern of Paper Monsters, which was similar in that it was about young people navigating institutional spaces and having to rebuild their lives, so I just went ahead and bought it and again, fell into the world of this awesome girl narrator. This time her name is Maddie and she’s a 16-year-old who’s in rehab, and is actually way less annoying than Andrea Marr from Girl. We don’t hear much about Maddie’s crazy days except that she was totally embarrassed by the way she behaved and how she would fight people, but there is an amazing love story which turns and turns – I love how this book really rides the story out through relapses and how the character has to witness a lot of horrible things as she moves forward. Blake Nelson is just incredibly readable and I want to read everything he has written.

Sister Mischief (Candlewick) By Laura Goode

I’m just going to mention this book quickly here, because I want to write a longer review of it somewhere, but in terms of YA or regular adult reading, one of those really inspiring books that tackles race, diversity, sexuality, etc. and tells the story of a high school girl hip hop group in suburban Minneapolis. I’ve felt like my own characters when I write about childhood or adolescence are betrayed or betrayers, and Laura’s book reminded me that your high school girl friends can be total heroes. I like want to buy this book for so many people I know. (Full disclosure: Laura is a really good friend of mine.)

Long Division (issuu.com) By Kiese Laymon

I’m also just going to mention this book, because I want to write more about it and interview Kiese Laymon, who I went to college with, and is now a professor at Vassar. Another on-line book, which I actually downloaded and read on my Kindle. For all the awesomeness of Blake Nelson, it was SO satisfying to read a novel with two young black protagonists who are time-traveling, falling in love, engaging with the realities of the Civil Rights movement and using the most awesomest Southern slang ever invented. Why you gotta be so green light lately, City? I was literally cheering when I started this book and that’s why I want to write more about it. But again, a great resource because it’s free and something I really, really think young people – especially young people of color – would respond to.