Thursday, March 31, 2011

20 young adult books/authors/series that, like, totally changed my life or whatever

WARNING: This post is long. LONG.

So, inspired by the mention of The Phantom Tollbooth somewhere on the internet that I can’t remember, I decided to compile a list of young adult books that I loved as a child. The parameters of the list were that I managed to remember the book (obviously, but this is more because of omission. I’m sure there’s plenty I’m forgetting.), I read it before I started high school, and I feel like it had a significant impact on me as a reader/person. I’ve read every book on this list multiple times, and I would gladly reread every one of them today. The list is just in the order that I managed to remember the book (I used the GoodReads list of best YA books to help me). There’s nothing earth-shattering or even particularly unexpected on this list. I loved a lot of the books that most kids loved.

Before I start the proper list, I need to point out that I can’t decide whether A Tree Grows in Brooklyn qualifies because I can’t remember if I read it for the first time in junior high or high school. But it’s my favorite book of all time, so I figure it’s worth mentioning anyway.


1. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, illustrated by Jules Feiffer

This book taught me more about language and its uses than any elementary school English class (apologies to my teachers). It’s probably the cleverest book I’ve ever read, and I don’t think that it even needs to be classified as a young adult book. I still recommend it to people on a regular basis. Have you read The Phantom Tollbooth? You should. There are puns. And a guy named The Mathemagician.

2. Bridge to Teribithia and Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson

I had both of these books on my list and forgot that they were written by the same person until I looked  them up. Bridge to Teribithia is a rite of passage for many children, or at least it was when I was young. For me and many of the kids I knew, it was the first book we read that dealt with death, particularly the death of a child. It’s the first book that ever made me cry (and cry I did. Violently, confusedly, unaware that a book could do something like that to a person). I read Bridge to Teribithia in fourth or fifth grade and Jacob Have I Loved in sixth or seventh. If you haven’t read Jacob Have I Loved, I recommend you do. It’s another book that I feel transcends the YA genre. It was the first book I read that made me feel like I wasn’t reading a book for children. It’s dark, mature, and complex, and it deals with the kinds of ugly emotions that books for children so often seem to skirt around. Sara Louise is one of those protagonists that I can instantly identify with, and I think it’s that way for a lot of people who read the book.

3. All of Roald Dahl’s books for children

I tried to narrow this down, and I couldn’t. I mean, it’s Roald Dahl, what are you going to do? His books made me think outside of boxes I didn’t even know were limiting me. Here are some of my favorites: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; Danny, the Champion of the World; George’s Marvellous Medicine; Matilda. I think my favorite scene from any Roald Dahl book is when Danny drugs pheasants with raisins stuffed with powder from sleeping pills in Danny, the Champion of the World. That kid is a smart cookie. Incidentally, I once read a book of Dahl’s short stories for adults by accident. I was probably still a little too young. I vaguely remember being terrified by a story about a guy who gets his finger cut off.

4. A Wrinkle in Time and Troubling a Star by Madeleine L’Engle

A Wrinkle in Time is another one of those books that everyone should just read. I remember seeing the movie version after I read the book and thinking Gregory Smith was cute as Calvin. My favorite book by L’Engle, though, is Troubling a Star, which I’m guessing is one of her lesser-known books because no one seems to know about it when I bring it up. I liked it so much that I read it three or four times in a row. It’s about one of L’Engle’s recurring characters, Vicky Austin, going on a boat trip to Antarctica. I haven’t read it since I was about thirteen, and now I really want to get my hands on a copy. I think it’s a bit funny that Troubling a Star is my favorite of her books because I hated A Ring of Endless Light, which is probably her most famous book about Vicky Austin. I’ve just never been into books about dolphins, and it seems like there’s a lot of them in YA.

5. The Alice Series by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

I read my first Alice book, Alice in Rapture Sort Of , when I was in sixth grade, and I became absolutely obsessed. Naylor is probably best known for Shiloh, which I read and liked but never much cared about. I think it was about a beagle or something. But the Alice books became a regular part of my reading life because she kept writing them. They’re still coming out now, though she’s almost finished with the series (Alice finishing high school), and I’m still reading them. They’re incredibly relatable, frank, and funny, even if Naylor does sometimes reveal her disconnect from contemporary teenagers. I like that she doesn’t shy away from difficult or controversial issues. Because I’ve been reading them for close to a decade, I have this intense emotional connection to the books and characters that’s going to be difficult to deal with when the series ends. I really want to buy a full set of these so that I can give them to my future daughter or niece or somebody someday.

6. That Summer, Someone Like You, Keeping the Moon, and Dreamland by Sarah Dessen

I found Dreamland randomly while wandering around my junior high library in 8th grade, and I read it and every other Sarah Dessen book I could find in a matter of weeks. Sarah Dessen is one of the writers who first made me consider that I might want to write YA. I’ve read and enjoyed all of her books, and I always get super hyped up about a new one coming out (there’s one this May!). Sarah Dessen has also been a really positive influence on me as a writing student. I follow her blog on livejournal, and it’s a great look into the daily life of a working writer. I think she’s one of the best YA writers currently publishing.

7. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

Laurie Halse Anderson is the other writer who first made me seriously consider writing YA. I also follow her blog on livejournal, and I feel much the same way about her as I do about Sarah Dessen. Her books are some of the most emotionally charged and challenging books I’ve ever read, in any genre. Speak was a big influence for me because of the unconventional choices she made concerning structure and language. I have a character in  a work-in-progress named Melinda after the protagonist of Speak. Another quick note about Laurie Halse Anderson: she’s a wonderful advocate for libraries, independent bookstores, and against banning books from school libraries/curricula (her books have banned on numerous occasions in junior highs and high schools).

8. Homecoming, Dicey’s Song, and Izzy Willy-Nilly by Cynthia Voigt

Dicey Tillerman is one of my favorite young adult protagonists. When I first read the books, I was so impressed by her bravery, skillfulness, and judgement. I was sorry for the things she and her siblings had to endure, but I wanted to be more like her. Izzy Willy-Nilly is probably the most introspective YA novel I’ve ever read, and it was a reading experience unlike any I’d had before. One of Voigt’s great talents is communicating difficult and very individual experiences (like the amputation of a limb in Izzy) in a way that is still accessible to young readers.

9. Hatchet, The River, and Brian’s Winter by Gary Paulsen

I can not for the life of me figure out why I was so obsessed with these books when I was in the fifth grade, but I read them over and over again. I even asked my dad for a hatchet (which he thankfully did not give me). I have no idea what I would have done with it, since I was not finding myself in any wilderness survival situations. A kid that I babysat a few summers back had to read this book for school, and I remember being confused and a bit offended when he didn’t like it.

10. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

I remember feeling like this was the first “grown up book” I ever read. I must have been eight or nine. I remember that it was definitely the longest book I had read up to that point (other than when my mother read A Tale of Two Cities out loud to me, which was a torturous experience for both of us). I got totally caught up in the story. What’s interesting about this book, now that I think about it, is that it features the death of a young character. That means that Bridge to Teribithia was not the first book I read in which a character died. I remember that I wasn’t that sad when Beth died, though. I don’t think I fully understood her illness and death at the time. It all seemed so prolonged and pathetic and unreal. Jo was my favorite (she’s everyone’s favorite, right?), so I’m counting her among my writing influences.

11. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery

Anne Shirley is such a badass. I wanted to be just like her and probably drove my parents crazy after I read this book.

12. From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg

This is a book about a girl and her brother who run away from home to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. If that’s not the coolest thing ever, especially when you’re eleven, I don’t know what is. I should point out that it does make it seem very conceivable to run away from home, though, and probably contributed to one or more of my own futile attempts. I was never very serious about it. I would get mad at my mother, pack some things up in bag (including my piggy bank), and go sit on the curb on my street corner waiting for a bus to come. That corner wasn’t a bus stop.

13. The Little House Series by Laura Ingalls Wilder

I had the cutest little set of these books, and I read them all tons of times, though I only vaguely remember them now. I was so fascinated by the fact that Laura was a real person, that the things in the books had really happened. For whatever reason, though, my favorite of them has always been Farmer Boy, which is about Almanzo’s childhood. I should point out that because of these books I forced my mother to buy me a bonnet. Like the hatchet situation, I don’t really understand why I wanted a bonnet so badly. But I had one, and my little sister did too. Also, Little House on the Prarie is an awesome tv show, and Melissa Gilbert’s book is one of the only celebrity memoirs I’ve read and enjoyed.

14. The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi

You know who else is such a badass? Charlotte Doyle. I thought she was basically the coolest person ever when I read this book. I didn’t understand at the time what the book was doing to discuss gender roles and the abilities of women to transcend others’ expectations of them, but it’s pretty awesome. And tense. I’ve reread this in the past few years, and it still had me on edge.

15. Sideways Stories from Wayside School and Wayside School is Falling Down by Louis Sachar

Like The Phantom Tollbooth, these are some mightily clever books. The way that Sachar plays with language is wonderful. And they’re some of the funniest YA books I’ve ever read. Apparently there’s a third one, Wayside School Gets a Little Stranger, but I don’t remember that one at all.

16. Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

This is one of the things that inspired my notebook-keeping. Who didn’t want to keep a notebook after reading about Harriet and hers? At some point in my childhood this was made into a movie with Michelle Trachtenberg, Rosie O’Donnell, and Gregory Smtih. What is it with Gregory Smith and film adaptations of my favorite childhood books? I’m sure I thought he was cute in this movie, too. There was also the thing about tomato sandwiches. I think I ate a few of those after reading this book, and I didn’t even like tomatoes when I was that age.

17. Cut by Patricia McCormick

This is another book that I read in about 7th or 8th grade. I know I read it multiple times that year. There was just something disturbing, fascinating, and reassuring about reading about people around my age who were way more messed up than I was. A lot of my friends read this book around the same time.

18. The Ramona books and Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary

This woman is obviously a legend of children’s literature. Also, she’s 94 and still writing (though she hasn’t published anything since 1999), which is pretty awesome. I loved all the Ramona books when I was a kid, probably because Ramona was a little bit annoying and I identified with that. I also remember reading Dear Mr. Henshaw for some elementary school assignment and being pretty obsessed with it. I probably liked the idea of a kid getting to correspond with an author. I’m fairly certain my teacher made us all write letters to an author after we read the book, but I can’t remember who I wrote to, and I probably never got an answer. The book has a sequel called Strider that I forgot about until I looked it up, but I read that one too.

19. Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger

I read this book in 8th grade, and I’ve read it multiple times since. It’s probably the first book I read that dealt explicitly with LGBT themes, and I think that Wittlinger handles it wonderfully. What I love most about this book is how complex it is. The relationship between John and Marisol is completely unconventional and complicated. It’s a very emotionally mature book, which I always appreciate in YA.

20. White Oleander by Janet Fitch

This isn’t a YA book, but I decided to include at the end of this list because I read it for the first time in 8th grade, and it’s my other favorite book of all time (along with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn). I have read this book more times than I can count. I feel like a lot of people don’t give it a fair chance because Janet Fitch isn’t that well known and the book was on Oprah’s book club or whatever, but I definitely recommend it. This is the kind of book I want to write.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Just a quick post about my Alan Rickman obsession.

I'm fairly certain my favorite scene from any movie ever is when Alan Rickman and Juliet Stevenson sing "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore" in Truly Madly Deeply. 

That is all.

With a motorbike made of jealousy.

A friend and I are going to attempt to write a play for Script Frenzy, which starts on Friday and runs the whole month of April. Script Frenzy I've never written any kind of script before, and honestly I don't even read plays very often. But she's a theater minor, so I'm just going to let her pick up all that slack. I'll let you know more about this inevitable failure as it progresses.

I heard through the grapevine (that sounds so scandalous!) that one of the members of my fiction workshop thinks that my book recommendations to other classmates don't apply and that I'm just saying them to show off what I've read. That's the first writing-gossip I've ever heard about myself, which is pretty exciting. I know that I can be a little... overzealous, shall we say, while in workshop, but it's just because I'm a huge nerd. This stuff is my life. I try to rein it in, honestly.

Right now I'm still making my way through Revolutionary Road, but I honestly can't read more than fifteen or so pages at once because it's so terribly depressing. I like it, but it puts me in a mood.

I've also been reading The Madwoman in the Attic, which is massive and difficult to carry around. But it's also wonderful so far. I've never really been a huge fan of literary criticism, so I'm surprised I like it as much as I do. I'm finding a lot more accessible than I expected, and I'm familiar with a number of the texts they discuss. I'm really excited to get to the part where they talk about Jane Eyre, because I love that book like crazy.

Rounding out my current reading is The Counterlife by Philip Roth. It's the first of his books that I've read, and I'm enjoying it so far. Sometimes it can be hard for me to get into stories that are so rooted in the male mindset, but this one is working for me so far.

I've also been doing some research on central/south-central Pennsylvania for a project for the autobiography class I'm taking with Jeff Oaks. I've been reading about Centralia and the coal region where my parents and grandparents grew up. It's been a little difficult to find information, but the Carnegie Library has a whole department for books on Pennsylvania, so that's been helpful. The piece I'm doing for Jeff's class is going to  be the first non-contemporary piece I've written in college. It's a little scary. I tend to avoid setting my fiction in a time I didn't personally experience because, frankly, I'm afraid of getting it wrong. So this will be an interesting experience.

Still haven't heard back about the Brackenridge Fellowship, which will decide my fate for the summer. Hopefully I'll hear good news soon.


Wednesday, March 23, 2011

"A lighter life, at any price." -Amelia Gray in AM/PM

So last night I went to a reading at Sphinx and saw Celeste Gainey and Kayla Sargeson, along with some open mic readers. It was a pretty fabulous experience, sitting on the floor on patterned cushions in the small space upstairs, only about five feet from the microphone. I dragged my roommate and one of our friends along with me, and they seemed to like it. It is probably the most awkward thing in the world to ask people to a poetry reading because 99% of the time they don't want to go. It's sad, but it's the world we live in.

I could tell that a lot of people at the reading knew each other. I'm starting to get a vague idea of this big, connected group in the Pittsburgh writing scene (wow that sounds ridiculous when I write it). I've met a lot of them at Pitt's Writer's Cafe. There seems to be this whole group who teaches at/ went to/ is in Carlow's MFA program in poetry. I'm just glad that I'm starting to recognize people, either by name or face.

Also, just for the record, Stacey Waite was there, and I basically freaked out. I think she is so awesome, and one of these times I'm actually going to go up to her and say that.

I'm reading Amelia Gray's book AM/PM. It's making me feel a little bit stupid, like there's something that I'm not getting because I'm not smart enough yet. As I get closer to the end of the book, I am starting to see some of the threads between the stories, but I still feel really confused. From what I've read about Amelia Gray, people are always commenting on how emotionally affecting her work is. I'm not really getting it. I guess I'll have to finish it and see where I'm at then.

So for the last few days, my daily writing has just been full of me writing stupid play-form dialogue. I have this whole thing going where this girl is in the middle of a conversation, but she keeps addressing the audience. I don't really know where it's coming from, and I don't really like it. But what are you going to do? I'm trying to work on some short pieces, but none of them are coming together. Blah blah blah.

I'm hitting that burnout point in my fiction workshop. Don't get me wrong, workshops are about my favorite thing in the world because I like to know that other people do what I do, but when you're in a workshop of more than 20 students it just gets to the point where you need a break. That being said, it's a fabulous class, my favorite fiction workshop so far. It's just that the end of the semester seems so close and so far away at the same time.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Kelli Stevens Kane Reading at Carnegie Library and Kevin Wilson Quotes

I saw Kelli Stevens Kane read at the Carnegie Library in Oakland this past Saturday. She's good y'all. There was one line in a poem I'm pretty sure was called "Claw" that I can't get out of my head.

Talking about what writing is: "The faces we could have left behind but didn't."

She also read some of her oral history of the Hill District, which was funny and touching. It was great to see a piece of her family legacy, especially since so much of her family was present at the reading.

I read Kevin Wilson's Tunneling to the Center of the Earth today. It's one of the best short story collections I've read in a while, and believe me, I've been reading a lot of short story collections. He blew my mind a little bit. I can already tell that I'm going to be recommending him all over my workshop. There's a little section at the back of my copy of the book that has a short essay by Wilson on his writing, an interview with him, and stories that helped inspire each story in the collection. I found myself compelled to write some of the quotes from the essay in my notebook:

"I started writing stories because I was lonely. I wish that there were more artistic and noble reasons that I put pen to paper, but the truth of the matter is that I wanted people to kiss me and I had the unfounded notion that if I wrote a good enough story, people would be compelled to make out with me. This was not a sound theory."

I think that's pretty much why we all start writing.

"I was eating nothing but candy bars and sleeping on the floor of my apartment. I bought novels and short story collections as if they were self-help books or how-to guides. If I wasn't reading, I was writing. If I wasn't writing, I was reading. If I wasn't doing either of those things, I was practicing kissing my reflection in the mirror. 'This,' I told myself, 'is what writers do.'"

This is basically my life right now, just add in the Carnegie Library, youtube, and HTMLGiant.

"I wrote a story about a person whose parents spontaneously combusted. It was not bad. It was kind of good. I felt like I might spontaneously combust."

And this is the moment I'm waiting for.