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Adult Books 4 Teens
Inside Adult Books 4 Teens

Weekly Reviews: Short Stories

I love short stories.  I generally love anything that makes an effort not to waste my time, but I especially love the special craft of compression and power that short stories demand of their authors.  I also admire the fact that short story writers have so many more structural options than novelists.  Rather than being required to provide readers with a beginning, middle, and end; emotional arcs; fully developed worlds; and more, as novelists are, a short story writer can choose to give readers as much or as little information, development, and resolution as they want, making short stories endlessly more varied than novels.

Nevertheless, story collections seem to offer a unique challenge when it comes to appealing to teens.  One the one hand, their length and condensed power seem to be perfect for a busy teen without much free time, or a teen with a short attention span.  And yet I am not the only librarian out there who finds it close to impossible to sell teens on story collections.  For example, I had a copy of Alex Award winner Just After Sunset (Scribner, 2008) by Stephen King (surely one of the most teen-friendly of all adult writers) sit like a stone on my new books shelf for months.  I have had a little more success with collections by various authors on a single theme–from Alvin Schwartz’s perennial Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (HarperCollins, 1981) to Ellen Datlow and Nick Mamatas’s Haunted Legends (Tor, 2010)–but even those titles don’t move as well at my library as their appealing styles might seem to warrant.  Still, from Margo Lanagan to Holly Black, some of the best writing out there today for teens is short stories.  So if anyone has had more success in getting teens to read story collections, please share in the comments.

Meanwhile, here are two collections that deserve every teen reader they can get.  The first is from Sherman Alexie, who is most famous to teens from his masterful novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Little, Brown, 2007).  The second is from Patricia A. McKillip, who may not be as well known to teens, but whose brilliant fantasy absolutely should be.

ALEXIE, Sherman. Blasphemy: New and Selected Stories. 480p. Grove. 2012. Tr $27.00. ISBN 978-0-8021-2039-7.

Adult/High School–Though Alexie writes widely in all forms, including the young adult novel, here he returns to one of his most common, and possibly best, the short story. This collection contains a mix of stories from his older works, as well as 15 new stories to present an overview of his talent. One might expect, in a collection of “greatest hits” and new entries, to find the strength in the older stories, but this is not the case. Though teens may be familiar with Alexie through The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Little, Brown, 2007), these selections are definitely grittier and darker. Some of the same themes appear, from basketball to life on the reservation to identity, especially male identity. Though many of the characters are well into adulthood, this doesn’t take away from the teen appeal. These men (and some women) are on drugs, committing crimes, having sexual encounters, and are generally seekers, as found in other favorite authors of older teens, like Bukowski and Palahniuk. While most stories are set in the poverty-ridden reservation, “Breaking and Entering” deals with a middle-class man who has to deal with the fallout when he kills the poor black teenager who breaks into his house. This is a thought-provoking, emotional collection.–Jamie Watson, Baltimore County Public Library, MD

MCKILLIP, Patricia A. Wonders of the Invisible World. 288p. Tachyon, dist. by IPG. 2012. pap. $14.95. ISBN 9781616960872.

Adult/High School–Sixteen previously published, thought-provoking short stories, each more beautiful than the last, have been packaged with a laudatory introduction by Charles De Lint. Many of the selections take their cues from traditional folk and fairy tales; there is a fairly straightforward retelling of  “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” set firmly at the center of the collection. Most of the stories, saturated with color and deft characterization, are not anchored in any one reality but many, and tend to skirt the edges of perception. Sly humor and a dry, sarcastic wit make the title story’s main character, a time-traveling researcher who appears to Cotton Mather as an angel, wholly present and sympathetic. There is a sense of creeping horror and barely averted tragedy in “Hunter’s Moon,” while “Oak Hill” carries a touch of the surreal in everyday life. “Knight of the Well” is drenched in water lore and the intersections that create lasting relationships, while “Byndley” speaks to those who gain their fondest desire only to have it trap them in a torturous neverwhere. The exploration of a life of service exposes an aching need for connection and legacy while being left behind, unable to resist the inexorable march of time in “A Gift to Be Simple.” McKillip is a master of highly descriptive and detailed lyricism, and this collection should appeal to both fantasy readers and short-story lovers.–Charli Osborne, Oxford Public Library, MI

About Mark Flowers

Mark Flowers is the Young Adult Librarian at the John F. Kennedy Library in Vallejo, CA. He reviews for a variety of library journals and blogs and recently contributed a chapter to The Complete Summer Reading Program Manual: From Planning to Evaluation (YALSA, 2012). Contact him via Twitter @droogmark