Every other month we publish an interview with a promising AB4T debut author in the SLJ Teen Newsletter. Sometimes I conduct the interview; sometimes I invite one of our reviewers to take it on. As 2012 comes to a close, I feel the urge to look back on those interviews for patterns or themes that might inform our continuous search to understand just what appeals to teen readers. All of the quotes in this post are from the interviews.
Here are the books under discussion, with links to the author interviews:
Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron. Algonquin. Tr $24.95. ISBN 978-1-61620-042-8.
Jean Patrick grows up during the Rwandan genocide. As a boy he meets a marathon runner, and from that day forward he dreams of proving to the world that a Tutsi can win the Olympics.
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. Ecco. Tr $25.99. ISBN 9787-0-06-206061-7.
Patroclus retells the events of The Iliad, focusing on the all-too-short life of his companion, Achilles. By concentrating on these two young men and their tragic lives and love, the author rejuvenates the epic legend for a contemporary audience.
The Book of Jonas by Stephen Dau. Blue Rider. Tr $24.95. ISBN 978-0399158452.
Jonas, a 15-year-old boy rescued by an American soldier in an unidentified Muslim country and brought to the Pittsburgh area as a war refugee, is overwhelmed by the guilt of what it took to survive the war that claimed his family and his home.
What Dies in Summer by Tom Wright. Norton. Tr $25.95. ISBN 978-0-393-06402-5.
A serial killer prowls a suburban Dallas neighborhood seeking vulnerable young teenage girls. Jim “Biscuit” Bonham tries to protect his cousin L.A. and his Gram, who has taken them in rather than leave them with abusive, neglectful parents. Unfortunately, Jim’s sixth sense and innocent determination aren’t enough to save everyone in this haunting coming-of-age tale.
Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt.Dial. Tr $26. ISBN 978-0-679-64419-4.
June, 14, is devastated when her uncle Finn, a famous artist, dies of AIDS; he was the one person in the world who understood her. Then Finn’s longtime secret partner, Toby, approaches her, with an offer of friendship.
The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers. Little, Brown. Tr $24.99. ISBN 978-0-316-21936.
Private John Bartle’s attempt to honor his promise to bring his combat buddy Murph home safely leads him to commit and cover-up a crime in this powerful novel that alternates between the war in Iraq and Bartle’s homecoming.
First and foremost, these books succeed because of the fascinating characters who narrate their events, all of which are in their teens or early 20s. Why did the authors choose young narrators? Madeline Miller wrote, “To be honest, having Patroclus as my narrator didn’t feel like a choice! From the moment I sat down at the computer, it was always his voice that came out; I never even considered any other option.”
On the other hand, the choice was very deliberate for Stephen Dau. “I felt the story, as it began, needed a protagonist who was both old enough to understand what was going on and young enough to be largely blameless for it. He is at an age when we tend to know quite a lot about the world and yet we are still forming opinions and perceptions about much of it. It’s an age when we often think we know more than we actually do, but also an age when we are often not given enough credit for the vast amount we actually do know. It’s an age that allows us to hear about Jonas’s experiences from a fresh perspective. He’s trying to make sense not only of this terrible thing that’s happened, but also of the world in which he finds himself. In large part, his story is one of choosing how he will respond to his circumstances and taking personal responsibility for his choices.”
In more than one case the young narrator feels like an outsider – in The Song of Achilles, Patroclus is exiled from his homeland. In a way, the same can be said of Dau’s title character, living in Pittsburgh after surviving the destruction of his village by American troops. In Tell the Wolves I’m Home, June Elbus is an awkward young teenager who loves all things Medieval and feels like her uncle is the only one in the world who understands her. “Her sense of not really belonging anywhere, not connecting with her peers, being an outsider, watching the action from a distance.” In What Dies in Summer, Jim “Biscuit” Bonham has a kind of second sight, which allows him to sense the danger surrounding him without helping him understand how to protect his family from it. He feels completely vulnerable and apart.
We are not talking about stereotypes. If any of these characters were stereotypical teens, the books would not have been successful. I love what Brunt wrote on just that: “As a writer, I’m always trying to understand a character as an individual rather than as part of a group. So, although June happens to be a teen, I hope she is also very much a unique person with a singular way of seeing the world.”
Are these all coming of age novels? Not exactly, but they are all novels that take the reader through a crucial period or series of events in a character’s life that forms them. Brunt commented, “I wouldn’t say I set out to write a coming-of-age story exactly. I felt like I was writing a friendship story, but because of June’s age there’s an inevitable coming-of-age element to it. The events of the story will surely be life changing for June and make a huge mark on how she views the world.”
Themes of friendship and loyalty, responsibility and forgiveness (often self-forgiveness), the struggle to understand and reconcile tragic events are present in more than one of these titles. Each author also finds a way to transcend cultural differences, to make a different world easily accessible to the reader, whether the Rwandan genocide, war in the Middle East, or the fear of AIDS in 1980s New York. Survival is another theme, whether surviving the bitter anger of a sibling or the loss of a family member. These authors find ways to make tragic stories bearable by infusing hope, beauty and love into the complexity of their fictional worlds.
I am struck by how often autobiographical elements inform an author’s fictional world. For Brunt it was a beloved teacher who died of AIDS. For Benaron it was a love of Rwanda and of running. For Wright the young people who find themselves needing his help. For Powers it was grappling with his service in the military.
And finally, did these authors imagine their work would reach teens? In the case of The Song of Achilles, absolutely. Brunt shared that she wondered as she was writing the novel whether it would end up being a teen novel or an adult one. Powers had the opposite reaction to that question: “I’ve never thought about the age of readers. People, young or old, should read what they are interested in, they should try to find what moves them and makes them think about the world in a new way. I don’t think that age makes much difference in that.”