re-valuing a precious gem

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Recently, when my wife was moving a pile of unread books – of which there is no shortage in our house – she brought me one that seemed out of place. Indeed it was. It was a Young Adult novel by Renee Watson called Some Places More Than Others. I have no recollection of how I came by this book. It would not have attracted much attention during my years as a YA reviewer which I’ve mentioned in recent postings, but that ended long ago, at which point my pipeline to books like this dried up. I was between books at the time, so I decided to give it a try. One of the secret benefits of the genre, particularly for painfully slow readers like me, is that YA books are usually fairly short, quick reads.

I was not familiar with the author, which was no surprise because the world of YA books seems to turn over at warp speed. Now when I come across a list of best sellers, I’m likely to recognize only a small number of names. In fact, according to the book jacket, Watson was the recipient of Newbery and Coretta Scott King honors, which put her near the pinnacle of the field. When I started reviewing, there was a real dearth of books that might appeal to Black readers looking for some representation of themselves in books, so the presence of books like this one was a real step forward. The next hill to climb is books for young LatinX readers.

Reading the book felt familiar, like wrapping myself in a favorite lap blanket on a cold day. The protagonist, almost 12-year-old Amara, is growing up in a Black middle-class family in a suburb of Portland, Oregon. The birthday gift she dreams of is a trip to New York City where her father grew up and where her grandfather and other family members still live. She is particularly motivated by a school project assigned by her teacher which involves filling a suitcase with materials that bear on her family’s history. There’s a family mystery that drives the story. Her father and grandfather have not spoken for 12 years, coincidentally the date of both her birth and the death of her grandmother. It’s a mystery she wants to unravel.

One of the things I love about YA books and their authors is that they’re much more willing than most adult fiction writers to wear their sentiments on their sleeves. They’re shameless about tugging at the readers’ heart strings in ways which writers for older audiences tend to shy away from as too obvious and perhaps unsophisticated. Count me as a cheerleader for the YA team on that score, although I often have to trade away my love of beautiful, elegant language in the deal. You see, a large majority of YA books have first-person narrators, usually of an age close to that of the anticipated readers, which means that the vocabulary is limited, as is the likelihood of encountering much figurative language. As a reviewer I often worried about whether the books I was advocating for actually made the transition to adult literature more difficult for the readers who were then faced with complex language which was not so easy to breeze through.

Although I thoroughly enjoyed the Watson book, it’s not likely to be an enduring classic. I’m using it to convey my love for the genre, one that I feel is greatly undervalued and underappreciated, somehow residing in a lower tier than “real” literature. In fact, my imaginary list of favorite books, books that are both enjoyable while at the same time deserving to be labelled as works of art, includes a reasonable representation of YA titles. These include Charlotte’s Web, Bridge to Terebithia, Tuck Everlasting, books by Sharon Draper and Cynthia Voigt, the Narnia books. (I’m noticing as I list these books, that most of them are not first-person narratives, thus allowing for more flights of language and more sophisticated insights.) I’m sure the list deserves to include some more recent publications, but I am admittedly out of touch since my reviewing days have ended, but I’ll stand by my list of classics, to which I could add dozens more.

My wife has written, to considerable acclaim, in many genres – novels, short stories, poetry, essays, plays – but she has never tried her hand at YA books. I’m afraid that I’m to blame for that. She’s heard me hold forth too often, as I‘m doing now, about the unfair disrespect and undervaluing of the genre that she has come to believe that she’s not up to creating something worthy of the form. I don’t believe that’s the case, but I’m proud to confess to the high regard in which I hold the best of these books.  It’s also the case that there are lot of less than memorable works in the genre, but the same can be said for adult fiction, and for every other artistic field. But when it works, the products feel sacred.

When I was a reviewer, I tried to use that position as a bully pulpit for promoting the best of what was emerging. I was not interested in wasting the limited space I had trashing books which needed to be allowed to sink of their own weight. This blog is the only bully pulpit I have now, and I’m using it to hold forth on a subject which may be of little interest to some of you, but I’m guessing that my words will also be met with a lot of affirmative head nods from those who have succumbed at some stage to the magical power of great YA literature. Let’s set the genre on the pedestal it deserves.

PS. A process postscript. Writing this was a real start and stop process. I went down a path which frankly bored me and which seemed to lead nowhere. At a moment of high frustration, I decided that the best course was to take a nap and start all over. When I got up, I entered the topic through a completely different door and sailed right through. It’s good advice for dealing with much more consequential writing than this entry.

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Marv Hoffman

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