Is It Cool to Hate on Middle Grade?

Discussion Post

We’ve all heard the arguments about young adult novels.  They’re juvenile, formulaic, written for an audience with low intelligence, and read only by adults who can’t seem to let go of their youth and move on to the deep and complex works more suitable to their years.  In short, if you’re not a teenager, you apparently have no business reading this stuff, written in a generally straightforward manner with simple sentences–you’re better than that.

The book-loving community has dismantled these arguments time and again (and one suspects that they only crop up periodically precisely because they tend to provoke a large backlash  and generate large page views).  It’s fairly simple, after all, to point out that YA books deal with complex and deep themes, that not all YA books are the same (and we’re certainly past Twilight, which was written ten years ago but still stands as the poster child for everything “wrong” with YA), and that a good story is a good story, no matter the intended age range.

It’s also easy to point out that, in many ways, YA is just a label used to sell books.  Sure, there are standard features of the YA novel such as the presence of a teen protagonist, the ubiquitous love triangle, the unspoken agreement that you can write about sex and other adult themes but you don’t cross the invisible line and make anything too explicit.  And, yes, YA follows trends so the market will be glutted for a time with vampire novels, then werewolf romances, then dystopian novels.  But, in many cases, YA just means “the protagonist is a teenager and this book will sell better if we say it’s YA.”  Indeed, you can change the way your book is marketed simply by changing the age of the protagonist; say she’s twelve and your book is MG, but say she’s thirteen and suddenly the same book is YA.

But though the bookish community gets up in arms anytime someone dares to disparage YA, middle-grade books continue to suffer from the same accusations leveled at their YA brethren.  Indeed, many in the bookish community tend to participate in the shade thrown at MG.  Any time we post a MG review on our blog, we’re likely to receive a comment to the effect of, “Oh, it’s MG” or “I thought this was interesting until I realized it was MG.”  The implication is that, oh, this would be a good story if only it were written for older, more discerning readers.

Middle-grade, of course, is not written any more simplistically than YA (which, incidentally is written more simplistically than many adult novels–though that doesn’t mean the story is any better or worse than one written with bigger words, longer sentences, and the ubiquitous “lyrical prose”).  We have even seen above that the exact same book can potentially be marketed as MG or as YA.  In many ways, MG and and YA are not very different at all.

It is true that MG protagonists tend to be in middle school while YA protagonists are of high school age.  YA novels thus have more romance and, yes, sex.  YA novels can, sometimes, also seem darker than MG books.  But many MG are also dark.  Adam Gidwitz’s fairy tale retellings honor the spirit of the Grimm brothers by providing readers with incredible gore.  N. D. Wilsono’s protagonists suffer greatly while on their heroic quests–hunger, wounds, rope burns are all described graphically enough to be realistic.  Jennifer Holm’s The Fourteenth Goldfish mentions meth addiction.  Kate Messner’s The Seventh Wish depicts the effects of heroin addiction on a family.  The subjects MG and YA books deal with are often the same.

So why doesn’t MG receive the same love as YA in the blogosphere?  After all, MG has a lot of positives going for it:

  • The MG market doesn’t follow popular trends as much, so the shelves aren’t all full of paranormal romance or whatever genre is selling at the time.
  • Ignoring market trends allows authors to come up with more creative storylines and often MG will find ways to make their book stand out, perhaps by making the puzzles interactive, for example.
  • MG books often focus on friendship rather than romance so you can avoid the dreaded love triangle.
  • MG protagonists are even less jaded than their already-not-very-jaded-in-comparison-to-adults YA friends.  For example, their romances tend to be their first sweet brush with love, not a rebound after a breakup.
  • MG books celebrate life.  Yes, they can be dark, but they’re not all dystopian novels and post-apocalyptic novels.  Large-scale societal oppression is less prevalent in MG at this moment.

Perhaps readers simply don’t want to read the stories of eleven- and twelve-year old children.  Perhaps they really are invested in all the dystopian novels in the YA section and don’t yet feel they need something new.  But perhaps, just perhaps, MG has become the YA of the book blog community, the embarrassing younger sibling one can mock to prove intellectual taste and superiority.  “Oh, you’re reading those children’s books?” one can sneer. “I have progressed to more challenging selections.”

But if the bookish community exists to celebrate stories in all their forms. we cannot look down our noses at certain books simply because they feature younger protagonists, or simpler prose, or a label on the cover that reads “Gr.5-8.”  The stories in MG are worth telling–stories of heroic quests, personal growth, and personal less.  They are the stories we all share.  They just happen to have been labelled “middle-grade” by a marketing department.

Krysta 64

Classic Remarks: Jane Austen Adaptations

Classic Remarks 1

Classic Remarks is meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.  Feel free to comment even if you are not officially participating!  This week’s question is:

Which Austen adaptation is your favorite and why?

The BBC’s 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice was long my favorite because of how perfectly it captures all the characters; Jennifer Ehle, Colin Firth, and all the rest are my versions of Austen’s creations.  I also appreciate that the mini series format allows the bulk of the book to appear on screen, and that the adaptation pretty much follows the novel word-for-word. However, once I saw the Romola Garai mini series of Emma, that became my favorite Austen adaptation.

Before I watched Emma, I had not much liked the titular character.  Her penchant for setting up couples made her seem meddlesome and manipulative, and far from charming.  Her devotion to her father is touching, but then you have to consider her outrageous flirting with Frank Churchill, her advice to Harriet that she should throw away the man she loves, and her habit of ignoring Mr. Knightley’s sound advice.  Badly done, Emma.

Garai, however, plays Emma as light-hearted and young, rather than as manipulative. When I considered Emma as a high spirited girl who wasn’t old enough to appreciate fully her own limitations, I suddenly began to appreciate her.  She means well, even if her advice is often bad.  And Mr. Knightley–quite, frankly, he’s my favorite Austen hero. I  love relationships that have a basis in friendship.

Garai’s Emma is a testament to the power of adaptation to reinterpret texts and enable audiences to view them in a new light.  The beauty of stories is that we can take them and make them our own.  The Emma mini series does just that.

Leave your link by clicking on the green image below!Krysta 64

 

The Book Scavenger by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman

Book ScavengerINFORMATION

Goodreads: The Book Scavenger
Series: Book Scavenger #1
Source: Library
Published: 2015

SUMMARY

Emily’s parents have a quest to live in each of the fifty states, so this time it’s off to San Francisco, which just so happens to the home of Garrison Griswold, creator of Emily’s favorite game Book Scavenger.  Then Emily finds what appears to be the start of Griswold’s newest game.  Along with her new friend James, she’s ready to break ciphers and follow the clues to an unspecified treasure.  But others are after the treasure as well and they’re not afraid to break the rules.

Review

Book Scavenger has the type of plot sure to appeal to readers everywhere, so it almost seems irrelevant to comment on the book as a whole.  After all, here you have a work where the protagonists hide their favorite books across the U.S. and create clues for others to find them.  Literature plus puzzles is a sure win, right?  The rest of the book may not be amazing, but the premise carries it.

Despite the seeming genius of the premise, and the seeming originality needed to create a book full of ciphers and clues, if I had to pick one word to describe Book Scavenger, I would have to use “solid.”  It’s good.  It’s interesting.  It’s enjoyable.  But it never rises above the other current middle-grade offerings.  Even the clues are a bit dull and not exactly what I would call tricky.  Maybe if you’ve never heard of Edgar Allan Poe, some of them would be harder to solve, but a quick Internet search will clear a lot of obstacles–problem-solving skills aren’t needed all that often.

The characters themselves are sympathetic, if not particularly memorable.  They have their defining traits–Emily doesn’t really like moving all the time, her brother is getting older and growing apart from her, and James likes puzzles and has a cowlick he’s named Steve.  Yes, James’s cowlick is easily (perhaps unfortunately) the most notable thing about him.  It’s a weird, jarring note in an otherwise pretty standard MG fare–MG does have stranger offerings, but this isn’t one of them, so Steve seems a little out of place.  And a little too prone to divert attention away from the main plot.  But, aside from these characteristics, I find it hard to describe exactly who these characters are.

However, the idea of searching for books is fun and sure to appeal to readers.  Puzzle books and treasure hunts are particularly popular in MG these days.  So Book Scavenger really does not have to distinguish itself to convince readers to pick it off the shelf.  It’s fun, and if that’s what you’re looking for, you are not likely to find yourself disappointed.

4 starsKrysta 64

Exile for Dreamers by Kathleen Baldwin

Exile for DreamersInformation

Goodreads: Exile for Dreamers
Series: Stranje House #2
Source: Purchased
Published: May 2016

Official Summary

It’s 1814. Napoleon has escaped his imprisonment on Elba. Europe is in shambles. Britain is at war on four fronts. And at Stranje House, a School for Unusual Girls, five young ladies are secretly being trained for a world of spies, diplomacy, and war.

Tess Aubreyson can’t run far enough or fast enough to escape the prophetic dreams that haunt her. Dreams bring nothing but death and grief, and Tess refuses to accept that she may be destined for the same madness that destroyed her mother. Until her disturbing dreams become the only means of saving Lord Ravencross, the man she loves, and her fellow students at Stranje House. Tess’s old friend, the traitorous Lady Daneska, and Ghost, the ruthless leader of the Iron Crown, have returned to England, intent on paving the way for Napoleon’s invasion. Can the young ladies of Stranje House prevail once more? Or is England destined to fall into the hands of the power-mad dictator?

Review

Kathleen Baldwin won me over with the first book in the series, A School for Unusual Girls, with its spunky heroines and swoon-worthy romance. Yet I admit a I was a little hesitant about this sequel since the protagonist changes from scientist Georgiana to prophetic dreamer Tess.  While prophetic dreams are, in theory, interesting, I worried about how they fit into the larger scheme of the school, where basically all the other girls have a more realistic talent.  Tess also, though nice, is definitely not as fiery as Georgiana, meaning the series might shift awkwardly in moving from an active protagonist to a shyer one. I needn’t have worried, however, because Baldwin made me fall in love with her characters and her world all over again.

Exile for Dreamers does seem a little more focused on romance than A School for Unusual girls, but, hey, that’s really a large part of what I’m here for.  Tess’s romance was simply hinted at previously, but here it absolutely flowers, and I was smitten.  Love interest Lord Ravencross is a bit gruff but quite protective–yet Tess also pulls her own and never lets anyone treat her as too delicate or helpless. Its so great that. at  this point, I feel like the peak of the romances in the series have been reached, and I’m not convinced Jane’s story in Book 3 will live up to Tess’s. However, I was wrong before, and I’m sure Baldwin will prove me wrong again.

I do wish there were a bit more historical matters in this book.  Although the series is alternate history, so far I’ve really only gotten some hazy impressions about what that means. Napoleon is nefarious and maybe invading and the girls might be needed to help stop it.  Yet all of this always seems vague, even when it’s ostensibly playing a fairly large role in how the plot plays out.  Perhaps the history will be more fully fleshed out as the series progresses.

The Stranje House series is one of the most enjoyable I’ve read in the past year. and I think it’s bit somewhat overlooked in the blogosphere, as I haven’t seen many reviews. However, I believe others will like it if they give it a try. With strong heroines, a dash of mystery and history, and a generous portion of romance, it’s a really immersive story.

4 stars Briana

How I Know You Lied about Reading a Book

 

lying-about-reading-min

Recently Alexadria posted about people who lie about having read particular books, and it got me thinking about all the times I’ve caught people lying about their reading habits. Mostly it’s been in academic circumstances (which at least makes sense to me, though obviously it’s unethical), but I’ve also encountered it in social circumstances and the blogging world.  This post, however, is not meant to be accusatory. (Honestly, I don’t really care what anyone has read or not read, as long as they’re not lying about doing the reading for the class I teach.)  The post is simply a list of things I’ve found to be tell-tale signs someone hasn’t actually read what they claimed.

1. The reader is hesitant or nervous.

Nervousness is, of course, a sign of lying in general.  However, I’ve encountered people who lie about their reading who really only decide to lie at the last minute.  They’re called upon in class to say something and are visibly agitated about whether they should confess their failure to do the work or just try to fake it.  Or, they’re in a social situation, and they have a split second to decide whether lying about having read a book will make others perceive them as more intellectual or likable.

2. The reader is vague.

Hilariously, this is sign of lying that you can notice whether or not you have even read the book in question yourself. In high school, I watched a kid give a ten minute presentation on War and Peace. Afterwards (we were decently friends, so this wasn’t offensive), I walked up to him and said, “You didn’t read the book, did you?” He was shocked I could tell.  The problem? In ten minutes, he didn’t say anything about the book that wasn’t so superficial I didn’t know it myself or couldn’t have found the information from skimming Wikipedia article–and I had never read the book either.  A second case: In college I gave a presentation on the assigned reading for the week: Ivanhoe.  I could tell not a single other student had read it (it was assigned over spring break) because the class spent 20 minutes asking me historical questions about the Middle Ages, and no one asked a single thing about the actual text. People who have read books will naturally mention details and specifics.  People who haven’t stick to generalities.

3. The reader gets things wrong.

Every once in a while, someone decides to really go down with their lie.  They don’t stick to generalities and Sparknotes comments on the book in question; they decide to attempt to hold an actual conversation.  Unfortunately, if they’re speaking to someone who, in fact, has read the book, it’s only a matter of time before they trip up and say something about the book that is blatantly untrue.  (I have particularly fond memories of someone trying very, very badly to summarize A Tale of Two Cities to me in high school.)

4. The reader doesn’t have much to say.

Someone who claims to have read a book in a verbal conversation but doesn’t want to discuss it may be lying–or they may just not want to talk about the book at the moment. In written situations, however, brevity can be telling.  If someone is claiming to read particularly voraciously (say, publishing a book review a day), but their reviews are only three sentences long, it’s possible they’re aggregating other reviews for “their” opinion and haven’t read all the books themselves.  The same applies for written assignments about school reading.  If a student doesn’t write much on a discussion forum or other short assignment, it’s often because they didn’t read the book and so have nothing to say.

Have you ever lied about reading a book?  Were you caught? Or have you found someone else lying about reading a book?

Briana

Wonder Women by Sam Maggs (ARC Review)

Wonder WomenInformation

Goodreads: Wonder Women
Series: None
Source: Quirk Books
Publication Date: October 4, 2016

Official Summary

Ever heard of Allied spy Noor Inayat Khan, a Muslim woman whom the Nazis considered “highly dangerous”? Or German painter and entomologist Maria Sibylla Merian, who planned and embarked on the world’s first scientific expedition? How about Huang Daopo, the inventor who fled an abusive child marriage only to revolutionize textile production in China?

Women have always been able to change the world, even when they didn’t get the credit. In Wonder Women, author Sam Maggs introduces you to pioneering female scientists, engineers, mathematicians, adventurers, and inventors—each profile a study in passion, smarts, and stickto-itiveness, complete with portraits by Google doodler Sophia Foster-Dimino, an extensive
bibliography, and a guide to present-day women-centric STEM organizations

Review

Wonder Women is a delightfully informative yet informal look at amazing women in STEM. Maggs purposely tends toward less-known women (personally, I’d heard of about six), meaning the book isn’t just the same-old stories of Marie Curie and Amelia Earhart (though these women get mini bios at the end of each section).  Maggs explores the lives and accomplishments of 25 historical women in the fields of science, medicine, espionage, innovation, and adventure, and sprinkles in some interviews with women currently working in STEM to help inspire readers to go do all the science.

Maggs knows how to pick a good tale, so the content of the book is fascinating.  She chooses women whose lives were interesting both in and out of their careers and looks at everyone from a woman who disguised herself as a man to fight in the American Civil War to the woman who got rich from inventing a machine that could fold paper bags.  There’s also a good bit of diversity in terms of time periods and countries, which was nice since I was personally familiar with mostly the American and a few of the European women.

However, I found the Tumblr-style voice of the book off-putting, and while I initially assumed it might appeal to the intended audience, a quick glance of existing Goodreads reviews showed me either people who were also annoyed by it or people who simply didn’t mention it.  So far, Maggs’ quirky asides and casual tone, referring to Alice Ball as “100 percent your kind of gal” or Emmy Noether as a “total BAMF” seems not entirely to be a selling point.  Personally, I tried to just grin and bear it, but there were instances where the tone almost came across as flippant.  Referring blithely to someone’s accomplishments as “smart-person talk” which clearly the reader wouldn’t understand, to me, does more to diminish the accomplishment than praise it.

However, while I did find all of the women’s bios interesting, I disagree with Maggs that all of the women are role model material.  The worst-case offender in the book is one Brita Tott, a woman who spied and forged for personal gain–and was bad enough at it she kept getting caught.  Neither her morals nor her skills seem particularly admirable, but Maggs brushes this off because sexism: “Brita may have engaged in some not-so-worthy endeavors, but she was likely trying to survive amid brutal medieval misogyny.”  There were a couple other women who seemed generally disagreeable or not entirely ethical, which is fine–it’s still interesting–but it did bother me Maggs is offering them up as full-fledged heroes, rather than simply fascinating people.

Most of the women, however, are admirable, and Maggs will be successful riling readers up about the injustices they faced because of their sex.  Many of these women are unknown because they have been purposefully overlooked or had their accomplishments stolen by men.  Personally, I would love to have a little bibliography of Maggs’ sources so I could follow up on some of the stories she presents. (And, actually, there’s blank space left for a bibliography in the ARC, so the final version should have one; I just mean I want one for myself. Right now. Because this is all really captivating.)

Bottom line: There were definitely things that irritated me about this book. The voice is hard to get over and honestly makes me hesitant to read anything else by Maggs, even though the content and research is great. However, in this particular case, the pros really do outweigh the cons. I loved that Maggs picked truly lesser-known women and writes about them in an engaging way. Anyone interested in STEM, awesome women, or just fun stories will probably like something about Wonder Women.

*Please note that all quotes are from the ARC and may not be in the final version of the book.
4 stars Briana

Ten Interesting Posts of the Week (9/18/16)

Post Round-Up

Blog Post Round-Up

  1. Jillian reflects on six months of blogging and tells us what makes her what to rave about a blog.
  2. Kami showcases fan art for The Princess Bride.
  3. Alexandria asks if you have ever lied about reading a book.
  4. Liselle shares how blogging got her a job in real life.
  5. Lauren announces a Halloween read-a-thon.
  6. Novelacious explodes two myths about feminism.
  7. Kourtni lists four ways blogging has changed how she reads.
  8. Zoey lists books that need TV shows.
  9. Ashley explains what your host does and what they are responsible for.
  10. Stephanie lists seven books you should read this autumn.

This week on Pages Unbound

  1. Is The Phantom of the Opera Romantic?
  2. How to Write a Memorable Discussion Post
  3. The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi (YA Review)
  4. Blackhearts by Nicole Castroman (YA Review)
  5. Monstrous by Marcykate Connolly (MG Review)
  6. The Gallery by Laura Marx Fitzgerald (MG Review)