queer-young-adult-literature

Course Syllabus: Queer Young Adult Literature

Hello readers! So, I’m finally teaching one of my dream courses, and it’s one that I’ve been anxious to teach for quite some time! Click here to access the syllabus that I’ve designed for an intermediate seminar that I’m currently teaching at Bowdoin College. The seminar is entitled Queer Young Adult Literature, and it is currently offered under Bowdoin’s English Department and the Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies program.  The course description is as follows:

How do literary texts communicate ideas that are supposed to be unspeakable, especially to a younger audience? In this course, we will explore contemporary young adult literature that represents the experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer adolescents. We will not only scrutinize the complex relationship that exists between narrative, sexuality, gender, and audience, but we will also determine how certain genres and narrative modes enable or limit representations of queerness. Drawing from temporal and affective approaches to queer studies, we will examine the genre’s attempt to encapsulate an enduring change in terms of how queer adolescence is (or can be) represented, perceived, and experienced.

This course is my opportunity to teach and discuss ideas that I’ve developed while writing my dissertation, especially when it comes to the analysis of youth literature with queer content using the critical lenses of queer, affect, and narrative theories. Although this course has various goals and objectives, there are three main things that I want students to explore throughout the course:

  1. The way in which young adult novels make use of non-conventional narrative forms and structures in their explorations of queer content, and the formalistic/structural strategies implemented by queer youth narratives.
  2. The ways in which queer young adult literature complicates or reaffirms ideas regarding queer childhood and queer adolescence.
  3. The affective and political potential of the young adult genre, and the ways in which youth literature uses emotion to help its readership develop historical awareness and resilience towards violence and queerphobia.

In all honesty, this was one of the most difficult courses that I’ve ever designed, particularly since I had to limit the amount of novels that students and I would read and discuss throughout the semester. There were various criteria that I considered when making the final text selection. First and foremost, I wanted the course novels to reflect the spectrum of sexual and gender identities (i.e. lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, etc.). Secondly, I wanted to include novels that represent the intersection between gender, sexuality and race, and that are written by authors of color–an issue, especially since youth literature with queer content is notorious for sidelining the experiences of queer characters of color (this has been changing, but ever so slowly). Last but not least, I wanted to include novels that implemented innovations of structure, form, and narrative mode, which wasn’t difficult to find given the propensity for queer narratives to implement nonlinear narratives and postmodern aesthetic techniques.

When you look at the course schedule that is located in the final two pages of the syllabus, you’ll notice that each of the course novels is paired with an important piece of theory or criticism focused on affective, temporal, and age studies approaches to queer theory. It is my hope that these difficult, theoretical texts will provide students with the means to conduct both reparative and paranoid readings of the young adult novels that I’ve selected. Furthermore, I hope that these difficult texts will help illuminate the intricacies and complexities of the young adult genre–a genre that is oftentimes viewed as simplistic and not worthy of critical attention.

As always, I appreciate any and all feedback! If you were to design a course on queer young adult literature, what novels would you include? What readings would you pair with your selected novels? What issues or topics would you focus on? If you have designed or taught a course on queer young adult literature, I would love for you to share your syllabus in the comments section below.

Just in case you missed the link above, you can access my syllabus by clicking here. I really hope you enjoy it!

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CFP: Queer Futurities in Children’s and Young Adult Literature

Hi readers! I’m organizing/chairing a session at the MLA conference in New York City in January 2018. This is a non-guaranteed session that is sponsored by the Children’s and Young Adult Literature Forum. The call for papers is posted is below. Feel free to share this CFP widely to kidlit and queer studies scholars! ¡Gracias!

Queer Futurities in Children’s and Young Adult Literature

Although we have recently seen the implementation of institutional changes that have altered the legal and socioeconomic status of queer people in the United States (i.e. United States v. Windsor in 2013 and Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015), queer individuals continue to encounter discrimination, violence, and death based on their gender and/or sexual orientation. The stark rise in murders of trans people of color and the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting are just a few of the events that have disrupted the misguided sense of utopia instilled by institutional change, and have brought into question whether it is possible for queerness to link to notions of futurity.

Considering this climate of violence and prejudice, what is the role of queer futurity in contemporary children’s and young adult literature, especially since many texts in these genres are written with a utopic, future-oriented sensibility? How does youth literature with queer themes frame and enable readings of the future? Are these future-oriented texts politically and affectively viable, or are they normative and misguided in their approach? I seek papers that examine how recent children’s and young adult texts approach, problematize, or justify the link between queerness and futurity.

Proposed papers may approach this linkage through various approaches, including but not limited to: queer, narrative, temporal, and affective methodologies. This panel seeks to both nuance and complicate how queer children’s and young adult texts present different stakes in terms of their alignment towards or against futurity. Furthermore, papers should ideally think through the ways in which children’s and young adult literature either sustain or complicate approaches to queer futurities and temporalities prominent in the field of queer theory/studies (i.e. Muñoz, Ahmed, Edelman, Freeman, Halberstam, etc.). Submissions that include intersectional approaches towards queerness and futurity in youth literature are particularly welcome.

This is a non-guaranteed session for the 2018 MLA Convention in New York City sponsored by the Children’s and Young Adult Literature Forum. Please send 500-word proposals (including a working bibliography) to Angel Matos at amatos@bowdoin.edu by Wednesday, March 1. Session participants must be current members of MLA as of April 7, 2017.

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Course Syllabus: Young Adult Speculative Fiction

Hello readers! As promised, here is the syllabus for a seminar that I’m currently teaching at Bowdoin College. The seminar is entitled (Im)Possible Lives: Young Adult Speculative Fiction, and it is currently offered under Bowdoin’s English Department and the Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies program. The course description is as follows:

How do wizards, monsters, cyborgs, and dystopias shed light on precarious issues such as sexism, homophobia, racism, poverty, and illness? This seminar examines representations of identity and difference in young adult speculative fiction—texts created for younger audiences that include elements from genres such as fantasy, horror, science fiction, and magical realism. Students not only analyze the approaches that writers implement to construct hypothetical settings and characters, but also examine how speculative young adult novels depict different possibilities for existing and mattering in the world.

There are many goals that I have for this course. For the most part, I want students to realize the ways in which the content and structure of contemporary YA speculative fiction is symptomatic of many of the political, environmental, and sociopolitical crises that we face today in American society. In literature, film, and media, many have been exploring the issue of who matters, or who doesn’t matter. Particularly in social media discourse, we have seen a rise in attitudes such as homophobia, xenophobia, transphobia, sexism, elitism, and so on and so on. We are also developing greater awareness of the violence experienced by people of color, LGBTQ+ communities, and immigrants. It’s becoming increasingly difficult for us to ignore violence (and violent discourse), and recent events have been pushing many of us to question the value and future of human life. Through these acts of hate and violence, however, many of us are recognizing the need for community, highlighting the importance of self-care, and developing a desire for safer, more collective ways of being and knowing.

I think that YA speculative fiction offers readers a unique opportunity to think through the aforementioned precarious issues, and I believe works in this genre will push my students and I to ask difficult questions and explore complex issues. Teaching this seminar is not going to be easy. It will involve difficult and tedious emotional and intellectual labor. But I think that my students and I will grow both as people and thinkers by the time the semester is through.

Part of what I find valuable about works categorized as YA speculative fiction is that they are often crafted with a Utopian bent, and they often envision alternatives to the suffocating and violent conditions of the present. Books in this genre are often exercises in positive affect, and they push readers to imagine, desire, and work for better ways of living in the world. Students and I will explore both the perks and the pitfalls of the ethical frameworks discussed in a selection of YA speculative novels that overtly include themes of gender, sexuality, race, and class. It is my hope that through this seminar, my students will not only learn more about themselves and their place in society, but they will also recognize the value and importance of narratives that deviate from normative paradigms. Furthermore, I hope that students will be able to recognize and discuss current and emerging trends in the genre of YA speculative fiction, especially the genre’s increasing penchant for non-traditional narrative forms and genre-blending.

Just in case you missed the link above, you can access my course syllabus by clicking here. I hope you enjoy it!

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The Intersection of Deaf and Gay Identity in Young Adult Literature

I’m thrilled to announce the publication in my essay “Without a word or sound”: Enmeshing Deaf and Gay Identity in Young Adult Literature.
This essay is found in an critical volume edited by Jacob Stratman entitled Lessons in Disability: Essays on Teaching with Young Adult Literature, published by McFarland Press (November 2015).

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Front cover of Lessons in Disability (2015)

Although not obvious at first, queer studies and Deaf/disability studies share a solid theoretical foundation. In this essay, I discuss how two young adult novels–Andrew Smith’s Stick and Brian Sloan’s A Really Nice Prom Mess–construct gayness and deafness, focusing on how content and/or form pushes one to approach deaf and gay identity in unprecedented ways.

I argue that the concurrent literary exploration of deafness and queerness allows these works to seek alternative models of kinship that are not reliant on privileged and normative practices. By representing events in which (spoken) language and heternormativity are made strange, these young adult novels depict imagined worlds that can be read as anti-hierarchical, non-neutral, and queer. By assisting readers in considering the strangeness of normativity, these novels provide a venue where comfort and optimism triumph in moments of anguish, and where solutions are provided to counteract the pressures of normativity. This essay, ultimately, is intended to serve as a model for how poststructuralist readings can aid readers and scholars in performing reparative critiques of young adult novels with disabled and/or queer characters.

Further complicating the stakes of my readings, the young adult novels that I scrutinize depict deafness as a spectrum; these novels portray characters that blur the lines between the deaf and the hearing. Stick and Prom Mess depict characters that cannot hear through one of their ears due to either a birth defect or accident. One can situate these characters on the fringes of the constructed abled/disabled binary, thus challenging the legitimacy and usefulness of this dichotomy in the first place. These partially deaf characters will allow me to explore the contours of subjugated identities, allowing me to develop an understanding of how hierarchy and power play a role in the imagined lives of teens that are not-quite-abled, and concurrently not-quite-disabled.

I hope you enjoy this essay! If you have any comments or questions about it, I will gladly address them in this post. You can read a manuscript excerpt of my essay by clicking here. You can also purchase a copy of the book here.

Featured image courtesy of Bert Heymans. Click here for the image file.

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My article on The Perks of Being a Wallflower is now available online!

I’m pleased to announce that my article entitled “Writing through Growth, Growth through Writing: The Perks of Being a Wallflower and the Narrative of Development” can now be found in The ALAN Review‘s digital archives. Here is a brief abstract of the article, which won the Nilsen-Donelson award for best article published during the volume year:

This paper calls attention to the issue of social and personal development in Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, focusing on how the novel appropriates and transmutes the conventions of the formation novel, formally known as the Bildungsroman. Although the novel is written in an epistolary fashion, focusing on a series of letters sent to an undisclosed recipient, I argue that there is much value in approaching the text as a formation novel for it highlights the evolving nature of the Bildungsroman genre. The overarching themes of Charlie’s musings are focused on creating a social space in which the protagonist can record, evaluate, and deliberate his own position within his social context. These epistles also provide clarification of the pains and tribulations of achieving reconciliation between personal desire and social demand. Through a close-reading of the novel, I point out the role of writing in Charlie’s personal development, and how it influences and shapes his perspective of the world.

Click here for the PDF version of the article:

https://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/ALAN/v40n3/pdf/matos.pdf

Click here for the HTML version of the article:

https://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/ALAN/v40n3/matos.html

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We Are the Stories We Tell: Patrick Ness’ [More Than This]

(Major spoilers ahead. You’ve been warned!)

Front cover of Patrick Ness' More Than This

Front cover of Patrick Ness’ More Than This (2013)

“People see stories everywhere,” Regine says. “That’s what my father used to say. We take random events and we put them together in a pattern so we can comfort ourselves with a story, no matter how much it obviously isn’t true.” She glances back at Seth. “We have to lie to ourselves to live. Otherwise, we’d go crazy.” (Ness 217)

The notions of storytelling and narrative are central to Patrick Ness’ 2013 young adult novel entitled More Than This. As can be seen in the quote above, Regine, an important character in the novel, demonstrates awareness of the cognitive function of narrative: it is a method of organizing the world to make sense of it and to interpret it. In other words, it is an ordering or sequencing of events that conveys a particular set of ideas, beliefs, or functions. Through the implementation of metafictional elements and characters who are aware of the nature of storytelling and narration, Ness’ novel brilliantly subverts many of the grand narratives present in young adult literature, and fiction in general.

More Than This is a young adult novel that is difficult to describe. On one hand, it is a philosophical exploration of narrative, the afterlife, the nature of storytelling, and reality. On the other hand, it is a young adult dystopian novel that explores topics such as death, sexuality, family, and friendship. More than a novel, Ness’ work is an exhilarating narrative experiment: through the exploration of adolescence in a post-apocalyptic context, Ness pushes us to question the value of stories in our lives, regardless of whether said stories are real or fabricated.

In the novel’s introduction, Ness challenges the expectations that we have of narratives by beginning the story in an unexpected fashion. Although death is traditionally viewed as the endpoint of a narrative, it marks the beginning of the story being told in More Than This. The novel opens with Seth, the protagonist, committing suicide by drowning himself at sea. He immerses himself into violent and cold waters found in the Pacific Northwest area of the United States, and he is thrashed against some unforgiving rocks by the relentless waves:

The impact is just behind his left ear. It fractures his skull, splintering it into his brain, the force of it also crushing his third and fourth vertebrae, severing both his cerebral artery and his spinal cord, an injury from which there is no return, no recovery. No chance.

He dies. (Ness 3)

The introduction of the novel is thus a reversal of the usual teleology that we have come to expect in traditional narratives (particularly young adult narratives) which focus on the linear development or the transition of a protagonist from point A to point Z. Like most young adult novels, More Than This does focus on transition–but said transition is triggered through death rather than adolescence.

After killing himself, Seth awakens in a perverse version of his childhood home in England. Although Seth recognizes this home, he notices dramatic differences between the place that he knew and its current condition: thick ashen dust has covered nearly every surface, and everything seems abandoned and mistreated–as if nobody has lived in the house for decades. Seth soon realizes that he is alone in this strange place, and he comes to the conclusion that he is living in “A hell built exactly for him” (20).

What is fascinating about More Than This is its ambiguity. At first we are led to believe Seth’s interpretation of his surroundings as a personal hell, but as the novel develops, we receive conflicting events and pieces of information that make it difficult to fully understand and know the setting of the novel. Various theories develop as the narrative progresses. Although Seth believes that he is in hell, paying consequences for actions he committed in life, the narrative takes a dystopic, post-apocalyptic turn. It is revealed that Seth is now living in the “real” world, and that the world that he used to live in was merely a virtual (online) space that society created to escape the pressures of living in a decaying and fractured world (this is actually a very complicated part of the story that’s difficult to summarize, so bear with me).

The novel, however, complicates the reader’s ability to fully believe this dystopian narrative. Seth understands that the presence of a digital alternate reality does explain many things about the “real” world, but he also admits that this explanation is full of gaps. Further complicating Seth’s ability to trust in the “real” post-apocalyptic world are the inexplicable coincidences that he encounters regularly: loose ends tie a little too nicely, Seth is always rescued from danger at the last possible moment, and things sometimes materialize when he thinks about them. His distrust in his current reality begins to peak when he encounters two other people, Regine and Tomasz, who rescue him right before he is attacked by an ominous, Death-like presence known as the Driver, who travels around in a black van: “Something’s still not right about this. These two just happened  to be there when he was running toward the hill, just happened to stop him before he made contact with the black van, just happened  to find  the perfect place to hide from the Driver?” (183, emphasis in original).

Because of the factors mentioned above, Seth begins to believe that what he is experiencing is simply a “story that he’s telling himself” (250)–and this is where the novel becomes increasingly interesting from a (meta)fictional perspective. The novel’s metafictional aspects are highlighted earlier in the novel, when Seth encounters a book that he read as a child. While re-reading this novel, he reflects on the nature of books, and how these objects are able to contain a reality within their pages: “A book, he thinks at one point, rubbing his eyes, tired from so much focused reading. It’s a world all on its owntoo. He looks at the cover again. […] A world made of words, Seth thinks, where you live for a while (135, emphasis in original). Although Ness uses italics to mark thoughts that are substantiated in Seth’s mind, one cannot help but notice how these italics inevitably highlight key phrases and ideas. These italicized words bring many thoughts to mind:

  1. Seth is a protagonist who literally lives in a world made of words.
  2. Through reading More Than This, we as readers end up living in a world made of words for a while.
  3. It is possible that Seth’s current reality is nothing more than a world made of words.

The possibility of Seth’s reality being a story that he is telling himself becomes even more of a possibility towards the end of the novel, where he makes predictions based on past narratives that he’s encountered before. The most jarring of these predictions occurs after Seth, Regine, and Tomasz first destroy the Driver:

The Driver seems clearly dead, but Seth notices how slowly they’re all moving, as if at any second they expect it to surge back to life and attack them.

That’s what would happen if this were a story, Seth thinks. The villain who wouldn’t stay dead. The one who has to be stopped over and over again. That’s what would happen if this were all just my mind trying to tell me something. (407, emphasis in original)

As can be expected, the villain does not stay dead. Towards the novel’s conclusion, the Driver appears out of nowhere to stop the characters from re-entering the virtual world with their current knowledge of the “real” world. After defeating the Driver, once again, Seth, Regine, and Tomasz question whether the reality they are currently experiencing is no different from the virtual world that they managed to escape–whether they are all, in due course, a figment of Seth’s imagination. This is especially true after they witness Seth’s ability to predict the outcome of events that they face. The novel, however, refuses to provide readers with any answers to this question, and instead embraces ambiguity as an alternative to knowing:

He’s uncertain what’s going to happen next.

But he is certain that that’s actually the point.

If this is all a story, then that’s what the story means.

If it isn’t a story, then the exact same is true. (471, emphasis in original)

More Than This is thus a testament to the power of fiction and storytelling. Seth is the story that is told… we all are the stories that we tell. Regardless of whether said stories are true or fictional, they still have the power to produce meaning, to produce knowledge, and to produce selves. The narrative refuses to provide readers with direct answers, but this refusal, in due course, gives us the power to make what we want out of the story. We do not know if Seth is experiencing the “real,” whether he is living a narrative that his mind created to cope with his suicide, or whether he is simply a character lost within a sequence of random events. But this novel is precisely about not being able to know–and how by not knowing, we are able to stitch together an infinite amount of patterns and events to comfort ourselves, to orient ourselves, and find ourselves.

This post does not do justice to the philosophical richness, complexity, and brilliance of Ness’ work. More Than This also contains illuminating discussions on notions such as queerness, sexuality, loss, and relationships. Seth is also one of the most complex gay characters that I’ve encountered in young adult fiction (yes, the protagonist is gay, and his sexuality is a major component of the narrative). I wholeheartedly concur with John Green’s assessment of this novel: “Just read it.”

You can purchase a copy of More Than This by clicking here.

Work Cited

Ness, Patrick. More Than This. Berryville: Candlewick Press, 2013. Print (paperback edition)

Cover/featured image by Diane Yuri. Original version cropped and flipped.

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Unrealistic Expectations: (Meta)Narrative in Andrew Smith’s [Winger]

Front cover of Andrew Smith's Winger (2013)

Front cover of Andrew Smith’s Winger (2013)

Warning: The following post contains major spoilers for Andrew Smith’s Winger. 

After reading Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle, I immediately knew that I had to read other works written by this author–and Winger seemed like the obvious choice. I finished reading Winger a couple of weeks ago. Typically, I write analyses and reviews of books soon after I read them, but for this novel, I needed time to process many things, including the novel’s “unexpected” twist and its narrative framing. I guess it’s also important to mention that I reacted quite viscerally to the novel’s ending. At first, I approached the death of Ryan Dean’s gay best friend, Joey, as narratively pointless. I was frustrated that so little attention was given to this event in the novel’s conclusion, and I was upset that the death seemed like a dramatic and rushed way of ending the narrative. I read other reviews of this novel, and many other readers approached the ending in a similar fashion. Although I had a stark reaction to the novel’s ending, I felt as if there was a major element that I was missing when approaching Smith’s work.

I ultimately messaged the author, and asked why the novel had such a dark twist. Andrew Smith kindly responded to my question, and he pointed out how careful attention should be given to the novel’s use of metanarratives–which in the case of Winger, refers to the moments in which the narrator discusses the purpose or function of reading, writing, and literature itself. Although Winger can be approached as a coming-of-age novel, it is also a work that self-consciously explores the nature of narrative, and its relationship to truth and to the formation and understanding of the self. With this in mind, I decided to revisit the novel, paying close attention to the ways in which metanarrative aids the reader in better understanding the novel’s conclusion and its narrative framing.

When approaching Winger, it’s important to keep in mind that the novel is structured into many sections. The novel opens with a small section that depicts the protagonist, Ryan Dean, being bullied by two classmates. Afterwards, the novel can roughly be divided into four major parts: Part One (the overlap of everyone), Part Two (the sawmill), Part Three (the consequence), and Part Four (words). Each one of these parts has a main thematic focus and structure, but I will focus my attention on parts One and Four in this discussion. Part One opens with a prologue–which can be considered an introduction to the literary text that is not necessarily connected to the work’s main narrative arc. This prologue helps frame the rest of the narrative, in that it shares key points that allow the reader to grasp the novel’s core themes. Even more so, the prologue, to some extent, foreshadows the novel’s seemingly dark twist towards the end:

Joey told me nothing ever goes back exactly the way it was, that things expand and contract–like breathing, but you can never fill your lungs up with the same air twice. He said some of the smartest things I ever heard, and he’s the only one of my friends who really tried to keep me on track too. And I’ll be honest. I know exactly how hard that was. (Smith 7)

When closely reading this prologue, there a couple of things that we can infer:

  1. Joey’s thoughts and views of the world are used to open the prologue. This demonstrates that Joey is a person who significantly influences how Ryan Dean thinks, and also influences how he writes. Joey’s discussion of expansion and contraction can be connected to the novel’s major focus on the theme of change, and more precisely, the inevitability and irreversibility  of these changes.
  2. Note the verbs that Ryan Dean uses when referring to Joey: “Joey told me […] He said […] really tried to keep me on track too.” Through the use of these past-tense verbs, we are indirectly informed that Joey is no longer present in Ryan Dean’s life. We are initially given no clues to understand why he is absent. Thus, the prologue, through its use of language, foreshadows Joey’s death.
  3. Although Ryan states that Joey tried to keep him on track, the text implies that Joey’s efforts have failed. Furthermore, Ryan understands how difficult it was for Joey to watch over and guide him.

With these factors in mind, it becomes clear that the crafting of Winger‘s narrative is approached as a way for Ryan to revisit, relive, and understand the past through the process of writing. However, Ryan recognizes the futility of this endeavor to fully help him understand himself or the events that he faced. Just as he is unable to breathe the same air twice, he is unable to relive events in exactly the same fashion. The novel thus commences with the protagonist’s recognition and awareness of his own failures, and how these failures will determine what he shares and how he decides to share it. Furthermore, it is worth noting that the prologue epitomizes the central role that Joey plays in this developmental narrative, even though he is a secondary character.

The role of metanarrative in the creation of Winger becomes overt later in Part One, where Ryan Dean discusses his penchant for drawing, and the relationship between knowing a story and expressing it aesthetically. As can be seen in the following drawing found on page 21 of the novel, Ryan Dean stresses the difference between knowing a story, and representing it: img_00002_2_crop Ryan Dean’s discussion of drawing, narrative, and representation makes it clear that the novel should be approached as a carefully constructed and meditative text. The text is not presented as a work that’s produced as Ryan copes with particular events (as seen in novels such as Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower), but rather, it presents itself as an artistic impulse to represent a story that has already been lived and experienced. The fact that Ryan mentions that he knows “the ending of the story” implies that as an artist, Ryan is struggling to identify the ways to represent the events that led to the outcome that he knows.

With this in mind, the combination of words and images in Winger can signify not only the futility of art to replicate a particular memory or event, but it can also be approached as a concretization of Ryan’s struggle to convey ideas that even he doesn’t completely understand. When Ryan attempts to depict Joey’s death in Part Four of the novel, we notice how the novel undergoes an effect of narrative dissolution or entropy. Part Four begins with a handwritten letter, in which Ryan discusses how life never follows the course that one plans, and how life’s unpredictability is capable of destabilizing the linearity that we perceive in life. Here is the letter that Ryan shares with his reader, found on page 411: img_00003_2_crop (1) It is in this letter that Ryan recognizes the futility of narrative in creating an accurate and realistic portrait of life: “I tried to make everything happen the same way it did when I was seeing it and feeling it.” Furthermore, the letter is a comment about the nature of narrative itself. When reading works in a certain genre, we have expectations about what should happen to the characters, how the novel should end, and the overall lessons that should be learned. In this letter, Ryan (through the writing prowess of Andrew Smith) brilliantly critiques the linearity and predictability that we’ve come to expect of the novels we read, particularly novels in the young adult genre. We expect narratives to be linear, we expect characters to have happy endings–but through a compliance of these expectations, the aesthetic text merely becomes an object of conformity.

Through the use of metanarrative, Winger strives to convey a greater sense of realism through an embrace of the chaos and unpredictability found in life itself.  Thus, while it may be easy to approach Joey’s death as haphazard, rushed, or as some readers have uncritically argued, homophobic, approaching his death as so would be an injustice to the novel’s overall literary, aesthetic, and narrative aims. Indeed, Joey is one of the most likable characters in the novel–but likability does not and should not make a character or person immune to the instability and dangers of the (real) world.

Thus, the possible anger and frustration that we feel towards the novel’s ending stems not from the text itself, but rather, the unrealistic expectations that we impose on the texts we read. In terms of the novel’s ending seeming contrived or unexpected, it is important to keep in mind that Ryan writes his story as a way of trying to understand the ramifications of Joey’s death.

The novel as a whole forces us to question our reliability on words and grand narratives. While Winger “fails” to live up to the expectations that we have of linear and conventional young adult narratives (and narratives in general), it is through this failure that the text is able to push us to question many things we take for granted. Part Four of the novel, in particular, refutes many of the narrative conventions that we have come to expect in the novel itself. Images are no longer used. The chapters in Part Four are no longer numbered as they are in other parts. Pages are occupied by an increasing amount of blank space. Ryan Dean, who was able to portray events with an excruciating amount of detail, can’t find a way to express his thoughts: “I need to vent. But I can’t. The words won’t come” (430). His prose becomes increasingly fragmented. This sense of fragmentation, dissolution, and chaos is able to represent pain and torment in ways that couldn’t possibly be conveyed by traditional, linear prose.

The more I think about Winger, the more I’m able to appreciate just how smart, insightful, and riveting this novel is. It’s a novel that has haunted me since I’ve read it, and it will continue to haunt me as I think about the role of (meta)narrative in young adult fiction. Andrew Smith is continuing to shape, deconstruct, and reinvent young adult fiction not only through the inclusion of fresh content, but also through the implementation of experimental narrative form. You can purchase a copy of Winger by clicking here.

Work Cited

Smith, Andrew. Winger. New York: Simon & Schuster BFYR, 2013.  Print (Hardcover edition).

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Escaping the Labyrinth: Suffering in YA Fiction and the Case of John Green’s [Looking for Alaska]

Front cover of John Green's Looking for Alaska (2005)

Front cover of John Green’s Looking for Alaska (2005)

 

How will we ever get out of this labyrinth of suffering? –A.Y.

– John Green, Looking for Alaska (p. 158)

What is the role of suffering in young adult literature? I’ve been obsessed with answering this question since one of my dissertation committee members asked me it a couple of weeks ago. My desire to answer this question has further increased as I continue to teach a course on young adult fiction this semester. I am constantly thinking about what defines this genre of literature, especially when considering that the line between literature written for adults and young adults is so thin. Part of this has to do with the ambiguity of what a young adult is, but for the most part, the trouble in defining young adult literature is found in the plasticity of the genre itself.

Young adult literature has become an umbrella term for an ever-expanding collective of novels, dealing with everything from the real, the everyday, the fantastical, the impossible, the painful, and the imaginary. Since the scope of young adult literature is so embracing, however, it becomes increasingly difficult to establish parameters for what it can or cannot be. Does a YA novel simply require a teenage protagonist in order for it to be categorized as such? An adolescent protagonist is definitely a must–but is there a further narrative strand that binds this collective of novels together? Perhaps an exploration of suffering in these novels can provide some answers.

I’ll be the first to admit that suffering is perhaps a universal element of most, if not all novels. After all, most events that a protagonists face are in some way driven by dissatisfaction or displeasure. However, it seems that most young adult novels go at great lengths to highlight the role of suffering in aiding the development of a character over a particular span of time. In the course that I’m currently teaching, we’ve read novels such as J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia, and Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Arguably, all of these novels center wholeheartedly on a protagonist’s suffering. Holden Caulfield is tormented by phoniness and hypocrisy–including his own. Jess copes with the death of his best friend, Leslie. Charlie is distressed by his obsession for observation and his struggle to become an active participant. This week, as we begin our discussion of John Green’s Looking for Alaska, the notion of suffering has become front and center due to the novel’s explicit and reiterative questioning of the nature of torment and dissatisfaction in the lives of contemporary teenagers.

In a nutshell, the novel centers on a year in the life of Miles Halter (a.k.a. “Pudge”), a resident of Florida who moves to a boarding school in Alabama during his junior year to seek a “Great Perhaps” (5). It is during this year that Pudge befriends colleagues such as the Colonel, a lower-class math genius with a stoic attitude and sarcastic personality, and Alaska Young, an intelligent, free-spirited, impulsive young woman (and the source of the novel’s title). Much attention is given to Pudge’s somewhat unrequited desire for Alaska, and his attempts to understand her despite her impulsiveness and her candidness.

The novel is structured into two parts: Before and After. The Before section of this novel can be approached as a countdown, in that every chapter tracks the days that are left until an unknown event occurs. With this in mind, the reader approaches this first section with an awareness that a major, plot-shifting event is about to occur–thus creating an anticipation for the event that will mark the beginning of the After section (MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD). This event happens to be Alaska’s death, as she dies when drunkenly driving to her mother’s grave to leave flowers on the anniversary of her death. The novel, however, is unclear as to whether or not this death was intentional. Thus, the After section, which comprises about 1/3 of the novel, focuses mostly on Pudge’s and the Colonel’s attempt to cope with the grief and guilt instilled by Alaska’s passing. Although Alaska’s death certainly comes as a shock, the novel foreshadows this event various times, the most notable instances being:

  • When Pudge questions why Alaska smokes cigarettes so quickly, she responds by saying “Y’all smoke to enjoy it. I smoke to die” (44). This claim gives the reader insight into the fast-paced fashion in which Alaska lives, and furthermore, it possibly indicates an affinity that Alaska has with the death drive.
  • Further exemplifying Alaska’s connection to the death drive and self-harm, when Pudge suggests that Alaska should stop drinking so much, she responds with the following: “Pudge, what you must understand about me is that I am a deeply unhappy person” (124).

What is interesting about this novel is that although Pudge is undoubtedly its protagonist, its narrative is driven primarily by Alaska’s suffering. Her unhappiness can be traced back to her early childhood, where she witnessed her mother dying of an aneurysm, yet was too shocked and confused to help her at the moment. According to Pudge, her impulsiveness and her desire to continue moving forward is her way of making up for her supposed lack of inaction as a child. Alaska’s dissatisfaction with life, and her connection with the notion of suffering, are narratively framed by intertextual references, the most notable being a reference taken from Gabriel García Márquez’s The General in His Labyrinth–a historical novel on Simón Bolívar. Alaska points out that Bolívar’s last words are “How will I ever get out of this labyrinth!” (19). From this moment on, Bolívar’s last words become a significant motif in the novel.

The motif of the labyrinth becomes quite significant in an instance in which Pudge and Alaska are discussing futurity. Alaska expresses her disdain for the future, for it lures people into the trap of focusing on the not-yet-here rather than the here. It is in this rejection of futurity (a foreshadowing of her death, perhaps?) that the image of the labyrinth becomes associated with Alaska’s ideas of suffering:

You spend your whole life stuck in the labyrinth, thinking about how you’ll escape it one day, and how awesome it will be, and imagining that future keeps you going, but you never do it. You just use the future to escape the present. (54)

What is significant about this passage is that Alaska clearly believes that there is no way of escaping the labyrinth that we are stuck in. The passage is imbued with a crushing pessimism–to the point where Alaska is unable to envision any reality besides the one she lives. Alaska views suffering as a static presence in her life. Suffering is so crippling for her, that she is ultimately unable to envision a way of being that is different to the reality she is currently living–which leads her to reformulate the question originally penned by García Márquez: “How will we ever get out of this labyrinth of suffering?” (158). In due course, Alaska’s reformulation of this question becomes the question that haunts the novel’s characters. How do they escape the labyrinth of suffering erected by Alaska’s death?

While the novel eerily suggests that death is the only way of escaping this labyrinth, I find it interesting how the novel ultimately emphasizes the importance of the labyrinth in our everyday existence. As Pudge reflects on Alaska’s reconfiguration of the big question, he recognizes a shift in his way of thinking. Originally, Pudge thinks that the only way to cope with the labyrinth of suffering was by pretending “that it did not exist, to build a small, self-sufficient world in a back corner of the endless maze and to pretend that I was not lost, but home” (219). Pudge’s moment of growth occurs when he realizes that the labyrinth is ultimately an inseparable part of life. To live is to suffer. Life is more than the maze, but the maze is still an integral component of life. Pudge realizes that by trying to escape the maze, or by ignoring it, he is setting aside the very experience of navigating the maze, and he is focusing on the end rather than on the events that led him to the end. This exemplifies a moment of growth for Pudge, for it is here that he begins to distance himself from teleological notions: the process of navigating the maze is just as important as the process of escaping it.

The novel thus concludes with a glorification of adolescence, precisely because it is a middle ground between the beginning and the end. It is a time in which uncertainty reigns supreme–where possibilities are endless. It denotes the moment in which we navigate the maze, not when we enter it or escape it. As Pudge states in his teenage manifesto:

When adults say, “Teenagers think they are invincible” with that sly, stupid smile on their faces, they don’t know how right they are. We need never be hopeless, because we can never be irreparably broken. We think that we are invincible because we are. We cannot be born, and we cannot die. Like all energy, we can only change shapes and sizes and manifestations. They forget that when they get old.  (220)

John Green’s Looking for Alaska has given me serious food for thought, not only when it comes to the role of suffering in YA literature, but also in when it comes to considering how suffering is connected to the sense of invincibility and infinity associated with the concept of adolescence. Through the act of looking for Alaska, we find not only ourselves, but we also find more interesting ways of navigating labyrinths. When it comes to the labyrinth of young adult literature, perhaps it is time to stop finding a way out of it, and focus our energies in co-existing with it. Perhaps it is time to relish the interconnectedness of YA fiction–its ability to be all-encompassing, ever-expanding, and invincible.

Work Cited

Green, John. Looking for Alaska. New York: Dutton Books, 2005. Print (Hardcover Edition).

You can purchase a copy of Green’s novel by clicking here.

Candle cover image by coloneljohnbritt.

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On Closets and Straight Gazes – Bill Konigsberg’s [Openly Straight]

Front cover of Bill Konigsberg's Openly Straight

Front cover of Bill Konigsberg’s Openly Straight (2013)

I was thinking about how snakes shed their skin every year, and how awesome it would be if people did that too. In a lot of ways, that’s what I was trying to do.

As of tomorrow, I was going to have new skin, and that skin could look like anything, would feel different than anything I knew yet. And that made me feel a little bit like I was about to be born. Again.

But hopefully not Born Again.

-Bill Konigsberg’s Openly Straight (p. 4)

Bill Konigsberg’s delightful and heartwarming novel, Openly Straight, pushes readers to question the possibilities that “shedding one’s skin” offers, and the consequences that arise when reinvention threatens our sense of self. The novel is narrated by Seamus Rafael Goldberg (who usually goes by Rafe), a high school student from Colorado who transfers to Natick–an elite, all-boys school in the New England area. Although Rafe is openly gay, he decides to conceal his homosexuality while attending Natick to live a life free of labels, and to explore the possibilities of living a life unhindered by the so-called burdens of queerness.

Rafe, at first, claims that “The closet is when you say you’re not gay” (132). Problematically, he views the closet as a singular and individualistic space created by self-denial–and he fails to recognize that the act of being “out” relies on the obliteration of the many closets that appear and re-appear in our everyday lives. As pointed out by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in Epistemology of the Closet

every encounter with a new classfull of students, to say nothing of a new boss, social worker, loan officer, landlord, doctor, erects new closets whose fraught and characteristic laws of optics and physics exact from at least gay people new surveys, new calculations, new draughts and requisitions of secrecy or disclosure. Even an out gay person deals daily with interlocutors about whom she doesn’t know whether they know or not. (68)

Rafe’s initial failure stems from his inability to understand that stepping out of the closet is not a one-step process, for it comprises an act of revelation and disclosure each time a new closet is erected in one’s life. I was impressed with how Konigsberg manages to invoke Sedgwick’s ideas of closetedness, especially as they are experienced by contemporary youths. Given that the novel takes place in a time where homosexuality is becoming more and more acceptable by mainstream society, I was delighted that Openly Straight explores the nuances and effects of closetedness in our brave new world. As evidenced by the novel’s protagonist, closetedness can still haunt even those who are out, open, and accepted.

Rafe is born into a family that readily and openly embraces his gay identity. However, Rafe is unable to appreciate his privilege because he deems that his homosexuality eclipses the other identities that he can embody–to the point where all he is able to see when looking in the mirror is the gay subject he is expected to perform, rather than the self:

Where had Rafe gone? Where was I? The image I saw was so two-dimensional that I couldn’t recognize myself in it. I was invisible in the mirror as I was in the headline the Boulder Daily Camera had run a month earlier: Gay High School Student Speaks Out. (3)

Rafe realizes that decision to hide his homosexuality and to pass as straight do come with certain perks. He is quickly accepted by the jocks at his new school, he is able to shower with his soccer team without worrying about the repercussions of the “straight gaze,” and traits other than his queerness are recognized. His ability to keep his self-imposed secret, however, is thwarted as he grows closer to Ben, a fellow jock and philosophy enthusiast who studies at Natick. As Ben begins to show signs of fluid sexuality, and as the two boys grow closer, Rafe reflects on how the perks of his reinvention come with the cost of being able to love truly and openly.

My favorite aspect of the novel is the complex relationship between Rafe and Ben. This relationship makes you feel all the warmth that you expect in young adult novels, yet this warmth is accompanied by realistic depictions of frustration and heartache. This is unsurprising, since Rafe and Ben’s relationship is based on experimentation and sexual confusion, even though one of the two characters definitely isn’t confused. This complex relationship ultimately leads Ben and Rafe to reflect on the nature of love–how it is possible to love people in different ways, and how it is possible for different types of love to overlap. This reflection leads to my favorite passage in the novel, in which Ben contemplates his non-normative affinities with Rafe:

I guess I’d like to think of what we have as agapeA higher love. Something that transcends. Something not about sex or brotherhood but about two people truly connecting. (225)

One another note, Openly Straight, in its essence, is about gazes, and how they control how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us. Rafe’s decision to go back into the closet is driven by the fact he is tired of being viewed as a queer object by his friends, family, and peers. Rafe’s views are not entirely unfounded–he is constantly asked by friends and teachers to give his input as a queer subject. His attitudes, beliefs, and actions are constantly being traced back to his homosexuality by other characters. Rafe, understandably, feels the weight of queerness on his shoulders–and this weight is unshakable.

Rafe, nevertheless, complains about the gaze that others fixate on him, without coming to grips with the ways he gazes at others. In one of the later chapters of the novel, Rafe finds himself scrutinizing one of his queer peers at a Gay/Straight Alliance meeting–remarking on everything from his peer’s clothes to his haircut. As Rafe’s eyes remain fixated on his peer, he remarks how this other boy could pass for a woman if he wanted to. When Rafe’s peer notices that he is staring, Rafe becomes self-conscious about his gazing. It is at this moment that Rafe realizes that he is guilty of performing the very act of “straight gazing” that drove him back into the closet in the first place:

I was staring at this effeminate kid, and judging my own masculinity, or lack thereof. And was I so different from everyone else? Who was to say that Mr. Meyers in Boulder was thinking about when he looked at me? How come I was assuming that his staring at me had anything to do with me? (306)

Gazing, according to Rafe, is not a fixation based on rejection, pity, or disgust, but rather, it is a discursive relationship between the self and an other. Thus, the gazer reflects on his or her own selfhood as contrasted to another person–which leads Rafe to deduce that he could “spend a little less time worrying about what people thought about [him], since they probably weren’t thinking about him at all” (307). In other words, Rafe realizes that the fault and blame lies in the eyes of the gazer and not on the person being gazed.

I love this novel. I have been reading queer YA fiction for years, and I must say that Openly Straight astounds me on many levels. It is a testament to how much queer YA literature has evolved over time, and it makes me feel very optimistic about the present and future of the genre. I foresee that young readers will be particularly drawn to the humor and cleverness of this work. I also admire the fact that this novel offers readers the opportunity to explore a compelling, funny, and heartfelt narrative that doesn’t shy away from the complexities of contemporary queerness.

Works Cited

Konigsberg, Bill. Openly Straight. New York: Arthur A. Levine Books, 2013. Print.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. Print.

You can purchase a copy of Konigsberg’s novel by clicking here.

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When a Horny Queer Boy and Giant Praying Mantises Collide – Andrew Smith’s [Grasshopper Jungle]

Front cover of Andrew Smith's [Grasshopper Jungle]

Front cover of Andrew Smith’s [Grasshopper Jungle] (2014)

This is a bizarre novel–but it’s bizarre in the best possible way. Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle: A History is an end-of-the-world narrative about love. And sexual confusion. And growth. And God. And Polish ancestry. And paranoia. And Satan. And Saints. And two-headed babies. And bisexual love triangles. And bullying. And giant praying mantises. And pill-popping mothers. And genetically modified corn. And cannibalism. And pizza. And testicle-naming. And sex. And history. And mad scientists. And bison. As Austin–the novel’s protagonist–states when contemplating the nature of histories, “Good books are about everything” (217). If you enjoy deep, strange, complex, hilarious, nonsensical, non-linear, zany, over-the-top narratives, this is definitely the young adult novel you’re looking for.

On the surface level, Grasshopper Jungle consists of two core narratives. The first core narrative, focused on depicting the end-of-the-world, is triggered when Austin Szerba and his gay best friend, Robby Brees, witness a group of bullies who accidentally unleash a deadly virus known as the MI Plague Strain 412E in the fictional town of Ealing, Iowa. In a nutshell, when this plague comes into contact with human blood, it transforms infected humans into giant praying mantises that only do two things: “They eat and they fuck” (135). Austin and Robby attempt to explore the nature of the plague while also trying a way to prevent an emerging  population of ravenous, sexually-charged mantids from becoming the world’s foremost apex predators. The second, and more interesting core narrative centers on matters of queerness–Austin is in love with both his girlfriend, Shann, and his best friend, Robby. As Austin confesses when coping with the guilt of loving two people at the same time:

…I sat there and thought about how I was ripping my own heart in half, ghettoizing it like Warsaw during the Second World War–this area for Shann; the other area for queer kids only–and wondering how it was possible to be sexually attracted and in love with my best friend, a boy, and my other best friend, a girl–two completely different people, at the same time. (162)

These two core narratives twist and turn in convoluted ways, ultimately creating an effect of chaos, confusion, and instability that makes this reading rich and challenging. The thematic and narrative complexity of this novel is further charged via the implementation of stream-of-consciousness narration. Because of this, as Austin attempts to discuss the novel’s two core narratives, he often digresses into discussions of his living and dead family members, political figures, biology, and the act of documenting events. He also speculates about multiple events simultaneously, reflecting on what other characters are going through as he faces his own dangers and crises. Reading this novel thus feels akin to watching five television screens depicting five different (yet loosely interrelated) events at the same time. This multifaceted narrative structure, however, works brilliantly in Smith’s novel because:

  1. It invokes the sense of panic and turmoil that an apocalyptic event would trigger within the mind of a teenage protagonist, who’s usually dealing with the pains of transitioning from childhood and adulthood.
  2. It mobilizes the theme of paranoia that haunts the novel. Since Austin feels helpless in a world that is undergoing a state of unraveling and undoing, his only alternative to cope with this emerging world is to establish as many connections as he possibly can between people and events–even when said connections are forced or entirely fabricated. As Austin points out when documenting a series of events occurring simultaneously: “History is my compulsion. I see the connections” (71). His mission is to make a whole out of the fragments that he gathers.

Austin’s compulsion to document and curate history is another element that adds narrative depth to Grasshopper Jungle, for this compulsion is what frames the text. When we read the novel, we are delving into Austin’s mind as he attempts to recall, write down, abridge, and edit his own history, and the history of the world before it ended. As the narrative unfolds, we develop an awareness of the events that Austin jots down on paper, and we also witness the events that he hesitates to share with other people. It also becomes clear that he completely fabricates events when writing his history to reify certain connections that he visualizes. This notion becomes concrete when Austin describes the secret love affair that his great-grandfather, Andrzej Szczerba, had with a Jewish atheist named Herman Weinbach. According to Austin, Andrzej and Herman were in a clandestine gay relationship for over a year, until Herman died of Pneumonia in 1934. While coping with his grief, Andrzej “forces himself sexually onto” a young woman named Phoebe Hildebrant (220), and nine months after, Austin’s grandfather, Felek Szczerba is born. Realistically speaking, there is no way that Austin could know this information, for it is revealed that Andrzej dies without disclosing the details of his relationship with Herman.

Why does Austin spend a significant amount of time in effort in creating this fictional queer biography for his dead great-grandfather? Austin later discloses, while discussing a different event, that “historians need to fill in the blanks on their own. It is part of our job” (261). With this in mind, the history that Austin creates is not written to “prevent us from doing stupid things in the future” (8), but rather, it is his attempt to narratively repair his own life and own story–a life that was convoluted and fragmented even before the appearance of the monstrous insects. Austin’s fictional narrative of his great-grandfather’s homosexuality arguably be approached as his attempt to frame himself in a narrative that has unfortunately persisted throughout decades and arguably centuries. Austin needs to feel as if he’s not alone in his struggle to understand his sexual and romantic compulsions, especially since the world he previously knew no longer exists. This effort to frame himself in a prolonged narrative of sexual struggle also explains why Austin is so drawn to the figure of Saint Kazimierz in the novel, for he is characterized as a young man who also dealt with the pressures and tortures of sexuality at an early age.

If you dislike spoilers or if you haven’t read the novel, you should stop reading here.

I’m deeply impressed with how the novel handles its representation of queer sexuality. Throughout most of novel, we are left wondering whether Austin will end up having to choose between the two loves of his life, and whether he will find a way to end his sexual confusion. However, in the novel’s epilogue, Austin affirms that he continues to love both Robby and Shann, and he ultimately refuses to comply with heteronormative models of kinship in a new, post-apocalyptic world. As he discloses about five years after the world has ended:

I continue to be torn between my love for Shann Collins and Robby Brees. But I no longer care to ask the question, What am I going to do?

Sometimes it is perfectly acceptable to decide not to decide, to remain confused and wide-eyed about the next thing that will pop up in the road you build. Shann does not like it. Robby Brees asks me to live with him. I stay in my own room, which I share with my strong Polish son, Arek, and we are very happy. (383)

Austin thus inhabits a new world with new rules–a world with new possibilities of being and existing. I find it interesting that Grasshopper Jungle presents the idea that it is only possible to embrace confusion and refute stable categorizations of identity once our current world ceases to exist. Although Austin laments everything left behind with the advent of a new history, he looks forward to the possibilities of being a New Human. It is often said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine a change in our current mode of existence. Smith’s novel boldly and brilliantly pushes us to envision a new mode of existence by obliterating the world that many of us know and (problematically) cherish. Grasshopper Jungle is a work that all young adult novels should aspire to be. Andrew Smith is now on my radar, and I’m really looking forward to his future works.

As always, your thoughts, comments, and opinions are more than welcome!

Work Cited

Smith, Andrew. Grasshopper Jungle: A History. New York: Dutton Books, 2014. Print.

You can purchase a copy of Smith’s novel by clicking here.

Praying mantis cover image by Bill & Mark Bell.