My literary diet is pretty evenly balanced among the various food groups, I would say. In the normal scheme of things, I probably read:
• 20% middle-grade including read-alouds to my younger kids,
• 25% adult fiction & poetry including classics for discussion with my homeschooled teens,
• 20% YA fiction,
• 20% picture books and early readers,
• 15% nonfiction (all age ranges).
That adds up to a hundred percent, right? It’s possible I’m just making these numbers up because I don’t think in terms of statistics or pay much attention to what category of book I’m reaching for next. I read where whim takes me, or duty. Which, duh, I suppose goes for everyone. Either you’re reading a book because it jumped out at you, or because someone needed you to. (Sometimes that “someone” is you, assigning yourself a book for any number of reasons. Research, training, education, camaraderie—in my view one of the best of all reasons, that last one—reading a book because someone you care about wants to share the experience with you.)
In 2010, the last time I served on the Cybils YA Fiction panel, the other literary food groups slid right off my plate. For three months I lived on an all-YA diet. And not just YA—’realistic’ YA, i.e. not speculative fiction. Contemporary & historical YA. It was a fascinating experience. Some few of the nominees were funny. A very few were madcap action-adventure tales. Most were weighty, brooding, often dark or grim, tackling grave issues or simply striving to show the world as it really is, which does mean dark and grim a lot of the time.
After three months on that diet, I was definitely ready for a change of menu—my book log for early 2011 contains a lot of humor, from Jenni Holm’s Turtle in Paradise to Quinn Cummings’s Notes from the Underwire. I slowed waaaay down, too, averaging only 3 1/2 books a month from January-April, compared to the many dozens per month I read during the 2010 Cybils season, or the more typical 5-7 titles that is my average outside unusual circumstances.
But the all-YA Fic diet was immensely nourishing and incredibly tasty. Book after book, stew after rich, savory stew full of compelling ingredients and subtle flavors. I gained some mental muscle on that diet, I can tell you. One of the most delicious things about good YA fiction (and of course not all the books I read that year were *good* YA fiction, but a boatload of them absolutely were) is how it’s able to be at once gripping—a plot-driven narrative—and probing. That’s not an easy feat for a writer to pull off, to grip and probe simultaneously. The remarkable thing is how many contemporary YA writers can do it.
Standouts that year—books I remember without even trying: STOLEN by Lucy Christopher. SCRAWL by Mark Shulman. SPLIT by Swati Avasthi. Not all the standouts had single-word titles beginning with S. Some had multi-word titles beginning with S, like Matthew Quick’s SORTA LIKE A ROCK STAR. ;) No, seriously, we read so many great books that year! THREE RIVERS RISING: A NOVEL OF THE JOHNSTOWN FLOOD by Jame Richards. I loved that book, a verse novel in which the verse wasn’t merely a device, it was a necessity for telling the story Richards wanted to tell.
I could go on. Several of those titles made our shortlist. There were others that didn’t but were wonderful books, keepers.
I’m already diving into this year’s feast, starting with books I think are highly likely to be nominated. The nomination period opens on October 1 (watch the Cybils blog for details) and I’ll be haunting the list as it grows, devouring novels as fast as I can.
Something I’ll be thinking about as I gorge is what stories these writers are telling and why. (Not just how, which is a primary measure of a book’s merit—how is this story being told? How well? How vividly? How compellingly? How convincingly? How searingly? Does it leave something behind? A scar on the mind, a rune engraved on the heart? A face you can’t ever forget? How? How?)
In an endeavor like this, selecting a Cybils shortlist, the what and why questions are equally pressing. What makes this book stand out from the crowd—and a crowd it will be. Why this plot, this narrator, this voice. Why verse, or why prose? When you read a lot of books at once you can’t help but spot patterns and trends. Small details, perhaps, like the naming of cars—in 2010 we had a gaggle of them, including not one but two cars named “Holden,” (totally by coincidence I have no doubt). But larger trends as well, clusters of books exploring similar subject matter. In realistic YA fiction this very often means suicide, addiction, medical or mental disorders, sexual or physical abuse. And that, I think, tells us a great deal about what the world is like for teens. And is why the best YA is both gripping and probing—that’s what teens do: they grip tightly to each other, to ideas, to hopes, to identity, to music, to fears; and they probe and dig and ponder and search. In this light the naming of cars makes perfect sense—the quest for identity, the assignment of personality to objects of significance, the search for the real, true meaning of things. Naming a thing helps define the thing. Naming it Holden—oh there’s so much to unpack there. Holden Caulfield, the original teen gripper and prober.
You can’t read a book that is gripping without being gripped, and that’s what I’m preparing myself for. To have my mind shaken, my heart squeezed. This is not to say that I’m expecting or favoring only ‘heavy’ books. Laughter leaves an impression on the heart too. So does a good romance. A well-crafted thriller puts a squeeze on the heart in much the same way that the crazy Temple of Doom guy did in the second Indiana Jones film.
Well, now I’ve completely lost hold of my food metaphor, haven’t I. Except I recall a rather gory dinner of monkey brains from that same film. Brains and heart, here we are again. Perhaps that’s the culinary niche occupied by YA fiction: brains and heart. The vital organs.