I love being a high school teacher. I love interacting with high school juniors at a really critical juncture in their education and I love helping them find and explore their voices. But sometimes, when I read amazing Young Adult Literature, I wish I taught middle school.
This week I finished two delightful YA novels, Looking for Alaska by John Green and Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine. Though they were both technically YA, they were very different books, geared at very different audiences (which only goes to show that whole genre of YA needs to be rethought?).
Mockingbird is narrated by 11 year old Caitlin whose brother Devon was killed in a school shooting (PS–I’m now reading Columbine, also about school shootings. I’m having nightmares about it. It’s EXCELLENT). Caitlin is struggling to accept and process Devon’s death; not only is she 11, she also has Asperger’s Syndrome. I loved Caitlin’s narration. Her voice was really excellent and Erskine did a really nice job of capturing the nuances of a student with Asperger’s. I read an Advance Reader Copy that I got at NCTE last year, so I’m not sure if the blurb on the back of the actual book mentions Caitlin’s disability, but Erskine doesn’t officially reveal it until Chapter 3. I thought that was really interesting; as someone who’s worked with Asperger’s students before, I knew almost immediately that Caitlin was on the autism spectrum. The sticker chart for remembering her manners, the repetition of ideas and sounds all pointed to Asperger’s. Still, I wonder if a reader unfamiliar or less familiar with the condition would have been surprised by Erskine’s admission.
This was a really great novel. There were flaws, definitely. I wanted to see more development in Caitlin as she embarked on a quest for “closure,” but I knew it wasn’t realistic. In fact, it was probably Erskine’s realism that was at once admirable and frustrating about Mockingbird. Cailtin remains a typical “Asperger’s kid” until the end of the novel–she matures and grows slightly but only within the confines of her condition. As a teacher (and I’m assuming as a parent), those milestones are huge. As a reader, it can be frustrating. Even though I KNEW it wasn’t realistic, I wanted Caitlin to make larger emotional strides.
But Mockingbird was really a delightful novel–sad, but at times downright hilarious. I liked Erskine’s voice. It has a few (very few, but a few) parallels to To Kill a Mockingbird which might make it a great companion read for struggling readers reading the classic novel. It’s also a great way to introduce autism and Asperger’s to students.
The other YA novel that I read last week is Looking for Alaska by John Green. It’s for decidedly older audiences. Featuring sex, drugs, alcohol and rock and roll, I’d recommend it for mature high school students with a caveat. Looking for Alaska is narrated by Miles, a high school junior who largely flies under the radar in his local high school. Obsessed with famous last words (which, I think, is a kind of cool thing to be obsessed with), he transfers to a boarding school in search of Rabelias’ “great beyond.”
I liked Looking for Alaska for at least two reasons, one of which I expected one of which I did not. First of all, I love books set in boarding school. I think boarding school sounds like an amazing slumber party. I was highly disappointed when I got to college and it was nothing like Hogwarts. Apparently, all the students at this school do is learn things that inspire them, read great books, pull pranks, drink and smoke (ew). How awesome does that sound? The other thing that I actually really liked was that it was narrated by a boy. I generally like books that are narrated by girls or women because I relate to them better, but I’m trying to branch out and expand my literary horizons (plus this was a book club book). What I liked about Miles’ narration was how realistic it felt. Sometimes male authors or narrators can make me as a woman feel objectified. Green’s narration did not do that. Miles felt like a real, confused teenage boy that I knew and could understand.
Here’s something I REALLY liked about Looking for Alaska: the big-emotional-YA-moment of the novel came in the middle, rather than the end. The characters were then, realistically I think, left to sort through the emotional, physical and mental fallout of that event. I really loved that.
Looking for Alaska, for me, only had one real issue. Some of the characters (the titular Alaska and Miles’ roommate “The Colonel” in particular) did not feel realistic. In a novel full of very real characters, they often felt like caricatures, which hurt the novel as a whole.
So I sped through two YA novels last week and I loved them both. One of my school year goals for next year is to focus on “Reading Ladders” and I think reading some YA would be a good place to start with that. Looking forward to reading more over the summer!