Prairie Writers’ and Illustrator’s Day 2014: YA Is Not the Easy Way to Publication

A few days before heading to SCBWI-Illinois‘ regional conference, an acquaintance of mine mentioned how many of his MFA classmates are writing YA. “It’s what’s getting published,” he said, by way of explanation. Yes, the market is booming. Yes, the genre is getting more respect and recognition than before. Yes, those who make it big are reaping in insane amounts of accolades, book deals, and movie contracts.But what bothered me about his comment, or about his classmates’ attitudes to be more exact, is that there is the underlying assumption that it’s somehow easier to be a writer if you choose YA. It wasn’t the first time I had heard something like this. Usually, when I mention I write YA, I hear something about its trendiness, its market share, its accessibility compared to adult, literary fiction.

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“The Tequila Worm” or How the Path to Swell Is Paved with Good Intentions

Cover of "The Tequila Worm"

Cover of The Tequila Worm

In the evenings when the cool breeze began to blow, all the families came out to their porches to sit and talk, to laugh and gossip. And that is where and how our barrio became one family.

Thus begins The Tequila Worm by Viola Canales, a novel that seems to have the most noble of literary intentions only to fall short of fulfilling them. The premise sounds promising: Sofia is a Mexican-American girl from Texas who receives a scholarship to an exclusive boarding school in Austin, leaving her to wonder whether she wants to and can ever leave her barrio behind for a world of privilege.

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“I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone” Or Are We Destined to Turn into Our Mothers

Music was in my blood. 

Cover of "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone"

Cover of I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone

It’s quite fitting that Emily Black, the teenager at the center of Stephanie Kuehnert’s novel, makes that declaration early on in the story since, in a way, the book demands us to ask what else could be swimming around in us that shapes our identity. Specifically, it wonders what influence our bloodline has on our person and, eventually, on our future.

In the case of Emily Black, she resembles her mother Louisa, who abandoned her as a baby for reasons unbeknownst to her though she suspects that it was Louisa’s yearning for a rock n’ roll lifestyle that drove her away from their sleepy Iowa town. Emily takes after Louisa in her extreme rebellious streak, her pride at being a social outcast and, above all, her passion for music, especially punk. When lacking any sense of belonging, Emily can turn to The Clash, Patti Smith or The Social Distortion to compensate for her loneliness. When words can’t sufficiently express the anger and resentment simmering inside, she can unleash it all onstage.

The question, of course, is whether Emily has inherited Louisa’s template or if she has taken it upon herself to emulate the mother she longs for. Reason would seem to point that it’s probably a little of both, though the novel makes it quite clear that Emily attempts to establish a connection to her by adopting as many of her rumoured traits as possible:

Yeah, I didn’t just like that legend, I needed it. I drew my strength from it . That’s why I’d never questioned it. My mother wasn’t there to hug me and comfort me and bandage my wounds when I fell down, but at least, I knew she was beautiful, fierce, and driven by rock n’ roll, and that gave me something to aspire to. 

And for a while, Emily does chase the dream of Louisa as legend. The problem begins when she, unknowingly, starts to repeat her mother’s most self-destructive tendencies. As a reader, we’re given different sides of this story. On the one hand, we hear from Emily as she goes from small town bad girl to big city rock star. On the other, we’re privy to Louisa’s wanderings throughout the US  and the tragic events that led her to flee Iowa, a past that she can never seem to shake off no matter how far away she gets. For most of the book, it does seem as if the narrative is driving home the point that there is no escaping the cycle of dysfunction that is bestowed to us by our parents. Louisa and Emily seem to be treading on the same well-worn path of questionable promiscuity, substance abuse and domestic violence.

Kudos to the book for not giving us any easy answers to the haunting question of repeating our family’s mistakes for all eternity. However, hidden underneath the struggles of the mother-daughter pair, there is the sense that the message might be something like this: We are always defined by our past but that doesn’t always mean that we have to allow it out to determine our fate. The power of choice is, after all, what separates the two from becoming one and the same person.

“The Fault in Our Stars” Or The Limits of the Manic Pixie Dream Boy

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (Photo credit: theunquietlibrary)

Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death.

Get ready for John Green’s latest book, a novel that has at its center two young cancer patients, but is not a “cancer book” because, as Hazel, the main character, explains “cancer books suck.” This one is very, very far away from the suck spectrum.

When Hazel meets Augustus Waters at a cancer support group, she still has a diagnosis of thyroid terminal cancer and has to wheel an oxygen tank wherever she goes. Augustus is an amputee whose osteosarcoma is in remission, and who fixates on the get-go on our narrator. In return, I’d like to fixate a bit on him.

You see, several early chapter of this novel portray the teenage boy as the Manic Pixie Dream Boy extraordinaire in the YA genre. Granted, the concept is more cinematic than literary, and it almost always applies to the females of the species instead of the men, but there was something about Augustus that reminded me of Nathan Rabin’s definition, “”that bubbly, shallow […] creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” At first, that’s what Augustus seems to be bringing to Hazel’s cynical-because-she-is-perpetually-dying-table. He is the rare high school guy who flirts by making a perfect swoon worthy statement, like telling Hazel that she is a “Pixie-haired gorgeous girl [who] dislikes authority and can’t help but fall for a boy she knows is trouble.” He reads her favorite novel at her insistence, and then uses his Make-A-Wish like foundation desire to look for its elusive author. On their first date, he takes Hazel to a park behind a museum that is riddled with sculptures made of bones. He uses hamartia appropriately in conversation.

I have yet to meet any jock from Indiana to be that whimsical at any age, let alone at sixteen.

Of course, this being John Green, you can rest assured that his characterization of Hazel’s love interest doesn’t stay at that. As their relationship evolves and deepens, Augustus transforms into Gus, and as such his prepared persona, which he so carefully cultivated to woo Hazel, dissolves into something less dignified but a lot more real. This is perhaps not the most genius aspect of The Fault in Our Stars but, it was for me, one of the most gratifying. Because, after all, who didn’t fall in love with a concept when we were first testing the waters of this crazy little thing called love? My teenage years were filled with many crushes who, in my mind, were molded into whatever trope I happened to find attractive at the time. Guy mentioned a book? He was a bohemian literary geek who will write me sonnets in candlelight! (Never mind that he didn’t like the book he mentioned. And he only read it because it was for school. And the electricity in his apartment works fine.) Dude mentions a rugby practice he doesn’t want to go to? He is an athletic genius with a heart of gold who is being pushed into sports because of Society! (Or he might be feeling particularly lazy that day. Because he’s a sixteen year old boy who’d much rather be playing video games on the couch.)

We’ve all been there, and don’t you dare deny it! The difference between us and Hazel, though, other than the pesky distinction between reality and fiction, is that we had the gift of time on our side. In Hazel’s case, the transformation of a boy concept you love to a boy you love beyond a concept is speeded up. When Gus is forced to unveil his true core because of his physical limits, the relationship that emerges between the two deepens. After all is said and done, she comes to the realization that “He wasn’t your fairy-tale Prince Charming or whatever. He tried to be like that sometimes, but I liked him best when that stuff fell away.”

This book is about cancer, and especially about the limitations that carrying such a disease can have on a young life. But isn’t life itself about dealing with limitations anyway? We are all somehow constrained by our own physical reality, and the flaws we so eagerly try to hide, in one way or another. What The Fault in Our Stars does is highlight that this is what makes us human, instead of an idea of a person. Even better, it demonstrates that these limits don’t necessarily deny us the ability to love and be loved.


“Sloppy Firsts” or When Ennui Becomes the Hilarious First Step to Adulthood

Cover of "Sloppy Firsts: A Jessica Darlin...

Cover of Sloppy Firsts: A Jessica Darling Novel


I guess your move wasn’t a sign of the Y2K teen angst apocalypse after all…

Jessica Darling has lost Hope, both literally and figuratively. The new year finds Jessica alone, depressed, and feeling less than optimistic about her current sophomore year. Her best friend, Hope Weaver, has just moved away from the New Jersey suburb the Darlings call home. Her remaining group of “friends” are busy with their boy drama and clothes fanaticism when they aren’t making a point to exclude her. Her mother is living vicariously through her bratty big sister’s wedding and her father only has one topic of conversation: track team. Jessica spends her days salivating over elusive Paul Parlipiano, bearing her soul in her journal, and trying to make sense of Marcus Flutie who provides a welcome distraction from all the dreckitude that surrounds her.

It seems like a large chunk of the YA genre these days is made up of sixteen year-olds in extraordinary circumstances. I get it–I too want to be transported to a postapocalyptic world where the triumph of the human spirit will end up demolishing evil. There is something to say, however, about identifying so completely with a protagonist that you feel a little less like a freak during those awkward years. After all, not all of us will face the problem of overthrowing a totalitarian government. But most of us will, at some point, feel the emotional earthquake of seeing a confidant go away. You might be wondering, “Ok, yes, we’ve all been there but how is this entertaining?”  Trust me when I say it is if the existential crisis is voiced by a bright and funny girl who happens to have a way with words. Fine, don’t listen to me but pay attention to other YA aficionados whenever this book is mentioned. For years, I have heard squeals of glee every time the name “Jessica Darling” is uttered. I want to kick myself for having taken so long to pick up Megan McCafferty’s witty portrayal of the anguish-filled boredom that permeates most adolescents’s lives.

And anguish-filled boredom is what is being narrated, in large part, in this novel. There’s a plot–sort of–but for the most part we witness Jessica’s brutal first year without Hope. She makes and loses friends along the way. She fixates on one guy only to end up transfixed by Marcus Flutie, who can only be described as the guy that every girl has liked at one point in high school. She copes with the death of her best friend’s brother. She keeps her grades up, practices track, and is an all-around ideal kid though none of these things maker her happy. “I could probably talk my way out of a bizillion sticky situations–if I only got myself into them,” she thinks, at one point. Jessica however is stuck in a status quo that is making her miserable. She fantasizes over sex while lamenting her virginity. She rants against the Mean Girls hypocrisy she sees at school as she talks behind other people’s backs. She runs in the mornings wishing that an accident would make her stop.

My history teacher in high school used to say that she would never go back to being a teenager again. “You suffer over everything,” she would lecture us, while we rolled our eyes. “You feel bad if you have a boyfriend, you feel bad if you don’t. You feel bad if you have too many friends, you feel bad if you don’t. You feel bad if you’re wearing a skirt, you feel bad if you’re not.”

She had a point. Sloppy Firsts is all about exploring, expanding and bringing that point wide open.

Amidst what might seem like one trivial matter over another though, the underlying theme that pops up again and again is that of loss. Not only does Jessica have to deal with the immediate loss of Hope but she’s also mourning the Jessica that defined herself through Hope. As she picks up the pieces of her shattered identity, we see the character leaving behind the parts of her that no longer fit and taking on new ones that are more problematic but also more real. And isn’t that what we all do, when we grow up? We lose things to find ourselves again.