Monday, February 28, 2011

The Recessionists

Several new books that tackle the issues surrounding the current financial crisis. The books remind me of similar movements of artists and writers, like the Impressionists, the Surrealists and the Transcendentalists. So I’ve decided that this group of writers needs their own name: the Recessionists.

I think the Recessionists are their own sub-genre of YA literature. The challenges the characters are facing are directly related to the headlines we’ve been seeing in the mainstream media over the past three years: the failure of major Wall Street firms like Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers, the impact of Ponzi schemes such as the one run by Bernie Madoff and the rising unemployment rate. This is different than a more traditional book about the struggles of a poor family or how a family copes after a parent unexpectedly loses their job. The Recessionists are responding to a broad and far-reaching economic downturn.

I’ve read two books recently that fit well into this genre. Gwendolyn Heasley’s Where I Belong and Sarah Darer Littman’s Life, After. Heasley’s book deals directly with the impact of the current recession while Littman’s Life, After is related to the economic crisis in Argentina in 2002. Both books describe how their narrators cope with the devastating and sometimes humiliating effects that these downturns have on them and their families. While Life, After is about a different recession at a different time in a different country, the story resonated strongly with me in light of what has been going on in the U.S. and the world over the past three years.

As a financial journalist in my day job, much of what Heasley describes about the fallout when Corrine’s father loses his job rang true. I heard many stories like this: parents taking their children out of expensive private schools and dramatically scaling back their lifestyles. Meanwhile, Littman’s descriptions of life in Argentina are definitely something that a young reader today who is affected by the recession could relate to. Another common thread is the lack of control both narrators have over their lives and how they have to learn to adapt to their new lives.

Who is your favorite Recessionist author?

Monday, February 21, 2011

In Honor of Dystopian Novels: What Would Be in My Bunker

There have been some excellent dystopian novels published recently, with new ones and several sequels set to come out in 2011. In most dystopias or authoritarian societies, there are rules against owning certain items because of their potentially subversive qualities, such as books or cell phones. Here’s what I would have stashed in my bunker to preserve for future generations and prepare for the revolution:

Item One: Copy of Little Women
Little Women is partly about building a different world that is more just for all of society, not just women. It also has a lot of different ideas and philosophies and a really cute male protagonist in Laurie, so it’s the perfect companion for rebuilding society. Also, check out Lauren Oliver’s page for Delirium, her new YA dystopian novel, where Little Women is one of the banned books in her narrator’s world.

Item Two and Two-A: Coffee and bacon
The goal of a dystopian novel is to bring down the government and build a new society. But everyone knows that you can’t rebuild society without lots of coffee. No one would ever be able to get going in the morning. Bacon, on the other hand, isn’t essential. It’s just delicious.

Item Three: Sunscreen
Rebuilding society will involve a lot of work outdoors. You definitely need sunscreen for that.

What would be in your bunker? Choose carefully. You might need something special to bring down an entire regime (usually by the end of the third book if it’s a series).

Monday, February 14, 2011

How Cayenne Pepper is Like an Outline

I owe a lot of thanks this week to cayenne pepper. I recently had the kind of cold that involved a lot of annoying late night coughing. Over-the-counter medications were useless. In despair, I googled “cough suppressant” at 2:00 A.M. I found the following recipe:

2 teaspoons water
1 teaspoon honey
1 teaspoon lemon juice
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper

I thought, cayenne pepper to suppress coughing? It seemed so weird that I almost left it out. But then I figured that it couldn’t hurt. I mixed up the ingredients and then tasted it. The cayenne pepper stung my throat. But almost magically, I stopped coughing and went to sleep.

The next morning, as I looked over the outline for my book, I realized that cayenne pepper is like an outline. You can use too much and burn your tongue, just like you can outline too much and feel tied down by what you wrote. Or you can use too little and barely taste it, just like when your outline is too sparse and you write without direction. Or you can do what I’m finally doing – use and outline just the right amount. My hope is that the outline I’m working from is giving me enough direction so that when I finish one chapter and start another, I know where I need to go without being too tied down.

I wish I had figured both of these things out sooner: I might have spent less time coughing. And less time staring at a blank page.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Why Hate on YA?

Something about the young adult book market doesn’t add up. From what I understand:

  1. YA books are selling really well, both in their targeted age group and with older readers.
  2. Many YA authors are writing excellent, high-quality books.

So why doesn’t the YA market get more respect? I’m referring to a recent Publisher’s Weekly article covering Judy Blundell’s forthcoming YA novel Strings Attached. The article quoted Susanna Hermans, a bookstore owner and the co-chair of the New England Children’s Booksellers Association, as saying that “Strings Attached…is so well-written it could be shelved with the adult titles.” Hermans’ quote is probably not meant to put down the genre. I think that it does point out two valuable lessons for YA and authors generally.

First, I think it illustrates a value judgment common in our society. Things that kids like are often seen as less sophisticated than things adults like. The Daily Show is supposed to be deeper than Sponge Bob Square Pants. Impressionist art is alleged to be better than comic books. But like most societal rules, this one breaks down when looked at individually. I know a few adults were moved by Harry Potter.

Second, it points out the fallacy of a phrase we all use regularly while ignoring its inherent subjective definition. We all know good writing when we see it. But one person’s good writing is another person’s slop.

In my opinion, Blundell’s writing is breathtaking. I learned just by reading Blundell’s her first book, What I Saw And How I Lied. My hope is that Strings Attached gets the same kind of cross-over treatment that books like The Hunger Games is getting, with space in the YA and mainstream sections of bookstores. And my other hope is that books like this will help to raise the profile of the genre so that it gets the respect that it deserves.