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Q Reviews | Young Adult Fiction
When thinking about classic young adult fiction—and the best are rewarding for adult readers, too—it is foolhardy to attempt to suggest one old book to review; even recommending just one author is daunting. There are so many, some from the amazingly rich early/middle-twentieth century (think of A.A. Milne or E.B. White) and so many from the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. A few important names come to mind from those years—Lois Lowry, Madeline L’Engle, Cynthia Voight, Scott O’Dell, Karen Cushman, Jerry Spinelli; most whom continue to write. Each has a sizable body of work, books that serious readers can deeply enjoy and that people of faith will find stimulating and inspiring.
One who is particularly esteemed, and of particular interest to Q readers, is Katherine Paterson, author of dozens of outstanding novels and winner of the prestigious Newberry Medal (in 1978 for
Bridge to Terabithia
and in 1981 for
Jacob Have I Loved
.) She was raised in China—her parents were Presbyterian missionaries in very tense times there—and attended Kings College in Bristol, TN. She used to be a writer of Sunday School curriculum. Her faith has shone through her work in nuanced, artful, and realistic ways.
Bridge to Terabithia
is an exceptionally poignant story with excellently crafted lines and caring character development. The two main characters are a fifth grade boy with unappreciated artistic talents named Jesse Oliver Aarons, and a vibrant, interesting girl new to his neighborhood, Leslie Burke. One of the memorable aspects of the story is how they create a hidden special place in a nearby wood and act out C.S. Lewis’
Chronicles of Narnia
. It isn’t exactly a story within a story, but the Narnian themes are relevant as it is revealed that Leslie is dying. As the children talk about death, all sorts of things come up. The plot becomes complex. There are issues of family expectations, gender, and grief. The story is intense, moving, and thought provoking. Some have protested its inclusion in school libraries, an odd effort, it seems to me, since the book is not overwrought or morbid. It is realistic, filled with appropriate pathos, and a good bit of hope for those who have “ears to hear” as another great storyteller once put it.
Another favorite of Paterson’s—again, illustrating her realism and her kindness, values from a worldview gleaned from her missionary years and her own deep faith—is
The Great Gilly Hopkins
(1979.) Gilly’s tale is wonderfully told, with no small amount of cleverness and joy, but, again, it is a raw story of a foster child, raising complex relationships around loss and acceptance and grace. The ragamuffin child cusses a bit and creates considerable mayhem and some parents have complained about this, as well. Still, It is a cherished story. Gilly is a beloved character, and one which to this day, decades later, I recall enjoying with my children as a read-aloud, being moved to laughter and tears.
Paterson, like her friend Madeline L’Engle, showed clearly that Christian faith can be woven maturely and naturally into entertaining stories about important truths. They showed that children’s literature can plumb the depths of human experience, being suggestive as the best stories are. They showed that with diligent attention to excellence and craft, kids books can become enduring contributions to the literary landscape of our time. Paterson has been outspoken about the role of children’s books, the importance of story, and the sad erosion of a public awareness of the contours of the Biblical story. Her insights are keen, but her enduring contributions are the stories, older books that sing today as they did when there were first released.
GARY D. SCHMIDT
A popular, newer author of young adult fiction is also a person of serious Christian faith and has also been awarded the highest honors in the world of children and youth publishing, Gary D. Schmidt. Schmidt is a professor of literature at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI (and a staple at their prestigious Festival of Faith and Writing, a conference were Ms Paterson has also offered keynote addresses.) Schmidt won the coveted Newberry medal in 2005 for
Lizzie Bright and the Buckminister Boys
, and received a Newberry honor for his next work,
The Wednesday Wars
(2007.) Both are spectacular, enjoyed by older children, teens and grown-ups alike.
The Wednesday Wars
tells the story of a Long Island 7th grader, a mid-1960s kid, one Holling Hoodhood, who has a special period each Wednesday at school, tutored one-on-one by Mrs. Baker, learning Shakespeare. With turmoil at home—his conservative father is absorbed in his business, there are race riots in nearby cities and his older brother is heading to Southeast Asia in some new, mysterious war—and typical boyhood troubles at school, Holling comes finally to appreciate the wisdom of the Bard. Of course, he can’t tell his rough-and-tumble pals that he is going to act in a community theatre (in tights!) and you’ll have to read for yourself how he resolves this comedy of errors. In a literary move that is nothing short of brilliant, Schmidt weaves a mutual unfolding of the plot of
The Wednesday Wars
. There is some very funny stuff here, some interesting side-plots, and a profound bit of witness to the goodness of stories, notions of vocation, and the ways we survive the wars of this world.
Schmidt’s prose sparkles, his character develop is fun, and, as one critic put it, his work “has the passion of conviction and the restraint of a skilled artist.” His new book,
Okay for Now
, is getting critical acclaim as it follows the story of Doug Swieteck, a character who first appears in
. Doug’s father’s job has moved his family to upstate New York in 1969, into what Doug calls “The Dump.” The family has lost its way, the horrors and excitement of the late 60s are at full play, and young Doug makes a life-changing discovery at a local library. Yes, this is a great YA novel about the power of art, the joy of discovery, the recovery of passion in the midst of loss and brokenness. Without a bit of preaching or overstatement, Schmidt writes about redemption and restoration. As the Boston Globe put it, “There is no limit to what Schmidt may accomplish.”
You can order both of these books at
Hearts and Minds Books
. Mention Q Ideas when you order and receive 20% off.
What are some other young adult novels that shaped you?
You are forgetting the incredibly talented work of Daniel Nayeri, especially his latest work:
Hearts and Minds should be pushing his work, Byron.
This guy is super talented, not to mention that he wrote this book all on his iphone. (poor thumbs).
Thanks for the good comment. But why do you say I'm "forgetting" him? I just named his book in a big list at Hearts & Minds BookNotes, the second time I've mentioned him this fall. And --spoiler alert! -- he'll be on our year's end Best Books list, too. (It is such an amazing work, though, that I have to come up with a category prize, just for it! Stay tuned!) This little column, of course, was just on two authors, one who has been writing for decades, and another newer author who has a wide body of work, so I chose Schmidt. I agree, though, that Daniel's book is remarkable. And we push it as we can. I have to get a quote from him about that he wrote it on an iphone---got understand that better. Ha. In the meantime, the two authors I celebrated here are so, so great.
As a middling writer, I'm never one to turn down a mention, but these two--Paterson and Schmidt--are pretty much the pantheon. The only business I have in a sentence with them is a footnote that as an editor, I have the privilege of working with Virginia Buckley, the legendary editor who discovered both these great artists. In fact, she met Gary for the first time when he asked to interview her for a piece he was writing about Katherine's work. Later, when he sent her his first manuscript, she saw his own brilliance for herself.
She edited virtually every book mentioned in the post. A nice interview featuring her and Katherine Paterson can be seen here:
Like Ursula Nordstrom, she's a pioneer in a thousand different ways (she was succeeding at an editor in the era of MadMen), and even now, her books are winning awards.
Thank you, Byron, for this fantastic post!
Thanks, Byron, as always for your wisdom and insight. I know the son of a famous author who is coming out with a YA fantasy novel in 2012. I think you'll be quite interested in it! :-)
Ian Morgan Cron
Thanks for a great post! A few titles that shaped me:
Watership Down, The Chosen, To Kill a Mockingbird, Lord of the Flies, A Separate Piece, Catcher in the Rye, Travels with Charley. For some reason P.G. Wodehouse was a favorite author in those years as well.
Just discovered this website, and as a former manager of my local library's bookshop, I'm so happy to see you all covering children's books, and great children's book authors. A great YA or kids book is something you don't ever forget; I remember reading Watership Down right around the time I turned 13....it made a big impact, and I'm always recommending it to parents for their young teens. Another one was the Hobbit. I started it on the way to my brother leaving for a ski trip, and was devastated when he insisted on taking it with him! I can't remember if I was in high school or college when I read Pride and Prejudice, but once started, I couldn't put it down! Those are just a few. Thanks for letting me put in my two cents.
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