Andrew’s Mormon Literature Year in Review: National Market 2008, Part Ib

Wm writes: Every year since 2000, Andrew Hall has put together a Year in Review for all of the major genres of Mormon letters.  AMV is pleased to bring you Andrew’s Year in Review for 2008, continuing in this post with the second part of his look at Mormon authors being published in the national market. Also see Part Ia.

Andrew Hall’s Mormon Literature Year in Review — Part 1b: National market books continued

In the wake of Harry Potter, Deseret Book’s Shadow Mountain imprint has made a big push into the national young adult fantasy genre.  They had four authors producing five novels in 2008. The most successful is Brandon Mull, whose Fablehaven: Grip of the Shadow Plague was the third in his series. The series reached #3 on the NYT Children’s Chapter Series bestseller list.  Obert Skye released two novels, Leven Thumps and the Wrath of Ezra, the fourth in a series, and Pillage, a stand-alone humorous novel. Shadow Mountain also brought in two authors who have previously published in the Mormon market. James Dashner published a successful fantasy series for the Mormon publisher Cedar Fort. Shadow Mountain contracted with him to write a national middle reader fantasy series, The 13th Reality. It tells the story of a contemporary 13-year-old who is presented with a series of letters and clues drawing him into a adventure. A reviewer at Kirkus wrote, “Though there are chunks of text that are overwritten, the telling is generally laced with a strong sense of humor and a sure hand at plot; the author is plainly in tune with today’s fan base.”  A reviewer at School Library Journal wrote, “This book had great potential. The beginning of the adventure starts with a bang, but by the middle of the story things begin to drag. The immediacy gets lost in the daily struggle to figure out the riddles and the unending descriptions of Tick’s life as he awaits the next one.”  J. Scott Savage has written several mysteries in the Mormon market. Through Shadow Mountain he published the fantasy Water Keep: Farworld. Meridian Magazine reviewer Jeannie Hansen wrote, “There’s enough magic and strange creatures populating the book to please the most avid fantasy reader, but there’s an added dimension of mystery and philosophy that marks this fantasy as a cut above many fantasies currently being marketed to young adults.”

Outside of Shadow Mountain, Mormon authors have been able to publish a considerable amount of young adult and middle reader speculative fiction with national publishers. Jessica Day George has made a strong mark in the last two years.  Her novel Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow was a retelling of a classic Norwegian fairy tale. The review site “Curled up with a good kid’s book” wrote, “The characters are simply delightful. From sweet to stony and warm to ice-clad evil, the idiosyncratic array of creatures is never dull . . . George’s beautiful description and ridiculously engaging storytelling kept me captivated – so much so that this reader curled up and read the entire book in a sitting, not realizing that hunger and tiredness were both calling very loudly. Lost in an icy world full of wonderfully exotic words and names, I didn’t look up until I’d closed the book.” George also produced Dragon Flight, a sequel to Dragon Slippers, which won a Whitney Award in 2007 for Best Novel by a New Author.  A reviewer at VOYA wrote, “George creates a very satisfying sequel that adds just the right touches to complete the story . . . The clear conflict that leads to loads of tension in the book’s last half makes a wonderful action-packed page-turner. Ultimately the conclusion with plenty of romance makes everything complete. Even though the pacing in the first half of the book is quite slow and the extended setting could have been more defined, this novel is excellent.” A reviewer at Children’s Literature wrote, “It is great fun with enough twists and turns to keep readers glued to their copies until the very end. George also avoids being too derivative of other popular dragon novels . . . While the story’s conclusion is as idyllic as a fairy tale (the Disney kind, not the Grimm versions), Creel gets her prince because of her intelligence and integrity, not her beauty. George has deftly managed to stay true to the archetypes of fantasy literature but she has a unique perspective to share and this novel, while intended for young audiences, will entertain older readers as well.”

Shannon Hale has been a leader in the young adult fantasy market over the last decade, and has been one of my favourite authors. In 2008 she tried something new, a graphic novel, Rapunzel’s Revenge, co-written by her husband Dean Hale, and illustrated by Nathan Hale (no relation). The Hales set the Rapunzel tale in a wild west milieu.  A reviewer at School Library Journal wrote, “The Hales have a good sense of character and personality here. Rapunzel’s spirit is pretty evident, both visually and through her verve and words right from the get go. Heck, the first time you see her she’s hanging off a branch in the garden and falling into a small pond . . . The cowboy feel and characters in this book are a bit odd, but they work within the context of the tale. It’s certainly a more American take on the Rapunzel story than you’ll usually find in a library. All spurs and lassos and riding bucks . . . Nathan Hale was an interesting choice of illustrator for this particular outing. It took me a while to get attuned to his more cartoonish style, I admit . . . For this book, Hale scales back the complexity (at least until he needs to use it) producing a simpler product. Once you get into it, it kinda works. I liked Hale’s ability to render the multiple uses of extremely long hair during the Rapunzel-grows-up montages. I liked that he was as comfortable presenting a grey desolate wasteland as we was a beautiful ball gown . . . And I liked that he ends the book with a very sexy kiss. Very sexy. Or maybe I just like boys in white shirtsleeves.”

Other young adult fantasy authors were R. D. Henham (AKA Rebecca Shelley), whose debut novel, Red Dragon Codex is the first of a series, and James A. Owen, who produced the second and third volumes of his Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica series, in which a series of real and fictional literary characters are summoned to help a group of adventures. Owen’s second volume, The Search for the Red Dragon, received generally poor reviews.  A reviewer at Children’s Literature wrote, “While a charitable reading of the story would see this hyper-abundance of endlessly derivative borrowings as homage to the deep and powerful themes that run through all myth and fantasy, the overall effect is of an extremely long, smug, and tedious exercise in ‘See if you can guess all these literary allusions.'”  A reviewer at School Library Journal wrote, “There are moments that transcend the mixed genres, especially toward the end of the book, and one can see the brilliance of the concept. However, most of the novel is rather stilted with cardboard characters and overly elaborate dialogue. Young readers will not recognize the literary allusions, making this more of a choice for lovers of children’s literature and less of a book for children and teens.”

There are so many Mormons writing fantasy young adult novels, it is easy to forget the few who write other kinds of young adult novels. Kimberly Heuston wrote The Book of Jude, about an intelligent Mormon girl’s fight against a debilitating psychological illness, set against the historical events of the 1989 Velvet Revolution in Prague. Elizabeth Ward at The Washington Post wrote, “[Jude’s] a canny and poetic observer, but because we’re limited to her viewpoint, the fog is pretty thick before it dawns on us that this is no portrait of a spoiled, “stupid American teenager,” but a remarkable inside account of a mental illness unfolding . . . Heuston’s interweaving of these big themes is moving and often funny, and she rarely jabs you to think this or feel that. You could give The Book of Jude to any adult, young or otherwise.”  Lynn Rashid at the School Library Journal wrote, “The story starts off slowly as the teen leaves New York and the political and social details of Czechoslovakia are presented. While some less-savvy readers may be alienated by the historical context and setting, others will be drawn in as it becomes apparent that Jude is struggling with more than the usual teen angst. Other novels do a better job of illuminating the realities of teen mental illness; what makes this novel unique is the context in which it takes place.” A reviewer at Kirkus wrote, “Diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, Jude is placed on medication and returned to her family in Prague where, far from cured, she continues her self-destructive behaviour. Only when her father brings a Mormon bishop to bless her does Jude return to functional health. Although Jude’s illness is powerfully and convincingly portrayed, the deus-ex-machina resolution fails to satisfy. Readers who don’t know or share the Mormon faith may be perplexed or unconvinced by Jude’s beatific religious experience. The message that severe mental illness can be cured, or at least controlled, by faith is at best debatable.”  It sounds interesting to me.

Emily Wing Smith is one of a number of recent LDS authors to receive a Masters in Fine Arts from Vermont College, where LDS author Martine Levitt teaches.  Flux, a new young adult imprint from Llewellyn Publications, published Smith’s first novel, The Way He Lived. A starred review from Publisher’s Weekly said, “Besides living in the same Mormon community in Utah, six young people have something else in common: each had a special connection to Joel, who died of dehydration after giving away his water during a badly planned Boy Scout expedition. In vignettes showing the six teens’ differing points of view, first-time author Smith probes into the psychologies of the survivors to demonstrate Joel’s effect on their lives and their attempts to make sense of his death. . . . The author preserves each narrator’s complexity, investigating their defences and revealing their core selves while dropping clues about the enigmatic Joel. It’s a testament to Smith’s skills that although her central character speaks only through other people’s recollections, his identity emerges distinctly by the end of the novel, giving the audience enough information to judge his actions for themselves.” Several reviewers have praised Smith for her subtle and convincing portrayal of the role of religion in the lives of the characters, and the tensions around Joel’s possible homosexuality.

A. E. (Ann) Cannon produced The Loser’s Guide to Life and Love, a contemporary take on A Midsummer’s Night Dream. Mormon blogger Gamlia writes, “This was an extremely fun read. The author has such a fun and hilarious voice. The characters are unique and funny, and this is a really funny romantic teen comedy. I laughed out loud lots of times. It was refreshing to read a really great teen book that was humorous. The book has several Mormon elements, as Scout’s brother is on a mission in Brazil, which is one of the ways Ed finds out so much info about the country, so he can act like he’s from Brazil.” A reviewer at Kirkus Reviews, however, wrote, “The alternating voices that convey the narrative in a variety of forms are uneven instead of engaging: Though Ed and Scout are convincing enough in their roles as totally-regular guy and gal, Ellie and Quark never rise beyond their stereotypes of lonely, brilliant beauty and geek. Mediocrity of storytelling aside, the romantic tension is palpable, there is a Shakespearean climax replete with costumes and kissing, and thus-inclined readers will find here at least a few hours of satisfying, if fleeting, romance.”

Kristen Landon’s debut novel, Life in the Pit, is the story of a girl in a school orchestra. Richelle Roth at School Library Journal wrote, “The story line bounces between a dull romance and a predictable and linear mystery. Brittany is a flimsy character, one moment smart, confident, and strong, the next unnecessarily self-conscious, jealous, and irrational. Interactions with side characters do nothing to flesh out her true self, and her upgrade from orchestra nerd to popularity queen is far too easy. Kyle’s unabashed expressions of love are unrealistic for a high school boy. Unbelievably, Amanda seems surprised and hurt by the notion that guys only want to date her for one reason, and the sober cover art fails to portray the flighty mood of the book.” Another 2008 novel was Carol Lynch Williams’ Pretty Like Us, about a shy middle school girl who meets a girl with a disease that prematurely ages her.

In the latest issue of Irreantum I discovered a nationally respected literary author was also an active Mormon.  The journal published two poems by Hart Wegner, a distinguished UNLV professor, and author of two highly regarded short story collections, both of which featured stories about character who, like Wegner, lived in Germany before and during World War II, and moved to Nevada after the war.  Wegner has won the Pushcraft Prize and many other awards.

Note from Wm: We have a writing rookie on tap for Thurs. and Short Story Friday on Fri. so we’ll finish up Andrew’s Year in Review with two or three more posts next week. Trust me: it’ll be worth the wait.

7 thoughts on “Andrew’s Mormon Literature Year in Review: National Market 2008, Part Ib”

  1. Shadow Mountain seems to have done well with their Harry Potter knock offs. Some of these series appear to be very popular in the suburban Minneapolis library system I frequent.

    And, of course, they were fortunate to already have easy access to some developing talent.

  2. Thanks for the replies on the last two posts, and to William for posting this.

    I wrote this back in January. Last week this interesting article about Mormon YA authors appeared in the Boston Globe.

    Here is an AML post where I comment on the article, and copy some reviews and quotes from the authors of some 2009 YA novels by Mormons.

    The article and I both discuss the large number of Mormon women who have recieved or are working on an MFA in Writing For Children and Young Adults at Vermont College. Mormon YA author Martine Leavitt did, and now is a member of the faculty. Other Mormon authors who have gone there include Kimberly Heuston, Marianne Monson-Burton, Julie Berry, Angela Morrison, Carol Lynch Williams, and Emily Wing Smith.

    Laurel Brady replied to me:
    I’m emerging from lurkdom to make a couple of points that may otherwise be overlooked in the discussion of Vermont College MFA graduates. I don’t for a minute believe these writers owe their fame and fortune to any MFA program. Many of the local VTCollege alumni were already published many times before they enrolled – Carol Williams, for example, had sold over two dozen books prior to starting the MFA program about three years ago. Certainly getting an advanced degree has helped all the graduates improve their craft. But I’d hope this program is not mistaken for a magic bullet – in many cases the success preceded the degree. These are very talented people we’re talking about. And as a former critique group buddy of some of the graduates, I happen to know that in several cases, the degree was mainly pursued, not in the hopes of becoming published again, but so that the author/graduate could eventually teach.

    It’s no mystery why so many Utah/LDS writers have chosen to pursue a degree at Vermont College. The low-residency aspect is a huge factor. Word of the program started to spread among the Utah writing community seven or eight years ago, mostly within critique groups or at conferences. The main attraction of the Vermont College program is that the degree can be largely completed from anywhere. Students spend only two weeks in residence in Vermont in the summer, and two weeks on campus in the winter. Many of the graduates are moms who could never have uprooted a family to go out of state for a two year MFA program. The Vermont program is one of the few that doesn’t require that. Among Mormons who generally put family first, that’s a huge factor and the main attraction of this program. (Of course, the fairly distinguished faculty doesn’t hurt any.)

  3. Related to this topic, here’s a general question: How do you define “young adult novel”? All of these apparently have young adult protagonists, but it sounds like some of them deal with themes (and possibly stylistic complexities) that might make them difficult for most teens to read.

  4. Yeah, the major reviewers haven’t been kind… but the people that like the books really like them; and the ones who don’t won’t ever be a part of my audience anyway.

  5. .

    I actually just had volume one of that comic come in the mail yesterday. But I actually just bought a bunch of Mormon comics, so I’m not sure how quickly I’ll be reviewing it.

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