Welcome to Jonathan Langford’s second installment of Whitney finalist reviews. As noted in my last installment, some of these reviews include story spoilers. All represent only my own opinion, which all will agree is eminently fallible. Thanks to the publisher of Pride and Popularity for making a PDF version available for members of the Whitney Academy. And please feel free to chime in with your opinions, whether they agree with mine or not.
Girls Don’t Fly by Kristen Chandler
By page 11, which is the end of chapter 2, we know the following about the main character:
- Her name is Myra and she’s a senior in high school
- She lives 10 miles from the Great Salt Lake, but her family isn’t LDS.
- She likes a guy named Erik.
- She has four younger brothers: Andrew, 12; Brett, 11; Carson, 6; and Danny, 4.
- She also has an older sister, Melyssa, a college freshman, who despite supposedly being quite bright has just gotten pregnant out of wedlock, which understandably has their parents upset.
And then Erik breaks up with Myra, and Melyssa’s boyfriend breaks up with her and she drops out of college and moves back home, and life just generally is not as happy as it could be for Myra.
There’s a frustrating irony to being a younger sibling, lectured by an older sibling on how to live your life, when all the evidence suggests that though you may not know what you’re doing, neither does said older sibling. Not to mention the frustration of being the oldest (or oldest responsible), and not really being able to call your life your own because you have to be available to take care of younger siblings you love, but didn’t actually choose to bring into the world and therefore feel that you shouldn’t have to give up your life for. (Not something I experienced personally, but I have friends and relatives who did.) Those are among the situations in the book that resonate, at least for me as a reader — on both the positive and the negative side, but mostly the negative, because, you know, Myra’s a teenager. Being a teenager isn’t usually about how wonderful life is, especially in YA books, although the tone of this book is more sardonic than depressing.
It also turns out that ex-boyfriend Erik is a scumbag. In fact, the closest we get to explicit Mormon issues in the book is evidence glimpsed in passing that Erik pretends Mormon values but doesn’t live them. Which is a weird but admittedly somewhat welcome twist in a Whitney finalist. It’s not that the book is anti-Mormon. In fact, explicitly non-Mormon Myra does a better job of living LDS values than many of the (presumed) Mormons around her. Which is kind of the point, and a good one to take away from this book.
The writer does a fair amount of signaling the reader. Example: Myra’s been reading about flightless cormorants at the same time that she’s worried about ever getting out of town. Rather than leave the connection there for us as readers to make, Chandler makes the connection explicit in Myra’s mind as she’s working her first day as a restaurant mascot in a chicken suit:
As I’m waving the sign I remember how I used to love dancing when I was little. I did it to entertain my brothers but also because I loved doing it. Just because I’ve turned into this pathetic flightless cormorant doesn’t mean I have to stay one. I can evolve. Adapt. Change. Today I can be a great flightless chicken instead. Not a huge improvement. But chickens travel. (p.80)
Is this good practice in YA writing? I don’t know.
The voice is pretty good, and grew on me over the course of the novel. Myra seems real. We like her as readers. We’re on her side. She also has hormones, which is kind of a refreshing change from the girls in Pride and Popularity, for example, who seem obsessed with boys but for primarily social reasons. It’s also nice to see that in the end, Myra’s sense of self is based on her own solid accomplishments more than the various relationships in her life. Nice, too, that she manages to leave home without leaving her family behind, but still with a sense of ongoing connection to them.
Miles from Ordinary by Carol Lynch Williams
This story starts dark, with 14-year-old Lacey literally waking in the dark at 3:46 a.m. full of fears we strongly sense but don’t know the shape of, except that they have to do with her momma and her granddaddy.
Mental illness is terrifying, both in those who experience it and among their loved ones who must deal with it. I don’t know enough about mental illness to know how accurately Williams depicts it in Lacey’s mother. Lacey’s own emotions, however, are done superbly, from her sense of underlying desperation to the guilt she feels over what she sees as her own selfishness in urging her mother to get a job so Lacey can have a few free hours, to the anger toward her Aunt Linda for — as she sees it — abandoning them, despite the fact that Lacey’s mother took out a court order to prevent her from coming to visit them. It’s a potent emotional combination.
This is a hard book to read, but it’s an exceptionally well written and important one. I hesitate to call a book important, because it smacks of special pleading: as if we should forgive problems of plot, characterization, or style for nonliterary reasons. Part of me imagines “important” as code for “good for you,” prompting the same wary reaction as among the kids in that old TV commercial for Life cereal. But this is the real deal: a story well worth reading on its own merits that treats an important theme in a way that has the potential to do real good in the world, in terms of improving compassion and helping to start thoughtful conversations with our children. And what is theme if not another literary dimension?
The entire book, astonishingly, takes place in one day: a summer day when Lacey goes with her mother on the bus to a new job, the first job she’s had in a very long while, which Lacey has pushed her to do so she can spend time volunteering at the library instead of at home.
While it couldn’t have been included in the book as written, something I’d like to see would be what goes through the mind of Aaron, the skateboarding neighbor boy Lacey has a crush on who that very day befriends her on the bus, who stops at the library and accompanies her to look for her mother. We see him only in silhouette, through Lacey’s perceptions, but he’s kind, and he’s there. It would be cool to see him from the inside as well, and find out if Williams is as deft at writing male points of view as female points of view.
Pride & Popularity by Jenni James
Among the qualities that makes Pride and Prejudice so dang good are Austen’s impeccable style, an intelligent main character we can’t fail to like, and the bitingly ironic wit that Austen turns on contemporary society. Unfortunately, all three of these are lacking in Pride and Popularity.
The style of Pride and Popularity is cliche-ridden and clunky. The first is partly, I suspect, a result of the author’s choice to depict teenage girls as her main characters, both echoing and (I suspect and hope) satirizing them through the invocation of cliche, though I still find it tiresome as a reader. The second could and should have been fixed with a good editing.
While Chloe, the main character, does well at echoing the prejudice part of Elizabeth Bennet’s character — the part where she’s quick to judge based on superficial characteristics and slow to reconsider her judgments — I found little to like about her or, frankly, any of the other characters, all of whom seemed both irritatingly superficial and not terribly realistic. Reading lines like, “You can’t hang up like that. Tell me what’s going on in that fiery little head of yours” (p. 36) makes me want to simply smack Taylor, the Darcy fill-in. I also have to say that any teenagers closely related to me would start World War III if one of their parents tried to arrange a date for them without their input, no matter how acceptable it might have been in Austen’s time.
Which ties into one of the things that irritates me most about this book. In order to make the plot work, James relies on Chloe being more polite than forthright when it comes to things like telling Taylor what it is about his behavior that bothers her. This reticence might be understandable in terms of early 19th century standards of social politeness, but not as a part of contemporary teen culture. Worse, it flies in the face of Chloe’s character as the author attempts to communicate it elsewhere in the story.
I’m also a bit nonplused that a story that at first pretends to cast an ironic eye on contemporary teen culture (as Austen did for the culture of her day) ends up celebrating that culture. Which, I admit, may also be part of the reason for my dislike, since I don’t much care for teen culture as it’s depicted here. Teenagers as I know them can be superficial, but also funny, sincere, thoughtful, and kind. I don’t see a lot of that more positive side in this book, partly because it’s hard for me to like characters that seem more like walking plot roles than real people.
There are some good points to the novel. For example, the interrogation by Chloe’s parents of Blake, her would-be boyfriend — with a preprinted questionnaire asking about his ancestry! — is sufficiently over-the-top to be amusing. I suspect that for those who like the novel, moments like these are more frequent and more enjoyable than they were for me as a reader. I also suspect that for some readers, the play of episodes and plot elements transplanted from Pride and Prejudice into modern culture is sufficiently enjoyable for its own sake to make up for the book’s many problems. For me, though, it just doesn’t make the grade.
Sean Griswold’s Head by Lindsey Leavitt
You’d think a YA novel titled Sean Griswold’s Head would be about the teen female protagonist’s obsession with a boy in her class. And it is, kind of. Even more, though, it’s about her attempts to come to terms with finding out her dad has multiple sclerosis.
Being the parent of Payton Gritas would be exhausting. It’s not just the understandable (if tedious) going into silent mode when she finds out that the rest of the family has known about the MS months before she stumbles across the secret. On top of that, there’s the lying about her grades, and going out with a boy without telling anyone (as a high school freshman), and the breakup with her best friend.
It’s all pretty natural, given the stress she’s under — and mostly harmless in terms of specifics (the grade she’s lying about is her first C, and she and Sean don’t even get to the point of kissing before they’re discovered). She’s a good kid. But it’s also undeniably true that she’s acting like a brat. My enjoyment of the book is tempered by the fact that there are a lot of times I just don’t like her very much.
This is also a book where I suspect the gender gap works against me as a reader. A lot of the time, Payton and her best friend act in ways that led me to avoid most of the non-geek girls in my high school. Reading about that kind of behavior still grates on my nerves. There are also times when she seems less like a real teenage girl and more like an adult’s projection of what a teenage girl might be like.
Despite which, I mostly liked this book. It’s well-written for the audience it will appeal to, which I think will include many female readers (old and young). The theme of reconciliation within families and relationships is valuable and relatively well-handled. It’s a nice little book, though not an award-winner in my view.
With a Name like Love by Tess Hilmo
This story is set in 1957, in a small town called Binder in the South. 13-year-old Olivene (Ollie) Love — the point of view character — is, we quickly discover, the oldest of 5 daughters of Reverend Love, a man who makes a (not very good) living preaching from city to city with his family.
All of which, if you’re like me, makes this story sound like something quite different from what it actually is. Because this story isn’t about conflict within Ollie’s family, or hypocrisy, or Ollie chafing against the limitations of her upbringing. Rather, it’s about her ultimately successful attempts to first befriend and then recruit her parents in helping to rescue a boy whose mother is about to be unjustly taken off to jail for murder of her husband, and who himself is shunned by much of the town.
It’s refreshing in these days to read a well-written story (though with a few rough spots) about a teenager whose parents, while human, are genuinely good to her, and about Christians (including ministers) who live their religion. And in fact I did like this story, very much. I can see readers thinking that Ollie and her family are a little too good to be true. For me, though, they were depicted deftly enough, with enough small realistic details like Ollie’s squabbling with her sisters and her mother’s exhaustion and lack of patience at times, that it wasn’t an issue.
There’s something about this story’s simple style that reminded me of some of the best of what are now called middle grades books — books like Bridge to Terabithia and Tuck Everlasting, though With a Name like Love (a really appalling title, but oh, well) is simpler than either and lacks their air of melancholy. I hope this rather old-fashioned kind of tale finds the audience it deserves.
General Comments and Observations
- Publishers: All of these books were from mainstream national publishers, except for Pride and Popularity, which is from Walnut Springs. This is definitely a genre where LDS writers are succeeding nationally.
- Genre: Technically, “youth fiction” as a Whitney category covers both YA and middle grades fiction, with a minimum word count requirement of 20,000 words. (The minimum is 50,000 words for non-youth fiction categories.) That said, all these arguably qualify as YA novels, though I keep going back and forth over whether With a Name Like Love better fits middle grades or young YA. (Amazon lists it as ages 10 and up.) Protagonists range in age from 13 to 17, with 3 in the 13-14 age range. All are contemporary, with the exception of With a Name Like Love, which takes place in the 1950s.
- Point of view: 4 of the 5 books use the first-person POV that has become standard for YA fiction, with the single exception being With a Name Like Love.
- Gender gap: So what’s with 5 finalists, all from female authors, all with female protagonists? I don’t know if this is reflects the state of youth fiction in general, gender (im)balance among LDS writers of same, tastes of the Whitney judges, or simply the way things turned out this year. In any event, as a longtime boy, I find the absence of males from this list regrettable. We of the Y-chromosome must do better! Which brings me to…
- Boys: All 5 books feature a relationship with romantic or preromantic potential/interest as an important plot thread, ranging from the friendships-with-hints-of-potential in Miles from Ordinary and With a Name Like Love to the budding relationship in Sean Griswold’s Head, the double messiness of an ex-boyfriend and a graduate student with romantic possibilities in Girls Don’t Fly, to a plot that centers around relationship dynamics in Pride and Popularity. In all of these cases except Pride and Popularity, these relationships represent an important step outward into a wider world of relationships outside of family. For the most part, these boys, though often well depicted, exist within these stories for the sake of their impact on the protagonists; only in Sean Griswold’s Head do we get much sense of the boy’s own thoughts and feelings, and only in With a Name Like Love do issues in the boy’s life play an important role the story. Only in Girls Don’t Fly is the possibility of premarital sex (not acted on by the main character) raised as a serious issue.
- Themes: Most of these books are about teenage girls wanting something they don’t have, whether that’s a home of their own (With a Name like Love) or a way out of town and a limited future (Girls Don’t Fly) or a friend and a normal girlhood (Miles from Ordinary). Family-related conflicts play a strong role in Girls Don’t Fly, Miles from Ordinary, and Sean Griswold’s Head. Perhaps surprisingly, establishing independence is an important theme only in Girls Don’t Fly. Although all of the books feature some elements of growing toward adulthood, in my view this is a primary area of focus only in Girls Don’t Fly and Sean Griswold’s Head. In general, I’m pleased with the diversity of themes represented by these books, including issues that not limited to the standard growing-up tropes.
- Concepts of adolescence: One of the interesting parts of reading these books has been thinking about how the reality of adolescence (as experienced, observed, and imagined by me) compares to our culture’s various constructs of adolescence: the characteristic tropes that constitute how it’s depicted in media and social (and often individual) consciousness. Drawing a line between the two is often tricky, partly because adolescents themselves often tend to model their own behavior on the ways our culture tells them they ought to feel and act.
My point is that several of these books (Girls Don’t Fly, Pride and Popularity, and Sean Griswold’s Head) seem at least partly portrayals aimed at capturing cultural ideals of adolescence. Is that a flaw? I suppose that depends on what is is that we look to literature to depict for us. Is it adolescence as it is? Or adolescence as we imagine it to be?
- Mormon connection: It’s somewhat distressing that the closest we come to representing Mormon experience in these stories is Myra’s perspective as an outsider looking in in Girls Don’t Fly. Again, I have to wonder: What’s is it we’re doing wrong if the best products of Mormon authors aren’t showing the challenges and joys of being both Mormon and a teenager?
Which is of course somewhat unfair. I am, after all, extrapolating from a very limited set of titles, and in ignorance of what the Mormon YA market has to offer, or what the previous years’ Whitney finalists in this category have been like. Does anyone out there have a broader perspective on this?
- General assessment: This is a much stronger collection of books than the general fiction finalists, with 3 titles (Miles from Ordinary, With a Name Like Love, and Girls Don’t Fly) that I’d be happy to see win the Whitney. I’d like to see a better balance gender-wise, and I’d really like to see stories representing Mormon experience, but overall, this is a category that needs no apology.