1. Vanished by Sheela Chari (2011)
I really enjoyed the story -- it was fast-paced and nicely developed. And I think I'd like to visit India one day. I didn't think I would want to visit because my whole impression of India is a mix of Bollywood and Slumdog Millionaire -- chaotic and colorful, sure, but that sort of thing tends to stress me out rather than inspire me. But I think if I picked a city like Chennai instead of trying to take in the entire country in one go, I'd have a wonderful experience.
And yes, this is a J Fiction selection, so if you're interested in reading more about Indian and Indian American culture from a YA perspective, try Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier, which I read several years ago and really loved. Now, in Vanished, Neela is encouraged by her parents to embrace both Indian and American culture, while Neela's best friend Pavi is encouraged by her parents to really embrace her Indian side over her American, so I think that Pavi might have grown up to be like Dimple in Born Confused. There's no caper or curse in Born Confused, but if you're interested in the meeting of Indian and American cultures, I can't recommend this book enough.
2. Dreams of Significant Girls by Cristina Garcia (2011)
Synopsis of this book, from a vapid teenage girl: So we, like, seem to be different? But we all have drama? So we're, like, really the same? Sisterhood rocks!
Yeesh. This was one giant book of crazycakes. This novel plays out over the course of three summers in the early 1970s and tells the stories of Shirin, Vivien and Ingrid and their "adventures" in a posh Swiss boarding school. And by adventures, I mean total dramarama. Broken homes! Political exile! Attempted suicide! Promiscuity! Sexual assault! Attempted murder by drowning! Clandestine abortion procured from back alley herbalists! Brazen midnight theft of marzipan gnomes! (Yes, that really happened.) I finished this book in about two sittings, because train wrecks are compelling, but I can't say I'm glad I read it. The multicultural group of girls, despite their insane dramas, manages to come off a little too It's-A-Small-World, in part because I suspect that great wealth smooths over many of the frictions of culture clash. And the epilogue was really trite.
The other thing that really kept me from investing in the story is that the narrative bounced among the main characters so quickly I found myself humming "Pinball Wizard." The book clocks in at 238 pages, and if each girl gets equal print, they get about 80 pages of narrative each, and coupled with the hyper-dramatic storyline (did you notice the bit about the headless marzipan gnomes?), I couldn't really bond with any of the characters.
I never did understand the title of this book. Why are these girls significant? Given the amount of print given over to the discussion of the poshness of the school and the richness of the girls attending the camp and the respect commanded by the parents (particularly Shirin's parents), I got the sense that these girls were significant because they were rich. I don't want to believe the author intended readers to get that message, that the characters' wealth and access to opportunities like a fancy-pants Swiss boarding school gave the girls significance, but it's one of the main takeaways I got from the book.
And another thing (she said, swaying from her soapbox), this story is set in the early 1970s, yet the cover photo clearly depicts a trio of 21st century teens in all their skinny jeaned, hoodied, and rubber braceleted glory. I know this is in no way the responsibility of the author, but come on, publishing people! Would it kill you to read a synopsis at the very least to get the cover accurate? (descends from soapbox)
Lastly, as I zipped through the story, I couldn't help but think of books that took on some of the issues raised and handled them much better. If you liked Vivien's story (Vivien is the daughter of Jewish Cuban exiles), try Julia Alvarez's novel How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. I know that book is about Dominicans, and I don't mean to conflate the two, but I haven't yet read a book set in Cuba, and the one I thought I'd try, The Firefly Letters, is actually set in the 1850s. But Alvarez's novel is beautiful and heartbreaking and fascinating.
If you wanted to know more about Shirin, you might try Funny in Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas. This book is actually a memoir, and Dumas was 7 in 1972, but I learned a lot about the Iranian Revolution and was inspired to read Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, which is an amazing memoir in graphic novel format.
Ingrid is a pretty typical wild child, and no replacement books come to mind at the moment.
And Marzipan Gnomes would be an excellent band name.
3. Tutored by Allison Whittenberg (2010)
I didn't finish this book. I got a goodly way into it, but even though it's short, 192 pages, I just didn't buy the characters enough to push through to the end, and then I got hammered with reading right at the beginning of the semester (500 lines of Chaucer in Middle English, two plays, a book of French theory of eroticism -- all due at the beginning of the second week!), so I didn't finish. Wendy and Hakiam unfortunately come off as stereotype characters from an after school special -- a good girl and a boy from the bad part of town meet in a tutoring center. There were some interesting questions to consider as I read, but in such a short book, I really didn't get a clear sense of the characters enough to care whether they Overcame Their Differences and Found Love Despite the Odds.
4. The Throne of Fire by Rick Riordan (2011)
On the heels of his wildly successful Percy Jackson series, Riordan brings us a series based on Egyptian mythology. The protagonists, biracial siblings Carter and Sadie Kane are once again at odds with the House of Life and the forces of Chaos as they try and save the world...again. I haven't yet finished the book, but I'm listening to the audio book in my car, so I'll finish it here soon. First, can I just say that the actors reading Carter and Sadie's parts are awesome! Audio books are really hit or miss for me because if there's a stinky narrator, it ruins the whole book for me. So awesome there. The story is as action packed as any of Riordan's other series. I've read all the Percy Jackson books and I'm 96th on the hold list for The Son of Neptune. I particularly enjoy the Kane Chronicles because I don't know as much about Egyptian mythology as I do Greek and Roman, so this is a fun way to learn about it.
As for Carter and Sadie's ethnic background, Riordan discusses what it means to be biracial siblings who don't look like one another (Sadie resembles her white British mother while Carter takes after his African American dad), but issues of race don't get in the way of the action. Riordan seems to have made a very conscious decision to include multiracial main and major secondary characters in his books, definitely in the Kane Chronicles (African American teen Walt joins the Kanes in The Throne of Fire) and also in the Heroes of Olympus series (one of the main characters is Mexican American). Like I said, Riordan doesn't let any discussions of ethnicity overshadow the action, but he's pretty overt about including diverse characters (no disabled or queer characters, though -- the target age range is upper elementary and middle school, but you never know, maybe in later books...)
What I Learned
In the end, even if I didn't particularly enjoy all the novels I read, I did enjoy the experience of reading outside my normal choices. And I've read more than I give myself credit for, although I do read a lot, so sometimes it's hard to keep track.
I imagine some of you might think I've been too critical of the novels and that I need to lighten up and read for fun instead of looking for lessons. I've addressed this issue somewhat in previous posts, but I'll say more. The whole point of consciously diversifying your reading is to learn more. Despite the total crazycakes story, I enjoyed counting up the many different backgrounds of the girls in Garcia's book (though in all honesty, it also felt like a punch card -- find 12 different nationalities, get one free!), and it's always good to think about worlds outside your own.
I also thought more about the expectations we (as a greater culture) have of children's and young adult literature, and I think these expectations are far too low and far too lax. I recently had to defend my request to sub a literacy class that was a study of children's literature for one of my English electives as part of my MA, and my advisor wanted to know why I thought this literacy class fit in with a rigorous course of study in the MA program. I told him that I took my literary criticism skills and applied them to this oft-neglected corner of literature and found that, just like the canon of Dead White Guys taught in universities, the scope and quality children's and young adult literature was worthy of academic scrutiny. Books shouldn't get a pass because they have pretty cover models or illustrations. We should be intentional about our reading (including intentionally choosing something because it's fun and fluffy, or better yet, fun and smart and compelling) and intentional about our interactions with text. A junk food only diet is, in my mind, as bad as a strict raw vegan diet. Well, not really as bad, but that strict limiting of the world is bad for the soul. Come on, (non-lactose intolerant) people of the world! There's room for fresh mozzarella and Kraft singles, and there's room for the literary equivalent!
And that, friends, is the Lesson of the Day.