Students’ Picks: The Best YA Books of 2013

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Tis the season for yearly book round-ups! Oh, how I love them. These columns grow my Amazon Wish List, along with my classroom library. As a high school teacher, it’s wonderful just to have the lists, even if I can’t get my hands on all the books. I can point my students towards these stand-out titles and know that they come highly recommended. I like to note the repeats and the unknowns — each compilation informed by different tastes and purposes.

I do wonder, as I read these “Best of 2013s,” how some of the titles would actually play with the young people in my classroom. Some books I can tell are immediately accessible, but others perhaps not so much. I would like to lend my voice to these discussions of newly published YA titles, but I didn’t read widely enough in YA lit in 2013 to form a comprehensive list. I did, however, watch my students run through a whole lot of books. Here are three published in 2013 that won the hearts of some young adults I know, recommended in their own words. Pick one up for a young adult in your life: satisfaction guaranteed.

Period 8 by Chris Crutcher
Chris Crutcher didn’t disappoint in 2013 with his Period 8. The latest in a long list of captivating and high-interest titles for young adults, Period 8 inserts fantastic scandal into the everyday world teens recognize so well. My student Joe noted that any one of his classmates would be able to relate to the story. He was amazed too by the scope of the content. “One chapter can be about swimming, the next about relationships, and then the next about a manhunt and the possibility of death.” Perhaps this is what makes the title such a page-turner. Joe finished the book in less than a week, and told me he was on the edge of his seat. “With the plot of this book, Chapter 5 and beyond feels like the climax all the time.”

Allegiant by Veronica Roth
Allegiant is the third and last book in Veronica Roth’s acclaimed Divergent series. Divergent fans have been knocking on my door and harassing our librarian for copies since October. Divergent revolves around one compelling idea: that one choice can change everything. This final installment swirls with romance, secrets, and sacrifice. Student and reader Alexis stresses: “If you have a passion or appetite for daydreaming about living in dystopian society that still seems better than your reality, Allegiant is for you.” He also notes that fans of The Hunger Games trilogy “will fall in love with the way the Divergent trilogy projects a strong heroine.” Alexis writes, “I relish the fact that Tris never wanted to just be different; she wanted to be her own self. In that, I can relate to her. In our society, you’re labeled so many things that aren’t who you are.” Indeed, Tris is as relatable and rich a character as Katniss, and drives the action of the plot through twists and turns to its ultimate shocking conclusion. Fans relate Divergent to the Maze Runner series as well, another action-packed dystopian tale with a strong and sympathetic protagonist. These series truly captivate: engrossing the reader in worlds that manage to be at once strange and familiar. They are worlds that swallow the reader and erase reality. Alexis warns, “For a few paragraphs, I had to stop and actually hug my book tightly.” But the plot marches on, and readers note that with that plot come lessons transferable to their real lives. “A quote from another bestselling book, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, fits the lesson of Allegiant,” Alexis writes. “Things change and friends leave and life doesn’t stop for anybody.”

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell
“I never thought a book could teach me how pure a heartbreak could feel; how indescribable falling so hard for someone could be. Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell was love at first sight for me. I have never fallen so deeply in love with anything, let alone a book before. I’ve never felt like I could connect so purely to anyone or anything before I read this book.” Eleanor and Park is a title high on lots of 2013 lists, and my student Melissa is not alone in holding the book so dear. If there is any Young Adult book that reaches beyond the YA label in 2013 it is Eleanor and Park: a book about being a teenager and falling in love. The love between these two misfit teens is the most innocent part of their lives. Melissa explains that their love is built upon “music, comic books, and the simple spark of him touching her hand.” But life is not that simple, and the two must navigate the heartbreaking dysfunction of Eleanor’s family life. Eleanor bears the scars of this environment, but loving Park lets her dare to hope for a happy future. Eleanor is a lovely character who could walk right off the page. Melissa saw herself reflected in Eleanor, as so many do. “Like Eleanor, I never felt like anyone could ever love me the way I needed them to…until we both met a silly, half Asian misfit. I felt I could resonate so much with Eleanor, right off the bat. We’ve both always been that girl who isn’t stick thin; the girl with the big curly mop hair; girls that felt they weren’t deserving of love or care or hope. This book not only teaches you how blissful love can be, but how painful a heartbreak is.”  

The Problem with Summer Reading

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I imagine the only thing worse than being a kid with a summer reading assignment due in little more than a month is being the parent of a kid with a summer reading assignment due in little more than a month. Has the fighting begun? The daily reminders and the task-mastering and the endless, tedious, summer-joy sucking arguments? We might still have a good week or so before the upcoming school year reaches back into blissful summer time and asks, not kindly, how far along you are in your summer reading assignments.

I teach high school English in a town that has a mandated summer reading program. The program prides itself on being more progressive than most: students are allowed to choose their books, provided that those books are represented in the Accelerated Reader Program database. The kids keep track of how many “points” each book is worth, as determined by the program, and are asked to read a different number of points depending on what level of English they are enrolled in. Students in Standard English must read 10 points, Academic English students read 20, and Honors read 30. Point value is determined, as far as I can tell, by the number of pages. So this means that on average, students are asked to read somewhere between one and four books over the summer to meet the requirement.

Then comes September. We don’t quiz them on the first day, or even the first week, because everyone would fail. The policy is that the students have until the end of September to “finish” their summer reading, and by this date, must log into the software in their English teacher’s presence and complete the AR quiz on the books that they read. Most students use this time afforded to them to swap summaries of books with simple plots, to recall what books they might have read with their middle school English classes and never tested on, or to calculate how many three-point Dr. Seuss books they would have to test on to reach their assigned point value. Last year The Hunger Games movie was released, and about 50 percent of my students tested on that book. Students test every year on the Harry Potter books, because HBO runs the films for week-long stretches, giving kids every opportunity to get the plot down.

Watching them game the system, it seems it takes more work to successfully not read than it would to just pick up a book.

Yes, there are ways that I could crack down on the requirements and my watchfulness of their testing practices. But I can’t bring myself around to it. Summer reading assignments are a waste of time, and I’m a busy lady. Not only that, but focusing on the Accelerated Reader point values of books and testing the students on inane and helplessly specific plot points would fly directly in the face of all of the work that I am doing in September to teach my students about being readers.

I have some readers in my classes: they are the kids in September who couldn’t care less about the Summer Reading assignment. They’ll search through the database for two or three of the 10 books they read this summer, and test on those. They’ll do well enough, though they will often be frustrated to earn a 70 percent on a book that they read 100 percent of because they missed question 6: Couldn’t remember what color shoes the protagonist’s uncle bought him before moving away. For readers, AR will just be an annoyance, or at worst a source of unwarranted stress, because they already know how disconnected summer reading assignments are from the true motivations and rewards of reading.

But my non-readers. I’m spending September trying to teach them the practices of readers. I’m stressing the payoffs, I’m playing book matchmaker, I’m modeling my own practices and talking about my favorite books in my classroom library. I’m telling them how they were born with a love of reading, reminding them of The Giving Tree and The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and Captain Underpants, and telling them that school took this love of reading from them, killed it. And then, gritting my teeth, I’m reminding them that they have to complete their department-mandated summer reading assignment by September 28th.

Summer reading assignments and reading quizzes and book reports don’t teach our students how to be readers. They teach them that reading is a school-centered activity. That it is a chore. That they aren’t good at it if they can’t remember insignificant plot points. These assignments set students up to cheat, or to fail, and always to regard reading as a drag.

This is how we breed kids who say they “hate reading.” The very act itself. They don’t like the books they have been forced to read, and so they’ve written off the entire activity, as if being forced to eat their vegetables had driven them to swear off food entirely.

Summer reading assignments aren’t just ruining students’ last few glorious weeks of summer, aren’t just adding to the already arduous load of summer assignments from other classes and adding stress to what should be a period of freedom, aren’t just causing fights at the dinner table and taking away Xbox playing privileges. Summer reading assignments are killing a love of reading.

You read for its own sake. To learn, to travel, to be spooked or heartbroken or elated. To grow.And when you do this, when reading becomes something that you authentically value, you become a better reader and writer without even trying. You start to reach for more advanced reading material, inferring word meaning, connecting with characters and identifying their growth, interpreting nuances of meaning and symbolism with delight and awe. When you write, your sentence structure becomes more complex and sophisticated. You write with greater imagery. You take emotional risks, understanding that good writing is honest.

I know because I see it happen. When I take away book reports and reading quizzes, when I eliminate deadlines for finishing books and specific title requirements, my students are free to read books that they choose, and as the year progresses, they choose more and more and more.

“How are we being graded on this?” they ask, at the beginning of the year. “You get full credit just by reading,” I respond, and they stare at me confused for a second longer before shrugging and turning their eyes back to the page.

I don’t assign anything to reward or punish them for being readers. What I do, is assess their skills as the year progresses. That’s how I know that that when you read a lot of books you like, you become a better reader and writer without even trying. That’s how I know that my instruction meets the Common Core State Standards for Education without ever forcing them to read The Odyssey, or making them take a test on a book.

That’s why I don’t want anything to do with assigned summer reading.

In June of last year, my students wrote book reviews which I posted on my website organized by genre. Their classmates and my students who followed are able to reference this list for recommendations. This year, my students wrote letters to an author who influenced them. Almost all of the students were writing to an author of a book that they chose to read this year. Many of them were writing: “Your book is the first book that I actually read.” Or: “Your book taught me that I don’t hate reading.”

Because there were no reading deadlines, most of my students were in the middle of a book when the last day of school came around, and so summer reading was something that was just going to happen.

And what if it doesn’t? What if, after reading all year and understanding its value and feeling the sense of ownership that comes with making his own decisions about what he does and learns, a kid still chooses not to read a single book in July or August?

Like I said, I’m a busy lady. This is just not something I can get worked up over. I’ll catch you in September, and we’ll do it right.

Image Credit: Flickr/Martha W McQuade.

Walking Enigmas: On the Reading Habits of Teen Boys

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At parent-teacher conferences earlier this year, I spoke with at least 10 sets of parents that lamented the uncommunicative nature of their teenage sons.

“You would know more than we do.”

“He speaks up in class?  That’s good because he doesn’t talk much at home.”

“I ask him if he has work for class but he always just says ‘no.’”

It makes me think that this is why The Catcher in the Rye is a classic. People are just so thrilled to hear a teenage boy’s thoughts.

Then maybe they’re sorry they asked.

There’s no getting around it: 15-year-old boys talk to their friends more than they talk to their parents. They probably talk to their dogs more than they talk to their parents. In class, they can’t stop talking for five minutes to work independently on a writing project, but when they get home, apparently, they’re mute.

When they’re talking in class, it isn’t about their thoughts and feelings. But my informal qualitative research suggests that young men today are growing up with the same basic longings and tribulations that Holden did. How do I know? How do I have any idea what these walking enigmas feel inside? By what they read, of course. Teenage boys might be closed books, but the ones that they open are those in which the author manages to capture the honest-to-god truth about coming age. Here are three books the teenage boys in my class have been reading:

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky: I’m so excited that this novel has been made in to a movie; originally published in 1999, Perks might not be enjoying the readership it is today without the film publicity and modern cover art. The book merits its evolution from cult classic to mainstream movie fame — in turns heartbreaking and hilarious, Stephen Chbosky’s novel gets the coming-of-age motif just right. His character Charlie is the wallflower that the title references, and Charlie’s journey, told through letters to an anonymous recipient, is ultimately one of moving out onto that dance floor and of refusing to play bystander to his own life.

A freshman in high school, Charlie navigates friendship, bullying, crushes, sex, drugs, and loss. He is an earnest, shy kid who struggles against depression and seclusion, hanging on to moments of joy and human connection. The novel is just angsty enough to feel honest, without being cringeworthy, and the voice is real and raw. I haven’t met a student yet who didn’t relate to Charlie’s story.

Ball Don’t Lie by Matt de la Pena: One of my favorites this year, Ball Don’t Lie tells the story of Travis Reichard, or as his mom used to call him: Sticky Boy. Matt de la Pena’s character portrayal is incredibly rich — not only when it comes to Sticky, with his compulsive tics and subconscious motivations, but with the entire cast: Sticky’s addict mom, his girlfriend, Anh-thu, and all the boys who go head-to-head on the basketball court and the streets.

We first meet Sticky on the gym floor of Lincoln Rec: “the best place in L.A. to ball.” De la Pena’s description of the game and the boys who play it is so vivid you can hear the squeak of sneakers on the court and the thud of the ball on the bent and battered rim. Initially, all but the outcome of each play is a mystery, and it takes a while to get to know Sticky, a foster kid whose only dream is to play in the NBA. Sticky is slow to show himself, as his past has left him broken, and the uncertainty of his future leaves him guarded. But, chapter-by-chapter, piece-by-piece, greater depths are revealed, and the book opens up to an emotional and riveting account of an urban basketball community, and a boy looking for a home.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan: Yet another delight from John Green, and this time with the added bonus of Levithan, Will Grayson, Will Grayson tells the story of two Will Graysons: a pair of teenage boys who meet serendipitously, at a time when a small miracle of coincidence is just what each one needs.

The two male protagonists, one gay, one straight, navigate platonic and romantic relationships with varying degrees of success and failure, with all the modern day complications of texting and online messaging. The story builds to an epic climax, complete with a high school musical and passionate declarations of love. The writing is funny, the characters relatable, the circumstances engaging, the themes meaningful and poignant. I haven’t seen my copy of the novel since September: as soon as one student signs it in, another signs it out.

NBA Finalists for Young Readers: On Patricia McCormick’s Never Fall Down

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Of the novels selected as National Book Award finalists in the Young People’s Literature category, Patricia McCormick’s Never Fall Down is the title that my high school students would reach for. McCormick’s latest novel is based on the life of Arn Chorn-Pond, a survivor of the Cambodian genocide. It is a story of a young boy who grows into a teenager on the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge, a young boy who endures unspeakable trauma, and survives. My students are drawn to books that feature violence and drama and tragedy, in part because they crave perspective: a way to understand the small and large tragedies of their lives, to appreciate the bounty of resources and freedoms available to them, and to feel grateful rather than burdened.

They want to read about kids like them, dealing with hardships both familiar and alien, encountering struggles and learning perseverance. Patricia McCormick must have a keen awareness of how compelling such topics are to young readers: her earlier novel Sold deals with a young Nepali girl who is sold in to sex slavery, Cut with a protagonist who self-harms. Both books are widely read among my students. A few kids actively avoid what they label as “depressing books,” but many more reach for McCormick’s titles and others: Loung Ung’s First They Killed My Father, Dave Eggers’s What is the What, Lewis Alsamari’s Escape from Saddam. And through these stories of remarkable young people, my students grow in their capacity for empathy and in their knowledge of the world.

So if Never Fall Down would be their first choice from the selection of National Book Award finalists, Out of Reach by Carrie Arcos would be their second — a book not about a nation wracked by genocide, but a family broken by addiction. In both books we find a young protagonist clinging to hope in the face of pain and loss. Young readers open books and hope to find some piece of themselves reflected in the pages. And while it is easy to dismiss this urge as the notorious ego-centricity of teenagers, and true that they are often ignorant of national and international affairs, it doesn’t follow that exposure to diverse topics of great depth leaves them apathetic. On the contrary, as evidenced by the Kony 2012 social media explosion, teenagers have the capacity to care a great deal, even if they are often under-informed, or unsure of how to best direct their compassion to action.

What they can do, is read. And you cannot read books like these, hear a story like Arn Chorn-Pond’s, without feeling a sense of incredulity at the fortune of your life. And when you are young, as you construct your identity and determine your place in your world, you must grapple with the disparity of experience determined by the time and place of one’s birth, with the suffering that abounds near and far, with the resilience of the human spirit which allows for hope in the face of this suffering. For my students, reading a book like Never Fall Down will forever change the way they see the world.

In April of 1975, Arn Chorn-Pond’s hometown of Battambang, Cambodia is full of life. “At night in our town, it’s music everywhere,” Patricia McCormick begins Never Fall Down, in the voice of Arn. “Rich house. Poor house. Doesn’t matter. Everyone has music.” Arn is nine years old, and the other sounds of his nighttime village, the whistles of bombs falling in the distance, serve as little more to him than the authenticating backdrop to the make-believe battles he and his younger brother play, taking turns flying the plane, being the hero: “We shoot probably a hundred bullet, die a hundred time.”

When the real war comes to Arn’s city, it is the Khmer Rouge who bring it. These soldiers in their “black pajamas,” many no older than Arn, force the people of Battambang out of their homes and into the street, where they are told that they must leave their town, but only for three days. Their forced exodus is replicated across Cambodia, as the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot’s guerrilla Communist regime, evacuate whole cities into the countryside, and attempt to build a radical agrarian society. Thousands of Cambodians die during these first forced marches, and it is during his evacuation from his home that Arn first realizes the astonishing human capacity to become desensitized: “In just one day a person can get use to seeing dead body.”

Three days pass, but the people of Battambang are not allowed to return home. Over the next four years, Arn will be subjected to starvation and torture, will watch helplessly as his friends and family are killed and displaced, will learn to do whatever is necessary to survive. As is the terrible fate of children soldiers across the globe, and all the powerless held captive by violent and criminal regimes, Arn must hide his humanity, must hide it so well that he risks losing it forever. “I make my eyes blank,” McCormick writes of Arn’s tactic for avoiding the wrath of the Khmer Rouge. “You show you care, you die. You show fear, you die. You show nothing, maybe you live.”

There are other rules of survival. When the Khmer Rouge first invade his city, Arn’s aunt and caregiver gathers him and his siblings in her arms and instructs them, “Do whatever they say…Be like the grass. Bend low, bend low, then bend lower. The wind blow one way, you bow that way. It blow you the other way, you do, too. That is the way to survive.” Bend, but do not fall. Arn sees too many fall: some cut down by the Khmer Rouge, some who fall as they walk, as they stand, even as they sit, like the girl who dies sitting next to him as they eat the bowls of dirt and water that pass for dinner. And though he sometimes dreams of falling down too, he resolves to stay alive:

So hungry all the time now, my stomach eat itself, a pain like never I had before in my life. And so tire, I think sometime I sleep standing up. Other time I think maybe I will just lie down in the field; the ground, it call my name. I see some kids die in the field. They just fall down. Maybe it’s malaria. Or maybe they starve. They fall down, they never get up. Over and over I tell myself one thing: never fall down.

As a child, as a teenager, Arn Chorn-Pond did not have the luxury of exploring human suffering in the abstract, as many of my students do. His story, as told by Patricia McCormick, is one of bravery, of fierce resilience, of compassion and hope in the face of ineffable evil. It is the story of how music saved his life, how friends and strangers saved his life, how his personal strength saved his life, how luck saved his life. It is the story of his determination never to fall down, but to bend, and survive. As he crosses the border to Thailand, four years after first being driven from his home, Arn is a whole lifetime in one young man, but he is alive. “And me, a soldier who kill every day, me, with body, with heart like old man, I crawl like baby.”

Not Ready to Gush About It: A Brief Book List for Young Readers

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On our last day of school this year I opened class with an overview of the day’s agenda.  I teach 14, 15 and 16 year olds, and like I said, it was the last day of school, so having any agenda at all was very foolish.  But I had a few announcements I needed to make, and I felt confident I could persuade the kids to sit still and listen to me for three minutes.

One item on the agenda is Summer Reading, and at the very words my students groan, and throw tomatoes, and flip me off.  (Teenagers can flip you off using only their eyes, but the tomatoes are an exaggeration.)  So I pause, and look at them, (because I can say “Oh, hell no” using only my eyes) and then repeat the school’s summer reading assignment, which is measly and reasonable, and has no mandated reading list but instead allows them to choose whatever books they want to read.

“I’m not reading during the summer,” they proclaim.

This is a very curious thing for them to say, because these kids may have entered my classroom in September as non-readers, but by this point in June every last one of them has loved a book.  These kids who scoff at my mere mention of summer reading have caught me before class to report proudly that they have already read thirteen books this year, or to tell me that they already finished the book I loaned them four days ago, and they need a new one.  Each and every student, at one point or another in the year, has neglected to hear me announce the conclusion of independent reading for the day, so engrossed in a world of zombies, or first love, or football, that our existence in the classroom has become secondary.

“How can you say that you’re not reading during the summer?” I ask, my voice incredulous, and the kids sit back–a little delighted that they have provoked me into one last righteous defense of reading.  “Don’t play like you don’t read.  Don’t try to tell me that you hate reading.  I know better!”  I widen my eyes at a handful of students leading the moans and groans, one by one reminding them, wordlessly, that I witnessed the Bang! to Homeboyz to A Clockwork Orange evolution, Juan, and I was there for you reading Lexapros and Cons in two days, Eddie, and I heard you convince your friend to pick up Gym Candy, Matt, telling him to trust you, it was the “best book ever.”

For a variety of reasons, it’s just not cool yet to be a young teenager and an avid reader.  I say yet, because my fellow English teachers and I are working on it.  My students read a lot this year, and many of them really will be reading this summer. The thing is, they just might not be ready to gush about it yet.  That’s OK.  Allow me to relay three of the books that they loved this year, and would surely recommend, if they weren’t so busy pretending they don’t like to read.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth:  When twelve-year old Cameron Post learns both that she likes kissing girls and that her parents have died in the same weekend, she assumes a correlation that tangles both her grief and her sexual identity with guilt.  To further complicate matters, her legal guardian is her aunt Ruth, who fairly recently has been “born again.”  In writing so honest it reads like a memoir, Danforth draws the reader into Cameron’s experience growing up gay in Miles City (“Miles Shitty”), Montana.  She deftly avoids the pitfalls of painting the Gates of Praise church crowd as nothing but ignorant homophobes, and explores the self-doubt and fear that lurk in every belief system and sense of personal identity, along with the acts of unkindness, betrayal and desperation that these doubts invoke.  It is in these complexities that Danforth’s first novel thrives: at once funny, heartbreaking and poignant.

Lockdown: Escape from Furnace 1 by Alexander Gordon Smith:  Alex Sawyer doesn’t think of himself as a bad kid, but he’s been making some choices that have escalated from schoolyard bullying to home invasion and robbery.  This is especially risky behavior in the dystopian future that Gordon Smith imagines, where a “Summer of Slaughter” ruled by youth gangs has provoked a state crackdown on juvenile offenders and the opening of Furnace, a penitentiary for teens serving life sentences, built a mile beneath the earth’s surface.  When Alex is framed for murder, he is sentenced to Furnace, where he soon learns the horrors of hell are closer than he could have known.  If he is to avoid a fate far worse than death, he must somehow escape. Gordon Smith imagines a world in which the adults turn their backs on a generation of hopeless teens, allowing the government to punish without regulation or limitation.  Despite a few cheap scares in the vein of R.L. Stein’s Goosebumps series, Lockdown truly horrifies, enthralling the reader in rapid action, and leaving him ecstatic that there are sequels to follow.

Lexapros and Cons by Aaron Caro: Try not to read a book whose first line is: “In the past year, I masturbated exactly 468 times.”  OK, try not to read that book as a 15 year old boy.  Try not to laugh and “Yo, dude” and pass it around to all of your friends.  The fun doesn’t end there; happily, Aaron Caro’s debut novel manages to deliver on the delight and candid irreverence promised by the opening line.  Meet Chuck Taylor, whose OCD isn’t making high school any easier.  Beyond his counting and record keeping, endless hand-washing, and meticulously selected footwear, he still has to worry about trying to get the girl.  Root for Chuck as he forges bravely through the last few months of his senior year in high school, and enjoy the pros of Caro, a very funny stand-up comedian, adding his voice to the world of YA fiction.

Dreaming of Hogwarts and Hunger Games

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When I was twelve, I read a lot.  I read novels in the cafeteria over chicken patties while my friends traded folded-paper fortune tellers, and I read novels on the bus ride home while my friends relocated to seats with travelers who would talk to them.  I read novels while I walked home from the bus stop, and for half hour stretches in the bathroom until my legs had fallen asleep.  There never seemed a good point at which to put down the book, pull up my pants and relocate to a chair, so I stayed seated.

The books I read today can still inspire this total preoccupation, but more rarely.  Often, I only have an allotted hour or so to read before I have to turn off my light and play slave to my impending alarm clock.  My “real” life is never far from mind; reading is just a part of my day. But last night I lay in bed with Mockingjay, the third installment of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series, not reading but devouring the book, transported not only to the fictional world of Panem, but to the years when I always read like this: flopping from back to stomach as the hours passed, jumping at every creak of the house, and finishing late, late at night, reluctant to release my hands from the book and a delicious disorientation that would be gone by morning.

My former self understands these feelings, and happily, so does my cousin’s son, Will.  I know he reads like this because I’ve seen him, shooing his football-toting friends away at the beach because he can’t abandon Harry, Ron and Hermione at such a crucial moment.  He’s got an English-teacher-turned-college-professor for a mom, and an older brother tossing worn copies of The Golden Compass and Percy Jackson his way, so he’s been reading for a while now, and he’s got discriminating taste.  He’s the recent recipient of Cedar Mountain Primary School’s Accelerated Reader Award, but the prize is incidental.  Kid’s got a love of the game.

With Twilight and The Hunger Games securing a vast readership among the young and older, Will and I are not an anomaly as we sit and excitedly discuss Harry Potter, he ten and me twenty-three.  As we’re working our way from The Sorcerer’s Stone to The Deathly Hallows with great attention to both cherished and forgotten detail, he’s the book-club I didn’t have as a twelve year old Madeline L’Engle addict.  We started talking because I was hoping to glean a few book recommendations from him to write about, and so I’m taking notes.  Exhibiting his careful attention to fellow readers and his strong loyalty to story, our conversation is punctuated by uncertain pauses preceding each recounting of a momentous plot twist.  “I don’t know if you should write this in case anyone hasn’t read it yet,” Will warns me.

That is one of the great appeals of young adult literature: there is so much plot to spoil.  Storytelling is paramount here, and the sheer imagination of the author is so awesome that enjoyment overpowers any hint of farfetchedness.  And while, yes, the Harry Potter books are about wizards, our own Muggle concerns are reflected in the struggle of good against evil, and the difficulty we sometimes have distinguishing the two.  In the spirit of C.S. Lewis, the best young adult fiction today embraces universal themes and compelling moral ambiguity.  These stories captivate our attention because they are adventures in the deeper dramas that inform human experience.  They are life and death stripped of daily distraction.

As we sit over a hardcover copy of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, Will and I try to articulate what we love about this series and about The Hunger Games. It is difficult to express the emotionally charged relinquishing of reality and the fervor and flush that comes with truly inhabiting a fictional world.  “Just the idea of the book,” he shrugs, stumped. “Just the story.”

With imaginative and driving plots that are both similar and alien to your everyday world, in the really good books, the characters are rich and complicated, but when they are not, it doesn’t really matter.  They are doing, and you are reading as fast as you can.

Of course, one of the reasons you can read this fast is that the language doesn’t always delight your synapses or persuade you to kick off your shoes and stay awhile.  When I’m reading Collins’ writing, I’m not savoring a sentence like I do when I’m reading Michael Chabon.  The plainspoken pulse of The Hunger Games doesn’t beg a reread like the poetry of The God of Small Things, or set you still like a scene of Cormac McCarthy’s.  But I’m not reading Mockingjay for those reasons.  I’m reading to find out whether the Capitol mutations bred deliberately to hunt Katniss are going to tear her to pieces before she manages to kill President Snow.

Books hinging on this level of intensity burn a haze that muddles your Muggle world and your Hogwarts world.  As in a dream, you have no difficulty surrendering to the unrealities: the story holds you.  Sometimes it holds you merely until an unwelcome interruption by your real life, but sometimes it lingers after the book is closed, unwilling to be relegated back to fiction.  Young Will confesses to me that Harry Potter’s unlikely entrance into wizardry clung to him in this way.  “I was really hoping that when I turned eleven I would be found to be a wizard.  I felt that it was so real.  I thought that maybe J.K. Rowling was a wizard… and I kept on feeling that. But then, after I read the next series that I really liked, I didn’t feel that anymore, and I knew that it was definitely, one hundred percent fake.  But… it really seemed real.  The whole way.”

The yearning in Will’s voice brings me back to my own youthful reading of the Harry Potter books, with a swift and sudden nostalgic ache.  For Will isn’t yet eleven, and the force with which he instructs me on the odds against his dormant wizardry has the hardness of a person reprimanding himself for a foolishness.  He isn’t waiting for his eleventh birthday.  He knows better.  But maybe this is why reading these YA books can be such a wholly captivating experience for adults.  We have no choice but to surrender our reasons to the terrors and beauties of a make-believe world.  And it really seems real.