YA Foray: Jeff Zentner’s The Serpent King

IMG_6429About once a year*, I read a YA book to see what the youth are up to these days (or, what publishers think the youth want to read, I guess). I’m never disappointed, for while YA isn’t my go-to bookstore section, I think YA authors tend to be folks passionate about the lives of teenagers, and that passion shows in their work.

Enter Jeff Zenter’s debut novel The Serpent King. Set in rural Tennessee, the book follows three friends through their senior year of high school. Dill is a soulful and sad musician, haunted by family history and dogged by his father’s reputation (the former minister is in jail for possession of child pornography) and his mother’s refusal to acknowledge that he might want to leave Forrestville. Lydia is a savvy fashion blogger (and fan of Donna Tartt & Leonard Cohen, so I was contractually obligated to like her, despite her annoying tendency to brush off her privilege) who dreams of moving to New York, though she’ll miss her supportive, Trader Joe’s-loving, hybrid-driving parents. Travis has a rough time at home and at work in the lumberyard, but he copes by retreating into a Game of Thrones-like fandom, not caring what anybody (including Lydia) thinks of his all-black ensembles, dragon necklace, and staff.

The novel revolves mainly around Dill, who’s distressed not only at the prospect of losing Lydia (he’s got a crush), but also at his lack of prospects. His parents have made it clear that he’s responsible for helping to pay off the debts they incurred; his mother even thinks he ought to drop out of high school.

While the trajectory of the plot is somewhat predictable, I enjoyed reading this book because Mr. Zentner depicts a segment of the population that is often overlooked. Dill and his mother are flat-out poor, and Travis’s family is just scraping by. Despite her attitude towards Dill’s education, Mrs. Early is depicted as a person who’s making choices using the arithmetic she knows, one that’s bound up with job insecurity (even with multiple jobs), no health care, and mountains of debt. She’s not a sympathetic character, but she’s understandable, not a caricature, and I think that’s important. Mr. Zentner shows readers that circumstance is a powerful force in shaping character.

And so is friendship. Forrestville has its racists and bullies, but it’s also chock full of beauty and people of outstanding moral fiber if you know where to look, and the three heroes of the tale do. It’s a pleasure to hear the sounds of night insects with them, or visit a college campus through their eyes. This book is full of heart; Mr. Zentner clearly loves his subject, looking at rural Tennessee life with affection, and with eyes wide open to its flaws.

I’d recommend this book  to YA fans and to readers (like me) who dip into the genre just once in a while.

Have you read any YA books lately?

* 2013: Sara Farizan, If You Could Be Mine

2014: John Green, The Fault in Our Stars

Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower

2015: [I did say about once a year. It averages out, right?]

What the Kids Are Reading: The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green

The Fault in Our StarsI realize that I may be the last literate person to have read this novel since it was published two years ago this month. Generally speaking, I try to avoid anything filed under “What Teens Are Reading” at Barnes and Noble (yes, I was in there exchanging things), despite my occasional forays into YA. But The Fault in Our Stars has been so widely acclaimed that I felt safe joining the library wait list.

Sidebar: Was the term “YA” around when we were younger? I’m 29, for the record, and I don’t remember seeing “YA” as a teenager, although it’s possible that I missed it because I was pretentious enough then to turn up my nose at a wide swath of literature (What’s that you say? I’m still pretentious? I don’t want to bite my thumb at you, but . . . ) and hated being categorized as a “teen.”  I did read a bunch of Judy Blume novels in grade school (Yes, grade school. My second grade teacher couldn’t figure out what to do with me during class reading time, so she handed me Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. I was really confused, and a search through the bathroom cabinets didn’t help much.) I remember leafing through them in the library —  to this day, I can’t really keep a straight face around anyone named Ralph — but I don’t remember how I found them.

My point, which got lost somewhere in there, is that I don’t see Forever .  . . (don’t worry, didn’t read that one in second grade) shelved near the Boyles and Byatts these days, and maybe that’s a trend that’s been around for awhile. Then again, sometimes I can’t find Neil Gaiman books anywhere except the SF/F fantasy section, so maybe we should all band together and protest the isolation of genre fiction. Or do separate genre markers make it easier to find something along the lines of what you like?

But I digress.

Spoilers Ensue. You have been warned. I’ll let you know when it’s safe to read again. 

I loved The Fault in Our Stars, even if it meant that I started my New Year by sobbing all over my favorite sweatshirt and causing my two-year-old to worry about Elmo’s health. It’s a testament to the writing that I knew just what was coming by page 18 (“Osteosarcoma sometimes takes a limb to check you out. Then, if it likes you, it takes the rest.”), but I still wanted to keep reading. Hazel and Augustus are hilarious, winning characters, perfectly imperfect, precocious but never precious. The book treats people with illnesses as people, which is rarer than it ought to be, and I thought the medical issues were handled well.

Here’s where the book first won me over: “There is only one thing in this world shittier than biting it from cancer when you’re sixteen, and that’s having a kid who bites it from cancer” (8).  It’s the rare adolescent-centered book that fully acknowledges the burdens of parents, and this is one of them. I happen to be personally conversant with untimely death, and now, as a parent, I can tell you that, yes, being the parent would be worse.

I wonder, and I’d be pleased to know if you have the answer: Is this book as popular as boys as it is with girls? I know that it was mostly girls who read Twilight (tried some of that in an effort to get to know my students’ tastes: disaster.), but I can see how The Fault in Our Stars would appeal to boys, too.

As I read, part of my mind was engaged thinking about texts that I’d teach with The Fault in Our Stars, since it’s a commonly-read book among high school students and people entering college. It’s a dream of a book for English nerds, with tons of discussions about metaphors and books; Laura at Reading in Bed has a great post on the allusions in the book (and I agree with her critique about the sex scene too).

End of Spoilers.

Here’s a short list of books that I think would complement The Fault in Our Stars, not just from a teaching standpoint, but from a general reader’s standpoint too.

W;t, by Margaret Edson. A play about an English professor dying from ovarian cancer. Brilliant, beautiful, full of John Donne. I’ve taught it three or four times, and college students (freshmen to seniors) have loved it. There’s quite a bit here about how the medical establishment dehumanizes patients, and I think the de-emphasis on hospitals in The Fault in Our Stars would provide a good counterpoint and spur discussion about lenses in literature.

Gain, by Richard Powers. The best novel about cancer I’ve ever read (sorry, John Green). It’s dense, engaged with history and what it’s like to be human and sick. It both is and is not historical fiction, environmental fiction.

Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro. If you missed this book, go read it immediately. It’s stunning. I won’t give away the plot because it’s so exquisitely rendered. Like The Fault in Our Stars, it features young adults facing circumstances entirely out of their control, and navigating though first loves at the same time.

What would you add to the list? What did you think of The Fault in Our Stars?

Recommended Reading: If You Could Be Mine, by Sara Farizan

Happy Thanksgiving, dear Readers! And Happy Thursday, non-American friends!

If You Could Be MineAs you may have noticed, YA fiction doesn’t make it onto my reading list very often, but in the spirit of omnivorous reading, I thought I should try out a new YA novel (a couple years ago I read The Hunger Games trilogy, which I quite liked). I chose Sara Farizan’s If You Could Be Minebecause I’m interested in reading fiction set in other countries, and because the novel focuses on LBGT* issues (near and dear to my heart).

Sahar has been in love with her best friend, Nasrin, since they were children. Nasrin loves Sahar too, but also feels the pull of a traditional life trajectory — marriage, children, a house and social position. And they live in Iran, where homosexuality is punishable by death — even for teenagers like Sahar and Nasrin.

Then Nasrin’s family arranges a marriage for her, and Sahar, desperate to save their relationship, explores drastic measures to keep them together.

Sahar’s narration makes me want to give her a big hug, and I loved the careful construction of the secondary characters, especially Sahar’s father and Nasrin’s mother.  The language is geared toward younger readers, which I was expecting, but I wasn’t expecting the frank discussions of transsexuality that’s an integral part of the novel. I appreciated Sahar’s honesty and humanity, and the unflinching portrayal of how difficult life is for the gender-nonconforming in modern Iran.

And, of course, there’s plenty about the dangers of being a woman. You know, stuff like your sleeve inching past your elbow or wearing too much makeup getting you raped or beaten. Shudder.

Nasrin is often annoying, and doesn’t seem like a worthy object for Sahar’s affection, except insofar as she listens to Sahar attentively (as Sahar points out). At first, I felt that this was a flaw in the novel, because as a reader, I wanted to be invested in both girls. About midway through, however, Nasrin grew on me. She rebels against the strictures of her society in her own way, even if it’s not the way Sahar wants (or we want, for that matter). Nasrin’s flaws make the story more real, more relatable, and all the more heartbreaking for Sahar.

If You Could Be Mine would pair well with the first volume of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, especially in a teaching setting, and I think the pair together would make a great Christmas/Hannukah/Festivus/Yule/December present.