Welcome to a new series here on distraction no. 99 called Beyond the (Latest) Buzz. I’ve asked YA and kidlit librarians and book bloggers to share some books that they think deserve more attention. And I asked them specifically because I thought that, of all readers in the know, librarians and book bloggers are some of the most passionate readers we have in this industry, they read a TON more books than I do, and maybe, if I asked nicely, they’d be eager to recommend some beloved books with us here? They were—and they did.
Read on to see what books our first contributor, Jennifer Hubert Swan of Reading Rants, wants to share with us today…
Guest post by Jennifer Hubert Swan
Choose a favorite “unsung” book? Impossible! The very act makes me feel like Homer Simpson facing a tray of donuts. When it comes to my favorite dark horse YA literary novels and circular pastry, I love them ALL and would read/eat every single one again if given the time and opportunity. However, there are two particular early ’00 (aughts?) lovelies that no longer command the angel chorus they deserve, although both garnered starred reviews when they came out: Better Than Running at Night by Hillary Frank and Every Time a Rainbow Dies by Rita Williams-Garcia. While these two titles couldn’t be further apart in terms of content, both are quirky sophisticated gems that feature compelling characters in polarizing situations that test their fragile teenage mettle.
BTRAN is about an angsty teen girl in her first year of art school named Ellie. Ellie is the offspring of hippies who are disturbed by her tortured (i.e. “deep”) oil painting depictions of “screaming heads strangled by boa constrictors” and “mangled bodies pinned to bleeding walls by arrows through the heart.” But when Ellie starts her freshman year at the New England College of Art and Design (which methinks is a thinly veiled New York Academy of Art where Frank got her MFA) she quickly sees that her high school art was indeed melodramatic kid stuff. She vows to become better, and is both blocked and aided in her quest by two very different dudes. One is a sophomore cad named Nate who manages to convince her that his current squeeze is “open” to him having sex with other girls. OY. You just want to reach into the book, shake Ellie, and shout, “WAKE UP AND SMELL THE OIL PAINT, GIRL! THIS SLIMEBALL IS A MAJOR PLAYA!” But I digress. Help comes in the form of Ellie’s sweet, self-deprecating professor Ed Gilloggley (Best. Character. Name. Ever.) who basically forces her to start over when it comes to making art, insisting she concentrate on still lifes, nudes, and color values. Of course, Ellie soon comes to see the worth of these exercises, just as she also comes to understand that her time is better spent with pretty much anyone but narcissistic Nate. She matures! She becomes thoughtful! And she didn’t have to fall in love with a vampire to do so!
I love Ellie’s round, reflective character. I love the unusual setting of the occasionally sincere but more often pretentious art school. I love that it focuses on college life, which many older teens are deeply interested in and not enough YA lit explores. I love that Ellie’s sex with Nate doesn’t lead to love but is a valuable life lesson in relationships nevertheless. I love that because of its dry humor and art references, it makes me feel smart when I read it. Plus, it’s written in short, chatty chapters full of spot-on dialogue that makes you feel like you are eavesdropping on a studio full of first-year art students. It feels REAL, which is the highest praise I can ever give any novel that isn’t about magic schools or unicorns.
Every Time a Rainbow Dies also feels real, sometimes a little too real. This deeply moving novel about a gentle teenage birder and the girl he loves opens with a rape. When seventeen-year-old Thulani witnesses a rape from the roof of his building in Brooklyn while tending his pigeons, he runs to help the girl but is too late. The perpetrators have escaped and the girl Ysa is understandably humiliated and just wants him to leave her alone. But he can’t. Ysa’s strength and beauty have captivated him and he keeps trying to overcome the horror of their first meeting. (I know what you’re thinking. But no worries, this is NOT a stalker novel.) When Ysa finally decides that Thulani is to be trusted, the scene is simple and sweet: “They started down the block toward Franklin. In the middle of the block she said, ‘You can take my hand, but you let go when I say let go.’ He could do this. He could let go. He said, ‘All right,’ and took her hand.” <SWOON> This is a gor-ge-o-so story of a cross-cultural romance (Thulani is Jamaican, Ysa is Hatian) that blooms sweetly and slowly despite the provocative beginning. Eventually the two find themselves on very different paths, but each has been fortified and changed by the other for the better.
I love ETARD because it takes something awful and turns it into something wonderful. I love it because the writing is powerful, spare, and meaty. I love it because I can see, smell, hear, and taste Thulani’s Brooklyn neighborhood and the fruit market where he works. I love it because Thulani’s brother and sister-in-law are complete in and of themselves and fully realized secondary characters are at the top of my list when defining “literary” merit. I love it because it features characters of color but THAT IS NOT WHAT IT IS ABOUT. I only have one issue with ETARD, and that is that it is OUT OF PRINT. (Which is actually an issue with its publisher.) This book got FOUR STARRED REVIEWS, and deserves to be on every high school library shelf in America.
My most fervent hope is that you will go forth, seek out these marvelous sleepers, and passionately clutch them to your bosom…and also, you know, READ them.
Have you read and loved these books? Chime in and tell us what you think in the comments!
- Add Better Than Running at Night to your shelf on Goodreads
- Better Than Running at Night on Indiebound
Jen Hubert Swan (@ReadingRants) is a YA/middle school librarian, author, iPad aficionado, professional reviewer, and veteran ALA book committee member. She has been gushing about books for teens at Reading Rants since 1998 (!) In her spare time when she is not reading or writing like a crazypants, she watches way too much reality TV, collects original SVH paperbacks, and eats out as often as possible in NYC’s amazeballs restaurants.