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Try these alternatives to the “classics”

School will be starting in less than a month & that means English class and those literature “classics”  you’re forced to read. To this day, I’ve never been able to get through Moby Dick. I think that’s why I love the current commercial so much for Microsoft I heard on a radio station about the girl doing to book report using initialisms. Part of it goes something like this, the girl says it’s about LFW (looking for whales) and “OMGROTDC“ (Oh my God, rolling on the deck crying)  – is, of course, the captain’s response to losing his leg.

I do love Jane Austen so I don’t think it’s so bad having to read her, although I understand that guys don’t feel the same way. But, if you’re not into reading Austen’s books set in the Regency Period, try this recently published contemporary tribute to her Sense and Sensibility called Sass and  Serendipity by Jennifer Ziegler. Gabby Rivera’s almost 18, and a senior in high school. She’s very sensible, responsible  and grouchy all the time – completely unlike her younger sister Daphne, 15, who’s always dreaming about the perfect guy. Daphne’s popular, upbeat and isn’t afraid to feel things – and is head over heals over a new guy at school. Gabby’s the opposite. She doesn’t have any friends except guy pal Mule (why he’s named that is a story in itself).  She once had feelings for a boy but he tragically died and she ended up completely debilitated. She never wants to feel that way again. Their parents have divorced and their rent’s gone up so much they’re forced to move. Unable to find a decent place, they end up in the carriage house of a wealthy family. Gabby hates their son, Prentiss, without really knowing him because she believes he caused the death of his cousin Sonny, the guy she once loved. Like Sense and Sensibility, misunderstandings ensue and Daphne has a extremely humiliating experience before it ends happily. I have to admit that after reading it, I prefer the original because I thought both girls in Ziegler’s version were a lot less sympathetic than Austen’s and their heartbreak unnecessarily drawn-out (the review in Kirkus says it reads like “sisters on the verge of a nervous breakdown”). Despite that, their problems are compelling in a car crash kind-of-way and readers who have sisters will relate to their love-hate relationship.

You Don’t Know About Me by Brian Meehl (a 2012 nominee for Best Fiction for Young Adults) is a reimagining of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn but it’s been updated to include geocaching. Sixteen-year-old Billy and his mom are forced to move around frequently because his mom’s religious fervor keeps them one step ahead of the law. Billy tries to keep the faith but it’s hard, especially after he finds out his mother’s been lying to him about the father he never knew. After receiving a message from his supposedly dead father, Billy embarks on a road trip. Led by clues hidden in a copy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he travels cross-country, finding an unlikely traveling companion in Ruah Branch, a closeted gay black, professional baseball player. Billy’s conservative Christianity frequently clashes with Ruah’s more liberal interpretations of the bible, but forces Billy to rethink some of his beliefs. As they travel cross-country Billy reads portions from Huckleberry Finn aloud  – and yes, they discuss the use of the “n” word in Twain’s novel. This is the perfect companion to the original.

If you want an alternative to Henry James’s spooky novella, The Turn of the Screw, try Adele Griffin’s Tighter. Jamie, 17, depressed after being rejected by a teacher she had a crush on, takes a babysitting job for 11-year old Isa in Providence, R.I. Then Isa’s older brother, Milo, shows up after being kicked out of summer camp. Popping stolen pills to help her feel better, Jamie begins to see the ghosts of the prior nanny, Jessie,  and her boyfriend, Peter, who were killed in a plane crash. Is Jamie having a nervous breakdown or are the ghosts real? This exciting, suspenseful and intriguing ghost story with a twist of an ending is an exceptional homage to James’s original. Read it and then watch the 1961 film version called The Innocents  with Deborah Kerr.

Strangely enough, in 2010 and 2011, there have also been three different books published  loosely based on Bizet’s classic opera Carmen and the novella by Prosper Mérimée that it’s based on about the fiery singer Carmen who drives men wild. Walter Dean Myers’s version, written in script format,  is called Carmen. He updates this classic story of doomed love and changes it from 19th century Spain to present-day Spanish Harlem.  Carmen seduces a cop, not a corporal, and Escamillo, the guy she falls for, is a rap star, not a bullfighter. Jen Bryant‘s The Fortune of Carmen Navarro, written in traditional prose form in four voices has singer Carmen falling for a military cadet. When the Stars Go Blue by Caridad Ferrer, is only loosely based on the original, and features a Cuban-American ballet dancer who plays the role of Carmen in an all-guy bugle corp competition.  There, she becomes involved with a bugler and a Spanish soccer player.   Although I’m pretty sure Carmen isn’t typically required reading in high school, all of these have great teen appeal and Myers’s is a great read-aloud.

Sharon Rawlins, currently reading A Long Long Sleep by Anna Sheehan

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Sharon Rawlins

Sharon is the Youth Services Specialist at the NJ State Library in Trenton, NJ

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