I’m a sucker for the holidays. I love the idea of getting together with family and friends and spending time with them. It’s the time of year when people are supposed to be more kind and charitable towards each other. The tradition of everyone sharing something they are grateful for on Thanksgiving made me think of some quirky YA books that have featured altruistic characters who engage in random acts of kindness or those with great feel-good endings–the kind of story where everyone pulls together at the end, reminiscent of those old 1930s Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney films where they all put on a show (no, I’m not that old but I am a huge movie fan). Several of my favorite YA books like this came out last year, and two in particular were on the 2011 Best Fiction for Young Adults list.
Sorta Like a Rock Star by Matthew Quick features Amber Appleton, a very quirky 17-year-old with an outsize personality, unrelenting optimism, and vocal faith both in people and in Jesus (whom she calls â€œJCâ€ in her chatty prayers) that masks a life that’s not as optimistic as it seems.
She and her mom are homeless and secretly living on an old school bus until her alcoholic mom can find a new boyfriend with an apartment, or they can save up enough money to move. Despite this, Amber’s always thinking of others. She visits the elderly; tutors English-language learners at the Korean Catholic Church; protects her best friend Ricky Roberts when schoolmates try to manipulate him because he’s autistic; and befriends Private Jackson, a lonely haiku poet and Vietnam vet. Amber’s voice is very distinct because she talks with a kind of Sixties slang (says Word! and True! often).
Then something catastrophic occurs, her world is shattered, and she’s thrown for a loop and loses her belief in God and will to go on. Those whom she’s touched are spurred to try to give back some of the support she’s given them in an very inspiring bring-down-the house ending that really shows humanity at its best. This book could have come across as overly sentimental, sickly sweet, or preachy but it avoids this because of how real and authentic Amber’s voice is. This very enjoyable book is even more fun to listen to than it is to read.
Amber is reminiscent of Stargirl in Jerry Spinelli’s 2000 book Stargirl (among the 2001 Top Teen Best Books for Young Adults). Stargirl, like Amber, is very tuned into others and is a nonconformist. She shows up in a new high school wearing whatever she wants to wear, serenading people Happy Birthday wishes on her ukulele, and completely upsetting the conformity of the school. She takes no sides and cheers both teams at the school’s sports events, much to the consternation of her fellow students. Eventually, they embrace her and her unusual ways–until she makes the mistake of comforting a player from the opposing basketball team after he breaks his ankle during the semi-final game and the home team loses.
She’s irrationally blamed for their loss and ends up being shunned. She tries to be “normal” but can’t help but do random acts of kindness for others such as leaving cards for people she doesn’t know or dropping change on the sidewalk. Her boyfriend Leo, who narrates the book, wishes that she be “normal,” but she struggles to live that way. She ultimately finds she didn’t achieve anything by fitting in so she goes back to being herself. At the prom she wins her fellow students over once again and regains her popularity after getting everyone to join in on doing the Bunny Hop, then leaves town–and Leo.
The in book’s epilogue, you find out that what she brought to the school isn’t forgotten fifteen years after she left. The students cheer the first basket scored against them at every game and a club called the “Sunflowers” performs two nice acts per day for someone else. The sequel, Love, Stargirl, is a series of letters that Stargirl writes over a year to Leo. She writes about her struggle to get over him and her experiences in a new town where she befriends others in need. She passes on her altruistic ways to a little girl named Dootsie and finds love with a blue-eyed thief named Perry.
Spinelli’s book has inspired real middle- and high schools around the world to start Stargirl Societies that aim to promote the novel’s nonconformist message. Spinelli’s website has a list of tips for how to start a Stargirl Society.
The book that started me thinking about altruistic acts was will grayson, will grayson by John Green and David Levithan, the other book on the 2011 Best Fiction for Young Adults list and a 2011 Odyssey Honor Winner. Two superstar authors paired up to deliver the terrific high-energy tale of two Will Graysons and their friendship with Tiny Cooper, one of the best characters ever written (“the world’s largest person who is really, really gay, and also the world’s gayest person who is really, really large”). Straight Will is chafing at the role of being Tiny’s satellite for years, especially after Tiny sets him up with Jane, an infuriatingly perfect match. Gay Will is angry and depressed after an online friendship with “Isaac” ends disastrously. A chance meeting between the two Wills and Tiny sparks a wild mutual infatuation between gay Will and Tiny. True love doesn’t run smoothly with any of the characters. It all comes to a head during the performance of an autobiographical high-school musical (better than “Glee!”) that Tiny writes, directs and stars in. All of Tiny’s friends and the audience get into the act in an amazingly theatrical and absolutely perfect ending to a fabulous book (and soon to be a film out in February 2012).
Let the holidays and those books with their rousingly feel-good endings begin!
Sharon Rawlins, currently reading Ultraviolet by R.J. Anderson
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