Hear Me Out: Music in YA Lit
March is Music in Our Schools Month, and I think it is safe to say that music is a big part of our lives. Music is part of our cultures, our childhoods, and yes, even our literature. Some books are obvious — Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan is the first thing that popped into all of your heads right now, isn’t it? — but there are plenty of other books in which music is a key element to either the character development or the plot.
Janet Tashjian’s For What It’s Worth falls in the category of obvious, but it’s a great example of how music integrates into a plot and a character. Quinn is a virtual encyclopedia of music knowledge and is also growing up in LA during the tumultuous years of Vietnam. Besides having witty characters and an addictive plot that includes a draft dodger and a Ouija board, there are hand-drawn images, factoids, and lists of songs and albums that Quinn uses for his high school paper column, which is naturally all about music. Anyone with an appreciation for classic rock is going to have fun agreeing with (or disagreeing with) Quinn’s picks.
In Revoution Jennifer Donnelly manages to combine three of my favorite things: historical fiction, time travel, and music. Andi is a guitarist and uses her music to deal with her father leaving, her brother Truman tragically dying in an accident, and her mother not able to deal with either of those things. On top of this, Andi’s also about to get kicked out of her prestigious Brooklyn school — until Dad takes her in as a last-ditch effort to get her back on track. But Dad now lives in Paris, and Andi’s keen interest in classical guitar leads her to a guitar case dated from the French Revolution, which leads to a mystery that just has to be lived to be solved.
My Most Excellent Year: A Novel of Love, Mary Poppins, & Fenway Park by Steve Kluger doesn’t immediately scream music, but music (or more particularly, musical theatre) is what helps new girl and diplomat’s daughter Alejandra find common ground with Broadway-star-in-the-making Augie, which helps Augie’s Red Sox-obsessed best friend/brother TC finally get through to Ale in spite of Ale’s repeated refusals of his romantic attention. Told through journals, emails, instant messages, and even memos between parents, this book is a show tune, baseball-infused coming of age story that is a great time — or as Mary Poppins would say, it’s supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.
Antony John’s Five Flavors of Dumb is about a deaf high school student who is managing her classmates’ band — a band which is either awesomely or stupidly named Dumb. As you might expect, being deaf brings a certain level of difficulty to the job for Piper, who has to deal with the band not getting along, not all of the band members actually being talented, and her own inner turmoils in addition to promoters thinking they can walk all over her just because she can’t hear. It’s a great take on the behind-the-scenes action of a band trying to make it and how disabilities can’t stop you from following your dreams.
Sibling rivalry existed even in the 1700s! Folks who are not into classical music might not know that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had an older sister who was also a very talented musician. Nannerl and Wolferl actually performed alongside each other when they were children! Carolyn Meyer, who has written lots of great historical fiction, takes on Nannerl’s story in her book In Mozart’s Shadow: His Sister’s Story. While her brother grew to be one of the most famous composers in all of history, Nannerl’s life took a different, though some may say less tragic, turn.
Music crosses genres and appeals to all of us, even if we don’t all like the same music in the way we don’t all like the same books. It’s a part of who we are, it’s a part of who we want to be, and it’s also a part of what we read! If you’ve got a favorite book with a musical theme, be sure to share it in the comments.
— Carla Land, currently reading The Gershwins and Me: A Personal History in Twelve Songs by Michael Feinstein and The Unimportance of Being Oscar by Oscar Levant