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Author: B. A. Binns

Books Outside The Box: Realistic Fiction With A Bite

The wealth of paranormal YA books keeps growing. Angels, mermaids, werewolves, dragons and vampires are all great for escapism. But readers live in the real world, where it’s not Twilight and there are no Mortal Instruments.   Contemporary realistic YA fiction is girding its loins and tackling issues important to today’s teens head-on, from self-esteem to sexting, predators, eating disorders, and feeling like an outsider.


paintSasquatch in the Paint, published 2013 by Disney-Hyperion, may be loosely based on author Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s experiences growing up, but it is definitely not just another basketball book. This story for both middle grade and young adult readers is about Theo, an 8th grader who grew six inches over the summer and is now taller than all his friends and many of his teachers. He has been recruited by the basketball coach even though he has never played before. The coach expects him to help the team win its first game in years.

Theo is also a member of the school’s Science Club and preparing to help them win the “Aca-lympics,” a science trivia contest. He can’t split himself and do both. That leaves him forced to make a choice, one hampered by an unspoken fear: that he’s just not good enough for either role.

Here he was. Panicky. Gawky. His throat so dry it scratched when he swallowed.

If that’s not enough, his cousin, a musical genius with his own self-esteem issues, accuses him of stealing one of his songs. He needs to convince more than the mysterious girl called Rain that he is not a “Sasquatch.” He needs to prove it to himself.

Dystopia in Color

Elysium2I saw the movie Elysium when it opened earlier this month. This dystopian movie includes a multicultural future, with Matt Damon plays Max daCosta,  a Hispanic anti-hero in future LA.   This look at a Hispanic main character given the chance to change the world or save his life (he can’t do both) was a break from the usual round of science fiction in general and Dystopia stories in particular, where the man or woman who rights wrongs and changes society is usually white. A search of recent young adult and middle grade books led me to several that provide readers with a future filled with heroes of different backgrounds, ethnicities, locations and circumstances.

silver sixThe Silver Six is a middle grade dystopian graphic novel written by A.J. Lieberman, and illustrated by Darren Rawlings and published in 2013 by Graphix.  The cover shows the six heroes: Phoebe,  Hannah Yoshiama, Patel, Oliver, Rebecca, Phoebe, and Ian. Their scientist parents are assassinated after they discover a cheap form of power that would free humanity from bondage to Craven Mining, the world’s only energy  supplier.

The children meet at an orphanage where they are assigned silver jumpsuits, a sleeping pod, dangerous jobs, and little food (the future is truly cruel to orphans). Thus begins a story that will have young readers turning pages as the children learn the value of friendship and sticking together, and work to find a place they can call their own. They discover that their parents’ deaths was not an accident and find a way to beat Craven Mining and have their own, peronal paradise. The science is more fun than real, but the pages are full of heart and love and self-discovery, the graphics are fun, and kids who are into science fiction will enjoy this story.

Books Outside The Box: Native Americans

I watched The Lone Ranger when I was a kid, and for me it was always about Tonto. Ditto for the Lone Ranger movie. (Not the world’s greatest movie, but it helped that Tonto was played by Johnny Depp.) Native Americans have been everything from sidekicks to villains in American literature. This month I am going to highlight some Native American heroes and heroines in YA paranormal, dystopian, paranormal, science fiction, and contemporary fiction.

wolfWolf Mark, by Joseph Bruchac, was published by Tu books in 2011. The author draws from his Abenaki ancestry in creating Luke, a seventeen-year-old Abenaki boy who discovers he is also a Skinwalker. He was born with a second. When he puts it on, he becomes a wolf. Luke comes from a long line of skinwalkerswho have served their leaders with honor. His father recently retired from the special services, only to become the town drunk. Luke finds that was all deep cover after his father is kidnapped. Luke has to pull on his wolf skin before his training is complete. That leaves him struggling to retain his humanity while he fights to save his family from industrialists ready to kill them for their secret abilities.

killerBruchac’s newest YA is a dystopian called  Killer of Enemies coming from Tu Books in September 2013. Lozen, the Apache teen heroine named after her ancestor, a 19th century warrior woman who battled alongside Geronimo, is skilled at hand-to-hand combat, marksmanship, and wilderness survival, and blessed with superior strength. In a future Earth stripped of electricity and technology, her growing psychic abilities open her mind to strange thoughts, including an unknown who stalks her and considers her “Little Food.” A group of four less-than-sane warlords kill her father and take her mother and younger siblings hostage. To keep her family safe, Lozen is forced to hunt and destroy monsters for them. These include creatures straight out of some of mankind’s oldest legends, genetically engineered creatures released to hunt their former masters when technology was lost, and vampire-like beings with hypnotic powers and a desire for her blood.

NCAAL: Empowering the Voice of the Black Male in Children’s and Teen Lit

library1Only a month after many librarians were in Chicago for the 2013 ALA conference, a number repacked their bags this week and headed for the Cincinnati, Ohio/Covington, Kentucky area for the 8th National Conference of African American Librarians. The theme of the conference was Culture Keepers: Challenges of the 21st Century: Empowering People, Changing Lives. The conference had several tracks, and the Diversity and Cultural Heritage track included a panel called “Empowering the Voice of the Black Male in Children’s and Teen Lit.” The panelists and audience discussed a number of YA books and how they might or might not attract reluctant teen readers, especially young black men. The discussion began with talks about how black male children perceive the world of fiction: many see American fiction as a place where they do not belong or are not wanted. The result of this alienation is lower reading abilities and standardized test scores among these young men. The discussion centered on the differences in the kinds of material that attract boys vs girls, especially regarding covers, and how to change the current status quo.

Books Outside The Box: Different Operating Systems

Three teens — a sociopath, a budding psychopath, and an Aspie — walk into the high school cafeteria.
A gun goes off.

colin fischer by ashley edward miller and zack stentz coverThat’s the high concept behind Colin Fischer, written by Ashley Edward Miller and Jack Stentz and published by Razorbill in 2013. Colin is the Aspie, a kid with Asperger’s Syndrome. He is on the high functioning end of the autism spectrum, with an IQ of 175, but his life coach has taught him not to boast, not even when he’s being called a retard. He hates being touched (even by his parents), doesn’t know how to lie, and needs cue cards to try to understand what emotions go with different facial expressions. He is starting high school without his shadow, the aide who helped him navigate the complex social landscape in middle school.

The book is filled with three-dimensional characters including:

  • Colin, a new and different Sherlock Holmes, who uses a trampoline to calm his nerves
  • Colin’s concerned parents, who bounce between shock and pride when their son tells his very first lie
  • A younger brother tired of playing second-fiddle to Colin’s special needs
  • A teen girl whose touch does not exactly repel Colin, even if he isn’t sure why
  • Wayne, a boy whose brutal home life is almost guaranteed to turn him into a psychopath, or at least a long-term prison inhabitant, by the time he is an adult

ALA 2013: How a Book is Saved

P1020523On Saturday, June 29, a panel of librarians presented a session on book challenges at ALA 2013. Their message was that most challenges were from parents and involved material for children and young adults.


  • Emily Knox, assistant professor in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  • Kristin Pekoll, young adult librarian at the West Bend Community Library
  • Suellen Reimers, co-president of the Helen Matthes Library Board
  • Nanette Perez, Program Officer, ALA

What Motivates People to Challenge Library Material

ALA 2013: Attracting Reluctant Male Readers

This post summarizes a session at ALA Annual 2013 that was presented by Barbara Binns and James Klise.

Most people agree that reading is an essential 21st century survival skill. Unfortunately, evolution has not kept pace. Unlike the genetically hardwired skills of walking and talking, reading requires that the brain be trained to manipulate squiggly lines on paper to make something that isn’t real feel real.

The good news: People who read fluently find it almost effortless. They soak in good stories that educate, promote empathy and self-knowledge, and allow them to practice confronting moral dilemmas and exercising ethical muscles. For eager readers, a good book is its own reward. The epiphany of a well-written novel can be like the surge of endorphins called the “runner’s high” and produce the catharsis — the moment the reader exhales and says, “That was good. I want another just like that.”

Eager readers look forward to the next thrill on the page — or on the screen, in the case of ebooks. Reluctant readers do not. They usually need a compelling reason to pick up a book, because something has taught them that reading is not “fun.”

The reading gap is real

Over 85% of children under age six are read to by parents, other relatives, preschool teachers, and librarians. Almost all kids love the experience and want more.

Percentage reading for fun at least 5 times a week

“Reluctant reader” and “teen boy” are not synonyms, but demographically, the majority of reluctant readers are boys. During the early school years, the “learning to read” stage, boys begin falling behind in the amount of time spent reading for fun. The less kids read, the more slowly their reading skills improve. Boys who get less practice face an ever-increasing gap in fluency and reading speed. It can all add up to give a boy a feeling that reading is a girl thing, something he will do only if he has to. Many middle school-aged boys admit finding reading much harder than it was in elementary school and less enjoyable; at the same time they are being pushed to read read harder texts. His slower pace of improvement aggrevates his feelings that he “doesn’t read.” Some rebel against the very idea that reading might be “fun” right into adulthood.

Books Outside the Box

Young adulthood is the time when most people learn who they really are and to like who they find. This post is about books that are not the traditional YA, but instead are books that show the difference between packaging and content.

For many young people, myself included, the world sent us a host of messages telling us we were out of step, that something was wrong with us. That is especially true for kids who are overweight. In today’s world, a retail store’s recent decision to feature a size 12 swimsuit model prominently on their website without labeling her as “plus size” provoked pages of commentary and even criticism from numerous news outlets.

No wonder so many teens have trouble looking at themselves in a mirror.

I was one of those overweight teens, and I know that diversity is about more than just race, religion, or locale. During my all-important teen years I never found any books that featured a protagonist like myself dealing with the issues of being bigger than the other kids. Oh, books often featured an overweight sidekick to provide a little comic relief while the lithe and winsome protagonist fulfilled his or her destiny. But the overweight kid never took center stage. Their pains and issues were not the spotlight.

Things have changed, both in real life and in fiction.

truthNot every book is about the beautiful people. Dara, the protagonist in Secrets of Truth and Beauty by Megan Frazer (2009), is a former child beauty pageant star turned overweight teen. Her story is not about a girl deciding to diet or about parents and friends realizing they are wrong about her. She is a “fat girl,” but that is not her whole identity. She uncovers a past her parents have kept hidden from her, including an older sister who left home before she was born. She does not decide to diet to fix her problems and earn the love of others. Nor do her parents undergo a miraculous change of heart and learn to accept their children as they are. Instead, this is a true coming-of-age story where Dara learns to accept herself as she is, as well as to accept her elder sister’s sexual orientation and the idea that her parents will probably never change their attitudes toward either of their daughters.

Unfortunately, the publisher chose not to portray an overweight teen on the cover. Still, this book will appeal to people who seldom see their issues in print. It will also reach out to anyone who wants to see the world through the eyes of someone bigger than average. As one reader said about the book: I’m a 25 year old guy, and I still found myself relating to the main character in a lot of ways.

Diversity for Teens and Tweens Teach Powerful Truths

I was one of those eager reader teens, picking up books from the adult section of the library back before there was a thing called YA. But even I rolled my eyes at some of the tomes put on school reading lists. Most were written by people dead long before I was even born, and I will not tell you how long ago that was. Recently, I watched an 8th grader wading through one of the books that was old when I was his age. I had to think: hasn’t anything that portrays the same message been written in the last century?

Fortunately, many modern YA books do provide complexity in characterization, strong plot structure, ethical dilemmas, and important morals. And many do it with a diverse cast and multi-cultural settings, heightening their appeal to the less-than-eager reader.

0-545-08092-4These include books like All The Broken Pieces by Ann Burg (2012). The protagonist of this novel-in-verse is Matt Pim, a Vietnamese-American boy adopted by an American family right after the Vietnam war I vividly remember. (The book is classified as historical fiction; guess how old that make me feel.) Matt faces thoughts of the American GI father who abandoned him and memories of the war and the people he was forced to leave behind. He plays baseball, in part because he likes the game, but mostly to keep his adopted father happy. That’s more important than ever because he fears his adopted parents no longer need him since they have a new baby. There are flashbacks to his life in Vietnam, the war, and the dreadful secret that made his mother send him away while she kept his younger brother. And Matt’s beloved baseball coach is dealing with cancer. There is so much in this slim book that readers may wonder how Matt bears everything on his shoulders. There is courage in action, survivor guilt, what it’s like to be different, and the love of family.