Lady Lazarus: Sylvia Plath & YA Literature

photo by flickr user Todd Mecklem
photo by flickr user Todd Mecklem

So, every year around this time, I reread The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. It’s just a habit I’ve had since I was a teenager; it gets to be about time for my birthday, and I suddenly know what book I’ll be reading next. It’s comforting in a way that signals a new year for me and winter’s fast approach. This year, after my yearly reading, I decided to branch out a bit to see how Sylvia Plath has influenced and been incorporated into teen literature.

I had noticed two things over the past year that influenced this decision which surprised me. First one – every year I give away books for our Teen Summer Reading program, and I always have The Bell Jar as a choice. This year, I ran out of copies of that book. That got me thinking, and then what cemented it was an increase in teen patrons asking to check out the book. And, it never being on the shelf – I always had to place a request for interested patrons. I mean, it would have been her 82nd birthday on October 27th – but, not like a major milestone like a 100th birthday like in the case of poet Dylan Thomas. But, I noticed a lot of new books being published on Sylvia that included nonfiction and fiction. Maybe readers are just noticing these new books and wanting to go back to read her seminal work – who knows? All I know is it got me interested enough to want to recommend not only some old favorites that incorporate Sylvia into their story, but some newer titles I think readers might be interested in knowing about.

I’ll lead with the book that started this whole long convoluted journey for me…

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath: So, yes – my very favorite book of all time. Originally published under a pseudonym in 1963, The Bell Jar tells the semi-autobiographical tale of Sylvia’s time in New York and beyond, starting with her time as an intern at a very prestigious magazine. Esther Greenwood is having a breakdown – she is questioning her place in the world as a woman, a girlfriend, an intellect, and how all those things feel like weights on her shoulders. Esther brings to life the feelings of confusion, sadness and anger in such a realistic way that I think readers come to see Esther as a friend and someone who might possibly be vocalizing their own real feelings in a way they were unable to do. I’ve had teen readers tell me that in the book they recognized themselves and suddenly the world felt a little less lonely. A story of finding yourself and questioning everything that will certainly appeal to readers who are navigating the tricky waters of personhood.

Belzhar by Meg WolitzerBelzhar by Meg Wolitzer: This is one of the new books I was telling you about! Published just a few months ago, Belzhar tells the story of Jam. Her boyfriend, Reeve, has died and she just can’t cope – the sadness is overwhelming. Her parents decide to send her to The Wooden Barn, a boarding school that helps teens deal with difficult life situations in a way that they can return to their normal lives. What’s interesting about The Wooden Barn is that there is a very special class being offered – Special Topics in English. Doesn’t sound so special, but it is in that the teacher, Mrs. Quenell, specially chooses which students will be in her special topics class. She has chosen 5 students for this year’s class – Mrs. Quenell’s last one – and the special topic they’ll be studying – Sylvia Plath and her writing. All the students are required to write in journals that Mrs. Quenell has given them…and that’s when it turns strange. Jam realizes that when she writes in her journal she travels to a place where Reeve is still alive and she can be with him. But, she has to make a choice – to be with Reeve forever is to leave everything else behind. And, good grief, the big reveal at the end (and there are a couple) made me gasp out loud. An interesting study of Sylvia Plath and the depths of human emotion.

Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953 by Elizabeth Winder: This is another new book – and it’s nonfiction! For readers who have read The Bell Jar (and those who haven’t – it’s not necessary to have read it to enjoy this book), Elizabeth Winder gives an account of Sylvia’s summer in New York as a guest editor for Mademoiselle, as fictionalized in The Bell Jar through meticulous research and interviews with all the women who were there with her. It was interesting to meet the real people and read about the real experiences as detailed by Sylvia in her book. It was also a fascinating look at a young woman’s experience in 1950s New York.   She was on the cusp of adulthood – that time before college graduation, and she was in the greatest city on Earth with its’ specific rules and expectations. From fashion styles to food choices to what it was like to work at a bustling fashion magazine, Pain, Parties, Work is a glimpse into a time that has been lost to history and time. A fun and intriguing look at not only Sylvia’s experience there, but also that time in general that will appeal to readers fascinated with the 1950s and a woman’s place in it.

And, now for the oldies (but, still goodies…)

Your Own, Sylvia: a Verse Portrait of Sylvia Plath by Stephanie Hemphill: For readers wanting to know more about Sylvia, the current crop of biographies might be daunting and overwhelming. Author Stephanie Hemphill gives readers an alternative to straightforward biographies by attempting to show Sylvia through other people’s eyes. Readers will come to know and love Sylvia not through the famous poems she wrote, but through poems written in the voice of those who knew her throughout her life and leading up to her death. Through fictional poetry written by the author, many in the style of Sylvia’s own poems, readers experience the birth, life and death of Sylvia through the eyes of the myriad of people in her life including her husband, Poet Laureate Ted Hughes, her mother, Aurelia Plath, in addition to her many therapists, friends and mentors throughout her life. Readers look in on Sylvia through the happiest and saddest times, experiencing the emotions of others as they were inspired, overjoyed, hampered, and saddened by her actions. We read about her first suicide attempt through the eyes of her brother, Warren and feel the depths of despair at Sylvia’s discovery of her husband’s affair through the eyes of her neighbor and friend. Throughout the book, the poems are supplemented with basic facts and dates from which the fictional poetry was derived, as well as the names of Sylvia’s original poems on which the fictional ones were based. Readers will appreciate these bits of facts interspersed throughout the fictional poems. Your Own, Sylvia is a great introduction for both teens and adults to the life, death, and poetry of Sylvia Plath. Getting to know her so intimately will make both seasoned Plath readers and those new to her literary legacy wanting to find out more about this genius of confessional poetry. (A 2008 Printz Honor Book)

And Then Things Fall ApartAnd Then Things Fall Apart by Arlaina Tibensky: I really enjoyed this book – the story of Keek who is cooped up in her grandmother’s house with a serious case of the chicken pox. Her parents are separated, thanks to an indiscretion on the part of her father (with her friend!), her boyfriend is being a total jerk, and Keek is feeling alone, feverish and stir-crazy during this technology free summer. All she has is her well-worn copy of The Bell Jar and a typewriter her grandmother has that Keek is using to get all of her feelings out. Keek is just trying to make it day to day, but she feels bogged down both mentally and physically. She is confused and hurt by her father’s actions, she feels like her boyfriend doesn’t understand her, and she feels betrayed by someone who she trusted and thought was her friend. This summer is not what she pictured it would be – alone and hurting in her grandmother’s house – but, by the end, readers will see a transformation and maturity that will inspire those being haunted by those same feelings of confusion and sadness. A great book that weaves the legacy of Sylvia Plath in with a modern teenager’s life. (a 2011 YALSA Reader’s Choice Nominee)

I really enjoyed expanding my Plathian routine to include books, old and new, that show how Sylvia has continued to influence teen literature all this time after her death in 1963. For old and new fans alike, these books will, hopefully, give you something new to read or encourage those new to Sylvia Plath to explore her confessional poetry, novels and correspondence. Until next time, readers!

-Traci Glass, currently reading Pitch Perfect: the Quest for Collegiate A Cappella Glory by Mickey Rapkin