Yesterday, I attended Books for the Beast, a conference about young adult literature that occurs every two years in Baltimore. It’s like most library book conferences – you read a set of books, attend discussion groups and then hear a few speakers – except that actual tweens, teens, and young adults are invited to the event as well.
For a change of pace, the organizers moved away from lumping the books by genre for the groups and instead put things together by a theme. I think this was brilliant because it kept people from just picking their favorite genre. On the flip side of that, in previous conferences many attendees would pick a genre they didn’t normally read, but that also worked to to the books disadvantage since the readers would go in with preconceived notions based on the genre category. Each theme managed to contain a variety of genres, and usually one graphic novel too.
If you are curious, here is the list of this year’s themes:
A is for Athlete:
Pinned by Sharon Flake
Stupid Fast by Geoff Herbach
The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater
The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen
Marathon by Boaz Yakin
B is for (Follow Your) Bliss:
Winter Town by Stephen Edmond
The Disenchantments by Nina LaCour
Virtuosity by Jessica Martinez
Drama by Raina Telgemeier
Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley
C is for Continental:
A Game for Swallows: to live, to die, to return by Zeina Abirached
Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins
My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher
The Book of Blood and Shadow by Robin Wasserman
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
D is for Dead:
How they Croaked: The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous by Georgia Bragg
Everybody Sees the Ants by A.S. King
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey
Orchards by Holly Thompson
E is for Excitement:
Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine, and the Lawless Years of Prohibition by Karen Blumenthal
The Raft by S.A. Bodeen
Legend by Marie Lu
Trapped by Michael Northrup
Au Revoir Crazy European Chick by Joe Schreiber
F is for Fantastic:
Tiger Lily by Jodi Lynn Anderson
A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz
The Apothecary by Maile Meloy
Pandemonium by Lauren Oliver
Misfit by Jon Skovron
I facilitated the “Continental” group, first on my own then with a partner for the second session. I chose this group because I had already read two of the books (Verity and Swallows) so I figured getting through the other three shouldn’t be a problem. Since I facilitated, I didn’t actually get to discuss the books myself – the group leader is meant to pose the questions that gets the group talking but not give their own opinion that may sway the group. So I’m going to post my thoughts here now!
I listened to Anna and the French Kiss since it was clearly a romance and I figured that the audiobook would get me through. I was pleasantly surprised by the complexity of the story. It is a girl meets boy story, but the characters are very well developed and while Anna does spend a good portion of the book worrying about if Etienne likes her, she does have plenty of other stuff going on in her life too. (A few of the younger teens in our group were upset with Anna having a crush on a boy who already had a girlfriend).
My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece had been on my to-reads list for quite sometime but only because David “Doctor Who” Tennant did a blurb for the back of it. The title told me enough about the book that I had not been in a rush to read it but this conference gave me a reason. It was a heart-breaking story, beautifully written but I can’t imagine who I would give it to. I suppose those teens who are attracted to lives filled with tragedy. Though this isn’t your typical teen dealing with death book since the narrator is only 10 years old. (Teens in our group said they never would have picked this book up on their own).
The Book of Blood and Shadow is not my kind of book. It’s a Da Vinci Code sort of mystery with a teen cast. If you like reading through mysterious letters and dealing with secret societies, you might enjoy this one. For me, it took too long to get started, and I was enjoying the story at the beginning of the book so when it switched over to the kind of story it was really going to be, I lost interest. It’s not quite a thriller, not quite a mystery, and not quite supernatural. It is a bit too long and I got sick of the main character worrying about if the mysterious boy likes her when she was supposed to be solving the murder of her best friends. (Even the teens felt the story had one too many plot twists, leaving them feeling frustrated by the end).
A Game for Swallows is a graphic novel about Lebanonese Civil War. It is less of a story and more of a captured moment from the author’s childhood. Abirached uses the format wonderfully, as the members of her neighborhood crowd into the foyer of her grandmother’s home, and crowd into each panel. For better or for worse, the book drew many comparisons to Persepolis, probably because it deals with a crisis in the Middle East and the Abirached’s art style in very similar to Satrapi’s.
Code Name Verity was probably my favorite of the group. I read it when it first came out last year, fascinated by the very simple cover art (I try not to read the book flaps anymore, too many spoilers). It took me awhile to get into the book, but once you began to understand where the story might be going, it was hard to stop reading. And then, of course, you get the 180 in the middle of the book. Since I had read the book over a year ago, I started listening to it to try to refresh my memory. Reading the book is an experience in itself since you can see the codes that the writer is trying to hide within the text. Listening to it is also an experience, as the narrators do a wonderful job with the text. I recommend both. Not one or the other – both. When you finish the book the first time, you’re going to want to go back and do it again, so I suggest both formats. (My favorite comment from a teen was how they don’t like Historical Fiction but they liked this book because it wasn’t trying to teach her anything. I tried not to laugh maniacally because I’m sure she learned something and just doesn’t even realize it).
OH! and then there were the wonderful speakers. Author Robin Wasserman did a great presentation on “darkness” when it comes to books and especially why it’s appealing and important to young adult readers. Then Sharon Flake talked about taking people out of boxes in her stories and that even though when she writes she is focusing on taking African-American boys out of stereotype boxes, she is always surprised by how many other kinds of teens she hears from who have read her books and connected to them. Raina Telgemeier talked about being on the outside, and how she took those experiences and wrote her two graphic novels that have connected with teens all over the country.
So if you are a teacher, librarian, or teen in the Baltimore area (we actually had a librarian in my group who came down from Pennsylvania!), mark your calendar for 2015. Books for the Beast will be back and you won’t want to miss it!