We’ve learned more about the human brain in the last ten years than the previous ten thousand. Adolescence in particular is a time of dramatic change.
I’m currently pursing a master’s in social science and as I have two daughters on either side of the teenage spectrum (10 and 19), I decided to enroll in a course on Adolescent Brain Development.
I’ve learned that from age 10 to 25, approximately, the human brain goes through significant structural transitions as it is both built up through the maturation of various areas of the cortex and the myelination (coating) of neurons, and thinned out through synaptic pruning, a kind of knowledge specialization.
The teenage brain advances in a back-to-front pattern. The prefrontal cortex, the region responsible for executive functions such as impulse control, emotional response, decision making, planning and judgement, is not considered fully matured until the mid-twenties.
Chuck Wendig‘s latest young adult novel, Atlanta Burns, is causing a bit of a stir around the interwebs, and most of it is well deserved. I received a review copy of this book from Netgalley—and WOW! It certainly packs a punch.
Normally, I’d cover this book as part of GeekMom’s “Between the Bookends” feature, but I’ve been fielding quite a few questions about it, so I thought I’d give it its own article. See, Atlanta Burns is published by Skyscape, Amazon’s YA imprint. The heroine of the novel, Atlanta Burns, is a teenager. Yet, the book has a warning in its description on Amazon: “This book is intended for mature audiences due to strong language and violence.”
Now, I’ve read my fair share of YA novels, both as a teen and as an adult. Having read this book, I can honestly say, sure, there are bad words, and bad things happen in it. But has anyone read Hunger Games? Or any one of a plethora of YA books out there that not only have bad words or violence, but feature far worse things—like on-the-page sexual assault, etc? I don’t see most of these books with a trigger warning on their Amazon pages.
I’m the parent of a 12-year-old. I know that not all kids are alike. Some are ready for some things long before others, some are more sensitive than others, and so forth. My advice to parents when they ask me if this would be a good book for their kids (about any book) is invariably this: Only you know your kid. Read the description. Heck, read some of the book, then you’ll know. Labeling a book as not appropriate does no one any favors. Let the book speak for itself, and let reviewers do their job of word of mouth recommendations. Books are not one-size-fits-all.
So for those curious, here is my review of Chuck Wendig’s Atlanta Burns:
Author Chuck Wendig has never exactly been known for holding back. If you have ever read his blog or his books (including The Blue Blazes, the Miriam Black series, and his young adult Heartland Trilogy), you’ve seen his NSFW MO. If you expected anything else from his newest book, Atlanta Burns, you will be either overjoyed or sorely disappointed. This is Chuck Wendig at his truest and finest form.
Atlanta Burns hold no punches. Atlanta, the main character, is a teenage girl who has been through a lot. But, unlike many of the angst-ridden teens we read about in YA fiction, she doesn’t take this crap lying down. No way. Atlanta takes matters into her own hands and exacts her own brand of justice. She’s a teenage superhero, only without the protection of a mask or cape. She’s a teenager with a shotgun, and she’s done letting people pray on the weak.
Wendig has accomplished something pretty cool with this novel. Not only does he deal with topics like suicide, homosexuality, bullying, dog fighting/animal rights, absentee parenting, sexual abuse, and drugs—he deals with them all in one book in a realistic way that doesn’t feel heavy-handed. We don’t get that syndrome I see so often in teen books, where so many things happen to one person that it’s unbelievable.
Most importantly, however, he captures the helpless, powerless feeling of being a teen so well, and in a way adults can understand, which is possibly the most interesting thing. Atlanta’s problems are not petty, and they are far-reaching. I never felt the eye-rolling exasperation I get when I read some YA “issues” books, I never felt like the main character had to get over herself, because she wasn’t in it for herself. She puts her life on the line for her friends, and while yes, life would have been easier had she just lain low and let things happen… Well, this is Atlanta Burns we’re talking about here.
Every time I asked myself, “How can this get any worse?” they did. Things got to the point where I had to say, “This can’t possibly end well,” yet the book did end in a satisfying way. No one is unscathed, but life does go on.
Is this a good book for teens? Would it be appropriate for your teen? Well, as with anything, you know your kids best. I thought this was a great book, and Atlanta is a kick-ass heroine that adults and mature teens can love. Very sensitive teens might want to wait a while on it though, as there are some animal cruelty issues as well as some drug usage.
Kudos to Chuck Wendig for another no-holds-barred winner!
About Atlanta Burns:
You don’t mess with Atlanta Burns.
Everyone knows that. And that’s kinda how she likes it—until the day Atlanta is drawn into a battle against two groups of bullies and saves a pair of new, unexpected friends. But actions have consequences, and when another teen turns up dead—by an apparent suicide—Atlanta knows foul-play is involved. And worse: she knows it’s her fault. You go poking rattlesnakes, maybe you get bit.
Afraid of stirring up the snakes further by investigating, Atlanta turns her focus to the killing of a neighborhood dog. All paths lead to a rural dogfighting ring, and once more Atlanta finds herself face-to-face with bullies of the worst sort. Atlanta cannot abide letting bad men do awful things to those who don’t deserve it. So she sets out to unleash her own brand of teenage justice.
Will Atlanta triumph? Or is fighting back just asking for a face full of bad news?
It’s no secret that many of the GeekMoms are fans of Nikola Tesla. In February, an intriguing new fiction trilogy that pays homage to the inventor and scientist kicks off in Tesla’s Attic.
As book one in the “Accelerati Trilogy” by Neal Shusterman and Eric Elfman, Tesla’s Attic introduces us to Nick and the unexpected twists his life takes after an unimaginable tragedy.
Fourteen-year-old Nick, his younger brother, and their father move into a ramshackle Victorian house after their old home burns down. But when Nick opens the door to his attic room, and is hit in the head by a toaster, it’s just the beginning of some weird experiences. After getting rid of the odd antiques in a garage sale, Nick befriends some local kids—Mitch, Caitlin, and Vincent—and they soon discover all of the objects have extraordinary properties.
What are these strange objects Nick has discovered? And how is it all tied to Nikola Tesla?
Middle-school kids who love science and supernatural adventure–and readers of all ages who have a soft spot for the artifacts of Warehouse 13–might find Tesla’s Attic to be right up their alley.
Here’s your chance to get an exclusive first look at the full feature-worthy trailer for the first book, courtesy of Disney-Hyperion. Tesla’s Attic hits bookstore shelves on February 11, 2014.
Hello. My name is Patricia and I’m the mother of a 9-year-old reluctant reader.
I have to say…I don’t have the most happy-motherly thoughts about having a son who doesn’t enjoy reading the way I did when I was younger. In fact, last week I had received a note from my oldest son’s teacher about how far behind he is on his Accelerated Reader testing for the quarter. He got the most logical, rational, inspirational pep talk I could muster last night.
It isn’t that my son isn’t able to read. He reads really well and is very good at the comprehension assessments when he applies himself. He just doesn’t enjoy it as much as doing math and science work. And when you layer on the pressures of having to read a prescribed amount every nine weeks, it’s become a delicate balance for me: inspiring your son to WANT to read vs. forcing him read to fulfill school requirements.
In late August the GeekMoms received an invitation to receive a complimentary signed copy of Tommy Greenwald’s book Charlie Joe Jackson’s Guide to NOT Reading for review, targeting 9-to-12-year-old reluctant readers. I raised my hand emphatically (okay, so it was an online “virtual” raising of my hand) and proclaimed that I have the perfect candidate! My 9-year-old.
Charlie Joe Jackson is young man who is defending his lifelong disdain for reading. He comes up with several schemes to get others to read his books for him, and those plans all seem to backfire. Over the course of the story he’s weaving lie after lie to get through his reading requirements, and when the principal finally finds out about the numerous schemes he’d concocted, he is told to write a 150 page book as punishment.
So this is what the book is, actually: the product of Charlie Joe’s punishment. He writes an account of the events that led up to his writing the book, and intertwined through the book were assorted lists of ways to get out of reading, and hints at how to find reading without even reading books (such as reading ticket stubs, opening/closing movie credits, and texts to/from friends).
My oldest son really enjoyed the book. It’s the least-illustrated chapter book I think he’s read to date (he’s been reading Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Captain Underpants and Big Nate books this past year), and liked the lists of reading tips throughout. When I had asked what the book was about, he told me it was a book full of tips on how to get out of having to read. That seemed to be what he remembered the most.
I was suspicious of that account so this week I read the book myself. Yes, there are TWENTY-FIVE lists of “not reading” tips, but the story is much more. It was a great account of “real life” for a pre-teen (tween?) young man in middle school. Among the main story about trying not to do his reading assignments, you learn about Charlie Joe’s circle of friends, his interests, his family (who he loves and respects, which was a great trait to give a tween-novel hero), and his two dogs Moose and Coco.
I got a little skittish about Charlie Joe texting friends, having a Facebook account and playing Call of Duty on the XBox at his age. I’m sure lots of middle school boys are doing exactly that, but I simply don’t want to think about my 9-year-old wanting to do any of that in 3-4 years. Charlie Joe is also a fan of The Simpsons, which not all parents would appreciate. My oldest son loves The Simpsons, but we watch it as a family with a lot of caution (most of the time, my husband and I watch the episode first).
Since I don’t have middle school kids of my own, I wasn’t sure what to make of middle school-aged characters in the book being Beatles fans and comparing the casts of the 1975 vs. 1996 Broadway productions of Chicago. I’m convinced that Mr. Greenwald is tapping into his own sons’ geeky interests to come up with some of the conversations. I’d be tickled pink if my sons took an interest in Broadway history by the time they’re in middle school! Charlie Joe owns a rare Beatles Yesterday and Today “Butcher Cover” from 1966, which he trades to a girl so she would date his geeky friend. I couldn’t believe that one! If I was Charlie Joe’s mother, I’d have that cover in a SAFE DEPOSIT BOX!
(Wait a second — I was a Beatles fan when I was 12 years old! Okay, I shouldn’t be so surprised….)
Having married a Long Islander, it was cute to see situational references to New York and New England: the boys played lacrosse together and there was even a reference to a Carvel Fudgie the Whale ice cream cake!
In summary, this is a great book for a 9-to-12 year old who is having trouble getting inspired to read. I felt that Charlie Joe Jackson could be my oldest son in 3 to 4 years, judging from his love of baseball, video games and geeky interests. Charlie Joe’s teachers knew he had the potential to be great, and worked together to challenge him by having him write a 150-page book.
Something that jumped out at me at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con was the abundance of panels that focused on comics and graphic novels for teens—so many YA-centered panels I wasn’t able to attend them all. But I did make it to two of them: Comics for Teens and the art-focused Teen Comics Workshop I wrote about yesterday. Despite the similar titles, these were radically different panels, each lively and fascinating and full of awesome.
Comics for Teens was all about the writers. The panelists were Cecil Castellucci (Plain Janes), Hope Larson (Mercury), Gene Luen Yang (Level Up), and Nate Powell (Swallow Me Whole), and the moderator was prolific YA author Scott Westerfeld (Leviathan). These are authors whose books I have enjoyed immensely—especially Gene Yang’s American Born Chinese and Level Up.
The authors spoke movingly about the readers they write for: teens, who lead, as Scott Westerfeld put it, “intense lives” and have intense responses to what they read.
Westerfeld asked each of the panelists to begin by sharing a letter from a reader in response to one of their books. Cecil Castellucci read a really moving epistle by a teenager who described herself, with vivid examples, as a worrier—and said that reading The Plain Janes was a transforming experience for her, and helped her battle her anxiety. Gene Yang told the audience about a long and earnest letter he received from a boy who had disliked certain aspects of American Born Chinese; the reader felt Gene had “harped on differences” too much. What touched Gene was the time and thought this reader had put into the letter; it meant a lot to him, as a writer, to have someone engage so deeply with the work.
What struck me about each of the letters (some were read aloud, others paraphrased) was that the readers had made such deep connections with the characters in these books—sometimes positive connections, and in the case of Gene’s reader, a critical one—but all of them personal and vivid.
The panelists spoke also about boundaries in YA fiction. Scott Westerfeld sees YA as having fewer boundaries in regard to genre and form: “All my YA can be shelved together,” he pointed out—the realistic fiction right beside the fantasy.
But Hope Larson spoke of language and content boundaries. She used the word “bitch” in her middle-grade graphic novel, Chiggers, which means some school librarians will not put it on the shelves.
Cecil broached the issue of moral lessons in YA: “Just because a book is written for youth,” she said, “doesn’t mean it needs to teach a lesson. Teens can smell a moral a mile away.”
Hope said that with her book Mercury, the editor asked for the villain to get his comeuppance—not just get away. “Is the world moral or chaotic?” she mused, suggesting that in books for kids, people want to see a moral landscape in which good prevails over evil.
Nate Powell, too, had an editor who wanted certain characters in his book “brought to justice.” There seems to be a sense (among readers? librarians? publishers?) that in YA and children’s books, people should not “get away with doing terrible things.”
The panel also discussed the particular challenges of writing graphic novels and comics vs. writing prose novels, and how the illustrations carry narrative responsibility. Cecil felt that her work for Minx, the now-defunct DC Comics imprint aimed at girls, was part of a frontier effort, venturing into new territory. She drew a parallel between Minx and early wagon-train pioneers, who sometimes didn’t survive their journey but helped blaze a trail for later settlers. This made me think of some of the very strong female characters we’ve seen in graphic novels of the last two or three years; Vera Brosgol’s stunning Anya’s Ghost and Raina Telgemeier’s Smile (which won this year’s Eisner Award for Best Teen Publication) come to mind.
There was a strong sense among the panelists that the demand for teen comics and GNs is very high, although parents and librarians don’t always embrace this medium. (This posed an interesting contrast to the Comics in the Library panel I attended the next day, at which several enthusiastic comics-loving librarians shared their strategies for building graphic novel collections in their respective library systems.)
What I enjoyed most about this excellent panel was how smart and thoughtful and fired up these writers are, all of them: they love their audience, they are clearly burning to tell the stories they are telling, and they are crazy about the medium—so rich and full of possibilities. Cecil spoke with passion about connecting with YA readers because teens are at a time of their lives when they are “experiencing things for the first time”—everything is dramatic and fraught with meaning and (as Scott Westerfeld put it) intense. Hope Larson said she writes the books she would have liked to read as a kid. I had the sense that this was true for all the panelists.
Something else that struck me about this panel—an observation reinforced by four days of exploring publishers’ booths in the hall—is how few of these really wonderful YA comics and graphic novels are coming out of traditional comics publishers. Chiggers and Mercury are published by Simon & Schuster/Atheneum. Gene Yang publishes with First Second, a Macmillan imprint; Anya’s Ghost is also a First Second book. Nate Powell’s Swallow Me Whole is published by Top Shelf Productions. Raina Telgemeier’s Smile is a Scholastic book. Cecil Castellucci is, as far as I know, the only one of the panelists to have published a YA with one of the Big Two comics publishers—the aforementioned, now non-existent DC Comics imprint, Minx.
DC and Marvel may be missing the boat when it comes to the YA boom, but the breadth of talent on this panel makes it clear that there will be no shortage of smart, funny, compelling, and truth-speaking comics and graphic novels in the months to come.
Recently, an article on dark themes in young adult books in the Wall Street Journal rocked the YA community–and not in a good way. Rebuttals are popping up everywhere on blogs run by YA authors, book bloggers, and YA readers (teens and adults alike). The hashtag #yasaves was trending worldwide on twitter over the weekend. Read it. It will make you cry.
Contemporary fiction for teens is rife with explicit abuse, violence and depravity. Why is this considered a good idea?
The article talks about how a mom recently went into a bookstore to buy her thirteen-year-old a book and she walked out, no book in hand because there was “nothing, not a thing, that I could imagine giving my daughter. It was all vampires and suicide and self-mutilation, this dark, dark stuff.”
The article then goes on to condemn YA as a whole as nothing but dark, depressing schlock that’s going to make teens do horrible, terrible things.
Yet it is also possible—indeed, likely—that books focusing on pathologies help normalize them and, in the case of self-harm, may even spread their plausibility and likelihood to young people who might otherwise never have imagined such extreme measures.
Um, what YA are you reading?
Please don’t disparage a whole genre based on your opinion that there are too many “dark” books, especially since terms like “too many” and “dark” are so subjective.
Certainly there are plenty of dark books out there dealing with tough issues like drug addition, rape, and abuse. But that doesn’t mean that because a teen reads a book about self-mutilation they’re going to cut themselves.
That’s like saying because I watched Bugs Bunny as a kid I’m going to smack people with mallets and drop anvils on their heads.
Books are fiction and teens know that.
Teens are smart, give them some credit.
As a mom, I can see the flipside. I would feel uncomfortable with an eleven- or twelve-year-old reading my book, Innocent Darkness, because I wrote it with older teens in mind. Though set in a Steampunk world, it deals with issues like poverty and abuse.
But just because it’s aimed at older teens does not mean it shouldn’t be written. I also know that even if I’m careful to never, ever market it to younger teens that some younger teens may still pick it up. I can only hope that a parent, librarian, or teacher will be there in case they wants to talk about it.
It is a dereliction of duty not to make distinctions in every other aspect of a young person’s life between more and less desirable options. Yet let a gatekeeper object to a book and the industry pulls up its petticoats and shrieks “censorship!”
Parents, please, by all means pay attention to what your kids are reading. The books your teens read can give you an insight into their interests and possibly what they–or their friends–are going through.
I only wish my parents noticed exactly how many books I read (both fiction and non) about eating disorders.
As a parent I want to know what my kid and teen are reading. I want to be able to keep an eye on their books and talk to them about what they read because there are books out there that might be appropriate for an older teen but not a younger one. I totally understand feeling like you need to shield your young teen or tween from certain issues.
This doesn’t mean I’m going to tell other teens what they should or shouldn’t read–or make it impossible for them to even have the choice. What’s appropriate or inappropriate for my kids may or may not be appropriate or inappropriate for someone else’s.
Certainly, I’m not going to shun an entire genre simply because I may object to certain subjects being written about. That would be like saying “all cartoons are horrible” because I don’t like certain ones.
Each and every teen is different, with their own tastes, own issues their dealing with. They’re all at different places. Because teens are so different I feel there should be a variety of books for them to read: clean books, gritty books, dark books, light books, contemporary books, fantasy books. Then they have a choice.
And believe me, that choice is there. The YA section is not devoid of mortality. Every single book on the shelves in the teen section is not all “vampires and suicide and self-mutilation.”
My first thought in response to the mom who walked out of the YA section in disgust was why didn’t you ask someone in the bookstore for a recommendation? There are plenty of amazing books out there that don’t have sex, swearing or darker issues in them. There are blogs devoted to YA books for precocious readers and reviews from a parent’s POV.
The world is not always a pretty place. A high school is not without dark and twisty issues of its own. YA books give teens the chance to explore dark and sensitive issues safely.
I wish today’s YA had been around when I was a teen, when I felt like no one understood. When I quite literally shut everyone out for nearly two years because I couldn’t deal with the stress, the pressure, the hormones, all those things I felt inside but couldn’t verbalize. When I quietly dealt with eating and body image disorders for years all on my own, and no one ever noticed.
No one. Not a soul. Not even my parents.
I’m not saying YA could have saved me from all those things that happened to me in high school, though YA has saved many–just read these posts by Nicole and Julie. But maybe if I’d felt like someone understood, like I wasn’t alone, I wouldn’t have spent most of my adulthood trying to forget how miserable my teen years were.
I’ve been a fan of John Scalzi’s blog, Whatever, for a while now. In fact, I’d been reading and enjoying posts there for quite some time before it hit me like a slap to the head: I hadn’t actually read any of the man’s books. What in the world was wrong with me? I set out to remedy the situation, and boy, am I glad.
Since I like doing things in order, I started with Scalzi’s first published book, Old Man’s War, which came out in 2005. It tells the addictively readable story of John Perry, a 75-year-old widower residing on a future Earth, who decides to give up the life — and the body — he’s known and enlist in the Colonial Defense Forces. Basically, he’s going to get a 20-year-old’s genetically amped-up body and some training, then spend a few years kicking alien butt to defend humankind’s off-Earth colonies.
Following Perry along on his journey through modification, training, and wartime is sheer pleasure. Yes, there are heavy themes here, and lives lost, but Perry’s resilience translates through the first-person narration and gives the book if not a lighthearted feel, at least an optimistic one. And the book has some really lovely things to say about marriage, friendship, and love. As a Heinlein fan, I enjoyed detecting the homages to that author in Scalzi’s pages, and I finished the book feeling a satisfaction similar to what Heinlein’s books have always given me — and a similar urge to go read everything else Scalzi has written.
And in a case of delightful serendipity — for me, anyway — it was just announced on Wednesday that Old Man’s War has been acquired by Paramount Pictures for a major motion picture, with Wolfgang Petersen (Air Force One, The Perfect Storm, Troy) slated to direct. As I read the book, I couldn’t stop imagining how it might be adapted to film, and I can’t wait to see what they do with it.
GeekMoms take note: These are books you’ll enjoy, and you might be able to share them with your older kids, too.
Ellen Henderson is a novelist and web strategist. She lives in Dallas, Texas, with her husband and son.
Jennifer Holm’s novel Turtle in Paradisereceives this year’s Golden Kite Award for Fiction. Based on stories Holm’s mother used to tell about her childhood, this hard-scrabble, Depression-era coming-of-age tale follows 11-year-old Turtle who is sent to live with relatives in Key West, Florida from New Jersey. Hilarious and heart-warming, Turtle in Paradise draws in the middle-grade reader with vibrant imagery and a fast-paced plot with an adventurous twist.
The award for Non-Fiction goes to The Good, the Bad and the Barbieby acclaimed nonfiction author Tanya Lee Stone. In passionate anecdotes and memories from a range of girls and women (including a forward by Meg Cabot) this compelling book takes an insightful and incisive look at how Barbie became the icon that she is–and at the impact the doll has had on our culture (and vice versa.)
Rooted in the experience of an immigrant family, siblings of all nationalities will see themselves in Rukhsana Khan’sBig Red Lollipop, this year’s winner for Picture Book Text. Illustrated by Sophie Blackall, Khan’s honest story reminds us of how assimilation is transformed from generation to generation, and offers a heartfelt, moving, commentary on sisterly relationships.
The Golden Kite Award for Picture Book Illustration goes to A Pocketful of Posies: A Treasury of Nursery Rhymesin which Salley Mavor’s gorgeous fabric relief techniques offer precise and intricate illustrations of beloved nursery rhymes. Even old poems are fresh and new in this beautiful reinterpretation that will delight many generations.
The 2011 Sid Fleischman Award for Humor goes to Alan Silberberg’s second novel Milo: Sticky Notes and Brain Freeze. Hilarious and poignant, the story of 13-year-old Milo’s struggle to come to terms with the loss that hit the reset button on his life comes to life through text and cartoons.