Review: Divergent

Okay, so I thought I’d try something different for this book review. As an introduction to Divergent, here are the notes I took while reading the first chapter of the book:

THIS BOOK IS SO MUCH BETTER THAN POSSESSION

First chapter sets up premise and world clearly: world is divided into five factions, each representative of a different value, much like the houses at Hogwarts. However, children are sorted into their faction at 16 after taking an aptitude test.

One faction is Dauntless, and they JUMP OFF OF MOVING TRAINS TO GET TO SCHOOL. Also they guard the fence of the city but ~nobody knows what’s outside~. Spooky!

Sorry, Possession. But because I read Divergent right after Possession, the contrast was really obvious. I never had a solid feel for how the city in Possession was set up or really understood what the different divisions meant. The descriptions were unclear. But in the first chapter of Divergent, I had a very clear understanding of how things worked. The book opens with the simple image of Beatrice’s mother giving her a haircut in front of the only mirror in the house. During her monthly haircut is the only time Beatrice is permitted to look at her reflection, because she is from Abnegation, the faction of the selfless.

When you’re 16, you take an aptitude test (you don’t wear a singing hat, nor do you have to wrestle a troll) which tells you the faction you’re most suited for. You can choose to stay in the faction you were born into, or you can change factions. Each faction has their own area of the city, and do different jobs, but they’re very close-knit and secretive. If you change factions, you may never see your family again. This is what Beatrice faces when her test results are inconclusive – the woman administering her test tells her that it means she’s Divergent and could fit into several factions, but being Divergent is dangerous and Beatrice must keep this fact hidden at all costs. Oh noes! So Beatrice is faced with  a choice between Abnegation, Erudite, and Dauntless as well as almost certain death.

Spoiler alert: Beatrice chooses Dauntless, jumps off a seven-story building as part of her initiation, and changes her name to Tris, which is way more badass. I love the joy that Tris experiences during her introduction to the Dauntless faction. She values her Abnegation roots, but she always felt too selfish to belong there, so she’s pretty psyched that in Dauntless she can talk about herself, have friends, eat hamburgers (she had never had a hamburger! I know!) and get tattoos. And there’s a fantastic scene where she and a group of fellow initiates zipline off the top of the motherfucking Hancock building, which reminded me of the scene where Harry Potter first flies on a broomstick. Pure joy and wonder like they have never experienced before! But Tris also has to learn to fight, shoot guns, and go through simulations where she’s forced to face her greatest fears in order to be initiated into Dauntless. (If you fail initiation, you get thrown out to live on the streets, so the stakes are high.) The best thing about this is that Tris’ bravery really comes from her selflessness. She’s most brave when she’s trying to protect her friends from bullies or save them from embarrassment. Though she chose Dauntless, Tris is always going to be part Abnegation.

What I love about Tris is that she’s real and flawed, but still someone you want to emulate. She’s plagued with guilt for leaving her faction, for being too selfish, for not returning the romantic feelings one of her friends has for her. She sometimes indulges her anger and lashes out in ways she shouldn’t, but you always understand Tris’ motivations.

Now, there’s also a sinister plot to uncover and a brutal initiate who’s trying to knock off the others (trigger warning, there is a scene with some sexual assault) so that he’s guaranteed a spot in Dauntless. And those parts are done fairly well, but I don’t want to spoil them for you. I will tell you that I really appreciated that the Big Bad in this book was not some sort of poorly thought out Big Brother knockoff that watches and controls everyone for no reason. The factions were set up after a devastating war, with the intention of creating a utopia, which is why they are Abnegation, Dauntless, Erudite, Amity, and Candor, but no “bad” factions to act like the Slytherins. Any ambitious Slytherins in this city would probably end up in Dauntless or Erudite, both of which have corrupt leaders. (Obviously the utopia thing didn’t work so well, but nice try.) I really dug this system, though, and discovering the Dauntless base carved underground or the huge libraries of the Erudite faction felt like discovering the house common rooms in Harry Potter.

Speaking of which, you may have noticed me comparing this book to Harry Potter a lot! This book has something I’m going to call the Harry Potter Factor, which basically means that it is super-awesome! You’ve got the factions, sorted by personality and values, each of which has their own common room base. There’s Peter, who is kind of like Draco Malfoy but with bigger balls. And of course, Tris. Like Harry, Tris is willing to make incredible sacrifices to save the ones she loves, and I was definitely reminded of a pivotal scene from Deathly Hallows near the end of the book.

Divergent is available in bookstores and libraries now, and I recommend you all go check it out. Fans who want more than a formulaic dystopian novel will love Divergent. Also, this book is a… GRYFFINDOR! (Yup, I just Sorted a book. Couldn’t you tell by the fire and stuff on the cover, though?)

Review: Possession

I’m not really sure how to start this review. I was pretty excited to read Possession, but I was ultimately very disappointed by it. I feel like I got tricked into reading Twilight under the guise of a dystopian novel.

The premise of Possession involves a 1984-ish dystopian future, where everyone is controlled by the government’s “Thinkers”, down to their jobs and who they will marry.

We link to the transmissions, work the jobs we’re told, marry who They match us with. In return, we’re provided with a good life. Or so the Thinkers wanted us to believe.

It’s not immediately clear, but the Thinkers control people with their minds. Violet Schoenfeld is a teenage girl who gets arrested for breaking the law by being alone with her match, Zenn, and meets a rebellious dude named Jag in prison. She and Jag hatch an escape plan together, go on the run, discover they both have secret gifts, and of course, fall in love.

If that sounds relatively gag-inducing, well, it is. I generally love dystopian YA because the books feature themes of rebellion and people fighting against their oppressors. If there happens to be some romance involved, that’s cool. But in Possession, the actual conflict ends up being which boy Violet should choose. She’s not really concerned about what it would mean if she chose Zenn and became a Director and had to control the population of the city. Violet never thinks about what’s best for everyone and whether controlling people is right or wrong, and she only rebels against that system because Jag teaches her about things like sleeveless shirts and kissing and spiked hair, all of which are too fun to turn down. But Violet never considers what duty she has to her family or to the population in general, which in my opinion makes her a pretty lousy hero.

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Dear WSJ, Young Adult Lit Is Not ‘Ugly’

The Wall Street Journal published an article about young adult books yesterday, titled “Darkness Too Visible”. The author, Meghan Cox Gurdon, tells the story of a mother who went to Barnes & Noble to find a gift for her 13-year-old daughter, but felt that there was nothing appropriate for her, only “vampires and suicide and self-mutilation, this dark, dark stuff.” I need to point out, as a bookseller who specializes in YA lit, that this mom clearly did not ask for help finding an appropriate book, or she would have left with one. I help parents all the time who are concerned that many of the books in the young adult section are too adult or too violent or too sexy for their child – and that’s your right as a parent, to decide what your kid can read. Lots of parents are scared by all the gothy-looking vampire romance covers and all the books with “death” in the title. (And it sounds like she was actually looking at the “paranormal romance” section instead of the regular “teen fiction” section, which usually has plenty of bright covers with prom dresses or carefree girls at the beach on the cover.) But booksellers are there to help you find a good book, and they are knowledgeable about their departments. Don’t be afraid to ask for help!

Gurdon also purports that young adult books nowadays are full of grotesque material that should not be marketed to teens. She writes:

If books show us the world, teen fiction can be like a hall of fun-house mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is. There are of course exceptions, but a careless young reader—or one who seeks out depravity—will find himself surrounded by images not of joy or beauty but of damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds.

This makes me so angry, because the author is insinuating that the “depravity” in the YA books she’s so afraid of isn’t true to life. So, girls don’t experience rape, and then struggle with what to do because they know they’ll be shamed for it, as in Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak? Teens don’t struggle with depression, self-injury, or mental illness? The truth is that the reason the YA community is so up in arms about this article is because teens (and adults) identify with these books. As hideous and depraved as Ms. Gurdon may think it is, teens want to read books that are honest, that don’t shelter them and let them experience real emotions. Speak is the book that saved my life: I wasn’t raped, like Melinda was in the book, but I was 13 and suffering from a deep depression. I didn’t know it was depression at the time, but I felt so very alone and helpless and I wanted to hide from everyone in my life. And then I read Speak, and Melinda felt that way, too! I had found someone who understood, and I read that book over and over again throughout my teenage years. If I hadn’t read it, I might not have become such an avid reader, discovered other books that spoke to me, or gotten out of my depression. But Melinda gave me hope. If that’s not joy and beauty, I don’t know what is.

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. Self-destructive adolescent behaviors are observably infectious and have periods of vogue.

And then we have the old argument that books about scary things like suicide, cutting, and drugs will cause teens to want to do those things. I challenge Ms. Gurdon to find one teen who admits that they started doing one of these things because of a book they read. Find one girl who became anorexic because Laurie Halse Anderson made it seem so attractive and glamorous in Wintergirls. (She actually makes it very scary and details all the ways Lia’s body breaks down.) Find one teen who started doing meth after reading Ellen Hopkin’s Crank, or one who decided it would be cool to start cutting themselves after reading Julia Hoban’s Willow. This idea that an outside influence is going to convince your teen to do bad things is entirely bogus, just like the random stranger on the street who’s going to offer your kids drugs that was the scare tactic in my fifth grade D.A.R.E. classes. Teens know that drug-peddling stranger doesn’t exist. If they do drugs, it’s going to be because they want to do drugs, whether it’s because of some pain inside them that they’re trying to heal, or because they’re rebelling against their parents, or because they’re just curious. Similarly, teens don’t do things like drinking or cutting or attempting suicide because a book gave them the idea. That’s not only insulting to the book’s author, who is not a drug pusher or a depraved person who wants to teach teenagers about nasty things; it’s also insulting to your kids, who are not so easily influenced and who want to be given more credit. There’s a reason we call it young adult literature: your teens are not children anymore. They’re smart, they’re finding out about the world as well as themselves, and trying to figure out how to distinguish themselves from their parents and from their peers. Parents, don’t underestimate your teens.

If you want to read more about the subject, check out Laurie Halse Anderson’s blog post or the #YAsaves tag on Twitter, which authors, librarians, parents, and readers are using to share their stories of how “dark” young adult books are good for teens. Feel free to talk in the comments as well: how have YA books helped you?