All the Right Stuff by Walter Dean Myers is a Socratic dialogue about the social contract, the unwritten rules that determine our behavior, wrapped around the barest of plots.
I’m not a big fan of philosophy and I love a good plot, so this one didn’t do it for me.
In the aftermath of the death of his estranged father, Paul begins a summer job working in a soup kitchen. Elijah, the proprietor, quickly begins to teach Paul about more than chopping onions. They get into deep discussions about the social contract, the roles we play and why we do what we do. The debate becomes real as Paul mentors a young teenage mother who sees basketball as her only hope and is being recruited by a local gangster who doesn’t abide by the social contract.
In some ways it reminds me of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, with the philosophic conversation broken up by manual labor (in this case, preparing soup).
In the end it’s just a conversation. It’s all discussion and little action.
But I want a story that actually tells a story.
Mexican WhiteBoy by Matt de la Peña is gritty. It’s real and it’s tough. It a gives a glimpse of life in a poor Mexican barrio near San Diego.
We see it through the eyes of Danny, a mixed-race teenager trying to come to terms with his mixed up identity. His mom is blond and blue eyed, his dad is Mexican. He feels out of place at his white private school and in the poor neighborhood his dad grew up in. But his dad is gone. His mom is off in affluent San Franciso with her boyfriend. Danny’s left with his extended family, where he doesn’t quite fit.
We also see the neighborhood through Uno, another mixed race teen—black and Mexican—who also struggles to find his place.
Yes, every teen novel is about self identity. Who am I? What’s my place in this world? But it’s that much more acute for these characters caught between borders.
But Danny loves baseball. Unexpected friendship and the love of the game find a way through.
There’s a lot going on in this book. The questions of culture, race and identity are powerful.
At the same time, it reminds me of all the books on baseball I read as a boy (probably during the height of my baseball addiction, just after getting baseball wallpaper). Like Hang Tough, Paul Mather. Alfred Slote was the king of YA baseball stories. At some book sale I remember finding a signed copy of a Slote baseball book, inscribed to someone and dated 1981. I thought that was pretty cool.
I don’t remember much about Slote’s baseball stories. But the descriptions of the game were good. Mexican WhiteBoy doesn’t even include any games, but Matt de la Peña’s descriptions of Danny’s pitching are just as good.
Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith is the greatest novel you’ll ever read about six-foot-tall praying mantis soldiers devouring a small town in Iowa.
It might also be the best book you read all year. It’s funny, weird, rambling, and full of the profanity and sex you’d expect from a 16-year-old narrator.
It starts off as another story of an outcast teenager, struggling with life and his attraction to his girlfriend and gay best friend. But it turns into apocalypse by experimental mutant insects. It gets there (and holds together) thanks to the wonderful narration of 16-year-old Austin, a wannabe historian who lays it all out and explores the weird connections and fascinating underbelly of an economically depressed community in rural Iowa.
While the premise is incredibly weird/awesome, I think it’s the voice of this searching, yearning, experimenting teen that makes it so good. Here’s the perfect example sentence:
“History provides a compelling argument that every scientist who tinkers with unstoppable shit needs a reliable flamethrower.”
It’s as if my two favorite genres—funny yet painfully honest teen novel and post-apocalyptic sci-fi—got together to create a genetically modified hybrid super-genre that kicks every other book’s ass.