Fiction, Magic Realism, Young Adult


Cover image for Belzhar by Meg Wolitzerby Meg Wolitzer

ISBN 978-0-525-42305-8

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book at ALA Annual 2014. All quotes are based on an uncorrected text.

“Words matter. That is what Mrs. Q has basically been saying from the start. Words matter. All semester, we were looking for the words to say what we needed to say. We were all looking for our voice.”

Unable to move on after a tragic loss, Jam Gallahue is sent to The Wooden Barn, an alternative school for “highly intelligent, emotionally fragile” teens in the woods of Vermont. There she finds herself enrolled in the exclusive and mysterious “Special Topics in English,” where the elderly and eccentric Mrs. Q is teaching her final year, with a focus on the work of Sylvia Plath. Along with four other students, each with their own secrets, Jam is assigned to read The Bell Jar and Ariel, and write in a journal twice a week. But instead of becoming reading response journals, the red leather volumes transport the students to a magical land they name Belzhar. Twice a week, they are taken back to a time before the tragedy that changed their lives, a place where that tragedy will never happen. But Belzhar can also be strangely unsatisfying, confined to the realm of the past, and never able to move forward. As the semester wears on and the journals fill up, the students must figure out what they will do when the journals are full, and they can no longer deny their pain by hiding in Belzhar.

Known for her adult fiction, which often explores the disconnect between adults and their youth, Meg Wolitzer makes her YA debut with Belzhar. Wolitzer is respectful of her teen characters, and never trivializes their difficulties. However, her effort to reach out to a younger audience falls short in other ways. Clocking in under three hundred pages, Belzhar feels rushed, as if Wolitzer was anxiously checking off each point on her plot diagram with little thought to connecting those points so that they feel like they develop naturally. Rather, the plot developments are laid out unceremoniously, and the bones of the book are clearly visible, so that the novels lacks a certain subtlety that cannot be forgiven simply because it is YA. Jam’s classmates are not well-developed characters, and they often feel flat outside the confines of the chapter that imparts their particular tragic backstory. More often, they are there to serve a point. Jam and Griffin, for example, lack chemistry as a couple, but getting them together is necessary to show that Jam is finally beginning to move on, so get together they do, as Wolitzer moves inevitably towards her heavy-handed, somewhat moralizing conclusion.


Recommended reads about teens and grief:

Cover image for Words and Their Meanings by Kate BassettWords and Their Meanings by Kate Bassett

Cover image for I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy NelsonI’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

Fiction, Young Adult

YA Fall Fiction Preview Part II

Last week I highlighted some of the exciting science fiction and fantasy YA novels that are coming out this fall. This week I’m sharing some of the more realistic and contemporary YA that I heard about at ALA, although two of the four have potentially supernatural twists:

Cover image for Belzhar by Meg WolitzerBelzhar by Meg Wolizter.  Fresh off the success of her 2013 bestseller, The Interestings, Meg Wolitzer returns with Belzhar. Jam Gallahue’s boyfriend is dead, and she has been shipped off to a bizarre Vermont boarding school that is supposed to be therapeutic. A journal-writing assignment takes an unexpected turn when Jam discovers that writing allows her to access Belzhar, an alternate world where Reeve is still alive, forcing her to confront her loss anew. Coming September 30, 2014.

First sentence: “I was sent here because of a boy.”

Cover image for Conversion by Katherine HoweConversion by Katherine Howe. Seniors at the elite St. Joan’s Academy of Danvers, Massachusetts are under incredible pressure as graduation approaches. At a time when they desperately need to keep it together, one by one the girls at the school succumb to a mysterious illness that involves inexplicable seizures and tics. No one seems to be able to figure out what is going on, but Colleen Rowley realizes that Danvers now stands on the site of what was once Salem village, where three centuries before, a similar plague touched off the most famous witch hunt in American history. Inspired by true events, Conversion is available now.

First sentence: “How long must I wait?”

Cover image for How to Build a Girl by Caitlin MoranHow to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran. Known for her humourous non-fiction works, including How To Be a Woman and Moranthology, Caitlin Moran’s new semi-autobiographical YA novel tells the story of Johanna Morrigan, aka Dolly Wilde. After humiliating herself terribly on local television, Johanna sets out to reinvent herself, building a new identity out of poetry, music, and paperbacks. She goes to work for a music magazine,  drinking, smoking, and writing scathing reviews of bands. But can she really build her coming-of-age out of records and novels, or is there more to growing up? On sale September 23, 2014.

First sentence: “I am lying in bed next to my brother, Lupin.”

Cover image for Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel by Sara FarizanTell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel by Sara Farizan. Iranian-American high school senior Leila feels different enough from her peers thanks to her Persian heritage. She doesn’t need anyone to know that she also likes girls. But a beautiful and intriguing new student name Saskia opens Leila up to the possibility of coming out of her closet, and finally engaging with her peers, who also have secrets of their own. This sophomore novel by the author of If You Could be Mine will be in stores October 7, 2014.

First sentence: “My copy of The Color Purple lies in front of me on my desk, the spine bent and wrinkled from the many times I’ve pored over the book.”