Monday, July 09, 2007

Crossover Monday

When I began blogging about children's books, I mostly reviewed picture books and Middle Grade fiction. Over the years, however, I've been increasingly drawn to Young Adult literature as well, a category I did not read as a teenager. Part of what interests me about Young Adult fiction, is a simple question: When is a book meant only for the teens and when is it meant exclusively for adults? What differentiates one market from the other? Well, sometimes, it's hard to tell. Today I'm reviewing two books--one marketed as YA, the other as adult fiction--that cross age boundaries and can be enjoyed by all readers approximately ages 13 and up.

First up is Nancy Crocker's brilliant and heartfelt Billie Standish Was Here. Marketed as Young Adult fiction and meant for readers ages 14 and older, it would be a shame if this book were not read by adults everywhere.

Billie Standish is a self-sufficient only child, born to farmers in Cumberland, Missouri, in 1959. Because she's a girl, Billie's parents ignore her, leaving her to run the household, when they are off working the farm. (The irony being, of course, that Mom works alongside her husband, as much a farmer as he is.) When the novel opens Billie is eleven and is wandering a deserted town. Frightened and intrigued, she asks her neighbor--an elderly woman named Miss Lydia--what's happened. The dam is overwhelmed and a warning has been issued. Most of the town's residents fear flood, but Miss Lydia and Billie's parents have decided to remain put.

Billie benefits, however, by making a new friend in Miss Lydia. Miss Lydia hires Billie for a variety of small tasks, paying her with dinner and a dollar. Billie enjoys the older woman's company and conversation. There's only one downside to this new arrangement--Miss Lydia's vile, loutish son, Curtis. Billie, an intelligent girl, is stunned by Curtis and can't believe how different he is from Miss Lydia:

"I stared at my bedroom ceiling that night thinking about how every single person on earth, no matter who they turned out later, started out as somebody's baby.

Everybody started out as a blessing or a disappointment. A prayer that had been answered or nothing more than another mouth to feed. All by the time they'd drawn their first breath. "

Billie should know. Her mother had desperately wanted a boy, and Mom got Billie.

The unthinkable happens, changing Miss Lydia and Billie's burgeoning friendship. Curtis drags Billie into a truck and rapes her. Almost immediately, there's a town scandal: Miss Lydia has shot her son, thinking he was an intruder. From that moment on, Billie and Miss Lydia are more than friends--they're conspirators. Over the years, their friendship develops and even widens as they admit a third person--Billie's classmate, Harlan--into their midst. Miss Lydia teaches Billie and Harlan about current events, inspires them both to go to college (especially Billie, who she makes her heir), and teaches them love, compassion, and loyalty.

Billie Standish was Here is a testament to unlikely friendships and how much they can change your world. Nancy Crocker's 1960s lower Midwest dialect never falters in the book, never seeming false or folksy. As a result, her characters walk off the pages. This book is a gem--don't miss it. (And, if you don't believe me, check out Jules' rave review over at Seven Impossible Things About Breakfast.)

I'm far too antisocial and impatient to belong to a book group myself, but Billie Standish was Here is the perfect book group selection. There's so much to discuss in its pages--a friendship that transgresses age boundaries, the turbulent 1960s, terrible children born to good people, and, most importantly, coming of age. Recommend Billie Standish was Here to as many adult readers you know. It's one they shouldn't miss, just because it's shelved in the Young Adult section of the library or bookstore.

Now for a personal transition to this review post. (Hey, talking about me, me, me is what makes blog reviews different, remember?)

As much as I loved Billie Standish was Here, I didn't give it to my 11-year-old daughter because of the rape scene. I may still change my mind about this. While the rape scene is not graphic, it is emotionally powerful and not easy to forget, and my daughter, while an excellent reader, is immature in many ways. One book she did read--twice in a row--is a book I picked up from the adult shelves of Waterstones. This book--My Latest Grievance, by Elinor Lipman--is one many a teen will appreciate, even though it's not shelved in their section.

My Latest Grievance is told from 16-year-old Frederica Hatch's point of view and it's a hoot from start to finish. Frederica, an only child like Billie, has lived a coddled life, born and raised in the dorms of a college campus where her parents are both professors. Her view on the world is precocious, skewed, and downright hilarious. Here, for example, is how she sees her parents:

"My father, who commuted by bike the three-tenths of a mile across campus to his classes, was one of those daft-looking professors who cinched his trouser legs and kept his helmet on until he reached his second-floor office. My mother walked to class, rain or shine, under a wool or plastic poncho, taught in sneakers, eschewed the elevator for the stairs."

Having lived most of my adult life on or around college campuses, I can assure you that Frederica's parents are real. My Latest Grievance is filled with Frederica's sarcastic, 16-year-old observations, my favorite being, "not everyone's mother painted nipples on her daughter's Barbie doll for the sake of anatomical correctness."

Frederica's loving parents have raised her as an adult and allow her to participate in every and all family conversations, no matter how inappropriate. As the novel opens, Frederica finds out about a rare family secret--her father has been married before, to a flighty, glamorous woman named Laura Lee. Laura Lee, like Frederica's parents, is also a type--a flaky drama/dance type who wears vintage clothing and bats her eyes in front of every man, eligible or no. Before long, Laura Lee is invited to campus as a housemother and life is never the same again for Frederica or her parents.

It's not the plot that makes My Latest Grievance a true and funny read. It's Frederica's views on the world and her growth as a character that carry the reader along. Her coming of age is less dramatic than Billie's in Billie Standish was Here, but it's no less earth-shattering. Frederica must come to terms with the fact that she has been silly, dismissive of her parents, and taken in by false glamour and brilliance.

My Latest Grievance, like Billie Standish was Here, should be shelved in two sections and enjoyed by readers of all ages.

The U.K. cover of My Latest Grievance is much better than that U.S. sunglasses version. I'm not even sure to what the glasses refer to in the novel. Laura Lee, perhaps?