Wednesday, August 3, 2011

For Your TBR Pile: Two compelling contemporary YA novels Tall Story by Candy Gourlay and Nothing by Janne Teller

These two impressed me immensely, and I recommend them to you as quick reads that also offer depth and confident writing that's sometimes lacking in YA novels.

Tall Story by Candy Gourlay
To sum up: 
    16-year-old giant Bernardo lives in the tiny village of San Andres on the island of Montalban in the Philippines.  His mom, his budding 13-year-old basketball-star sister Andi, and his step-dad William live in London.  But why is he a giant and is he also a god?  What will happen when he finally leaves San Andres to reunite with his family in London?  Will his village crumble without his magical intervention?  Will Andi survive the humiliation of this giant - long on sweetness, short on English speaking skills and modern urban life - in her midst as she tries to carve out a place for herself on the basketball court and among the teens at her new school?
My opinion: 
    The magical realism-ish elements of this story completely won me over, as did Courlay's clean and often lightly humorous writing style, her characters' fundamental decency despite all their flaws, and her ability to present current teen problems in a believable yet relatively optimistic light without devolving into the trite or maudlin or stereotypical.  Although this book could be read by middle graders (based on both content and reading level), I actually think teens and adults will enjoy it as well.  I'm grateful to Enbrethiliel at Shredded Cheddar for suggesting it.

Nothing by Janne Teller, tr. Martin Aitken
To sum up: 
    On the first day of school of their 7th form year in their nearly-posh hamlet of Taering, Denmark, Pierre Anthon declares that life has no meaning, leaves school, and sits in a plum tree.  His peers can't stand the idea that their lives will amount to nothing, philosophically speaking, nor do they appreciate being pummeled with plums every time they pass by.  So they decide to prove to Pierre that he's wrong by building a 'heap of meaning' in an abandoned sawmill.                     
    Unfortunately, no one's all that anxious to contribute an object of true personal meaning for themselves, so they begin to choose each others' objects and to require increasingly meaningful but risky-dangerous contributions to the pile.  Will adults intervene before it's too late?  Will the young teens find it within themselves to shut down their hurtful meaning-making project?  Therein lies the story.
My opinion:
    And this one's quite the antithesis of Tall Story.  It's creepy and sometimes even difficult to connect with - at least early in the novel.  In my opinion, although it's been labeled a children's book in its home country of Denmark, elementary age children aren't an ideal target audience - this book is simply too darkly realistic on the one hand and possibly too philosophical in the end, plus not that involving character-wise without some patience. 
   I would, however, recommend it strongly to mature late-middle readers and teens, with adult support, as it's so rich with reasonably complex symbolism and black humor descending into the seriously macabre, and so believably explores the darker side of thirteen-fourteen year olds - not quite beyond childhood, not always understanding the world or themselves, but playing at it all the while for their peers (and parents) and capable of extreme cruelty and/or stupidity at key moments in otherwise stable lives - that it's truly compelling.   
   This first "children's" novel by an award winning Danish novelist was recommended as an alternate to the modern classic Lord of the Flies, and one can easily see why, as peer pressure and desire for personal power escalate here well beyond what the characters themselves might have predicted if they had been predisposed to predict.  So although this might be categorized as a near-allegory, it's simply taking natural, believable tendencies to extremes worth exploring in discussion with the teen(s) in your life.   Plus, in the end, it's also an exploration of meaning itself and how we all find it, create it, and lose it again, a topic well worth considering for adults too.

MFB, on the continuing quest to find more excellent world lit. for young adults,

My action: I'm going to make sure we get copies of these for our school library, and will advocate for purchasing a lit. circle set of Tall Story, plus a class set of Nothing for our 10th grade classes as a complement to Lord of the Flies.


LBC said...

Thanks for these recommendations Laurie. They both sound great. I'm going to see if my public library has copies right now. I'm particularly drawn to your description of Nothing.

Sidne,the BCR said...

hi, got a little surprise for you. please go to
feature: tell me about you thursday, aug, 4th.

Enbrethiliel said...


I'm so glad to read that you liked Tall Story, Laurie! =D

Enbrethiliel said...


PS--If you want to join Word & Question this month, just note that we have a different host for August . . . and that she is giving us a special theme to work with! =)

Anne Bennett said...

Laurie, the publisher of the Freak Observer visited my blog today and addressed your concerns about the creepy cover. Thought you might want to take a look at what he said (he is the third comment.)

Freak Observer@Headfullofbooks

Anne Bennett said...

Nothing is the most disturbing book I read last year, but I recognized the superior writing. I hold a Mock Printz Workshop at my high school and this is one of the books I had the kids read. They didn't want to pick it as the potential winner because the story is so disturbing but they did recognize that the author "had" them in her clutches. They were pretty proud of themselves when they discovered that they were right and the book was selected as a Printz Honor book.

Anne Bennett said...

I am going to look for Tall Tales right now! Thank you!

Laurie said...

LBC & Anne: You will enjoy these books, each so different from the other, but both strong in their own right.
Anne - I didn't realize that Nothing was a Printz Honor novel: Thanks for the heads-up. It's dark, but no darker than much of the traditional HS fare, and so much to teach (or, for parents, to discuss), even after the climax of the plot...
Sidne - Yay! And thanks!
E - I'm in for August (Word & Question)!

Enbrethiliel said...


I'm happy to hear/read that! The twist will make it extra fun, I bet. =)

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