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Image courtesy of graur razvan ionut / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of graur razvan ionut / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

There’s been an odd convergence of happenings this week.

First, like Katie, something about the New Year made me take stock, evaluate, reminisce. Over holiday vacation, I read journals I had written in high school and college, went through some of the things that have been sitting in storage gathering dust. I flipped through some of the oldest books on my shelves from childhood and teen years.

Second, CFromDC asked for a list of fiction recommendations. I offered titles I had read this past year, but, in looking at my bookshelf, felt a curious pull toward the worn books at the back, those same ones that had not been read in decades. I flipped through them once again, now paying a bit more attention to the memories they had created.

Then, finally, out of the blue, a friend recommended that I read The Blue Castle by Lucy Montgomery (the author of Anne of Green Gables), because she had enjoyed it and thought I would, too. And even though the heroine in the book is 29, the target audience is clearly teenage girls. And there it was again, circling: young adult fiction, or YA.

I thought, YA? Y Not? (Sorry.)

It’s all been very synchronicitastic, to say the least. I’m not a superstitious person, but I felt I should make good on the ideas while they were coalescing around me. So I pulled from my shelf those books that had the greatest influence on me as a young adult. Mostly, I wanted to re-read them and figure out exactly why they spoke to my burgeoning brain. These were the books that made me stay up late at night, opened up new ways of thinking, taught me about different types of people, and made me a critical reader. They were not the award-winners, nor the most popular books.

If I’m being honest, my selections are downright weird. I think that’s what I liked (and still like) in books – a little macabre; sometimes fantastical, sometimes coldly realistic; often pushing past the edges of comfort.

So I think the only way to do this is in order of weirdness, from least to most. Have any of you read these strange gems and been similarly touched by them?

A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L’Engle
I loved A Wrinkle in Time. I love L’Engle. This one is my favorite of the Murry/O’Keefe family tales, and also one of the strangest. It involves Meg, Charles Wallace, the twins, and mom and dad taking on a madman dictator. They don’t do this through espionage or covert operations, no. Geniuses that they are, they go back in time to prevent the birth of the madman so that he never existed. This is serious stuff. There’s also a flying unicorn named Gaudior. Unicorns in any story: +5,000. Flying unicorns in a story: + eleventy infinity.

But here’s what I remember the most about this book: applied genetics. L’Engle does a superlative job of blending science into each of her books (that’s why they’re categorized as science fiction, of course), and this one focuses particularly on genetics. This sweeping epic of a family down through several generations gives us biological clues to recognize particular traits, and teaches us how, when combined with a series of choices, the interaction of genetics and environment could have created a madman.

It may seem silly to say, but when you’re the only person in your immediate family who has unruly curly hair, knowing the trait has been passed down through several generations, from ancient people you’ve never seen who may have battled in wars and had exciting romances, it gives that trait an air of mysterious import. And you stop looking at it askew in the mirror so much.

So thank you, Ms. L’Engle, for giving me my first glimpse at the importance of understanding science and biology.

You Shouldn’t Have to Say Goodbye by Patricia Hermes
Oh dear. This one. I’m just going to come right out and say it: it’s about a young woman’s mother dying. It’s brutal. Sarah learns her mother has cancer, and then the entire plot focuses on how Sarah, at first in denial, must learn how to take care of herself and her father in preparation for her mother’s death. She has to learn how to do more around the house, such as wash clothes, etc.

Spoiler: her mother dies.

Why did I do this to myself? It made me sob. It scared me to think that I might live past my parents because I was only 8 and the thought hadn’t occurred to me. It made me see my mother as human. I remember finishing the book one evening, and my mother coming in to kiss me goodnight. Through tears, I asked her if she was going to die. She looked at the book, then me, concerned, and said, “Not today and not tomorrow, nor the day after.”

I felt better, but not long after, I decided I better start learning more things, just in case.

The Girl Who Lived on the Ferris Wheel by Louise Moeri
Remember the mother from You Shouldn’t Have to Say Goodbye? The lovely martyr who readies herself for death while taking her daughter under her wing? Well, take that mother and strip away all saneness and empathy and you have the mother from this horror-filled tale of abuse.

Teenaged Til comes home to an unhinged mother every day, one that seems to be worsening. She is abused both physically and verbally. And no one knows how awful Til’s home life is – not her peers or teachers or friends. Her only reprieve is when her father comes on the weekends to take her to ride the ferris wheel. It’s the only place she can feel safe and free. You know you have it bad when you only feel safe 200+ feet in the air.

But don’t worry: Til is saved in the end, after her mother tries to murder her. Small victories?

I don’t have much to say about this one except that it scared the crap out of me. And perhaps, later, as an attempted fiction writer, I learned a valuable lesson from this book: there’s nothing so effective in making your main character sympathetic than giving them a horrible, no good villain foil.

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By now you may be thinking, Well, these aren’t that weird. Maybe just a little depressing.

Keep reading, please.

***

The Cloverdale Switch by Eve Bunting
John is your typical late-1970s teen slacker who enjoys wearing cut-off jean shorts and smooching with his girlfriend, Cindy, in the back of vans. He seems headed for a career in middle management and a life with three ungrateful children, but then something odd happens in his small town: there are periodic black-and-white flashes, and then the people around him start acting really weird. By weird, I mean robotic. These same people start carrying around little black boxes, too. One of these is his girlfriend, Cindy.

With Gramps in his corner, John has a theory that these people are aliens, switched out during the weird black-and-white flashes they’ve been seeing around town. Eventually, they uncover these intruders and John confronts pod-alien-robot Cindy about why the aliens are there. The answer? To learn about human emotions. Except the pods acted so robotic that they would have never connected to real humans and therefore could never truly learn about human emotions. ROBOT-ALIEN-POD FAIL.

Anyway, once the aliens are exposed, they go away, and the people they inhabited go back to being normal. The end.

This one taught me the value of never being too emotional, lest the aliens target you for pod takeover. Be vigilant.

Heaven by V.C. Andrews
You didn’t think I could make a list of weird YA without V.C. Andrews, did you? Like the popular Flowers in the Attic, the Casteel series was dark and terrible and fascinating and why do we let children read these? What was wrong with V.C. Andrews?

Anyway, where to start with this one? Heaven Casteel is one of the hill folk in West Virginia, being brought up by a father who seems to hate her and a stepmother who is overworked. Heaven’s boyfriend, Logan, is your basic “good guy,” who will later, like all good guys, act like being decent deserves some sort of reward.

Anyway, Heaven’s stepmother runs off and Heaven’s father decides to sell all five of his children to various children-buyers. I’m not talking about Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, either. No, Heaven is sold to a couple that could never have children. They treat her OK until her new mother starts abusing her by giving her baths so hot her skin falls off, and her new father comes on to her. Uh oh.

Eventually, she escapes and tries to get her family back together again, but, as Don Henley says-sings, you can’t look back, you can never look back.

The book series continues with Heaven discovering that her dead mother was from a rich Boston family. So she goes to stay with them at their mansion, called Farthinggale Manor. There, she learns they’re all crazy, too. And she falls in love with a dark, mysterious man, Troy, who lives in a shed behind the house. OK, it’s really more of a cottage, but he’s kind of a mole person. Anyway, Troy and Heaven have knowledge of one another in the Biblical sense, and then they find out that Troy is actually Heaven’s uncle. Ahem.

I think the reason that me and others of my ilk read V.C. Andrews’ books growing up is because they were so filled with psychotic personalities. The moments of joy in the books were so far and few between that they resonated all the more, and it made the ups and downs in getting there worth the ride. Something like that.

Or we’re all really, really sick people.

Lizard Music by D. Manus Pinkwater
This is, hands down, the strangest book I’ve ever read. And so utterly delightful and imaginative. The best part about it is that the title is not misleading in any way. There are lizards in this story.

Victor is left alone for the weekend when his parents go away, and his sister, who’s supposed to babysit, decides to be a teenager and go off and party. Victor’s OK with that, actually, as he would like nothing more than to watch Walter Kronkite in peace (this was the 1970s). When he’s watching late-night TV, though, he sees a lizard quartet flash across the screen – not on it, but in the television, as though being broadcast from somewhere else. Hm. Weird.

When out and about the next day, Victor comes across the Chicken Man, thus named because he carries around a chicken, Claudia. He spouts a lot of nonsense, but he seems to know about the lizard music. Together, with Claudia as their sort-of leader, they go to a floating island where the lizards who wear top hats live.

I know the above paragraphs didn’t make a ton of sense. I’m sorry. Sometimes you just have to let D. Manus Pinkwater do his thing.

When I was a kid, I would sometimes concentrate really hard on the television screen so that I, too, could see the lizard quartet. They never came, but I think I have my Halloween costume for next year.

Honorable mentions: Last Look by Clyde Robert Bulla; The Witches of Worm by Zilpha Keatley Snyder; Into the Dream by William Sleator; and Just for Kicks, edited by Mary Verdick.

What are some of your favorite YA books, and how did they influence you?