Tradition by Brendan Kiely

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If you have already read All-American Boys, Tradition is a similar story, only this time with toxic masculinity at the center.

 

If you haven’t read All-American Boys, get ready for an issue-focused morality tale.  To a adult reader, the pacing, characterizations, development, and clarity of the “it’s tradition” theme might seem really overt to you, but oh, naive one, this book is not for us.  It’s for the 17-year-old who hasn’t read a book cover to cover since elementary school and needs to be set up for the mind-blowing conclusion that Books Can Be About Real Things Featuring Characters That Talk Like The Way I Might Talk.

 

(And I also promise you the 17-year-old non-reader is going to have insights into this book that you, adult reader, would never think to think about.)

 

As a story, I had some issues with the plot pacing and felt like the big finale came on a little suddenly.  I felt that some interesting side characters had under-explored issues that could have, maybe with a littttttle more tweaking, pushed the plot forward in a more significant way.   But those concerns mattered little to me: I was in love with the characters, I was in love with the boarding school setting, and I found Kiely’s writing to be accessible and yet artistic and smooth.

 

If it were up to me, I’d pop this on the reading list of a high school health class.  It also makes a good bookend to other boarding school novels about sex, masculinity, and isolation, like Catcher in the Rye.  

 

 

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Resistance by Jennifer Nielsen

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I appreciate how Nielsen takes the time to reflect on our current political moment through the imaginings of the past; Nielsen’s narrator describes that some Poles “proudly allowed their homes to be assimilated into German territory” while others were “merely surviving, trying to blend in to the background” and believed that “ignoring the situation caused no harm” while a smaller population actively worked to help Jews.

There are poignant moments like these ones scattered throughout, which brings me to my primary criticism of the story: it’s an awkward mixture of middle grades characterization and vocabulary and chapter pacing and Hit Them on The Heads symbolism with YA situations, themes, plot events, plot development, and emotional ruminations. It often feels like a fifth grader is at the helm of running a spy circuit, and it seems implausible to me that the character as she’s voiced would either have a) so much agency, b) so much to say about her experience, and c) so much emotional darkness around the abandonment of her family, some decisions she made, and her depth of obligation to others. If the character were older, I think I would find the story a better fit and the character more plausible.

I love Neilsen and I love her book A Night Divided, where protagonist Gerta is torn apart from her family by the construction of the Berlin Wall and Gerta becomes part of a secret plan to reunite her family. Gerta and Chaya are similar characters in lots of ways, but what made Gerta’s story work so much better for me was that Gerta had the advantage of being a Middle Grades rebel with a Middle Grades cause: Gerta was always about her family and always acted in a way that would best serve her family, and she was a loyal friend and kind to strangers, too, which paid off for her in the long run despite her reservations.

I do think it’s possible to combine elements of middle grades and young adult in suspense historical fiction. Last year, we saw Alan Gratz hit the high notes on his MG/YA combo Refugee. Alan went light on theme and emotional depth, fast on pacing, and heavy on situations. Gratz gave his characters what I felt were right-fit problems, in which they were at the mercy of family dynamics, political dynamics, and their own individual wishes.

The moral of the story is: writers, take care when you try to do too much with your story. If you are trying to write a book that bridges middle grades and young adult, roughly that grades 7-10 sweet spot, take care in how you grow “up” your book and what you keep “down.”

 

 

 

This is a lovely and timely story that blends suspense and historical fiction as it tells the story of Chaya Lindner, member of the Jewish resistance and courier between ghettos. Paramount to this story is Chaya’s ultimate understanding that she was meant to be a fighter and she tosses away comfort, security, and safety in order to serve others.