Monday, February 21, 2011

YA Book Review: Amaryllis in Blueberry

Amaryllis in BlueberryAmaryllis in Blueberry by Christina Meldrum

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One thing becomes crystal clear as I read more YA literature--the genre's complexities and range continues to hurtle away from the traditional core of what many consider YA literature. No longer can we hold a YA novel in our hands, call it YA, and distribute it to every one of our kids. Nor can we simply place YA books on our classroom shelves based on reputation or sales numbers. We really need to read what we store in our classrooms and what we suggest to kids. Our role as promoters of literacy is not to be taken likely, we know that, but we also need to realize that it grows ever more complex as the genre of YA expands and reinvents itself and occasionally produces good novels which are inaccessible to young adults. While the choices within the YA genre cater to a wide-variety of tastes, some authors are emerging who stretch the outer edges of the genre...and it leaves me wondering how it carries the label of being a YA novel.

As we wave the banner of the joy and benefits of reading, we also wear the armor of In loco parentis. English teachers should do their due diligence with the burgeoning YA market, especially with some crossover novels. By their nature 'crossover' novels appeal to both YA and adults, but if we are going to place any on our classroom shelves we have to consider what is actually in each book. And we need to see it for ourselves. Not every parent wants their son/daughter reading about certain topics at 12 or 13.

Christina Meldrum's latest YA novel Amaryllis in Blueberry takes aim at some stark topics not fit for a teddy bear's eyes: adultery with the parish priest, teen sex, bastard children, self-mutilation, fasting/starving, child slavery, and murder. Personally, I see the book as a better fit for an adult book club, or high school library moreso than a middle school library/classroom. While, I enjoyed the book on many levels, I can't in good conscience hand it to your 13-year-old son or daughter. Maybe I'm overreacting, but I just can't do it.

Having read both Madapple and Amaryllis in Blueberry I enjoy Meldrum's writing style and stories--but I'm also 42. I'll certainly buy the next novel Meldrum produces and I'll wager that I'll write a strong review for that as well. Meldrum is an artist and weaves a complex story as well as anyone. Yet, considering the purpose of why I write this blog for a very specific audience, I have to simply say, if you are going to pick up Amaryllis in Blueberry do it because you want to read a good book yourself, not necessarily that you want to find a good book for your classroom shelf.

Amaryllis in Blueberry follows the lives of the Slepy family (pronounced Sleepy) and their move from Michigan to the West Africa. The Slepy's move so that dad (Dick) can pursue work as a doctor for those suffering from dysentery. Many in the family hold dark secrets as they run (away?) to Africa...of course, over time, these secrets unravel.

Told from the perspectives of eight different people. This gritty story weaves in and our of the shoes of the Slepy family, their neighbor, and the parish priest. Driven by mythology, ritual, and religion the novel asks the reader to examine obsession and love, the significance of names, cultural practices as teens grow into adulthood, and the ever-expanding pastures of sexual maturity.

Yet, as I've intimated, Meldrum is developing into a master and handles every issue or theme as if her pen were tipped with jagged sandpaper. Her language scratch-scratch-scratches in an uncomfortably pleasing manner:

"She died? " Tessa said.

"She had the diarrhea," Addae said.

"I don't understand," Tessa said. But she did understand. "I thought it was a party. It seemed like a party."

"Yes." Addae said.

"She died of diarrhea?"

"Yes." Addae said.

And I knew Africa again was stirring this pot, even before Addae explained about the spirits. Two-year-olds died from diarrhea. Where melancholy should have gathered, drumming and dancing and feasting had. Sadness and joy were holding hands, and something else altogether was hugging everyone. I'd seen the shimmer of sadness at the funeral, but I'd heard the hum of joy, too. And overriding all of it was something I didn't recognize. It wasn't so much peacefulness as it was acceptance. Life is a gift, it seemed to say. When it ends, you don't ask, "Why me?" You ask, "Why not me?"

Why not me? I thought Why shouldn't I, who has a life be grateful for that life, no matter whether my life was formed with love?

Yet life was a gift I didn't understand. I thought of those slave souls in that slave castle, how they seemed to be forever trapped. They once had a life, too. But it was the life of a slave.

Do yourself a favor and find a book club and some time and read Christina Meldrum. She writes books worth reading and discussing...I'm just not so sure about the audience her publisher is trying to wedge her into.

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