Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Red Uprooted Serpents! -- On Their Book Shelves: A Mom's YA Content Review

For a while now, I’ve wanted to start posting about books that are popular for young adults.  What I want to post about is the content of these books.  There are some wildly popular young adult stories that my son is eager to purchase, but what is actually contained within the pages?  Is what our kids reading appropriate, or is there something we, as parents, should discuss with them first? 
I’m a voracious reader.  Love it so much.  I’m also a volunteer reviewer for the Historical Novel Society.  Therefore, I have books to read and review on a deadline.  That’s not a bad thing, but it’s something that limits my knowledge of what my kids are reading because they’re not into the historical fiction genre like me.
Today I’m going to post about a few books I’ve read recently.  I want to share with other moms and dads the content in these books.  If there are other books you’d like discussed or would like to share your thoughts on or hope I will post about, please contact me!  I’d love to write posts about the latest releases. 
Let me also state I do not mean these posts to be a “down with YA books” page.  My goal is to empower parents out there who might want to preview and talk about the subject matter their teens are encountering.  Additionally, our kids may have questions, but would they be shy about asking due to fear?  Fear of my reaction because they read mature content without my knowledge? 
Let's be honest.  I know my children are going to read and see mature content.  It’s all over the internet.  It’s on the news.  It’s in the songs on the radio stations.  It’s in our books too.  That's why I want to be able to talk to them honestly about things they're hearing and how realistic life on the radio is versus the average workingman/woman's reality.
Think about the reaction to the scene in “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” in which Peter Pettigrew cut off his hand in order to resurrect the Dark Lord.  I remember there being anger and shock about it.  I did find it a bit violent for a children’s story, but instead of telling my child “no” to the book, I’d rather open with “let’s talk about your reaction to what happened.”  I want to create an open forum for my kids to discuss unfamiliar and difficult topics they may not fully understand.  Let these posts be a springboard for conversation.
Of note, there will be spoilers here.  In case you want to read the books but do not want spoilers yet, come back to this page when you’ve finished the book.
“The Serpent King” by Jeff Zentner
This book I received through a subscription box called Owl Crate.  Since this is being sent mainstream in a subscription box geared towards young adults, I thought I’d start with this. 
Overall thoughts:
There are a lot of beautiful moments in this book. There are some terrifying and heartbreaking moments. But the true magic is the characters and their bond. I was instantly pulled into their stories. In fact, I read this book in three days.
What you should be aware of:  
  • There is a joking reference made regarding masturbation. 
  • One of the main characters is shot and killed in a robbery.
  • There is bullying, by both adults and teens.
  • There are some terrible parents, particularly for two of the main characters.  This seems to be a common theme in many young adult books, sadly.
    • One father is physically abusive and shaming.  He yells at his son and asks if he’s gay because he’s not “a man” in terms of playing sports and dating lots of girls.
    • Another father is in jail and is a religious zealot.  The father was arrested for possession of child pornography.  The mother blames her son for putting the father in jail by not lying and saying it was his pornography. 
  • There is small-town bigotry and religious prejudice. 
  • Christians are portrayed as intolerant.  While some are, the one-sided viewpoint bothered me.  When the father, mentioned above, is accusing his son of being gay, the mother makes an excuse that of course he's not… "He's a Christian."  That bothered me a lot because people of all race, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, etc., are WELCOME in many Christian churches. It’s unfortunate that teens read lines such as that one and believe they would not be welcome in the Christian church because they’re different.
  • The town setting for this story is named after the founder of the KKK. 
Points of discussion:
  • For me, as a Christian, I’d open the discussion by talking about the way religion is portrayed in this book. 
      • Are there ways, seen and unseen, God is trying to help in your life?  Did you notice these things in the book?
      • One character keeps noticing a religious sign from a nearby church as he wrestles with some very challenging religious questions.  What did you interpret from some of these messages?
      • In the end, how did the main character finally see God as a strength in his life instead of a serpent looking to bite him for not having strong enough faith?
  • Reflect on your reaction when one of the main characters was killed. 
      • How was grief handled in the book by the different characters?  Did they react similar to how you might react? 
      • Can you compare the character who was killed to the knights in the books he loved to read about?  Did he act courageously in life?  Was his “a life well lived?”
  • Courage is a huge part of this book especially in the ways it is demonstrated.
      • One character carries a wizard staff in one hand and a book in another everywhere he goes.  What kind of courage does that take to be transparent in the things you love - especially if it’s not the cool thing to do?
      • What things in your life are you hiding?  What parts of yourself are you afraid others will judge? 
“Uprooted” by Naomi Novik
I received an advance review copy from publisher via NetGalley.  However, I believe all the content I discuss below would not be drastically changed from the review copy. 
Overall thoughts:
“Uprooted” is a rich original fantasy with a fascinating magical system, an intriguing society/setting, an absorbing history, and complex enjoyable characters. The book flows quickly through the plot line, leaving very little breathing room between conflicts.  I loved the adventure in the book.
I really enjoyed this book, particularly its main character.  There are some beautiful metaphors and visualization as Agnieszka is learning magic.  Magic was never used as a tool to get easily out of a situation. It always came through learning and sacrifices. 
What you should be aware of:  
  • There is a sex scene in the book that I felt was a bit too mature for a young adult book, particularly when you look at the cover of this book.  The cover art looks almost middle-grade fantasy.
  • In an earlier scene, the main character Agnieszka (currently a servant) is confronted by a guest, and its implied that the guest is used to ‘having his way’ with the servants of the house.
  • “The Dragon” of the book is a wizard who demands one young woman handed over to serve him for ten years as the price for protecting a town from evil.  After their service, while paid well, the women are considered “used goods” (paraphrasing).  After Agnieszka is picked, there is a demanding-master/meek-servant relationship. 
Points of discussion:
  • What are some others ways the growing feelings between the Dragon and Agnieszka could have been expressed other than having sex?  How often is having sex used to tell audiences people are “in love?”  Is this a true romantic ideal in real life?
  • How does magic change Agnieszka and the Dragon both as a couple and as individuals?
  • Agnieszka struggles throughout the book at being good at something.  She does not thrive through the structured testing system.  Can you relate to Agnieszka in this way?  Do you feel this sometimes when taking tests? 
  • What sacrifices did Agnieszka and the Dragon make to use their magic?  Was there a time for you when solving a problem was difficult and required a lot of extra work and sacrifice?
  • What are your thoughts on the origin of the Woods?

“Red Rising” by Pierce Brown

This is classified as an “adult book that appeals to young readers.”  I've seen it on the "What Teens are Reading" shelves at bookstores. 
Overall thoughts:
The first half of the book feels very dystopian/sci-fi while the other half reads like historical fiction set fashionably in ancient Greece and Roman at once (sometimes Greek gods/sometimes Roman gods + Roman commanders = confusing combination & references).  Then the main character was thrown into a world of attack-and-conquer with rulers who live, literally, like gods on their own Mt. Olympus. However, it read very similar to “Hunger Games.”
For me, I did not feel new elements were brought to the dystopian genre in general.  When I was reading, I kept thinking: “Hunger Games” moment, “Gattica” moment, “Insurgent” moment, “Ender’s Game” moment, “Gladiator” moment. Things felt like pieces of other stories woven together, but it was made into something still recognizable by its counterparts instead of something fresh and new.
What you should be aware of:  
  • There is a mild sex scene early in the story between a husband and wife, who are 16 year olds.
  • Then the main character went through a “Gattica”-like transformation, which is basically changing his entire bones, muscles, skin, hair, eyes, etc.  A little graphic but not terribly so.
  • Things become incredibly brutal, bloody, and graphic upon entered the school for Golds.  This is way beyond “Hunger Games” grit and gore.
    • There are 16 year olds sawing off their own hands or getting stabbed multiple times in a row.
  • There is rape. 
  • There is murder.
  • There is graphic violence.
  • There are numerous lewd references.
  • There is a massive amount of cussing.
Points of discussion:
Ugh, this is tough since this book is so brutal.  Definitely giving it an R rating. 
  • This is a revenge story.  By the end, was it worth it?  Is the morality of the main character the same as when he started?
  • How is the main character, Darrow, similar/different from other dystopian characters like Katniss (“Hunger Games”) or Ender (“Ender’s Game”)?
  • Discuss the color-based caste system.  What did you think of the colors and the people they represented?  Do you see anything like this in the world today?
  • What similarities do you see in this book versus other dystopian fantasies?
    (Here are a few big ones from “Hunger Games” for your reference: Both have a society split into different fractions depending on what the people provide the world. Both have arenas with teens killing one another while patrons watch and provide gifts for favored participants. Both have protagonists carrying signature weapons from a hunter/gatherer society.)
What do you think?  Things I missed?  Things I’m overstating? 
I hope you find this helpful.  I will be posting more reviews and suggestions in subsequent blog posts.  For now, I hope you enjoy.  If you know of other moms posting “awareness” blogs about YA books, please share with me!  I’d love to get some information for my own benefit.  I still have plenty to read that are on my son’s bookshelves!
Happy reading.

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