Trying something new here… as I read great YA books, I’m going to post short breakdowns explaining “Why I” - why I picked it up, why I took it home, why I finished it, and why I loved it.
I’ll start with “Never Fall Down,” by Patricia McCormick, which is a first-person account of a young boy caught up in the unspeakable horror of the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia.
WHY I PICKED IT UP
Simple: a great cover. Greg van Eekhout was one of our guest lecturers at Clarion 2012, and he spoke about the challenges (and importance!) of getting publishers to put people of color on book covers. He talked a lot about how vital that is for readers of color, especially young people, to see themselves in the books they read. He’s 100% right, of course, and I know as a young gay reader that it REALLY MESSED WITH MY MIND and my sense of self-esteem and pride when I never read about people like me. But there’s another, more cynical reason that book publishers should have more diversity in cover design: because an unfamiliar face on a book jacket lets all readers know that this is something fresh and new. That’s why I picked up Never Fall Down: I knew it wouldn’t be one more YA story of a WASP coming of age or saving the world.
WHY I TOOK IT HOME The flap sold me: a YA novel about the Khmer genocide???! SOLD. I have a soft spot for genocides. Wait, no, that sounds bad. I hate genocides! But they fascinate me. Because they have so much to tell us about human nature and human history. So the idea of a teenager’s experience in Pol Pot’s Cambodia was really exciting to me.
WHY I FINISHED IT. The voice. The story. The main character. These all work, and they’re inextricably linked. The story is rough and raw and every bit as ugly as any honest depiction of a genocide must be.The voice is fresh and quirky, full of improper English and peculiar cadences that bring Arn to life - a tough scared street kid, trying his best to stay alive to the end of one more day, transformed and deformed by the atrocity all around him and by the ugly things he has to do, but never losing the spark of himself that makes him such a compelling character - and is what allows him to survive. To be honest the voice was initially tough for me, not because it wasn’t great prose - it was - but because it felt a little too close to the stereotypical English-as-a-second-language assigned to countless Asian characters in less-than-flattering Hollywood films. But by the end I had been convinced, and when I read the afterward, where the author explains how she interviewed the real Arn countless times and found that there was no way to tell his story without his “beautiful, improvised English,” I knew she was right.
WHY I LOVED IT. This book was full of ugliness, but the ugliness never overwhelmed the beauty of the writing and the strength of Arn as a character, the rebellious kid-spirit that could never be broken by the Khmer Rouge, even though they so cavalierly handed out death left and right. Arn is no angel, and he makes the point again and again that he only survived because he did some very bad things, but he also found ways to do good, and these moments of kindness and love and humanity are what carry us through the unspeakable horror. The Afterward, in which Patricia McCormick breaks down how she came to create this book, is the perfect degree of authorial intrusion - not breaking the illusion, but making clear how much was art and how much was artifice.