Monday, July 21, 2014

YA Book Pick: How I Live Now

Once a month, we choose an outstanding YA book to review. We want to spotlight books of interest to aspiring writers, as well as highlight some of our favorite books and authors!
Perfect day. Meg Rosoff's How I Live Now, and a lot of sunscreen.

This month's book pick is HOW I LIVE NOW by Meg Rosoff

Synopsis (from good reads): “Every war has turning points and every person too.”

Fifteen-year-old Daisy is sent from Manhattan to England to visit her aunt and cousins she’s never met: three boys near her age, and their little sister. Her aunt goes away on business soon after Daisy arrives. The next day bombs go off as London is attacked and occupied by an unnamed enemy.

As power fails, and systems fail, the farm becomes more isolated. Despite the war, it’s a kind of Eden, with no adults in charge and no rules, a place where Daisy’s uncanny bond with her cousins grows into something rare and extraordinary. But the war is everywhere, and Daisy and her cousins must lead each other into a world that is unknown in the scariest, most elemental way.

First lines:  "My name is Elizabeth but no one's ever called me that. My father took one look at me when I was born and must have thought I had the face of someone dignified and sad like an old-fashioned queen or a dead person, but what I turned out like is plain, not much there to notice."

I want to use this as an example to my students on why specificity matters, and the importance of revision. Perhaps Rosoff spews genius like this without the refining tools on which most writers rely, but most likely a first draft would not have been as specific as "old-fashioned queen or a dead person." But after revision, that is so much better than "my father must've thought I looked like someone special, but what I turned out to be was plain," or even "thought I had the face of someone dignified and sad like a queen." It's the nuances of the phrasing that tells us who this girl is in ways no self-description could. 

Highlights: I somehow missed the book when it came out a decade ago and nabbed the Printz award , but since I signed up for Rosoff's workshop at SCBWI LA this year I figured I needed to remedy that mistake. After reading this, I'm definitely thrilled to have a workshop with her.. Anyway, it came out before the wave of high-concept dystopians that have dominated the market for the past several years, and instead of focusing on new ways to spin the dystopia genre for just the right hook, it focuses more on the complexities of the emotional truths, and employs a series of classic symbolic images to render it allegorical.

The fable-esque writing feels teen-honest as she lets the horror of war sneak in slowly, which feels more realistic. At first, the kids don't care; they're even somewhat happy for the freedom. She then paces the plot perfectly as she takes her time to let realistic ordinary details from the outside, like a doctor coming around looking for antibiotics, trickle in. Later, when the horrors of war hit, it's far more powerful than if she'd shocked us at the start. She also employs classic symbolism at its finest in her final garden scene. I won't spoil it here, but gardens do usually allude to the garden of Eden (the Biblical paradise one leaves with knowledge), and her haunting use of that garden is one of the most powerful PTSD scenes I've encountered in all my reading of war stories.

A good read for: Anyone who wants to read a deeply resonant story that will help them understand those around them who suffer from PTSD, or who wants to study how to write with spot-on deep simplicity. It's also just a great dystopian.

1 comment:

  1. This is one of my all time favorite books. So excited to see it getting some love! It recently came out as a movie, which I thought was really well done and worth the watch. And you're so right about the garden scene toward the end...the visual she painted still comes back to me every now and then, even after all this time.