When I first started teaching, I thought I was down with the students... until they asked me if I’d seen High School Musical.
Me: “No, what’s it called?” Kid: “… High School Musical.” Me, looking at the student like she’s special: “Your high school musical is called ‘High School Musical’?” Kid, looking at me like I’m special: “Are you serious right now?”
One week later, after I’d bought and watched BOTH High School Musicals (because there are TWO of them!), I was leading the kids in “We’re all in this together...”
I think it’s pretty easy to find common ground with kids. Their High School Musical is my Newsies. However, one thing that differentiates 80s babies from this generation is that we never grew up with the constant fear of terrorism. Sure, we had Stranger Danger and Chester the Molester (and fear of rhymes apparently), and there were acts like the Oklahoma City bombing, but we didn’t live with a palpable threat. A fear of flying often carried the descriptor "irrational".
Clara has just finished taking her Year 12 exams in Melbourne and decides to accompany her mom to Washington, DC over summer break. Rather than feeling excited, Clara is anxious and scared. She’s scared of being attacked –- by muggers, by terrorists. She prefers to stay in the apartment watching Gilmore Girls and The West Wing (me on a normal day), but when she does venture out, she makes sure her cell is pre-dialed to 911 in one hand and her keys are sticking out of her fist in the other (me on a normal night). When not watching TV, she’s checking up on her friends back home on Facebook. After her mother suggests she volunteer and do something productive with her time, Clara signs up to volunteer at a soup kitchen and Reading Beyond Bars, an organization that sends books to prisoners. While working, she meets a guy, aka a REAL incentive to get out of the house. Over talks about life and politics, she finds herself leaving her comfort zone both physically and ideologically. This is a coming of age story set on the eve of Obama's inauguration.
Clara in Washington was such a fresh and unique read. For starters, it tackles a topic that I think is too often avoided: politics. Each chapter starts with a quote from a president or a political figure. It's crazy to me that incest (INCEST!) is fair game in YA, while politics seems taboo. I feel like I was more politically aware in high school, with Speech & Debate, JSA, etc, than I am now. Clara has political opinions. Of Obama versus McCain, she says,
"Obama is inspiring and McCain is just blah."
Before you think this is a purely pro-Obama book, the group of anarchists that Clara befriends through volunteering are vociferously anti-Obama. It's interesting that some of the complaints the anarchists have of Obama are issues that are being raised in the current election cycle.
Regardless of your opinion of Obama, his election had an impact beyond the United States. It's fascinating to view the election through the eyes of an Australian, and Penny Tangey describes the celebratory atmosphere the day he won the presidency. Likewise, I loved looking at our nation's capital from the viewpoint of a foreigner. I mean, if you think about it, what is it with our need to take pictures in front of phallic monuments?
While the topic of this book is something I gravitate towards, the tone is different from my usual reads. A lot of the story takes place in Clara's head. She's working through fears, guilt from her fears, doubts about herself and her future. Clara's voice reminded me a lot of Bindy Mackenzie -- they're both straightforward with a dry sense of humor -- but Clara isn't as sure of herself as Bindy. She's always wanted to study law, but she doesn't know if that's what she wants anymore. Whereas I had issues with Bindy, I really liked Clara. She's struggling with a lot in between random TV marathons and Facebook stalking, but her voice is so authentic.
This book made me think of Good Oil and The Murder of Bindy Mackenzie, but while I gave both of those books 3 stars, I'm giving Clara in Washington 4.5. The tone, the characters, the setting, the story just worked for me. I loved seeing Clara's development, which was gradual and full of mistakes. I loved lines like this:
"I don't have anything revolutionary but perhaps if I wear all black people will think I'm well-read."
I think this is a timely, thoughtful, bold book. I would've absolutely loved reading this in high school. Having said that, this book is not for everybody. If the word "unpatriotic" is in your daily vocabulary, you will not like this book. If the words "unpatriotic" and "birther" are in your daily vocabulary, you will definitely not like this book. Seriously though, there are a lot of quiet moments where Clara is just thinking. I'm usually the first to roll my eyes when a book is described as being quiet, ie BORING, but this story wasn't boring for me. Clara in Washington is a fresh take on a girl discovering her place in the world during the time of school results, election results, and Facebook.
Almost immediately after finishing the first book and leaving Shyness, I found myself thinking, "We have to go back!" This Is Shyness (and okay, Wolfb...moreAlmost immediately after finishing the first book and leaving Shyness, I found myself thinking, "We have to go back!" This Is Shyness (and okay, Wolfboy) pulled me into its trance with its strange, enchanting lullaby and I awoke from the dreamy, all night adventure with a contented smile. When you have a night that special, that magical, it's safer to keep it encased in your memory. There, it's protected and lives forever. But would you rather have one perfect night with Wolfboy or risk shattering that memory for another chance to see him? Me, I'd take that risk every single time and I'm so glad Leanne Hall did as well with Queen of the Night.
Queen of the Night picks up 6 months after Nia left Jethro a note with her number -- 6 months where they haven't seen or spoken to each other. Why am I calling them by their given names instead of the names they gave themselves? Like Jethro says,
"I look at Nia. I can't think of her as Wildgirl now that she's in front of me. That name belongs to that first night."
I love this. It simultaneously acknowledges what was, what isn't now, and what can be. Hopefully. There is a lot of hope and longing in this book, and it isn't just Nia and Jethro's. It's also Paul's, Wolfboy's friend and Wildgirl's dance partner from Shyness. Nia may have left Wildgirl behind with Wolfboy, but she took Wildgirl's take-no-prisoners attitude with her. After 6 months of radio silence from Wolfboy, she says,
"I thought I'd have to wait until I finished school and moved out to change my life, but then I decided to start changing it immediately. [...] I'm sick of being patient, so here's my new theory: boys can go to hell. I'm going to focus on my schoolwork and get the best grades possible. I don't need anyone or anything to interfere with that."
See, girls? This is how you deal with rejection, not with blank pages in your life. Jethro has also recalibrated his life without Nia. However, that doesn't stop him from remembering Wildgirl's advice and reconnecting with Ortolan and his niece, Diana. It also doesn't mean that he's stopped thinking about Wildgirl.
"It seems to be getting more difficult to forget Wildgirl the more time passes by. That's the opposite of what's supposed to happen."
In contrast to Nia and Jethro's mutual longing, you have Paul. Paul broke up with his girlfriend months ago, but unlike Nia and Jethro, he refuses to even try to move on. Also unlike Nia and Jethro, Paul's girlfriend has directly and knowingly rejected him. Unable to accept reality, Paul seeks assistance from the ever present shadier elements of Shyness. Paul retreats further and further into another type of darkness and away from himself. When the story starts, Paul is beyond Jethro's help and thus Jethro finds himself calling once more for Nia -- and actually hitting send after dialing the numbers.
I absolutely loved this book. Whereas Shyness skewed more toward the fantastic, Queen of the Night is an equal blend of reality and dream, hope and disappointment, light and night. It doesn't try to recapture the lulling enchantment that was so special about Shyness, but rather walks you back hand-in-hand while fully conscious. And reality? It can be just as magical and unforgettable as a dream.