Wednesday, June 1, 2011

REVIEW: Big Girl Small by Rachel DeWoskin, or, Adult vs. YA Literary Fiction

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What Happened to Goodbye! Just leave a comment here and you're entered.
Drawing a winner TONIGHT!

Don't read this novel if you have teenagers. Or ever were a teenager — especially a teenage girl. It will bring back high school in raw, oozing detail, like a psychic skinned knee. The cliques, the whispers, the glossy girls, the frantic parties, the stupid drinking, the disconnected sexual encounters and, perhaps worst of all, the carnival of lost souls that is the lunchtime cafeteria. High school: a world so hostile to the outsider that even a Navy Seal might hesitate at the threshold. -Maureen Corrigan, NPR

If I were going to review a review, I'd give that one a big giant A+ and ALL. THE. STARS. "A psychic skinned knee?" Are you kidding me with that? If that phrase doesn't evoke something painful and oozing and awful (which is what portions of this book feel like), then you should just stop reading because no author is going to do it for you. I put it here because I'm pretty sure it captures Rachel DeWoskin's Big Girl Small in a way nothing I could say ever would. The book is just plain good. The tension she builds that pulls you all the way through the story is brilliant, not to mention the fact that she spills the secret BIG BAD right in the middle of the book, yet you're still pulled through. I think I sprinted through the last quarter of the book like I was running down a hill. I loved the narrative thread, the way the book moved from relating the story to actually being IN it in the present again. I loved the way we saw things through Judy's eyes, which meant that often we didn't really get to see things that might have been satisfying. We staying in Judy's mind from start to finish, and the voice was just so strong and impressive that it didn't matter when things happened elsewhere that we couldn't see. 

So since Ms. Corrigan already did such a brilliant job reviewing the book (seriously, she's spot-on, even with her criticism. Her review is the reason I bought the book), I'd like to spend this review talking about something different: Is it YA, or isn't it?

First, the basics: Big Girl Small was published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, a subsidiary of Macmillan. FSG does have a "Books for Young Readers" subsection, but Big Girl Small isn't on it. This was clearly released as an adult literary fiction novel (which is probably why it wound up on NPR ... though it does happen, you don't often hear about YA on NPR).

But the book is about high school, in particular a teenage girl, and it's told in her voice. Judy, the main character, is smart and sarcastic, but also naive. She tells her story in a slightly jumbled way that rings true of a teen girl pouring her heart out about the worst thing that's ever happened to her. 

Big Girl Small is slightly dark and would sit well on a shelf next to anything by Sara Zarr or Courtney Summers. Judy's sarcasm is reminiscent of Jessica Darling. In short, it could totally be marketed as a YA book, and frankly I'm a little bit unsure as to why it's not. The only real difference I see between Big Girl Small and other true-YA books is that Judy's narration is a bit old at times. You can hear a grown-up's voice writing for a grown up. Judy is often super self-centered, as teenagers tend to be, but DeWoskin writes Judy as a little to aware of her own ego. Teenagers don't tend to refer to how egocentric they are, and they definitely don't apologize for it. Sometimes I feel like adults, when not thinking directly about a teenage audience or teenage voice, feel the need to apologize for some of those truly annoying and often abhorrent ways the teenage mind works. I see that in Big Girl Small.

I'm going to email Rachel DeWoskin and ask her what she thinks about how Big Girl Small might fit into the YA world and if she was thinking about a teenage audience when she wrote it. We'll see if she writes me back (her book only came out a couple weeks ago and it's turning into kind of a big deal, so I won't hold it against her if she's too busy to get back to me). 

Until then, what do you think? Why do some books about teens bypass the YA market and head straight to literary fiction? Do you think it's some kind of publishing snobbery? Or is there something subtle that separates the two? Comment away!

Don't forget, today's the last day to enter to win a copy of Sarah Dessen's 
What Happened to Goodbye! Just leave a comment here and you're entered.
Drawing a winner TONIGHT!

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