Skip to content

Category: YA Literature

Moving Forward, Moving Back: Reading Jason Odell Williams’ Personal Statement

 

Jason Odell Williams_Personal StatementWe’ve all been there. We reached the final year of high school and discovered the college, the school, the job, the career that we wanted, and we attempted to move forward. We did everything we thought we needed to do—and more—to ensure that we would land one of the open seats in the version of the future that we wanted most. But sometimes, that “more” becomes problematic; we go in too deep, lose ourselves along the way, perhaps do some things we wouldn’t normally do—or for reasons we wouldn’t have previously considered. Jason Odell Williams explores these potential problems as he leads us down four very unique paths toward Ivy League schools, scholarships and higher positions on the corporate (or, in this case, political) ladder.

When I first started reading Personal Statement, I thought I would be reading four accounts of completely separate lives that only shared the difficult acts of writing the personal statement and applying to the “right college.” But it proves to be much more than that. These four characters either know one another or meet over the course of the journey, reminding us not only of how small the world can be but, perhaps more importantly, how our decisions impact others. Two of the main characters, Emily and Rani (pronounced “Ronnie”), are best friends on very different paths (though this is unknown to Emily Kim): Emily being the overly-driven, all-that-matters-is-getting-into-Harvard-no-matter-the-costs high school senior, while Rani is more or less burnt-out, looking for a much more easy-going, fulfilling, perhaps equestrian, lifestyle. Then there’s Robert, a homosexual African American student who wants only to start over in Europe, rather than pursue the college of his family’s choice; also, he met Emily previously at a student program, beginning first as friends, only to let their competitive natures get the better of them. Last, we see A.J. (or Alexis), a mid-twenties woman who has already gone through the personal statement process but who finds herself throwing herself into a new job suddenly, in the hopes of getting her foot in the door at the White House, which involves interacting with these teens directly over the course of a weekend. Each of these four find themselves looking for that final leg up, something to help them stand out—maybe some unique volunteer work? A hurricane blowing into Connecticut, perhaps?

Yes, exactly. So we find these four characters colliding in a small town in Connecticut, offering up their (kindest? most sincere? intrinsic?) services, with the thought in the back of their minds of using this experience for a resume, personal statement or future job application. This is where the heart of the story is, where the sentiment is at its most complicated: we’re watching four people who want something so much that they are willing to do something wonderful (volunteering to help those in need at a potentially dire time) for the completely wrong reasons. So then we’re forced to ask the question, “Can performing a good deed ever impact our character negatively?” I feel Emily, Rani, A.J. and Robert spend much of their stories interacting with and answering this exact question, determining what can result from misplaced intentions, or perhaps wanting the wrong thing—or wanting something far too much.

Jason Odell Williams’ debut novel, Personal Statement, is a fine piece of young adult literature, teeming with humor and wit, and asking major questions about motive and priorities, as well as engaging with some of the more interesting developmental questions that come with adolescence (see, perhaps, James Marcia’s developmental model, which I couldn’t help but constantly think back to while reading these characters’ journeys). Rotating between characters chapter-by-chapter, I found this to be a difficult one to put down, wanting to continue listening to one character’s journey, and later marveling at their interconnectedness toward the end. Perhaps there will be some parents who will take offense at this, but I agree with earlier reviews that see this as a must-read for graduating seniors, their parents, and even their school counselors who may or may not assist in the college application process. Sometimes we have to slow down and reconsider our desires and how they are prioritized and what we’re willing to do and who we’re willing to be to gain those desires—and Williams’ novel is one to encourage just that.

 

JASON ODELL WILLIAMS is an Emmy Award-nominated writer & producer of the television series, “Brain Games”—the highest rated show on the National Geographic Channel. As a playwright, his work has been produced at regional theatres across the country and in New York City. Originally from Columbia, Maryland, and a graduate of The University of Virginia, Jason lives in New York City with his actress-singer-director-producer wife, Charlotte Cohn, and their daughter, Imogen, who is working on her hyphenates as we speak. Personal Statement is his first novel. For more please visit his website.

 

 

The Power of Grief, The Power of Hallucination, The Power of YA Literature: Reading Rebekah Crane’s Aspen

 

Rebekah Crane_AspenLet me point one fact out from the beginning: I admire young adult literature, and I believe it can be extremely powerful when the central characters are confident, self-possessed individuals, dealing with both personal and more widely-recognized issues. Rebekah Crane’s Aspen does not fall short of this; rather, as I will delve into in more depth later, the complications presented to the characters and to the situations that might otherwise be deemed ordinary or predictable set the stage for an example of YA literature which far exceeds that of the average teen story.

On the surface, this is a story of the grieving and coping process as it appears in one high school after the loss of a beautiful, popular soccer girl, who inevitably has a secret. Set against the backdrop of Boulder, Colorado, and with a fixation on a more “hippie” lifestyle (mostly realized through Aspen’s mother, Ninny), though, what could be dismissed as simple grieving is complicated with its juxtaposition against the hippie lifestyle. Though this lifestyle is only truly realized through one character in the book—and a supporting character at that—the characteristics of what we expect from the stereotypical hippie lifestyle echo throughout the novel: the expectation of freedom and free thinking, drug use and freedom of expression. Perhaps it would seem, from the outside, as if the grieving process would be even easier to move through with this sort of open-minded system as a background. However, because of the secrets tied up in Aspen’s survival and the loss of Katelyn, the hippie lifestyle becomes a dramatic irony in Aspen’s, and her friends’, grieving process. Freedom is overshadowed with grief; drugs (though seen by some as a positive outlet and coping source) are given a dark demeanor with little positive outcome; and freedom of expression (both verbal and sexual) is complicated, given obstacle and can hardly be portrayed as free, whether in the sense of ability to express, or in the practicality of consequence. This severing of what it means to be free, via so many avenues, is highly complicated and rich for a YA novel and provides many opportunities for young adult readers to think and ask questions, and for adult readers to similarly analyze and discuss.

As if these complications to the background were not enough, Crane also successfully developed a story that is female-centric and contains strong supporting female characters. Aspen is quirky and self-taught, intelligent and self-possessed, and deals with some form of PTSD throughout the story, juxtaposing lines of psychology with her talent for art and fascination with memorizing definitions. Her mother, Ninny, is endearing but largely helpless throughout most of the story, further enhancing Aspen’s usefulness; however, at the end of the story, she is given a moment of redemption and makes attempts at improvement, both as a mother and as an independent individual. Aspen’s two friends, Kim and Suzy, fulfill two sides of a conformist coin: the non-conformist Kim and the popular girl Suzy, though they both contain their deviations from these standard, flat profiles. While Kim is largely against conformity herself, she still struggles with conforming to her mother’s wishes and poses indirect questions about her relationship with her ethnicity. Suzy, too, complicates what we view as the standard, hateable popular girl, functioning as an extremely kind, caring and genuine individual who is anything but shallow. Perhaps the most problematic female character is Katelyn, since her story is largely revealed via others’ voices, and her presence throughout the novel is largely a projection of Aspen’s fears, rather than Katelyn’s reality; both of these aspects offer up questions about her personal agency, though such a portrayal does also fit within the context of the grieving process and contains echoes of a teen ghost story. With such interesting characters throughout, all at once with their roots in an easily-definable character mold, their exceptions and complications pair easily and well with the complications of the backdrop of the story, reminding us constantly that appearances and expectations are hardly ever what they seem.

As a final example of this phenomenon, there is budding relationship between Aspen and Ben—Katelyn’s boyfriend. How could a teenage relationship become more complicated than that—a relationship between the guy with a dead girlfriend, and the girl who survived the accident? Though some readers may view their relationship as predictable, seeing as how it begins to develop at the beginning of the story and gradually escalates throughout the rest of the novel, I found it to be endearing. While it is predictable for a love interest to be included in a YA novel, I also found their relationship to be believable and likeable, since both characters needed someone in their life who was more immediately connected to the accident, who might more intimately understand and contribute to their personal grieving process. Relationships in YA literature often become problematic, due to their predictability and over-emphasis within the plot, but I found myself defending this particular relationship on the grounds of coping (which also contains a strange echo with Ninny’s coping mechanisms, as a healthier form of how Ninny chooses to lead her life). What’s interesting, too, is how the complications of this novel are threaded through this relationship, largely as an example of the lack of freedom and the consequences of attempting to enact freedom.

What becomes so endearing by the end of the novel for me, though, is how these characters, this central situation, and this relationship, could be viewed as normal, but are then complicated, through the backdrop lens of the story, and when placed up against one another. It ends up being a very interesting read, one worth reading, and one worth getting intellectually and emotionally involved in. I found myself anticipating what would happen next, and how the characters would react; and more importantly, I found myself asking questions, pondering my position on their situations, and what comments this novel might be making about the larger global issues of the grieving process, coping, and even how social media now plays a part in the grieving process! It was truly a fascinating read, particularly within a genre that is all at once so problematic but so extensively full of potential.

 

 

REBEKAH CRANE fell in love with YA literature while studying Secondary English Education at Ohio University. After having two kids, living in six different cities, and finally settling down in the foothills of her beloved Rocky Mountains, her first novel, PLAYING NICE, was published. ASPEN, her second YA novel, set in Boulder, CO, was released in summer 2014 from In This Together Media. She now spends her day carpooling kids or tucked behind a laptop at 7,500 ft high in the Rockies, where the altitude only enhances the experience.