If there is something good you can say about a book written with young adults in mind it is to say that they got their audience right and played to them directly, treating them as the young adults that they are. Too often the YA market is filled with pandering morality tales or books that are written in order to cash in on whatever trend is going at the time. Trend writing will make you money but it’s a hell of a shallow way to make a living.
I have been a fan of writer Kathe Koja since I read her first novel Cipher as a teenager. I had been home sick and my mom brought the paperback home to me from the drugstore, thinking it might be something I would like. It turns out I didn’t like it but loved it and was in love with this woman from Detroit’s stark style and dark themes. In many ways she is one of the many literary parents I have, and she was a big influence on my earlier writing. I had stopped following her writing when she moved from dark fiction to young adult fiction, feeling as if I had been abandoned and let down by the loss of such a talented writer.
For a few years now though I have been following Ms. Koja’’s blog and felt it was time to give her newer books a chance. She is such a talent, with such a strong voice I owed her newer work a chance.
straydog is a heartbreaking story of a girl deep in the trenches of her teen years that is struggling against the crushing river of the norm at her high school and who feels she must hide her uniqueness. She is a budding writer and has a teacher that champions and encourages her. When the girl begins work on a raw piece about a dog that has come in at the animal shelter where she volunteers, her teacher insists that the girl enter a prestigious contest. The girl starts working on the piece more and more but as she does the story takes on a new meaning as the dog that has become her protagonist starts to steal her heart. A rage filled, frightened collie that has been abandoned and abused for far too long and so she lays wounded and watching from the back of the shelter. The girl knows that if she cannot tame the dog that it will be put down but isn’t sure how to do it until a new friend, another outcast who just transferred to the school, gives her hope that together they can save the dog.
What I love about straydog is how raw the book is. This is not polished writing. This is not cookie-cutter writing. This is emotional writing that is true to both itself, its audience, and its characters. A pretty rare feat, to be sure. Koja captures the voice of a young teen perfectly, both the brilliance and the selfishness – the angst and the joy. These are choppy waters for some parents, who don’t like to admit what they were once like, but this makes for a gripping story. I could guess what was going to happen in the book but that is also part of the story’s power – that you see how the trick is done yet it still amazes you.
straydog is a pretty great book and one which young adults wanting to read something true, and mature, yet about them would do well to read it. For me, I can happily say that, while her subjects are not as dark as her early work was, the talent and brilliance is burning brightly, and the transition to YA fiction seems pretty seamless. Bravo.