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Five Questions with ROTTERS and SCOWLER author Daniel Kraus

June is Audio Book Month – take a minute to enter our giveaway!

Listening Library is thrilled to talk horror, audio, and inspiration with Daniel Kraus, the author of two highly-acclaimed novels—both available on audio from Listening Library and recommended for YA listeners 14 and up. (As we like to say, “Listen with the Lights On!”) He is also an editor at the American Library Association and has a brand new YA Lit column called Booklandia, so be sure to check it out! Daniel’s audiobook ROTTERS, read by Kirby Heyborne, was the winner of the 2012 Odyssey Award, given by the American Library Association to the best audiobook produced for children and/or young adults in the United States. Lucky for listeners, and thanks to the SYNC program, ROTTERS is available for FREE download from June 27 – July 3.. And his latest audiobook, SCOWLER, also read by Kirby Heyborne, is available now at your local library or wherever books are sold. After Daniel’s Q&A, step into the recording studio with narrator Kirby in this great video.

Q: What is special or unique about the horror genre?  Why do you gravitate toward writing horror stories and what do you think this genre gives to teens?

A: With the possible exception or romance/erotica, it’s the one genre that tries to elicit a specific emotional, and even physical, response. I think the attraction for this kind of visceral thrill is strongest when you’re a teen. It’s the age when kids decide it’d be fun to drive too fast or jump off a cliff into a reservoir or experiment with drugs or whatever. It’s no wonder that teens want to experience some of these transformational thrills in their literature too.
Some of us get addicted to that thrill of pushing past safe boundaries and we never stop, and that’s how you end up with writers like me.
 

Q: In all of your books, you seem fascinated by small towns in the Midwest – and yet you live in a big city.  What draws you to this setting?

A: There is plenty to be scared of in the city. But for me, the endless stretches of nothing in the Midwest are what’s scariest. It’s almost like being in outer space. No one can hear you if you scream. No one can reach in time to save you. You could run, but the distances are great and you probably won’t make it. The isolation of the country can do strange things to people, but you’d never know it when you zoom by some farm house doing 80 on the interstate.


Q: Have you ever read your work aloud as part of your writing process? Have your audiobooks affected how you think about how writing sounds? (Or do you ever hear narrator Kirby Heyborne’s voice in your head?!)


A: In my case, I think it’s best that I *don’t* think about the audiobook process when I write. If I did, it might make me worry “How in the hell is Kirby going to do *this*?” Case in point is Scowler’s voice in SCOWLER, which basically looks like this on the page: “Tk-tk, hr’wo-gep-gep-gep.” Of course, to write dialogue like that you have to have some sense of what it sounds like, and I communicated that to Kirby once he was ready to record the audio, and I think it helped.


Q: We include your titles on our
Guys Listen website and we constantly hear from librarians and teachers that your books and audios have been perfect to place in the hands (or headphones!) of their male patrons and students, many of whom are considered reluctant readers. What do you think are the biggest challenges in helping guys discover stories that speak to them and encourage a love of reading? How does it make you feel to know you have the ability to reach this audience? 


A: It’s difficult to answer this based on my personal experience because I always loved to read. What fostered that love, however, availability. I never read the books that were put in front of me at school, which I think turned reading into an act that felt a little daring and subversive. I’d go wander the adult stacks looking for the most unsettling stuff, or pick something off my sister’s shelves that boys weren’t “supposed” to read, or snoop around in my parents’ room until I found something even more illicit. The hunt was almost as exciting as the reading. Once you frame it this way, the reluctance slips away. This isn’t unique to boys, but it’s certainly a way to present the idea of reading to them.

Q: We also include your titles on our Kids & Bullying: Audiobooks for Conversation website, as your books not only tell gripping and unique tales but they also confront important topics from bullying and abuse to poverty. Do you set out to tell a story that addresses specific issues that you feel are important and/or underrepresented in teen literature?

A: Never, never, never. Setting out to tackle a particular “issue” would be death to my writing. I’d feel like I was merely plugging a curricular hole. Tell a story, as deeply and richly and honestly as you can, and real issues will present themselves. Then you’ll fight through them. That’s what a writer does.

And don’t forget to enter our Audiobook Giveaway!

True Confessions of an Audio Book Virgin (an audio review of Rotters and Scowler by Daniel Kraus and tips for highlighting audio books in your collection)

I am fairly new to audio books.  Not as a supporter, I have always understood their value and been a huge supporter of audio books.  I have just never personally been a listener.  In part, it was probably because I could take my kids to school and walk to work in my previous location – all within about 15 minutes.  There simply wasn’t time or a need.

Fast forward to now.  I have a 45 minute commute 3 times a week to my library. Sometimes I listen to NPR or music, but I have recently started listening to audio books on occasion.

It began with Delirium by Lauren Oliver.  It was one of the few YA titles my small branch library had, and as you know I became a huge fan of the series.  There were times when the Tween and I would want to just keep driving because we didn’t want to turn it off.

Next came book one in the Gallagher Girl series by Ally Carter, which my tween loved as well.  She has continued reading the books in the series on her own after having been introduced to it via audio.

And more recently, I listened to both Rotters and Scowler by Daniel Kraus on audio.  This was an interesting experiment for me as it was the first time that I listened to books that I had already read and was a huge fan of.  I embraced this experiment with gusto because it gave me some real genuine grounds for comparison.  Listening to the books . . . it was such a different experience.

It helps that Rotters and Scowler both have a really great reader, Kirby Heyborne.  A good reader makes all the difference and Kirby Heyborne is truly awesome (and deservedly award winning).  Both Rotters and Scowler are about some very down on their luck teens; life has not been kind to either of them and Kirby (we’re on a first name basis now apparently) really brings that pathos to life.  When you read the words on the page, you tend to hear it in your voice, but hearing it in another voice – a voice more experienced at bringing nuance and performance to a story – there is new breath and life in these characters; there is heartache and terror in all the right moments in ways I couldn’t have even imagined in my head.

Scowler is the story of 19-year-old Ryan Burke and his father, who is a monster hiding behind the mask of a man.  Throughout the book his dad has a vocal tic, a tell if you will, that appears on the page as “Hmmmmm hm hm hmmmmm. Hmmmm hm hm hmmmm.”  When you read it on the page, it’s hard to imagine in your mind’s eye what is happenng.  But Heyborne hums this line over and over again with such a powerful, subtle menace that it suddenly clicks into place for you.  Marvin’s tell speaks of his arrogance and his power over others, and it is the subtle horror movie music that happens and lets you know that something sinister is on its way.  Hearing this element of the story put it in context and gave it a clarity that I did not fully comprehend reading it because I was unsure of how it should sound simply staring at the words.

Rotters and Scowler are both disturbing stories, and I mean that in a good way.  They also resonate because in the midst of being entertainingly horrific, they also remind of the human experience.  Rotters is unique in that Kraus sets up to like a character and then drags him to the depths hell and makes him almost completely despicable.  I have said it before, but it is such a bold storytelling device.  Plus there is the grave robbing angle, which I had never read before (although there is some grave robbing in The Monstrumologist by Rick Yancey).  I felt sucked in so much more listening to the audio because Heyborne really gives Joey Crouch pathos and gravity.  And then the menace . . . so well done.

During Reluctant Reader week, we mentioned that listening to audio books is a good tool to use with reluctant readers.  I noticed that I listened more closely than I read and that I was tempted to skip some of the more descriptive elements, I was definitely more absorbed in the story and felt a heightened emotional connection with the main characters.  These two audio books would be great reads for struggling teens who like a little bit of terror in their books, think Stephen King.  I will say, they are definitely for more mature teens because of language and violence.  As I mentioned, the Rotters audio is the 2012 Odyessy Award Winner presented by the American Library Association.

5 Tips for Using Audio Books in Your Collection:

1. Create ways to do face out shelving with your audio books in the same way that you do with your print books.

2.  Do displays where you put the book and audio book on display together.

3.  Put together hand outs and electronic resources that educate parents and teens on the benefits of listening to audio books.  Here are some good starting places: Reading Rockets, Research and Articles on the Benefits of Audio Books for Young People

4.  When you are doing a craft program, have an audio book playing in the background.  Participants can listen as they craft.

5.  When doing general theme displays, don’t forget to include appropriate audio books.

A recent edition of Library Journal had a great article on highlighting audio books in your library. Check it out.

Rotters and Scowler, produced by Listening Library, an imprint of Random House Audio Publishing Group, Random House, Inc., written by Daniel Kraus and narrated by Kirby Heyborne. 
Rotters audio ISBN: 9780449014950
Scowler audio ISBN: 9780385368353

The tween and I are now listening to The Paradise Trap by Catherine Jinks on audio. 

Sunday Reflections: Going to Bed Hungry

Violence. Bullying. School testing. We talk a lot about the issues affecting the lives of teens, but we don’t talk enough about one of the biggest: poverty and food insecurity.  1 out of 5 children don’t know when – or if – they are going to get to eat today.

“It was during such a moment that my stomach, empty for nearly forty-eight hours, constricted and squired out a noise of at least six seconds in duration . . . In a twisted bit of mercy, I could not fully concentrate on my own mortification, as I was gripped by hunger pains the likes of which I’d never felt. I had to eat . . .” Rotters, Daniel Kraus

“I’m not on drugs,’ I blurted, ‘I’m just hungry.’
‘Hungry’, mused Diamond. . . .
‘Joey, say it was up to you. How would you like us to help you?’
‘I just want to eat’ was all I said . . .” Rotters, Daniel Kraus

In Rotters, author Daniel Kraus writes a compelling potrayal of one teen boys descent into an underground world that many of us never realized existed: graverobbing.  It is a dark, twisted tale where Kraus sets up a sympathetic character, smashes him to bits in the most darkest of ways, and then you suddenly find yourself reading the darkest, most unflinching tale of a character that you once rooted for but now often loathe.  It is bold and daring storytelling at its best.  But for me, one of the most stunning features of Rotters is the all too tangible and aching description of food insecurity that Kraus portrays in the character of Joey Crouch.  After Joey’s mom dies, he is sent to live with a father he never really knew and is thrust into a life of abject poverty.  He goes days without eating, living in a shack that can barely be considered a home.  It is this very food insecurity that makes Joey tiptoe onto this dark path.  Although it has been over 3 years since I first read Rotters, I have never stopped thinking about this book.  And recently, I began listening to it on Audio and was amazed at how much more visceral the audio presentation made those very uncomfortable scenes, those scenes that far too many of our world’s children are living every day.  When narrator Kirby Heyborne says “I just want to eat”, your heart just shatters into a million pieces because you can hear the hunger in his voice.  There is a reason this audio adaptation won the 2012 Odyssey Award.

Just a few days into his tortured life at a new school, already the subject of bullying and scorn for the father he barely knows, Joey is tortured by hunger.  He is caught by a teacher stealing a purse out of a locker just to get some money to eat.  And when the school gets involved, they do everything exactly wrong; except they do get Joey signed up for free lunch.  But as too many children know all too well, lunch is never enough.


As childhood poverty rates rise, events close to home have reminded me how important this issue is to our children and teens; to their well being today and their potential for success in the future.  And listening once again to Rotters was the impetus to get me to write this post.

If you follow me on Twitter, you know I tweet often about childhood poverty.  Currently, 1 in 5 children go to bed hungry.  They have what is known as “food insecurity”; they do not know when and where their next meal may come from.  They go to school with hungry, raging bellies and find it hard to concentrate and learn because hunger is one of the primary needs we all need to satisfy in order to just get through the day. It is hard to listen to a teacher at the front of a room when your belly is screaming at you from within.

My Tween daughter is friends with a girl living with food insecurity.  Her parents were forced by recent events to move to a new state, much like we were, to find employment, though they have been less successful than we have been.  They have used local food pantries to supplement their low, unsteady income (the dad can only find intermittent contract work, which runs out).  People from church have bought them groceries.  They have worked temporary jobs with incredibly late hours, leaving their kids home alone or with neighbors while they try and earn just enough money to buy groceries for another two weeks.  And yes, my family has bought them groceries, because even as we sometimes try to figure out how to make the end of our paycheck last until the next payday (I too have only been able to find a part-time job), I have been very aware that I would want someone to feed my children if I could not.

I have written before about the community that we just moved out of in Ohio.  How at one point and time (in 2010) it had the highest poverty rate in all of Ohio.  This school year, a teacher wrote a grant and every student gets free breakfast and lunch at school because the poverty and hunger are so high.  Somewhere around 70% or more qualified for free or reduced lunch. During the summers, the community gets together and provides lunches at various locations because they know that for many of those children, it will be the only food they eat that day.



As I was Googling around for more concrete facts to share with you for this post, I stumbled across the Twitter account of Tom Hiddleston, Loki from the Avengers movie (which is on repeat at my house).  Mr. Hiddleston recently participated in a campaign known as Below the Line where people were challenged to live on just $1.50 a day for their food and drink resources, the average of what people living in poverty spend.  Mr. Hiddleston kept a video diary where he showed himself eating things like a baked potato and giving up coffee.  $1.50 a day does not buy you much, it does not fill your belly and provide you with the healthy fuel you need to live a quality life, it simply dulls the hunger pains. 


[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S55dTdhpQ_A]

 
There are other major movements out there to help raise awareness about hunger not only in America, but in our world.  Top Chef star Tom Coliccichio recently put together a documentary called A Place at the Table. The PBS series Frontline recently did a series on Poor Kids where they talked to children about growing up in poverty – and hungry.  The Frontline special is full of important information and I highly recommend it.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cgxxT4xpVNI]


So here are some things you need to know:
“Nearly 16 million children in the United States – 22% of all children – live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level – $23,021 a year for a family of four. Research shows that, on average, families need an income of about twice that level to cover basic expenses. Using this standard, 45% of children live in low-income families.

Most of these children have parents who work, but low wages and unstable employment leave their families struggling to make ends meet. Poverty can impede children’s ability to learn and contribute to social, emotional, and behavioral problems. Poverty also can contribute to poor health and mental health. Risks are greatest for children who experience poverty when they are young and/or experience deep and persistent poverty.

Research is clear that poverty is the single greatest threat to children’s well-being. But effective public policies – to make work pay for low-income parents and to provide high-quality early care and learning experiences for their children – can make a difference. Investments in the most vulnerable children are also critical.” – National Center for Children in Poverty

If you work with teens, you need to be aware that many of them who come into your school and public libraries are hungry.  Not hungry for knowledge, but just plain ole hungry. Gut wrenching, acid boiling, can’t concentrate on anything, hungry.  If you have the means, add snacks to your programming.  Healthy snacks so that these children are getting some of the nutrients they need not only to keep their body functioning, but to keep it functioning well and thriving.

Find ways to get teens involved in the issue of local and world hunger.  Use your social media platforms to share statistics, PSAs and more.  Have events like a Food for Fines to get teens involved in helping at the local level.  Keep in mind that community involvement is an important Developmental Asset when selling these types of programs to your administrators. 

Libraries are all about educating the people and helping them reach their personal best, and we can do that by making sure that our administrators, our communities and our teens know what a pressing issue poverty and hunger is.  And it’s not just about the homeless people you see begging on the street, it is also about the people in the house next door that you don’t realize are eating plain spaghetti noodles for the 3rd night in a row and are coming to our libraries to look for work because they can’t afford computers or Internet access.  Let teens know that one of the biggest issues facing those in poverty is access to clean drinking water.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g9iZuByA61Y]
Teens need to know that THEY can make a difference



Teens can make a difference in the lives of others, they just need to know there is a need.  And we can make a difference in the lives of our communities.  Information is power, so help us get the information out there.

“The dirt became just dirt. It quit clinging to roots, ceased soaking up manure, stopped drinking rain, and spat seeds. . . Now the entire farm was up for sale, and soon they would be transplanted to some desultory house in Monroeville or Cotober or Bloughton. A house – that was if they got lucky with an offer. More likely was an apartment. Ry could barely conceive of such a thing. He glances at his sister, maybe fifteen feet away, and tried to imagine her growing into a long-legged young lady within such cramped confines.  He returned his face to the dirt. His heart hurt; he could actually feel it hurt. What was the use of resisting?” – Scowler, Daniel Kraus (which also has some stunning depictions of poverty).



Take 5: MG and Teen fiction that portray poverty and food insecurity
Rotters by Daniel Kraus
Almost Home by Joan Bauer
Hold Fast by Blue Balliett
Dicey’s Song by Cynthia Voigt
Dare You To by Kate McGarry

And recommended by the Tweeps on Twitter:
Miles from Ordinary by Carol Lynch Williams
Keep Holding On by Susan Colesanti
Trafificked by Kim Purcell
Madapple by Christina Meldrum
Crazy by Han Nolan
Dare You To by Kate McGarry


Resources:
Action Against Hunger
Unicef: Below the Line
The Water Project 
Charity: Water

5 Reasons to Love Daniel Kraus

The headline says it all, so let’s just dive in shall we . . .

1. Rotters


Daniel Kraus is the author of several YA titles, including RottersRotters is a deeply deeply disturbing book about a teenage boy who ends up grave robbing after his mother dies and he goes to live with a father he has never known. Like I said, deeply disturbing.  Like Wringer or The Monstrumologist, Kraus does a modern day Stephen King for teens and makes the King of Scream proud.  You will be freaked out in that satisfying way that comes from reading a deeply disturbing book assuming dark is what you’re going for.

Kraus does a couple of amazing things in Rotters.  1) He takes a very sympathetic and likable main character, Joey, and just drags this kid through the ringer and in doing so, takes his main character to very dark places.  It’s such a bold move as a storyteller to create such a dark, compelling arc and hope that the reader will stand by your main character.  2) In the depth of his darkness, Joey creates a plan to get back at a school bully that is so disturbing it will give you nightmares.  It’s hard to bring a character back from a place like this, and yet Kraus sort of does.  Well, at least he gives you the hope that Joey might possibly come out of this situation okay.

The other thing that is truly fascinating about Rotters is the world building that occurs.  In fantasy, authors have to develop intricate worlds with hierarchies, customs and sometimes even language.  Kraus ends up doing the same thing in this modern day gothic tale of gravediggers.  The grave digging world has its own lore and legends and an almost mafia like code of conduct.  You read along and wonder if this type of grave digging society really exists.

I read dark stuff: Koontz, King, serial killers and more.  But Rotters, it really stays with you.  It has been well over a year since I have read it and it just stays with you.  In my reading world, that’s a good thing.

Here’s a link to Random Buzzers, the very cool Random House website for teens where Daniel Kraus talks Rotters.  I highly recommend that you make sure your teens know about Random Buzzers.

2. Hostile Questions

Kraus is on the editorial staff for Booklist, which is cool in itself.  And here he does a regular feature called Hostile Questions where he interviews the cool kids with his own unique, twisted voice.  His plan is simple, he will interview these authors in a “aggressive manner” and promises that the authors will “love every minute of it” (http://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/news/ala/hostile-questions-engage-writers-new-booklist-online-interview-series).  It is, to say the least, entertaining.

Hostile Questions: Libba Bray

Hostile Questions: Ally Carter

3. Booklist

Just the other day some librarians and I began having a Twitter chatter about horror books and – gasp – Daniel Kraus himself chimed in (authors always get bonus points with me when they engage with librarians and readers).  So I asked him to name some good horror books for teens and he immediately led me to the online link to the Booklist of the Top 10 Horror Fiction for Youth.  It should be noted that Rotters is, not surprisingly, on it.  But of course he knows what’s on Booklist, he is an editor and reviewer there.  I am excited every time I read a review and see that it is him doing the review.  He recently reviewed Quarantine by Lex Thomas, which our own Stephanie Wilkes gave 5 stars.  So you see, we are doing something right – Daniel Kraus agreed with us :)

What Stephanie said: “The book is frighteningly realistic and I was completely chilled to the bone while I read.”

What Karen said: “Lord of the Flies mixed with Trapped/Variant but on steroids”

What Daniel Kraus said: “Take Michael Grant’s Gone (2008) and Veronica Roth’s Divergent (2011), rattle them in a cage until they’re ready to fight to the death, and you’ll have something like this nightmarish debut.”

4. He engages his audience via social media

In my universe, authors are rockstars.  They create the product that I am trying to get into the hands of my teens.  Imagine how epic it would be to a teen to have one of their favorite authors respond to them, even if it is something as simple as a Tweet.  Teens live in a world where they think adults don’t care, so it sends a positive – and important – message for an author to take the time to respond.  It sends a simple message: you have value.  (There is more of this thought in Don’t Underestimate the Value of Twitter and Relational Reading Revolution).

To paraphrase from the RRR post: We live in a culture that overly values celebrity and puts too much emphasis on goals that a very small percentage of teens will ever achieve.  When authors interact with teens, they help de-emphasize this goal; they make reading relational and humanize authors.  In effect, they narrow the gap between reader and writer and, in doing so, teens are more motivated to read.  Or in Kraus’ case they read because they are afraid he may come after them with a chainsaw . . . I kid, I kid. Sorta. But speaking of chainsaws . . .

5. Chainsaws

I obviously follow Kraus on Twitter (@DanielDKraus).  Some of my Twitter feeds I follow because they are informational, others I do so because they are entertaining.  Kraus is both.  You know that someone who came up with Rotters has to be a little bit twisted, and his Tweets often are.  He recently had a series of bizarre Tweets with author A. S. King involving chainsaws. On Mother’s Day. They brought me great entertainment.  That exchange was reason enough to love him.  Or fear him. Or both.

Bonus Reasons

  • He makes movies.
  • He writes for several magazines and online resources including Maxim and Cosmopolitan.

Let’s face it – we’re always looking for a way to get teen boys reading.  Kraus can help you do that.  He makes reading cool. 

The bottom line is this, I love anyone who helps me be successful at my goal.  My goal may seem simple, but it’s not.  There are so many challenges to getting teens into the library and reading books, but libraries (and stories) change lives – so I fight the good fight.  It is so much easier to do with authors like Daniel Kraus writing good books and helping you find them.

Find out more at Daniel Kraus’s website.

Trend Watch: Darkness Ruled the Land

Today I take off my librarian hat and set it aside.  I want to talk to you as a reader.  As a fan.  In particular, I want to talk about three very specific books: Masque of the Read Death by Bethany Griffin, Rotters by Daniel Kraus and Embrace by Jessica Shirvington.  These are all each, in their own way, dark, dark books.  The kind of books that haunt you.  And I just, well, need to talk about them.  So come talk about them with me.
Please note: you read this post at your own risk – spoilers abound! (You have to read that spoiler warning with a dark and sinister voice in your head. And maybe add in a “mwahahaha” and twirl your mustache.)

We begin our journey in a world haunted by plague and inspired by Poe: Masque of the Red Death by Bethany Griffin.  This is seriously a dark book.  There is such an oppressive darkness cast over this world that it truly haunts you as a reader.  Griffin was clearly inspired by Poe and succeeds in creating a work that would make him proud. This is a world haunted by a deadly plague, constant fear of contamination creates a stifling environment of fear and desperation: Darkness. We eat in it, talk in it, we sleep in humid darkness, wrapped in blankets.  There is never really enough light in this basement, not if you truly want to see. (Masque of the Read Death, page 13 in the ARC).  In terms of atmosphere, Griffin succeeds in flying colors of red to build a world so dark it is hard to imagine the sun even still shines.

Herein, though, is the thing that bothers me.  You see, there is a love triangle.  Our main character, Araby, is pursued by two men.  Will, is the bouncer at the Debauchery Club who checks to make sure you are free of the contagion before you can enter its premises.  Elliott is the brother of her best friend, the twisted leader of a group that is seeking to regain control of the land from an even more twisted leader who happens to be his uncle.  Elliott is a deeply complex character, haunted.  And yet Elliott is a sinister presence with what often comes across as self serving motives. Somehow, it seems that Araby is sometimes considering the possibility that she could fall in love with him.  Granted, this is of course all up in the air at the end of book one.  But as a reader, I had a hard time understanding how he could even be a possibility, how you could overlook the clearly dangerous tendencies that coursed through his veins.

In comparison, Will seemed like a hard working, selfless young man trying to survive in a twisty world.  In the end, he makes a decision with horrific ramifications for our heroine, but to be fair – it is done out of what I consider to be reasonable duress.  Am I wrong to look at this underlying motive and so easily forgive him his actions?

In the end, I feel that Griffin accomplished what she set out to do as a storyteller.  When you turn the last page of Masque of the Red Death, the darkness lingers, questions hang thickly in the air, and you hope young Araby will finally forgive herself and allow herself to live more fully in the world.  Although to be honest, there does sometimes seem to be little reason to, especially as a new more deadly plague sweeps across the land.  But this post doesn’t give justice to the world building and character development that occurs in Masque. When I say it is dark, I mean it is epically dark in really satifsying ways.  And twisted.  But again, twisted in epically satisfying ways.  Also, it should be noted, that MotRD is a good addition to the popular Steampunk genre.  So if you are looking for dark and twisty, this read is definitely for you.  And then come back and talk to me about Elliott.

As dark as Masque of the Red Death is, I wonder if it will haunt me as much as Rotters by Daniel Kraus does to this day – and it has been more than a year since I read it.  Rotters is the story of Joey, who eventually becomes a grave robber.  Yes, I really did say a grave robber.  I recently had a mini-Tweet chat with Kraus and asked him, “what makes you wake up one morning and say – I’m going to write a book about grave robbing?”  His response was that it took him about “3,000 mornings” before he was truly comfortable saying that.

At the beginning of Rotters, Joey’s mother dies and he sent to live with a father he has never known.  He arrives, alone, in the middle of the night to a house with no electricity, little food, and a man with a hostile disposition.  Slowly Joey gets drawn into a world where he and his father sneak out into the middle of the night and rob graves in order to sell their wares and survive.  It turns out that there is a highly intricate world of grave robbers with established territories, grudges to bear and axes to grind. 

As Joey slips into the dark and dirty world of grave robbing, he finds himself an outcast among his peers.  At one point Joey does an act so haunting to get back at his schoolmates for the constant bullying and taunting, you wonder what kind of nightmares Kraus could possibly have to think up such scenes.  In fact, I admire this act of boldness on the part of Kraus as an author because he does the unthinkable: he takes a likable character and turns him into an unlikable one.  Joey’s slow descent into this world is an interesting read, albeit a disturbing one.

So what’s my issue with this one, you ask?  I can’t help but think that Children’s Services would act differently then they do in the real world then they do in Rotters – at least I genuinely hope that they would – and that if they did, they could have changed the course of Joey’s story arc.  Of course, that wouldn’t work for the story.  But would children’s services really put him on a bus to arrive late at night to live with a man he has never met?  And would there be the lack of follow-up that occurs in this story?  One genuinely hopes not.

In the end, Rotters is also another example of successful storytelling.  I cared about Joey and was angry about his descent into the character he becomes and was thankful for the possibility of hope in the end.  I appreciated the world building that occurred in the development of the grave robbing world.  I wondered how true to life it was and what kind of research Kraus did for this story (he was vague in our mini-Tweet chat.)  It is a book I still think a lot about.  It truly haunts me.  (There is information about Rotters at the Randombuzzers page.)

Our final dark tale revolves around the world of fallen angels, definitely not new to teen lit.  SPOILER ALERT! Embrace by Jessica Shirvington is the story of Violet Eden, who eventually finds out she is some type of angel.  In this world there is a hierarchy.  She is pursued by two men, Michael and Phoenix.  Phoenix falls somewhere on the hierarchy and has a special ability: he is an empath.  This means that he can in effect push his feeling onto others as well as feel what they are feeling.  He is also the source of my issue. 

You see, to me, the ability to mess with someone’s thoughts and feelings is the greatest violation I can imagine – and this does not go unspoken in the book.  But what does happen is that at one point Phoenix and Violet have sex and it is never clear to me, as a reader, if Violet does this of her own free will or if Phoenix is somehow enhances her desire by using his ability.  If he is, then isn’t that basically rape?  If Violet is not fully consenting of her own free will – if he is in any way using his powers to even enhance her feelings – then it would be rape.  I wish, as a reader and as a teen librarian, that there would have been more discussion about this concept in the book.  I wish that they had used the word rape.  At the end of this book, which is book 1, Violet does recognize that Phoenix’s ability to influence her is a bad thing and she walks away from him – which I appreciated as both a reader and as a librarian.  But this issue of rape is a question that I would really like to discuss.  Have you read it?  What do you think?

In the end, I think that all three titles are well written books that are successful in telling the stories they set out to tell.  I think those that like to read a dark book – and I am one of those people – will be satisfied readers – and I was.  I think that Masque of the Red Death and Rotters tell unique stories. They present interesting, complex characters that are not always likable or – I hope – relatable.  They are truly interesting entries into the world of the macabre. And I think that fans of angel stories will be satisfied with Embrace; in many ways Violet is a strong female character that brings Buffy the Vampire Slayer to mind.  These are all definitely for the more mature end of the YA spectrum.

So, have you read any of these titles?  What did you think?