by TaAnna Brown
Salida Regional Library
Book review: “The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2019,” edited and produced by Edan Lepucki and the students of 826 National.
Fall of each year brings a release of the “best of” books. For the previous five years, I compulsively check the release dates for the Best American Science and Nature Writing and Best American Essays, eagerly anticipating the year’s most interesting writing tidied up into one paperback. I stumbled upon “The Best American Nonrequired Reading” three years ago and devoured it in one sitting.
“Nonrequired Reading 2019” was assembled by a group of teens in the San Francisco Bay Area. They met in a classroom under McSweeney’s Publishing to discuss writing, storytelling and current world events. They read and voted on all the pieces included in the anthology.
Each piece is mostly taken from magazines and can be fiction, nonfiction, poetry, graphic work and, this year, even a letter to Congress. The committee’s mission is to “showcase new ideas, styles and writers to a wider audience.” They purposefully choose work that hasn’t already been read and shared a thousand times on the internet.
“BarBEARians at the Gate” by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling finds the writer traveling to a small community in New Hampshire to research the increasing problems with black bears. He meets gun-toting libertarians, bear-feeding liberals and independent survivalists. His writing aims to make the reader decide if the bears in the town are out to get the people or if the people are out to get the bears.
The piece of fiction called “Child A” opens with a line by Emily Rinkrna: “My mother slept with Ted Bundy.” We are introduced to a young girl with mentally ill parents who both committed suicide. The children are left to wonder if their genes will lead them down the same path. There is also the tricky question of dubious paternity from a serial killer. It’s an emotionally intense story capturing all the burning insecurities of adolescence.
Renee Branum’s “And the Sparks Fly Upward” is a moving story of a mother struggling with her 20-year-old stroke-victim son. It’s just the two of them in a small house and a nurse to help care for him. The mother laments, “I never really knew him – not as a child in his little bathrobe, not as a teen full of some sweet residue of heartbreak that I saw bubbling faintly, amber-colored, then hardening like sweet gum. Then, not as an adult either, when he found his silence.” A stroke isn’t the only cause of alienation in this fraught mother-son relationship.
There’s a trippy piece of fiction named “The Lake and the Onion” by David Drury. The lake falls deeply in love with an onion that it sees in a girl’s hands as she is being pursued by two boys, who only want to take the onion away from her and toss it into the nearest tree. The lake saves the onion from this exploding fate and the rest is, well, a surprising and poetic love story.
The end of “Nonrequired Reading” leaves the reader with a short blurb on each teen. These bios are sometimes just as fun to read as the selected stories. Althea Kriney writes that she will “miss the basement BANR was held in, but only because of the people, as the basement itself was very humid.” Minoh Lee’s biggest pet peeve is “when the pockets of jeans stick out … and celery.” These sarcastic, endearing teenagers – wouldn’t it be great to be a fly on the wall during the deliberations?
It is not a surprise that these excellent pieces were all chosen by teens. They chose passionate, startling pieces. Each piece of writing was never dry, and most were daring. This has now become the compilation book that I will look forward to the most every November.
TaAnna Brown works the circulation desk and advises readers at Salida Regional Library.