In the past eight years, I’ve reviewed plenty of amazing books, less-than-amazing books, really-kind-of-terrible books, and just-plain-meh books. The reading experience has been a mixed bag of awesomeness and problems, but there was always something in each book that kept me going, whether it was the likable-enough characters, the plot that hooked me, or the world-building that made me want to stay in that setting just a little while longer.
But an inevitable part of any reader’s life is the DNF pile — the books they simply Did Not Finish. The books that were so ridiculous, or so problematic, or so put-down-able, that you simply can’t stubborn your way through them. Normally, I don’t give those books a second thought after I’ve returned them to the library or sold them back to Half Price, but you know what? It’s time to give a shout out to my DNF pile.
These are my Top 5 Juv/YA DNFs, in order of how far in I got before giving up.
Moongirl and Devil Dinosaur, Vol. 1: BFF, by Amy Reeder, Brandon Montclare, and Natacha Bustos. I first met Lunella Lafayette, a.k.a. Moon Girl, in Issue 2 of America. She was a 9-year-old genius who travelled to universities to give lectures about personal greatness and universal systems with her dinosaur sidekick. Of course I wanted to know more about her!
Unfortunately, Vol. 1 of Lunella’s own comic series was just a mess. The story was all over the place, Lunella’s motivations for not wanting to be an Inhuman and for suddenly changing her mind about letting the dinosaur tag along were too hazy, and the time-travelling caveman gang was beyond cliche, with their “Ooga booga” talk (oh, and apparently they’re like the Flintstones, living at the same freaking time as the dinosaurs. Because that’s great science).
I actually almost made it to the end with this one; I got to around chapter 5 of 6 before I did a final eye-roll and gave up.
Egg and Spoon, by Gregory Maguire. I feel like, in theory, this story should have hooked me much more, especially with its focus on Eastern European folklore, but also the meta comments by the narrator, and if nothing else, because of Baba Yaga. Maguire writes a really funny, sassy, apparently-time-traveling Baba Yaga who says things like “Yummers” and “You’re not going to drink the Kool-Aid?” and calls her feline familiar Mewster, and sleeps on a pink-ruffled princess canopy bed covered in heart-shaped pillows with phrases like BE MINE, VALENTINE, and ET TU, BRUTE? How awesome is this lady?? How could I not get through a whole book just on her merits??
But the story itself moved sooo slowly in Part One, and even after the action picked up in Part Two, it just didn’t hold my attention for long. I really didn’t care about the Elena/Ekaterina twin switch plot, and I’d find myself constantly putting the book down and delaying picking it back up. I did kind of want to know how everything would end, but not enough, and I certainly wasn’t willing to slog through several hundred more pages to find out. One awesome side character just isn’t enough to carry a 500-page story when none of the other characters — not even the protagonists — make me care enough to stick with them.
Love, Stargirl, by Jerry Spinelli. Sequels are a hit-or-miss venture to begin with, especially if the original book or movie was so awesome. I know Stargirl could be considered a Manic Pixie Dream Girl in the original book, and I feel like a bad feminist for saying this, but I actually liked that mysteriousness about her, that magical, cosmic quality. Not that she was a total MPDG, though — she wasn’t just there for Leo’s benefit. She was there to shake the whole of Mica Area High School to its core. Having a boyfriend was a nice perk, but it wasn’t the main goal of her life.
Now, this DNF was a little while longer ago, so my memories of it are a little hazy, but what I do remember is Stargirl spending her days pining over Leo after moving to…was it Pennsylvania? She was very secretive about where exactly she moved to, and only slipped up once in her narration. And when she’s not pining over Leo or starting to fall for a different boy — a bad boy, oooh! — yeah, she still does some Stargirl-ish things, but nothing as outrageous as in the original book. It seems MAHS rocked Stargirl to her core, too, making her a little less bold and a little more normal. Which shouldn’t be such a bad thing at all — it should be a good thing to see the human, relatable side of an MPDG, shouldn’t it?
But Stargirl was really something special in the previous book, and I kind of didn’t want to see Spinelli “normalize” her. I wanted her to remain a mystery after she left MAHS for the world beyond. I made it about halfway through Love, Stargirl, before I decided I’d rather stick with my memories of the original.
The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman. Guys, I want to like Neil Gaiman more. I want to like everything he writes. I loved his treatment of folklore and mythology in the Sandman comics, and his twist on Snow White and Sleeping Beauty in The Sleeper and the Spindle, and his work in the Windling/Datlow anthologies. I know Gaiman can tell a fantastic story, and The Graveyard Book certainly doesn’t lack in unique characters or setting or events. So, what was it that failed to really hook me? Why couldn’t I get more than five chapters in?
Honestly, this DNF is the hardest for me to explain, because there’s nothing technically wrong with the book, nothing I can point to and say, This is a flaw. The characters are interesting enough — I especially liked Silas, this creepy Dracula-like figure who’s, nevertheless, a really loving guardian for the protagonist — and the setting of the graveyard/nature reserve is both beautiful and spooky, so you’d think I’d enjoy spending 320 pages with them.
Maybe it was the too-episodic nature of the story. What works in a series of comics or a collection of short stories doesn’t always work as well for me in a novel. There is an overarching plot re: the man who killed Nobody’s family and is still looking to finish the job, but it’s constantly put on the back burner, behind the various minor adventures Bod has in the graveyard. It just doesn’t feel like he’s in any real danger from that main antagonist, or that his smaller adventures really fit into that overarching plot.
I could be wrong, of course; if I could push myself to keep reading, I could find out that Bod’s trip to the ghouls’ city, his attempt to get a gravestone for Liza, and his learning of the Danse Macabre somehow prepare him to fight the man Jack, but I’m just not getting that sense at this point. After five long chapters, I want to feel like a novel is building toward something really threatening or important, and I just didn’t get that sense from The Graveyard Book so far. Again, this is all completely subjective and other fans of Gaiman could think I’m completely nuts. I kind of think I’m nuts. Maybe I’ll give Graveyard another chance in the future, but right now, like with Egg and Spoon, I find myself putting it down too often and not picking it back up fast enough.
Between Shades of Grey, by Ruta Sepetys. This one is really personal. I’ve read Holocaust stories and other difficult subjects before. I know it’s really important to learn about the grim moments in history, if we’re to prevent them from happening again. But this book just hit too close to home. My whole life, I’ve been hearing stories about the Soviet occupation of Lithuania, and the thousands of Lithuanians shipped off in cattle cars to Sibiras — to Siberian prison camps where they would be either worked to death or freeze to death. My great-grandparents were on the list to be shipped off because they were teachers — intellectuals — and they had to escape with my grandmother and her sister to Germany to avoid the Soviet officers coming to their home.
Reading this book, I could too easily imagine Soviet soldiers barging into my own house, holding my own parents at gunpoint, trying to separate my own little brother from us. After less than thirty pages, I just couldn’t read any more. Someday, I’ll try again, because it’s important to know. But not just yet.
. . . . .
What about you, Postcardians? What are some of your most memorable DNFs? What does it take to really turn you off from a book? Have you read any of the ones I mentioned above, and think I should give them another chance?
For more DNF shout outs, see my Top 6 Adult DNFs at Same Story.
Loved reading these! They made me cringe a bit as I thought about the stories I’ve written and wondered if I ever did anything that might put off a reader. As for DNF stories… One comes to mind. Wings of Silver and Blood by Mark C. Harms. I made it to the first chapter and stopped. Something about the writing was just too slow or too dry for me. I tried to pick the book back up again, but I keep picking up a different one instead.
I don’t think you’ve committed any DNF -inducing crimes in your stories 😉 DNFs are really subjective, anyway, and what one reader finds off-putting can totally hook another reader. The Graveyard Book is supposed to be one of Neil Gaiman’s best-loved works, and it just did not work for me.