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It’s another week, and that means it’s time for me to check in with my reading log for my MFA Independent Study course on YA and NA. Last week, I read Robert Lipsyte’s gritty YA novel The Contender, and I was surprised at home much I enjoyed it. This book was a departure from my usual reading style, but I’m glad I chose it for this project.

I picked this title for three reasons: first, when I was student teaching, my mentor used this novel with her at-risk class of 8th grade boys, and they had a really positive response to the story. Second, it shows up on lists of “definitive” and “groundbreaking” YA all the time, so it seemed like a good choice for my early years of YA survey. The third reason I wanted to read this book actually happened at Hollins this summer; one of my instructors knows Robert Lipsyte, and knew him while he was writing this book. The instructor’s version of the crafting of this story was that Lipsyte told a story he wanted to tell without first thinking about genre, and it was only once the book was headed to publication that the label “YA” was affixed to it. Whether that’s what really happened or not, I was intrigued, and wanted to see what it is that makes The Contender a YA novel.

Released in 1967, this novel is still in print, which, as I mentioned last week, is a testament to SOMETHING about this story having contemporary resonance. It actually surprised me just how contemporary this story still feels; it’s a gritty inner-city tale of a high school drop out who wants to make more of his life, despite his financial hurdles and the rampant racism he feels around him. Other than a few references to transistor radios, just about every piece of this story could have been written today; Alfred’s struggles and triumphs (and failures) feel modern and authentic. As much as I love the classic story of The Outsiders, I actually felt like this novel would have a wider contemporary appeal, particularly to teens living in urban environments and struggling with socioeconomic hurdles.

This is a fast-paced book with a likeable, flawed protagonist, and a cast of supporting characters who range from inspiring to threatening. The ending offered a surprise that I wasn’t expecting from a “sports novel”, but I don’t want to spoil it for you if you’re thinking about reading it. Suffice to say that there’s much more to this story than meets the eye.

What Makes it YA?

One of the myths I’m hoping to dispel through this independent study is the idea that NA is simply a grittier form of YA. This novel is intensely gritty, dealing with drugs, street violence, and prejudice, but it’s still firmly rooted in YA. Alfred would be a high school senior if he hadn’t dropped out, and while the dropout and city circumstances could combine to make this a novel of an adult struggling to find his place, the story is very much about an adolescent seeking to understand his identity. My simplest definitions of YA and NA boil down to “who am I?” (YA), and “what now?” (NA). The Contender is focused on the question of who Alfred is; who he wants to be, who he can’t be, and who he will become.

All in all, this was a solid YA read, vastly different from the sensual romance of Seventeenth Summer, (which is encouraging to me in my hope that NA, like YA, will continue to grow beyond contemporary romantic experiences), and a hopeful book with an unexpected ending. I’m surprised at how much I enjoyed reading it!

What about you? Has anyone read The Contender? What were your thoughts?