MANCHESTER, N.H., Oct. 23, 2013 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- "Living With Jackie Chan," the acclaimed new novel by Jo Knowles, confirms the author's full-spectrum command of the turmoil of the teenage years.
"A true karate man lifts those who have fallen, now matter how low," thinks Josh, the haunted protagonist of "Living With Jackie Chan," the brilliant new Young Adult novel by Jo Knowles.
Josh continues: "I can imagine him thinking this as he looks at me. That he's going to be a true karate man and get me out of this mess. But he doesn't know everything that happened. He doesn't know what I did. He doesn't know how low I've gone."
But for Jo Knowles, to be young, by definition, is to be in a mess, to in some way have fallen. "Teenager are in the middle of such a frightening, exhilarating, tumultuous time of life," she said. "I remember from my own teen years how much I appreciated the books that spoke to that experience."
Knowles—a member of the faculty of Southern New Hampshire University's low-residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction program—is the author now of five such books. And they have won awards: a New York Times Editor's Choice and Notable Book of 2012, Amazon's Best Middle Grade Books of 2012, an International Reading Association Favorite 2012 Book, an American Library Association Notable of 2012, the PEN New England Children's Book Discovery Award, YALSA's Best Fiction for Young Adults, and two Crystal Kite Awards.
These novels have also earned Knowles a reputation for tackling tough, troubling subject matter, and "Living With Jackie Chan" is no exception. This one is about teen pregnancy, but from an unusual point of view in YA fiction—that of the young father, who flees his school, the girl, and the baby put up for adoption to move in with his Uncle Larry, a karate teacher obsessed with Jackie Chan.
Knowles' readers have met Josh before in a previous novel—"Jumping Off Swings" (Candlewick, 2009), which was a YALSA Best Book for Young Adults. "In fact," said Knowles, "the idea for the story started with questions from fans about what happened to Josh."
Publisher's Weekly said, "This is an especially well-crafted sequel—readers need not have read the first book to get caught up in Josh's agony." But precisely for that reason Knowles prefers to call this novel a companion piece, rather than a sequel.
And at the same time her fans were sending her questions about Josh, Knowles' husband and son were earning belts in karate with the help of a teacher who made a powerful impression on Knowles.
"He was so full of positive energy and enthusiasm. He simply bounced," Knowles said. "When I first pictured Larry, that's who I had in mind. But of course as I began to write the story, Larry became, well, Larry. I don't know anyone like him, but I sure wish I did. We could all use someone like Larry in our lives."
Finally, Knowles added, the recitation that precedes each test for a belt—"What is a True Karate Man?"—provided the key to the psychology of a boy harrowed by guilt and looking for a path upward from despair.
The result is a story of hard-earned redemption, and a novel being cheered in all quarters. "Divided into four parts, the compelling narrative offers an honest and frank look at teen pregnancy from the male's perspective," said School Library Journal, "and while the book could have been a depressing read in another author's hands, Knowles succeeds in writing a character-driven story that is as uplifting as it is heartbreaking."
Teenreads is even more effusive. "'Living With Jackie Chan' is filled with amazingly lovable, brilliantly written characters. Uncle Larry is sure to be a favorite. Fans of Jo Knowles will be glad to see characters from 'Jumping Off Swings,' and new readers will definitely be eager for more from this talented author. 'Living With Jackie Chan' is a beautiful story that will no doubt be remembered by readers. Knowles's writing is incredible."
A portion of that beauty lies in the uplift praised by School Library Journal, and this—along with her tough subject matter—is also characteristic of Knowles' fiction. "I suppose all fiction is about redemption, really, since it's kind of the basis for storytelling," said Knowles. "You have a character with a problem, and the redemption, the satisfying part of the story, comes in the solving and surviving of it."
This makes the creator of Uncle Larry—gender considerations aside—something of a True Karate Man herself. "Jo Knowles inspires us with the characters she creates and with the stories she tells about them," said Diane Les Becquets, director of the MFA program at Southern New Hampshire, and herself a successful YA novelist.
"Her novels are celebrations of the human spirit during this difficult time of life," Les Becquets continued. "It's never easy. Sometimes you need a mentor like Uncle Larry—or an author like Jo Knowles—but there's always a path out of despair."
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