Got so much stuff I want to cover. Hopefully I’ll get back in a rhythm, because I really want to talk about the HorrorHound Cinci con and some other stuff soon. But first, with Breaking Dawn pt. 1 out and my most recent trip to the library (yep, I go that much when I have time), I’ve been thinking about Young Adult literature.
Why is it we seem to feel like anything goes if it’s for pre-teens and teens? There are some genuinely good titles out there, both old and new, but I’m always floored when I glance at book jackets in this section. It’s like if it could possibly make money, be glorified franchised fan fiction, maybe kinda teach a lesson, or just be plain weird, then it’s Young Adult. I’m floored sometimes that we’ve actually retained an adult fantasy genre (in a fiction sense, not a penthouse sense!) because obviously if it involves magic/vampires/werewolves/life problems then it’s a teen book. Because, you know, adults don’t have problems and apparently aren’t worthy of other dimensions or magic powers.
Does anyone besides me remember Problem Literature or whatever it was really called? That was the trend when I was a teenager, and it still boggles my mind that this was considered acceptable. Not only was it popular, but it was required reading in a lot of schools. I’m talking about books where the sole purpose was to show the young reader that life is not a piece of cake and you are going to have a lot of problems that will weigh down your entire life and make hope futile. A lot of the time these things featured kidnappings, runaways, domestic abuse, rape, molestation, incest, financial turmoil, you name it…sometimes all in the same book. I wish I was kidding. Old-school titles like The Outsiders, Pig Man, etc fall into this category, but there were tons of new titles that were popular among library book groups when I was in high school. The only one I remember vividly was Crosses, because it scared the crap out of me.
To this day I have the clear memory of joining a summer book group at the library only to find out that all the book options were like this. After reading one book about a family of illegal immigrants that smuggled themselves to America, were forced to endure horrible factory conditions, and the main female lead was nearly molested or raped a half-dozen times, I switched books to a fantasy title. I forget what the book was, but it was something about a really hideous forest creature who falls in love with an arrogant prince, and then manages to become beautiful for a little while, but the sole point of the book is that it doesn’t last and she becomes hideous again because that was what she was to begin with and she was ridiculous for ever hoping for love. And I think she maybe dies or something. In short, it was kind of like every day in school for me.
It was at that point when I quit the book group and went right to the comics section of the library and loaded up on Charles Schultz books. And then I went and checked out half of the BSC series to wipe my mind of that depressing crud. Say what you want about the BSC (and I’ll agree with you on most of it), at that point all I wanted was something happy that could make me think good things at school were possible.
I will never understand why writers and publishers felt that the problem movement was a good idea, just like I don’t understand why publishing any old thing that has some fantasy element in it these days is a good idea. Good YA titles should be like good adult titles. They should inspire, teach, and make a reader feel. (Yeah, this is a big one with me. I really don’t care if I agree with an author’s viewpoint or not; if you can make me have a visceral or emotional reaction, you’re good. The exception to this is problem literature, because the sole point of it is to slam it’s depressing message on the reader. There’s no reason for that, especially in an age group that already has so much to deal with.)
So I started thinking about the titles that could fit in this age bracket that I really love. And yeah, I still read YA lit every now and again. I have younger relatives and I feel I should know at least some options to tell them. These are far from the only good titles out there, but these are the ones I particularly love. And these are in no particular order, so nobody get your knickers in a twist!
1. Anything by Madeline L’Engle that involves the Murray family or the O’Keefe family – This pretty much starts with A Wrinkle in Time and goes through Many Waters, then picks up with The Arm of the Starfish through An Acceptable Time. Please have all young women read this instead of Twilight. You have your romance, you have actual real-world problems, and your heroines get to save the universe. Meg has the self-doubts all of us had at that age. Plus, Meg’s daughter faces some heavy emotional issues that are really bold and deep. I know some people feel L’Engle gets a little religious and a little sciencey, but she actually walks a very good line and brings up that stuff more in a story-telling sense than anything else. This is a very positive series, though not always wrapped up in a nice big bow. Because I also believe that parents/older siblings/other relatives or someone in their life should be reading what they are, it’s also got some good conversational topics in it. For a very female-positive alternative to Twilight, this is your series.
2. Coraline or The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman – Now I will say I prefer the book and graphic novel version of Coraline to the movie. Again, I like the plucky, strong-willed girl heroine and Gaiman not only captures that well but plunges her into a creepy, real-but-not-real world. And what kid hasn’t wondered what it would be like to go home but have it not really be your home? The Graveyard Book is about the boy Nobody who lives in a graveyard with ghosts until his potential murderer can be found. These probably aren’t for the under ten group, but they are a really good pre-teen introduction to fantasy and horror. While I’m not necessarily bashing the likes of say, R.L. Stine, I think these titles ring more emotionally true and are generally more interesting than the sensationalist alternatives.
3. Fat Vampire: A Never Coming of Age Story by Adam Rex – I read this last year and regained faith in the teen vampire genre. This is hilarious. I must’ve read this thing three times in a week because it is so ridiculously funny. It’s the story of a boy who’s accidentally turned into a vampire, but unlike the image we’re always presented with he’s a stocky comic nerd who now will never grow out of his awkward phase. And the girl who could potentially be his love interest is an exchange student from India trying to cure her illness “the google.” It’s fabulous. It takes the stereotypical teen archetypes in new directions, it introduces a reality-show subplot without being dumb, and it also spoofs my favorite vampire movie ever (no I’m not spoiling what this is), so extra bonus points for that! It also doesn’t pull any punches and doesn’t attempt to make the protagonists nice. Really, the second-bananas in this book are the more endearing ones, and the ending was one that I didn’t see coming.
4. Born to Rock by Gordon Korman – This is the story of Leo, a young, highschool-aged republican who for reasons I’m not going to give away loses his full scholarship to Harvard. Unable to fathom how he’s going to ever make it ahead in life, he suddenly finds out that his real father is an aging punk rock singer, who is reuniting with his band and going out on tour. In an effort to reconnect and try to get his dad to pay for his college, Leo becomes a roadie. The adventures they go on, Leo trying to come to terms with his own friends, his family, and himself, plus the eventual resolution is outstanding. I love all things rock n’ roll and I was intrigued by the jacket blurb enough to give this a try. Korman really makes some brave choices at the end, and I was so glad that I randomly picked this up off a display.
5. Something Wicked This Way Comes or Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury – These are more dated, but they are important examples of genre fiction. Something Wicked is much more obvious than Dandelion Wine, but both tell very age-defining stories. In the first you have two boys struggling with their inner natures, egged on by a mysterious dark carnival. In the latter you have the summer Doug turns thirteen and all the myriad of humdrum adventures that he goes on. Dandelion celebrates the little things in life and centers more around the realization that at some point we all must realize that we’re alive and that at some point we won’t be. They’re very different books but both deal with very real life truths and are the originals for a lot of copycats out there. I’d also say that From Dust Returned would be a good runner-up to either of these books if you want more of the typical creepy stuff with a humanist leaning.
6. Tithe, Valiant, Ironside by Holly Black – I love this series. I would also rate this 16+ because it does deal with things that some parents may not want a ten or twelve-year-old reading (same-sex relationships, heavier relationships in general, injecting glamour as a drug). However, this is urban fantasy at its best, whether it be YA or adult. All the characters are going though identity issues, everything is never as it seems, and just when you think that the author is going to pull back, she goes where you don’t expect her to. How many changeling stories do we get to see after things have been switched back? How many love stories happen with a troll? The faeries in this series can be kind (if they choose) or cruel, but they are always wild, which is what they should be. What I love is although there is a heavy theme of alienation and finding out who you are in the series, there is also a heavy theme of belonging. And again, it is mostly a girl-centric series where the leads actually go through a lot and are strong enough to come up with solutions or put up a fight along with having romantic entanglements.
7. Smile by Raina Telgemeir – this is an autobiographical graphic novel about the author’s dental experiences from early jr. high through high school. I just read this last night and couldn’t put it down. She ends up falling and knocking out her two front teeth and what should have been easily taken care of goes on…and on…and on. Through all her worries about her teeth she deals with feelings about herself, boys, and a group of friends who are far from supportive. This resonated with me because I’ve had my own dental epic drama and at about the same age I was dealing with the minefield that is jr. high school friendship. The pictures are adorable and emote off the page. You feel so much for Raina because she tries so hard and wants to be liked so badly. This speaks to any girl in that age bracket and also rings very true from a teeth-perspective, too. If you’ve been picked on or had any sort of mouth work done, you’ll identify with this book.
8. Persepolis 1 & 2 by Marjane Sartrapi – I love these books. These are a little heavy and should be read by an age-appropriate audience (2 has more teenage/college themes), but they are so important for connecting with different cultures. They’re about the author’s life experiences during and after the Islamic Revolution in Iran. The chance to read things from a differing perspective than one’s own is humbling, informative, and because the core emotions are so much what everyone goes through the reader will feel a sense of empathy with the author by time it’s all done.
So how about it? Any other titles that anyone remembers fondly or have rediscovered? Anything that traumatized you flipped through and were promptly traumatized by?