Friday, June 6, 2008

A Second Look at YA

Sartorias recently hosted an interesting discussion at Oached Pish about YA fiction. Apparently, YA fiction is booming and is being read by adults as well as young people. Sartorias asked, "If you read YA, tell me what you read, and why."

The reasons varied. Some people like coming of age stories. Some prefer YA's shorter length or find it easier to read because the stories tend to be more focused and to include less description or other digressive elements. A few prefer YA because they don't care for the graphic sex scenes that can be common in genre fiction for adults. (Though I think YA today is less "safe" in that respect than it was when I was young.) And some felt that YA was just better written and more interesting than most fiction published for adults.

I found this discussion interesting for a couple of reasons. For one thing, I've always been one for reading outside of my age group. Ever since I was young, if it was printed I'd have a go at it -- regardless of the target audience. Popular Science, Boy Scout magazines, my mom's parenting magazines, anything I could get my little hands on. (Okay, I really was too young for Moby Dick though the bits about cutting up whales were kind of interesting.)

But as I got older, I was never embarrassed to go down the age group ladder. A new Dr. Seuss title? I'm checking it out! A new Beverly Cleary? I'm on it! I think my parents might have been embarrassed, or perhaps just puzzled. "But you're a good reader!" they'd say. "You shouldn't be reading children's books. You could go on the adult side of the library."

The problem was that I'd already been there. And the books in the general fiction area seemed pretty uninteresting. Judging from their novels, it seemed that adults were only interested in sex and money. Boring! (I realize now that I was probably just unlucky in my selections. Or perhaps literature as such was filed under its Dewey Decimal classification.) In the meantime, there were loads of new books in the children's and YA sections and I had yet to read them all.

I gave up reading YA in the mid-seventies when it became depressing and problem oriented. Suddenly, it seemed like every new book was relentlessly hammering out a universe of hopelessness: drugs, divorce, depression, disease, and doom. Disfunctional families were now the norm, and adults were presented as uniformly incompetent and untrustworthy. It's not that I wanted books that were all sweetness and light, but it seemed to me that growing up could hardly be worthwhile, given such nihilistic worldview. And I had a sneaking suspicion that the universe was actually better than it was being painted.

Since many of the commenters on Sartorias's blog mentioned liking YA because it was hopeful, optimistic, and interesting, it might be time for a second look. I decided to take down author and title recommendations and see if I could find a few of them at our local public library. Many of the ones I wanted were not available, but I got these:

  • The New Policeman by Kate Thompson
  • The Stones Are Hatching by Geraldine McCaughrean
  • The Book of Changes by Tim Wynne-Jones (This was an accidental grab as I was intending to get any book by Diana Wynne Jones, and the author's first name was not on the spine.)
  • The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
Feel free to put further recommendations in the comments box. Our library is closing for the summer for remodeling, but they'll let you check out 50 books to tide you over until they reopen in September. So this might be a good time to borrow a massive chunk of YA.


Sherwood said...

I am on the run (and not sure if this blog wiill permit links) but Wild_patience lists this year's Ya Mythopoeic Fantasy Awards. You might get some suggestions there!

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

Thanks! That will give me some more titles to hunt down.

You ought to be able to post a live link here, but it didn't seem to come through. However, I was able to track it down from your reference. Here it is/

Bernadette said...

I've enjoyed reading lots of my daughter's reading list books throughout her years in school and one author that really stood out for me was Ann Rinaldi. She writes wonderful historical novels centered around specific events and people. Their appeal really transcends age! :)

Hapy Reading!

rhinemouse said...

Justine Larbalestier's Magic or Madness trilogy is quite good, I thought.

Also, the later books in Diane Duane's Young Wizards series, while they do have their flaws, are pretty fun.

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

Thanks, Bernadette. I'll put her on my list of authors to look up.


I'll look up Larbalestier.

I liked Duane's So You Want to Be a Wizard (which I read when it first came out), but I didn't care as much for the two following books. Were there others after that? If so, did they get better?

rhinemouse said...

Well, I still think that the second book in the series is by far the best, so possibly our tastes just differ. There are now (I think) eight books in the series (more to come!), and the only one I would really not recommend is #4, which (despite use of Irish mythology) is IMHO pretty weak. But the ones after it, though flawed, are pretty good. She gets a lot more into her cosmology, which has some interesting concepts, but never quite managed to satisfy me. Personally, I read the books mostly for the characters, and on that level they're pretty satisfying.

(Though, sadly, Duane has *still* not gotten over her habit of undercutting at least half of her characters' sacrifices. It is OKAY to have someone die nobly without coming back afterwards for a touching afterlife dream sequence!)

My suggestion for a second try is Wizard's Holiday, whose best aspect is the subplot about the main character's younger sister and a bunch of wizardly exchange students.

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

"Though, sadly, Duane has *still* not gotten over her habit of undercutting at least half of her characters' sacrifices."

Yes, it was this very aspect of her books that most bothered me."

rhinemouse said...

It's sort of a "once is touching, twice is silly, three times is JUST STOP IT ALREADY."

Actually, in the very latest books (Wizards at War), she very laudably avoids doing this with [spoiler]. Unfortunately, she tries to make [other spoiler] the Most Tragical Sacrifice of the book, which doesn't really work because [rampant spoileration].

I *do* find it interesting that she spends a lot of time playing around with the concept of (sorta) original sin established in the first books. I would tend to characterize it as "original sin lite"--because I'm mean that way!--and because she focuses way more on physical death and not spiritual. But it's still more metaphysics than I'm used to seeing in YA fantasy.

rhinemouse said...

...and now that I think of it, book #8 also contains [spoiler] who was all set up to die and then survived by a blatant--it wasn't even really a deus ex machina, it was an "oops, missed." Argh!

(I like these books, I really do, and I do recommend them. But Duane really needs to learn how to kill people.)

rhinemouse said...

Or how to save them satisfyingly. That works too.

Debbie G said...

I quite enjoyed Justine Larbalastier's trilogy. Try Geraldine McAughrean's The White Darkness (you can read my review here and Aidan Chambers' The Pillow Book of Cordelia Kenn (my review is here, with a bonus review of the Larbalastiers). Also Melina Marchetta, Saving Francesca.

Catholic Bibliophagist said...


"Duane really needs to learn how to kill people"

I'm visualizing this as a T-shirt.

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

Debbie G,

Thanks for the links. I admire people who can write good book reviews.

Debbie G said...

Thank you for reading them, and for leaving a comment! I read your blog regularly, and enjoy it, so I take your praise seriously, thanks :) (I meant the links more as a kind of shorthand to let you know something about the books, rather than self-advertising, by the way)

Enbrethiliel said...


The YA books in my collection outnumber all the other books--and I mean all the other books. I've been reading and collecting YA novels since I was twelve, Bibliophagist, and faced similar criticism for not reading more adult material when I became "old enough" for it. Obviously, all such comments came from people who didn't really like to read!

Bernadette is right that there's something about YA that transcends age. There's more to set the genre apart than the fact that the books are generally marketed to young people. In fact, there seems to be a trend towards more sophisticated packaging--edgier covers, as many blurbs as possible, etc.--that hints at an attempt to draw in more adult readers.

So what do we adults find to love? I'd paraphrase one of G.K. Chesterton's most famous quotes by way of explanation: "Writers and readers of YA can fly because they take themselves lightly." I think that we are light-hearted enough to see things with the optimism of youth--grown up enough to think deeply about the things that matter, and so young at heart that we never lose our focus on them.

All the "problem novels" of the 1970s were an unfortunate lapse (I even once used the term "anschluss"): with the possible exception of Deborah Hautzig's Second Star to the Right (a novel with an anorexic protagonist/narrator), most of them seemed to be have been written by authors who would rather have been addressing "adults." Real YA authors never talk down to their readers. That's why one can enjoy the books of Beverly Cleary in every decade of one's life!

In case you still want some recommendations, Bibliophagist, here are some of my favourites:

1) The Unlikely Romance of Kate Bjorkman by Louise Plummer

A hilarious book narrated by a sarcastic, yet adorable "English nerd" who is attempting to write a Romance novel. The basis of her story: her own Christmas romance.

2) Downsiders by Neal Shusterman

One of the best books I've ever read! What if there really was a small civilisation living under the streets of New York City? Shusterman's wild, edgy imagination takes us from the believable beginning to the uncompromising (yet happy!) ending.

3) The Book of the Lion by Michael Cadnum

A blacksmith's apprentice becomes a squire and travels to the Holy Land on crusade. The historical details are convincing enough, but Cadnum's honesty in portraying the Crusaders as they were--rough, violent, slightly barbaric, and yet devoutly Christian men--really seals the deal. I'm trying to get the next two books in the triology.

Then, of course, there are the usual recommendations: anything by Madeleine L'Engle and Brian Jacques . . . =)

Bookgirl said...

So I've been seeing your name over at Polly Poppin's place, and was intrigued. I'm Catholic! I'm obsessed with books! Sounds like a good fit. And then I came here, saw your headline, and you had me at hello. (Oh, how I admire a good play on words.) So I'm settling in for a nice long read. I'll try to resist the urge to comment wildly on old posts.

I'm also a huge fan of YA. There's something warm and comforting about them, in that "it's all going to be ok in the end" way. I really loved The Pursuit of Happiness by Tara Altebrando, and lately I've been reading the Twilight Saga by Stephenie Meyer. You've probably read the Anne of Green Gables books, but they always bear re-reading.

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

Hi, Bookgirl. Welcome and thanks for visiting. Leave as many comments as you like. Google sends them to my email box so I'll be sure to see them no matter how far back the original posts are.
Yes, I think I've mangaged to read all of L.M. Montgomery's books, both the Anne books and the others.


Thanks for the recommendations; I'm putting them on my master list.

the booklady said...

Have you read Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli? I just finished that and loved it! It's about a homeschooled girl who comes to school in the 10th grade and (gasp!) dares to be different--and not just a little bit different--but DRASTICALLY different!

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

Hmmm. I'll have to see if it's in the library. I'd been wondering if homeschoolers had begun to appear in YA and kid-lit yet.

Enbrethiliel said...


Bibliophagist, if you like books with homeschooling, try Surviving the Applewhites. One of the characters is a boy who has been kicked out of every school in the area until the only one willing to take him in is the homeschool of an eccentric family. =)

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

I'll look for it. (I don't know if I can say that I like books with homeschooling -- never having seen one that featured it. But since our family homeschooled, I am curious how homeschoolers are being portrayed in fiction now.)