We focus on Harry Potter here and have a good deal of enthusiastic discussion about Twilight and the Hunger Games books (10 more days to Mockingjay!) but there are a lot of other books out there we neglect by necessity in saying as much as we do about these series. To help correct that imbalance, long time HogPro All-Pro Deborah Chan, aka Arabella Figg, a writer living in eastern Washington State, offers her recommendations in a guest post titled ‘Young Adult Books Offer Great Reading.’ Enjoy!
Every time I go into bookstores or the library these days, I get discouraged by the adult selections. I’m an eclectic reader, so I can’t just head over to a particular genre section and find a treasure trove. Instead, I circle around the new and general/genre book section, picking up, putting down…and often leave empty-handed and discouraged, wondering if there will ever be anything good to read again.
Adult fiction has been overtaken by what I call The Jodi Picoult Syndrome (Picoult writes bestsellers—I’ve read two—that are literary, compelling, and… vastly depressing). This Syndrome means that a novel will plunge me into a gloomy, psychological story, full of angst, dysfunction, family secrets, rocky and wrecked marriages, creepy people, disturbed or damaged children, tragedy, forbidden love, and an ending that can’t possibly have an edifying or uplifting resolution, given the whopping freight of human misery leading up to it. Last fall I tried to read Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge for a book club and the unpleasant narrator drove me away by page three.
When I expressed my thoughts about adult fiction to fellow Lost fan Liz, she wrote (bold highlights mine): “You hit the nail on the head about Jodi Picoult Syndrome. I have one of her books but never got around to reading it. I saw an article a few months back about the state of modern fiction being such that all sorts of dark and terrible things happen to children. Jodi Picoult was the writer the columnist chose to spotlight. I read Olive Kitteridge and it was so depressing. I picked it up because it won the Pulitzer Prize and got good reviews. I did find it worthwhile but I’m not sure if the value of reading it outweighed the tragic exploration of the human condition. Ditto with Revolutionary Road. Yes, it’s a masterpiece and extremely well crafted, but it took me weeks to shake the existential pall.”
I simply refuse to read any more of this kind of dreary book.
I’ve been raiding the library’s Young Adult bookshelves this summer, where I think the best storytelling is to be found these days. Fellow All Pro Jenna St. Hilaire agrees. “There’s less pressure to be pretentious and more freedom to hope in that genre,” she says. Unlimited by contemporary adult literary constraints, YA novels range widely in subject and genre (and combinations of genres), and are heavy on good story and characters; they entertain, move, amuse, and uplift me. Unfortunately, these timeless/ageless stories are often ghettoized in the YA section and adults don’t discover them unless they become powerhouse hits like Harry Potter, the Twilight Saga, and I suspect, given the upcoming film, The Hunger Games, which has already been a favorite of adult book clubs.
I’ve enjoyed some remarkably imaginative YA novels over the past couple of months. In the three featured below, I suspect story scaffolding that John could grasp in a heartbeat.
Keturah and Lord Death by Martine Leavitt
(National Book Award Finalist, Young People’s Literature, 2006)
I don’t want to give away much about this enchanting and beautifully-written medieval fairy tale, but it reminded me of a certain Rowling story and Twilight. One day beautiful young Keturah, the village storyteller, follows a legendary hart into the forest and is lost. Three days later Death comes for her, and to her surprise, he’s a handsome, compelling man with whom she surprisingly has a longstanding connection. Falling in love with her and pitying her youth, Death allows Keturah to choose a replacement, but she refuses. A la Scheherazade, and despite her terror, Keturah tells Death an unfinished love story and persuades him to let her live if she can find her true love in a day. This novel is a stunner, a beautiful and unusual apotheosis story that I look forward to rereading and examining more closely for story elements often discussed at this blog.
Ice by Sarah Beth Durst
(Andre Norton Award Finalist for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy)
This is an outstanding reimagining of the Nordic fairy tale East of the Sun and West of the Moon (with its own embed of the Cupid and Psyche/Beauty and the Beast story). Cassie, 17, lives with her father at an arctic research station in the American Northwest and plans to work with polar bears. When she was a child her grandmother told her that her mother made a bargain with the Polar Bear King and was sent to the ends of the earth; her father tells her that her mother died. But Cassie discovers that her grandmother told her the truth. Cassie also makes a bargain with the Polar Bear King, who calls her “Beloved”: she will marry him if he rescues her mother. Carried to his exquisite ice castle she begins to love Bear, but her curiosity sets in motion a quest that will demand every bit of her strength to prove herself worthy of immortal love. This powerful and compelling apotheosis story is beautifully written, and the end is a twist I didn’t see coming.
Impossible by Nancy Werlin
(School Library Journal Best Book of 2008)
This original novel is based on the old song Scarborough Fair. Lucy Scarborough discovers from her mad mother’s teen diary that all the women in her family have been cursed by the evil Elfin King to become pregnant and bear a child at eighteen, and then go insane, unless they complete three impossible tasks. A victim of rape at her prom, Lucy is now pregnant with her own child, and with her loved ones, she must unravel the riddles in the song to defeat the curse. Lucy’s contemporary, sardonic voice often speaks for the reader, and makes this blended genre story believable. Those who dislike the Twilight novels will find some plot points controversial and unsettling, for similar reasons. But I’ve spent too many years under John’s tutelage to dismiss a novel for its surface story elements alone. I enjoyed it, but it doesn’t have the depth of the two above.
Some other fairy tale reimaginings I’ve enjoyed over the years: Donna Jo Napoli’s marvelous, gritty fairy tales (Zel and Spinners are favorites), and Gail Carson Levine’s 1998 Newberry Award Winner Ella Enchanted (and others). Robin McKinley’s Beauty, the first of the contemporary reimaginings, gave me a love for this kind of novel; she later wrote a deeper version of the story called Rose Daughter.
If you like dystopian fiction, I recommend Lois Lowry’s outstanding Giver trilogy—The Giver, Gathering Blue, and Messenger; these books are deep and the Christian symbolism in Messenger is beautiful. Scott Westerfeld’s The Uglies series, and his non-dystopian, fantasy Midnight series, are excellent.
I still have some other imaginative YA books in the pile I have yet to read and am looking forward to them. And I welcome recommendations.