Monday, June 16, 2008

Quotes, an occasional series, #2: Young Adult adventure

I came across an old bookmark last week, one of those beautifully designed freebies they used to send out in the early days. It featured this quote:
"The test of literature is, I suppose, whether we ourselves live more intensely for the reading of it." -- Elizabeth Drew
It helped crystallise some of my thinking about the YA books I've read recently.

I don't very much like most of the YA novels I've read, or tried to read. No, I'm not saying that YA as a genre is bad/shallow/inane or any of those thoughtless pejoratives idiot reviewers sometimes trot out. I'm saying I mostly don't enjoy most of the ones I've picked up. Perhaps I simply need to learn to choose more carefully. (After all, I also don't like most of the adult fiction I pick up, either.) Perhaps it's a taste thing; i.e. there's no accounting for it, in much the same way that I can say I like green better than orange. Though of course, there are some orangey colours in some circumstances that I like better than some disgusting green ones. So I'm generalising wildly, okay? Generalising is what helps me find my way into an idea.

The YA novels I do like are those such as Robin McKinley's The Blue Sword, or Ellen Kushner's The Privilege of the Sword, or the Harry Potter books: adventure novels (I think 'sword' in the title might be a clue). I don't like angst, don't like breathy first person narratives full of quirky best friends, lists, and offbeat parents. One exception--because yes, Virginia, there is always an exception--is Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson.

I've just read three quite different YA adventures. None of them are new. I'm not sure any of the authors would characterise them as YA but they're adventures featuring young adult protagonists. (I don't know what the industry's definition of 'young adult' may be, but mine is a protagonist in their late teens--even as old as 20--someone about to leave home and find out who they are and how to live their life.)

The first was Patrick O'Brian's Road to Samarcand which I enjoyed thoroughly. It was published in the 1950s, and most likely written when O'Brian was about 40. The first couple of pages are very slightly rocky, a little self-conscious, a smidge stilted, but after that it's a rip-roaring adventure tale complete with near-death at sea, political insurgency by land, and marauding hordes on horseback. Many of O'Brian's favourite tropes and characters are on display: the fussy unworldly person who is more than he seems; the Mechanicals-like low comedy types who are nonetheless brilliantly specific; the political machinations; hapless academics who have their uses; manly men's men who can be idiots in some ways; particular and howlingly funny dialogue; and inaccessible and rather magical lost valleys--this one complete with a Yeti. Nothing is too easy or smooth, nothing too grim. Great stuff, but definitely lacking the majesty of his Aubrey/Maturin novels. Is this because it's about a young person rather than adults? No. I think it's because O'Brian hadn't yet entirely found his stride as a writer.

Then there was Stephen Gould's Jumper which I read in lieu of seeing the film (which got such awful reviews). It's skiffy adolescent detail-porn: take a premise (what if an abused kid could teleport?) and follow it relentlessly to its logical conclusion. I enjoyed it. But, oh dear, the dialogue is, well, not a sterling exemplar of the art. And the whole thing felt about one molecule deep. There again, who needs deep when you can get a visceral imagine of stealing more than a million dollars in lovely, luscious cash?

Finally, I read Temple at Landfall, by Jane Fletcher, which is good old lesbian science-fantasy. This is very plainly written--the kind of thing writing teachers used to call camera eye or windowpane prose--but nothing wasted, nothing left out. It's a slender but sweet story of a girl/woman who falls in love with a guard captain (also female--it's a women-only world). Their love is forbidden, of course (isn't it always?), but, hey, love conquers all. And on the way to their happy ending they fight rebels, evil armies, wicked-clawed snow cats, and prejudice. I loved the fact that it's a women-only world where women take all the roles: hero, villain, vain, kind, generous, mean, petty, and so on; this kind of book is thin on the ground.

Each book took about two hours to read. Each book was enormous fun. None of them changed my notions about--my understanding of or feelings for--anything. It seems that Elizabeth Drew's test is also my test for 'literature' these days: do I feel as though my life is bigger because of it? None of these three books made me feel bigger, or denser, or more brilliant. But for two hours each, they certainly put a lift in my day. And that's worth something.

So now I want to ponder this notion of YA fiction and literature. What YA books expand my world? The first thing that comes to mind is Lord of the Rings. To me, it's YA because it's about a young adult (Frodo) and how he leaves home and finds out who he is. LotR is also most definitely art, so the back of my hand to all those cretins who think YA can't be Literature. Robin McKinley's The Hero and the Crown is also about a young adult, but it suddenly veers into real grownup territory when Aerin has to choose between her two loves. So I'm not sure if it's YA or not. There again, isn't that the point of really good YA fiction? That before the end the YA protagonist looses the 'Y' part and starts firmly on the 'A' path? I'm not sure. I haven't thought about this much. I'm hoping others who have more knowledge might be willing to chime in here. Seriously, I know I'm ignorant here. I'd appreciate some gentle guidance.

Okay, I stopped there to eat lunch, and talked to Kelley about what she thinks a YA novel might be. We didn't come to any hard and fast conclusions, but what I took away from the conversation was that the mediocre genre 'YA novel' is a little like the mediocre genre 'lesbian novel' in that they are hothouse books. They are inward looking; they won't lift up their heads and look at the outside world; they wear their themes on their sleeves; they are *about* being adolescent or *about* being a dyke (and usually about How Awful and Unjust that is). I think this is why I bristle when people call my work 'lesbian fiction'. My novels are written by a dyke and are about dykes, but they're not about *being* a dyke. But perhaps that's too fine a distinction for most people.

So here's a question for you all: what books about YA protagonists will rock my world--will entertain me and, more, will change me or challenge me?



  1. Have you read Sherman Alexie's Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian? It's wonderful and heart breaking and one of the best YA novels I've read in years.

    I'm assuming you've read the Tamora Pierce Alanna novels ...

  2. Thanks for the suggestions.

    I've read just about all Alexie's novels, but not that one. I wonder why. Mmmm. I've just ordered it, though, so will be reading it in a couple of weeks. I'll try to remember to post my response to it here.

    I've read one Tamora Pierce novel, and enjoyed it, but not well enough to seek out the others. Is there something--some volume in the series--to which I should pay particular attention?

  3. I don't know which Pierce novel you read, so it's hard for me to say. I loved the Alanna books, because they feature a strong female character, and gender parity. There is another series featuring Alanna's offspring which I think is better; I don't know how good they would be without the backstory, since I had read them in chronological order. I enjoyed the Terrier (Beka Cooper) books, too.

    Now you have me scouring my brain for good YA stuff that flips one's world upside-down!

  4. Diane Duane's "So You Want to be a Wizard" books, some of them at least.

    Jo Walton's fantasy novel "The Prize in the Game" is on point, and marvelous.

  5. I'm on a Garth Nix binge. The Abhorsen Trilogy is now one of my YA fantasy favorites. I began reading Shade's Children last night, which is YA science fiction (and pretty creepy so far). There's a sample chapter on Garth's website. I'll leave you with the first 133 words as bait:

    A razor blade gave me freedom from the Dorms. A small rectangle of steel, incredibly sharp on two sides. It came wrapped in paper, with the words NOT FOR USE BY CHILDREN printed on the side.
    I was eleven years old then. Eight years ago, which means I am probably the oldest human alive. Five years past the time when the Overlords would have wrenched my brain out of my skull and used it in one of their creatures.
    Actually, I guess Shade is the oldest human around. If you can call him a human. Shade would say that it wasn’t the razor blade that gave me freedom. It was what I did with it. The object is irrelevant; my action is the important part."

  6. Okay, I have two more recs for you:

    The Giver by Lois Lowry, and Harriet the Spy.

  7. What about the classic The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton? It is like the fountain from which YA fiction came. Or The Catcher in the Rye by Salinger? And Joyce McDonald's Swallowing Stones is not to be missed. Chris Crutcher's Ironman is also excellent.

    Beth Fehlbaum, author
    Courage in Patience, a story of hope for those who have endured abuse
    Chapter 1 is online!

  8. Jill, kai, karina, thank you.

    I've read Harriet the Spy. I think of that as children's literature, like The Secret Garden or A Little Princess. The protagonists aren't even entering puberty, never mind the low end of adulthood.

    The Abhorsen stuff, and Jo Walton, both sound a little older.

    I haven't read The Giver but it's about a 12 year-old. Would you call him a young adult?

    Very curious now about definitions...

  9. Hey, Beth. I actually tried to read The Outsiders about a year ago and just couldn't shoulder my way into it. But I did read Hinton's new book, Hawkes Harbor, which was exceedingly weird, but fascinating.

  10. Defining YA lit is tricky, I think. In my mind, I've always thought of it as moving past the "chapter books" for beginning readers and dealing with more complex issues. Just because a protagonist is a teen, I wouldn't necessarily say it was children's or YA lit.

    Here's one definition of YA lit that comes close to how I think about it.

  11. Although it's not prose, I would suggest Rod Espinosa's comics series Neotopia, from Antarctic Press. It's in five compact volumes, none of which are a lengthy read.

    Neotopia is set in a future world, nearly a thousand years after ours, where the capitalist industrial world has been replaced by one based on harmony and a certain degree of magic. The initial plot is a standard fantasy trope of the servant girl (Nayln) standing in for the duchess, which leads her to be kidnapped by agents of the Knossos, a kingdom that wants to reestablish the technological order of things. Nalyn is rescued by a well-meaning but bumbling group of adventurers, and ends up leading them on an odyssey through the world of Neotopia and the final confrontation with the Knossos.

    This is a story that's more complex than its initial conceits would suggest, with some interesting perspectives on the value of technology, the impact of industrialization, and the responsibility of power. I loathe a lot of fantasy because of its mindless embrace of feudal politics, so there's something appealing about a story that explores socialist and environmentalist ideas in a sympathetic way.

    Rod Espinosa's artwork is an interesting mix. His characters are simplistic, in a wide-eyed manga/anime-influenced style, but the worlds he creates, full of flying ships and dramatic landscapes, are eye-popping, and they really beggar even the $150 million school of Hollywood blockbusters. His conception of the Knossos themselves, multi-legged creatures who move like spiders, is also quite remarkable.

    One of the few YA-oriented fantasy adventures that I would unabashedly recommend.

  12. All right this is my favorite type of thread, more books to read. How about Sarah Waters Fingersmith or Daniel Pinkwater's Young Adult Novel or even Judy Bloom's (it might seem dated) Forever or this one called Bandersnatch, I don't recall the author but a google search turned up an interesting anthology by that name, and then not finally, Robert Asprin's Myth Adventures or even better his Little Myth Marker.

    See what you've started? Now I have got to see if I still have my copy of Bandersnatch somewhere so I can reread it again.

  13. I wonder about the definition of YA, too. Some people go by themes--sexuality, leaving the nest, etc. Classifying a book by age can be tricky, because by rule it's recommended that the protagonist is at least a couple of years older than the main audience. Children and teens prefer to read about someone slightly older than themselves.
    I thought The Giver's Jonas was a very mature tween. Shade's Children opens with Ella, who is 17, but then the focus moves on to Gold-Eye, a 14 year-old who is about to escape.
    Another great series I remember reading (seven years ago, so it may have shifted around in my memory) is William Nicholson's The Wind on Fire Trilogy.

  14. (sent over from bookshelves of doom)

    Read Geraldine McCaughrean's The White Darkness. There is a YA book that really did change me and the way I looked at the world.

  15. I was also sent over from Bookshelves of Doom.

    The Goose Girl, and Princess Academy, both by Shannon Hale, are fantastic and seem to fit your criteria.

    Also, Little Brother by Cory Doctorow -- it's contemporary, but still very much an adventure.

  16. The YA books I loved:
    1. Looking for Alaska by John Green
    2. An Abundance of Katherines by John Green
    3. I am The Messenger by Markus Zusak
    4. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
    5. Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan
    6. Naomi and Ely's No Kiss List by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan
    7. The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl by Barry Lyga

    These are off the top of my head. I came here from Bookshelves of Doom. Hope this helps.

  17. Anything by David Levithan, John Green, Libba Bray, Maureen Johnson, Holly Black, Scott Westerfeld, or E. Lockhart is more or less gauranteed to be enjoyable. That is, I really liked all of them.

  18. My three favorite YA books are _My Heartbeat_ by Garrett Freymann-Weyr, _Midnight Hour Encores_ by Bruce Brooks, and _The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven_ by Sherman Alexie.

    I expect you've read that last one, and the first two have a bit more teen-girl-angst in them than you're asking for, but dammit, they're SO good! So I had to mention them all anyway.

  19. Wow, lots o' people from Bookshelves of Doom. Welcome.

    Jill: that's a most intriguing definition of YA, and it further illuminates some of my difficulties. I realise I like books about YA protagonists, but perhaps not necessarily for YA readers. Or, should I say, not only for YA readers. I've started Alexie's Absolutely True Diary, and I'm enjoying it, it's so very well written, and interesting, and involving (love Fornoy's cartoons, too) but it's not teaching me/changing me.

    Argentla: I'm woefully unread in comics/graphic novels/manga etc. I will put this on my TBR list. Thank you.

    rhbee: y'know, I've never read any Judy Blume. I have, of course, read Sarah Waters. I hadn't thought of her work as YA, but of course some of it really is...

    mb: my partner, Kelley, read The White Darkness last year and was stunned by it. If I recall correctly, she thought it wasn't entirely successful but extremely interesting.

    Many thanks to everyone, especially those I haven't met before, for all your suggestions. Much to ponder.

  20. I highly recommend Elizabeth Knox’s excellent Dreamhunter and Dreamquake. They’re in line with the YA that you said you enjoyed, and they are gorgeous and unlike anything else I’ve ever read. Janet Lee Carey’s Dragon’s Keep is also very good. For urban YA fantasy read Kate Thompson’s excellent The New Policeman.

    In YA science fiction, I recommend Neal Shusterman’s Unwind.

    If you’re looking to try nonsf-f YA, I recommend Justina Chen Headley’s novels (her newest book, North of Beautiful, is coming out this Spring, and it’s excellent) or Tara Altebrando’s poorly packaged but excellent The Pursuit of Happiness. Ordinary Ghosts by Eirann Corrigan is a great YA boy book, and for the quintessential YA chicklit, read Maureen Johnson’s Thirteen Little Blue Envelopes. Marina Budhos’s Ask Me No Questions is a powerful and important YA read.

    A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly is great YA historical fiction.

    Companions of the Night by Vivian Vande Velde is a great YA vampire book.

  21. i won't offer any suggestions until you've ploughed through the ones you have.

    i can also email you offlist with my own opinions. you decide.

  22. kidlitjunkie: I think I've read some Elizabeth Knox. Black Oxen? Something like that. I don't remember a thing about it except it was impenetrable, as though for the author the story and characters were at least two layers from consciousness. But I'll take a look at one of the books you suggest.

    sdn: well, you're the one who sent me Speak four years (five?), so you know I'll pay attention :)

    But there's no way I can get through all these recs. Many of them, I can tell, are not what I'm looking for. Good reads, probably, and so worth taking a look (it's so lovely to read something fun and engaging and *new*), but not achingly amazing, not brilliant and beautiful and strange. There again, a steady diet of 100% pure anything will burn out anyone's brain...

    Do I sound confused? I think I am.

  23. In that case...have you read Megan Whalen Turner's Attolia books? Might be just the ticket. (But I still stand by the McCaughrean, too)

  24. mb, no, I haven't read the Attolia books. Tell me more, if you're so inclined.

  25. Nicola - the first one is The Thief, then Queen of Attolia and King of Attolia. The first is a solid, good, clever adventure set in a fictional place resembling Greece. The second two are utterly brilliant and mind-blowing. The books inspire obsessive love in lots of very intelligent people for their complexity, wonderful characters, layers of meaning, and beautiful writing. I hope you'll give them a try!

  26. mb, okay, I've ordered the first two. I'll remember to do an update when I've read them. Thanks.

  27. Have you read Weetzie Bat and the sequels, by Francesca Lia Block? I think they're "beautiful, brilliant, and strange" in spades -- about a girl named Weetzie, her best friend Dirk, and their search for love in a magical punk L.A. It's about love, and the families we make.

    And Weetzie will take you about 30 seconds to read, so if you don't like it (and it's definitely one of those books you love or hate), meh, no harm done!

  28. Sam, okay, Weetzie Bat is going on the list. Thanks.

  29. OK, I know you said you won't have time to read much fiction now and I've missed the boat. But nevertheless here're my recs:
    The Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. LeGuin is a coming of age story and although Ged is a teenager for most of the novel, he very quickly seems like an adult. However, this entire series is absolutely gorgeous and you will enjoy it if you haven't already!
    Then there's The Tripod Trilogy (there's also a prequel but you can forget that one), by John Christopher the first of which is called The White Mountain. It blew my mind as a child and held up to a 2nd reading as an adult. A great adventure,with some good meaty stuff to think about. All boys though.

    Beyond that I was struck by your statement that you don't like much literature these days. I'm a singer and I feel the same way sometimes especially about vocal music. Well, it's not the music I don't like but rather the singers, but I hope you are catching my drift. Because I know so much about singing (I also teach), it's very hard for me to turn off my brain and just enjoy the music. Is it the same for you?

  30. I've read the Le Guin books and yes, they're great. I believe I've also read at least some of the Christopher books, and I've definitely seen the TV series.

    And, yes, becoming an expert makes it harder to cope with inexpert decisions others make on the page. My enjoyment threshold is a lot higher than it was thirty years ago.

  31. I'm two years late to this party, but have you read Gerald Morris' The Squire's Tale series? The stories are retellings of the King Arthur tales, generally from sources other than or in addition to the Malory stories. I find many of them hilarious and parts have changed the ways I think about the world. The tenth/final book in the series has just been released.
    Another new series is by Scott Westerfeld. The first book is called Leviathan; the sequel Behemoth was released this fall and I have not had a chance to read it yet--curses. Leviathan is alternate history/science fiction/steampunk and young adult. The story starts just before the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. England is a Darwinist country, using genetically modified animals in lieu of technology while the Austrian Empire has concentrated on walking machines. I found the first book fascinating.
    Thanks for the posts.
    Jane Cothron
    Waldport, Oregon