The Cure for “YA Cooties”

One of my favorite reads of the past month was a fantasy generally shelved as YA. And according to some, I should be embarrassed.

The first name that comes to mind when I think of people who believe themselves qualified to judge my reading list is Ruth Graham, author of the now-infamous Slate.com article “Against YA.” The word “embarrassed” comes from her. Adults who read YA, she asserts, are stunting their intellectual and even emotional growth because they’re embracing a genre that supposedly relies on easy answers, happy endings, and likable protagonists, when they ought to be challenging themselves with the moral ambiguity that characterizes the best of adult literature.

I will agree with her this far: adults who read only YA should consider expanding their literary horizons, for a love of and familiarity with a variety of genres can only do a reader good. But I can’t accept her assertion that optimism and admirable/heroic protagonists are juvenile and simplistic, or that pessimistic to nihilistic storytelling is inherently worthier and more insightful. Graham mentions Charles Dickens as an example of an author of compelling adult-oriented literature. I fell in love with Dickens in college and read him voraciously, and the last time I looked into him, his work wasn’t exactly brimming with moral ambiguity. Tragedy, yes. Violence, yes. But in his work, the good guys, while flawed, are clearly good, and the endings are happy — just as in a lot of YA literature.

I will admit that YA has acquired a bad reputation over the last few years, thanks in part to the immense popularity of Stephenie Meyer’s emotionally overwrought Twilight series and the proliferation of its imitators. These works get so much attention that some readers may get the impression that “Ordinary, colorless high school girl pines for hunky supernatural boyfriend who stalks her and treats her badly” is a template for contemporary YA literature in general. If it were, if these were the only books in the genre, then YA might really be the embarrassment Graham and others think it is. But they’re not. One may have to creep through a minefield of Meyer imitators to find them, but YA speculative fiction contains some vivid world-building, engaging characterization, absorbing plots, and even gorgeous prose. We may “come of age” only once, but we never stop evolving, aspiring, and confronting confusing and even frightening dilemmas — so no matter how old we grow, we may find well-written young adult fiction worth relating to.

Here are some YA books that speculative-fiction fans of any age may find worth reading.

Leigh Barduro’s Six of Crows is the aforementioned favorite read of the past month, and interestingly, it has a dash of that moral ambiguity that Graham cites as worthwhile feature of adult fiction. This is a heist novel set in a vividly detailed second-world fantasy setting, and its protagonists are a band of thieves and would-be kidnappers from an urban underbelly. They’re given a mission that will save their world, as they must wrest a scientist from the clutches of their enemies before he can create and distribute a drug that will turn this world’s mages into soulless and unstoppable supervillains. A worthy goal, but our gang of rogues must stoop to some questionable methods in order to achieve it. The adventure proves a test of what lines they are willing to cross, and often we’re not sure just what they’ll do. Moreover, no simple happy ending awaits; I will say no more than that. There is a sequel, Crooked Kingdom, which I’m hungry to read.

So why did I like it so much? For one thing, the world — much like Django Wexler in his Shadow Campaigns, Barduro creates nations analogous to the Netherlands, Russia, and Norway, and sets them in political, cultural, and spiritual opposition — is a fascinating place. But clever world-building means little if I’m not invested in the characters, and the titular “six of crows” are a group of scoundrels I can get behind as they demonstrate friendship, love, and loyalty. I have a favorite: Nina Zenik, the female mage whose power can both mend and break. She’s capable, resourceful, and fearless, but it’s her wicked sense of humor, something “tough girls” are too rarely allowed to have, that makes her a heroine after my own heart.

Allison Croggon wrote The Books of Pellinor series (The Naming, The Riddle, The Crow, and The Singing) partly from a desire to see a female protagonist in a Tolkienesque epic/high fantasy adventure. Since I share this desire, I was primed to like these books. The world is complex, the stakes are high, the adventure is frightening and often painfully violent, and more than once the heroine, the gifted apprentice bard Maerad, is force to confront the darkness within herself. The series is not perfect. I lost interest in the third book, The Crow, in which the narrative leaves Maerad to follow her similarly gifted brother Hem and no heroine emerges to fill the Maerad-shaped hole; also, in The Singing,  Croggon introduces a secondary female character and gives me enough detail to persuade me to like her, then proceeds to under-utilize her. The friendship between girls/women I’m always keen to see is regrettably absent here. All the same, this is a gripping tale, with plenty of excitement in which a reader can immerse herself. Maerad emerges as a powerful day-saving heroine, her integrity all the stronger for having been challenged.

Fran Wilde’s Updraft is likewise not perfect. A friend of mine noted that while it’s very well-written and the society is developed in intriguing detail, it follows the familiar story beats of dystopian fiction in the Hunger Games mold. I can see her point, especially since Suzanne Collins’ wildly successful The Hunger Games, which I enjoyed, has almost as many imitators as Twilight. But I’ll go out on a limb and assert that Updraft is a better book. The prose itself is fresher to me, a sense of wonder mingling with the wrongness and oppression. The world is more complex and, for me, all the more interesting for being further removed from our own. And the purposeful heroine, Kirit, isn’t hampered with a love triangle to distract her from her heroic exploits. Like all my favorite YA in recent days, it’s a girl-power book, but with plenty of excitement and narrow escapes to please both male and female readers.

Coming soon: Part 2.

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