The Cure for “YA Cooties,” Part 2

In my previous post I proposed that good writing is always worth reading, whatever the age of the intended target audience, and suggested that one way that a reader might overcome a prejudice against YA speculative fiction would be to read some of the best the genre has to offer in terms of prose, world-building, characterization, or a combination thereof. Unfortunately, a single post didn’t give me quite enough room to touch on all the titles I think worth mentioning, so here are a few more that might pleasantly surprise the hide-bound critics of YA.

Anne McCaffrey, author of the Pern series of science fiction novels, is lauded as a pioneer, one of the first really successful female authors in the genre, along with LeGuin, Norton, and Cherryh. Yet many current readers find the gender politics of her earliest adult-targeted Pern novels a bit dated, as when a romantic hero frequently feels the urge to “shake” his stubborn and uppity love interest, and when a heretofore likable girl transforms into a repulsive shrew almost the minute she Impresses a green (“fighting”) dragon and thereby transcends her society’s gender roles. Yet the one subset of Pern novels designated as YA, the Harper Hall of Pern trilogy (Dragonsong, Dragonsinger, and Dragondrums), has hardly dated at all, and remains a straightforward and satisfying endorsement of female creative ambitions. Its heroine, Menolly, escapes a nightmarishly abusive family situation in order to pursue her dream of becoming a harper — like Maerad in The Books of Pellinor, she’s one of those artistic girls for whom I have a soft spot — and McCaffrey peppers the text with lyrics of the songs her heroine crafts so that we know, not merely believe, this girl has talent. For a long time, her troupe of charming fire lizards remain her only friends, but eventually she finds a strong support system, including raffish young Piemur (one of those male-female friendships it’s always a joy to see) and Masterharper Robinton, one of the most wholly admirable of McCaffrey’s heroes. Eventually she falls in love, but romance never derails her ambitions or distracts her from them. In that regard, this book series, published as an omnibus in 1976, can serve as an antidote to the hordes of Twilight imitators in which the female leads are empty vessels waiting to be filled by a love interest. Anyone curious about the Pern series, however old, should start here.

Much of the work of Robin McKinley would merit a mention on my list, but I must single out my favorite, Spindle’s End. “Sleeping Beauty” is my least favorite among famous fairy tales, since its heroine is quite obviously and notoriously passive, but I read this retelling because I was curious to see what McKinley, a writer well-known for creating brave and resourceful female heroes, would do with it. She didn’t let me down. The vivid, lyrical prose is a strong selling point, but what I love most are the characterizations of the “sleeping beauty,” a tomboyish veterinarian (or “horse-leech” in the parlance of that world) named Rosie, and the fairy woman, Katriona, who serves as her guardian. The introduction of the beautiful Peony, who apparently conforms to the feminine ideal but who proves to be more than she seems, adds a welcome twist I will not Spoil here. McKinley’s Damar novels, The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown, are also worth a look. I find the prose a tad flat compared with that of Spindle’s End, but these novels offer welcome portrayals of day-saving young women.

Betsy Cornwell’s Mechanica defied my expectations more than almost any book I’ve read in the past five years. Do we really need another Cinderella retelling? Maybe not, but that folk tale has such staying power and malleability that we’ll continue to see retellings in the future, and if we’re lucky, they’ll be, well, as inventive as Cornwell’s tale, in which the Cinderella figure, Nicolette, is a budding genius inventor, and she’s less interested in attending the royal ball than in entering the competition for inventors despite all her stepfamily’s efforts to obstruct her. We know the Cinderella pattern so well that we think we know exactly where the novel is headed — and then Cornwell gleefully changes direction. The first-person prose invites readers to partake in the heroine’s loneliness, but also in her creative energy and defiant optimism.

The collision of disparate worlds with vastly different levels of technology is the thrust of two more worthwhile YA reads, Patricia McKillip’s Moon-Flash duology and Sylvia Engdahl’s Enchantress from the Stars. McKillip’s work showcases two brave, clever young people, boy and girl, whose venture away from familiar territory forces them to confront possibilities formerly beyond their imaginations. This, like all of McKillip’s writing, features gorgeous, luminous, almost poetic prose. Engdahl, in telling the story of a young woman from an advanced technological society tasked with guiding a young man from a primitive world on the first careful steps toward advancement, manages the masterful trick of shifting neatly from science fiction (the heroine’s chapters) to fantasy (the hero’s chapters), shaping the prose to fit the world.

I can’t leave unheralded the late, great Terry Pratchett’s ventures into YA, specifically The Wee Free Men, featuring the fearless, hard-nosed young witch Tiffany Aching and the troop of tiny warriors the Nac Mac Feegle, and The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, a fabulously fractured take on “The Pied Piper,” featuring a naive young lad and a super-intelligent cat and team of rats playing a long con. Critics who castigate YA fantasy for “sentimentality” will find none of that here,  for Pratchett sees no reason to abandon his customary no-nonsense style and incisive humor just because he’s writing about youthful protagonists. I can think of no earthly reason why anyone who enjoys reading about Pratchett’s kick-butt witch Granny Weatherwax should not also enjoy reading about his Tiffany Aching.

To refer yet again to the words of a guest of the YA Track at DragonCon (whose name tragically escapes me), the feature that distinguishes YA science fiction and fantasy from speculative fiction written for adults is not the quality of writing or characterization, but the presence of hope. And hope is something I think we could all use right now, at least a little.

Happy Reading.

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