Monday, August 02, 2010

That Teenage Feeling

August has arrived! If you're like me, you're deep into a summer reading groove. This time of year is perfect for indulging my imagination-- unlike fall or winter, when I have more patience and fewer distractions, and feel a certain propensity towards weightier tomes. Classic “hard” books that are perpetually on my shelf sometimes get their spines cracked in summer, but they usually end up back on the shelf with a bookmark placed around page 28.
My go-to genre for summer reading is Young Adult. I'm nowhere near the level of expertise as our awesome Kids Books staff, but I have definitely dabbled in my share of YA. When I was a teenager, just about the only age-appropriate books I read were by Christopher Pike. I liked them because they were a break from my usual fare (all Stephen King, all the time!) but also because their pulpy covers disguised some surprisingly heavy material; teenagers were always murdering each other and having angsty trysts with aliens and time travelers and such. It's too bad most of those mid-nineties books are out of print; they could serve as a fun throwback for the Twilight set. 
Two great YA trilogies are wrapping up in the next few months. Suzanne Collins' addictive Hunger Games trilogy comes to a close with Mockingjay, and we bookstore folks will be celebrating with a midnight release party on August 23rd. If you haven't yet jumped into the nightmarish, action-packed world of Katniss, Peeta and Gale, do it! These books are so engrossing, they're like Steig Larsson lite.
In September, the third book in Patrick Ness' Chaos Walking trilogy, Monsters of Men, will be released. In the first book, The Knife of Never Letting Go, we meet Todd, a 12 year-old boy who was born on a recently colonized planet. Todd lives in a town where women are mysteriously absent, and weirder still, it is immediately revealed that men can hear each other's thoughts. Todd doesn't see anything strange in all this. He's used to the lack of privacy, and used to the reign of the tyrannical mayor and the zealous preacher who run the town. We the reader know that the other shoe is about to drop; Todd will begin to question everything when he meets a girl for the first time. Patrick Ness has done some magic here with his writing. He plays with font size and style and invents new word spellings and dialects to create a totally original voice for Todd and his talking dog (not annoying, I promise!).
If you're desperate for more, may I suggest a return to the ultimate YA trilogy, His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman. The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass tap into what I think is one of the most ubiquitous questions raised throughout YA lit; what would you do if you realized that your parents, your teachers, your culture, your world was oppressive and corrupt? Would you be brave enough to challenge the status quo, even if it meant sacrificing everything? Phillip Pullman's books are pure brain candy; he takes our instinctive emotional reaction to injustice and grounds it with real-world references and a pervasive, positive message of humanism, critical thinking and scientific inquiry.
This genre has become a cultural force. Popular YA novels are transformed into movies, TV shows and graphic novels, and they thrive online. The majority of these books are so visual that they are easily branded and marketed, and it's difficult, when recalling your first read-through, to distinguish your own imagining of these fictional worlds from the inevitable celluloid versions. But I think there is another factor at work here: we just love these characters. They are hyper-real, beyond relatable, and they live in worlds where emotions are boiled down to their most pure and powerful essence.
What is your favorite YA book or series? Why do you think they're so affecting and addictive? Discuss!

3 comments:

  1. Great recommendations, Seija. As one of the crack YA staff you mentioned, here's a couple more newish titles to add to the stack:
    Little Brother (smart, technosavvy, activism, adventure) by Cory Doctorow
    White Cat (urban fantasy, magical mafia, personal boundaries) by Holly Black
    Birthmarked ("A Handmaid's Tale" meets "Hunger Games") by Caragh O'Brien
    Graceling (awesome lady is a weapon, falls in love) by Kristin Cashore

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  2. Also, you asked why they're so affecting. Anna and I were discussing this after reading an article in the New Yorker (http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2010/06/14/100614crat_atlarge_miller) about the boom in dystopian fiction.
    Personally I think they're addictive because they cater to that part of us that craves instant gratification. They are easy to read and generally shorter or less dense, and they tie up nicely at the end. You get what you came for.

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  3. My favorite YA book, I've finally decided, is Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak. I just reread it last week, and it was as great as the first time. I swear she has magical powers. That's not about a dystopian futuristic society, but it is about high school, which is far scarier. In fact, another reason why I think dystopian novels are so popular for teens is that high school can certainly feel like a planetary wasteland, where you're in an epic fight to the death with other teenagers, you can hear your dog talk to you, and you're falling in love with a creepy vampire who either wants to eat you or marry you, while an asteroid hurtles toward you all. Right? Or was that just me?
    -Anna

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