Monday, June 01, 2009

Teens' Top Ten

On the YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association) “Teens’ Top Ten” ballot for this year are many books I have enjoyed immensely, a few I didn’t much care for, and some I have yet to read. I spent an enjoyable weekend filling in the gaps with two of them. Each has an unusual female protagonist, and while their stories are set in different venues, they share common characteristics that made it a pleasure to discover both and add them to my own “favorites” list of teen fiction.

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, is set in a future America in which the various destructive exploits of humans have reduced the United States to 12 districts ruled over by an oppressive and controlling Capitol located in Colorado. Reality TV has survived, however, in the guise of a yearly contest in which teenagers between the ages of 12 and 18, two from each of the 12 districts, are pitted against each another in a fight to the death broadcast on national television, as a reminder of the power of the state and the futility of rebellion that brought District 13 to smoking ruins many years earlier. The lone survivor of the match comes home in triumph to his or her district, bringing wealth and favor for the following year to its population, and forever lives set apart as a victor of this vicious contest.

In District 12, in the coal-mining Appalachians, young Primrose Everdeen “wins” the girls’ lottery, only to be replaced by her 16-year-old sister Katniss, who refuses to let her small and sensitive sister confront an almost-certain death sentence and volunteers in her place. Katniss, a loner living on the poorest fringe of this impoverished district, is joined by Peeta Mellark, son of the local baker, and their unlikely partnership is just one of the confusing elements Katniss must juggle in her confrontation with human nature and her own emotions. She discovers that the survival skills she acquired as the sole support of her widowed mother and delicate sister have unexpectedly made her a contender, but these skills don’t necessarily translate into the ruthlessness necessary to win the Games.

In Graceling, a first novel by Kristin Cashore, Katsa, an enforcer/assassin for the royal house of one of the Seven Kingdoms, is isolated not by poverty or necessity but by a personal “gift.” In her world, people born with an extreme skill—called a Grace—are sometimes feared and exploited, and Katsa’s Grace (talent) seems to be killing. Katsa questions the uses of her gift, however, and finds the compassion to start an underground movement to aid those exploited by her masters. On a secret mission to rescue his grandfather from captivity, she meets Prince Po, who has an unusual Grace of his own. He convinces her she is more than just a killer, and enlists her in his quest to discover the motives for his grandfather’s kidnapping, but this is only the beginning of a larger journey that includes romance, peril, and sacrifice as they discover a plot that has engulfed one kingdom and threatens the rest with destruction.

The gift of these two writers is their ability to invest their fairly fast-paced novels with intriguing back-stories, fascinating political intrigues, romance, mystery, and a compelling depth of personality for all their characters. There is a satisfying but also believable story arc of growth and change for the protagonists that engaged me from the first page to the last. I’m not surprised that both books made it onto the list of 25 finalists nominated by 15 teen book groups to be considered for the Teens’ Top Ten of 2009—but I will be surprised if they are not among the 10.

(If you read and enjoy these books, you might also want to explore Robin McKinley’s works, The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword, and Ursula K. LeGuin’s new trilogy, Gifts, Voices and Powers. Also, a sequel to The Hunger Games, called Catching Fire, will be released in September, and a companion novel to Graceling, coincidentally called Fire, follows in October.)

Teens are encouraged to read these and 23 more books during the summer, and to vote at between August 25 and September 15 for their 10 favorites. The winners will be announced during Teen Read Week, October 18-24. Ballots with the complete list of 25 books can be found in the Young Adult sections of all three Burbank Libraries. Happy Summer Reading!

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