Thursday, January 02, 2014

Best of 2013: Realistic Young Adult Fiction

Some of the many items enjoyed by Burbank Public Library staff during 2013, recommended for your consideration:

This may have been the year when the popularity of reality-based fiction began to tip the scales over the fantasy monolith in YA literature. The literary and financial success of John Green’s The Fault in our Stars last year was not an anomaly in the sea of zombie apocalypses, vampire romances and angel sightings, but a precursor to the desire among young readers to read about the obstacles in their lives in more familiar surroundings. Not that great (and poor) fantasy isn’t being written, published and read; just that there are wider choices for the teen (and adult!) reader whose YA book diet has been recently limited to some well-trodden paths. There also seem to be more books being published to which male teens (that elusive species) can relate, and that don’t involve super-intergalactic alien spores or demigods of ancient lore. Wonderful! Now all I need is more time. The following are some of my favorite new titles I did manage to read:


Melissa E. has already reviewed two of my favorite novels published in 2013, Eleanor and Park and Fangirl, both penned by Rainbow Rowell. I’ll just add to Melissa’s accolades by noting that I finished Fangirl, sighed contentedly, and immediately began re-reading it. A little ashamed, I admit this probably means I myself am a fangirl of Rowell’s! So be it.

Continuing in the realistic vein, I fell for Winger, by Andrew Smith, an author who previously chilled me with his disquieting riff on sexual abuse and altered realities in The Marbury Lens and its sequel, The Passenger. In an almost completely different vein, Winger is narrated by the self-same "winger" (a fast, elusive, quick-thinking player for a rugby team), playing and studying in a prestigious Central California private academy. Ryan is 14 years old, has skipped two grades, is self-deprecating when he’s actually being humane, and in love with his 16-year-old best friend, Annie, who he absolutely, positively knows could never, ever reciprocate his feelings. He’s also good friends with one teammate who might be the only gay high school rugby player this side of the Mississippi, and the two of them together get their fair share of bullying and grief from their fellow teammates--so much for playing fair in love and war. This book speaks to the youthful horrors of hopeless love and the bigoted sexism rampant in all age groups, but especially hard to surmount in our vulnerable teen years. The book can also be incredibly funny and crude, and includes sketches by Ryan (actually illustrated by Sam Bosma) who reveals himself as an observant draughtsman. Give this book to any guy as well as most girls, and watch their hearts unfold under this author’s artful pen.

Two other fine realistic novels of 2013 include Reality Boy, by A. S. King, and Picture Me Gone, by Meg Rosoff. Both of these books speak to painful betrayals and prevarications by family, but do so in very different ways.

King’s novel shows the devastating aftermath on a family after their lives are brutally exposed in a reality-show based on a fake “nanny” who comes to help them sort their problems out. No one seems to notice (or perhaps care) where the trouble really lies, and the producers gleefully focus on the only form of protest the youngest child, a fearful five-year-old named Gerald, can summon, and he is branded forever with the nickname “Crapper.” Now stuck in anger management and remedial classes, in part for self-protection, the deservedly furious high school student learns the truth about his family’s evasions in slow, painful steps, and while there are no easy answers for this seriously troubled family, we exult in Gerald’s ever-increasing self-awareness and strength.

Mila, the protagonist in Rosoff’s Picture Me Gone, prides herself on being hyper-aware of her surroundings and possessing an uncanny ability to read people and her environment for emotional clues, though she herself seems childlike in her need for reassurance from those closest to her. With a laconic tone of voice not unlike Rosoff’s protagonist in the quiet but emotionally devastating How I Live Now, Mila narrates the strange road trip to New York State she takes with her introspective translator father, ostensibly to search for his missing long-time friend. She slowly uncovers the deceitfulness of adults towards each other, towards their children (who are not always so easily fooled as their parents sometimes think), and towards themselves. To trace another’s footsteps can lead one, she discovers, to participate in the lies the other tells, and even when the lies are “for your own good,” the betrayals can still be real, and very deep, particularly for the young. Adults should know better, and it is the children (always the children) who suffer the most, and are the most powerless to do anything about it.

Just for fun, examining the more romantic side of life are Gayle Forman’s Just One Day and its companion novel, Just One Year. Yes, they are unabashedly wish-fulfillment YA coming-of-age stories, light as a feather, but with nuggets of real wisdom for all who wish to understand themselves and their actions better. The first novel starts with Allyson, a serious, steady 18-year-old girl in the last few days before she finishes her first trip to Europe, meeting a sweet, hunky young European stranger named Willem, who offers to guide her for a day in Paris (in PARIS!), and who seems to bring out a different--exciting--Allyson, nicknamed "Lulu" by him. She finds herself forging a deep connection with Willem, though she is also troubled by his numerous female acquaintances they encounter in the City of Light. And then she loses him at a very bad moment.


Flip the coin for the complementary story in Just One Year, and you have a footloose Dutch sometimes-actor named Willem meeting a na├»ve American student who reminds him of Louise Brooks's iconic character, Lulu, a name he promptly bestow upon her. She intrigues him more than his usual casual encounters, for she is courageous, honest, and utterly trustworthy, something to which he’s not accustomed in women. And then he loses her at a very bad moment. Now give them a year on their own to figure their lives out and decide whether they want to find each other again, for naturally, they didn't trade any practical (as opposed to deeply personal) information before they were unexpectedly separated. Add a large dollop of Shakespeare, some well-drawn side characters, and a good dose of just desserts judiciously handed out to our protagonists, and you have a satisfying, if light, romantic confection.

Now I come to the fantastical twists of The Dream Thieves, by Maggie Stiefvater,  and The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman (the latter, by the way, not published as a YA book), both books ostensibly taking place in “this” world, and both books taking a detour into “that” world, the world of myth, of numen.

The Dream Thieves follows the characters introduced in The Raven Boys, and requires knowledge of the preceding book’s set-up, but it has an intriguing arc of its own. This book focuses on the story of Ronan, the “angry” member of this strange band of young myth-seekers--his mysterious parentage and inheritance--while moving the major story arc forward and gathering a few more characters in its wake. I finished the book intrigued and satisfied on some levels, but definitely wanting more information and insight: Where is this author taking us? It almost feels as if we are approaching a Gaelic Gotterdammerung of sorts; I need to brush up on my Celtic myths! 

Finally, what I can say about The Ocean at the End of the Lane (2013's Book of the Year), is that I hope, in fact, I really, really believe, that the story is true, from the first words to the last, and that the lapse it describes is only fitting and natural when one encounters divinity in life. Ah, I’m reminded of Plato’s Parable of the Cave. Can we only experience the shadows of the divine on the peripheries of our lives, on the walls we build to protect ourselves from the too-brilliant realities that would burn right through us and ruin us for our mundane lives that, after all, must be led by somebody? This story of strange encounters runs like a silken thread through all of Gaiman’s stories, speaking of the ineffable, the mysteries that rouse us, nudge us, compel us towards something larger than us, and that we are barely aware of--until, suddenly, we are. It is like a poem, too--spare and elegant, and elegiac, perhaps. If you have enjoyed Neil Gaiman’s other works, or at least some of them, read this slim novel, and reflect upon it. If you don’t know his work, this would be a gentle introduction to his world, or rather, your world, whether you realize it is your world or not. Enjoy the ocean!

Reviewed by Anarda W., young adult librarian

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