Tag Archives: young adult fiction

A Young Adult Fantasy Gem

An Ember in the Ashes

It’s been a while since I was truly excited about a young adult book, in part because I haven’t read very many in the past year or two. There was a stretch of time when every new book was reminding me of The Hunger Games or The Fault in Our Stars. However, when a book is independently recommended to me by two well-read lady friends, I take notice. That book is An Ember in the Ashes.

Young adult, like every literary genre, is lacking in diversity. This applies to both authors and character representation. So it’s wonderful to see a Pakistani-American author receiving well-deserved recognition for this book. In An Ember in the Ashes, you will find a society based on the Roman Empire in a desert climate with a variety of characters who aren’t white (!). Tahir builds an immersive world with a strict class system, slavery, and soldiers who are trained from childhood. The stakes are high for characters in every social sphere.

The narration is split between Laia and Elias. Laia was born into the oppressed Scholar class. When her brother is arrested for suspected collaboration with the Resistance, she is forced to become a slave in her attempt to save him. Laia isn’t the typical heroine found in fantasy adventure stories. She doesn’t start out as tough, capable, and fearless, but circumstances push her to challenge her fears. Most importantly, her understanding of herself and her family evolves as she faces these trials. Hers is a classic coming-of-age journey.

On the other hand, Elias has been trained since boyhood to join the ranks of the Empire’s most lethal assassins. Although Elias holds a privileged position, his ambiguous parentage and nontraditional upbringing give him an outsider’s perspective. He can’t speak out against the brutality of the Empire without risking death. Tahir is highly successful at bringing out the contradictions and messy emotions in this character as well. Elias objects to the role he’s expected to play, but he also loves the comrades with whom he grew up.

My friend Emmie and I were discussing how authors sometimes struggle to continue a series after a promising start. She suggested that those authors didn’t have a specific idea of where they were headed when the began the series. In addition, I think that the pressure to make each book more epic and action-packed sometimes causes the emotional threads of the story to get buried. Sabaa Tahir has planned four books for this series. I will be reading A Torch Against the Night soon and hope to love it nearly as much as An Ember in the Ashes. Even if she falls into some of the fantasy series traps, she’s a young writer with tons of potential for the future. I look forward to following her career!

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Carry On, Rainbow Rowell

Carry On

No one can accuse Rainbow Rowell of being lazy. Or un-inventive. Or un-awesome…but I digress. In the past four years she’s published five novels, three young adult and two regular adult. She’s written about 1980s misfits, the first year of college, and falling in love through technology. Yes, she always writes about love and relationships (among other things), but she approaches the subject from a unique angle each time. As her first foray into the fantasy adventure genre, Carry On proves that she’s only becoming more ambitious.

I’ve really enjoyed trying to explain the premise of Carry On to people, including a random girl at NerdCon. If you haven’t read Fangirl, it’s confusing. Cath, the protagonist of Fangirl, is heavily involved in the fan community for Simon Snow, a series invented by Rainbow to occupy a similar space as Harry Potter in Cath’s world. Fangirl includes short passages from the Simon Snow books, as well as snippets of Cath’s fan fiction. A key component of the fan fiction is that Cath writes about Simon falling in love with his archenemy Baz. (Yes, there are serious Harry Potter/Draco Malfoy undertones, except that Baz is also a vampire.) Then Rainbow became so interested in Simon and Baz that she decided to write her own book about them. As I said, confusing.

Luckily nerds tend to like things a little complicated. Wrapping our brains around the relationships between a fictional book series, fan fiction about that series, and a real-life standalone book is our idea of fun. (Hopefully when I say our, I’m not just talking about me. The verging-on-mob scene before Rainbow’s signing at NerdCon would suggest that others share my feelings.) All this to say that I was fully on board to read about teenage wizards falling in love. And read about them I did, but to my surprise, the romance was secondary to the plot more so than any other Rainbow Rowell novel. I have no problem admitting that after a certain point I was asking, “But when will there be kissing?!”

Simon Snow is the Chosen One who has no idea how to fulfill his role. Rainbow has discussed in interviews how she’s read many Chosen One stories over the years, and Carry On was an opportunity to explore her opinions about the whole concept. As she said to The Toast, “How would it really feel to have a strange old man take you away from everything you’ve ever known because he needed you to fight a war that started before you were even born?” The mages in Carry On are more in touch with the normal world than, for instance, the wizarding world of Harry Potter. While allowing Rainbow to make her signature pop culture references, this connection also gives her some freedom to critique the genre in which she’s simultaneously participating.

As a reader, I found the critique to be the most successful aspect of Carry On. Rainbow is an astute observer of storytelling patterns, and she proved in Fangirl that she understands how people can be critical of something while still loving it immensely. The Simon and Baz relationship originated from the idea of finding romantic subtext where it’s probably not intended by the creator. The romantic aspects of Carry On sometimes felt more subtextual than I would have liked, but since it’s Rainbow Rowell, there are still moments worthy of a swoon.

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The Stephanie Perkins Admiration Society

I have mixed feelings about romance in young adult novels. I mean, I love it, but I have mixed feelings. When romance is well-written, it can make your whole world seem brighter. Yet when I read about teenagers finding true love, I can’t always forget that in the real world this experience is the exception, not the rule. I think of Joseph Gordon-Levitt in (500) Days of Summer when he confronts his coworkers at the greeting card company: “It’s these cards, and the movies and the pop songs, they’re to blame for all the lies and the heartache, everything. We’re responsible. I’m responsible. I think we do a bad thing here.” His character is speaking from a broken heart, but he makes a compelling point about the romantic expectations created by stories and songs.

I certainly don’t think it’s wrong to tell love stories in young adult novels (or anywhere else). Love is a wonderful part of life, and escapism is a perfectly valid reason to read a book or watch a movie. I just hope that young people can internalize the fact that these stories aren’t reflective of all high school experiences. (Then again, that unreality is probably one of the reasons we enjoy them.) Despite my moments of cynicism, sometimes I come across a YA romance that turns my heart to mush. Anna and the French Kiss and its sequels are the best example of the past year. And if loving Stephanie Perkins is wrong, I don’t want to be right!

Anna and the French Kiss

I was feeling a little down recently, and some reread therapy seemed like the perfect antidote. I picked up Anna and the French Kiss and then Isla and the Happily Ever After about a month later. In an uncharacteristic decision for me, I skipped Lola and the Boy Next Door, the second book in the series. Each book has a different narrator, and some characters reoccur between books. Lola is an outlier because it takes place in San Francisco, rather than the School of America in Paris. On the other hand, the male lead of Isla is one of Anna’s friends in the first book, so there’s much more crossover between the two. Even though I’m not much of a Francophile, in these books I’m a sucker for the Paris setting.

Since the characters are in boarding school, their lifestyle is closer to college than seniors in high school. It makes them seem older and probably keeps some of my cynicism at bay. More importantly, the interactions and development of relationships feel so genuine. As Rainbow Rowell put it, “Stephanie Perkins’s characters fall in love the way we all want to, in real time and for good.” Anna and the French Kiss shows particularly pleasing relationship growth, with all the awkward moments and miscommunication that are typical of young adult relationships. (And okay, some adult relationships, but let’s not go there.)

Isla and the Happily Ever After

Isla and the Happily Ever After warms the cockles of my heart for somewhat different reasons. Isla has always had a crush on Josh, and a painkiller-fueled encounter in the summer before their senior year finally brings them together. Throughout Anna and the French Kiss, Josh is in a tumultuous relationship with a different girl, and Isla deals with insecurities about his ex that are all too real. I find my younger self hardcore identifying with some of their issues, at a level that I can only compare to Cath in Fangirl. Josh is also an aspiring graphic novelist, which is both relevant to the story and an enjoyable nerd factor.

Sometimes I like to put my finger on why I love something. What sets it apart? Even though some reasons are probably intangible, it’s fun to articulate a few.

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It’s Not Summer Without Sarah Dessen

Saint Anything

Between The Moon and More and Saint Anything, Sarah Dessen was very open about the fact that she had to set aside a novel that just wasn’t working. She seemingly shared this to warn her fans that, in contrast to her typical two-year spacing between publications, there might not be a new novel in 2015. Instead, she channeled her feelings of helplessness into the story of Sydney, a girl whose charismatic older brother is sent to prison after a drunk driving accident.

Saint Anything is Sarah Dessen’s twelfth young adult novel. She’s a key role model for me, so I tend to pay as much attention to her career choices as the books themselves. The press for this book hinted that it was darker than her previous work. As something of a Sarah Dessen connoisseur, I found this claim irritating due to its improbability. As if she never wrote a novel about an abusive relationship. Or teen pregnancy. Or parental abandonment. However, her book covers and marketing in recent years have been fairly bright and cheery, focusing on the romantic aspects despite other storylines that are also present. Barnes & Noble also started shelving her books in Teen Romance, which I found reductive and possibly sexist. Her books always always have more going on than just the romantic relationship.

Of course, I had no way of knowing if Saint Anything takes a darker turn until I read it. Now that I have, I can confidently say that it does not. Sarah was in a more vulnerable place while writing it, which perhaps colored her perception of the book itself. All marketing schemes aside, I would deem this novel a success. She deals with themes that I’ve tried to explore in my own writing, particularly as Sydney struggles to become her own person in relation to her brother. There’s a South Park episode that’s primary joke is “The Simpsons already did it!” My personal equivalent is “Sarah Dessen already did it!” After twelve young adult novels, you can cover a lot of contemporary teenager topics. Sarah has said that she doesn’t know how many more high school stories she will write. I admire her for being brave enough to consider a new career direction.

The make-or-break moment for me with any Sarah Dessen novel is whether the characters gel. There have only been a few times where the world didn’t feel real, like I could see the mechanisms at work instead of getting lost in the final product. To be fair, I probably pay more attention to the mechanisms than the average reader. In the case of Saint Anything, the characters clicked within the first few chapters. Focusing on a character who’s struggling to be heard within her own family could have been a massive flop, as passive narrators can be risky, but Sarah pulls it off by raising the stakes and surrounding Sydney with a dynamic supporting cast. If anyone can pull that off, it would be her.

I was sad to reach the end, which makes me want to reread some of her others. What I would really like to do is reread all her books and do a personal ranking, but that’s too big of a time commitment. I may indulge the whim to reread one or two. I think I hear The Truth About Forever calling my name…

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An Evening with Rainbow Rowell

Last month I wrote about my new-found love for young adult author Rainbow Rowell. Last night I met her.

I only learned about this event on Sunday when she posted it on Tumblr. I was momentarily thrilled until I realized that I was scheduled to work on Wednesday night. I was very disappointed, but I knew that I might just have to live with it. That is, until one of my coworkers generously offered to trade shifts with me. I guess my love for Ms. Rowell is so obvious that my coworkers knew this would be a special occasion for me.

Fall 2013 008

The event was at the pavilion on Harriet Island in St. Paul. Having never been to an author event, I was expecting rows of folding chairs and a podium. All credit goes to the librarian organizers for making it a much more pleasant atmosphere. There were round tables with colored tablecloths, and each table had notecards for writing messages or questions to Rainbow. Oh, and also cookies.

Fall 2013 007

I arrived absurdly early, as is in my blood, and popped into the restroom. Whose voice did I hear but Rainbow Rowell herself? Yes, I will happily admit that I was fangirl-ing in a bathroom stall. I followed my instinct, however, and did not accost her in the ladies’ room.

Rainbow was introduced by Anne Ursu, a children’s book author who teaches at Hamline University. In her brief introduction she made a statement that echoed something I have tried to articulate about Rainbow’s books. Her characters display real emotions, and as Ursu put it, “she gives these feelings such dignity.” Way to say it better than I ever could.

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After a brief reading from Eleanor and Park, the majority of the evening was spent taking questions from the audience. Topics ranged from her writing process to specific characters to dealing with negative criticism. Rainbow gave full answers to each question, which made me feel like I learned a lot about her by the end of the night. She talked about deciding whether her books should be categorized as young adult or adult. When having those discussions with publishers, she wants to say, “Put them in the both section!” I like the idea that most stories are just plain human, and limiting ourselves according to certain categories is, well, limiting.

After the question and answer session, it was time for book signing. Being early came in handy when I was part of the first group to get in line. Meeting Rainbow was just lovely. I gave her a little note that I had written at the table, and she thanked me for recommending her books at my job. Nobody made me feel like I had to rush. Rainbow’s equally friendly sister was there helping out, and she took our picture.

Fall 2013 019 (2)

Out of some vague sense of security, I’ve hesitated to post photos of myself on this blog. Well, now I say forget that because I have a photo with Rainbow Rowell! This was my first opportunity to meet a big-time writer, and it was definitely a rock star moment for me. Okay, true confessions time. I picked my outfit with the fantasy that Rainbow would say she liked my shirt, and she actually did!

From her books and internet presence, I had an impression of what Rainbow would be like, and this night only confirmed it. She is a talented woman who doesn’t take herself too seriously. She treats her characters warmly, and her fans as well. If you could, you would want to be her friend. I certainly do.

Fall 2013 002

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Tales from the Teen Section, Part 2

Summer is the perfect time for young adult books. I might not be in the mood for serious literature, but I can enjoy some fast and fun teen fiction. Naturally I have another batch of titles to review and recommend.The Madness Underneath

The Madness Underneath is the second book in Maureen Johnson’s Shades of London series. I started it shortly after finishing The Name of the Star, which made me realize that I was perhaps more invested in the series than I thought. My opinion of the book changed from beginning to end. The first half or so felt like a reaction to the previous book without much cohesive plot to make it interesting in its own right. However, the narrative strands came together in the second half for an exciting conclusion. Okay, Maureen, I’m still on board.

Divergent

Divergent is one of those books that I read because I felt like I should. The series is big in the young adult world right now, and the film adaptation of the first book is currently filming. And of course, everyone loves to ask, “Is this the next Hunger Games?” After reading the first book, I doubt that it will reach that level of popularity. I was engrossed in the plot early on, and Veronica Roth certainly creates some dramatic action sequences. The problem is that I found myself questioning the logic of her dystopian world, which shouldn’t happen with quality sci-fi. I might still read the second book, but I’m not confident that my questions will be answered.

Eleanor & Park

This book. Oh my goodness, this book. I would have been obsessed with it when I was fifteen, and I still kind of am. In Omaha circa 1986, two misfit teenagers find each other and take tentative steps toward love. The plot could veer into Manic Pixie Dream Girl territory, but Eleanor and Park turn out to be wonderfully well-rounded characters. Eleanor is dealing with an overcrowded house and a creepy stepfather. Park struggles to find himself as the only half-Korean in the neighborhood. These characters have capital-E-Emotions, but I find them realistic rather than grating. I remember being sixteen when every emotion felt epic. The 80’s setting gives the story extra charm with cassette tapes, record stores, and no cell phones in sight.

After seeing these titles at the bookstore for months, it was great to finally discover what they’re all about. The best is a book like Eleanor & Park that fully meets my expectations. Of course, to-read lists have a tendency to never shrink, and there are plenty of other books on my radar. I hope to have another trio of young adult gems to share by the end of the summer.

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Dessen Delivers the Moon and More

The Moon and More

The Moon and More is Sarah Dessen’s eleventh novel. I have eagerly anticipated many of their releases, going back to my middle school days. When a person has written eleven books, they can’t all be brilliant. Even Sarah Dessen, one of my favorite young adult writers, has a few books that don’t work for me. I will admit that I was afraid The Moon and More would be one of them.

It was the book’s description that concerned me. Emaline lives in Colby, the beach town featured in several Dessen books, and she seemingly has a charmed life with a long-term boyfriend and supportive mother, stepfather, and sisters. Of course, her biological father thinks that she deserves more, in the form of an Ivy League education. And so does Theo, the boy in town for the summer with a documentary film crew.

Okay, I thought, so what exactly is this girl’s problem? She has a great boyfriend and the chance to go to a great college? Fortunately this plot summary belies a lot of the book’s drama. Emaline’s mother became pregnant as a teenager when her father was spending the summer in Colby. She thinks of her stepfather as her real dad, and her biological father only becomes involved in her life when they can relate in the safe zone of academics. The Moon and More deals with the tension between remembering where you come from and imagining how far you can go. Those themes of family loyalty versus personal achievement certainly resonate with me, and Dessen has crafted a story that explores them beautifully.

One of my favorite aspects of the novel is the parallels Dessen draws between Emaline’s romantic interests and her father figures. Her boyfriend Luke is a working class guy like her stepfather, both good-natured and practical. Theo is a visitor to Colby, just as Emaline’s father was years ago. Dessen picks the perfect details to bring her characters to life, and that skill serves her well in illustrating the similarities and differences between these men.

On her website, Sarah Dessen shares her inspiration for The Moon and More. Plus there’s an adorable video with her daughter playing in the background. I also enjoyed this Slate article where she and her editor discuss—what else?—the editing process. Just when I think I couldn’t love Sarah more, she gives me another reason.

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