The YA Way — Chocolate & Oranges

[Full disclosure: “Chocolate & Oranges” is a remnant left behind by an extended metaphor that I realized wasn’t working at all in the context of this post. The subtitle has absolutely no relevance or significance without said metaphor, but I like the simplistically poetic feel of it, so it’s staying just for fun.]

I have always had a weakness for the fantastical. I can’t remember a time when A Wrinkle In Timeand The Phantom Tollbooth weren’t on my bookshelf. When I was younger, I tore through stacks of Goosebumps and Animorphs books in between reading to my dad about talking dragons (Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles) and to myself about armored bears (Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy). One of my first literary heroines was Alanna, the magical lady knight in Tamora Pierce’s The Lioness Quartet — likely contested for my affections only by Pullman’s headstrong Lyra. Even when exploring more classic literature, I was drawn to the theatrical and the strange; I frequently named Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera as one of my favorite books, which retrospectively probably made me sound like a horrible grade-school snob.

It’s really only logical, then, that I grew up to be the reader and writer that I am: one who knows precisely which lines of dialogue in the Harry Potter movies were lifted straight from the books, one who nearly started crying in the middle of a bookstore after spotting the empty space where Catching Fire should have been waiting for her, one whose most recent attempt at a “normal” manuscript involves several ghosts and possibly an archangel or two. Dystopian worlds? Sign me up. Swords & sorcery? Bring it. Magical beasties? Yes, please. To me, nothing is quite as satisfying as diving into a world the likes of which I would almost certainly never encounter in reality.

But recently, I’ve read a slew of contemporary/realistic YA novels that — rather than shoving me headfirst into new worlds — gently took me by the hand and said, “Why don’t you come this way for a while?” And I was enthralled with the lot of them: Sara Zarr’s lovely, poignant Sweethearts. Melina Marchetta’s aching, complex Jellicoe Road. E. Lockhart’s razor-sharp, unapologetically feminist The Disreputable History Of Frankie Landau-Banks. John Green & David Levithan’s tender, witty Will Grayson, Will Grayson.

And I realized that perhaps I am often less inclined to reach for those sorts of books because they are often significantly harder to read. To take just one example — the protagonists of Kristin Cashore’s Fire and Graceling are defiantly independent and frequently lauded as girl-power heroes (and rightfully so), but they don’t make me squirm with recognition the way fledgling feminist Frankie Landau-Banks does. There’s something about the immediacy of contemporary YA that allows for very little emotional distance, which is precisely why books like those I listed are so powerful — and why they’re sometimes so tough.

I’m still more likely to reach for a fantasy or a dystopian than I am a piece of realistic fiction. After all, sometimes you crave the rich, the decadent. Sometimes you need to be electrified by invention and surprise, adventure and danger. Sometimes you want to, to quote Eve Ensler, “go so far away that you stop being afraid of not coming back.”

But, I now understand, sometimes you hunger for something different. Sometimes all you need is the feeling of reading a sentence and thinking, Yes. That’s exactly what it’s like.


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Road Trip Wednesday — Groundhog Day

This week’s RTW prompt over at YA Highway: “In the movie Groundhog Day, Bill Murray has to relive the same day over and over. What books would you pick to read over and over for the rest of your life?”

Ooh, what a fun question. I think I’ve already made my eternal devotion to HP pretty clear, so let’s just consider those seven books givens. Other than them…

The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, & Mockingjay (Suzanne Collins)

Also fairly obvious choices, given both my personal fan-girling and that of the entire YA universe, but I couldn’t leave them out. They’re intense, juicy, keep-you-up-all-night reads; I only finished Mockingjay a week or so ago and I’m already looking forward to revisiting the whole trio. TEAM PEETA FOREVER.

Matched (Ally Condie)

Another one I wanted to dive into again as soon as I’d reached the last page. A seamless blend of compelling plot and gorgeous language, Condie’s debut is a true treat of a book from start to finish. I cannot wait for the sequel!

The Tiger In The Well and The Golden Compass (Philip Pullman)

My favorite installments in Pullman’s Sally Lockhart and His Dark Materials series, respectively — the former primarily because of the swooniest intellectual romance ever committed to paper (Daniel Goldberg, will you marry me?) and the latter primarily because, well, it’s The Golden Compass! (I try to pretend the movie adaptation never happened.) Pullman was one of the first authors I remember being directly inspired by. Not only is he an astonishingly inventive and gripping writer, he is a champion of strong female characters, and for that especially I will always love him.

Speak (Laurie Halse Anderson)

I can’t even count how many times I’ve reread this book, and every time I revisit it I find something new to relate to, chuckle at, or be moved by. The reigning queen of YA “issue” books, Anderson makes powerful points without ever getting preachy.

Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings (Megan McCafferty)

I was a faithful reader of McCafferty’s whole Jessica Darling series, but the first two books will always be my favorites. Like Speak, I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve gone back to these books — sometimes just for a few happy-making pages, sometimes to devour them in their entirety all over again. They’re funny and poignant and endlessly re-readable.

What are your picks?


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Inspiration Station — Sara Zarr

There’s a lot of excellent advice to be gleaned from Candy Gourlay’s lovely reflection on Sara Zarr’s SCBWI conference keynote speech, but what really stuck with me was this: “You have to have faith that if you show up to the page something will happen.”

It is alarmingly, destructively easy to justify putting off writing. Every writer is familiar with the litany of ready-made excuses: “I’m not done outlining.” “I have to finish this character sketch.” “I’m just not feeling it today.” “You can’t force inspiration.”

That last one is particularly dangerous in its allure — because you can’t force inspiration, not really. True, reckless-abandon, lose-track-of-time, alive-with-the-joy-of-creating inspiration streaks into spontaneous existence like a rainbow across a previously gloomy sky. But while a rainbow can’t be willed into appearing, certain conditions are inarguably more likely to produce one — and the same goes for inspiration.

My favorite mantra from my beloved National Novel Writing Month is “You can’t edit a blank page.” You have to start with words, no matter what those words may be. You have to give inspiration a chance to appear, provide it with the conditions it needs to thrive.

So show up to the page. Something will happen.


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illustration by Jonathan Barkat; design by Natalie C. Sousa

I haven’t yet finished Brenna Yovanoff‘s mesmerizing debut, but I only had to read the first few pages to realize just how perfectly the cover of The Replacement captures the book’s mood. Both the cover and the story inside it take eerie, melancholy delight in subverting the mundane, creating mystery and menace out of the ordinary. And the tagline! Cue delicious, Shakespearean shivers.

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The Week In Review — Hungry For A Good Cast

My Suzanne Collins fan-girling continues! I became so entrenched in her HG world while barreling through the trilogy that I have yet to pick up anything else from my to-read pile. I simply haven’t been able to give myself over to another reading experience; I’m still reeling somewhat from finishing Mockingjay. So I’m going to continue basking in dystopian glory (oxymoron?) for a bit longer, and offer up my dream picks for some of the men of Panem. And yes, I’m aware of how British this list is. I fully admit to being biased toward lovely men from across the pond!

Peeta — Jamie Bell

His impressively diverse acting resume proves he can do both sweet and tortured, charming and tough. In fact, one only need see him in his breakout role in Billy Elliot to know how simultaneously fierce and lovable he can be. Peeta may be a lovelorn sweetheart, but he’s not a pushover, and I think Bell could strike the right balance between tender heartache and impassioned determination. And look! Here he is all bare-chested and arena-ready (from the upcoming “2nd century adventure” The Eagle):

Gale — Eddie Redmayne

A good ten years older than the character, yes, but he doesn’t look it, and he’s a mesmerizing actor. I saw him in a play in London and couldn’t take my eyes off him. (And not just for the obvious reasons.) He definitely has Gale’s ferocity — a certain fire behind the eyes.

Haymitch — Robert Downey, Jr.

Many have suggested Hugh Laurie for this role, but while he has certainly demonstrated his capacity for endearing grouchiness as House, I wouldn’t be able to believe he was ever deadly. Haymitch is cantankerously past his prime, but he still once won the Games, and I just don’t think Laurie has that kind of lurking lethality. RDJ, probably in large part due to his titular roles in Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes, projects the right kind of aged toughness. He’s also excellent at portraying characters whose external gruffness belie their hidden emotional wounds.


Cinna — Benedict Cumberbatch

Cumberbatch is such a versatile actor that I fell in love with him as a modern-day Sherlock Holmes without even realizing he was the skin-crawlingly creepy rapist from Atonement. He’s hilariously antisocial as Holmes, but has displayed a kinder side in projects like Creation, and to me looks perfectly Cinna-esque — elegant and lanky, with a heartwarming smile.

President Snow — Patrick Stewart

No one does regal quite like Stewart, and his recent turn as Claudius in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Hamlet proved he can do insidiously evil just as well as he can do courtly and avuncular.

Finnick — Henry Cavill

One of my favorite characters from the entire series, Finnick is a flirtatious rogue with a tormented heart of gold. The utterly charming Cavill has repeatedly been thisclose to plum roles like Bond and Batman, and is one of the most consistently compelling presences on The Tudors. His character on The Tudors, in fact, is rather similar to Finnick — a devastatingly handsome playboy with a surprising capacity for love.

What are your casting thoughts?

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The YA Way — Unusual Names

Writerly fact: I am moderately obsessed with names. If I hear one in a movie or TV show that strikes me as beautiful or unusual or otherwise worthwhile, I recite it in my head like a one-item grocery list until I can write it down. I read baby naming websites for fun. I sometimes create new characters simply to have a good excuse to use a name that’s been nagging at me. So when I read this post over at Tracey (with an e!) Neithercott’s blog, I was delightedly prompted into sharing my own thoughts on names — specifically, those of the less typical variety. Why do so many YA authors seem to gravitate towards unusual names?

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Some name choices are symbolic. Remus Lupin, a werewolf, is inarguably lupine. Sirius Black is capable of turning into a dog (a black one, naturally); Sirius, astronomically speaking, is a star prominent in the Canis Major constellation. To keep with HP, the fact that Voldemort’s name is unusual goes beyond metaphoric wordplay into even deeper character symbolism. The Artist Formerly Known As Tom Riddle chooses his new name specifically to avoid the commonplace; he is in fact quite blatantly disgusted at the thought of sharing a name with anyone else. He is intent on fashioning himself as peerless, wholly unique, and selects a moniker accordingly.

Speaking of unique, it seems quite probable that a drive to stand out in the crowd is behind some authorial naming choices. No one is going to confuse Scout with another plucky young heroine, for example, or forget which magical creature Aslan is. Ally Condie writes about this struggle for originality — her heroine Cassia was originally named Calla, but so was the MC in another of her publisher’s forthcoming books. One Calla is memorable; two are more easily muddled. One unique Cassia, coming right up! (Her love interests, Xander and Ky, are also unlikely to run into many nomenclature doppelgangers.)

This can become interesting when relatively ordinary names take on literarily iconic status. How long before someone else can write about a Bella or a Harry without everyone’s minds immediately going to their fictional predecessors?

Unlike those two, some characters simply wouldn’t sound right with “regular” names. Would eccentric, fantastical Xenophilius Lovegood make sense as Joe Turner? Could Kristin Cashore’s determined, flame-haired heroine be called anything but Fire?

Many of Suzanne Collins’s characters remind me of Cashore’s naming choices. Both authors have a knack for names that are almost exclusively unusual and very often outright made-up, yet still (for lack of a better word) functional. They make sense in the context of their fictional worlds — not necessarily because of symbolism or relevant character traits, but due to a more nebulous, difficult-to-define feel. Cashore’s Katsa, Po, Faun, Roen, and Bitterblue (my personal favorite) don’t sound anachronistically contemporary, but neither are they alienatingly genre-based like some fantastical mouthfuls I’ve come across. They’re poetic, and exactly the right amount of otherworldly. Collins’s Katniss, Peeta, Cinna, Haymitch, and Finnick are odd, to be sure, but I can’t imagine any other names working as well. They have a bit of bite, a slight discordance or strangeness, that’s perfect for the edgy, violent universe they inhabit.

Do you love bizarre names in YA, or do you find yourself put off by them? What are some of your favorite YA monikers?


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Road Trip Wednesday — Movin’ Out

This week’s RTW prompt over at YA Highway: If you could live within the universe of one book, which would you choose?

Along with “Would you like whipped cream on that?”, this is probably the easiest question I’ve ever had to answer.

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Hello, Potterverse! Magic wands? Flying brooms? Dragons, unicorns, and thestrals (oh my)? THE WEASLEY TWINS?!

Sign. Me. Up.


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