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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