I’m an Adult, and I Read YA

The other day I was talking to this guy. He tells me that I should read more sci-fi. I say, “Okay, can you recommend a good YA sci-fi for me?”

His response: “I don’t know about a YA sci-fi, but you could try [x book]. It’s an easy read.” (Emphasis added.)

And as Sarah so eloquently put it last week, “I have words.”

I am an adult. I’ll even go so far as to say that I am an intelligent adult. I don’t read YA because I need an easy read, and the fact that anyone would suggest that we read YA for this reason is just downright insulting. The fact that this person would insinuate that YA books are easier reads than adult books tells me one thing: this person has never read YA.

Because YA books have just as complex vocabulary and sentence structures as adult books. The characters are just as round, the world building just as vivid, the stakes just as high, the conflicts just as intriguing.

You know where I think YA most differs from A? The pacing.

YA does without all the fluff. Fluff’s not necessarily bad. It’s good to feel immersed in a world. To know the backgrounds of all the characters. To visualize the scenery as if it’s on a screen in front of you. Adult does a very good job of this. But YA tends to tell the readers only what’s necessary. It keeps things to the point and tends to have faster pacing as a result. You can say that this is the case because teenagers have shorter attention spans and authors need to hook them in faster, but I don’t think this is the case either. I think it’s just nice to read books that stick to the exciting bits you need to know and do away with the fluff.

There’s the short answer for why I read YA and how it differs from adult, but I’ll go on. Because I can.

Sure, YA books have protagonists that are teenagers, but as I said before, the stakes are just as high. The fate of the world is still on the line. But because it’s a teenager instead of an adult facing the problem, well, I find it even more fulfilling when the good guy saves the day. How exciting would it have been if Dumbledore killed Voldemort instead of seventeen-year-old Harry? What if it had been President Coin who had inspired an entire nation to rise up against its corrupt government instead of sixteen-year-old Katniss? Not as interesting, is it?

As a reader, I like to see lots of character growth. While there’s plenty of this to be found in adult, I think you can find even more of it in middle grade and YA. Because so much of our development happens during these years. Is a fifteen year old not vastly different from a sixteen year old? Whereas a twenty-eight year old hardly differs from a twenty-nine year old. Our teen protagonists can undergo so many changes throughout these years. It’s fun to read.

And reading about these younger years is interesting because of the struggles encountered during this time: first love, defining who you are, deciding whether your beliefs are worth fighting for, figuring out the adult you want to be. These are the years where this happens. This is where people start to think for themselves and become separate from their parents. This is a fascinating time in every person’s life.

Really now, would so many adults read YA if it was more childish and less intellectual? Most teen books are written by adult writers. You can learn just as profound of concepts and morals from YA as you can from A. As I said before, it can be even more inspiring and profound because it’s a younger, less experienced protagonist taking on a serious threat.

I say to you, random man whom I had a conversation with, go read some YA. Heck, I can recommend some good sci-fis for you. Because I have read some! Go read these:

Ender's Game Cinder_Cover Divergent Hunger_games legend Possession Steelheart The-Host

Go do some reading. Then just try to tell me that YA is an easy read.

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Reviewing a Feminist Classic: The Last Unicorn

Despite a childhood spent reading, I had never heard of Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn until Pat Rothfuss mentioned it on his blog as his favorite book. PR goes so far as to imply that you can’t call yourself a fantasy reader if you haven’t read TLU (I’m sure he’s being tongue-in-cheek…or am I?)  Last Monday night I went with some work friends to see The Last Unicorn Screening Tour. It was an interesting experience to see such a classic on the big screen. I wish I had that opportunity more often.

last-unicorn

To be honest, I had no idea what to expect from the movie. I have never read the book, but I knew that the people who made the animated version of The Hobbit also made this film. I have very distinct memories of watching The Hobbit as a kid, and I remember thinking it was creepy and boring. The Last Unicorn was…interesting…if I’m being completely honest. I’d like to read the novel before I pass judgment on the story, but the film was so stylized as to be unrelatable at times. Something about the animation made it hard for your eyes to ever rest, and there were long stretches with no dialogue. The music sent my friends into fits of giggles that they had to stifle so as not to ruin anyone else’s theater experience (nostalgia counts for a lot, and I’m pretty sure most of the audience had grown up with the movie and loved it).

But yet, despite all that, I loved it. I walked out of the theater convinced that The Last Unicorn had more to say about loneliness than any lit fic I’ve ever read (that’s a huge theme of lit fic, right? The loneliness of modern man?). I think I could even call it a feminist text.

(1) The first line of the book reads, “The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone.” [emphasis mine]

The event organizer and Peter S. Beagle mentioned in the Q&A preceding the movie that until this book, unicorns had always been depicted as male. But now, forty-odd years later, can you picture a unicorn that isn’t “girly”?

The.Last.Unicorn.(Character).600.133534

I can’t adequately describe how much I love that. To take something that is by default male, and without fuss or pomp, make it a “her?” I wish I had been the one to do that. Not only to feminize the symbol, but to make her the subject of her own story. The hero of her own adventure. Before 1968, how often was that done? It’s hard to quantify, but TLU surely helped usher in a generation of fantasy writers who gave greater import to female characters and female narratives, treating them as humans (or unicorns!) worthy of their own stories rather than as accessories to a default male narrative.

(2) What is surely ahead of its time is the way the story complicates the myth of the “ideal” feminine being. The Unicorn (aka Amalthea) is beauty and grace incarnate. Her wood is constantly in the bloom of spring. Peace reigns among the animals who inhabit it.

But then, the careless words of two hunters lead the Unicorn to believe that she is the last unicorn on earth.

At this point in the movie, I was rolling my eyes. The Unicorn seems so overwhelmingly characterized by her “beauty” that it’s hard to see anything else about her. She reminded me of the sexualized fantasy women of games–women with too-large purple eyes and flowing white hair–which is exactly how the Unicorn looks.

But then, further down the road (literally, in context of the story), the Unicorn meets several men who want to capture her, and she is amazed that they can’t see she is a unicorn. To them, she is only an exceptional mare. The Unicorn realizes that men see what they want to see.

Both named female characters, Mommy Fortuna and Molly Grue, instantly see her for what she is. Because they see her for what she is, they can communicate with her (to be fair, so can the subpar magician Schmendrick who helps free her from Mommy Fortuna’s clutches). The recognition of her true nature gives the Unicorn a voice. This is the first time she actually communicates with other beings. The silencing of women’s voices is a huge theme in feminist lit.

(3) Being the hero of her own story helps the Unicorn become something new.

Eventually, the Unicorn and her compatriots fall into the hands of the villain, who they’re sure has hidden all the unicorns…somewhere. In order to save the Unicorn from the villainous Red Bull, Schmendrick the magician turns her into a human woman named Lady Amalthea. The longer Amalthea spends in human form, the more she forgets her life as a unicorn. The handsome prince courts her, and eventually they fall in love (I think? The movie didn’t do so great a job at showing this).

But when the final showdown comes and Amalthea must face the Red Bull again, she chooses to sacrifice her human life and her human love to set all the trapped unicorns free. Schmendrick helps transform her back into her true form, and she finds the strength to drive the Red Bull into the sea.

It’s poignant that when she is once again a Unicorn, she chooses to stay that way. This means leaving the prince behind and going back to her wood. But as she goes back, the narrator remarks that she is unique among unicorns in that she now knows both sorrow and regret. It’s those human emotions that make the Unicorn three-dimensional. The Unicorn isn’t a flat symbol of feminine beauty. She isn’t even hackneyed two-dimensional symbol of feminism (ie the victimized female). She is beautiful, but she has sacrificed. She has loved and given that up for something greater, and now she knows human emotion. Giving her human emotions makes her so much more relatable. Not only is she more relatable, but her arc is completed on her own–that is, there is no man by her side in the end. The story is wholly hers, though there are certainly influential side characters who help her. Don’t get me wrong. I love a good romance. But that is not part of this story, nor would it fit.

I’m sure many someones have done more in-depth critiques of this story. I’m sure there are problematic elements I’m overlooking. And there is also not one way to write a feminist story. My reading of the text (screenplay, in this case) is surely relying a bit too much on symbols and archetypes, but I thought The Last Unicorn did a great job exploring feminist themes.

Books with Daggers–They’re a Thing

This week I thought I would do some book recommendations. I’ve been reading a lot lately, mostly within historical YA. So if you’re writing in this genre or love to read it, listen up.

Graceling Cover

Wikipedia

First up, we have GRACELING by Kristin Cashore. This was one of the first YA high fantasies that I ever read. It changed my view of books. We have this amazing female protagonist who is an assassin being controlled by her uncle, the king, to do his dirty work. Some of the people have magical abilities, called “graces,” and Katsa is graced with killing. She meets Prince Po, who is graced with fighting skills, and together they leave their lives behind to perform a task more worthy of their talents. Like save the kingdom. Lots of action. Lots of plot twists. A beautiful romance. GRACELING is wonderful.

Maid of Secrets cover

Book Swoon

Next we have MAID OF SECRETS by Jennifer McGowan. This book focuses less on the romance and more on the political intrigue of the Elizabethan Era. Meg is an orphan who has made a living picking pockets, until she gets caught by a nobleman. Rather than get sent to prison, she is forced to serve Queen Elizabeth as a spy. Meg is blessed with perfect recall, which makes her ideal for overhearing enemy conversations. Jennifer McGowan manages to seep you into the era without taking away from the storytelling. Lots of sneaking, thievery, and play acting. MAID OF SECRETS is lots of fun.

Defy cover

Goodreads

DEFY by Sara B. Larson is my most recent “dagger book.” I bought this one on a whim at a conference I went to several months ago. So glad I did. The kingdom has been at war for years, and everything that the people have goes to the cause. When the border villages are raided and people are killed, the orphans are brought to the palace. The boys are taken to train for the army, while the girls are sent to the breeding houses to make more boys for the army. When twins Alexa and Marcel are orphaned, Alexa cuts her hair and pretends to be a boy so she can go into war training with Marcel and avoid being a prostitute. Years later, Alexa, the prince, and a fellow guard are kidnapped—naturally a love triangle ensues. Figuring out everyone’s motives is the fun part of this book. No one is ever as they seem.

Throne of Glass cover

Goodreads

Sarah J. Maas’s THRONE OF GLASS also features a female assassin. Celaena was sent to the salt mines for her crimes, until the prince releases her on the condition that she be his champion. Up against various killers, thieves, and spies, Celaena must compete to become the king’s assassin or return to the mines. But when her fellow competitors start dying, Celaena’s fight for freedom becomes a fight for her life. Very romantic. Very action-packed. Lots of great dialogue and character interactions.

Dark Triumph cover

Goodreads

Last is probably my favorite book of all time: Robin LaFevers’s DARK TRIUMPH. This is another assassin book, but it’s so much more than that. The victims of violence at the hands of men are sent to St. Mortain’s convent, where they are trained to kill for their god. Sybella has a dark past—she’s been hurt deeply by the men closest to her, but she is sent on an assignment to the house of her own father—the very man who has tormented her for years. This book is beautiful. Not only is it about finding a will to live after living through hell, but it’s full of romance and danger and deceit and betrayal and basically all the other good things to be found in books. Go read the first book about Ismae, GRAVE MERCY, then crack open DARK TRIUMPH.

The Falconer cover

Goodreads

The Winner's Curse cover

Goodreads

Coming up on my reading list are THE FALCONER by Elizabeth May, which is described as “The first volume of a trilogy from an exciting new voice in young adult fantasy. This electrifying thriller combines romance and action, steampunk technology and Scottish lore in a deliciously addictive read” on the cover, and THE WINNER’S CURSE by Marie Rutkoski, “a story of deadly games where everything is at stake, and the gamble is whether you will keep your head or lose your heart.”

So go get in some good reads before Nano takes over your life!