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1.08.2017

what i'm reading: four realistic youth novels

Young-adult publishers' mania for series, with the emphasis on fantasy, has finally ebbed. There are still plenty of fantasy series to go around, but the new crop of youth novels is chock full of individual titles in the realistic mode. (In YA land, "realistic" means the opposite of fantasy: set in the existing world with real humans only.)

I've recently read four such novels. I chose three of them because the titles and covers intrigued me, and one based on the author's previous novel. Here are my impressions.

Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard
On the ever-expanding LGBTQ youth bookshelf, Girl Mans Up appears to be the first book to feature a butch lesbian, and I must say it's a welcome addition. All the other female gay protagonists I'm aware of are written in the "just like everyone else, but gay" vein, people whose orientation would not be guessed if not already known. Not so for Pen.

Pen is butch and a little bit genderqueer. Her old-world European parents don't understand her. Her guy friends accept her -- as long as she conforms to their expectations. Her brother is her rock of strength and unconditional love. But in order to be fully herself, she'll have to "man up".

The best thing about Pen is that she's comfortable in her own skin. She has no doubts about her identity or gender. Her problems arise from other people's expectations or intolerance. Her problems also stem from her best friend -- who is a jerk, if only Pen can see him clearly.

One could say this is a book where nothing much happens. Life happens. Regular, ordinary, everyday life, as lived by a teen in the process of finding her place in the world. For some readers, this is enough. For me, it's a welcome change from the conveniently placed life-tragedy that yields wisdom, a staple of youth fiction. For many readers, though, it will not be enough, especially clocking in at 384 pages. One thing is certain, you will love Pen.

The Great American Whatever, by Tim Federle
Quinn, the main character of Tim Federle's first youth novel, is coping with the aftermath of his sister's death, and his mother's subsequent depression. He's also gay, and that's not a problem.

Up to now, Quinn has been hiding in his room, wrapped in his love of old movies. When his best friend Geoff convinces him to take a step forward, Quinn meets a hot guy and falls for him.

Quinn is a fun narrator, and his friendship with Geoff is more important to the story than his new crush. Not a lot happens, but enough happens to make it interesting. Things play out realistically, which I appreciate.

If you're well-versed in contemporary youth fiction, the plot, the themes, and even the voice of The Great American Whatever may seem cliched and derivative. The dead older sibling. The parent with serious depression. The parent who walked out. The wise-cracking male narrator. We know them all. But if you're new to realistic youth novels, or just can't get enough of this type of book, TGAW may seem fresh, breezy, fun, and meaningful.

What Light by Jay Asher
Jay Asher is the author of the 2007 blockbuster youth novel 13 Reasons Why, which explores a teen suicide -- its causes and its aftermath. The book, widely promoted and popular at the time of publication, is now seeing a second life with the current interest in bullying. The publisher has released a 10th anniversary edition, a rare honour in the YA world.

It would be a lot to expect Asher to live up to the promise of this earlier, but I did expect a book with some weight and significance. I was very disappointed. What Light is a sweet, fluffy Christmas romance. The characters are flat and lifeless. Thoughts, feelings, and actions are described in excruciating detail. Girls think about boys, shopping, and who gets to own the title of Best Friend.

Of course, many readers love Christmas romances, and there's no harm in that. But there is harm hiding in this snowflake of a book. Sierra falls for Caleb; Caleb has a big secret, something shocking from his past that he is afraid to share with Sierra. The secret turns out to be a violent episode, in which Caleb was completely out of control. Only because of someone else's quick thinking, the episode did not end in tragedy.

The reader is repeatedly told that this incident was a one-time event, that Caleb is a good person who only needs a second chance. I thought Caleb might be dangerous. But apparently with the love and understanding of a nice girl, the past can be left behind and everything can be forgiven.

The audience for this book is almost exclusively female, and I am concerned about what messages they will take away. No matter what's in a guy's past, if he's charming enough and really sorry, you can overlook it. Warnings from parents and friends can be ignored. And if a guy has a problem, a smart girl can fix it. Sierra is a bland, blank character brought to life by her desire to fix Caleb, throwing herself into the project almost immediately after meeting him. It disturbs me that anyone writing for youth in the 21st century thinks this is appropriate.

The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis
I've saved the best for last. The Female of the Species is searingly honest, powerfully frank, disturbing in all the right ways, yet ultimately hopeful in a realistic way.

Alex Craft's older sister was abducted, raped, and murdered. (Dead sister, absent father, depressed mother.) In response, Alex has locked herself in mental and emotional armour. Also in response -- this will sound like a spoiler, but isn't -- she has murdered her sister's assailant.

In addition to Alex, trying not to feel, there is Peekay, trying not to be perfect, and trying to get over a broken heart. Good-looking and gifted Jack is trying to create a life with more meaning. Jack simultaneously pursues sex with the classically beautiful Branley and is ashamed of his shallowness. He craves something more lasting and authentic, and finds himself drawn to Alex. The gorgeous Branley, envy of all girls and object of desire of all boys, is collapsing under a self-worth based entirely on beauty and sexual availability. Adam, Peekay's ex, is sleeping with Branley. All are haunted by the memory of Anna, Alex's sister, but rape is not only a memory. Rape is an ever-present possibility.

The Female of the Species is about violence -- the violence and the threat of violence that hangs over every female in our society -- and the coping strategies we employ to deal with it. The violence runs the gamut from washroom graffiti and street harassment to roofies, rape, and murder. Many reviewers have noted that the book is about rape culture, which is true. But Alex and Peekay's volunteer work in an animal shelter show that the violence is not limited to women and girls. It is perpetrated, every day, on the powerless, the very creatures it is our responsibility to protect.

I had two problems with this book, but I'm guessing teen readers won't be bothered by either of them. First, the story is told from three different perspectives -- Alex, Peekay, and Jack -- but they all sound exactly the same. It's a challenge to write in different voices, but as an author, if you're giving three different first-person perspectives, you've accepted that challenge.

My second, more significant problem was that I found Alex's abilities hard to believe. As a revenge fantasy, it totally works. But as reality -- a teenage girl who literally gets away with murder, in a small town, where everyone knows everyone else's business -- it strains credulity. None of the reviewers on Goodreads mention this, so I might be the odd reader for whom Alex's revenge didn't seem real.

Despite this reservation, I can say this is an excellent, hard-hitting, honest and gripping story. It's one of the few youth novels to bring an unflinching eye to violence and the society that has more than enough of it to go around.

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