Why Is YA So Dark?

I have never understood why so many people seem to equate darkness with maturity.  My recent foray back into YA fantasy and science fiction has introduced me to a number of assassins, thieves, and black market traders willing to deal in objects or flesh.  I have read about assaults, tortures, and abuse.  The more shocking, the better it seems these days.

Sometimes I wonder if authors are asking themselves,”Where do we go from the Hunger Games?”  Kids competing on reality TV to end each other’s lives is so unremarkable that I have had parents tell me that their child, who has read and enjoyed The Hunger Games, “can’t read about violence because it upsets him.”  So authors compete with each other to increase the darkness, to make each new form of violence memorable and unique.

And I don’t get it.  What about teenagers makes authors think that they primarily want to read about about criminal elements and graphic violence?  Why can’t a YA fantasy be whimsical or quirky or humorous?  Why must I end so many YA books feeling like I have had a narrow escape from the squalor and the despair?

Of course, there is a place for darkness in YA.  Of course, many dark stories end up in YA because authors and publishers feel middle grade readers may not be ready for them.  And, of course, YA is often actually written for the adults buying it, rather than for the teens it is ostensibly marketed toward.  But still–why must the inclusion of darkness in YA mean that the light-hearted fantasies must all be shelved with the middle-grade?  There is no reason teens would not enjoy a such a book!

And this darkness can expand to other genres within YA, though I spend most of my time with fantasies and science fiction.  For instance, I once tried to think of a humorous YA book.  I could not.  So I asked a children’s librarian.  They couldn’t, either.  So I searched the Internet.  All the results I pulled up were “dark humor”–not quite what I was looking for!  A teen who desired to read simply a wacky or weird humorous book would have to search in middle grade.

But just because teens are maturing does not mean they have to leave all the whimsy and the wonder and the silliness behind.  Those things are timeless and can be enjoyed by any age.  So let’s expand the YA section.  We can keep some of the darkness–teens know the world is dark already.  But let’s not forget that the light is shining, too.

Ogre Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine

Information

Goodreads:  Ogre Enchanted
Series: Ella Enchanted #0.5
Source: Library
Published: 2018

Summary

Evie enjoys working on her healing remedies along with her best friend Wormy.  But then Wormy has to ruin everything by proposing.  Even worse, the fairy Lucinda does not agree with Evie that she is too young to think of marrying anyone.  As punishment for rejecting Wormy, Lucinda transforms Evie into an ogre.  Now, she only has a few weeks to accept a proposal–or she will be an ogre forever.  A prequel to Ella Enchanted that can be read as a standalone.

Review

A prequel to Ella Enchanted?!  Gail Carson Levine’s work has been a bit uneven over the years, but I was still excited to learn that we would be returning to some familiar places and characters.  Perhaps she could recapture some of the magic!  So I put Ogre Enchanted on hold even before it hit the library shelves and impatiently waited for tech services to process it.  I am happy to report that the book lived up to expectations.

My experience of the book, however, is likely to be very different from many readers.   Ogre Enchanted is never going to be Ella Enchanted and readers who feel strongly about Ella Enchanted may perhaps find themselves disappointed as a result. I allowed this book to stand on its own and judged it simply as a fun fantasy featuring a spunky heroine and a good dose of humor.  Additionally, I was not expecting true greatness, but went into the book simply feeling hopefully expectant.  In some ways, I think that Levine has never really matched Ella Enchanted or The Two Princesses of Bamarre in her subsequent  books, so I was really just hoping for a solid story here, not a re-creation of Ella.  Perhaps as a result of my modified expectations, I felt satisfied.

Readers who adore Ella Enchanted, however, will find much to love here.  Though the book’s opening does give the possibility that Evie will simply reject the traditional formula for fairy tales, she actually does end up searching very enthusiastically for someone to propose to her, once it becomes clear she needs to do this or remain an ogre forever.  The story is thus a gender-reversed retelling of “Beauty and the Beast,” with Evie starring as the hideous monster who must find someone to love her despite her appearance.  Though I think it would have been interesting to see Evie find a way to outwit the curse without suddenly seeming to change her mind about love and proposals, I can appreciate that Levine seems to want to explore a different avenue here.  The story is really about Evie discovering what she wants in life and learning how to distinguish between flattery and flirting and real love.

Fans of Gail Carson Levine and Ella Enchanted will, of course, want to pick this one up to rediscover some of the magic.  Fans of fantasy in general, however, will also appreciate Ogre Enchanted for its strong and endearing protagonist and its unique take on a classic fairy tale.

4 stars

City of Ghosts by Victoria Schwab

City of GhostsInformation

Goodreads: City of Ghosts
Series: Cassidy Blake #1
Source: Library
Published: August 28, 2018

Official Summary

Cassidy Blake’s parents are The Inspectres, a (somewhat inept) ghost-hunting team. But Cass herself can REALLY see ghosts. In fact, her best friend, Jacob, just happens to be one.

When The Inspectres head to ultra-haunted Edinburgh, Scotland, for their new TV show, Cass—and Jacob—come along. In Scotland, Cass is surrounded by ghosts, not all of them friendly. Then she meets Lara, a girl who can also see the dead. But Lara tells Cassidy that as an In-betweener, their job is to send ghosts permanently beyond the Veil. Cass isn’t sure about her new mission, but she does know the sinister Red Raven haunting the city doesn’t belong in her world. Cassidy’s powers will draw her into an epic fight that stretches through the worlds of the living and the dead, in order to save herself.

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Review

I picked up City of Ghosts after hearing fabulous things about Victoria Schwab but never having  read anything by her.  I figured that I like middle grade, and it’s short, so City of Ghosts might be a good place to start.  It always has tons of rave reviews on Goodreads, many of them from adults who admit they don’t normally even read middle-grade.  My own experience, however was…underwhelming.  I finished the book thinking that it was fine, competent.  But I wasn’t that excited about it.

I have family members who are interested in exactly the types of things the book is based on–ghost stories, ghost tours in historical cities, ghost hunting shows–so I thought I would probably be able to relate.  However, I just never found the ghost stories in City of Ghosts that compelling.  I imagine they’re actually all real Scottish legends, but I guess you lose some of the atmosphere when you’re reading them in a book instead of walking around cemeteries and visiting creepy basements with a old-timey dressed tour guide carrying a lantern.  I, a genuine scaredy-cat, was not really feeling the eeriness of the book, but that could be a plus for a middle-grade novel.  You want to appeal to kids who are into creepy stories without completely scaring them out of their wits.

I did like the exploration of what it means to be dead/alive and the take on the spirit world.  I also enjoyed the relationship between Cassidy and her best friend, who is a ghost (and doesn’t like to be called a ghost; he’s a bit touchy about it).  But…still.  Whenever I think of the book, words like “competent,” “capable,” and “well-structured” come to mind.  It’s fine middle grade, truly.  It’s just not exceptional, so this may be a case where the hype ruined the book for me.

This is clearly meant to be a series where the protagonist goes to different haunted cities and hunts ghosts, but I can’t express how much I simply don’t care.  Reading this book was enough for me; I don’t want to see variations of the same plot play out in different settings as Cass episodically hunts a different bad ghost each time. (Admittedly, I’m just assuming that’s what will happen; I don’t actually know.)  It’s a solid read, but I really wanted more, and I won’t be continuing with the series.

3 Stars Briana

The Sunday Exchange (11/11/18): Share a Post about a Book That Makes You Feel Better about the World

Sunday Exchange

Introduction

The Sunday Exchange is a new weekly feature we are introducing at Pages Unbound where we ask you, our readers, to share a post from your own blog that matches the week’s theme.  The goal is to allow you to share posts you are proud of or think other people will find interesting and to help other people find fun posts to read.

This Week’s Theme

Share a Post about a Book that Makes You Feel Better about the World

The “Rules”

  1. Share your post title, the URL of the post, AND a brief explanation of what the post is/why you think people might like to read it in a comment on this blog post.
  2. Try to make the post fit the week’s theme.
  3. Please share only one post each week.
  4. The post does not have to be recent. It can be from any time in your blog’s archives.
  5. Consider visiting some other bloggers’ posts.
  6. We won’t be closing the comments after a week has passed, so *technically* you can still add your post later, but it may not get that much traffic if you share your post a month later.

That’s it! We hope you participate, and check back next Sunday for a new theme and another chance to share!

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A Post We Recommend at Pages Unbound

A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd

Natalie Lloyd writes a town full of kindness where the real magic lies in the way others reach out to help one another.  The story might just inspire readers to be a little kinder, too.

The Company They Keep: C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien as Writers in Community by Diana Pavlac Glyer

Information

Goodreads: The Company They Keep
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2008

Summary

In this groundbreaking study, Glyer proposes to change our understanding of the Inklings by going against the common understanding that the Inklings did not influence each other’s writings. She defines the difference between “influences” and “similarities” and goes on to outline how writers can be influenced by resonators (supporters), opponents, editors, collaborators, and referents.

Review

Diana Pavlac Glyer’s book represents an important contribution to Inklings studies.  While many have argued that the Inklings had no influence on one another, often quoting Inklings who said as much, Glyer argues that influence means far more than textual similarities.  She illustrates how the group members offered encouragement and support, edited each other’s projects, sometimes opposed projects, collaborated, and referenced each other in their works.  She illuminates the work not only of the Inklings but also of writing groups in general.

The beauty of Glyer’s work is that it seems so obvious once she says it. Some readers may be tempted to dismiss it for that reason.  However, it is important to remember that her arguments were not obvious to many for a very long time.  Assertions by the Inklings themselves that they had no influence on each other were taken at face value, rather than read in context.  The ways in which they supported each other by reviewing, editing, and just listening were ignored.  There are copies of Inkling drafts with the handwriting of other Inklings on them–and yet this was apparently not significant to many scholars.  All because influence studies focused on finding one-to-one correspondences in published work.

The writing may appear academic to some, but the text is supremely readable, even if written in more formal a style than many are familiar with.  Glyer’s points are clear and crisp, and any lay reader should be able to follow along.  There is no jargon here, nor attempts to make up new words or string big words together in the hopes of sounding learned.  The Inklings themselves would likely be pleased, as clarity was always their aim.

So if you’re interested in the Inklings or even in how writing groups come together and work, check out Glyer’s work.  It’s worth it.

4 stars

Thunder Girls #1: Freya and the Magic Jewel by Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams

Thunder Girls Freya and the Lost Jewel

Information

Goodreads: Freya and the Magic Jewel
Series: Thunder Girls #1
Source: Library
Published: May 1, 2018

Official Summary

“Gold and Gullveig I cannot see. But here is a vision that comes to me; Adventure for you is about to start. Near Asgard you must find the heart. A Secret world there hides away, which holds the power to stop doomsday!”

When eleven-year-old Freya hears that prophecy from her magical jewel, she isn’t sure what to make of it. Doomsday? She will find the key? Mere seconds after that prediction, she receives a mysterious invitation to Asgaard Academy from the powerful Odin, who commands her to “bring her magic” to Asgard.

With encouragement from her twin, Frey, Freya reluctantly heads out on their new adventure. And Freya’s first challenge begins before she even steps foot in Asgard. While trying to navigate the treacherous BiFrost Bridge, she drops her magical jewel off the bridge, and a sneaky pair of dwarves take her jewel down to the world of Midgard!

Without that jewel, Freya thinks she is powerless. But with the help of her pod-mates at Asgaard, Freya discovers a world that is bigger and more mysterious that she ever imagined! There, she learns the true terror that Ragnarok—the doomsday her jewel warned her about—could mean for Asgard Academy if she and her new friends, the Thunder Girls, don’t stop it!

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Review

As a fan of Holub’s and Williams’s Grimmtastic Girls series, I had to check out their new books based on Norse Mythology: Thunder Girls.   The premise is basically the same as Grimmtastic Girls and Goddess Girls (which is based on Greek mythology): young versions of  mythological/fictional characters attend school together (here, Asgard Academy) and short adventures ensue, with each book focused on a different main character.  A loose overarching plot vaguely ties things together.

Although I was excited about Thunder Girls because I am interested in Norse mythology but actually don’t know that much about it, I think the audience’s lack of familiarity with the subject matter is a downfall here. Holub and Suzanne know this is likely to be unfamiliar territory for a lot of readers, so there’s a lot of background information.  They have to explain not only who the main god/goddess/giant/elf/dwarf/human characters are but also the structure of the world, the geography, the general mythology, etc.  I definitely feel more informed, but I’m not 100% convinced I read a great story.

And I was even less convinced I’d read a great story when it very suddenly ended.  I actually hadn’t realized that there was a main plot point that had been solved because I was expecting to reach the climax of the book when BOOM! I was reading the acknowledgements.  (In my defense, it was a ebook, and I had no idea what percentage of the book was supposed to be left.)  Suffice to say, this may not be my favorite book by these two authors.

However, I do like the Grimmtastic Girls series, and I have enough faith in the authors that I think this book might just suffer from being the first in the series. These are chapter books, not upper middle grade, so they’re meant for a fairly young audience and need to be kind of short.  The authors used up a lot of their space giving out background information in this first book, which is fair considering most of their audience won’t really know anything about Norse mythology (kids this young probably even haven’t seen the Thor movies from Marvel).  So I have some optimism here, and I think the rest of the series has the potential to be quite strong. My library has the ebook for book 2, so I may be checking it out soon.

4 stars Briana

C. S. Lewis: A Biography by Roger Lancelyn Green and Walter Hooper

Information

Goodreads: C. S. Lewis: A Biography
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 1974

Summary

Born in 1898 in Belfast, Ireland, Clive Staples Lewis was a Fellow and Tutor in English Literature at Oxford University and later Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University.  He is known primarily for his Narnia books, his Space Trilogy, and his works explaining Christianity to lay people.  This biography is written by his former student and later friend Roger Lancelyn Green, along with Lewis’s secretary Walter Hooper.

Review

Written by two of C. S. Lewis’s friends, this biography understandably paints a sympathetic and very professional portrait of the man perhaps best known for writing the Chronicles of Narnia.  As a result, readers hoping for salacious details about things like Lewis’s relationship with  Mrs. Moore will obviously be disappointed.  Roger Lancelyn Green and Walter Hooper, in fact, seem more preoccupied by Lewis’s academic career and his publication history than even harmless details about his personal life.  The biography thus is a serviceable introduction to Lewis, but readers may want to supplement it with more balanced accounts.

As the first biography written of C. S. Lewis, this one does read as a little dated.  The authors seem eager to trace Lewis’s academic career in more detail than most contemporary readers would probably care about (modern emphasis is on Lewis’s fiction, with some attention paid to a few of his theological works)–and they are prone to listing all the names of people Lewis met, lunched with, knew in his colleges, etc.  This name dropping was perhaps flattering to the individuals still alive at the time and perhaps even relevant to readers familiar with the faculties of Oxford and Cambridge.  However, today, most of these men are no longer well-known and thus of no interest to readers.  I imagine a contemporary biographer would focus more on the Inklings and less on Lewis’s interactions with fellow academics.

The benefit of this biography, however, is, of course, that both authors knew Lewis and they were able to ask for recollections from others who had also known him.  Thus, little anecdotes are scattered throughout the book.  They do not necessarily add to the overall narrative, but they do give readers the sense of being allowed to glimpse something personal–and that is probably the point.

It is also worth nothing, however, that personal recollections never get too personal.  Green and Hooper do not want to deal with the Mrs. Moore situation, nor do they like to dwell too much on negative impressions of Lewis, even when they bring up others’ opinions.  They may mention that Tolkien thought Lewis was always being “taken in” by someone like Mrs. Moore or wife Joy (whom he initially married as a legal formality so she could stay in England).  But they really aren’t going to comment.

Fans of Lewis will no doubt want to read this book since it does have the special distinction of being written by friends and contemporaries.  Readers who like to get the dirt on celebrated figures, however, will have to look elsewhere.

3 Stars