On the planet of Krypton, citizens are genetically modified to be the best at what they do. Zahn is one of the privileged elite, born to lead. Sera is a soldier, trained to give her life for her people, without even caring that they ask of her the ultimate sacrifice. Living in two different worlds, the two should never meet. But groundquakes are threatening the stability of Krypton, and the leaders do nothing but deny it. Now, Zahn and Sera must work together to uncover the web of lies that will doom their planet.
The first book in the House of El trilogy provides a background story for the destruction of Superman’s home planet Krypton. Set in the planet’s final days, the book follows two teens: Zahn, born to be a leader chosen from the elites, and Sera, born to give her life as a soldier. Most Kryptonians are genetically modified to be “perfect” at what they do, meaning most never question their lifestyles or the choices of the tribunes who lead them. But Zahn and Sera have noticed that the groundquakes are becoming worse, that the terraforming experiments on neighboring planets have failed, and that the tribunes are lying about it all. So begins a story full of action, danger, and intrigue.
The choice to explore Krypton before Superman is a very compelling one. I imagine that generations of readers have wondered about the planet’s destruction. What was it like? Did people know? Did they try to stop it? Why did they fail? The answer here presents Krypton as a utopia gone wrong, a planet so dedicated to being perfect that they can longer admit to having made mistakes. The effect is chilling, the realization that, not only will the leaders fail to act to save Krypton, but they will do everything in their power to ensure its destruction.
At the heart of this story are Zahn and Sera, two teens who transcend their genetic programming to realize something has gone badly wrong. The back cover presents the two as sort of star-crossed lovers, but, aside from a page or two awkward flirting, the story itself steers away from the romance its cover so boldly advertises. Instead, readers get to know Zahn and Sera separately, the one attempting to join a clandestine group dedicated to warning the people of Krypton, the other going on a series of failed missions to salvage equipment from disastrous terraforming attempts. Only in the final pages do the two inadvertently team up, promising future drama to come as they do not yet trust each other.
The book is far from perfect. I did not ever feel like I truly go to now Zahn or Sera, and I still have many questions about the world of Krypton itself. However, the story does do a great job at raising interesting questions. How much do genetics determine who we are? Can we ever overcome our genetics to be our own person? What qualities should we look for in people? Do we sometimes overlook the qualities one should have–such as a scientist who needs creativity as well as logic? These questions will likely inspire much reflection on the part of readers. And that, I imagine, would make the author proud.
Once upon a time, the publishing industry referred to books written for teens (ages 12-18) as “teen books.” One could go the section labelled “Teen” in the local bookstore or be referred to the “teen section” at the public library. Then, a shift happened and “teen books” were renamed “young adult” or “YA” books.
Why exactly, I am not sure. Perhaps it was because more adults were beginning to read these books and they did not want to be seen reading books “for teens.” Maybe publishers saw a chance to expand the market for these books and make more money.
This renaming and the shift it represented has created a dilemma for readers where YA books, supposedly for teens, are often really written for adults. Adult readers might even complain when a YA book is not “relatable” or is “too young.” Actual teens, however, are sometimes feeling left out, especially the younger ones, who may have to go the middle grade section of the library or the children’s room in the bookstore to find a protagonist who is 13, or a book that will not feel too mature for them. The question now is, “Are there really books for teens anymore?” And, if there are, how does one find them?
Additionally, the rebranding of teen books has left some parents and grandparents confused about what books they should be handing to the teens in their lives. The label “young adult” can make it seem like these books are for, well, young adults–people in their 20s–while the abbreviation “YA” can be meaningless to people who do not read widely, do not read YA, or do not follow the publishing industry. It may seem unthinkable to avid readers, but there are plenty of people who are unfamiliar with publishing categories and who, when in a bookstore or a library, will generally ask for books based on a child’s age or grade (ex. “Where are the books for toddlers?”) instead of asking to be referred to a specific section (ex. “Where are the picture books?”). Calling YA books “teen books” instead would add more clarity to the book selection process for people who are not already intimately familiar with the publishing world.
Going back to the “teen” label may feel awkward to the adults who enjoy reading YA and who are comfortable using a catchy abbreviation that obscures (somewhat) the fact that they are reading books theoretically written for youth. However, it would highly benefit teens themselves, the ostensible target audience that YA books have arguably been overlooking for years. It would remind authors, publishers, and readers that teen books are for teens, perhaps increasing the number written about younger teens as well as the number written about issues teens (and not adults) are more likely to find relevant or interesting. It would also help those individuals who want to find a book for the teen in their lives, but are not sure where to look, by making it easier and more comfortable for them to access relevant and appropriate titles.
Calling teen books “YA” makes them more attractive to an adult audience already facing criticism for enjoying books written for teens. It is therefore useful as a marketing label for publishers wanting to sell more books, since they can now capture both a teen and an adult audience. However, it is not a useful label for teens themselves. And, since the books are supposed to be for teens, should not the needs of teens come first? It is time to retire the “young adult” label and start writing teen fiction again–for teens.
When I read YA books, I sometimes get the sense that authors are not very familiar with today’s college application process. So often, they make it seem incredibly easy, as if all the protagonist has to do is pick their top school and apply. There are few mentions of “safety schools” or stories of rejection. And money? Somehow, all the protagonists who mention needing financial aid or scholarships seem to magically achieve a full ride. Are authors and publishers out of touch with the changing college landscape? Or are they simply desirous of giving characters a happy ending, no matter how realistic is it? Either way, I am not on board. I want to see stories of high school seniors going through a college application process that more closely resembles what actual teens may be going through.
One of my main pet peeves with how the college application is generally depicted is that so many protagonists seem to be intent on applying to Ivy League schools. I do not have any statistics on this, but Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Columbia seem to be featured heavily. Other prestigious schools like Georgetown sometimes also appear. I do not know why this is–perhaps authors are just choosing schools with name recognition? But I would love to see authors feature more local schools or community colleges or even just schools they made up. Because it is not realistic that all these YA characters seem to be getting into such high-ranking schools.
It is not easy to get into an Ivy League college. A student cannot simply “work hard” or “get good grades” or “ace the SAT” and automatically get admitted into a top school like YA makes it appear (assuming the books mention grades at all). 43,330 students applied to Harvard’s class of 2023 and the school admitted 4.6%. Yale admitted 6.3% of applicants to the class of 2022. And Princeton admitted 5.8% of applicants to their class of 2023. Someone could be valedictorian, president of six clubs, and a star athlete, and still not be admitted to their top college choice with those odds. But YA books continue to write plotlines where protagonists dream of going to Harvard–and they almost always make it.
YA books also tend to make it appear like getting scholarships and financial aid is rather easy–and that these scholarships will inevitably cover the full cost of tuition. I do not think I have ever read a YA book where the protagonist was agonizing over taking out student loans or sad that the scholarship they received would barely make a dent in their tuition. In real life, however, I know plenty of people who received scholarships–sometimes multiple ones–and still graduated with debt. For perspective, the data from the class of 2018 shows that about 69% of college students took out loans. And the average student loan for the class of 2018 debt was $29,200. This means about only 31% of students will be loan-free or debt-free, but YA protagonists somehow always seem to be among this minority.
YA books also tend to ignore the details of actually applying to college. There is the agony, of course, of taking standardized tests, writing the application essay, filling out a bunch of forms, and trying to figure out all the financial aid papers. There is also the issue of application fees. Students normally need to pay just for the privilege of having someone look at their materials. Harvard, for example, currently charges $75 to apply and Yale charges $80 to apply. It would be refreshing to see some YA protagonists get upset about these outrageous fees, or go through the process of trying to apply for a fee waiver. However, I have not yet seen a single book even mention that these fees exist.
I understand that authors probably want their books to end somewhat happily, for the most part–YA readers usually want this, too. However, I think it would be not only realistic but also helpful for YA books to depict the college application process more accurately. It would give teens a clearer idea of what to expect, which would be particularly helpful for those who do not know anyone who has recently applied. They would have a clearer idea of the chances of getting into a prestigious institution, the cost to apply to a lot of schools, and the cost of actually attending. Financial literacy is not really taught in schools and many students probably are not equipped to calculate the return on investment of their college educations. It would be good for them to at least start thinking a little bit about the possibility of having to take on tens of thousands of dollars of debt–and about whether their career path will actually enable them to repay it. Because, for most students, the chances of getting a full ride to their top choice is not anywhere near as likely as YA books make it seem.
What do you think? Do YA books depict the college application process accurately or realistically?
Khalid, the eighteen-year-old Caliph of Khorasan, murders a new bride each night. When Shahrzad’s best friend is killed by the caliph, Shahrzad vows to destroy him. As she weaves the caliph a new tale each night, however, she finds herself falling in love.
A Song for Ella Grey by David Almond
Claire is Ella Grey’s best friend. And she feels a little left out when Ella falls in love with Orpheus. But she is still going to tell a story of a love that goes beyond death. A modern retelling of the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice.
The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad
Fatima lives in Noor, a city along the Silk Road now protected by Ifrit after another group of djinn slaughtered most of the population. When one of the Ifrit dies, however, Fatima finds herself drawn into the political intrigue surrounding the city.
Bardugo’s Wonder Woman is a seventeen-year-old girl still longing to prove herself. Molded from clay and brought to life by the gods, she knows she has not earned her spot on Themyscira like the other Amazons, who died in battle and thus gained immortality. When she rescues a girl from a shipwreck and learns that the two must travel to Greece in order to stop a world war, Princess Diana therefore jumps at the chance. What follows is an exhilarating adventure.
Caught with Ares in a net, Aphrodite begins spinning a tale for her husband, a tale of two romances during WWI. Hazel is a shy pianist. James is an aspiring architect heading off to the front. A chance encounter brings them together, but war may drive them apart. Meanwhile. Aubrey is a ragtime musician heading off to fight in France. And he has fallen for Colette, a Belgian girl with a tragic past. Both couples long to be reunited when the war ends, but all of them know that hope fades fast in the trenches. A beautiful, evocative romance.
Written in compellingly beautiful prose, The Star-Touched Queen brings readers to a world where fates are written in the stars and hints of magic drift throughout the human world. Protagonist Maya has never liked what the stars say about her, however, until a mysterious suitor teaches her to reinterpret their prophecy, rather than attempt to rebel against it. Together the two have to trust it is their fate to belong to each other. The Star-Touched Queen is fantasy romance nearly at its finest.
Shadow of the Fox by Julie Kagawa
Whoever holds the scroll of a Thousand Prayers has the power to begin a new age. Yumeko is half kitsune, half human. And, when she flees the slaughter of her home, she carries with her a part of the scroll. Now the fate of the world is in her hands.
Rob was at the top of the social hierarchy, until his father was convicted of embezzling funds, and attempted suicide. Now everyone believes Rob knew, and no one will talk to him. Maegan was an overachiever with a stellar record–until she was caught cheating. Now her reputation follows her everywhere. When the two are assigned to be calculus partners, neither expects the project to go well. But soon they are opening up to each other, and maybe even falling for each other. Then Maegan learns of Rob’s plans to help the people his father hurt. And she can’t help but think that being a modern-day Robin Hood can hardly end well.
Summer of the Mariposas by Guadalupe Garcia McCall
When Odilia and her sisters find a dead body in the swimming hole, they decide to return it to Mexico. Getting back to their own home in Texas, however, turns into the journey of lifetime. They’ll meet La Llorana and have to defeat a witch. A Mexican American retelling of Homer’s Odyssey.
Sherwood by Meagan Spooner
Robin of Locksley is dead. Now, Guy of Gisborne wants to marry Maid Marian and become lord of Locksley. There is no one left to save her. So Marian becomes her own hero and takes on the mantle of Robin Hood.
The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater
Blue Sargent comes from a family of psychics, though she is not a psychic herself. Even so, she sees the spirit of a boy who will die within the year. His name is Gansey, and he is a student at Aglionby. Inexplicably, Blue finds herself drawn to Gansey and his quest to find the final resting place of a legendary Welsch king. But she must absolutely not fall in love. Now with a boy she knows is going to die. The first book in the Raven Cycle.
The Tiger at Midnight by Swati Teerdhala
Esha is a rebel assassin known as the Viper. Kunal is a solider protecting the kingdom. When their paths cross, both will have to make unthinkable choices to protect what they love. Inspired by Hindu mythology.
The Chaos of Stars by Kierstan White
As the human daughter of Isis and Osiris, Isadora has a pretty strange life. And she’s tired of feeling like her parents don’t really care about her. So when she has the opportunity to move to California with her brother, she grabs at it. There she meets a wonderful guy. But is there any point to falling in love when you’re just a mortal?
Sixteen-year-old Genie Lo is mainly concerned with getting into college, until her city is attacked by monsters from Chinese folklore. Quetin Sun, a new transfer student, assures Genie she has the power to defeat the creatures. Things are about to get weird.
Mechanica’s stepsisters gave her the nickname out of spite, but, as an inventor, Mechanica rather thinks it fits. Still, she’s ready to escape from the family that hates her. Could a technological exposition be her chance at freedom? A charming spin on the “Cinderella” tale with well-developed characters.
House of Salt and Sorrows by Erin A. Craig
Annaleigh and her sisters live at Highmoor, a manor by the sea. There used to be twelve of them, but four have mysteriously died. The village thinks the family is cursed. But could the deaths have something to do with the balls her sisters attend each night? A retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.”
Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao
Eighteen-year-old Xifeng has been promised she will grow up to be Empress–but only if she rejects the man who loves her and accepts the dark magic within her. That magic demands to be fed with the hearts of the recently killed. Is Xifeng ready to pay the ultimate price to gain the throne?
After the death of their mother, Princess Azalea and her eleven sisters find themselves confined to the castle in mourning, forbidden even to visit the gardens. Their father in his grief begins to ignore them, leaving the girls even more desolate. When they find a secret passageway to an underground world, they grasp the opportunity to dance there each night, forgetting their troubles. There in the darkness, however, lurks a man known as the Keeper, who longs for the power to free himself and visit the land above. The princesses soon realize they have placed themselves in extreme danger, but, unless they can learn to forgive their father and place their trust in him again, everything may be lost. A retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.”
Stepsister by Jennifer Donnelly
Isabelle has never been able to please her mother. She’s too wild. Too ugly. Too opinionated. That hasn’t kept her from trying, though. She’ll cut off her own toes to try to make her mother happy. But the prince isn’t fooled. As blood pools in Cindererlla’s glass slipper, Isabelle is sent away in disgrace. Then chance gives her the opportunity to change her fate, to reclaim the pieces of her heart she’s lost. Isabelle yearns to try. But maybe she’s too bitter and broken to get her own happily-ever-after. A standout feminist fairy tale retelling featuring a bold heroine and an imaginative world.
The Seafarer’s Kiss by Julia Ember
When the mermaid Ersel rescues a shieldmaiden named Ragna, she is given a choice: bid farewell to Ragna or face justice at the hands of the king. In desperation, Ersel asks for help from Loki. But if she ever wants to be with Ragna, she will now have to outwit the God of Lies.
Princess of Glass by Jessica Day George
A companion book to Princess of the Midnight Ball, this reads as a mixture of fantasy, romance, and mystery. The protagonist Princess Poppy is not the Cinderella figure, but, rather, the one who takes it upon herself to discover where a serving girl has suddenly been acquiring fancy new clothes. This gives the story a unique spin other retellings lack.
Rose and her sisters are cursed each night to dance for the King Under Stone. Can Rose save her sisters with the help of Galen, a soldier newly returned from the war? An original retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” featuring a knitting hero! Book one in the Princess series.
A decade has passed since Petunia and her sisters defeated the King Under Stone with the help of a young soldier. The bonds keeping the evil king’s sons imprisoned, however, are breaking. Oliver, a dispossessed noble and sometime bandit, wants desperately to protect Petunia from harm. But webs of magic and treachery lie all around and even true love may not prove strong enough to break them. A retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood” (with a dash of Robin Hood). Book three in Jessica Day George’s Princess series.
Prince Rhen is cursed to relive his eighteenth year over and over again until a girl falls in love with him. Unfortunately, they never do–not when they see the beast he becomes. Then Harper, a girl from D.C. enters his world and, suddenly, Rhen thinks he might have a chance. But war approaches his borders and Harper fears for the family she left behind. Can Rhen save both his kingdom and his heart? A gripping retelling that goes beyond the romance to tell a story about political machinations and impending war. Readers who enjoy high fantasy and war stories will delight in this expanded version of an old story. The first in a series.
Liddi Jantzen is the heiress to the most influential tech company in the Seven Points; she only wishes she were as clever at inventing tech as her older brothers are, so she can earn the role. But when all of her brothers go missing at the same time, trapped in the conduits between the seven planets, it is up to her–the girl with the “checked genes”–to find a way to save them. The final catch: the person who imprisoned them placed a vocal imprint in Liddi’s throat and if she speaks about the plan to anyone, her whole family will die. A retelling of “The Wild Swans.”
In this retelling of the Disney movie, Cinderella never tries on the glass slipper. Never taken to the palace as the missing princess, she instead finds work there as a seamstress. But then she gains knowledge of a conspiracy against the kingdom. Can Cinderella stop the plot before it is too late? A fun and entertaining read for fans of the original film.
Maia Tamarin has longed dreamed of becoming the tailor to the emperor. Unfortunately, the position is not open to women. But then emperor calls her father to court and Maia, seeing her chance, disguises herself as her brother and goes in his stead. There she enters a competition to please the emperor’s newly betrothed and become the court tailor. But she never reckoned on being assigned an impossible task or on falling in love with an enchanter. An enjoyable fairy tale with a classic feel.
Blanca & Roja by Anna-Marie McLemore
The del Cisne sisters are cursed. One day the swans will take one of them, transforming them into a swan, and leave the other behind. But their fate becomes even more complicated when two boys become involved.
Dark and Deepest Red by Anna-Marie McLemore
It is 1518. When women in Strasbourg begin to dance in the street until they fall dead, people look to Lavinia and her family. Are they witches? Five hundred years later, Rosella Oliva has a pair of red shoes attach to her feet, making her dance uncontrollably. She will have to look to the past if she wants to save her life.
Scarred by a wolf when she is seven years old, Echo Alkaev leads a lonely existence, shunned by the villagers who think she is cursed. Years later, she meets the wolf again and he strikes a bargain: he will save her father’s life is she agrees to live with him for one year. In his house under the mountain, Echo finds an enchanted library and begins to fall in love with Hal, who seems trapped in the books. But an evil force is growing and the wolf, Echo, and Hal will all be lost at the end of the year, unless Echo can find a way to break the curse. This enchanting fantasy blends elements from “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and “Tam Lin.” Readers who love retellings with a classic feel will fall in love with Echo North, which captures the elusive spirit of Faerie.
Princess Delia steals a spaceship to avoid an arranged marriage. When she discovers a stowaway, however, the two will have to join forces to defeat a rebel plot. A gender-swapped sci-fi retelling of “Cinderella.”
In this modern retelling of “Cinderella,” Elle is a geek girl who meets her prince at a con. This is a cute read meant primarily to be fun, though the book also raises questions about geek culture and what it means to be a “real” fan. A lively retelling perfect for readers looking for something sweet and charming.
Found in the snow at six years of age and adopted by a powerful branch of the Family, Camille has no memory of her past. She only knows that she is human, not a true member of the Family, even if they treat her as one of their own. And her past is about to catch up with her. Nameless puts an original spin on the story of “Snow White”, replacing the dwarfs with branches of a powerful Mafia-like family and shrouding the past of the protagonist in shadow. The result is a compelling paranormal romance set in an alternate universe where magic entered history sometime after the Industrial Revolution.
Wayfarer by Lili St. Crow
Ellie Sindar is a powerful charmer, but her stepmother abuses her, forcing her to use her spells for stepmother’s gain. But when handsome Avery arrives at her school, Ellie begins to dream of a future romance. Unfortunately, however, her stepmother has dark plans in mind–and Ellie’s soul may be the price.
High school senior Emoni Santiago is magic in the kitchen. She can make food that brings back memories. Food that can make you cry. She dreams of opening up her own restaurant, but, with a two-year-old to care for, she knows dreams are luxuries she can’t afford. But her school has new culinary arts class, complete with an opportunity to cook in Spain. And, suddenly, Emoni can’t help but think of what could be. Told in effortlessly beautiful prose, this book captures the continuing diversity of experiences being presented in YA
Criminal mastermind Kaz Brekker is given an impossible heist–but one that could make him rich beyond his wildest dreams. So he assembles a team including a gambling sharpshooter, a tight-rope walking spy, and a woman who could stop your heart. Literally. But the heist is more than it appears and Kaz and his team may not make it out alive. This bestselling book has high stakes and plenty of action, but it’s the character who will ultimately steal your heart.
Caught with Ares in a net, Aphrodite begins spinning a tale for her husband, a tale of two romances during WWI. Hazel is a shy pianist. James is an aspiring architect heading off to the front. A chance encounter brings them together, but war may drive them apart. Meanwhile. Aubrey is a ragtime musician heading off to fight in France. And he has fallen for Colette, a Belgian girl with a tragic past. Both couples long to be reunited when the war ends, but all of them know that hope fades fast in the trenches. An evocative historical romance sure to haunt fans long after they close the pages.
Isabelle has never been able to please her mother. She’s too wild. Too ugly. Too opinionated. That hasn’t kept her from trying, though. She’ll cut off her own toes to try to make her mother happy. But the prince isn’t fooled. As blood pools in Cindererlla’s glass slipper, Isabelle is sent away in disgrace. And now everyone knows just how terrible she really is. Then chance gives her the opportunity to change her fate, to reclaim the pieces of her heart she’s lost. Isabelle yearns to try. But maybe she’s too bitter and broken to get her own happily-ever-after. A fierce feminist fantasy sure to please fans of fairy tale retellings.
Faith Sunderly and her family move to a small island in the wake of scandal; her father has been accused of forging fossils. When he dies, Faith believes it is murder and set out to find the killer by using the legendary Lie Tree–a tree that feeds on falsehoods and provides secrets in return. A deliciously creepy tale that avoids the tropes of many U.S. YA titles.
Scarred by a wolf when she is seven years old, Echo Alkaev leads a lonely existence, shunned by the villagers who think she is cursed. Years later, she meets the wolf again and he strikes a bargain: he will save her father’s life is she agrees to live with him for one year. In his house under the mountain, Echo finds an enchanted library and begins to fall in love with Hal, who seems trapped in the books. But an evil force is growing and the wolf, Echo, and Hal will all be lost at the end of the year, unless Echo can find a way to break the curse. A beautiful, evocative retelling.
Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds
Will just watched his older brother die. And he’s pretty sure he knows the guy who shot him. So it’s time to follow the Rules. The most important Rule? Get revenge. But as Will takes the elevator down to find his target, he is joined by a series of spirits who tell him their stories. It seems that the Rules solve nothing and only continue the cycle of violence. And suddenly Will has a choice: follow the Rules and end up like Shawn, or ignore the Rules his family has passed down for generations. A novel told in verse about the futility of gun violence.
Ten years ago Calamity appeared in the sky and gave men superpowers. Called Epics, they quickly used their powers to claim dominion over the Earth. Dave watched an Epic named Steelheart kill his father. And now he will do anything to end Steelheart’s rule. His plan: to join the Reckoners, a group of ordinary men and women who dare to fight back. Because he thinks he can give them the one thing they need. A clue to Steelheart’s weakness. A thrilling superhero novel with a unique twist.
Humanity now lives in a utopia where hunger, disease, and death can no longer touch them. To keep the population under control, they created the Scythes, individuals who “glean” a certain number of individuals each year. The Scythes must adhere to the highest code of morality, gleaning only when necessary and avoiding bias. But when Citra and Rowan are taken on as apprentice Scythes, they begin to see that corruption is eating the Scythes from within. A powerful book that raises questions about the nature of death, the possibilities of AI and the limitations of humans.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter witnesses the death of her unarmed friend at the hands of a police officer and, suddenly, her world is upended. The world wants to know what happened, but Starr fears what could happen if she puts herself out there. This bestselling book has become one of the most recognizable contemporary YA books, but because it has a compelling story, and because it helps define the new, expanded diversity that the YA market is striving to embrace.
When her mother is shot dead at a checkpoint, Sarah finds herself on the run. But shortly she allies herself with a spy who needs her to infiltrate a Nazi boarding school, befriend the daughter of a high-ranking scientist, and find his notes on a weapon so powerful even Lise Meitner is afraid. Before she does any of that, however, Sarah will have to survive her classmates.
Once again I find myself deceived by the glowing reviews for a YA book. Reader reactions prepared me for a thoughtful look at how one girl pretending to be a Nazi monster might find herself taking on the qualities she initially only pretended. But Orphan Monster Spy does not look meaningfully at any such issues, instead focusing largely on the plot with a few token “Oh no, am I a monster, too?” thoughts by the protagonist to add “depth.” Orphan Monster Spy is not a bad book, but it is also not a memorable one.
The most notable quality of the book is, at first glance, not its plot or characters, but rather its prose. I found the beginning pages so full of overly complicated metaphors that I wondered if I could read the book at all. I cannot immerse myself fully in a story if I am consistently drawn out of it to cringe at the writing. However, I persevered. I never did find myself fully immersed, and, indeed, found myself skimming a few pages here and there as a result. I could never shake the feeling that I just had to get through this book, preferably as quickly as possible.
Skimming the book is especially tempting as the characters are not particularly sympathetic. Most of them are, in fact, callous and cruel. Even the protagonist did not win me over. Periodically she wonders if she is becoming as callous as everyone around her as she attempts to survive the physical and verbal assaults she receives at boarding school. But she’s been largely concerned with herself and her survival from the beginning. Any quickly ignored thoughts of finding it stirring to be part of a group singing a rousing anthem or musings about the pain she inflicts on others and whether it is justified hardly count as a conscience. Sarah is all too eager to stop thinking about morality and to focus on completing her spy mission.
Orphan Monster Spy is undoubtedly unique in its take on WWII as I have not before seen a historical fiction set in a Nazi boarding school. However, readers who want a more complex and nuanced look at how people found themselves accepting the Nazi agenda are advised to read Paul Dowswell’s The Auslanderinstead.
Spoilers for Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha Trilogy below!
A popular YA book is never without it ships. Often the female protagonist–along with the readers–is torn between the boy next door and the bad boy hopefully on a path to redemption. In these cases, the result of the love triangle is. predictable and presumably the majority of readers receive the sweet satisfaction of knowing they were rooting for the ship that was meant to be. In her Grisha trilogy, however, Leigh Bardugo complicates the cliched plot device by adding something YA readers are not quite accustomed to–a dash of realism in Mal’s reluctance to court Alina once she rises to a higher social class. This decision has upset many a reader who longs for escapism and wants to believe, at least this time, that true love can conquer all. Yet is also raises the Grisha trilogy above the hackneyed narratives currently saturating the YA market.
Posts and comments on the book blogosphere suggest that a not insignificant number of readers dislike Mal’s reactions to Alina’s new social status. A good argument can in fact be made that Mal comes across as petulant at times and insufferable at others–especially when he declines to take Alina’s feelings and thoughts into account, and instead informs her what he thinks is best for the two of them. However, I also contend that Mal’s reactions, if potentially annoying, are also supremely realistic. Dating someone who has a vastly different social status, a higher education, and a higher income (all of which could be said to apply to Alina) comes with certain obstacles that dating someone from the same background does not. Mal is simply more alert to the obstacles than Alina is.
As someone who has quickly risen to the top of the social ladder, Alina seems to believe that social identities are malleable. Since she broke through the ranks, presumably Mal can, as well–especially if she, one of the Darkling’s favored ones, sponsors his rise. Alina, however, is, as readers discover, surprisingly naive about her place at court. Even though she possesses great power, she overestimates the social clout her Grisha powers give her. She does not know how to play the game of court politics and others are pulling her strings. She believes that being a Grisha gives her the ability to do whatever she wants. Mal recognizes that being a Grisha makes Alina too important for the court to ever allow her to marry a commoner. Alina is nothing more than a political pawn.
However, even if Alina were given the freedom to marry whomever she wanted, Mal rightly worries that the social divide between them has grown too great for them to be happy together. Alina has accustomed herself to a certain lifestyle that comes with certain values and attitudes that Mal does not share. He is uncomfortable with the opulence of the court and prefers his outdoor lifestyle. It is difficult to see him, a rough soldier, transforming into a courtier waited on by servants, fawning over the right people, giving cuts to the wrong ones. Mal simply is not that cunning or calculated, nor does he want to be. If he married Alina, he would always be aware that he is not the type of person that Alina, willingly, associates with everyday. He is not “one of them.”
Mal’s reluctance to court Alina is not merely about his feeling threatened by her sudden acquisition of power. It is about his fear that Alina no longer wants to associate with people like him, now that she has accustomed herself to hobnobbing with the elite. She may one day decide that he is boring, that he is useless, that he is embarrassing, or that he is hampering her career. Because Alina’s letters are withheld from him, he has no reason to think otherwise. As far as he is aware, at least at first, Alina voluntarily cut off contact with her old life. But even after he helps her escape from the court, Mal can never forget that they come from too separate worlds. He has seen how comfortable she is performing for the court, and he knows he can never live like that.
Typically, YA books feed readers the narrative that true love conquers all. If Mal and Alina loved each other enough, the story usually goes, the class divide between them would not matter. But real life does not work that way. Social divides typically come with value differences, which are much more difficult to bridge. Mal is not a man discontent with being a social inferior to his wife, but a man discontent to give up everything he believes in. Most readers know intellectually that pretending to be someone a person is not will not result in a good relationship. Mal is simply living that recognition out, refusing to pretend to be a courtier in order to date a woman.
Goodreads: More Than We Can Tell Series: Letters to the Lost #2 (actually a standalone companion book) Source: Library Published: March 2018
Eighteen-year-old Rev Fletcher was doing fine until his abusive stepfather contacted him for the first time in years. Just as Emma Blue was doing fine coding her own video game until a ticked off player starts sending her obscene threats. A chance meeting between the two opens up the potential of finding healing through sharing. But first both of them will need to learn to trust.
“We all push sometimes, just to make sure someone is on the other side, pushing back.”
More Than We Can Tell is the type of book that has readers sobbing the entire time. Rev Fletcher and Emma Blue each have their problems. Rev’s is that his abusive father has made contact for the first time in years–and Rev is afraid both that his father will show up and that he might have inherited his father’s violent tendencies. Emma, meanwhile, is struggling to handle online harassment from a gamer in an RPG she coded–without telling her parents, who remain distant on the one hand and overly critical on the other. Both Rev and Emma feel a little broken—and their stories are about to break your heart.
More Than We Can Tell feels like a poignant, real story, one where both protagonists have loving support systems, but ones they are hesitant to use. Rev’s family would never reject him, but his critical view of himself makes him unable to confront his fears by speaking them aloud. Emma’s family, meanwhile, is not very good at communicating with each other. So she keeps her silence out of the belief that her parents either will not care about her problems or will try to solve them by shutting down her one love–gaming. Many stories confront readers with a dilemma: why didn’t the characters just say something? Why didn’t they go to an adult? Why are they so stupid? Just so we can have a story? More Than We Can Tell illustrates precisely how some teens might shut down their support systems. It is an empathetic depiction of how hurt sometimes works.
Entwined with all the pain, however, there is plenty of light. There is Rev’s wonderful, loving family; his best friend who stands by him no matter what; and Rev’s own kindness and generosity. There is Emma’s best friend and her friendly dog. And, of course, there is the sweet romance blossoming between Rev and Emma. With each other, they feel they can be themselves. They begin to open up about their pasts, their fears, their worries. And the opening they give each other means they can start mending their other relationships.
More Than We Can Tell is not a standard contemporary YA romance. It is not afraid to look into the dark places, nor does it take readers on a predictable journey from first meeting to blown-up misunderstanding to final kiss. Rather, it makes its characters grow in all their relationships as they try to patch up their various wounds. It will make you cry, but not in a bad way.
Seventeen-year-old Althea’s ancestor built his dream house, a castle, on the cliffs of Yorkshire. Time and the weather, however, have weakened the structure and penniless Althea and her mother can do little to save their home. Convinced that the only solution to their problem lies in her marrying well, Althea determines the win the heart–and the wealth–of the newly arrived Lord Boring. Lord Boring’s friend Mr. Frederick, however, has a terrible habit of ruining all her plans.
If You Like wuthering heights by Emily Bronte
Read The Glass Town Game by Catherynne Valente
Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne Brontë have spent countless hours imagining stories in the room at the top of the stairs. Then suddenly they find themselves in a magical world where the Duke of Wellington still fights Bonaparte. Even stranger, the world seems to be the one they themselves have created and it is populated with their toys. At first they imagine they can stay there forever. But when Branwell and Anne are kidnapped, the siblings realize that this world may be out of their control. This is technically an upper-middle grade, but one that YA fans are sure to enjoy.
Sixteen-year-old Olivia dreams of escaping from the foster homes where she has never really felt she belonged. Then the mysterious Z suggests a way. She can use her hacking skills to make all the money she wants. But has Olivia gotten in too deep?
If You Like The Scarlet PImpernel by Baroness Orczy
Read The Orphan Queen by Jodi Meadows
Ten years ago, Wilhemina Korte, princess of Aecor, watched her parents die at the hands of the Indigo Kingdom. She and the other noble children were taken to the capital of their conquerors. But they escaped and now they live as spies, determined to do whatever it takes to return home. Even if they do, however, the wraith, a toxic mist born of magic, is slowly wiping entire lands off the map. Wil wants to become queen. But can she protect her people from the Indigo Kingdom and the wraith?
Fifteen-year-old Victor Frankenstein loves his twin brother Konrad dearly. So when Konrad falls ill, he is willing to do anything to save him, even if that means delving into alchemy. To achieve the Elixir of Life, he will go on a dark quest. And his thirst for knowledge may never be satiated again.