As I’ve mentioned before, I’m working on getting a Master’s in Library and Information Science. As you might imagine, an MLIS degree requires a lot of reading. Unfortunately, most of that reading is very dry, detailing cataloging techniques or which almanacs are best suited to find information for patrons. It’s valuable for my future work, but it’s boring as hell. Which is why I was so excited when I took a class on young adult literature, and my professor said that we’d be reading 30 YA books over the course of the semester. I was initially elated, cracking open my to-be-read list and asking for reading suggestions on Facebook. Because of school and work, I didn’t have a ton of time. I spent weekends binge-reading and writing page goals in my planner, next to all the other assignments and appointments I had to take care off.
Here’s what I learned from reading 30 YA books in 15 weeks.
Read about high school, dream about high school.
I read Speak and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian over one weekend. Both books star teenagers going through their freshman year of high school. I didn’t have a great high school experience, but thankfully it wasn’t nearly as bad as Melinda’s in Speak. Even so, I’ve never wished to go back or felt that those were my “glory days”. After reading so much so fast, all I could dream about was high school. I was more than happy forgetting all those little details, but apparently my subconscious still remembers them. Getting older isn’t always easy, but waking up in my own apartment and remembering I’m 31 and never have to go back to high school is a huge relief.
I kind of understand some censorship.
I don’t like censorship as a general rule. I talk about this more in-depth in an upcoming post, but the idea of banning a book because someone doesn’t like its content drives me crazy. I know that we want to protect kids, and there are scary things in the world. I also think kids are more resilient than we give them credit for. Challenging books because they contain ideas that might be uncomfortable or against someone’s views feels insulting to me. I understand wanting to preserve kids’ innocence for as long as possible, but I also think we need to have faith in them and let them learn to think for themselves.
And then I read The Devil’s Mixtape by Mary Borsellino.
This was a brilliantly written book, with some beautiful prose and shifting point of views. It’s also intended for a teen audience, with passages filled with validation for young adults who feel lost or alone. It will also give you nightmares, because one of those POVs is from Ella, the mastermind behind a mass shooting known as Cobweb. Ella’s chapters are disturbing and twisted. If this book was well-known in the U.S., I could almost guarantee it would be one of ALA’s most frequently challenged books. Though I tend to scoff at book challenges, this is one of the few times I could understand it.
Ella talks about iconography, and how she immortalized herself through the shooting. She writes about other serial killers with admiration, and the reader sees her path to becoming a murderer. It took me two attempts to finish this book in its entirety because the Ella passages are just so brutal. So much in this book is about saving teens like Ella, helping them find ways to be who they are. My fear is that someone who feels like Ella, who wants to burn the world, will read a book like this and only take away something meaningful from the darkest, most twisted parts of it.
I want to be clear: I don’t think that books or video games or heavy metal music makes anyone psychotic. I’m also against censorship and would fight against a proposed challenge to The Devil’s Mixtape, and any other book. At the same time, I totally understand why well-meaning adults would want to keep a book like this out of a kid’s hands.
Parents in YA Lit are stupid.
I talked about this a little in a post about Tithe, but parents in these books are so incredibly neglectful. If they’re even alive, and not downright abusive. Part of this is just par for the course for the age group. You can’t go on adventures and save the world if your mom is nagging you to clean your room. There’s a few instances where this isn’t the case — I love Starr’s parents in The Hate U Give, for example — but for the most part parents are obstacles, or totally ignored. I’ve started compiling a list of stupid parenting decisions I’ve seen throughout my reading, and I’ll be posting it shortly.
Just because you add cell phones doesn’t make it modern.
In 2010, Lois Duncan, author of I Know What You Did Last Summer and other thriller novels got an opportunity to give her novels a facelift. She modernized the novels by giving characters cell phones and changing their outfits, but not a whole lot else. Not knowing about these revisions, I was totally confused when characters from a book that was originally published in the 1970s started talking about cell phones and the Iraq War. After reading the updated version, the changes were not only pointless, but distracting. For instance, the character’s cell phones are always conveniently dead, so they’re never actually used or come into the plot in any significant way.
Even with the dead cell phones, the rest of the story hasn’t been updated to match. For example, Barry is losing interest in his girlfriend, Helen. He tries to dissuade her from wanting to marry him by saying that if he got married, he wouldn’t want a wife who works. This wouldn’t have been so outdated in the 1970s, when women were entering the workforce in earnest. Today, it’s just misogynistic. Julie’s mother also quit working to raise her daughter, and only went back to work as a substitute teacher after her husband died. That’s not enough to support a household. How does she manage to pay Julie’s cell phone bills?
Non-fiction books need more love.
If you asked me what my favorite genre is, I’m unlikely to say “non-fiction”. I associate it with dry books about old wars or politicians, and things that I don’t care about in general. I only started warming up to non-fiction after reading A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean. After that I read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, and the autobiographies West With the Night by Beryl Markham and Born a Crime by Trevor Noah. I really enjoyed all of them, but thought of those books as outliers in the non-fiction genre. They weren’t boring, and reading them never felt like a chore. I was once even late to work because I’d stayed up too late reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Thankfully, my boss was a voracious reader, and understood. In fact, he was the one who leant me his copy of A River Runs Through It in the first place.
Non-fiction can still be pretty hit or miss with me, but I’ve definitely warmed up to it. As a teenager, though, I would only ever seek out non-fiction as part of a school assignment. I’m sure many teenagers today feel the same way. That’s a shame, because there’s some really great non-fiction that follows a narrative format and reads like a novel.
It’s not just teenagers who ignore non-fiction, either. Awards for YA books disproportionately honor fiction, and may not even allow non-fiction to be nominated. Fortunately, the Young Adult Library Services Association began the Nonfiction Award in 2010. If you’re like me and don’t think you enjoy non-fiction books, I urge you to take a look at the winners and honorees. You’ll probably find something you really enjoy. Give it a chance!
First Person Present Tense is a Thing Now
I picked up The Hunger Games in 2012, and got sucked in right away. The writing style was so different from what I normally read–that is, first person present tense. Until then, I don’t think I’d read any book that used present tense like that. I found it quite jarring and direct, but it fit with Katniss’s character. Later, I read The Help, also written in first person present tense. It was a way of writing that gave the novel a unique voice and helped the books stand out from their contemporaries. Then I read Divergent, which wasn’t my favorite book, and found the first-person present tense kind of annoying. I thought it was too direct and didn’t flow well. Instead of making the book better, it made it harder for me to read.
As I started reading all these YA books, I noticed that this was becoming a common way of writing. Here’s a list of the books for I read for my YA Lit course that use first person present tense:
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (1999)
The Fault in our Stars by John Green (2012)
Simon vs. the Homo Sapien Agenda by Becky Albertalli (2015)
Sound by Alexandra Duncan (2015)
A Drop of Night by Stefan Bachman (2016)
The Clockwork Dynasty by Daniel H. Wilson (2017)
The Things She’s Seen by Amberlin Kwaymullina & Ezekiel Kwaymullina (2018)
On The Come Up by Angie Thomas (2019)
These aren’t the only books I’ve come across that use this narration format, just the ones I’ve read for this project. I’m not any sort of novel historian, but there’s definitely been in uptick in it since the 2010s. I’m tempted to blame it on the success of The Hunger Games, though of course I have no proof of that. I don’t mind it as much as I used to, but I still find it jarring at times. Take this brief passage from A Drop of Night, which irked me way too much.
I tear into the bathroom, drag on the same clothes I flew here in. Skinny jeans, chunky-knit gray sweater with a kangaroo pocket, the brogues. Hope dinner isn’t a formal affair. Open the hall door. And almost knee Lilly in the face.
Short, terse sentences like this are better used for intense scenes, but most of the book is written in the same style. To be clear: I actually enjoyed A Drop of Night, but the author’s style didn’t always work for me.
I guess the point I’m trying to make is that first-person present tense is a Thing now. It’s become so prevalent in novels – at least, in YA novels – that it no longer stands out by itself. It doesn’t pack the same punch it used to. Now that it’s been normalized, it’s up to the author to make the book stand out on its own. Unfortunately, not all authors are up to the task.
This summer, I was fortunate to attend the SCBWI’s Summer Spectacular. Phillip Pullman, one of my favorite authors, was the keynote speaker. I was totally engrossed in his talk, but I had to pause the video and write down exactly what he had to say about present-tense writing.
I don’t like to be confined in one person’s mind. A variant of this is the present tense, which is a scourge of present day writing. I can’t read books written in the present tense. The implausibility barrier is just too high. I can’t believe that this character is A: running down the road, B: writing about it, and C: seven years old.Phillip Pullman, 2020
I have played with present tense in my own writing, and I can see its use. Even so, I let out a cheer when I found out an author I love and I are in agreement about this.
Switching Point of View Is a Thing Now, Too
So you’ve got a really great idea for a character and a story they could fit into. But you also have a great idea for ANOTHER character and another story they could fit into. Well, you could always work on a companion piece, or a sequel, or a prequel, or–oh, you don’t want to do those things? You want to squish them in the same book together? Even though they lived hundreds of years apart?
Well, I’ve got great news for you! With our newly patented switching-POV mechanics, your novel can have TWO protagonists and TWO storylines for the price of one! Does it need to make sense? No! Should it be balanced between characters? Of course not! Is it trendy? Absolutely!
Okay, books that change point of view characters are not necessarily new. Little Women, first published in 1868, switched chapters between the March sisters frequently. A Game of Thrones was first published in 1996, and also uses changing POVs to tell the story. I’ve just seen it used so much more lately, especially in YA novels. And, despite my introduction to the topic, I don’t always hate POV switches. There are plenty novels that use it as an effective storytelling technique. When done right, having more than one POV character enhances the story and adds depth to it. This is exactly the case with novels like A Game of Thrones and The Clockwork Dynasty. It makes sense to tell the stories in separate chapters, because the characters may be separated by hundreds of miles, or even hundreds of years. I also liked how The Things She’s Seen used two points of view to tell the story, but one character’s chapters are told in prose, and the other’s in poetry. It’s ambitious to weave together multiple narratives and still have the story come together.
However, There are plenty of times when I’ve seen this technique used badly. For every good example of POV switches I’ve seen, there’s two that are done poorly. I’ve read quite a few novels where the perspective changes to show you what a different character is thinking or feeling, rather have the narration illustrate it.When this isn’t done well, it feels lazy and becomes a crutch for the author to take a writing shortcut.
Another problem is authors using alternating perspectives as padding. This was one of the (admittedly many) problems I had with the novel An Ember in the Ashes. The book alternates between two characters’ perspectives: Laia and Elias. During the second act, Laia’s chapters are pretty boring. They don’t move the plot forward or reveal anything new about the characters. It really felt like Laia’s chapters were only there because the author had decided the POV had to change every chapter, regardless of the needs of the narrative. The result was a book that had a lot of wasted space and could have been much shorter.
The one that drove me craziest for this project was A Drop of Night. There, the reader is given two different perspectives: one of the main character, Anouk, and the other of Auriele. Auriele lived two hundred years before Anouk was born. Her chapters don’t appear on a consistent basis, and they add very little to the story as a whole. They’re barely connected to Anouk’s story. The small amount of valuable information we do get from Auriele’s perspective could have been revealed much more effectively in the main storyline. It would raise the stakes for Anouk and keep up the tension of the mystery at hand.
While I might not love POV switches, they do have their place and can be used to enhance a story and make it better. Even so, it’s all too easy to use them as a crutch, and readers can see through that. If you’re going to have multiple perspectives, make sure they’re an essential part of the story. If you could omit entire chapters and still have the novel largely intact, it’s time to re-think, edit, and re-write as needed.
Overall, I had a lot of fun reading all these books, even if it was at a marathon pace. The class was really great and I learned a lot about the history of YA books and currently publishing trends. If this is something you’re interested in, I recommend the book Young Adult Literature: From Romance to Realism by Michael Cart. It’s very informative and easy to digest, and one of the better textbooks I’ve ever had.
I also want to say that if you’re over the age of 18, there’s absolutely no shame in reading or enjoying books made for younger audiences. Many of these books have themes, ideas, and conflicts that run just as deep as novels intended for adults. Just because the characters are younger doesn’t mean that they’re not worthwhile books for adults as well as teenagers.
Additionally, if you typically like YA but have gotten a little tired of YA tropes, I recommend looking up the Alex Awards. This is a literary award that honors adult books that would appeal to YA fans. It can be pretty refreshing when you don’t think you can stand another book about a sixteen-year-old living in a dystopia.
Right now, I’m in my fifth semester at school, taking classes devoted to children’s literature and children’s librarianship. After I’ve concluded that semester, I hope I’ll be able to come back with a similar post about insights into children’s literature.
Come back and visit on September 21, when I’ll be looking at one of the most ubiquitous tropes in YA fiction: bad parents.
Hope to see you then! Happy reading!