I feel like I’ve been a little hard on several writers and filmmakers lately. It was never my intention to start a blog in order to publicly denigrate certain works of fiction, but part of me feels like it’s important to take a stand against that toxic combination of bad art and herd-thinking. Well-written, emotionally anchored books are being routinely passed over for superficial prose and worst of all, hype.
Stories don’t have to be serious to be good, and they don’t even have to take themselves very seriously, but when an author emotionally and artistically stunts their own work for what they think the audience can handle (and I’m looking at you YA), that’s when I call foul, because what legitimate justification could there ever be for writing poorly…on purpose? Why would you disrespect your reader like that?
I've discussed Ready Player One before, but it recently occurred to me that it really is YA masquerading as sci-fi, which may be part of the reason I hate it so much. And no, I don’t think there’s any redeeming YA written in the last 20 years. I'm told Are You There God, It's Me Margaret is good, though I've never read it, and frankly it doesn't sound anything like modern YA.
I think modern YA can be defined as genre literature (Fantasy, Science Fiction, Romance) written for readers with low (and lowering) prose standards. Marketers would have us believe it's truly for "young adults" as the name would imply, but a good book could and should be read by anyone. There’s no reason thirteen-year-olds need their own special genre of bad fiction, and certainly no reason why adults should be reading it as well (what the heck is up with the popularity of middle-aged women reading Twighlight?). Blame publishers? E-readers? Schools? I don’t know, you still have to write bad fiction to publish it, so ultimately it’s the writers' responsibility to prevent the collapse of good fiction.
To combat this trend, I’d like to recommend some books that can be enjoyed by young readers without insulting their intelligence. These are books I’ve read, loved, and found occasionally in the young adults section of my hometown library, though they pander to no one. I’m just tired of these sorts of books being overlooked in favor of whatever fad of the month is out (see The Hunger Games, Divergent, Twilight, The Fault in Our Stars, etc.)
A few of these books I'm recommending were made in fact made into movies, so it's arguable how overlooked they are, but I don’t think any of them were very successful films due to a combination of audience and marketing apathy. Let's change that by going back to the original source.
A Primate’s Memoir - A work of nonfiction by the MacArthur genius grant winner, Robert M. Sapolsky, who recounts his experiences studying a troop of baboons in Africa. If you liked Never Cry Wolf (or the excellent movie) you'll like this one. You may have heard of Sapolsky's other book, Why Zebra's Don't Get Ulcers, which is about the biology of stress, but I think his memoir is really something special. It's funny and moving. I laughed out loud and read sections to my husband, and for once he actually laughed too. It also hurts to read, especially when Sapolsky describes what eventually happened to those baboons. I remember taking a long shuddering sigh as I had to hold back some tears at one particular line. I gave this book to family members last Christmas and the ones that read it reported having the same experiences. It's also led to a long-time fascination of baboons for me, a breed that Sapolsky describes as less like the noble chimps of Jane Goodall than as rednecks of the primate family.
Starman Jones – Heinlein’s fiction can get a little juvenile and overly simplistic at times (I found Have Spacesuit, Will Travel incredibly tedious), but when he hit the mark, he hit it well. Starman Jones taps into whatever need we have in our psyche to watch characters more or less go to school (see Harry Potter), although technically the main character doesn't go to a school in the classic sense. Rather, he rises up from ozark hillbilly to an interstellar navigator through a star-ship apprenticeship, in which he excels because of his practical values, work ethic, and superior slide-ruler mathematics skills. It's classic science fiction, fun and well-written, and it never takes itself too seriously, which is probably how it made it onto this list. It's ok to read for fun, it just shouldn't read as if an eighth-grader wrote it. Heinlein's clear prose, likable characters, and thought-provoking futurism raise it a notch above pulpy sci-fi. A good book for boys too. My husband, who I think would describe even himself as a reluctant reader, enjoys Heinlein quite a bit.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower - This one was made into a movie, but I didn't see it because I knew it couldn't compete with my love for the book. It's short, a novella really, but it's also one of those rare books that has a voice that teenagers recognize as one of their own. The loneliness and isolation of starting high school, and then the redemption at finding one's group or place is all that more or less makes up the plot, but it's more than sufficient to lock you into a single-sitting read. The narrator is a 90's era Holden Caulfield, only more sensitive. He's young, a reader and writer, and his empathy is practically his own undoing. You wonder if he's going to be alright because he can't help but see and feel not just his own pain, but his family's, his friends', his teachers', etc. because he's intensely observational. It's an important book that I think should be read by every kid just so they know they aren't alone in feeling the way they invariably will at some point growing up.
Girl with a Pearl Earring – A fictionalized account of the story behind Jan Vermeer’s famous painting of the same name, told in the soft, distinct, and sadly intelligent voice of the young maid who is the model for that painting. This is how you do sexual tension, folks. How you build up characters to the edge of sympathy and then let them disappoint you. Why is that good writing? Because it makes you feel something other than just your own prurient needs, something that I think most YA isn't even trying to accomplish. The author, Tracy Chevalier, does an excellent job of both describing and showing how different characters relate to visual beauty. I think that's incredibly difficult to do with only words and no pictures besides the eponymous book cover.
I've reread several of these books fairly recently and I think they hold up. I Ioved them when I was fifteen, so if you have a young reader in your life, consider passing on the recommendation. These books will certainly have a greater and longer lasting impact than today's sad YA fiction.
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