Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Y is for YA Favorites

Wow, the very end of the alphabet is a tough one for things Goldstone Wood-related! Last time I had the Yellow-eyed Dragon to fall back on . . . but for Veiled Rose, there really isn't anything! So instead, allow me to take a moment to feature some of my all-time favorite YA novels. These are the novels that inspired me--both when I was a kid and, more recently, in college--to pursue writing YA fiction myself.

When I first started getting into reading fantasy (C.S. Lewis and Tolkien . . . no big surprise) I was under the mistaken belief that fantasy novels needed to either be written for children (like Lewis) or for adults (like Tolkien). Neither of these voices particularly fit my style or story-telling interests. I pushed a little bit more toward adult fantasy for a while there (an interesting attempt considering I was only in my teens) and did not find it satisfactory.

Then I reread this little gem. It was a book my mother had read out loud to me when I was little (we were still living in England, at the time, so I was younger than 10 at least), but I had mostly forgotten about it. I picked it up again in my mid-teens and found myself totally entranced.

Robin McKinley paints a vivid world for her heroine, the titular Beauty, to explore. I was thrilled both by the magic of the Beast's hidden realm and the grounded sense of reality found in Beauty's everyday life. Both the city in which she enjoyed luxury (and access to all the books she could want) and the humble cottage where she learned to plow and plant and keep animals were so real, so earthy, that when we finally come (rather late in the story) to the magical elements revolving around the Beast, they are so starkly contrasted to the everyday that they become ENORMOUSLY magical.

I learned an important lesson from reading Beauty. If you want your Faerie world to have impact, you have to ground the story in your real world. Tolkien did it . . . look at his Hobbiton compared to his Lothlórien. Lewis did it . . . look at his WWII England compared to Narnia. But it wasn't until I saw Robin McKinley do it in the context of her YA debut that I understood the importance of this trick.

I also just love the story!

Not long after that I encountered Diana Wynne Jones's Howl's Moving Castle for the first time. Now I have to say, I did not appreciate it then the way I should. In fact, Diana Wynne Jones (who is now one of my all-time favorites) failed to impress me at all in high school. Again, despite the enjoyment I found in Beauty, I was still stuck with the mistaken notion that all fantasy should be like Tolkien's. I started Howl, did not get it, and put it aside for a few years.

Then I found it again in college and devoured it in a day (studies be dragon-eaten!).

What I love most about this story is the completely unexpected quality of its heroes. The main character spends the bulk of the story trapped in the body of a ninety-year-old woman. The hero is a total coward who does everything he can to shirk his responsibilities and has to trick himself into acting even remotely heroic (when he's not too preoccupied before his mirror, making himself beautiful). Absolutely not your typical dashing hero and daring heroine! Absolutely nothing predictable about either of them!

So I learned the important lesson of the unexpected protagonists. Thank you, Diana Wynne Jones! I love you and your work more than I can say.

In contrast to Howl, when I first read Gail Carson Levine's The Two Princesses of Bamarre, I was totally and inescapably entranced. In more recent readings I haven't found myself quite as captivated as I was then . . . but I don't mean that as I slight on the story itself. When I first found that book, I was exactly the target audience Ms. Levine was aiming and I adored it. I'm no longer the target audience so, while I still appreciate the story, I'm simply not so in love with it as I once was.

But I have to say, at the time, I totally bonded with the character of Princess Addie. She was just about exactly my age, and just about exactly . . . well, me! She looked like me, she thought like me, she was shy like me with a desire to hide like me. She was convinced that her much bolder and more adventurous sister would always overshadow her and, though she loved that sister very dearly, also felt a little insecure about it.

And when Addie was suddenly thrust into the heroic and adventurous role, I felt as though it was me suddenly made to stand forth and take my place as the active and contributing heroine of my own story!

Yeah, I loved it. Totally lived it. And I learned then the importance of writing characters that were each of them a piece of me . . . because if they're a piece of me, that means they'll likely be a piece of my readers as well. And when you can feel that bond with a character, how could you even think about putting a book down?

The last one on my list is a book I did not encounter until the summer after my freshman year of college. Now, my freshman year had been spent in some pretty intense English literature studies, and I had read novels such as Moby Dick, The Marble Faun, Wuthering Heights, and six or seven Shakespeare plays in very short periods of time. While I truly loved (almost) every minute of my literature degree, by the time summer rolled around, I was ready for some fun YA reading once more.

So, at my friend Elizabeth's suggestion, I picked up The Thief, by Megan Whalen Turner. I liked it. I even liked it a lot. Not a favorite right off the bat, but definitely a good read. So I decided to pick up the second book in the series, The Queen of Attolia.

And my world changed!

Okay, maybe it wasn't that drastic. But I have to tell you, once you've read Turner's Attolia, you'll be at a loss to find any books to which you might compare it. It is so beautifully unique and yet so completely full of everything a reader could want in a YA fantasy adventure. Set during a raging war among the brilliantly depicted kingdoms of Sounis, Eddis, and Attolia, it details the adventures of Gen, the Queen's Thief, and another unexpected hero if there ever was one.

The world comes even more vividly alive with an entire pantheon of gods . . . which, yes, may seem very "pagan" at first glance. But Turner uses her gods to deal with interesting and profound questions of the Divine and its relationship with humanity. Pantheon aside, so much of her theology I found more profound and more true than many "Christian" fantasies that spend so much time beating overt "Christian-ese" ideas over readers' heads that the truth of the Divine is lost.

The Queen of Attolia is a gut-wrenching story with characters beautifully well-drawn. And much of that drawing depends on her willingness to deal with spiritual themes that many writers of fantasy skirt around or ignore entirely, leaving their invented worlds two-dimensional at best.

Yes, this series, The Queen's Thief Series, which I have mentioned many times on this blog, might just be my favorite YA fiction ever.

So there you have my primary reasons for pursuing and writing YA fantasies!

What about you? Have you read any of these? What are some of your favorite YA stories? Any recommendations for me?


Kessie said...

Man, if you liked and read Beauty and Howl, which I've read and liked, then I'll have to give those other two recommendations a shot. I love YA fantasy way more than adult fantasy (far less sex!) and I'm always looking for more good titles.

Have you read the Merlin Conspiracy and/or Deep Secret, by Diana Wynne Jones? Deep Secret is the first one, but Merlin Conspiracy is my favorite. Also Fire and Hemlock, which is very rare but absolutely fantastic. It's definitely what they call "magical realism" because the magic is there, it's just hidden beneath the nuances of real life.

I enjoyed the Wednesday Tales by Jon Berkeley. They're an oddball little trilogy about a boy named Miles Wednesday, his connection to the circus, a talking tiger, and a young angel trapped on Earth called Little. They're wonderful, delightful books.

Galadriel said...

I tried Howl's in high school. Didn't like it much. Maybe I should try it again.

Elf said...

The Two Princesses of Bamarre is so good! I love it. I could tell you of tons of YA books that are amazing, but that would take too long. Check out my blog for those:

Rina said...

Beauty and The Two Princesses of Bamarre were fun, but it's been ages since I read them. I think I need to remedy that. And I'll definitely look up The Thief and The Queen of Attolia.

Some YA/middle grade books that I've enjoyed are Mara, Daughter of the Nile by Eloise Jarvis McGraw, Seven Daughters and Seven Sons by Barbara Cohen, The Ordinary Princess by M.M. Kaye, and The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge (the UNC library has a lovely old copy!).

yukihime03 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
yukihime03 said...

Oh my! I didn't expect you to read the Queen's Thief series! (No one here knows about it, and that despairs me.) I totally love that series! I'm wondering if there will be a fifth book.
I also read Robin McKinley's books (I've collected all her books though I haven't read them all, but have you read Rose Daughter, another version of Beauty?), and Howl is also my favorite series. Diana Wynne Jones' characters are really enticing! But I haven't read The Two Princesses of Bamarre so I think I'll give it shot. I have read some other Gail Carson Levine's books (like A Tale of Two Castles and Fairest) but I didn't know that one exists.

Clara said...

I absolutely LOVED Beauty and The Two Princesses of Bamarre! I think you would REALLY like The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge. It's wonderful. I also love Airborn by Kenneth Oppel. That whole series is amazing! And I love anything by Jessica Day George. Oh, there's the Tiger's Curse series. They are some of my favorite books:)
I just read on Minerva's blog that y'all like Doctor Who:) Me and my family LOVE that show!

Eszter said...

The only book I've read on your list is BEAUTY. Its actually one of my favorite stories, and I reread it every few months. I love it-mostly because I can relate to the Beast. I'm the oldest of three, so I'm in the role of a leader (whether I like it or not) with responsibilities, and if I happen to make a mistake, I usually end up paying for it for a looooong time. Used to make me want to hide or become invisible. Sometimes the role of Beauty reminds me of how God comes in and reminds me that He's taken care of it all, and that I can be human. I know that sounds kind of weird!