On the Merits of Young Adult Fiction

“But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.” – C.S. Lewis

When bubbling excitedly about a novel I have just finished reading, I am often met with the same uninterested shrug. “I don’t care for young adult books.” I see questions on Goodreads below new releases, anxiously asking whether they are adult books, because how improper would it be to enjoy something aimed at teenagers. So I cannot help myself but try to articulate how this folly against young adult literature is misinformed on multiple levels.

Level 1: There are two sides to every coin.

Young adult books are not by definition insubstantial – take The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, chock-full of literary and cultural allusions to rival (and better) most adult books I have read. Nor are they necessarily lacking originality – Daughter of Smoke and Bone is a favourite example. It is true that publishers are far more generous when it comes to green-lighting young adult books, which allows a much greater volume of less-than-stellar novels to be made available for public purchase. But obversely, this also enables fledgling writers to take greater risks with idiosyncratic ideas and writing styles. Most of my favourite authors were first found through their young adult books, rather than their adult ones.

And on the other side of the coin, adult books are not necessarily deliciously complex either. In fact, with the additional burden of having to prove themselves unconventional enough or controversial enough or profound enough, many just come off as pretentious try-hards, for want of a more elegant phrase. There are delicate balancing acts between showing and telling, and then there are broken sequences of such shapeless impressions that you wonder whether the author himself has any idea what he wants his readers to be mystified about in the first place.

Level 2: Do not judge a book by its cover (or blurb or genre).

Perhaps the irony is that even beautifully articulate and sufficiently phantasmagorical adult works are frequently shelved as ‘young adult’ books. Not because of their content or tone or whether the author usually writes for young adults. But because they are fantasy novels. I have seen The Night Circus and The Magicians in the young adult section in bookstores and on Goodreads. The problem with thinking of young adult and adult as genres is that they simply are not. They are audiences, both perfectly capable of reading sci-fi and romance and horror and thrillers set in sleepy suburbs. The distinction is better drawn between the themes that they are more likely to be interested in (perhaps adults are less inclined to read coming-of-age fiction, because it does not reverberate with their current circumstances).

In an effort to circumvent this preconception, yet another age group has been coined ‘New Adult’, which loosely encompasses the years between 18 and 30. Supposedly, the books in this category provide much better ‘insight’ than properly young adult books, because they show the protagonists’ life experiences gradually eclipsing their childhood innocence. Personally, I do not see why this label is needed at all. The primary purpose of many young adult books is precisely to explore this transition, albeit some fulfilling it better than others. But the same goes for whatever books might be in this new category. There are always well-written and less well-written novels, regardless of who you lump them with. Though I suppose, from a purely commercial perspective, it makes simultaneously marketing the books to young adults and adults easier. (Which simply supports my point that the separation between young adult and adult is often arbitrary.)

Level 3: Implications.

Besides, labelling any and all fantasy publications with relatively young protagonists as young adult, when combined with the presumptions discussed under Level 1, implies that adults have no time for such frivolous escapism. Which sounds rather dull and unfortunate to me. Surely, there is a reason that popular children’s books are cherished as tales for all to read? The Chronicles of Narnia, the Harry Potter series… all classics today. They fill us with childlike wonder as they whisper lessons on love and friendship and courage and faith. Fantasy is no juvenile plaything to be trifled with.

I do hope that you are nearing the age where you will start reading fairy tales again. Or young adult for that matter. Or whatever book you like, without a care for these categories or what people might say.

The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home

The final addition to one of my most beloved series, The Girl Who Raced packed in all of the Dramatis Personae we have come to know and love, and laced them together in a delicate orange bow. And the ending, what a marvellous conclusion to the wondrous adventures that were the preceding novels! I applaud Valente for dreaming up such a splendid finale. I would wax nostalgic about it and risk unravelling Fairyland’s heart, but where would the fun be in that? Read the book yourselves! (If you had already, you might have noticed the clever allusion in my rhetorical question, of which I am particularly proud.)

Ah, I notice that Valente’s lemony prose is seeping into my own. It had first captivated me as I was flipping through what was to become one of my favourites of all time. But I have to admit, her bubbling streams of ‘ands’ and tangents made mesmerising narrations in the first three novels, but they became somewhat tiresome in The Girl Who Raced. Perhaps it is because, for the first time, there was a tangible sense of urgency – Race is in the title, after all. Whereas in the preceding books, the reader drifted over and under and through yet more unexplored terrain, with all the time in the world to be filled with adolescent awe. But thankfully, her prose only began to lose colour towards the end, and then picked right up again. And her unrivalled verbal illustrations continued to weave magic during the first half.

I will admit, I still had not finished The Boy Who Lost Fairyland, finding the abrupt departure from September and Saturday and A-Through-L a bit too disconcerting. And the plot lacked the same enchantment that had brought the first three books to life. I did, however, skim enough of it to understand the chaos that was in the first chapter of this one, so I had no trouble navigating at all. Nonetheless, to my more patient readers, please do try harder than I did, if only to write me a detailed summary afterwards! And on the topic of September and Saturday and A-Through-L, the original revolutionary trio, it took a while to remember that September was no longer the Heartless 12-year-old with ungainly feet, or that Saturday was once too timid to raise his voice above phantom whispers. I had not realised how much I had missed them until I finally gave in and purchased the Kindle edition (being too impatient to order a physical copy and have to wait for it to arrive).

I am certainly sad to let go of the Winds and Imogen and Iago and even the Marquess (just in case you were not aware, there is actually a prequel available for free online, which narrates her first rise to power). Though, with such a perfect ending, the sentiment is more sweet than bitter, not unlike looking up to unexpectedly find an endless indigo sky strewn with shooting stars and knowing that dawn is near.

Rating: 4/5

For my review on The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two, the third book, please click here.

The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two

I realise that this review should have been written a long time ago, since the fifth and final book of the series came out earlier this month. But since so many of my friends still had not heard of these books until I kept waxing lyrical about them, I like to think that there is still a point to publishing this post. (To be perfectly truthful, the main reason for the delay is that I had only read the book two days ago.)

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The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland is the third book in Catherynne M. Valente’s latest series. It possesses all the characteristics of her works, complete with a subversive narrator, profound prose and an eclectic mix of characters and creatures. If you found the lush narrative of The Night Circus intoxicating, then this series will prove to be an immense delight. In fact, Valente’s detailed descriptions are even denser. In this particular book, her naming conventions are as witty as ever, with new locations such as the Stationery Circus (a play on the archetypal ‘travelling’ circus), where the performers are made entirely from love letters and birthday invitations. By now, I have begun to actively look for double entendres, literary allusions and satirical jokes beneath every name and statement.

Some of my favourite examples are in the first book; the protagonist hears about other children Stumbling into Fairyland through armoires (Narnia) and tornadoes (The Wizard of Oz), and dreams about having buttered cogs for tea (in Alice in Wonderland, the movement of the Hatter’s watch is buttered). The stories are allusive treasure troves for adults and seasoned readers, but younger audiences will also be enchanted by the bizarre, thought-provoking world and storylines. However, I did occasionally find the plot of The Girl Who Soared rather slow because of the heavy, meticulous descriptions, but if exquisite accounts of Valente’s unique Fairyland appeal to you, then you would not necessarily consider this a negative trait.

This instalment focuses on the universal concepts of ‘fate’ and ‘growing up’, and Valente demonstrates an incredible talent for exploring these timeworn ideas in a refreshing and eloquent manner. After glimpsing a shocking character at the end of the first book, the protagonist is still confused and unsure of how to approach her future. If she has a fate, can she also have free will? Can she choose anything? Was she ever able to choose? Her frustrations are complicated by her friend, an ocean djinni, for whom time is more akin to a circle than a straight line, and who often encounters his past and future selves. In his case, it seems that his future is already set in stone. But if he had to make decisions to reach that future, then do those decisions count as choices?

The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two is another deceptively complex, whirlwind adventure and will not disappoint fans of the first two books.

Favourite quote: “The whole point of growing up is to get big enough to hold the world you want inside you. But it takes a long time, and you really must eat your vegetables, and most often you have to make the world you want out of yourself.”
Rating: 4/5

To buy the book, click here. This post was not sponsored.
All illustrations courtesy of Ana Juan.