I didn’t read young many adult books when I was a teenager (I can think of only one; it was Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger. It’s fabulous and I’m so glad I came across it when I did). I went through my RL Stine phase in fifth grade, so I didn’t always read adult books, but I made the leap younger than most. This was mostly because I wanted to be able to talk about the books I was reading with my dad. I’ll also admit I was a sort of literary snob. I thought I was too grown-up for books marketed towards my peers. I’m still a snob about a lot of things—most notably, coffee—but I’ve definitely changed my opinion of YA lit since my teenage years. It took growing up for me to read young adult literature, and now I have no qualms about it.
My true discovery of YA happened when my husband became a high school English teacher. He took a class on teaching young adult literature and started developing a classroom library. I was enlisted to offer a feminine perspective because he wanted a balanced selection and his own tastes was centered on typical “boy” books. And I learned that YA can be terrible, enlightening, boring, touching, moving, funny, heartfelt, and inspiring. Just like books in all other categories.
Late last year, two new young adult titles piqued my interest; one, because it was supposed to be the next Hunger Games, and another, because it was written by a local author.
Legend by Marie Lu is a dystopian with a dash of romance. The book is written in the alternating first-person perspectives of Day, a street kid who lives off the grid, and June, the prodigy of the New Republic. While I enjoyed both characters, the constant back-and-forth was disorienting and confusing. Perhaps if the sections had been longer the shifts wouldn’t have felt so abrupt, but the narrator changed every few chapters. It felt like the author couldn’t choose between both and wasn’t comfortable in third person. While I understand some might like to be able to get into the heads of both characters, I wasn’t a fan of the technique. It didn’t keep me from enjoying the book, but it was enlightening to read in a new style I hadn’t encountered.
Despite being a nearly resource-less fifteen-year-old, Day is the Republic’s #1 most wanted criminal. Though he doesn’t ever cause people harm, he’s very clever at sabotaging their war efforts and is a symbol of resistance. When he breaks into a hospital to steal medicine for his family, the Republic has the perfect excuse to take their hunt for him to the next level. They enlist June, the orphan sister of a solider Day is accused of murdering, to use her unprecedented skills to take him down. She goes deep undercover in order to track him down.
And so the plot ensues. If predictable, it is tight. There are definite stakes for both main characters, and each piece of the puzzle is tightly put together. I hope the subsequent books in the series does a better job of world-building. Possibly because I’ve been so impressed by the aforementioned Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins and the equally riveting Uglies series by Scot Westerfeld, this one felt derivative and unremarkable. I wasn’t expecting something akin to the development of the dystopias of the near future like we see in The Handmaid’s Tale, but I was expecting more details. Possibly because I studied Political Science I find postulation on the future of our society and government fascinating. Legend did not deliver on that front.
Though the book didn’t meet my expectations, which were admittedly quite high, it was a quick, enjoyable read. If dystopian YA is your bag, you’ll enjoy it, and I’d definitely recommend it for young readers, though it wasn’t something that I’d push on my adult friends like I have with other YA books.
I recently wrote this post about a writer’s conversation at my local library featuring Mary O’Connell, the author of The Sharp Time. Mary said in the interview that she didn’t set out to write a young adult book, but was happy that it ended up being classified as such. It’s a book I would recommend to teenagers and adults alike if for no reason other than the absolutely gorgeous prose.
Sandinista Jones (don’t you love the name! Punk rock and a reference to Latin American politics…you know I’m going to love it) is an eighteen-year-old orphan and high school student who gets a job at her favorite vintage clothing store after an ugly encounter with her math teacher prompts her to drop out of school. While she waits for someone—anyone—to reach out to her from her old life, she makes new friends in the fictional world of 38th Street in Kansas City, a street that is home to not only the Pale Circus, her new place of employment, but also a pawn shop, a liquor store that doesn’t card, an erotic bakery, and a monastery.
The quirky characters add color and flavor to Sandinista’s life, but it is the redeeming power of friendship that they represent that makes the book so memorable. Sandinista is an endearing narrator whose insight often seems far beyond that of an eighteen-year-old though she still maintains a quiet innocence. Mary O’Connell uses language in new and inventive and creative ways. The reader can taste those orange circus peanut candies, monk-made jam, Body of Christ, and bubbly champagne; feel the angora sweaters and cold metal gun and the slick ice beneath platform shoes. More importantly, the reader understands Sandinista’s grief and power and hope. Fans of quick-paced or epic plots might not see the appeal of a small, character-driven story such as this. It’s definitely literary. It’s inspiring and encouraging to see such a smart and nuanced novel be marketed to teens. If someone had put this book in my hands when I was a teenager, I might not have carried my prejudice against YA for so long. There’s no reason to think that YA titles can only appeal to teenage readers. This book is proof that compelling stories are written in all categories.