I learned about the wonders of YA - Young Adult - literature when my daughter Terry was a grade school student in Manhattan. I became a volunteer at the school’s library, and between there and the ads she’d bring home from Scholastic Books, I discovered that some of the best writing in American letters is being done in the YA field. Later, I became involved with BookPals, an organization of professional actors who read in public schools around the country; through them I also encountered splendid children’s books, but this month I want to focus on YA because I suspect it escapes the notice of too many establishment book critics.
The first important authors I came upon were the humorists Daniel Pinkwater and John Gardner and suspense king William Sleator. Pinkwater began as a children’s book writer, but as his readers grew older, so did his protagonists. Of the many wild and hilarious books he’s written, I’m especially fond of Blue Moose (Dell Yearling, 1975) - technically a children’s book, I suppose, but it’s wry Thurberesque comedy definitely “plays” to sophisticated adults. I also enjoyed Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars (and don’t miss the Bermuda Triangle Chili Parlor!) (E. P. Dutton, 1979), the two Snarkout Boys novels (The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death and The Snarkout Boys and the Baconburg Horror (Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1982, 1984), which are about as loopy a pair of Holmesian misadventures as you’ll ever read, and - well, the best advice I can offer is to buy everything Pinkwaterly you can find!
Like Pinkwater, the late John Gardner ostensibly wrote for children, but his comedies are aimed at readers of all ages. By the way, there are two John Gardners in contemporary fiction; this is the one who a few of my editor friends call “JG, the greater.” His adult fiction includes serious works, such as Nickel Mountain, October Light, The Sunlight Dialogues, The Wreckage of Agathon and a magnificent fantasy novel, Grendel, which tells Beowulf from the monster’s viewpoint. For younger readers, Gardner wrote three slim volumes that are wonderfully sly, witty, and just plain funny: Dragon, Dragon (Bantam Skylark, 1975); Gudgekin the Thistle Girl (Alfred A. Knopf, 1976), and The King of the Hummingbirds (Bantam Skylark, 1977).
When you need to catch your breath and stop laughing, turn to William Sleator, a prolific writer of suspense/fantasy/SF novels. I met him many years back at a Boskone that I arranged to have him invited to. The convention organizers certainly knew of him, but did not realize that he lived in Boston; back then he played piano for a major civic ballet company. (Perhaps he still does; I haven’t been in touch with him for a long while.)
The first William Sleator book I read is one of his best: House of Stairs (Puffin, 1974), a nightmarish science-fiction thriller that ought to be filmed. (A statement that holds for most of the YA books I’ve recently discovered.) Other excellent Sleator genre thrillers include Fingers (Tor, 1983), The Green Futures of Tycho (Starscape, 1981), Interstellar Pig (Peter Smith, 1984), Into the Dream (Puffin,1979) , etc. Lately I read his gripping Rewind (Dutton, 1999), in which a teenage boy killed in a car crash is given a chance to return to life and change himself so he won’t die again. He fails, and is allowed to try again, but is warned that if he doesn’t solve his emotional problems soon, he will die for good. Rewind is a “page-turner” par excellence!
YA novels more often than not are “page-turners.” Their authors possess skills that novelists should and ought to have, but too many mainstream scribes who commit (sic) fiction are sadly lacking therein. The shared virtues of YA literature begin with engaging protagonists, strong antagonists and secondary characters, and proceed through vivid sense of scene, crisp dialogue, engaging and often suspenseful plotting, remarkable viewpointing, and excellent direct and indirect stream of consciousness.
YA Comes Back into My Life
Over the years and with the growth of my daughter - now engaged to be married this summer - I lost touch with YA fiction. But recently I rediscovered its joys. The reason why is that I’m in the early stages of working up a proposal and sample chapters for a YA fantasy novel in collaboration with a famous Shakespearean actor. It’s not ready to be marketed yet, so forgive the lack of details, but this much I can say: the plot revolves around Romeo and Juliet.
I tell this because it’s one of two reasons I went back to the YA department at the closest Barnes & Noble store. I already knew a trilogy of excellent YA novels by Gary Blackwood: The Shakespeare Scribe, Shakespeare’s Scribe, and Shakespeare’s Spy (Puffin, 2000, 2002, 2005), but these are not fantasies, though I do recommend them because they bring alive the circumstances of life in Elizabethan England.
Two books associated with Shakespeare that I bought at Barnes & Noble were suggested by my friend Kathleen C. Szaj, a children’s book writer who said I must read Sharon M. Draper’s Romiette and Julio (Simon Pulse, 1999), and Susan Cooper’s King of Shadows (Aladdin, 1999). The former is a contemporary tale about love between Romiette, a black teenager, and her Hispanic friend, Julio, and the racial intolerance it raises in their school’s feared gang. It is a gripping drama leavened with comedy, and though it is chiefly a realistic story, a sense of lowering Fate is nicely invoked.
King of Shadows, though, is pure fantasy. An orphaned teenage boy has been cast in an American production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream scheduled to be performed at London’s reconstructed Globe Theatre. But when he arrives in England, he becomes ill, goes to bed with a fever, and wakens in Elizabethan London, a young actor loaned to Shakespeare to play Puck in The Globe’s upcoming “Midsummer’s Eve” to be played, on demand, for the Queen. The plotting is ingenious and as full of surprises as it is deeply moving.
Both of these books have been around for some years, but after I told my agent about my YA work-in-progress, he urged me to go to Barnes & Noble and buy some new YA fiction, especially, he said, to soak up its recently popular snarky tone. I followed his advice, browsed the shelves and purchased several books that looked interesting. I tried not to restrict myself to fantasy, much as I gravitate to my favorite genre, but curiously, every one of my new acquisitions turned out to be just that … even one that I was sure, by its cover description, could not be. Fantasy, it appears, is a healthy part of YA publishing, and in these times of contractual attrition I find that heartening.
Pete Hautman’s Godless (Simon Pulse, 2004) is borderline fantasy, due to its subject matter: religious belief. Bill Maher might enjoy this cheeky assay into organized religion, and whether we oughtn’t to get rid of it altogether. In Godless, teenager Jason Bock seriously questions whether he still wants to follow Catholicism, then not-so-seriously decides to start his own religion - worshipping the town’s water tower. (Yes, that’s what I said). What’s startling is how many of his friends decide to join his cult. To some it’s a joke, but at least one of his new “congregation” takes it ever so seriously. This is a story both funny and unsettling.
The new book I bought that I was sure had no tinge of fantasy is Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez’s Haters (Little, Brown & Co., 2006). Its feisty protagonist, sixteen-year-old Pasquala Rumalda Quintana de Archuleta (”Paski,” for short), is amusingly snarky … here’s how she describes her cartoonist Dad -
He’s got a goatee … and wears the giant sunglasses on his head like a girlie headband. Well, it’s not exactly a goatee. It’s like he’s trying to sculpt his facial hair, like he’s trying to look like a twenty-year-old pop star. I’m not sure what he’s got going on his feet. I think they’re supposed to be trendy athletic shoes, but they’re, like, way too shiny and, if I’m not mistaken, a little on the high side. High-heeled sneakers and a goatee, with sunglasses - at night? Uhm, hello?
Basically, my dad looks like an idiot.
Success overtakes Paski’s father when his comic strip is bought to be made into a major motion picture. Unfortunately, this means dad and daughter must leave their Rocky Mountains home in Taos, New Mexico, and move into an ultra-wealthy neighborhood of Los Angeles. Paski must leave her friends and start at a new high school where the student ruling class - three rich titular “Haters” makes her life utterly miserable.
So where’s the fantasy? Well, it turns out Paski possesses formidable psychic powers that she’s been running away from all her life, but if she doesn’t start to acknowledge them, it may mean death for - who else? - her chief high school enemy. Thanks to Paski’s wryly risible narration, Haters is fun from its first page to its ending … and this is another book that ought to be filmed.
I’ve saved my two favorite new YA books till last. Considering the precedential superlatives, that may sound like overkill, but it can’t be helped; I liked everything I read and bought. Still, nothing short of encomiums can describe my enjoyment of the following two YA novels.
Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005) is a book about death. Or no, it’s a book about life. Well, it’s both. I used to think Comedy and Tragedy were like the classic theatre masks, one of them smiling, the other in mourning. As I grew older, I began to think they were not separate, after all, but two sides of the same coin. Now, though, I perceive them as being on the same side of the coin, and so intermingled it’s not possible to be sure which is which. And after all, smiling and crying require precisely the same muscles.
Elsewhere is an emotional roller-coaster ride about 15-year-old Elizabeth whose hit-and-run death has brought her to the title world, where those who are dead pursue their death-lives until it’s time for them to be reborn. Her life after death brings her to follow a vocation of orientating recently dead dogs. Fortunately, she has a gift for understanding Canine, a language that has over three hundred words for love.
Katherine Marsh’s The Night Tourist (Hyperion, 2007) has only one thing wrong with it: it demands a sequel. Fortunately, the first two chapters of its continuation, The Twilight Prisoner, are bound into the back of the book, though the second volume won’t be published till next month.
The Night Tourist won the 2008 Edgar Award as Best Juvenile Mystery, but it is not a mystery at all; it is a gripping, funny, and also quite scary supernatural adventure about a ninth grader who has recently lost his mother. A visit to Manhattan brings him to Grand Central Station, where a girl his age invites him to explore the station’s arcane lower levels. He does so, unaware that his guide is a ghost, who manages to trap him on the “other side.” He has three days to get free, yet he is less interested in escaping than in tracking down his mother’s spirit among Manhattan’s million-plus ghosts.
This is a book that will particularly delight any reader who, like me, live in and love New York City. The other YA novels I’ve mentioned cry out to be filmed, but The Night Tourist positively screams to become a movie.
And Don’t Forget to Read My Friend Marc Bilgrey
If you’ve read the two magazines I edit, H. P. Lovecraft’s Magazine of Horror and the Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, you will have encountered cartoons and short fiction by Marc Bilgrey, a friend of mine from the world of improvisational comedy.
Marc has been thinking about writing for the YA field, and though he hasn’t done so yet, his slapstick fantasy adventure And Don’t Forget to Rescue the Princess (Five Star, 2005) comes quite close, and should please any teenager -or grownup! - who enjoys risible fantasy. Its hero is Al Breen, an unemployed actor (isn’t that redundant?) kidnapped by a magician and sent on a quest to rescue the queen’s daughter in company with the princess’s betrothed, Sir Nigel the Nervous. A more inept pair of knights erroneous you’re not likely to find, yet they manage to endure giants, trolls, a dragon with an attitude (don’t they all?), and of course, an evil sorcerer. Their survival skills are a sense of the ridiculous, and pure dumb luck.
Any day now, Five Star will release a sequel: And Don’t Forget to Rescue the Other Princess, in which Al and Nigel face even greater odds (and ends). Earlier in his creative career, Marc was a standup comic, and it shows in his Al Breen stories. His hero might not be any good at handling two-edged swords, but one-liners are a wicked weapon in his hand. (Or make that mouth.)