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Can a young adult fantasy possibly be the best novel of the year?!

March 16, 2010

Catherine Fisher

Last week the Los Angeles Times reported the startlingly good news that while adult hardcover sales declined almost 18 percent the first half of 2009, sales of children’s and young adult hardcovers soared nearly 31 percent. Before we celebrate an explosion in teen reading, though, it’s worth noting that many of those books were bought and read by adults.

This news leads me to many questions, paramount among them: What exactly is a young adult novel anyway? The obvious answer would be a book written for and usually about adolescents — but as almost always is the case, the obvious answer is either wrong or woefully incomplete.

And the experts are no help: “You go on the subway and see 40-year-old stockbrokers reading Twilight,” said David Levithan, editorial director and vice president as Scholastic. “That wouldn’t have happened five years ago.”

The problem with Levithan’s statement is that five years ago we were saying the same thing about Harry Potter. So while the number of adults buying YA novels may be a rising trend, it’s nothing new.

Does that leave us to identify YA books the same way we do art or pornography — we know it when we see it? Despite their virtues, the Potter books, Twilight, The Hunger Games, Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series,  City of Ember, Inkheart are all quickly recognizable as books intended for teens and children.

But that brings me up against Incarceron, by Catherine Fisher, a fantasy novel published in Britain in 2007, where, apparently, it sold like lemonade in the Sahara. The story of a teenage boy fighting for survival in a dystopian society that turns out to be a prison, it is a triumph of character, imagination, plotting and moral seriousness.

Incarceron is just out here in the U.S. –and if not for John Banville’s The Infinities, in fact, I would have to name it as the best novel I’ve read so far this year. I use the verb “read” advisedly, because I actually listened to an unabridged audio version. But still, I got the whole story, every word, and I can tell you, this is a fabulous book.

Perhaps because I did not handle the actual volume — YA books are usually slightly smaller, with slightly larger type than adult books — I had no idea Incarceron was a children’s book until I read about it somewhere. And I was, I confess, astonished.

Not because I don’t believe a YA novel can be a thing of literary excellence. That’s been proven again and again, from The Secret Garden to The Yearling to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. And many, many more.

Incarceron, though, displays a sophistication of literary tropes, a subtlety of imagination, that I rarely encounter in adult fiction, let alone books written for children. For example, when Finn, the youth questing to escape the vast prison, comes to the monster’s lair, it turns out to contain something very like the dragon from Tolkien’ The Hobbit — but very different, too, in a highly original and (my enthusiasm runs away with me) stupendously effective way.

On the other hand, while Fisher attends scrupulously to the two narrative strands of what, after all, is an adventure story, she also imagines two fully convincing and complementary fantasy worlds, one inside the universal prison, and one outside. She creates likable and nicely complex characters, putting just the right spin on types familiar from earlier books.

And while juggling all this (apparently with one hand), Fisher layers the narrative with questions and subtexts about the nature of reality, the dangers of technology (and the dangers of suppressing technology), the role of choice in the development of human identity, and — I kid you not — faith, doubt, belief.

In the end, I conclude that  Incarceron is a young adult novel solely on the basis of a marketing decision made by some publishing executive somewhere. My challenge: Read it (or listen to it, whatever), and see if you like it as much as I do.

In the meantime, have you read any YA novels lately? Are you mature enough to admit it?

18 Comments leave one →
  1. alexis permalink
    March 16, 2010 1:00 pm

    I was once told by Joyce Sweeney, a YA author, that YA books are intended for high schoolers, but that in fact, pre-teens read YA books and teenagers were already reading adult fiction. I always assumed that since kids are always trying to be “grown-up” sooner that eventually elementary school kids would read YA books. However, I guess the trend went the opposite way.

    I always loved Robert Cormier, even though he is considered a YA author. His characters are almost always teenagers, however, the subject matter is very complex and mature. The first time I went to buy one of his books I was amazed to find it in the kids section of Books&Books.

  2. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    March 16, 2010 1:06 pm

    Yes, Cormier is a great one. I think the tendency is to say, “writing is writing,” and so it is, in the sense that good writing is good writing and well find an audience no matter how it’s categorized and marketed. But I think it’s more complicated than that, too. In a perfect world, no marketing categories would exist beyond, perhaps, fiction and nonfiction. And every book would find its own level. I can think of many so-called “YA” novels I think are as good as anything.

    This all raises the question, too, of what is a YA novel? Is Huckleberry Finnn? I don’t think it’s written for children — it has a scabrous view of religion and American exceptionalism, and presents a profound challenge to any adult reader. How about Catcher in the Rye? Portnoy’s Complaint?

    I’m afraid these questions cannot be answered, not once and for all, any way.

    Thanks for mentioning Cormier. And Joyce Sweeney, for that matter.

  3. Connie permalink
    March 16, 2010 1:20 pm

    I too loved Cormier – “The Chocolate War” is great but I’m partial to “I Am the Cheese.” – but I read them as a teenager. I wonder if I’d still be as entranced now. I’ve read four and one quarter of the Potter books (sorry, but after 100 pages of nothing happening in “Order of the Phoenix” I jumped ship) but never had much interest in them after that (except to ask who gets killed in the end). I wouldn’t be inclined to check out at YA novel although I have to think why, when I happily watch “The Vampire Diaries” on TV.

    Perhaps the reason I shy away is a lot of the YA stuff adults read now is fantasy-heavy (I’ve seen grown-ups reading those Eragon books, and they don’t appeal to me at all). But I’ll check out Incarceron if you say it’s good … once I finish Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Which may be awhile.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 16, 2010 2:24 pm

      Connie, oh, Connie, it’s always a joy to hear your pungent voice. I came to many YA writers, including Cormier, as a an adult reader, and I think the good ones are good for the same reason any other writer is. It’s the same skill set. I loved Cormier from the start, although I have to say some of his subject matter is so raw, again, I don’t understand why these are considered young adult books. They seem plenty grown-up to me.

      Before you run out and buy Incarceron, let me confess to a predilection towards fantasy — at least when it’s done well. I think Incarceron is superior fantasy, and also superior fiction in general. Not without flaw (the Prince and the Pauper/Kidnapped angle is a little too pat) but what is, and besides, the overall power and complexity of the book more than offsets a few minor shortcomings.

      As for fantasy, let me point out that Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell falls in that category (or bestrides it, more like). But so does the hot new literary novel, The Infinities, by John Banville, a towering writing talent (if you don’t believe it, just ask him) with a Booker Prize to his credit. I mean, the book is narrated by Mercury, and includes an alternate historical time line in which, among other things, Einstein’s theories have been repudiated, as well as a complete cosmology based on the Greek gods, if you can believe it.

      So don’t reject a book just because it’s a fantasy. In the same way all novels are historical, they are all, after a manner, fantasies, too.

  4. rachel permalink
    March 16, 2010 2:04 pm

    Alexis, how dare you! I was going to bring up Cormier and now you’ve gone and ruined that. So I guess I am stuck with agreeing. I have read many of his books but the one that sticks with me most is “We All Fall Down” and then “Tenderness.” “We All Fall Down” explores some very complex emotions, where you are kind of put on the side of the bad guy, and that book lives inside of me. “Tenderness” is hands down one of the creepiest books I have ever read, and I have to say I was surprised that we would let “Young Adults” read such stuff, even though at the time of reading I guess I was a “young adult.” Whatever that means. I guess I came to the conclusion that it had to do with age, for example Cormier seems more “young adult” to me than “The Secret Garden” which seems suitable for younger children. I guess that to me it seems like these were always more about excluding the younger, rather than growing out of them. Like movie ratings; adults are allowed to watch and enjoy “G” rated movies just as they are allowed to enjoy “R” rated movies. I guess I thought it was about protecting the fragile minds of our youth.

    I have to agree that it often seems that “young adult” novels are often slim. I would like to read this book that you find so appealing, Chauncey Mabe.

    Thanks for another great blog. I don’t like categorizing, but it is a necessary evil, not just as a marketing strategy but as a survival strategy. In order to comprehend the world around us we need to categorize. That being said, I think it is important to look outside what it has been decided is the appropriate category for me. Frankly, I think I can enjoy a good picture book just as much as a 4 year old. And in a different way. I think most things that work really well work for audiences of all ages, meaning something slightly different along the way. “The Grey Lady and The Strawberry Snatcher” anyone?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 16, 2010 2:40 pm

      Thanks for a thoughtful response, Rachel. I think highly of Tenderness, too, and it’s the one I had in mind when I made that remark about the raw material Cormier sometimes takes on. I also love Fade, a novel about a teenage boy who discovers he has inherited the ability to become invisible. Cormier is a kind of genius, I think. In a perfect world, I would find time to go back and read him again. Sigh.

      And I love love LOVE The Grey Lady and teh Strawberry Snatcher. A better wordless book is impossible, methinks.

  5. Tommy permalink
    March 16, 2010 2:11 pm

    I recntly read China Mieville’s “Un Lun Dun”. At some point in the story I realized I had classified this book as Young Adult fiction. Why? Well, the reading was effortless, I knew the definition to all the words, the pacing and story was predictable, the main character was herself a teenager and I found the scenes fun and light. Writing this comment I see that I was wrong calling Un Lun Dun a YA novel because of these reasonings. Un Lun Dun just is not a very good book, which suspiciously resembles “Alice” and Through the Looking Glass”. I still want to get my hands on “The City and The City” or “Mr. Spaceman” and give Mieville a chance to redeem himself.

    I like the idea about no more pigeon-holes, just fiction and non-fiction. I’d like to see less genre labels in the music world also.

    I still think of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett as YA authors even though I have only read their works as an adult (or something that resembles one) and found their writing, imagination and voice both challenging and immensely enjoyable.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 16, 2010 2:45 pm

      By the way, Tommy, I love your make-over photo.

      You bring up a salient point, which is that many adult readers (even some who ought to know better) think “young adult” or “children” means mediocre — when, I think, the opposite is true, with some exceptions (Twilight!). For the most part, young adult novels require the same clear, precise narrative, the same attention to character and structure, the same craftsmanship, as any other kind of writing. And if the writer proves in possession of these elements of craftsmanship, then the YA book will be as good as anything (and better than most) books created for adults.

      Mr. Spaceman, by the way, is Robert Olen Butler, not Mieville. The only Mieville I can vouch for is The City and the City. I congratulate you on the adventuresome spirit that took you to Un Lun Dun. Aside from sounding like something uttered at a Penecostal prayer meeting, it’s a lovely title. Sorry to hear the book sucks.

      I have to say that while I admire Neil Gaiman’s fertile imagination, I think he is a pedestrian writer. Please prove me wrong.

      • Tommy permalink
        March 18, 2010 2:25 pm

        Doh! Mr Butler has no need of redemption in my eyes. I am anxious to start his “Mr. Spaceman”.

        Sadly the title “Un Lun Dun” is the most clever bit of the book.

        Two words on Neil Gaiman, “Graveyard Book”.

  6. Connie permalink
    March 16, 2010 4:47 pm

    Can I reject a book because it has dragons in it? Because I hate books with dragons in them (yes, that includes The Hobbit). I don’t mean to say I won’t read fantasy at all – obviously, as I am reveling in JStrange & Mr. Norrell, and loved The City and the City – but I need a darn good reason to do so. Which you so kindly provide, Mr. Mabe!

    Still, dragons. Ugh.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 17, 2010 12:07 am

      Uh, in the case of Incarceron, it’s not actually a dragon — in fact, it’s not anything supernatural at all — it just has several of the traditional characteristics of a dragon (sly, greedy, vicious, subtle) and fulfills the same narrative role as the dragon in The Hobbit, or, for that matter, in the Volsunga Saga, which is where Tolkein filched it from to begin with. It’s all very witty, very scary, very subtly wrought. Have I steered you amiss before? Leaving aside that barbaric football thing that holds you in thrall…

      You had best be careful, though, lest the Dragon Anti-Defamation Association (DADA) get wind of your bias.

  7. Monica permalink
    March 16, 2010 10:39 pm

    Being a young adult (and I use that term VERY loosely) Language Arts teacher, it is yet another work hazard that I have to read my fair share of young adult novels. I read all of the required material that needs to be taught to my students that I did not study myself at their age, but my curiosity does get the better of me at times and leads me to look into their “pleasure reading” choices as well. The most recent of these would be the Twilight series, of which I still don’t understand the appeal. Yet, a young adult author that I do enjoy quite a bit is Edward Bloor, most famously known for his novel, Tangerine. This is a novel that I first had to teach about seven years ago and could not put it down once I opened it. It deals with familial relationships, moving to the strange land that is Florida, and the life of a twelve year old boy through his eyes, while keeping the reader in suspense throughout. I am now teaching this book for the seventh year in a row and each year it manages to turn at least one of my “non-readers” into someone that is anxious to get to class each day to find out what happens next.

    Ed is a wonderful author that has gone on to write several more novels, all of which I have read. I was actually introducing Tangerine to my classes today, and was thrilled to see on his website that he is currently working on yet another book to be released later this year. Without a doubt, his latest work will be added to my “to read” list tonight! Chauncey, I would highly recommend any of Ed’s books. He used to live here, in South Florida, and has had several book signings at Books and Books over the years also- great guy!

  8. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    March 17, 2010 12:09 am

    Monica, thanks very much for the recommendation. I will definitely catch up with Tangerine the first chance I get. You make it sound irresistible.

  9. March 17, 2010 12:02 pm

    I went to Mick Cochrane’s reading of THE GIRL WHO THREW BUTTERFLIES yesterday. Cochrane made fans of all of us and easily sold out every available copy of the the book (now in paperback and its 3d printing). BUTTERFLIES is a YA novel, but it’s also adult in the way it deals with the main character’s loss of her father and how she learns to throw his favorite pitch (a knuckleball) and becomes a member of a boy’s baseball team. And slowly begins to heal. Might sound sentimental the way I’ve described it, but believe me it’s not. Cochrane pulls no punches when it comes to handling the subject of death and the wreckage it can leave in its wake.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 17, 2010 4:03 pm

      Duff, you had me at “knuckleball.” Any book about fathers, daughters and baseball is mind kind of story. It would have to be pretty sappy to defeat that mixture. Thanks for bringing Cochrane’s novel to my attention. I’ll keep an eye out for it. And, oh, by the way, love the title, The Girl Who Threw Butterflies. I put great store by titles.

  10. March 21, 2010 2:43 pm

    OK based on this post I just read Incarceron — and thought it was great. Not the best novel I’ve read recently — Wolf Hall still holds that place — but very good indeed. Another respected literary source recommended The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins so that’s on the list as well. If you aren’t totally opposed to all things dragon (sorry, Connie) I recommend Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series — it’s Patrick O’Brian, with dragons! OK it’s not quite O’Brian level, but then very little is. And it’s very good. Also good, for all of us I think, is to reach out to fiction that too often gets pigeonholed as genre (including historical fiction, like Wolf Hall) and realize that good writing has always entertained and enlightened.


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