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