This week’s post for our “So you want to read YA?” series comes to us from author E. C. Myers.
E.C. Myers was assembled in the U.S. from Korean and German parts and raised in Yonkers, NY by his mother and the public library. His young adult science fiction novels Fair Coin and Quantum Coin are out now from Pyr Books. You can find him all over the internet, but especially at http://ecmyers.net and on Twitter @ecmyers.
I was riding the New York City subway one day, standing with one forearm braced against a pole — I didn’t want to fall, but I also didn’t want to touch anything on the train — and holding onto an open YA novel with my free hand. I don’t remember exactly what I was reading, but it might have been Candor by Pam Bachorz. Anyway, I did this pretty much every day, but this time, a woman struck up a conversation with me.
Now, I’m one of those people who don’t like to be bothered when I’m reading. In fact, and this might be bad to admit, sometimes if I see an acquaintance on the train, I might pretend not to notice and maybe try to hide a little to avoid them because I would honestly rather just read — especially if I’m really hooked. My commute guaranteed me ninety minutes of reading a day, and I jealously protected my daily time with books, alone among strangers. So I wasn’t happy to be interrupted, especially by this odd question: “How old are you?”
Um. I guess I was 30-something and I told her so, and she looked surprised, which was only briefly flattering. “So you’re regressing then?” she said, eyeing the YA novel I held.
It took me a moment to figure out what she meant by that, and then I really didn’t want to talk to her. I got the vague impression that she might have been trying to chat me up, not that I had much experience at noticing things like that. But just a tip to everyone out there: If you want to pick someone up, directly or indirectly insulting their taste in books is not the best conversation starter.
I explained that actually I write books for teenagers, and no, I’m not just reading it for research, and that’s when she lost respect for me. I saw it happen! So there’s another tip. If you’re too polite to tell a stranger you aren’t interested, just tell them you’re a writer, and better yet, that you write YA.
My point is that as a reader and a writer, I encounter a lot of ignorance about YA, which is disappointing but inoffensive, but there’s also some snobbery out there. Writing science fiction and fantasy on top of YA is a kind of double whammy if you’re looking for your work to be understood and/or respected. (I’m not in this for respect, but having to defend your genre does get tiresome.)
So I’m overjoyed when anyone asks me to recommend a middle grade or young adult book to get started with. I almost always like talking about books (see above for the exception) and evangelizing for the ones that I love. I suppose some people intentionally avoid reading YA because they have these preconceptions about it, but I believe that anyone who claims to love reading needs to give it a chance. And one of the things I appreciate most about YA fiction is that there’s something for everyone.
Anyone who is interested in sampling YA can find at least one book that they like, whether they typically read literary fiction, science fiction, fantasy, horror, historical, romance — whatever. You name the genre, and there’s a wealth of YA fiction that falls into it, and there’s also frequently a blending of genres. (But if you like romance, you’re especially in luck, because it seems many, if not most YA books have some element of romance.) First and foremost, I believe YA is about people, and we can all relate to good characters… Unless perhaps you’re a robot, demon, mermaid, alien, vampire, werewolf, or zombie, and even so, there are books out there for you!
This variety in genre gives me some loose guidelines for recommending a title to someone, but whether you’re looking for YA or books targeted for older audiences, I think we can all benefit from reading as broadly as possible. I love books, and YA books in particular, because of the diverse experiences they offer—lives I couldn’t possibly lead in worlds that may never exist. Just keep an open mind to all the possibilities out there.
A lot of people are surprised (or shocked) at how dark/sexy/disturbing YA books can get, so if you want to quickly change your assumptions about what’s appropriate for kids, check out Boy Toy by Barry Lyga, After by Amy Efaw, Before I Die by Jenny Downham, and Dirty Little Secrets by C.J. Omololu. The most shocking thing about these books is how much truth there is in them. It’s possible that some adults don’t want kids reading them because they’d rather not accept that kids have problems like this in real life.
Okay… Well, by that I assume you mean you only like books that are well-written? Or something?Yeah, me too, that’s why I read YA. But if you want some books that may appeal to your refined sensibilities, get started with Looking for Alaska by John Green, Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma, Hate List by Jennifer Brown, Everybody Sees the Ants by A.S. King, and Ordinary Ghosts by Eireann Corrigan.
A lot of my friends prefer reading science fiction but they assume that YA SF is somehow more simplistic or less well-developed than the books they’re reading, or classics by Heinlein or Asimov. These novels will change your mind, possibly quite literally: The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer, The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness, Incarceron by Catherine Fisher, and Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve. These are also stellar examples of books that are firmly grounded in compelling and complex characters, which aren’t lost in the excellent world building.
I know I’ve been guilty of saying this in the past, until I discovered that I just hadn’t found the right ones to read. Not all fantasy novels are rehashes of Lord of the Rings or epic doorstoppers that run for ten or more volumes. If you want something fresh and original, I recommend Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst, The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner, The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, and Graceling by Kristin Cashore.
I could go on and on, recommending my favorite middle grade books (The Truth About Smekday by Adam Rex and When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead), books for fans of the TV show Supernatural (The Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan and Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake), and books with unexpected twists (Ultraviolet by R.J. Anderson and Epic by Conor Kostick).
My belabored point is that there’s at least one YA book out there that’s just perfect for you, and it would be a shame if you missed out on it and the chance to discover just how wonderful YA is. Try one of the books mentioned in this blog series, or go start a conversation with one of the teen librarians at your local library, who have read even more than I have. Just don’t begin by asking their age.