Discussion · Young adult

What Changed In American YA, 2010-2019

The first American YA novel I had ever read was Twilight by Stephenie Meyer, at the very end of 2009. It didn’t get me into reading – I was already reading a lot by then, but mostly old adult books and some middle grade – and it didn’t get me into American YA either, because I thought it was so boring that I didn’t pick up another until 2012.

I started actually reading and reviewing YA in 2015, and at the time I mostly read books published in the 2010-2013 period, because books almost always take a while to get translated.

Today I want to talk about what and how much YA has changed since then, according to what I see in the age range now that I read mostly new releases.

Keep of course in mind that this is the perspective of one person, and that there are far too many YA books published in a year for a blogger to read them all when they’re not even all of what they read! (I read adult SFF just as often.)


Pros

The things that changed for the better.

Diversity: this is the big one. Not because there weren’t diverse books before, but because they weren’t as frequent and as frequently hyped as they are today. (I hope publishing won’t think they can stop buying and hyping diverse books now.)

Some examples of books I doubt would have been published in the 2010-2014 era, and if they had been, they definitely wouldn’t have gotten the hype they got in 2017-2018:

  • Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan – a story about rape culture and being a rape survivor with a main forbidden f/f romance set in a Malaysian-inspired kingdom? I’m so glad we’re at a point now in which we can see this on the shelves and on the NYT bestseller list.
  • For a Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig – an ownvoices book about a bipolar Asian heroine who is also queer set in a world inspired by Southeast Asia which also talks about colonization and what it does to a country? I don’t think I would have seen it a few years ago. (However, this deserved a lot more hype than it got).
  • The Wicker King by K. Ancrum – a tense and weird and difficult but definitely not tragic genre-bending slow-burn gay story that also ends in polyamory (m/m/f), featuring major characters of color? I don’t think I know any other tradpub story with that premise and I love that this book is relatively well-known on goodreads and twitter.

A note: YA isn’t the only age range that is doing this. Adult SFF is too and in many aspects is better at it than YA SFF, which mainly-YA readers would notice if they stopped mislabeling diverse adult books as YA.

Its old, glaring misogyny problems: I can’t say these have been solved, but I almost never see open slut-shaming and the actual not-like-other-girls trope anymore (but there are so many reviews calling things that aren’t the NLOG trope the NLOG trope). Which is a big progress! And sometimes I even see complex, positive female friendships, which were a rarity in the books that were popular in 2010-2013. (I can only think of Karou and Zuzana and even then they’re not together for most of the series…) Again, YA can get even better at this, but I like seeing the progress.

The average quality of contemporary: while one could find quality YA SFF pretty easily (Shadow and Bone is very well-written, many people just wanted a different story, fight me; The Hunger Games is pretty good all things considered; The Raven Cycle too), finding good YA contemporary was a struggle – especially if you were reading what was really popular and got translated here. The Fault in Our Stars was cliché sicklit that tried to act like it was Not Like Other Sicklit Novels, Anna and the French Kiss was really annoying and just not that great even if you don’t care that much about fictional people cheating, and to this day the Becca Fitzpatrick contemporaries are some of the worst things I’ve ever read. And today, we have so many well-written contemporaries that I’d say it’s almost easier to find quality contemporary than SFF. To make some examples that aren’t as obvious as The Hate U Give:

  • Love From A to Z by S.K. Ali comes out this month and it’s one of the best contemporaries I’ve ever read. It’s a novel set in Qatar that tackles Islamophobia and talks about living with multiple sclerosis while being the cutest, most adorable YA romance ever written and… read it. I hope it doesn’t become an under-the-radar book – I think it’s the kind of story that could be helpful to a lot of people. I don’t think we would have seen this kind of novel a few years ago and I’m so glad it exists.
  • Even though diverse books that deal with contemporary issues are the ones that get more popular and get more hype from publishers, there are so many great ones that don’t! They just don’t get the hype they deserve. An example is This Is What It Feels Like by Rebecca Barrow, a story about three girls (two black, one white, and one of the black girls is queer) in a band, and the novel focuses on recovery.
  • A hyped contemporary that isn’t an issue book but that is really good and diverse is Far From the Tree by Robin Benway, a story about three siblings reconnecting after living with different families because of adoption/foster care.

Cons

The things that changed for the worse, at least a little – I think most of the changes I’ve seen in YA have been positive.

Finding teenage girls that actually feel like teenage girls is more difficult, especially in fantasy. I think this has to do with the absurd standards we hold female characters to (I should make a whole post about that) and the result is that there are so many female protagonist that are bland, and… not even bland in a way you can relate to. We barely have realistic, insecure, messy teen protagonists in fantasy anymore, because they’re called weak and annoying and whiny (because teen girls need to be perfect) and we trade that for carefully constructed characters that feel completely incoherent (cruel but mostly for the aesthetic, so smart but not when the plot requires them not to be, “morally gray” but as we say here, all smoke and no meat). And I do mostly like them and root for them, but I don’t see this walking on eggshells to create a character you’re told is badass and is actually… not, that is “morally gray” only in words, that never feels like a human teen girl, a positive thing. Give me weak characters who have to come to terms with their self-esteem problems, characters who make mistakes and learn from them, and that actually do morally gray things if you’re hyping them as such.

A lot of them have content I wouldn’t have wanted to read when I was 14-17, which to me didn’t seem to happen that frequently a few years ago:

  • No, I’m not referring to sex scenes. I’d find the “most teens don’t want to read sex scenes in books” discussion funny, but the more I think about purity culture the more I just find it sad.
  • One problem I see more and more often in YA, especially SFF, is how it seems to have forgotten how to have fun. Everything, especially in fantasy, needs to either be Important, Gritty or outright comedy. It’s just… YA takes itself a lot more seriously? Which is a good thing at times, but I’m here to have fun. (I recommend the self-indulgent just-here-for-the-aesthetic very-goth and fun book Wicked Saints by Emily A. Duncan if you want to know what I want more of, and this time I’m not even talking about the villain romance)
  • A lot of YA I read now is really disturbing, and while I love that now, I’m 100% sure I wouldn’t even have been able to read that when I was the actual target audience and I have some mixed feelings about that.

42505366For example, I know I would have DNFed Wilder Girls by Rory Power a few years ago. Not just because its plant horror hits specifically the plant-related phobia at times and because there was a really upsetting (to me) scene I wasn’t warned about, but because it’s full of body horror and despair and I wouldn’t have even understood the point it was trying to make a few years ago. While I believe in trusting readers, even if they’re young, I don’t really understand why this was marketed as YA, as I think older readers will appreciate it more. And yes, it specifically talks about the horrors of girlhood in a misogynistic world, and the experiences of teenage girls, but the way it talked about felt very… adult, to me? I don’t know. It felt more like Annihilation (adult sci-fi) than like any YA book I know.


What Hasn’t Changed As Much As It Should Have

YA still heavily relies on trends. Be it bad Twilight copycats with a love interest whose name was some variation of the word “demon” but totally wasn’t a demon, endless vaguely futuristic novels that were dystopian only in name, books that attempt to have a Kaz Brekker-like character and fail, or the same exact novel about a girl who starts a rebellion to take down an evil empire, just set in a different world this time – finding YA books whose plot actually feels unique is still difficult, in my experience far more difficult than it is in adult SFF (where there are trends, but the books inside them don’t feel like they’re trying to emulate the book that started it). This worries me mostly because I don’t want to see publishers decide that diversity isn’t trendy anymore in two years or something.

There are still very few non-American and especially non-western stories. Most stories set outside the US still have American characters. Every time this discussions comes up, someone says that if they didn’t they wouldn’t sell, because Americans “can’t relate” to them. To which I say:

  • American books are translated worldwide, and if they weren’t basically most of the YA books people in my country can get, I wouldn’t have such a big problem with this, but since they are, it’s their responsibility to include and represent all the people they’re writing for, both as authors and as readers;
  • Believe it or not, western Europe isn’t America-lite and white western Europeans don’t go through what the average white American is going through just because they vaguely look like us;
  • This is even more true for non-western countries;
  • It isn’t good for Americans to only read books about themselves or written by themselves, just like it isn’t good for white, straight people to read only about white, straight people. Reading from different perspectives isn’t only interesting, I think it’s necessary.
  • No, the random [European Culture]-inspired fantasy book written by Americans definitely doesn’t count.

I’m sure that there’s even more to say if some of you have been reading YA for a longer time and didn’t have the “I can read only what’s translated” bottleneck, but right now, this is all I can think of.


What do you think has changed in YA over the years? What do you think should change?

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Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: The Reader by Traci Chee

25064648The Reader is the first book in the Sea of Ink and Gold trilogy. The sequels are The Speaker and The Storyteller.

The Reader is a very unique book. I’ve never read anything similar to it, or to the way it weaves together stories inside of other stories, timelines in different kingdoms, tales and mysteries inside fictional books. The result is multilayered and compelling, but definitely not flawless.

One thing that makes The Reader unique is the sense of wonder. This is the kind of book that makes you see the magic in ordinary things, that lets you see the world in a different way. It has, in a way, the timeless feel of classics, and it reminded me of the books I read when I was younger, the one that made me a reader in the first place – and also the ones I wouldn’t be able to reread today.

Here’s the thing: if this book is magical and complex and well-written, at times it also feels immature. I don’t know if it’s debut syndrome (but: I’ve read many debuts that didn’t have this problem) or the fact that I’m not exactly the target audience anymore, since I’m 18 (but: I know I would have felt the same way last year), but this didn’t work for me as much as I hoped. Not because of the characters – I don’t have a problem with teenagers being teenagers – but because of part of the premise itself.

The beauty of the writing and the wonderful magic system couldn’t distract me from the fact that the worldbuilding made no sense. You’re telling me this society has guns but writing is mostly… unheard of? I can understand analphabetism, but no, most people don’t know what a book is or what writing looks like – and that just doesn’t work.

And that’s far from the only thing I struggled to suspend disbelief for: everything that had to do with Archer bothered me, basically. I don’t have anything against him, his only fault is blandness and even then I’ve seen worst cases of it, but the storyline surrounding him makes as much sense as the worldbuilding. There’s a mysterious pirate-like figure, Serakeen, who is kidnapping children to turn them into soldiers, and he is looking for Archer because he needs a great fighter to lead a great army. Yes, you see, one of this book’s major plot points is that this mysterious, powerful figure needs a 17-year-old (I presume? Maybe he’s even younger) to lead his army, just because he’s really good at killing. Because, you know, that’s the first thing you need to look for!
You’d need someone who has experience with leading people and strategy, and Archer has neither; what he has is the charisma of a puddle, and that also doesn’t help.
This is the kind of plotline that prevents me from taking villains seriously.

On Archer and disability rep (spoiler-y)

I understand that he was never mute to begin with, he had just forgotten everything and wasn’t speaking because of trauma, but… eh. It depends on how it’s handled in the sequel; if he goes from “never speaks” to “charismatic leader”, it’s erasure and magically cured disability; if he struggles I don’t have a problem with it. But I don’t know if I will read the sequel.

The writing was beautiful, and the descriptions made the world stand out: this is not your typical medieval fantasy book, it has an atmosphere of its own, unique enough to be memorable. There’s magic in the narration, in the interwoven stories that manage to be surprising in completely unexpected ways. It may be a little bit difficult to get into at the beginning, as you don’t know what the plot threads have to do with each other, but the ending it’s worth all the not-so-perfect pacing.

The Reader is, mostly, a book about reading. If you’ve read Laini Taylor’s Strange the Dreamer and your favorite aspect of it was Lazlo’s love for stories, you should try The Reader: it explores this theme even more, and does it justice.

If, on the other hand, your favorite aspect of Strange the Dreamer was the morally gray situation, this book may not be for you. The Reader is many things, but it’s not morally gray at all – the main characters are very Good people, the villains are pretty Bad. I don’t consider this a flaw, as sometimes it’s good to read a YA that feels lighter, but Sefia and Archer, just like many other Good characters, lack depth. Their romance didn’t make me feel anything, it was a “she was a girl, he was a boy” kind of deal – a they-got-together-because-heteronormativity kind of couple. They’re fine, and nothing more.
I did appreciate the diversity – it’s great to have a book that feels like classic YA fantasy but isn’t completely white. There’s also a side character with OCD and I’ve heard there’s a queer couple in the sequel.

My rating: ★★★¼

Book review · contemporary · Young adult

Review: Nice Try, Jane Sinner by Lianne Oelke

33413915Nice Try, Jane Sinner is a standalone contemporary book about a girl who dropped out of high school because of depression and is now taking part in a reality show.

I have mixed feelings about this book. Not because I thought there was anything wrong with it – it’s one of the few books with a character with a mental illness that isn’t exactly about her mental illness, and we need more of this – but because this is one of those books that start out funny and rapidly become boring.

The only thing that makes this book worth reading is Jane’s narration. Nice Try, Jane Sinner nails perfectly the “depression humor”, that kind of cynicism + sarcasm + self-deprecation mix that is probably extremely irritating to read unless you’ve been trough it. Its depiction felt real to me, but this and the exploration of faith are the only interesting things about this book.

Jane grew up in a religious family, but at some point she realized she didn’t believe anymore. It means a lot to me when books look at what it’s like to not believe when you’re living in a religious environment. You’re forced to fake it, and you feel like an impostor in your own house. Jane hasn’t lived with this realization for years, but this is still a thing that affects her. I find surprising how little American books talk about faith, and I don’t mean only the negative experiences. Faith, or the lack of it (especially when faith/the lack of it isn’t the norm), changes the way you see the world.
I loved how Nice Try, Jane Sinner book approached this, but here the positive part of this review ends.

My main problem with this book was my own boredom. I finished it in one afternoon, but I also feel like I wasted my time. The first half of this book was interesting, 4-star-funny, and the second half was romance and boredom. The reality show thing got old at least 200 pages before the actual ending, and the writing or the characters weren’t interesting enough to carry the story on their own, especially with a plot as predictable as this one. Jane was the only character who was actually developed, and even if her narration was interesting, the writing was very dry.
Also, this book dragged. It didn’t need to be 400 pages, which is almost always too much for a contemporary anyway.

One more thing: it’s not this book’s fault, but why is comorbidity never a thing in books about mental illness? It’s common in real life, so…

My rating: ★★½

Weekly

T5W: Bookish Things You’re a Grinch About

Top 5 Wednesday is a goodreads group created by Lainey (gingerreadslainey) and now hosted by Sam (thoughtsontomes). This week’s topic is  Bookish Things You’re a Grinch About.

Since being a grinch is a funny thing, try not to make this serious topics that make you angry (like lack of diversity or abusive relationships in fiction, etc) as this is supposed to be more of a petty bookish things you hate. This can be stuff about covers, dumb tropes, etc. Have fun with it.


The Love Interest is The Most Beautiful

 

The love interest has to be the most perfect, most beautiful being in the whole series, and everyone finds him beautiful. There are usually many gratuitous shirtless scenes. When he meets a group of women, they all giggle and turn to look at him. If there’s a lesbian, she’ll say that “he’s beautiful, but he’s not my type” because everyone has to like that love interests.

Universal beauty doesn’t exist. Just stop.


Soulmates or Fated Lovers

 

I don’t like this trope. I think it cheapens the story, especially if the characters didn’t know each other for a long time. I just really don’t like when authors try to sell me something, including love stories, as perfect.


“Relatable” books

 

With this I mean books that are praised for being “relatable”. I’m wary of them now, and I probably won’t read them, because in my experience “relatable” actually means “really US-centric” and “obsessed with crushes”. Not something I’m interested in reading.


Science Fails

 

I don’t think the science in sci-fi books should be realistic, but your average high schooler shouldn’t notice that the word you’re using doesn’t mean what you think it means. I especially don’t like when authors get taxonomy/binomial nomenclature wrong. It takes just a minute on Wikipedia to fix it, and it reminds me of the time I got into a fight with a teacher because they were convinced pigs were canids. It was not a fun time.


Venice

 

Venice is an overrated tourist trap is, apparently, the only place in Italy that exist. Every Italian-inspired fantasy is set in a magical version of Venice, and there’s usually some kind of criminal organization, because stereotypes.

There’s more to Italy than Venice, and it would be nice to see that in YA books too.


What are some book tropes you find annoying?

Young adult

Low-rated Books I Love

A list of books I rated more than 3 stars whose average rating on goodreads is under 3.60. Inspired by Lala’s video on Booksandlala and by Elise’s post on thebookishactress.


Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea by April Genevieve Tucholke – average rating: 3.5; my rating: 3.5

Unsurprisingly, the list starts with a Tucholke book.

Why is this book on the list if your rating is the average rating? Because it’s a really polarizing one, and I didn’t rate it 3.5 stars because of the common critiques (no plot, unhealthy relationship, etc – which are all true) but because of the exoticization of the Italian culture/characters (that was… gross). Otherwise, a really interesting, twisted book.

The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi – average rating: 3.5; my rating: 5

I didn’t expect this book to be on the list. It’s one of my all-time favorite YA fantasy book. The writing is beautiful, the plot is really original and the world is inspired by Hindu mythology. It’s really weird, lyrical and description-heavy, so I understand that it isn’t for everyone, but it’s just… beautiful. Also, I liked the romance, and that almost never happens.

A Line in the Dark by Malinda Lo – average rating: 3.5; my rating: 4.75

Half dark contemporary, half mystery, this is a really unusual book (which is true for most books on this list). It’s about the twisted friendships and relationships between three lesbians. I think it should be more hyped, I had never read anything similar to this. It’s one of my favorite books of this year.

Mask of Shadows by Linsey Miller – average rating: 3.5; my rating: 3.5

Another fantasy book that is unfairly hated. I totally understand the bad reviews – the worldbuilding is mediocre, and there are some clichés – but I also found it really entertaining. And the bad reviews that said “the main character didn’t need to be genderfluid” are kind of gross.

The Sin Eater’s Daughter by Melinda Salisbury – average rating: 3.4; my rating: 4.5

A quiet, slow, underrated fantasy book. Not for everyone – there’s a love triangle and there’s hardly any action – but I loved the atmosphere and the main character.

Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge by Paul Krueger – average rating: 3.4; my rating: 4

One of the very few new adult books that is not a romance, Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge is about demon-fighting bartenders, and it’s great. Not mind-blowing, maybe, but it’s a really entertaining, quick read.

Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter – average rating: 3.4; my rating: 5

One of my favorite books of all times, Vassa in the Night is a whimsy, macabre, surreal retelling of Vasilisa the Beautiful, set in Brooklyn. Many readers loved it because of the beautiful imagery and writing, many hated it because they didn’t understand what was going on. If you are into darker retellings and Russian fairytales, try this.

If you like the idea of Baba Yaga Stores walking around New York on chicken legs, try this.

Empress of a Thousand Skies by Rhoda Belleza – average rating: 3.3; my rating: 3.5

This was a surprise. Why is this book so hated? As far as YA sci-fi goes, this book is good. It’s fast-paced, fun, and it deals with some really important themes. Yes, the worldbuilding was terrible… just like in every YA sci-fi book ever.

Wink Poppy Midnight by April Genevieve Tucholke – average rating: 3.3; my rating: 4.5

Another Tucholke book! Everything about her books is weird – the writing, the plot, the characters – so I understand why they are not loved. But they’re so atmospheric…

After the Woods by Kim Savage – average rating: 3.2; my rating: 4

And the last book on this list is the first mystery book I’ve ever read. It’s not perfect – the ending was unsatisfying, and there were some spoilery things that bothered me – but the writing (especially the descriptions) were great, the woods were very creepy, and it deals with an unlikable main character in an unhealthy friendship. And I really liked it.


What are your favorite underrated books?