Suspending Disbelief: Adventures with YA

June 13, 2012 § Leave a comment

Recently, I’ve been reading Young Adult (YA) novels, which have come quite highly recommended, only to find that the stories, which I supect would have captivated me as a teenager, are no longer doing the trick.

Yesterday, I finished Maureen Johnson’s The Name of the Star, which is the first in her Shades of London series. Johnson has quite an online following, many of whom highly recommended the book, so figuring I had nothing to lose, I added it to my list.

How did I find it? In a word, disappointing. About a quarter of the way through the whole tone of the novel changes when the protagonist, Rory discovers she suddenly has a very unusual ability. Without giving too much away, the circumstance by which Rory gains her ability actually made me laugh out loud because of how preposterous it is. And that unbelievability is the problem I had with the book overall. I thought the book was one thing and it became something completely different.

Johnson fearlessly takes readers from what seems like a cool innocent-abroad-with-iPod story to supernatural thriller. (Kirkus Reviews)

I am not adverse to fantasy stories. I do not lack imagination. I can suspend disbelief, but when a writer doesn’t properly pave the way for something as massive as a complete shift in genre, I will not jump on for the ride. Maybe the fact that I wasn’t really taken with any of the characters also had something to do with it.

Now, I’m reading Sloppy Firsts by Megan McCafferty, which is a lot better in terms of giving the narrator a vibrant and compelling voice. The only thing is, I don’t think it’s the voice of a soon-to-be 16 year-old girl. The enviable way Jessica expresses herself is way beyond her years.

Jessica’s expression is attributed to her intelligence; she has a high IQ, which she suspects exceeds her parents’. But still, if you’re going to write about 16 year-olds for young adults from the perspective of someone who is seemingly of that age, why have them tell the story like Carrie Bradshaw? Like The Name of the Star, Sloppy Firsts is also the first book in a series, each book handling a year in Jessica Darling’s life. I suspect that writing style and character fit a lot better by book four.

The “highly intelligent” young narrator has established itself as a trope in my YA reading lately. John Green’s An Abundance of Katherines is told from the perspective of a child prodigy. While this is integral to the story, it also seems a tool, which allows for YA to be written with a very “adult” voice and at the same time, maintain the favoured first person narrative.

All of this got me thinking about what I look for in a book nowadays, and I think it’s honesty. I don’t know if that was so important to me growing up, mostly because when a narrator is identified as older than yourself you assume they’re behaving/writing/speaking/recounting in a realistic way, having no experience to compare it with. But when you surpass that age (and I’m talking specifically about first person storytelling here), and don’t see anything familiar in the behaviour of the character whose perspective is your “in” to the story world, it becomes tricky to engage.

All of that said, I know that I’m no longer the target audience for YA fiction. Maybe I am out of touch. Maybe my reading tastes have diverged and I can’t even be coaxed back for the sake of nostalgia. Who knows?

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