Magical Educations, Imperial Afflictions, and…um…the Spice Must Flow

One phenomenon which has swept pop culture media as of late is a replacement for the classic “Let’s count down the 10/20/50/100 best examples of something or other of all time!” article as a way of ranking the greatest somethings or other. Instead, websites from Grantland to Vulture have swiped the NCAA Bracket model, picking the 64 greatest songs of the Millennium or television dramas and having readers vote to knock them out one by one until only a single example remains. If the seeding process is even less scientific than the NCAA model (How did they decide to pit The Wire against My So-Called Life in round one?) it’s still no more random than sticking “Tower of Song” one spot ahead of “Waiting for the Miracle” when Flavorwire picked the 79 best Leonard Cohen songs of all time. And allowing the audience to have their say makes it a bit more fun, giving one a reason to care about something arbitrary. The reason for bringing up the subject is that Entertainment Weekly recently did a bracket which I found out about a little too late…okay, just after the Final Four had been cut to the ultimate Two…but I was attracted to right away because it touched a subject dear to my heart, and I think the hearts of my colleagues and our own readers as well.

The 64 Greatest Young Adult Novels of All Time

Naturally, this could not escape some commentary on the level of Alex and I’s dissection of the Sight and Sound poll last year, for even more than cinema, there were books on this list which will forever be associated with key moments of my childhood, my personal growth as a writer, and inspiring thoughts on love, life, the universe, and everything. Douglas Adams does not appear on this list, by the way, though you could argue if any of his work could be defined as young adult, and even then he is NOT the most glaring omission. That being said, quibbling over the reduction of the shelves upon shelves of literature I used to keep in order at Barnes & Noble to a scant 64 titles is not the game I wish to play, especially because the field got one very important thing correct right away, and which made this bracket a worthwhile endeavor.

This importance lies with a major venture of my middle and high school career: the Youngstown State University English Festival. We would be assigned seven YA books a year to read, report on, compose essays about, and ultimately we would spend a day on the YSU campus hearing lectures by the authors, competing in contests and workshops, and winning prizes. It was a fun experience, but even then I was able to distinguish between two poles of YA Lit.

One end of this spectrum was the type of book which dominated the fiction section at my middle and high school libraries in a predominantly white and Christian town, what for the sake of simplicity I would refer to as the “problem novel.” This type of book has its roots in the finest pure children’s literature—the world of picture books and fairy tales—in which the first stories we tell our developing minds are simple to grasp, with the morality and complexity as black and white as a great film noir.  The problem novel may be in chapters without illustrations and concern itself with teenagers and more sophisticated language and plotting, but at its heart it is still a black and white tale in which choices are clearly defined and issues are resolved in ways which spell out in no uncertain terms what the reader needs to take from the story. Family issues, illnesses, destructive choices involving drugs and alcohol, social problems, all of these are presented in neatly-wrapped, almost preachy tales with positive endings no matter how drastic things get. These books quickly grew to irritate me because I could see the ending coming on page 60 out of 300 and the same types of characters seemed to show up over and over again. The ultimate practitioner of these, and take that as a compliment or not, was Chris Crutcher, an author who seemed hell-bent on cramming every single issue facing mankind into his books, to the point where reading one title became an exhausting chore as you switched from racism to developmental disability to domestic violence to environmentalism chapter by chapter in the same frigging story! (Pardon my resorting to high-school era language.) Incidentally, he was one of the most popular writers to grace the YSU English Festival line-ups.

But there were also novels which did not present problems as easily surmountable with a little effort and leaving few, if any, scars on an otherwise bright future. These were, I would learn as I grew older and dove into more and more stories, books written to approach and sometimes equal the quality of adult literature with no young about it, less explicit in some ways but just as complex in their themes and populate not by caricatures but people who acted much like my classmates in high school. Above all, while the problem novel was akin to a lecture, a dialectic illustration, these novels treated the reader with respect, determined to tell the truth from all sides and not simply the sides which showed something at its best or worse. To take one more selection from YSU, I vividly remember reading Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, sitting in my backyard on a cool spring day and not wanting to come in, engrossed by the poetic, swirling, very real journey through the mind and soul of a girl dealing with personal trauma.

Not only did Speak make the field of 64, but also it was the rule and not the exception, as works of similarly pure realism and truly imaginative sagas of meaningful adventure (The Hunger Games trilogy in its mix of thrills, sci-fi, and thoughtful ideas) filled the bracket. The closest thing to the problem novel was Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War, a book which allows the “villains” to triumph while making it perfectly clear how despicable they and the society they perpetrate are. This is not to put down Cormier (also a YSU favorite) but to show how his work swings closer to the Crutcher end of things more than any other included title. My one gripe about what DID make the field—I told you there would be some—is a lack of high fantasy. The Princess Bride appears, as does Robin McKinley’s Beauty and another book we’re going to get to in a few paragraphs, but a lack of Tamora Pierce, Diana Wynne Jones, Jeff Smith, and Lloyd Alexander is a bit shocking to say the least. However, I write this as someone who came of age during a certain period. I had not even heard of some books on this list, and a little research revealed stories such as Between Shades of Gray (Ruta Sepetys’s novel of Lithuanian life under Stalin, with no BDSM involved), sounded inspiring and intriguing, just what a young adult novel should be in the end in equal parts. Indeed, I would say that these two qualities are what the field of 64 all have in common. For a body and mind in their formative years, these books offer ideas one probably never thought of before, and are well written and entertaining enough to hook one on reading.

Speaking of quibbles, it was upsetting to see that Speak was knocked out in the very first round—by Steven Chboksy’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which would end up in the Final Four before falling, so at least it lost to the best. And the early omissions of Speak, Jerry Spinelli’s lovely nonconformist tale Stargirl, and Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet (that minimalist visceral masterpiece of survival, which drew Ender’s Game and lost—Ender’s Game would further eliminate Sandra Cisneros’s startlingly direct, witty, warm The House on Mango Street before falling in the Sweet Sixteen, the limit to which we can praise the book without thinking too much on Orson Scott Card’s proclivities) were more than made up for by a masterstroke I didn’t expect. The ROMANCES in all caps that were the bane of my existence in my bookselling days, the Twilight saga, also made a swift departure. As the years go on, it seems, we realize more and more that Stephenie Meyer was a poor writer who draped her prose in the most excessive melodrama and in Bella Swan created the most unlikable heroine to be found in a publishing/cinematic juggernaut.

There were two especially interesting draws in round one: one of which I’ll again get to momentarily, but the other matched two religious-supernatural epics against each other, an interesting move as perhaps no two other initial combatants could claim an adjective similarity like that. And since one is ponderous and endless and the other still conjures up a sense of wonder, of leaving the everyday world behind for an amazingly plausible trip into scientific fantasy, I was happy to see Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time (and its sequels) put away Frank Herbert’s Dune. (But is Dune a proper “young adult” novel? And on a similar note, is any category appropriate for Richard Adams’s Watership Down? This seems to be stretching the point.)

You know…for kids! (Sorry, but I cannot resist the urge to put one of the most unintentionally hilarious sci-fi moments ever in when I can.)

I was also happy to see two works of graphic narrative included in the field, memoir comics at that, and while Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese also was among the first to fall (though to Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief, which I still haven’t read but my mother assures me will slay me emotionally), Craig Thompson’s Blankets, a seminal influence on my own storytelling and more importantly one of the most perfect stories of first love ever set down, and drawn with the artistry of a Michelangelo at that, survived only to face the strangest match in the entire bracket. The graphic novel took on the free verse poetry narrative of Ellen Hopkins and her Crank trilogy, centered around a crystal meth addict and her children, each one 600 pages long and full of futility and the most horrific sides of life (I remember them on the shelf at Barnes & Noble, these thick, oppressive monsters of novels, flipping open pages and seeing relentless descriptions of suffering, but done with more heart, artistry, and uncertainty than the problem novel). Crank won out, but the mere presence of Blankets was enough to make me metaphorically stand up and cheer that there was one more way for comics to be recognized as literature.

Now we erase the last image.

And speaking of Literature-with-a-capital-L, the focus on the modern definition of the young adult novel did not preclude the inclusion of many books from the 19th and early 20th centuries, books that featured teen (or preteen) protagonists who still resonate with readers today because while the specific experiences of youth change with time, the feelings of maturation and the struggles we undergo along the way remain remarkably constant.

I was surprised along these lines that the one Judy Blume title to be included was not Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. But there were spots reserved for books our parents read and, in some cases, our grandparents and great-grandparents read and passed down to us, with lessons of freedom and intelligence in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the dreamy proto-girl power of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, the spirited instructional manual (because that’s what it is, a series of life lessons dressed up in a sparkling narrative with four magnificently drawn central figures) of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, and, gloriously, J.R.R.’s The Hobbit advancing to the Sweet Sixteen and removing J.D.’s The Catcher in the Rye in the process. This may be the most blasphemous statement I’ll ever utter on the Addison Recorder, but the immortality of The Catcher in the Rye is a total mystery to me. Admittedly, J. D. Salinger was a master stylist, but Holden Caulfield’s odd journey to self-non-discovery has always left me cold. The characters are all unsympathetic and the themes of alienation and identity are alternatively drummed on too heavily or lost in Salinger’s obsessive description of things, which is entertaining, but…when other novelists pile on description, they do so with a point. Salinger never seems to have a point. I compare it even more unfavorably to John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s most natural narrative, the work of a storyteller among storytellers, the world he created bursting into exuberant life and, as my great partner Kate once told me, hinting at even more magic and spectacular things beyond the glimpse we see of Middle-Earth, all accompanied by unforgettable characters and a nice, subtly handled inspirational theme—if Bilbo Baggins can make it through the Desolation of Smaug and back, what are we Men (and Women) capable of?

I take you over Holden any day.

Hobbit v. Rye was nothing, however, compared to the most devastatingly tough draw of the first round. Kill v. Peace I call it. Two books I think all of us read at some point during middle or high school, John Knowles’s A Separate Peace and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Published in 1959 and 1960, these are arguably the key bildungsroman texts for American youth: timeless, emotional, sanitized enough in storytelling to be acceptable to a mass young audience, but still uncompromising in their tales of personal and social folly, heartbreak, and maturation. Knowles and Lee both had gifts of flowing style, creating memorable characters, and never overwriting, and quite simply their books both deserve their perpetual spots on the shelves. I read them both and still vividly recollect passages from each, and am sure I’m not alone. Thus, another factor has to tip the balance, and To Kill a Mockingbird has the advantage of one of the only film adaptations to be as great, if not better, than the novel itself. A Separate Peace had two poor films made thirty years apart, though it needed neither, but again, I’m convinced there are a lot more people like me who get chills, lumps in the throat, and tears when Gregory Peck (as the character the AFI picked as the best hero in cinema history) leaves the courtroom after the trial, a moment Lee did not wring as much power from as Horton Foote did but which only could have come from her writing, her characters, how they behaved and lived. This double-shot carried Mockingbird all the way to the Final Four along with Wallflower, where both finally met their defeat against what, in my final opinion, may have truly been the two best books in the whole field.

Mockingbird fell to the work which further bested Holes, The Giver, Ender’s Game, and The Princess Bride, seven really damn long books about a young kid studying magic written by Robert Galbraith, that’s the name, right? I don’t know…

No, they’re the books I read in eight days total over the span of their publication, unable to put them down. Joanne Kathleen Rowling’s saga of Harry Potter, treated as the single narrative it is. And if, our dear readers, you cry foul at the idea of an entire series pitted against single books, its opponent in the Final was a 313-page work which defeated THREE series: Divergent, The Maze Runner, and in a decisive 70-30 triumph, The Hunger Games itself before eliminating Wallflower. Said book was John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars.

I feel that I really don’t need to say much about Harry Potter, but I am still going to because after what I say about The Fault in Our Stars some words in praise of Hogwarts might seem necessary. Travis is the reason for my picking up the book, due to a short reaction he posted on Facebook this summer which was similar to how Alex reacted to Gravity on this site—so affected anyone who knew him well could viscerally feel his emotions. That was enough for me, and once it finally arrived after a long CPL hold, I found he had perhaps understated the case. The Fault in Our Stars, like Tolstoy’s novels, Vanity Fair, and The Importance of Being Earnest, is one of those perfect-or-close-enough works of literature, where every sentence is a diamond and connects to its brethren with thoughtful clarity. It is written with genuine humor, and I lost count of how many times I burst into laughter, but even more, it is filled with beautiful insight into the human soul and tells its dramatic main plot so plausibly, so honestly, so well-tuned that it was impossible not to cry, and keep crying, during the final third of the story. The tale is exceptionally plotted, the twists, like so many good twists, come at you by surprise and yet feel expected with the force of cosmic inevitability once you read the paragraphs where they occur, and…I rarely fall in love with characters. I appreciate and identify with them, with Pierre and Natasha, with Palliser, with Thomas Cromwell, but rarely do I feel a profound interest and knowability in a character. Hazel and Gus fulfill this strange and beautiful quality for me.

And above all, this is a book which I think fulfills a main goal of young adult literature, to get the developing reader hooked on reading for life, to make them wonder if the next book they pick up could be just as great knowing that this greatness exists.

I have to add on a personal note that John Green—who studied at the University of Chicago to be an Episcopal minister before turning to what was clearly his true calling, although he would have made an extraordinary priest—also wrote a work which dovetails perfectly with 21st-century culture, particularly the culture of “geekdom” and yet seems extraordinarily timeless. To call upon my aforementioned examples, Tolstoy and Thackeray filling their works with references to names, places, and cultural artifacts of the Napoleonic era does not keep War and Peace and Vanity Fair from saying anything less, less meaningful, or still relevant about the human condition, and similarly Green’s judicious calling on Natalie Portman, 300, Amsterdam, and rap music, particularly in the ‘I cannot stress this enough’ moment which is one of the best of the book, does not and will never alter his meditation on the nature of our existence and ultimate lack thereof.

(Also, the movie will be released next summer by 20th Century-Fox, and I would love to collaborate on a further piece with Mr. Cook about its merits at that point, because I have a suspicion it could translate to film as well as Mockingbird did.)

But having pretty much ranked The Fault in Our Stars on a level close to that of the writer whose work Green took the tile from, I can’t allow my scrupulously fair soul to put it head and shoulders above J. K. Rowling. Again, I read every Harry Potter novel in a single day except for The Deathly Hallows, which took me two because of its length and the need to linger over the best chapters as she brought everything to a resolution, which as we’ve seen from many examples in literature and television as of late is an incredibly hard thing to do. Not every book is perfect, especially The Goblet of Fire, which sacrificed interesting ideas to her clunkiest writing and scenes so interminable as to be skippable, but taken as a whole, one cannot overlook how Rowling developed her world novel by novel until every inch of her Britain seemed as real as the streets of London I myself walked on—the good reader knows every corner of Hogwarts, the layout of Hogsmeade, and the nature of the wizarding society by the time it ends. She not only respected the reader but allowed the books and reader to grow together—the books begin with fun adventures and childish wonder, go through adolescent growing pains, and end with the difficult decisions and maturation experiences, not to mention loves, of people who are basically young adults. Every book wrapped itself up nicely and naturally continued into the next, with nothing coming out of nowhere. And her characters—how many heroes in post-Greek/Roman pic and myth compare to Harry Potter? A figure who grows up, learns important lessons and uses them in his triumph, is not always likable (a great move on her part—Harry being seriously irritating in Goblet and The Order of the Phoenix kept him from the unnatural paragon state of other fantasy heroes but was balanced out enough so he wouldn’t be as much a schlub as Rand’al Thor) but is always empathetic, and fights battle after battle without ever feeling certain he will win but charging in anyway. And that galaxy of supporting characters…Charles Dickens was the master of developing figures who epitomize a single personality note, and Rowling follows in this tradition while maintaining a Trollopian well-roundedness. Have there been better friends and lifelong companions than Ron and Hermoine, a greater mentor, fallible but inspiring, than Dumbledore, a more surprising tragic hero than Snape? These names have become part of the cultural landscape for all time, and if Green’s Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus Waters, to say nothing of Scout and Bilbo Baggins and Katniss Everdeen and Craig and Raina and Huckleberry Finn and Anne of Green Gables and Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, if they are more relatable to us, it’s only because, even in Bilbo’s case, they don’t have magical powers, and even than Harry and his friends, from rumbling Hagrid to loony pixie dream girl Luna Lovegood, are still so human and real to us, still role models despite the grand fantasy.

So of course Harry Potter came out on top. John Green himself, while poking gentle fun at the ridiculousness of the bracket idea, wrote on his tumblr that he voted for Rowling’s epic because in his own words, “{she} is one of the central reasons that my career even exists.”

Which leads me to my final point. Yes, the bracket is silly in its concept, but in reading Entertainment Weekly’s rundown of why each book made the cut and seeing how many people weighed in, one cannot deny that there is something important which struck a chord with so many in the world of young adult literature. Our generations, the generations of YSU and beyond, were not the first to receive serious, informed, respectful literature designed for our audience, but we may have been the first to elevate it to a rank above the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew and boys’ own adventures and recognize that we were being given, and deserved, a higher caliber, and that Twain, Montgomery, Tolkien, and Lee and other forbears also recognized this and created work which endures, entertains, and inspires. Trends in literature come and go, so I hope this is not a trend but something integral, and that we will have ambitious generational epics and star-crossed romances until the end of time.

(And if myself and my colleagues can contribute to this vein, so much the better.)

Andrew Rostan

Andrew Rostan

Andrew Rostan's first graphic novel, "An Elegy for Amelia Johnson," was named one of the best comics of 2011 by USA Today. His second book will be published by Archaia/Boom! Studios in 2015. When not telling fictional stories, he enjoys nothing more than conversing with his fellow Recorder members and the rest of the world.

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