Jan 21, 2010

The Unsung Heroes of YA

The Unsung Heroes of YA

Kelly at YAnnabe, who is very awesome and full of excellent ideas, intrigued me recently when she asked bloggers who enjoy reading Young Adult literature to contact her about a Secret Project. This secret project, it turns out, is to devote a day to posting about our favourite obscure YA titles: those books that just don’t seem to get the love they deserve. Here’s what Kelly has to say:
I teamed up with about 40 other bloggers to pick our favorite unsung YA heroes. These are YA books we love and think deserve more attention from the world of YA readers.
But how are we achieving this?
  • Today and tomorrow, you’ll find our picks on our blogs. Check out our lists! We bet you’ll find a few new-to-you titles you’re interested in reading. But we’re also secretly hoping you’ll think about your own unsung YA heroes and put together your own list. Because we’d really like to see it so we can read your favorites too. You’ll find links to all the lists and instructions for making your own at the end of this post.
  • Tomorrow, check back on my blog for a round-up uber-list of the titles that were most common across all our Unsung YA Heroes picks.
  • If you’re on Twitter, you can follow all the Unsung YA Heroes scuttlebutt by watching the #unsungYA tag.
One thing that the books I’m about to highlight have in common is the fact that they all illustrate an often overlooked fact about YA: YA (and children’s lit) is not a dumbed-down, simplified version of adult fiction. It’s also not a genre, but a marketing category. Not only does it cover every genre, but there are books that are published as adult fiction in some markets and as YA in others. If this doesn’t tell you that it’s not the content, tone or level of complexity of a book that determines where it gets placed in the bookshop, I don’t know what will.

YA is very much not something I turn to when I want books that will allow me to “turn my brain off”. What it is is a somewhat arbitrary label applied to books that are mostly about young people and that have as much to say about what it means to be human as any others. These were all books that moved me, challenged me, made me think, and made me feel that my life was richer for having read them. But on to the books:

a cool moonlight by Angela Johnson probably qualifies as MG fiction, but that doesn’t really matter, right? What matters is that I, an adult reader, found plenty to love here. Here’s what I said when I reviewed this book a few months ago: My favourite thing about a cool moonlight was seeing Lila grow more and more comfortable in her own skin. By the end of the book, she has stopped daydreaming of becoming “normal” and is beginning to learn to accept herself. She knows she'll never play in the sunlight, but she realizes there's still a lot to enjoy about her life. I also loved Lila’s family. There were so many moments of quiet tenderness in this book.

Wolf by Gillian Cross seems to have become somewhat obscure even though it’s a Carnegie Medal winner – which is a pity, as Wolf is a smart and riveting story about a young girl dealing with the consequences of violence. It’s also about fear, about our relationship with wolves, about non-traditional families, about the IRA, and about human nature. It more than deserves to be rediscovered by a new generation of readers.

Swan Sister, edited by Terry Windling and Ellen Datlow, is one of my very favourite anthologies of fairy tale retellings. Contributors include Neil Gaiman, Jane Yolen, Gregory Frost, Tanith Lee and Midori Snyder, just to name a few. The stories are all very different, and they're all original and beautifully written. The title story, my favourite in the book, moved me to tears.

The Savage by David Almond and Dave McKean is a book whose presence on the list Kelly sent me (a list of books owned by fewer than 500 LibraryThing users) surprised me, since both the author and the illustrator are pretty big names. But then again, you don’t hear as much about The Savage as you do about Skellig—and it's just as good. It’s the story of a boy dealing with the loss of his father and who begins to write a story. One day, the line between his life and his story begins to blur... What follows is a wonderfully illustrated novella about the power of fiction and about surviving grief.

Finally, Black Maria by Diana Wynne Jones is my favourite of the lot. I really do wish more people would read it, as it’s one of my very favourite DWJ books to date. And what is it about, you ask? Witches! Time travel! Gender stereotypes, the silliness thereof! Grumpy relatives! Small seaside towns! All nicely wrapped up in Diana Wynne Jones' customary warmth, humour and wisdom.

Click the links for my full reviews of these books, and don’t forget to visit Kelly for the link-round up and master list tomorrow. Also, remember it’s still not too late to tells us about your own obscure favourites! One of my favourite things about blogging is how bloggers recommend great books to one another all the time, but a potential pitfall of this is that we run the risk of winding up reading from the same small-ish list of books. So make sure you show your overlooked favourites some love.


  1. Thank you so much for this post and for reminding me that YA is not literature that has been dumbed down in any sort of way. And you are right that books are marketed in different ways depending on the marketplace. I love reading YA appreciate the recommendations for some that I might not find otherwise. I know that Wolf is already on my TBR list. I can't remember which blogger wrote about it but I was intrigued by her review.

  2. I <3 DWJ, she's so incredibly awesome! I haven't read Black Maria, and I don't think I've even seen it at the bookstore. I'm going to have to go hunting for a copy now, as I love a good witchy tale!

  3. I've been looking for A Cool Midnight forever, and recently it just came up on Paperback Swap. Now I"m just waiting for a point and I hope that the book will still be there for me when I get one!

  4. btw, do you think anyone would mind if I put up my own list, even though I didn't hear about this project until today?

  5. Kathleen: Generalisations about YA really sadden me. Well, about any type of book, really. There are so many gems out there!

    Bella, I <3 her too! I think this one was published as Aunt Maria in America, so you might have to look for that.

    Amanda, not at all! Kelly said she was hoping more people would join in :) The more the merrier!

  6. Cool! Maybe I'll do this in my Salon post this week. :)

  7. There is certainly some YA that I turn to when I want to turn my brain off, but there's plenty of adult fiction that fits that description too!

    I do need to read more DWJ - I've enjoyed the few books of hers that I've read, but I just need to get my hands on more of it.

  8. What a great list! I love Diana Wynne Jones, but have never read Black Maria - I'll have to remedy that straight away!

  9. Thanks so much for this list! They're all new to me.

  10. Ah, I hate that "YA is dumbed down" myth. Some of my favorite, most wise and most profound books are marketed as YA. People who avoid YA just because it's called YA are missing many good reads - as all these lists today prove!

  11. I think it's a really, really unfortunate marketing category. I don't even get it, how they decide. But I sure know plenty of people who refuse to read a book because of it!

  12. Good for you on standing up for YA! :)

    And you reminded me that me saying "I'm not a huge fan of YA" is kind of obnoxious. lol *slaps self on hand* I *should* be saying "I'm not usually in the mood for a teenage protagonist." Which is still kind of mean, but true lately! I think I OD'ed on them last year. Perhaps in another couple months, I'll get back into them. :)

  13. I loved Black Maria! Read it in high school, but I still remember it well. I haven't read the rest of your list though, so I'll have to check them out :)

    I just made my own list on my LJ - I can't believe some of the titles that turned up!


  14. How exciting! YA is something I've only recently started to read (probably because my daughter is getting to that age). The first thing I noticed was that some of the YA books ARE dumbed down, which offends me. Then when you read some of the wonderful examples of true YA literature out there, it is like the clouds part. I've not heard of any of the books you listed, but I'm definitely going to check them out!

  15. Thanks for your insightful comments about what YA is and isn't! It's nice to read someone who really gets it! I just brought Angela Johnson's first part last home and cant wait to dive into it.

  16. I've really got to read some more DWJ. A TALE OF TIME CITY was one of my favourite books when I was younger, but it's been years since I sat down with her. BLACK MARIA sounds like a good place to start (or restart, as the case may be).

  17. Thank you for the list, Nymeth! You can bet I'm going to check them out and adding to my wishlist! ;)

  18. I feel like I have to defend YA all the time IRL. Great points.

    And a great list that made me want to read all the titles!

    But the best part of this whole post?

    "Kelly at YAnnabe, who is very awesome and full of excellent ideas" -- Nymeth

    I am going to get that printed on a t-shirt and wear it everywhere.

  19. Heh...I already had pretty much all of those on my wishlist because of you :p I've been actually really wanting Swan Sister for so long!! Is that the one where all the proceeds went to child abuse victims? I really need to get that one!

  20. I'm not usually into retellings of fairy tales, but Wolf definitely has me intrigued. I may just have to give it a try.

  21. I haven't read any of these, although a couple are on my wishlist. Guess they all are now!!

    I have not read anything by DWJ. I don't know why either. Heard such good things about her. Must change this!!

    Thanks for adding more books to my list...again. (just a little sarcasm this time. LOL!)

  22. Black Maria? Really, that's a favorite for you? Huh. Though actually I think I only read it once or twice, and it's been a while - well, hey, I'm in the mood for DWJ rereads, so Black Maria will have to be next. :)

  23. Swan Sister sounds irrestistible - it's on the wishlist - retellings and original fairy tales and myths and legends are my current obsession. I must read some more DWJ too.

  24. Oh Ana, what you wrote about YA fiction was just so incredibly awesome!!!

    Sad fact: Every one of the books on your list is on my TBR list (4 out of 5 put there by you--Annie just happened to get there first with Wolf ;) ), but being on my TBR list, of course, means that I haven't read a single one yet. Then again, I guess I could overlook my failings in not having gotten them read yet, and look at the bright side--knowing that I have these five great books waiting for me, right?

  25. I do happen to read a fair amount of books that fall into the YA category. I do like these books and yes...it is not a genre AND the line to as if the books is YA, Adult or even Middle-Grade can be a bit hazy at times.

    Thanks for posting your books. I put two of them on my to-read list.

  26. Amanda: Do! :)

    Fyrefly: Exactly! Of course there's some YA that has less depth, but the proportion shouldn't be any different front adult fiction.

    Belle: You do! Like I was telling Bella, though, you might have to look for Aunt Maria.

    Kathy: I hope you enjoy them if you decide to give them a go :)

    Lenore: yay! Enjoy :)

    Megan: Exactly. Their loss :P

    Jill: I can see the upper side of categorization too, though, just when it comes to shelving in libraries and bookshops, directing readers who are looking for something in particular to the right place, etc. It's too bad some readers won't realise it really says nothing about content!

    Eva: I don't think you sound obnoxious :) We all make generalisations sometimes.

    Marisa: yay, another Black Maria fan! Off to check out your list.

    Sandy: I agree that some are, but like Fyrefly was saying, so are some adult books! The best authors are those who give credit to their reader's intelligence, regardless of age.

    The Brain Lair: Oooh, I read that last summer and it was amazing!

    Memory: It would be a great place to restart, yes!

    Melody: Glad to hear it :P

    Kelly: lol! I only speak the truth :D

    Chris: You know, I'd forgotten about that, but yes!

    Ali: The Little Red Riding Hood elements of Wolf are pretty subtle, though. It's definitely not your ordinary fairy tale retelling!

    Stephanie: You must change that, yes! She's one of my absolute favourite authors.

  27. I'm really intrigued by A cool Moonlight and by Wolf. I must have missed those reviews of yours.
    Also, ever since loving Fire and Hemlock, I've wanted to read more Diana Wynne Jones. Black Maria sounds amazing!

  28. I think I can come up with my own list of not-so-famous good YA books, too :)

  29. I actually liked The Savage a little more than Skellig-- probably because I'm such a big fan of Dave McKean's art. :D

    I HAVE been wanting to see the Skellig movie, however! It's got Tim Roth in it as Skellig. Have you seen it?

  30. Jenny: Ha, most other DWJ ask me "really?" and give me puzzled looks :P But I just love that one to bits!

    Annabel: They're a bit of an obsession of mine as well!

    Debi: Right :D Gotta look on the bright side ;)

    Deanna: I completely agree that it's hazy. I wish people wouldn't avoid YA just because of the label.

    Valentina, I think you'd love Black Maria!

    Alessandra, I'm sure you can! I'd love to see yours :)

    Anastasia: Isn't the art just the coolest thing? I love McKean! I haven't seen the Skellig movie yet, but I've heard good things about it.

  31. I enjoyed THE SAVAGE and BLACK MARIA, too! Great post and a great idea all around. :)

  32. I haven't read Black Mariah in forever! I remember it seemed different from Jones' other books (darker?), and she wrote something somewhere about Mariah being one of her most disturbing drawn-from-life characters. I wonder if that is why it is unsung?

    It sounds like you hit a good nerve for a lot of people with this post. I had never heard of the "MG" category and had to look up the acronym. Oh dear! I'm resistant to the idea of yet another demarcation, probably because I do think that YA is a valid genre: a marketing strategy that evolved into a real genre once people started writing books with the convenience of the marketers in mind! That hasn't been an entirely bad thing, but I feel publishers (and libraries) are already ghettoizing certain age groups to the detriment literature at large. I was thinking about this stuff when I wrote a review of Patricia Wrede's The Thirteenth Child a few days ago. (Yup. I've jumped on the book blogging bandwagon, but it doesn't seem to have made my comments any shorter!)

  33. Thanks for the list, I love YA and I'm always looking for good books to read.


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