Locker Combinations is a brand new Book Case feature! Using a variety of literary, cultural and educational perspectives, BookPage contributor and young adult (YA) literature expert Jill Ratzan will guest blog about the latest in YA lit and the general direction, trends and changes of the field.
Locker Combinations is a way to "see inside" YA literature. As Jill explains, by opening a locker, "sometimes you find meaningful objects, like photos and mementos. Sometimes you find useful objects, like pens and pencils; informative objects, like your history textbook; or secret objects, like that note your friend slipped between the grates. Sometimes you find gruesome objects, like those gym clothes you've been meaning to take home and wash. And sometimes you find a mirror, where you can see an image of yourself."
In addition to reviewing middle grade and YA books for BookPage, Jill Ratzan reviews for School Library Journal and works as a school librarian at a small independent school. Jill learned most of what she knows about YA literature from her terrific graduate students. Her goals include finishing her Ph.D., learning how to knit socks and convincing her cat to share the couch occasionally. With Locker Combinations, Jill looks forward to interacting with teachers, librarians and YA lit lovers of all ages.
The young adult novel that wasn’t YA
By Jill Ratzan
This month, BookPage asked me to review Susann Cokal’s debut YA novel, The Kingdom of Little Wounds, published by Candlewick. It takes place in a fictional Renaissance-era Scandinavian court where the royal children suffer from a mysterious and grotesque illness. While two teenage girls—one a seamstress, the other a nursemaid and former slave—navigate the various social structures of the palace, other characters—including the King and Queen, their advisers and an ambitious, scheming lord—concoct alliances, trade favors and hide their machinations (and their secrets) under the guise of pomp and ceremony. The narration is interspersed with allegorical fairy tales that suggest intriguing connections to the main plot. As the book’s potential reviewer, I enjoyed the story but didn’t think it was a good fit for our YA section. In fact, I believe that it should not be considered YA at all.
A book has to have more than just teenage characters to qualify as YA lit. It also has to be written in an authentic teenage voice, and it must view the world through authentic teenage eyes. Nick Lake, author of Hostage Three and the 2012 Printz-winning In Darkness, recently described this effect to me using the metaphor of a tunnel. Books for adults that feature young characters, Lake said, act as though they’re outside the tunnel, looking back into childhood. Books for young readers, though, place themselves inside the tunnel, looking out at potential worlds to come.
At its core, YA literature focuses on power and identity. It features “protagonists with a lot of energy but not a lot of power,” as writer Holly Hein once commented on the blog of The Horn Book, a children’s and young adult literary review journal. A similar idea comes from YA lit critic Patty Campbell, who posits that teens in YA lit are actively engaged in discovering their own senses of identity and defining what this means to them. That is, teens in a work of YA lit ask themselves, “Who am I and what am I going to do about it?”
Violence is fine in YA, but should always serve a purpose (think The Hunger Games, where bloody deaths as public spectacle are intended to mock . . . the idea of bloody deaths as public spectacle). Explicit sexuality is fine, too, but should have an educational component—whether about the awkwardness of one’s “first time” (like in Rats Saw God by Rob Thomas, when narrator Steve and his girlfriend fumble through a first sexual encounter), about what being a sexual person feels like (like Norah’s erotically charged feelings of desire for Nick when they’re alone in a hotel ice room in Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan) or even about how to reclaim a sense of self as a survivor of sexual violence (like Melinda does after being raped in Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson).
Most of all, YA lit spotlights characters who strive for the titular phrase of YA author Patrick Ness’ latest offering: Teens in YA books want More Than This . . . and actively struggle to obtain it. Katniss in The Hunger Games challenges the assumptions underlying her society. Melinda in Speak confronts the silence that weighs her down. YA protagonists don’t necessarily have to triumph over adversity, but they do have to try.
The Kingdom of Little Wounds doesn’t match any of these criteria. Teens Ava and Midi narrate some sections, but much of the story is told from the points of view of royalty and courtiers whose voices and perspectives are quite adult. While power games abound at the Skyggehavn court, they occur mainly between characters who already have power. Defining one’s self-identity is rarely if ever on any character’s mind. The violence serves mainly to scintillate, and the sexuality—some of it from the perspective of older adults—emphasizes economic and political aspects that don’t echo familiar teen experiences. And finally, while some characters actively turn a corrupt system to their advantage, most simply go along with the status quo, and none make any attempt to challenge it.
The Kingdom of Little Wounds is a great book. Fans of George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones will relish the courtly intrigue, and readers who like medical history or dark fairy tales will find much to appreciate. It’s just not quite a work of YA literature.
Thanks, Jill! Readers, if you enjoyed Jill's first discussion of YA literature, stay tuned for next month's Locker Combinations!