In our monthly Locker Combinations 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.
Spoiler alert: This month's Locker Combinations hints at the endings of several books, including Allegiant by Veronica Roth and Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick. But Jill doesn't give too much away—we promise!
A controversy is currently swirling around Allegiant by Veronica Roth, the final volume of the YA dystopian trilogy that began with Divergent. At the risk of a spoiler, Allegiant's ending is not what many readers expected. The cultural news website Flavorwire quotes an Amazon reviewer, who writes, “as a school librarian, I won’t be recommending this series to my students any longer. The thing about YA dystopian fiction is that it always leaves the readers with a sense of hope.” When this reviewer (according to her report) confronted Roth at a book signing, Roth allegedly replied unapologetically, “Maybe you should go get some ice cream or something so you can feel better.”
The larger question here makes an interesting discussion topic: Does some “rule” require all works of YA literature to end on a hopeful note?
In 1974, Robert Cormier wrote The Chocolate War, a brutal, unforgiving story about a lone teenage boy trying—but failing—to stand up to bullies during his high school’s annual chocolate sale. Cormier had difficulty selling the novel and was encouraged to change its “downbeat” resolution to better match “stories with role-model heroes walking off into the sunset of happy endings,” according to his introduction to the book’s 1997 reissue. He can hardly be accused of violating any “rules” of YA literature, though, since the category itself was new at the time; Cormier’s work helped to set the rules.
The decades that followed saw YA books that took a variety of approaches to the topic of hope, and sometimes reflected these approaches in their titles. In Homecoming by Cynthia Voigt (1981), Dicey Tillerman and her siblings achieve the titular event only after a series of missteps, false starts and dashed hopes.
The similarly upbeat title of Virginia Euwer Wolff’s 1993 novel-in-verse Make Lemonade immediately suggests the positive way its characters will react when life hands them “lemons” like poverty and teen motherhood.
And the title of Hope Was Here by Joan Bauer (2000) turns out to be true in many ways for its itinerant teen waitress protagonist . . . even if loss was “here,” too.
Contemporary YA books address the supposed “hope rule” in multiple ways. In Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick, the closer the story moves to a violent ending, the stronger a parallel thread about future possibilities becomes. Even if the crisis at hand is resolved, though, fixing the problems that led to it in the first place may be more complicated. It's so daunting as to be nearly hopeless.
And in Laini Taylor’s dark fantasy Daughter of Smoke and Bone, protagonist Karou (whose name means “hope” in the language of her otherworldly family) is repeatedly told that hope is stronger than angels and more potent than magical wishes. But, as she wonders later in the book, at what point do ignorance, jealousy and the desire for revenge outweigh hope’s power?
In what might be the ultimate test of the YA lit “hope rule,” both protagonists in John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars begin the book already diagnosed with cancer. Unlike the cheery-sounding Homecoming, Make Lemonade and Hope Was Here, the title of The Fault in Our Stars quickly establishes a subtle, nuanced perspective. (The characters know the famous line from Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar—“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves”—and consider it to be hogwash.) There are no victories to be won in The Fault in Our Stars, only battles to be lost on one’s own terms. Does this constitute “hope”?
And finally, a second look at The Chocolate War suggests that maybe the ending isn’t so hopeless after all. Betty Carter and Karen Harris, writing in the spring 1980 issue of Top of the News, a professional library journal of the time, argue that readers should bring their own hope to Cormier’s grim tale. “The reason Jerry was not saved was because he stood alone,” they write. “The boys at Trinity [High School] could have come to Jerry’s defense, if they had not lacked courage.” That is, Cormier’s “downbeat” conclusion challenges readers to be better than his characters, and to make the real world a more hopeful place than his imagined one.
So is there a rule saying that all YA books require some measure of hope? The answer is probably something indeterminate like “maybe, but . . . ” Teen readers are smart enough to know that the outside world is sometimes messy and confusing. YA lit that acknowledges this reality respects the intelligence of its readers . . . and this degree of respect may be the most hopeful quality of all.