Once upon a time, I was an enthusiastic reader of young adult fiction. I was reading in the genre just before the Harry Potter craze hit, and associated it with the best kind of escapism and reading joy. Though the choices available to YA enthusiasts at the time were somewhat limited, especially when compared to the choices available today, most of them were actually very good. To be sure, one would stumble across a few duds every now and again, but even those duds had their own merits.
Things are different now. Ever since Harry Potter and then The Hunger Games gave YA the cachet it now enjoys, the genre now occupies more shelves at my local bookstore than it used to, and there are more choices available to me than ever before. However, despite this embarrassment of riches, I have become disillusioned with the genre as a whole. The stories no longer enthral me as they used to. At best, they bore me. At worst, they make me angry, because I stare at the shelves now and wonder when in the world did this genre I used to love descend into a quagmire of brainless drivel, where badly-written characters move in poorly-plotted stories set in weakly-created worlds. And do not even get me started on the quality of the romances, or we may well be here all day.
At this point, I realise that I sound very much like an old woman whining about the kids on her lawn trampling her petunias, and I am entirely willing to embrace that description – except I am not the only one who feels that way about the genre. Readers younger than myself – the ones who would be considered part of YA’s target readership – have expressed their own feelings of disillusionment and weariness with the genre, echoing my own complaints about cookie-cutter characterisation, uncreative concepts, and repetitive romantic plots. Most of the time, I just tell them that they have “outgrown” YA, that in their new phase of readership they might want to start reading more “grown-up” books.
Except I also know that that’s not true – especially since I, myself, do not quite believe that I have “outgrown” YA. Though my preferences now preclude entire swathes of the genre due to the reasons I have mentioned above, the truth is that I still hang on to a few precious YA books, because I am unwilling to just give up on YA as a whole. There are still gems hidden amidst the dross; it’s just that finding the gems is much harder now than it was before because there is so much more dross to sift through. But when I reread a YA book that I enjoy, or, in those vanishingly rare moments, find a new series to enjoy, my dimming faith in YA flares to life again, and I hold out hope that one day, someday, the genre will improve, and I will have reason to come home again.
In the meantime, here are five YA series that continue to keep my enthusiasm for YA alive, and which may help keep that same enthusiasm alive in readers who have become disillusioned with the genre.
01. Discworld Series – Terry Pratchett
While the Tiffany Aching books are often marketed as the “Discworld children’s/YA series,” that is only because they are the ones that most conform the the general formula established by the publishing industry for YA. In truth, the entirety of Pratchett’s Discworld series, while not always considered YA, is eminently suitable for readers of the genre. The language is uncomplicated, but the themes, characterisations, and humour are extremely sophisticated without being overly difficult to understand.
But what really makes the Discworld books stellar examples of YA – for that matter, enduring examples of YA – is that though they are best read when one is a teenager, they continue to be important and influential for many readers well into adulthood. There are fans who picked up the books as young as nine or ten and still enjoy them as much in their later years as fans who came to the series later on in their lives (as I did). All of those readers, whether they came early or late to Pratchett’s books, say the same thing: that reading Discworld made them better people, and more importantly, continues to make them better people as they read and reread the books. These are the hallmarks, not only of a truly good book, but of a classic, and I am certain that the Discworld books will hold up better against the tide of time than any of the current YA series du jour on shelves today.
02. Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
Tell me if this sounds familiar: the female protagonist believes herself to be entirely ordinary: not ugly, but not pretty either, and so thinks she is doomed to live an ordinary life forever. But then a young man (or men) swoops into her life, and while there is trouble along the way, she handily solves any and all problems thrown her way – up to and including the collapse of her society and/or the world itself – and finds true love in the bargain.
If the above rings a few bells (or more than a few), it might be because it is the basic plot of practically half the YA books currently available. Though my tone might imply that I disapprove of the plot, the truth is, I don’t – I happen to like the plot, as a matter of fact, but only if it is executed well. Unfortunately, the YA books that do use this plot structure tend to be written very poorly, with minimal creativity in terms of execution and no redeeming factor in terms of world-building or characterisation.
But then again, it must be said that those writers cannot hold a candle to Diana Wynne Jones, whose wonderful Howl’s Moving Castle was first published in 1986 and was later adapted by Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli into a gorgeous animated film in 2004. The novel follows a similar plot structure to the one I just mentioned, with one notable difference: Sophie finds love with someone else only after she learns to love herself – and she achieves that self-love on her own terms, no boy (or boys) required. In a world where young women find it so very hard to love themselves, I think it behooves YA writers to portray their female protagonists in such a manner that they learn to find love in themselves, before looking for it from someone else. Might spare more of said young women the trials and tribulations of abusive relationships, if that were the case.
03. Young Wizards Series by Diane Duane
Speaking of young women in YA novels: how many of those stories written for the current YA market involve a young woman falling in love by, at most, the first book’s latter third (if a series) or within the first three chapters (if a standalone)? Quite a few, it might be argued: indeed, the reader is often informed, very early on, that the female protagonist is in love with some young gent – in some books she might be agonising over two or more to choose from. What I find problematic, though, is how those stories always seem to ring false because of how quickly the female protagonist appears to realise that she is “in love” with the young man (or men – oh, the drama!) in her life. It is as if these writers did not once read or see a performance of Romeo and Juliet and see why it is vitally important not to get “attraction” and “love” mixed up. Actually, I fear that many of those writers are operating under the egregious error that Romeo and Juliet itself is romantic. (It is not, by the way.)
Fortunately, Diane Duane’s amazing Young Wizards series is very, very different. It takes three books for the suggestion of a romance to crop up, and then it takes another six books for the couple to get together. Since this is a ten-book series (and is still ongoing!), that is a very long slow-burn romance on a scale unparalleled by any of the current YA offerings available on shelves today – except the relationship is not overtly portrayed as romantic, not until the ninth book. But then again, that is unsurprising, since the romance is entirely peripheral to the rest of the story – which, in this case, is only as it should be. In this instance, the snogging appropriately takes a back seat to saving the world – something I wish more YA writers would do.
04. His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman
Love, love, love. So much is made of “love” as a theme in a lot of YA, and for good reason: “love” is extremely important to a huge chunk of YA’s primary readership. Indeed, it might be argued that “love” is what draws much of that readership in to begin with.
But “love” – by which I mean romantic love – is not the end-all or be-all of any story, especially not when it comes to themes. So many of the YA novels currently available make much of “love against all odds”, and while there is so much potential in the idea, a lot of YA writers reduce it to simple and petty dramatics involving love triangles. This is one of my greatest frustrations with the YA genre as it exists today.
Fortunately, I have no such problems with Pullman’s His Dark Materials. Love is a key theme of the trilogy, but it is not just about romantic love. When the trilogy’s central couple tell each other “I love you,” it is possible to interpret the words as romantic, but by the point this happens the reader probably already knows better than to interpret the word “love” in “I love you” as purely romantic. After all, His Dark Materials is about love in all its forms: filial love, platonic love, love of country, love of humanity – all of which are just as valid and important as romantic love. There are no melodramatic love triangles here, that is for certain.
05. The Leviathan Trilogy by Scott Westerfeld, Art by Keith Thompson
Another issue I have with many of the YA novels currently available is the thoughtlessness of their world-building, especially in the novels that fall under science fiction or fantasy. Those two genres, but most especially fantasy, are practically my genre wheelhouses, and I set high standards for any books that claim to fall under either genre (or even both; that can and does happen, after all). I hold YA books to those same standards, but lately, the books I decide to take a peek at have world-building flimsier than a wet paper bag, as if the author did not take the time to really think their setting through – or, worse, lack any originality at all since they are nothing more than a minor reinterpretation of a concept already done in another YA series. I find this insulting as a reader, because if the author can take the time to craft out a romance between the male and female protagonists, then said author can and should devote the same kind of care to crafting their setting.
Thankfully, I have no such problems with Westerfeld’s Levianthan Trilogy. Set in an alternate version of World War I with a steampunk/biopunk twist, Westerfeld’s vision of a Europe divided between “Clankers” (countries that use mechanical machines) and “Darwinists” (countries that use biologically-engineered creatures in place of machines) stands out as one of the finest steampunk interpretations of world history that I have ever read, one that holds up even in comparison to other, non-YA steampunk books. The setting also helps support a cast of characters who are interesting to read about, and offers a strong base for a rip-roaring adventure plot that features its own interesting twists and turns. The story is enhanced by artist Keith Thompson’s gorgeous illustrations, giving the reader a reference point for the fantastical imagery Westerfeld describes throughout the series.
BONUS: An Accident of Stars by Foz Meadows
I am aware that the title says “Five Books”, but I could not miss an opportunity to mention one of my newest favourites: Foz Meadows’ An Accident of Stars. This isn’t strictly YA, but one of the main protagonists is a teenager, and she deals with many of the problems YA protagonists deal with (or are supposed to deal with), such as learning to stand up for what is right, trying to understand her place in a world where she doesn’t automatically fit in, and what it means to make sacrifices for the greater good.
However, unlike so much of the YA that is currently available, what makes this novel special is how it focuses on relationships: not just romantic relationships, but “relationships” in the broadest sense of the word, how relationships make people who they are, for better or for worse. Many YA novels sacrifice platonic relationships in favour of romantic ones; this novel does no such thing. Instead, it portrays friendships as important to, if not more important than, romantic relationships: a solid base upon which to build the deeper, more complex dynamics of a romance. This is something more YA writers could stand to remember when writing friendships – especially friendships that eventually develop into romances.