Erin Larson: Book Reviews & Essays

Children’s and Young Adult Literature in 2017 (Pt. 1): Three Mini-Reviews

Children’s and Young Adult Literature in 2017 (Pt. 1): Three Mini-Reviews

Spring 2018

 

Anyone who dares to transcend those fussy demographic delineations when choosing their reading material has likely realized by now that high-quality non-genre adult fiction has been largely nonexistent since the ‘90s; if you want good books, you’ll have to go genre…or to the young adult and junior fiction sections. To help you find your way, here are three brief reviews of notable 2017 releases—marketed for younger readers, but worth reading no matter your age. When it’s available, be sure to check out part two for three more mini-reviews!

 

Wishtree

By Katherine Applegate

 

Katherine Applegate gave us one of the greatest epics in children’s literature with Animorphs; although I am saddened to see how rarely fans and critics acknowledge this achievement (her recent releases don’t even cite it in her author bio), I am thrilled that she is finally getting the recognition she deserves with award-winning novels such as The One and Only Ivan and now Wishtree. It’s a brief book that packs a punch, so I won’t say much here for fear of dampening its effect.

Written from the perspective of an elderly tree who has watched over her neighborhood for many years, Wishtree effortlessly uses the natural world to reorient our perspective on humanity and the insidious way in which the ideologies of adults infiltrate and indoctrinate the lives of children. I don’t want to say specifically what those ideologies are—the reveal is a brilliant and timely blindside—but Applegate expertly brings the novel into the realm of political relevance without letting it become a burdensome “message” book.

This is always been Applegate’s strength as a writer: she has so much to say about justice and morality in our world, but she says it in a way no other author does, by contextualizing humanity as part of a vast ecosystem in which survival is necessitated by behavior that is neither just nor moral. (Animorphs was largely concerned with where morality falls on the spectrum between survival and warfare.) Wishtree is yet another triumph in this respect, a fable that is as magical as it is meaningful.

 

They Both Die at the End

By Adam Silvera

 

Following closely (sometimes too closely) in the footsteps of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, which has become something of a modern YA classic, They Both Die at the End concerns itself with two young men and the fertile ground between friendship and romance. Mateo and Rufus inhabit a world entirely like our own, save for one key difference: on the calendar date of their death, people receive a phone call from an organization known as “Death-Cast” and are told that they are going to die.

They don’t know how it will happen. They don’t know the exact time it will happen. But they know it will happen. Adam Silvera uses this premise to bring Mateo and Rufus into contact shortly after they both receive their phone calls, and the result is a richly bittersweet story of love and friendship that never reduces itself to trite Tumblr-pop platitudes (“Live each day as if it’s your last!” superimposed on a stock photo of a sunrise/sunset).

Silvera also refuses to bloat the book with needless exposition and allows the many implications of Death-Cast to simmer in the subtext. You never find out how they know what they know, if or how they contact people who don’t have phones, whether one can opt out of the service, or why those who don’t receive a call on a given day aren’t under the impression that they have twenty-four immortality (that last one, admittedly, broke the logic of the novel for me).

They Both Die at the End exhibits the best quality of speculative fiction: it uses genre to draw out truths about its characters which would otherwise lie hidden. One of my favorite aspects was Silvera’s choice to feature flashes of perspective from employees of Death-Cast, all of whom have their own feelings about the work that they do—some have become desensitized, while others are put through the emotional wringer as they tell people that they are about to die. They Both Die at the End is a brief but compelling read.

 

The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage

By Philip Pullman

 

Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass) has been a staple of young adult literature since its controversial release, and he returns to the world of those novels in La Belle Sauvage, the first in a companion trilogy to His Dark Materials. La Belle Sauvage takes place twelve years prior to the events of The Golden Compass and concerns a boy named Malcom Polstead, who becomes embroiled in a hunt for a baby named Lyra.

La Belle Sauvage is a prequel in every sense of the word, and it brings with it all the associated baggage. You will get to see how many of your favorite characters from His Dark Materials (which you don’t need to have read to enjoy La Belle Sauvage, although I suspect that the latter will be a richer, more meaningful experience if you have) got to be where they are when The Golden Compass begins. Unfortunately, it all happens a shade too neatly; while reading La Belle Sauvage, it is impossible not be constantly aware of Pullman’s deterministic authorial hand, sliding pieces across the board in preparation for a game of which most readers will already know the outcome.

That said, La Belle Sauvage is a beautifully-realized work of literature. Pullman’s prose has become noticeably better across subsequent books—The Golden Compass is not a poorly-written novel by any means, but read it back-to-back with The Amber Spyglass and the difference is night and day—and La Belle Sauvage rivals the final entry in His Dark Materials as his most lyrical work. It is a joy and a thrill, too, to see Pullman enrich even further the most complex and dynamic characters from His Dark Materials, Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter (although I can never shake the feeling that they are two rare examples of supporting characters who truly deserve their own books).

Whereas His Dark Materials derived its core inspiration from Paradise Lost, La Belle Sauvage threads a classic flood narrative (Noah if you like, although Pullman’s take on the story hews a bit closer, perhaps, to The Epic of Gilgamesh) with the story of Moses and even hints of The Odyssey, along with a host of other allusions. Does it surpass—or even equal—His Dark Materials? No. But there’s a lot to like in La Belle Sauvage, and there are still two more novels to come in The Book of Dust.

 

Reviews by Erin Larson

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