Children’s and Young Adult Literature in 2017 (Pt. 2): Three Mini-Reviews
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. If you haven’t yet, be sure to check out part one for three more mini-reviews!
Turtles All the Way Down
By John Green
T.S. Eliot famously said that “Dante and Shakespeare divide the world between them. There is no third.” If we were to apply this to early 21st century young adult literature—since Harry Potter typically falls into the realm of junior fiction—it’d probably be something like: “Suzanne Collins and John Green divide the world between them. There is no third.” (Of course, there are thirds in both cases, and I humbly submit that they are, respectively, John Milton and Stephanie Meyer; please be assured that that is the first and last time I will ever use those two names in the same sentence.)
I started reading Green because of suffocating generational peer pressure, and I read him still because his books are events that no self-respecting consumer of pop culture can afford to miss. But for as much as he may be the Shakespeare (a comparison I use to reflect influence rather than as a measure of talent) of modern YA literature, I’ve always had a contentious love/hate relationship with his work—that is, if we’re defining “love” as “begrudging respect for his uncanny ability to write books that are irresistible to teenagers” and “hate” as “frustrated because his novels are often just a few structural tweaks away from being good or even great.”
That said, Turtles All the Way Down is, if not the best book of his career, at least a close second to 2008’s Paper Towns. He deals here with anxiety and OCD, mental illnesses which affect both Green and myself, and he handles them with remarkable maturity both in terms of narrative and real-world implication. Green’s greatest strength and greatest weakness as a storyteller is his tendency to create novels that attempt to be simultaneously cynical and sentimental in equal measure. I suspect that this is why his work has connected to so many people, especially teenagers—ironic and post-modern on the outside, sappy and romantic on the inside (it wasn’t just me, was it?)—but it’s extremely difficult to navigate that liminal space in narrative without one quality undermining the other, and Green fell victim to it most egregiously in The Fault in Our Stars.
Turtles All the Way Down (mostly) escapes this trap. In fact, Green manages to turn one of his most frustrating habits—patching over the ends of meandering plot threads with unconvincing hyperemotional faux-climaxes that lean far too heavily into sentiment—into Turtles’ greatest strength. The anxiety which afflicts Aza Holmes, Turtles’ protagonist, translates into her contorting minor events and feelings into end-of-the-world scenarios, and Green deftly transforms that misperception into an integral part of the story. The feeling of anticlimax becomes one of release and healing rather than annoyance, and it reinforces mental illness as something that one learns to manage rather than dramatically and glamorously overcome. This is a startlingly beautiful subversion in terms of both narrative and message, and it’s one of Green’s greatest accomplishments as a storyteller.
We Are Okay
By Nina LaCour
I honestly don’t have a lot to say about We Are Okay. As I’m sure was the case with many a reader, I was lured in by its gorgeous cover, which tricked me for the longest time into thinking that it was a graphic novel (have you noticed that “don’t judge a book by its cover” has a different connotation than it did a decade or so ago?; most covers are now better than what lies between them). But We Are Okay is a rare book which lives up to the art on the front—it’s refreshingly low-key and melancholy in all the right ways.
Everything comes down to the setting. We Are Okay follows Marin, a young woman who stays behind in the empty dorm after everyone else has left for winter break from her college in New York. It’s such an evocative place to put a story that I’m surprised I’ve never seen it done before (and maybe somewhat bummed that I didn’t think of it myself): the sense is not loneliness so much as soft-edged isolation, a freedom that comes with being the only person left in the world. But Marin is visited in her dorm by her friend and former lover Mabel, and her presence forces Marin to confront a past which she no longer wishes to face.
This book is so beautiful. After a bit of clunky exposition in the opening chapters, LaCour’s touch remains light, teasing out the pains of Marin’s past as if untangling a knot of hair. Marin’s relationship with Mabel is handled with exquisite grace; I often find that LGBTQ+ novels make the sexualities of their characters such a Big Deal that they become the single defining characteristic of said characters, but that isn’t the case here. Marin and Mabel feel real precisely because LaCour underplays them, and it’s a relief to see a relationship between two women presented as casually and inconsequentially—almost dismissively—as heterosexual romances normally are.
You won’t find any grandiose climaxes in We Are Okay. There are no bombshell revelations, no scenes of hyperbolic melodrama, no “hooks.” I don’t want to call it a slice-of-life story, because it’s too focused on the unpeeling of Marin’s pain to be that, but it has a similar vibe. I keep thinking about We Are Okay not because of anything that happens in the book, but because of how it made me feel. It’s the literary equivalent of a warm blanket on a cold winter night.
Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus
By Dusti Bowling
I picked up Turtles All the Way Down because of its author, We Are Okay because of its cover, and Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus because of its—you guessed it!—title. I mean, come on: who could resist such an evocative phrase? Insignificant Events also features a disabled protagonist, which caused me to approach with both excitement and trepidation. Disability, especially in storytelling, is an area of passion for me, and while I am always interested in watching or reading about disabled characters, it’s been handled poorly enough times that I have learned to tread cautiously.
Aven Green, the star of Insignificant Events, was born without arms. She ceaselessly invents new stories to explain their absence, telling other kids that she lost them in an alligator wrestling match or a wildfire in Tanzania. Aven’s narration is where the novel shines. It’s extraordinarily difficult to create a witty character who doesn’t come across as condescending to the reader, or, more often, as the author trying too hard to mark off the “witty” checkbox (I could name at least a half-dozen bestselling writers who suffer from this affliction)—Dusti Bowling, however, cultivates Aven’s voice to bring out the humor organically, and the result is a character who is not only funny but actually fun to spend a few hundred pages with.
Perhaps more importantly, Bowling’s handling of disability in her narrative is among the best I’ve ever seen. Not only are there multiple disabled characters in Insignificant Events, but they 1) are never characterized solely by their disability, 2) are not presented as weak, incompetent, or unable to live fulfilling lives, 3) still have to struggle with their disabilities on a daily basis, 4) are able to laugh at their disabilities, and 5) don’t have their disabilities “fixed” (storytelling has a long and ugly history of dealing with disabled characters by erasing their disability, either by literally getting rid of the disability or by killing the character; this is known as the “cure or kill” trope). As I was reading Insignificant Events, I turned every page with a measure of dread, fearing that the clichés were about to start creeping in. They never came.
Where Insignificant Events does struggle, however, is in the plot. Although I appreciated that the story itself doesn’t depend on the disability narrative for dramatic beats or unearned pathos, it still leans a bit too close to a by-the-numbers “Who are/were my biological parents and how does that define who I am?” mystery, a trope-y plotline which is insufferably dull and has been relentlessly overused since The Empire Strikes Back. Insignificant Events does put a slight spin on it, which buoys the book enough to keep it going, but it never quite transcends into something truly magical. That said, this is a delightful novel. You’ll love it no matter your age.
Reviews by Erin Larson