Review: Frontier Magic Trilogy by Patricia Wrede

Patricia Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles is one of my favorite comfort reads. I discovered this YA quartet in middle school and read and re-read it obsessively. I loved the fractured fairy tale humor, the engaging protagonists, and especially the physicality of its system of magic–I could imagine how it would feel to use magic in Wrede’s world. I’ve enjoyed other Wrede books tremendously, especially the Mairelon the Magician books and Sorcery and Cecelia (co-written with Caroline Stevermer), but none quite lived up to the Enchanted Forest Chronicles for me. I think it’s always hard to replicate the experience of encountering just the right book at just the right time.

All of that brings me to Wrede’s Frontier Magic trilogy: Thirteenth Child, Beyond the Great Barrier, and The Far West. These YA charmers are quick reads and contain some truly marvelous worldbuilding in an alternate-universe version of the nineteenth-century United States. But I finished the trilogy a bit disappointed by the pacing and characterization, two things that Wrede usually excels at.

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Review: From Anna and Listen for the Singing by Jean Little

The one upside of Ruth Graham’s article trashing adults who read YA is that it prompted me to think about books written for children and teens that I still love at age 32. From Anna and its sequel, Listen for the Singing, came immediately to mind. These books aren’t even quite YA — they are written for a preteen crowd. And yet I don’t think any adult should feel shame or embarrassment about reading either of them.

Eight-year-old Anna Solden is the youngest of five children and has always felt overshadowed. Things seem to come so easily to her siblings, but Anna does poorly in school and is constantly scolded for her clumsiness. But even as Anna struggles in Frau Schmidt’s class, she can sense that there are bigger troubles brewing in her homeland of Germany. In the book’s opening chapter, we learn that her school’s headmaster will not allow Anna’s favorite song, “Die Gedanken sind frei” (“Thoughts are Free”), to be played at the school assembly. Moreover, her classmate Gerda’s father has gone missing.

Anna can tell that her beloved father is disturbed by the changes coming over Germany. One night Ernst Solden announces that the family will speak only English at the dinner table. A few weeks later, he makes an even bigger announcement: the Solden family is moving to Canada.

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Funny story. There I was, sitting on a review of Ann Patchett’s The Patron Saint of Liars and wondering if I should pull it out of respect for upsetting current events (it’s set at a Catholic home for unwed mothers). But along came this article in Slate and the resulting Twitterstorm around it, and I just had to postpone the Patchett review in order to hear your reactions.

Here were my first two thoughts on reading Ruth Graham’s “Against YA: Read whatever you want. But you should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children.” (And for once, the title isn’t just obnoxious Slate linkbait. Here’s a quote from the article itself: “Adults should feel embarrassed about reading literature written for children.”)

1. Huh?

Seriously, huh? Why does it matter if adults are reading YA books? Why should that be a source of embarrassment or shame? Shame is something one should experience when one engages in behavior that hurts other people or damages society, like denting someone’s car and not leaving a note, or voting for David Duke. What social harm results from adults reading the Harry Potter books or Anne of Green Gables?

I should admit that I am not a big YA reader — The Fault in Our Stars, for example, doesn’t really interest me. And I often relish those messy adult novels with unlikeable protagonists and ambiguous endings (exhibit A: The Patron Saint of Liars, which I loved). But I would never turn my nose up at a book just because it was written for teenagers. And frankly, there are some YA books that I think would do many adults some good to read. The Hunger Games, in my opinion, is not only an action-packed YA novel but a sharp critique of the idea that awful things can be justified by their entertainment value. (Which is basically the point Graham is trying to make, much less effectively and with a very weird target in her crosshairs.)

Graham argues that adults who read YA books are unambitious and lazy in their reading choices, that they are rejecting the complexities of the adult world to return to the immature, black-and-white world of teenagers, where teen romance is Life Or Death and everything is supposed to have a tidy ending. So what if they are? The devoted adult YA readers that I know often have demanding, complicated jobs that give them a healthy dose (and then some) of the complex and messy adult world on a daily basis. Why should they be embarrassed to spend their free time in a world where life is a bit simpler and stories have satisfying resolutions?

And that leaves aside the obvious criticism, which is that the notion that you’re either reading YA books or you’re reading Serious Fiction is complete nonsense. A healthy reading diet leaves room for a lot of genres. I, for example, am reading and loving The Goldfinch, but I just picked up the first Parasol Protectorate book to give myself a breather from the intense wonder that is Donna Tartt.

2. How does one criticize YA novels without coming across as an anti-YA snob? / Should I stop snarking on Twilight?

In the Twitter discussion of Graham’s article (and another, much better article by Linda Holmes about young female readers), I noticed a number of YA fans and authors mention that they’re sick of seeing people beat up on Twilight. Many of them feel that most of the vitriol stems from the fact that Twilight was a) written by a woman, and b) is beloved by mostly women and teen girls.

And I have to say I don’t disagree. I’ve heard way too many people categorize Twilight as “crap written for teenage girls” to dismiss the idea that there’s some misogyny behind some readers’ rejection of Twilight.

That led me to some soul-searching. I really, really, really did not like Twilight because I thought the story was boring, the writing was awkward, and the gender dynamics were problematic. I snark on Twilight a fair amount, sometimes for the prose, sometimes for containing lame sparkly vampires, sometimes for basically being a novelized version of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s opinions about women. The Twitterstorm made me pause and consider my snark. I think my disdain is based on legitimate objections to the book itself (I only read the first one), not on a snotty assumption that if teenage girls like it, it must suck. But do I really need to belittle something millions of teenage girls love every time vampires come up?

On the other hand, is it really so terrible to mock a book that I think contains objectionable gender stereotypes?

So. Reactions to Graham, or to my thoughts on YA? Hit me up in the comments!


What to buy for a teenager who reads Twilight

Last week I met a friend for drinks and, much to our mutual horror, we found ourselves discussing Twilight.  Cards on the table: I’m not a Twilight fan.  I read the first book and had no interest in continuing with the series.  It’s not just the soppy, overwrought prose or the fact that Bella Swan is the least interesting protagonist ever.  I think Twilight contains an extremely unhealthy model of romantic relationships.  I would be more than a little disturbed to see my (hypothetical) teenage daughter reading a book in which the “hero” is basically stalking the heroine and is constantly tempted to hurt her because he “can’t help himself.”*

The conversation made me think about what books I would give to a teenager who had devoured the Twilight books, with the hopeful end goal of getting her to like books with better prose and more interesting heroines.  Given my antipathy to the series I may not be the best person to evaluate what other books might appeal to a Twilight fanatic.  Nonetheless I’m going to take a crack at it.  I suspect that a big part of Twilight‘s appeal to teens is the fact that it treats Bella’s problems and her crush on Edward as life-and-death matters.  I know teenagers also enjoy the romance.  So I tried to think of YA fantasy novels that take teenagers and their emotions seriously and have a romantic storyline.  Here’s what I came up with.

Warning: Possible spoilers ahead for Dealing with DragonsThe Hero and the CrownSummers at Castle Auburn, and War for the Oaks

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