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Young adult books continue to succeed when others fail

Carolyn Kelly

By A Contributor

At a time when adult publishing is suffering from deep inroads by many forms of electronic competition, the number of titles in young adult literature has risen sharply over the past decade. While youth literature once was heavily characterized by “coming of age” stories, today’s award winning authors address one of the most diverse generations ever, a readership that requires writing that affirms complicated identities and offers insight into a complex youth culture. Also noted, however, in recent data from the Bowker Market Research firm revealing that “fully 55 percent of buyers of works that publishers designate for kids aged 12 to 17 - nicknamed YA books - are 18 or older, with the largest segment aged 30 to 44.”

Maggie Stiefvater, Tessa Gratton and Brenna Yovanoff, three rising stars that have more than proven themselves capable of satisfying their targeted younger readers while drawing the many older readers support the growing trend of enhanced YA sales. These three authors began a group blog, the Merry Sisters of Fate, in 2008. They started by posting an entry titled starting points, then, one week later, each contributed a short story called flash fiction for public feedback from one another. Now published as a collection of thirty dazzling fantasy entries, “The Curiosities” entertains readers but also provides potential writers and editors an introduction to the shared thought processes of the trio as they create a story arc. The hard-copy text is published with very wide margins where Stiefvater, Gratton and Yovanoff offer concrete feedback, contribute illuminating drawings and idle doodling. In general they chat with one another in a manner similar to static tweeting. The book includes a diagram of Gratton’s liver, sketches of Yovanoff’s five favorite words and Stiefvater’s workspace; it also includes imagery of things like jellyfish and dinosaurs. The clever, light-hearted illustrations contribute to an overall effect of a performance piece - a solid technique for drawing in young readers and writers.

However, the stories themselves are still the focus of this collection. Gratton contributes advice on, among other things, handling caged vampires, dating dragon slayers, constructing Arthur’s round table, avoiding falling into alternate universes hidden in puddles and motorcycling with trolls.

In what she terms a “longish” story, her death ship sails into a Nordic warrior world of shrieking cormorants and lowing cows. Here a young widow silently mourns the death of her young hero-husband. She mourns through so many frozen nights spent alone on his rocky burial cairn, that she lingers on the threshold of reunion with his ghost. The grieving of lost love is poignant without being overly sentimental. The damaged, scarred man who lures Geira Silver Hair back to the living is no prince charming, offering her just one chaste kiss. In marginalia, Gratton reminds readers that she prefers to end her stories with the protagonist making a choice. She also wrote this story to prove to her peers that she can write a narrative shorn of magic and monsters, but isn’t fatal love its own kind of heavy magic?

Stievater, known for the YA blockbuster, “Scorpio Races,” declares that her stories are recognized by involving “angst, cars, sarcasm, kissing and geniuses.” In “The Wind Takes Our Cries,” her older Arthur character quietly takes away a woman’s youngest son who has been suffering horrible, regular beatings from his father, then returns Eoin, as promised, one year later. We learn nothing of that year with Arthur or of the father other than that, after Launcelot’s tutelage, the boy cuts out his father’s liver at the very first sign of the reoccurrence of the beatings.

Launcelot speaks a total of 15 words in this very short story. He then spits on this man’s doorstep and we love Launcelot for doing it.

Another of Stiefvater’s entries, “The Deadliest of the Species,” is a freaky zombie story that will make anyone afraid to ever step in puddles of rain water or snow melt again. Her contributions are characteristically dark, challenging and ambiguous.

Yovanoff has a gift for exploring relationships clever girls have with bad boys and evil soul mates, which, in her worlds, are usually one and the same. In Yovanoff’s Arthurian legend entry, “The Madness of Lancelot,” she opens with “all the Avett girls are strong swimmers. In a county of cattle ropers and turkey shooters, this is what we’re known for. There’s nothing more peaceful than diving below the surface. The lake is my secret, my refuge. But this is not a love story.”

The narrative progresses, through short, poetically captivating vignettes. They all end with a negation, “this is not a story about revelations”; “not a story about coming home”; “not a story about sorrow”; “not a story about loneliness”; and “not a story about God.” Ultimately it is a story of surrender, of going under once and for all; so, while this anthology often appears designed to be wickedly fun and spontaneous, many of these unedited pieces carry the necessary weight of classic youth literature - the burden of helping readers of all ages consider and articulate reasons for continued breathing.

Carolyn Kelly is a Manhattan resident.

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