MIND MELD: Young Adult SF/F Books That Adults Will Like, Too
Young Adult fiction is a hot topic at the moment, mostly brought on by John Scalzi’s recent post about YA genre classification. He mentions that some adult readers overlook YA sf/f, but some YA books may be equally enjoyed by even the most discerning adult reader. So we asked some folks:
For what it’s worth, the recommendation at the front of my mind (probably because I just read it) would be Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother. And I wasn’t the only one…
Read on to see how our esteemed panel responded. And be sure to offer up your own suggestions!
I think it’s no secret I’m a big fan of Scott Westerfeld’s work, but rather than recommend Scott’s wildly successful Uglies series, which really doesn’t need any more help, let me give a shoutout to one of his other books, Peeps. These days there are more “vampire reboot” sort of books than any one planet actually needs, but what makes Peeps worth the time is both the plot, and the every-other-chapter digressions into parasitology that actually manage to dovetail into the story Scott is telling. It’s clever, it’s exciting, and it’s good, and if you were handed the book without knowing where in the bookstore it was shelved, you wouldn’t know or care that it was YA.
Beyond this, my recommendation for titles is for adult readers to go into the YA section and do what they do in every other section of the bookstore: browse, damn it. Look at the covers and the jacket copy and maybe read a little of the book and just see if the book looks interesting to you. Oddly enough, it works as well in the YA section as it does everywhere else. Alternately, go to the library and ask the YA librarian to suggest some title. Oh, go on, you baby. You won’t be the first adult she’s recommended a YA book to in her life.
Since we’re in the middle of a golden age of YA fiction, and specifically YA fantasy fiction, this is an easy question to answer. A really good story, after all, is a good story, regardless of the age of the protagonist.
To a lover of historical fiction, I’d recommend T.A. Anderson’s Octavian Nothing. It’s a dark, beautifully written evocation of late 18th century France, concerning science and race politics and class. It’s also a good story. My personal opinion is that it could as well have been published as an adult novel had the protagonist been a little older and Anderson not already a well-known children’s author.
To a lover of fantasy, I’d recommend Elizabeth Wein’s wonderful series of historical fantasies, the first of which is The Winter Prince (out of print, alas, but findable on-line and in libraries) and latest of which is The Lion Hunter. There is nothing childish about these intelligent and exciting riffs on the life of Mordred, King Arthur’s bastard son, and what became of him after Arthur died. They are explorations of power (both temporal and magical) and what it does to the personal lives of the powerful–and their children. Fascinating, riveting stuff.
There are more. Ysabeau Wilce’s Flora Segunda for readers who like Terry Pratchett. Terry Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men and its two sequels, A Hat Full of Sky and Wintersmith, for readers who like comedy to have some substance to it. Ursula K. LeGuin’s masterful trilogy, Gifts, Voices, and Powers. None of these is just a kid’s book any more than The Hobbit is just a kid’s book–or The Lord of the Rings is just an adult’s book, for that matter.
I have some trouble wrapping my head around this question because I really do lack sympathetic understanding of anyone who thinks YA fiction is automatically “only suitable for kids.” Since when was the experience of being a kid, of having a young person’s subjectivity, any less complicated, nuanced, and interesting than any other part of the human condition? Moreover, all of us who are adults have gone through this experience, and the people who are currently going through that experience are the people who will be running our world in very little time from now. Being a kid is serious business, and as worthy a subject for literature as anything else. People who suggest otherwise simply puzzle me.
That said, one of the most extravagantly inventive and emotionally gripping SF novels I’ve read in the last several years was Scott Westerfeld’s Peeps, a novel that gives vampirism a totally convincing hard-science rationale and plunges you into direct, painful engagement with a young protagonist whose life is completely constrained by its inevitable costs. And you get the secret New York City anti-vampire department, a black-budget operation going back to the Dutch. It should have been on the Hugo ballot. Okay, it was a strong Hugo ballot that year, but still.
- Cory Doctorow, Little Brother (How to bring down your government with an X-Box)
- Philip Reeve, Mortal Engines (Monster cities traverse the plains James Blish style); and Larklight (brick moons, the Victorian Empire rules the space ways, steam punk and crystal palaces).
- Oisin McGann, Ancient Appetites (alternate Ireland, living machines, difficult politics)
- Kathleen Duey, Skin Hunger (Wizard school like you really, really don’t want to go to)
- Ann Halam, Siberia (re-education camps and genetic engineering)
- Stephen Baxter, The H-Bomb Girl (alternate Liverpool, c. 1963, time travel, the world is about to change….)
The first thing I’d suggest to any adult reader looking at young adult science fiction or fantasy novels for the first time, or for the first time in a long time, is to set aside your preconceptions about what a ‘young adult’ novel might be. In my experience the only differences between a good novel for adults and a good novel for young adults are that the protagonist might be a teenager and that the language might be a little simpler. Some of the best and most famous science fiction and fantasy ever written is now considered ‘young adult fiction’. To give you a quick idea, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game is often listed as a young adult novel, and I’ve seen young adult versions of both Terry Brooks’ Shannara and Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time books.
So, recommendations. The obvious thing to do is to start reading young adult fiction by a writer that you otherwise already read. First up, I’d recommend Stephen Baxter’s The H-Bomb Girl, a terrific alternate history set in London during the 1960s. It has The Beatles and the Cold War, and is Baxter’s shortest novel in a while. It was deservedly up for the Clarke Award, and is a great book. Second, I’d recommend Cory Doctorow’s widely lauded Little Brother. A teen hacker faces an Orwellian response from Homeland Security following a terrorist attack. Didactic and hectoring at times, it’s Doctorow’s best novel by some distance, and really sees him finding both his voice and his feet as a novelist. Third, Graham Joyce’s Do the Creepy Thing (aka The Exchange) is a beautifully written dark fantasy about two young girls who break into peoples’ houses at night to play a strange version of ‘chicken’, trying to get in and out without waking the sleeping occupants. If you’ve liked Joyce’s adult novels, you’ll love this. Fourth, any of the Tiffany Aching novels by Terry Pratchett. His Discworld novels are fabulously popular, and The Wee Free Men, Wintersmith, and A Hat Full of Sky are simply some of his best work ever. Fifth, Kathleen Duey’s amazingly good fantasy, Skin Hunger. It’s the best magic school story I’ve read in a decade. Dark, unremitting and strange, it has none of the whimsy of Harry Potter and crew.
I could go on. Scott Westerfeld, whose The Risen Empire gets my vote for the most underrated space opera novel of the past ten years, has some great books out. I loved his Midnighters series, though the Uglies series gets all of the press. He’s also working on one of the novels I’m most looking forward to, a zeppelin adventure called Leviathan. Nancy Farmer’s The House of the Scorpion is great SF, and Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights is pure magic.
The only other piece of advice I’d give is, if you’re unsure about reading YA fiction, be sure the book you’re picking up is YA and not children’s. They’re not the same thing at all, and you’re best advised to stick to YA for starters.
I don’t read a ton of YA, but I like the Midnighters series by Scott Westerfeld, Justine Larbalestier’s Magic or Madness series, Holly Black’s Tithe (and the related books), and Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely. Kelly Link has a YA story collection, Pretty Monsters, coming out later this year, and it’s a can’t-miss.
I’m not as widely read in young adult genre books as I should be so with that caveat, I think that genre young adult books are so varied in tone and theme and voice that a good proportion of them should appeal to adults.
Some examples: anything on the Andre Norton award ballot from the past few years. Books by Justine Larbalestier, Scott Westerfeld, Holly Black, Ysabeau Wilce, Steve Berman. Joan Aiken and Robert Westall-the latter a terrific ghost story writer who died several years ago. Most of his collections were marketed as ya books but there’s no reason adults shouldn’t enjoy them.
And anthologies: Terry Windling and my “mythic” series of The Green Man, The Faery Reel, and The Coyote Road are all cross marketed to young adults and adults. I haven’t yet read Jonathan Strahan’s The Starry Rift, but I’ll bet most of the stories in it will appeal to me. The two Deborah Noyes anthologies: Gothic! and The Restless Dead each have stories that appealed to me as an adult.
Margo Lanagan’s story collections published as YA in the US but her work contains very mature themes.
The line between adult and young adult fiction is very fine and adults shouldn’t be put off by the label YA
We all know the great, great canonical works that are out there, so I’ll skip those and toss in a few left-field choices:
- It’s Like This, Cat by Emily Neville. I loved this as a ten-year-old, and recently re-read it to find it holds up well for an adult. Sensitive tale of a young lad at a decisive point in his life.
- Summerland, by Michael Chabon. Hey, it’s “the Chab!” What more need I say? The most under-appreciated of his books.
- The Mouse and His Child, by Russell Hoban. This will rip your heart out.
I suspect that most people are going to mention Garth Nix, Scott Westerfeld, Kenneth Oppel, M. T. Anderson, Holly Black, Margo Lanagan, and so on; thus, I don’t need to.
First of all: what is young adult (or YA) fiction? I would suggest these parameters by age:
- 10 up: high middle-grade/low YA
- 12 up: what most people consider YA
- 14 up: edgier, more difficult YA
Some YA fiction *is* only suitable, really, for teenagers, because teenagers and adults often require different things from a book. YA is the literature of transition, of having experiences for the first time — falling in love; discovering the boundaries and pushing them; separating from parents and turning to friends; finding out what it means to be oneself; trying out new personae and ideas. It is also an *aspiring* genre — in other words, readers look up and read forward into the older teenagers and adults they might become. This is why you find older teens in the adult section (which is where, I suspect, everyone who reads this was).
So: adults. If you walk into the YA section with realistic expectations, you’ll be pleased.
Here’s a list of authors I’d recommend. Please note that some of them are known for their adult work too.
- Charles de Lint: The Blue Girl
- Nancy Farmer: The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm; A Girl Named Disaster; The House of the Scorpion
- Ann Halam (also known as Gwyneth Jones): Siberia, Dr. Franklin’s Island, Taylor 5
- Nina Kiriki Hoffman: A Stir of Bones, Spirits That Walk In Shadow
- Elizabeth Knox: Dreamhunter and Dreamquake
- Philip Reeve: Mortal Engines and its sequels
- Robin McKinley: The Blue Sword, The Hero And The Crown
- William Sleator: Interstellar Pig, House of Stairs
- Elizabeth Wein: The Winter Prince, A Coalition of Lions, The Sunbird, The Lion Hunter, The Empty Kingdom
Please note that there are not nearly enough worthy YASF titles around. As an editor, I am always on the lookout for good, strong voices. I’ve just published Jonathan Strahan’s The Starry Rift, which features original stories by Halam, Nix, Westerfeld, Lanagan, Doctorow…as well as Greg Egan, Paul McAuley, and Walter Jon Williams, among others. I would also suggest Firebirds and Firebirds Rising, the two original anthologies I’ve done for the Firebird imprint. The third, Firebirds Soaring, is coming out this fall.
I’m making the assumption that this mythical Young-Adult-hater is a SFF reader, since otherwise we’re talking about either leaping other hurdles at the same time, or about diving into a different set of books. And while “YA is just for kids” is untrue, the truth is not vastly far away from that: YA books focus on young protagonists, people discovering their places in the world and transforming themselves to fit those places. So readers who are only interested in older, settled people – who know exactly who they are and who aren’t going to change radically or find out the secrets of their worlds – might be right if they think they won’t like YA books. Of course, most genre SFF books for adults have elements of transformation, secret knowledge, and confrontation with old power structures, so, if readers don’t like any of that, I wonder what they’re finding to enjoy in the genre already.
So: YAs are generally about young people – they’re stories of becoming. I suspect most of those who avoid YA novels think that they’re always deeply introspective, obsessively charting one person’s inner journey to adulthood. (And there are some books like that – some good ones, and some that are just navel-gazing.) But there are a thousand ways of becoming, and many of them face outward.
The best YA series I’ve read as new books – and among the best fantasy novels, for any audience, that I’ve ever read – are Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy: The Amulet of Samarkand, The Golem’s Eye, and Ptolemy’s Gate. They’re set in an alternate world, one ruled by magicians. One major power is England, and the story is mostly set there. One of the two viewpoint characters of the first book is a boy training to be a wizard, one who has the skills and abilities to be one of the great magic-wielders of his age. There is a parallel to Harry Potter there, and Stroud means it, but he’s about to twist the knife. Stroud understands power, and the people who seek and hold power. He knows those people are only rarely, or incidentally, nice people, and that “power corrupts” is not just an empty maxim.
You see, in this world, magicians have power by summoning spirits from another world, and commanding their power. The spirits are intelligent, and seek their own ends whenever possible, so a magician must be cold, cunning, calculating, and able to see the consequences of his actions and orders – or that magician will soon find himself killed by the creatures he summoned.
The world opens up a bit in the second novel, but, in Amulet, there are two viewpoint characters: the young apprentice wizard Nathaniel, low in the pecking order but with a cold will to power; and Bartimaeus, the djinn he has summoned. Bartimaeus is explicitly Nathaniel’s slave, and the trilogy is at the same time a series of adventure stories in a magnificently imagined world and a series of investigations of the effects of power on various people.
The Bartimaeus books aren’t much like the assumed YA template – Nathaniel knows who he is and what he wants, and he’s only the viewpoint character half the time. But they are YA in the best sense: aimed at a smart, thoughtful young audience at the time in their lives when they’re most likely to be deeply thinking about the world, and about whether what is is right.
For books closer to the typical YA novel, there are Steven Gould’s novels Jumper, Wildside, and Helm. (All are good, though Jumper is the best – avoid the film.) Daniel Pinkwater’s books are also wonderful – especially the Snarkout Boys books and the sublimely ridiculous Young Adult Novel – though they are often for a somewhat younger audience and only have incidental fantastic elements. Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea books (my strong preference is for the original trilogy) work very well for adults, as do many of Diana Wynne Jones’s books. I’m also quite fond of Justine Larbalestier’s Magic or Madness trilogy, particularly the first book.
Many of the quest-driven classic YA series – Susan Cooper, Lloyd Alexander, even C.S. Lewis – I suspect are best read first by young readers, but can be returned to as adults. I expect they would be pleasant read cold by adults, but wouldn’t seem all that impressive.
Oh, and one last recommendation: Lemony Snicket’s Series of Extraordinary Events isn’t actually a fantasy, but it’s one of the greatest achievements in modern YA publishing. The whole thirteen-book sequence is really one long story, and, like Stroud’s trilogy, it’s about some of the big questions of life. In Snicket’s case, SUE is about nothing less than the possibility of doing good in an imperfect world, about whether love and safety can ever exist, and about what the correct attitude and method for living is. More than that, they’re sneaky and funny, thoughtful and exciting, full of grand moments and quiet ideas. Books very rarely get any better than these..
I try to tailor my recommendations to the individual I’m talking to, so I don’t have a single answer for this, I have at least two:
First, if I think they seem more likely to enjoy fantasy than SF, the Harry Potter series. Point out that there are literally millions of people of all ages who love these books — isn’t it worth seeing why?
Second, if they strike me as more into SF, the classic: Heinlein. Specifically, I think I’d go with The Star Beast as having the widest appeal of them all.
If you think YA fiction is only suitable for kids, tell me this: Have you seen Toy Story? I have, about four hundred times. And Ice Age, Stuart Little, and a bunch of other ‘kids movies’. My excuse is that I have kids of my own, but the truth is they’re fun to watch. Many have gags inserted for older teens & adults…for example, the cat-licking scene in Stuart Little wasn’t exactly written for the target audience.
Same with books. We parents might buy these titles for our kids, but there’s no shame in a quick preview read. We just have to be careful not to fold the corners and crack the spines, turning a pristine gift into a train wreck. (Never mind the fact it’s going to look like one two days after the kids have started on it…)
Specific titles? I’m going to mention a couple which I’m certain others have already covered, plus one I’m certain they won’t have.
First, the Abhorsen books by Garth Nix. I read them over a lengthy period of time because I was flat out working, but several years later I still find myself thinking of the unique world of Ancelstierre and The Old Kingdom. My wife read all three books back-to-back earlier this year, and she’s the fiercest critic I’ve ever met. If a book doesn’t measure up she’s ditched it before the end of chapter two.
Next I’d like to mention Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy, which is one I know everyone else has listed. I read the series back to back a couple of years ago, my wife ripped through them late last year, my eldest daughter is just finishing book three and the youngest is halfway through book one. None of us have seen the movie…that’s something we’ll get into when we’ve all finished the books.
Finally, the shock entry. I’d like to recommend The Borrowers series by Mary Norton. The first book was published in 1952, won the Carnegie Medal, and was just voted one of the ten most important children’s novels of the past 70 years.
Please DO NOT confuse these books with the movie featuring John Goodman. If you must watch pretty moving pictures before reading the books, try the 1992 TV series featuring Ian Holm as Pod. (THAT should get LOTR fans onto Ebay.)
I was given the second book in the series (bastards!) for my sixth birthday – one of the first proper books I ever owned. I still sing its praises 34 years later, and I’ll continue to do so for as long as I’m breathing.
(I’d throw in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows & Amazons books, dating from the 1920’s, but by no stretch of the imagination could I fit them into the Fantasy or SF categories…)
Now hunt these books down and read them.
I decided to break my list up into two parts: books I have read and can wholeheartedly recommend, and newer books that I have not yet read but look really interesting to me. Since some of the Young adult fiction I am listing I read when I was a young adult it might be a little, well, old. (ahem…stifle the comments, please)
I think there is so much close-mindedness in the world, and it really ticks me off. Don’t write off a book just because of what section of the bookstore or library it’s shelved in. There’s gold in there, and by opening yourself up to the experience you just might have enjoy a great read!
Some of my Favorite Young Adult Science Fiction:
- The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien – The best Young Adult fantasy novel ever written – it spawned an entire genre.
- A Wizard of Earthsea and the rest of The Earthsea Cycle by Ursula K Leguin – Wonderful imagery, her writing is so rich. I remember as a teenager daydreaming about this world.
- Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone and the rest of the series by JK Rowling – I fell in love with Harry Potter the minute I was introduced to him under the stairs.
- Eragon, and its sequels by Christopher Paolini – His simple writing style is quite refreshing, but can be slow going.
- The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge – A very sweet and fantastical story that is reminiscent of The Secret Garden. Its a girly book – be forewarned.
Some YA SF that I have not read yet but look interesting to me:
- Twilight (The Twilight Saga, Book 1) by Stephenie Meyer – The new kid in school falls in love with a vampire? Sounds like it could be a good read.
- A Great and Terrible Beauty (The Gemma Doyle Trilogy) by Libba Bray – A Victorian, gothic sci fi novel? Why how lovely! Looks like something I would be interested in.
- Uglies (Uglies Trilogy, Book 1) by Scott Westerfeld – This is the one everyone is talking about, and it is on my list to read.
- The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke – This has been touted as something to keep Harry Potter fans going after they are done reading the series. Translated from German.
Growing up, I read nonfiction exclusively for several years after learning to read; when I started to read science fiction, I went right to the adult stuff, with the only exception I recall being Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain books and a bit of Andre Norton. Ironically, I’ve probably read more Young Adult (or what would be called that had it been publsiehd today) fiction as an adult than as a kid.
My knowledge of modern Young Adult fiction is sparse, but there are some classics I can recommend for an adult reader. As is invariably the case when someone asks, “What should I read in the area of (fill in the blank)?,” the answer is “Poul Anderson.”
If you don’t mind digging up used books, I’d definitely recommend Anderson’s Rustum stories (collected in Orbit Unlimited and New America). They’re clearly written for a younger audience, but they’re still quite enjoyable for an adult. In particular, Anderson’s talent for unusual planetary environments comes to the fore here.
I’d also recommend Anderson’s Time Patrol stories, most of which have been collected in the book Time Patrol, recently published by Baen Books. Like many of Anderson’s adult books, some of the stories here have a sort of melancholy feel to them, a sadness for the human costs that must be paid for the Patrol to preserve the timeline. This is strengthened by the fact that unlike so many time travel stories, Anderson does not ignore the disturbing philosophical ramifications of the technology. If you go back in time hundreds or thousands of years and change things enough to radically alter the course of history, you obliterate the lives of billions of people who now will never be born- and Anderson doesn’t shrink from that. Yet at the same time, there’s plenty of excitement too, and it was Anderson’s great talent to bring these moods together in a way that works.
I’m not quite sure what qualifies as young adult, but I can tell you the stories that I keep rereading as an adult. Some of them are for very young adults indeed, but they’re sufficiently complex that I find something new in them, and understand them a little differently, every time.
So, in terms of very young adult fiction (the fiction I read when I was about twelve), I would start with George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie. On one level, they’re adventure stories about goblins, but MacDonald was a minister and couldn’t help putting in bits and pieces of his theology, which was fairly heretical for the Victorian era. (He actually lost his position because of his beliefs, and had to support his eleven children by writing.) Then, Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, which makes even more sense (or nonsense) when you know grammar and math. E. Nesbit’s The Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet, and The Enchanted Castle provide a fascinating glimpse into turn of the century social structure, but are also a lot of fun.
My favorite story, whether for adults or young adults, is Astrid Lindgren’s The Brothers Lionheart. It’s about death and courage, a very adult novel for younger readers. And of course I love C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, which I think one can read at any age. I was a bit older when I read A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeline L’Engle. That book, and all of the sequels (A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet), are just as interesting for adults, I think, and they deal with issues, such as love and the nature of evil, that we have to deal with at any age. Same with Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, Green Witch, The Grey King, Silver on the Tree, and Over Sea, Under Stone. I’ve read them at different ages, and always found something new in them. Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story is beautiful, at whatever age you read it.
For truly young adult fiction, the kind I read as a teenager, I would recommend Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books, beginning with A Wizard of Earthsea. Fortunately, Le Guin is still writing books set in Earthsea, so I can enter Earthsea again every couple of years and learn more about the world I first encountered as a child. I would also recommend T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, which is in a sense the first part of a truly adult book, The Once and Future King, and Robin McKinley’s lovely books The Door in the Hedge and Beauty. I don’t think there is a better retelling of the Beauty and the Beast story than McKinley’s. Need I even mention Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit?
I don’t think it much matters what age a book was written or marketed for. Great writing is always going to be great writing, and I think that each of these books is an example.
Filed under: Mind Meld
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