Hello fellow Young Folks!
My name is Deborah Krieger, and I’m a new Books writer for The Young Folks. Despite my advanced age of 23, I applied to write for TYF because I like to think I’m somewhat young at heart, and I relish the opportunity to write about my favorite YA classics as well as review and analyze new contributions to the genre. In this first post, I discuss my top five favorite (often under-loved) YA novels and series. You’ll notice a few commonalities right off the bat: the novels all have female protagonists who are realistic and fleshed-out, are written by female authors, and (most) have well-written romances that complement the overall narratives and development of the characters rather than demanding the lion’s share of attention.
Elizabeth Marie Pope, The Perilous Gard
Here we have a bit of a throwback, as The Perilous Gard was first published in 1974, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth. In fact, I’m not entirely sure how I wound up with a copy of this book, though, to be fair, it was reprinted in 2001, so I likely got it as a birthday present from a particularly prescient relative or friend. Yet this Tudor-set spin on the Tam Lin folk ballad still holds up in 2017 due to its generous dose of wry humor, briskly effective world-building, and its understated but compelling central romance. Kate Sutton, the protagonist, is a clumsy, ill-tempered lady-in-waiting for then-Princess Elizabeth Tudor who is sent to live in a mysterious castle—the so-called Perilous Gard—in the countryside by Queen Mary as punishment for perceived insubordination. Once she arrives at the Perilous Gard, she is swept up into the castle’s culture of secrecy and duplicity, especially with regards to its ties to the Fairy Folk, eventually culminating in her being taken by the Folk to live underground with them.
The characters of The Perilous Gard are largely all memorable, even if most of the women who aren’t Kate (or the leader of the Folk) suffer from a bit of internalized misogyny in how they are described. In particular, the developing relationship between Kate and Christopher Heron, the equally rude and bitter younger brother of the Gard’s owner, has a wonderful screwball quality to it, and actually manages to make a satisfying transition from mutual dislike to genuine love even if neither of the lovers loses their edge by the end of the book. Kate’s disbelieving approach to all of the strange and mystical events upon which she stumbles are pleasingly modern and genre-savvy, and the self-aware nature of the romance exemplifies the best of old-fashioned romance novels even while it pokes a bit of well-meaning fun at their tropes and clichés.
Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle
And here we throw back even further, to 1948, right before the Big Bang. I Capture the Castle is, perhaps, also not a great example of “under-loved” YA, as it did get a fairly decent film adaptation in 2003 starring Romola Garai, Bill Nighy, Rose Byrne, and Henry Cavill, but it also suffers from being unknown to most of the readers who were my peers back when I first read the novel. I Capture the Castle tells the coming-of-age story of Cassandra Mortmain, who lives with her family in a crumbling castle in the English countryside (yet another theme emerges), including her mercurial father, a literary one-hit wonder unable to produce a follow-up; her stepmother Topaz, a painter and artist’s model who perfectly satires some of the more ridiculous aspects of the art world; and her older sister Rose, whose frustration with the family’s poverty leads her to make what, in hindsight, are some fairly unwise choices. When the new young and handsome landlords of the castle property arrive from the United States, Cassandra finds herself flung headlong into her first adolescent romances.
At times the narrative of I Capture the Castle combines elements of Little Women and Pride and Prejudice, but does so in a way that strengthens the relatable nature of the characters rather than feeling derivative. In particular, the dynamic between Cassandra and Rose has elements of the combative love between Jo and Meg March, respectively, while Stephen, the family’s gardener who carries a torch for Cassandra, has elements of Laurie to him; similarly, the clash between societal classes that results from the girls’ getting to know their landlords resembles the comedy of manners in Jane Austen’s seminal work, with the Mortmain family standing in for the similarly-situated Bennets of over one hundred years prior. Yet in I Capture the Castle, Cassandra comes across as a more raw and realistically muddled teenager, especially when it comes to her developing feelings for Simon, one of the castle’s new landlords.
Caroline Stevermer, A College of Magics
To date I have only met a few other people who have read A College of Magics, so being a fan of this idiosyncratic and charming novel is a rather lonely experience. To the casual observer, A College of Magics would probably resemble an all-girl version of Harry Potter set in college, but the similarities number far fewer than the very critical differences. The titular college of A College of Magics only features in the first third or so of the novel, functioning more like a prologue to the overall story than its main meat, choosing instead to center on fictionalized European politics in an at-times rather anachronistic setting. A College of Magics tells the story of Faris Nallaneen, the duchess of Galazon, who has been sent to Greenlaw College by her uncle, Galazon’s regent. While Greenlaw might seem to be a simple finishing school, it actually teaches magic, though not in the way Hogwarts or Brakebills (of The Magicians) does. In fact, students at Greenlaw seem to learn magic in spite of Greenlaw rather than because of any particular lessons in wielding magic.
But the real focus in A College of Magics is on Faris and the various friendships—and enmities—she forms while at the school and after, as she eventually comes to learn that she has a particular destiny that is at odds with her desire of simply being the duchess of Galazon. Greenlaw is basically merely where everyone meets everyone—where Faris meets Jane Brailsford, her best friend and a powerful witch in her own right; Tyrian, her bodyguard and eventual love interest; and Menary Paganell, her immediate enemy and ultimate foe—before the real narrative, chock-full of daring adventure and razor’s edge politicking, begins. Faris herself is a fairly hilarious protagonist, prone to dealing with conflict in perhaps the least convenient way. Her friendship with Jane feels completely real and enviable, and her romance with Tyrian is perfectly underplayed and emotionally affecting.
E.L. Konigsburg, The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place
The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place is one of those texts that I would loved to have seen become more popular, as I still have not met another person who has read it. The novel then suffers, perhaps, from the fact that the late E.L. Konigsburg was so prolific as a writer. Her best-known book, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, is a classic of children’s literature, while Silent to the Bone and The View from Saturday have also gotten attention from the slightly older YA set. But The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place, which is sort of a spin-off of Silent to the Bone, is Konigsburg’s most mature and thought-provoking novel that asks the reader to question the nature of art and why it is needed, while also touching on issues of gentrification, anti-immigrant sentiment, and nonconformity.
Margaret Rose Kane, the protagonist of The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place, manages to get herself basically kicked out of summer camp by taking a cue from Melville’s Bartleby, and winds up spending the rest of the summer with her Hungarian uncles Alex and Morris Rose. Alex and Morris, two wonderful brothers who deserved a whole novel of their own, have spent decades building three towers in their backyard that were once the delight of their neighborhood. But as the area changed demographics and property values became of paramount importance, the towers are now at risk of being torn down. Desperate to save the towers that were such an important part of her own life, and which mean so much to her uncles, Margaret enlists a growing coterie of allies that eventually circles back to the tyrannical summer camp from which her uncles rescued her. Konigsburg’s keen narrative takes the form of Margaret’s recollections of the events of that summer, using a curious combination of limited and omniscient perspective that I have never seen elsewhere.
Brooke Taylor, Undone
Let’s hear it for all of the YA books I have loved in my life that apparently no one else has ever read, and top the list with Undone, a heartbreaking and very real story of friendship. I believe I borrowed this book from the shelf of a friend in the eighth grade, and then promptly never, ever returned it (sorry, Aleina!). Undone masterfully takes a premise that sounds melodramatic, trite, and contrived and makes it incredibly poignant. Undone is the coming-of-age story of Serena Moore, a fairly conventional student whose edgy bad-girl best friend Kori Kitzler dies in a car accident on the way to school. Thrown into depression and hopelessness by this loss, Serena finds Kori’s list, created as a class assignment, of five things that she wanted to accomplish before she died. As a form of repair, Serena takes it upon herself to fulfill Kori’s list, which leads her on a journey through the past of the girl who was her best friend and all of the secrets she held–which are far more explosive than Serena ever could have fathomed.
Undone is such a spectacular work of YA fiction that it is a shame that it had so little impact. The author’s website no longer works, and she seemingly never wrote another novel. Luckily, Undone is still in print, and I always have my imagination, which allows me to create perfect cast for an adaptation of this book in a world where it has become required YA reading.
Honorable mentions: Elizabeth Marie Pope, The Sherwood Ring; Libba Bray, The Gemma Doyle Trilogy/Beauty Queens; Gabrielle Zevin, Elsewhere/Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac; Megan McCafferty, Sloppy Firsts/Second Helpings