(Or Reaffirmed The Fact)
((In Roughly Reverse Order))
4 & 5
The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater and Carry On by Rainbow Rowell
I’m pairing the four books of Stiefvater's Raven Cycle and Rowell’s Carry On for two reasons: (1) I read them for the first time the same year, just a few months apart, and (2) they reaffirmed the same main emphasis.
That emphasis being that YA lit could be complex and told complexly, with alternate character POVs, and lots of tangled history behind the infrastructure of the story that holds up the main narrative. As a writer who was struggling with writing a tangled, multi-character narrative that was more heavy on character than plot, I was so frustrated by conventional wisdom about YA lit -- the narrative needed to be simple, follow one character, not head hop, and so on. I was so pleased, reading these book, to realize that these complicated stories were things you were allowed to write as a writer, and that readers want to read.
More individually, The Raven Cycle enriched me with a beautiful, clever, original prose style that I want to make love to. Carry On, in how it riffs on Harry Potter and fandom, showed me that they words of fan culture and original story were not opposites, but could flow together.
Both of these YA marvels were door openers.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
This book came out a few years ago to some acclaim, popularity, and award-winning, and it showed me what was possible in genre-mashing story. I was formally trained in literary fiction in my undergraduate writing program, but my reading interests have always fell on to the sides of things not considered the highest quality amongst the literary elite: ya, children’s, scifi, fantasy, chick lit, mystery, and fanfiction.
In this post-apocalypse story in which a band of actors and musicians in a traveling caravan try to live out the importance of art and meaning in a world previously decimated by a sudden epidemic and the following violence, Station Eleven takes the best of speculative fiction -- the imagination and what ifs -- and the best of literary fiction -- the character focus and thematic resonance -- and put them together. Additionally, it didn’t focus on action plot beats like post-apocalypse fiction usually does and injected the ending with a big dollop of hope. Station Eleven showed me the potential for stories and how they did not have to be neatly packaged into one genre box or the other, with all the surrounding conventions.
Literally, when I got to the end of this book I said to myself, “This is the kind of book I want to write, but I didn’t know I was allowed!” What a freeing read.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
I feel like so-called “classics” are getting a bad rap as of late as things that no one actually wants to read or likes reading. But, heck, I sure liked this one when it was assigned to my AP Lit class in my senior year of high school. I’ve since then had to reread it for college, and have reread it for myself.
It is not so much this entire book -- which is slim and bit a heavy on detail and a bit slow on plot and very much a portrait and condemnation of the time and place and the people -- but moments in it. Moments profound and powerful in their twisting poetic prose, in their themes, and in how they pay off for what had been built to before.
I think that’s an important thing to a note of a book that has slow or beleaguered parts that ultimately have a wallop of a payoff at some point -- that the payoff is robbed of its power if that build up hadn’t been put in place.
But, yeah, I totally flip back to different passages and pace around reading them outloud because they’re so good.
“And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly into the past.” ←I know you can’t tell, but I totally typed that from memory. No lookups.
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
Ah, the mother of them all. The Outsiders is often considered first modern YA novel. While in the big picture this novel about a group of brothers and friends struggling with poverty, classism, and gang violence in 1969 Tulsa may have helped birth a genre, it was also the novel that showed me that books could be profound.
It was assigned reading by my 8th grade teacher. For years before then I had been a greedy reader of Nancy Drew and other mysteries, American Girl and other historical fiction, as well as Lord of the Rings and other fantasy. Being such a vicarious reader, what made The Outsiders such a changing point for me? Perhaps it was the character focus. Perhaps it was the realism. Whatever it was, I definitely had that ‘I’m being moved by great literature’ moment that most English teachers probably hope to inspire in their students.
Knowing that a book, a story, a narrative could have that much power, could mean so much, could real, could move me… well, it was something I wanted to try my hand at too.
Insights from the life of an aspiring, struggling writer; a passionate reader, and a working librarian.
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