What Good Young Adult Fiction Looks Like.

My friend Alexandra Bracken (herself a soon-to-be published Young Adult fiction author) points out, via Twitter, this discussion on OhNoTheyDidn’t titled “Misogyny in Young Adult Books”:

What we are heartily sick of, however, are feeble and inept teenage-girl main characters, whose lives come into focus only through the addition of some melodramatic attraction to a charismatic male figure who seems to carry all the personality in the relationship. Stiefvater’s heroine Grace is even more insipid and insulting than Stephenie Meyer’s Bella, who at least manages to commence Twilight with a predilection for the Brontes and an occasional demonstration of feistiness, even if she almost immediately devolves into a sobbing mess who hangs about in the more sordid corners of Forks awaiting rescue and who states repeatedly that she cannot live without vampire-beau Edward after spending all of a biology period with him.

On a semantic note, I’m not sure that these kinds of portrayals can properly be called misogynistic, in that they don’t seem to portray an active hatred of or bias toward women.  But they are, at the very least, worrying, reductive, and offensive, and are obviously not useful role models, especially when Hermione is right there.

However!  This post is nothing but a roundabout way for me to mention Diana Wynne Jones – my favorite childhood author, a strong influence on Neil Gaiman, and very possibly the best prose stylist the young-adult fantasy world has to offer, J.K. Rowling be damned.  Jones’s work abounds with smart, fiery girls and women, from Sophie in Howl’s Moving Castle to Gwendolyn Chant in Charmed Life (the best, in my mind, of the glorious Chrestomanci series).  But by far her greatest achievement is the Dalemark Quartet, and the best book in that quartet is the strange, otherworldly The Spellcoats.

The Spellcoats is set far in the past on the island of Dalemark (roughly analogous to England) and tells the story of Tanaqui the weaver who, with her siblings, has to defeat the evil mage Kankredin.  The magic in this book, as in the whole quartet, is a powerful and mysterious thing – there are no wands or swords here, just old and half-forgotten spells that rent the earth when they’re unlocked.  And the writing throughout is just beautiful, sharply drawn and meticulously plotted.

‘Stand still,’ I said.  It suddenly seemed to me that it was not only Hern’s angry movements that were making the squelching round the boat.  Hern knew too.  He stood bolt upright with his face all tearstained, staring at me.  We felt a small shiver run along the banks of the River.  The mud clucked, quietly, and a little soft lapping ran through the low green water.  There were yards of bare mud on both sides of the River, but, in a way I do not know how to describe, it looked different to us.  The trees on the other bank were stirring and lifting and expecting something.

‘The floods are coming down,’ said Hern.

So the takeaway lesson is: when you have kids, buy them Diana Wynne Jones books to read.  Or pick them up yourself.  I do, every so often, and unlike some of the books I devoured as a kid (The Boxcar Children, most of Avi’s bibliography) they hold up well.