I know I've said this before, but YA stuff is really hit or miss for me. There are big swaths of stuff in the YA department that is really only there for marketing reasons (Code Name Verity, which, I don't care who you are, if you haven't read it, read it right now) or that is fantasy and science fiction (The Hunger Games is a great example), and these tend to stand on a book by book basis for me--sometimes I like them and sometimes I don't, but it's not their "YA-ness" behind that reaction.
The problem generally starts coming up in realistic novels, usually that take place in high school. Not all of them, but more than most other kinds of book, I'm likely to find myself drifting off from something that's well-written and straightforward just because it feels so foreign and distant to me. I'm much more likely to feel that way about a high school novel than I am about something that takes place in feudal Japan or a Brazilian slum.
I'm reading two books now that both fit into this category, and I wish I could pick apart why my reactions are so different. The first one, The Tragedy Paper, is an ARC of a novel by Elizabeth Laban. I'm having a tough time with this one, for all YA-ish reasons.
The main character of the book is Duncan, who's just arrived for his senior year at boarding school, and finds a gift from the former inhabitant of his room. Tim MacBeth (and OMG, two characters named Duncan and MacBeth? You're putting some pressure on yourself when you pick those names for your book) was albino, transferred to the school for the last part of senior year, and has always been kind of an outcast. There are many ominous hints of a big Something that happened at the end of the school year, but we don't know what it is yet--the CDs that Tim left for Duncan telling his story are apparently going to get around to that. So far, though, it's just about liking a girl and being sure she won't like him because he looks strange.
The characters feel small, and their problems are in very large part
caused by self-consciousness and nerves. It's their emotional states,
really--their problems are treated with respect, as though they were
important. But what seemed important when I was in high school often
seems kind of small right now, and I can't help but think, "if you'd
just get comfortable with yourself, you wouldn't really have any
The other book is called Beautiful Music for Ugly Children, by Kirstin Cronn-Mills, and this one is all about becoming comfortable with yourself. But this book is absolutely fantastic. The narrator, Gabe, is graduating high school and starting his own midnight radio show at the local station. He's also starting the process of transitioning from being Liz, a biological female. While Gabe's problems are all about awkwardness and discomfort, they feel way more earned. Being nervous about liking a girl is a much bigger deal if you've been going to high school as a girl for years and are now trying to flirt with the girl you're interested in while presenting as a guy.
The tension between Gabe and his parents (who still call him Liz), the support of his friends, the sense of pressure and excitement--they all feel earned, not manufactured. That's an authenticity that I don't have to imagine the hormone soup of adolescence to appreciate. I'm zipping through this book and I just can't put it down.
I've been rewatching Buffy the Vampire Slayer for the past few weeks; damn, that show is good. There are so many moments this time through, though, where I'm reminded that these are kids. Most of the romantic scenes (especially the ones that do not involve anyone 100 years of age or older) just remind me that each of these couples totals my age between them, and that breaking up means something different at 17 than it does at 35. There's enough great stuff going on, and the story is told well enough, that these feelings are fleeting, but it's a good reminder that relevance is relative, and my feelings about something are not directly related to some objective standard of poignancy that's out there.
I don't know if I'll finish The Tragedy Paper. There are bits of it that are rather heavy-handed--apparently every senior at this school has to do a final project, legendary in scope and importance, about the definition of a tragedy in literature. It feels kind of put on--I know plenty of high schools that have a Big Scary Senior Project, but none where everyone has to do the same thing. And at this point, I just don't trust the book enough to assume that the Big Mystery is going to balance out the feelings and tension that are going into it, both from the characters and me.
But I'll likely be finished Beautiful Music for Ugly Children by tomorrow. And it'll likely be because I stayed up way too late reading it. There's my review right there.