I didn’t have much of a YA phase when I was an actual young adult. By my teens I wanted Stephen King and Noam Chomsky and whatever else people my age weren’t supposed to be able to handle, just as I craved R-rated movies and staying up past midnight. I wanted meatier fiction with more robust characters and plots, and for authors to do more with their prose. It’s only in recent years that I’ve tried to acquire a taste, or at least a respect for YA.
Among titles about teens, few excited me as much as Among Others. It stormed the early 2012 awards, and as soon as it was available at my library I seized the peach-colored paperback. I found a folding chair and carried the book down to the lake, away from phones and computer and human distractions. After slathering my Irish self with sun tan lotion, I sat back to read of Jo Walton’s faerie-loving bookworm. “Morwenna,” what an exotic name, and she was so reserved, so sympathetically introverted and brave and well-read and well-meaning and timid and enchanting and wise within her inexperience. She was the archetype of a child, and I could think of no adolescent trait she lacked.
A few dozen pages and a stiff wake shaking the dock later, I looked up from the paperback. Behind me in the woods there was a girl screaming at her wrinkled grandmother. The girl could have been the age I imagined Walton’s protagonist to be, though she behaved nothing like what I’d been imagining as she wriggled in her grandmother’s grip. I also hadn’t imagined Morwenna in a pink bathing suit.
Most of what she screamed was raw noise, not words, since protest is often the chief weapon of children. There were stray phrases about how unfair she was, and how she was mean and she wished she were dead. The grandmother was less audible over the shrieking, but I made out that the girl had been swimming for an hour and they’d be late for something if they didn’t leave now. “But I’m sorry,” I heard as they trekked towards a car in a hail of juvenile wailing.
For several moments afterward it was difficult to look at Among Others, not unlike the difficulty of meeting someone in the eyes after a humiliation. I clucked my tongue at this portrait of a fictional girl and the display of a real one in stereo.
“Realism,” I said. I had to laugh to myself. Fiction is harder to get into when you’re hit with the reasons people mistake it for lies.
It's since come to my attention that Jo Walton does not consider her novel to be YA.