Whitney Youth Speculative Fiction Finalists 2011

And here’s segment three of my Whitney finalist reviews, following earlier installments on general fiction and general youth fiction. There are some story spoilers. It’s all my own opinions. None of these publisher made electronic copies available, which was a bit of a pain, but we prevailed! And again, please chime in with your opinions, whether they agree with mine or not.

My Unfair Godmother by Janette Rallison

Back when my oldest child was very young, occasionally he’d get very mad at his parents. He’d become even more upset when his threats to break one of his favorite toys, or do something else that was going to hurt him more than us, proved strangely ineffectual in bending us to his will.

You’d think that by the time reach their teenage years, they’d be past that kind of thinking. And yet ample experience proves this not to be the case. Far too much self-harming behavior gets done by adolescents on the apparent theory that it’s worth it, so long as it makes Mom and Dad upset.

17-year-old Tansy Miller Harris is a case in point. Upset at her parents’ divorce and the subsequent absence of her father from her life, as a 13-year-old she gave up the story reading that the two had enjoyed together. Later, shipped off to live with him again, she starts dating bad-boy Bo, basically as a way of being rebellious. Alas, she does not have true rebelliousness in her soul. Things start going wrong when Bo and his friends vandalize city hall, then leave her to get picked up for it — a situation that’s particular ironic since she was trying to talk them out of it at the time.

And then a semi-qualified fairy godmother shows up to give her three wishes. Which only makes things worse.

At their best, the lighthearted, everything-going-wrong voice and style are often quite good, with a high density of zinger lines. Example: “The skulls on his T-shirt and the holes in his jeans might proclaim he was a bad boy, but his hair asserted he was a bad boy with a standing monthly appointment at Lenora’s Uptown Style Salon” (p. 7). It puts a pleasantly absurd light on the trials of adolescence — without denying the underlying reality of issues like making good choices and not being taken in by illusions about who people are — and the clash between fairy tales and reality, as when Robin Hood and his Merry Men, brought to Tansy’s community by her first careless wish, start robbing places like Walgreen’s.

Unfortunately, the combination works only intermittently for me. Partly it’s the fairy tale elements, which on the whole aren’t handled realistically enough to provoke thought or imaginatively enough to be entertaining. Mostly, though, it’s Tansy, whom I neither like nor believe in as a character.

By the time I was three-fourths of the way through this book, I had grown to really dislike it, though I put that down largely to taste and gender. At that point, it was my sense that this story would only be liked by readers with a strong inherent interest in the tropes of girlhood — as opposed to the creation of a realistic teenage female character, which is rather a different matter.

And then I read the rest of the book, on a different day. And my reaction was notably different. Maybe it was partly that the main characters in the story had stopped acting so consistently shallow, stupid, and self-centered. I think it’s more likely, though, that it’s my perspective on the book itself that shifted.

This is a story that’s entirely about the moral(s), which are largely about making right choices and not looking to fairy-tale solutions to your problems, whether those consist of a fairy godmother or a biker boyfriend. Keeping that in mind — and accepting that the magical element and various plot twists are intended to keep readers amused while driving in those morals — I find it easier not to care that both the magic and the characters lack sense, and actually wound up enjoying the ending. I can even agree that it’s well written for what it is, though I probably won’t seek out the other books in this series, which include a previous book (My Fair Godmother, featuring the same fairy godmother but apparently not the same main characters) and clearly is planned to include at least one more future book. And it’s still not a good example of what I look for in a fantasy story.

Shifting by Bethany Wiggins

17-year-old Maggie Mae, an orphan since the age of 5, has a mysterious secret: the ability, and sometimes uncontrollable urge, to change into animal form. It’s a gift that has brought her numerous problems, including a poor reputation from being picked up multiple times naked after a night of shape-changing. However, she doesn’t think her ability could actually be life-threatening until her final foster care transfer, a few months before she turns 18, to a town in rural New Mexico, where she encounters understanding from her foster care provider, odd animosity from a girl at school, and a strange mix of attraction, friendship, and standoffishness from Bridger, scion of a wealthy local family — and signs that she’s being tracked by both humans and animals who mean her ill.

This is a case of a pretty good story handicapped by not-terribly-good writing. Maybe it’s a matter of preferences, but it’s also my sense that the speculative story is better written than  the teen romance element, which relies heavily on cliches and on characters acting in stereotypical ways, as opposed to ways that make sense for them in their circumstances. For instance, I don’t really understand why the main character keeps giving Bridger the benefit of a doubt after two separate people have warned her that he has a habit of dating and dumping — and then after he actually ditches her at a dance. The book could have been a lot better if the author had spent some time asking herself, “How would my character really act in these circumstances?” — and then adjusted the plot as needed to make the story work. It’s also my prejudice that the story would be stronger if the relationship between Maggie Mae and Bridger was kept primarily at the level of friendship, rather than romance. Honestly, both these kids need a friend more than they need a squeeze.

Slayers by C.J. Hill

For some reason unknown to me, this release from Feiwel and Friends — an imprint of Macmillan — proved enormously difficult to track down, at least not without actually buying the book (something I’m reluctant to do pre-reading just to be able to vote for the Whitneys). It wasn’t in the database of local public libraries in western Wisconsin, and only one copy — noncirculating, in Madison — was listed in the University of Wisconsin database. I finally had to resort to interlibrary loan, which brought me a book from the Salt Lake County Library. Sales numbers at Amazon.com were also weaker than for any other finalist in this category except Shifting. (Best was Tuesdays at the Castle, followed by Variant — for whatever the Amazon rankings are worth.) I don’t know enough to know if this adds up to problematic sales for this book.

The premise: Dragons are real, though most people don’t know about them. They’re evil and destructive. They were supposed to have all been killed back in the middle ages by the slayers, individuals with special bred abilities — but the dragon lords, able telepathically to control dragons, kept a few eggs, hidden on the island of St. Helena. And now a dragon lord is planning to take over the United States, with the help of  dragons. All that stands in his way are a group of teenage slayers — including main point of view character Tori, daughter of a U.S. Senator, who found out about her abilities only this summer when her parents finally indulged her desire to come to a summer camp about dragons that provides a cover for training young slayers.

The writing in this book is pretty good. Certainly the story grabbed me from the beginning and kept me reading. I’ll come back to that in a minute, but first, I want to talk some about other elements.

The book seems weaker in terms of basic assumptions and speculative rigor. Maybe it’s because I just don’t find Dan Brown-style conspiracies all that credible, and am dubious about the effort it would take to hide/ignore the existence of dragons as an active force in not-that-long-ago history. Mostly, it feels like I’m being asked to accept an awful lot of givens simply to make the story work.

A lot of people think that speculative fiction is about ignoring the rules of reality as needed to tell the story you want to tell. That’s not the case, however, at the more respected levels of the genre(s). Whether science fiction or fantasy, there’s a sense of rigor that typically applies in one of two ways: either a coherent, consistent, and well-thought-out secondary world (a la Tolkien or Herbert), or logical extrapolation of a limited number of differences from our own known world (a la Stephen King or Arthur C. Clarke). This book suggests the latter option, but keeps adding more and more cool stuff on an as-needed basis: the existence of dragons, superpowers that come in twinned pairs, prophetic dreams, dragon lords with telepathic control of dragons, and more. It’s less an extrapolation than a pop-down features menu that is seen as having no real-world consequences outside those explored for this story.

When it comes down to it, I simply don’t buy all of the author’s manipulations to try to ensure that only a specific set of teenagers, using swords and arrows no less, can actually kill the dragons. Very convenient, the way that a dragon’s roar creates an electromagnetic pulse to knock out helicopters, missiles, and such — particularly given that such an ability would have brought no evolutionary advantages prior to the last 150 years or so. And how would the good guys know about this ability and its limitations, sufficient to know that modern weaponry won’t work against it? Have they ever heard of shielding? A lot of this feels like stuff that has to be this way because the author wants it that way, not because it’s been carefully thought through.

On the other hand, if you can get past that — if you can simply accept the superpowers and the enemy as given — the book works well as high-powered adventure/conflict fiction, like Power Rangers if it were written well and at a level anyone over the age of 10 could stand (which, admittedly, is to say: not that much like Power Rangers at all).

I also admit to being bothered on a parental level by “good guys” who train teenagers (and preteens, apparently) to meet mortal dangers, employing guilt games, a sense of duty, and isolation tactics while telling them not to tell their parents about it, on the (perfectly reasonable) grounds that their parents wouldn’t let them do any such thing. The justification that they’re trying to save the world frankly doesn’t cut it in my view. It’s not so much the danger factor that bothers me — I can accept that as part of the basic premise — but rather the notion that somehow the people running the dragon camp are magically the only ones who know the right way to fight the dragons, the right way to train to fight the dragons, and therefore deserve to take control over the slayers’ lives. What bothers me most is the the author doesn’t seem to acknowledge just how ethically problematic this is.

Despite all of which, I wound up mostly liking the book in the end. It’s well written on a sentence level, action packed, and the characterization, while partly cliched, was a lot more consistent and interesting than a lot of YA fiction. There’s some nice secondary stuff having to do with conflicts of loyalty that also helps this to be more than just an action book. I wouldn’t be averse to reading the inevitable books to follow in this series.

Tuesdays at the Castle by Jessica Day George

Castle Glower chooses the king. So what does it mean when — after word comes that King Glower the 79th has been killed, along with his wife and one of their children — the crown prince Rolf’s room doesn’t change to indicate his new status? Particularly when princes from neighboring kingdoms come for the king’s funeral, and stay to “help”?

This is a fun, actually a delightful, middle grades book that reads like a cross between Joan Aiken and Diana Wynn Jones, in their more whimsical moods. Which, let me tell you, is very high praise indeed. Told from the point of view of Celie, Rolf’s 11-year-old sister, who has a special bond with the castle, the main focus of the story is on Celie, Rolf, and their sister Lilah’s resistance to the plots of those who are trying to steal the kingdom. Fortunately, they have a very magical castle for an ally…

After I was more than halfway through the book, I noticed something interesting. The castle is a great prop, almost a character in itself — but what it mostly does, in the end, is assist the children in their plans. There is no doing for them. An important thematic point, and one that makes me like this book even more. I heartily recommend Tuesdays at the Castle for anyone who likes this type of fiction. This book is good enough to be a classic of its kind.

Variant by Robison Wells

Benson Fisher is about 16, by my guess, though if we were ever told I don’t remember. (We probably were told, and I just missed it. I need to start making notes of things like this for when it gets time for me to write the review.)

Anyway. He’s about 16, or maybe a little older. He’s been in foster care since he was 5. And so, completely on his own, he applies to attend a private boarding school, Maxfield Academy.

Of course, it doesn’t turn out the way he’d expected. It’s a lot worse. Like, Lord of the Flies-worse. There aren’t any teachers or other adults, and no learning either, although the students are required to attend “classes” where another student is the teacher. Instructions are delivered via a televised system. Teenagers take on contracts for needed work to keep the place running, in exchange for points that allow them to buy things via a computerized system. The school is split into three gangs: the Society, who enforce the rules; Havoc, who party and head-bang; and the Variants. Benson joins them because they seem better than the alternatives. And unlike most of the rest of them, he keeps trying to escape.

There’s a point in most novels where I get nervous enough that I have to skip ahead and read the ending. Yes, I know, it’s a sign that I’m morally corrupt. You want me to read your story, you put up with my little quirks.

Anyway. The point is that I’m fairly sure that if it weren’t for my resolve to vote for this year’s Whitneys, I would have stopped reading this book shortly after jumping ahead to read the ending. Not because the ending is bad, or because I wasn’t enjoying the story, but rather because this is clearly one of those books that introduces a basic mystery to which you and the characters, sadly, won’t find out the answer until some as-yet-unpublished sequel. Or maybe its sequel. Or the sequel beyond that. (I’ve since been told that there’s only one book coming after this one, so hopefully we get the answers then.)

This is a truly excellent book — very nearly as good as John Wayne Cleaver books by Rob’s brother Dan. The story is a page-turner, the situation is gripping, and the main character is both interesting and sympathetic. And he’s not a serial killer! Or a psychopath. Aren’t you glad?

One of the things I really liked about this book was the style, which frankly came as a relief after some of the other writing in the youth fiction categories. Lines like “I wasn’t a boyfriend mourning for a lost love; I was a dupe, mourning my own blindness” (p. 223) succinctly capture Benson Fisher’s personal window on the world. Benson’s driven, alert, suspicious — slightly paranoid, but with good reason — character comes through vividly, realistically, and sympathetically. As a reader, I don’t get a sense of Benson as a character-construct, but as a living and breathing personality. Which is kind of ironic, given the doubts that the book’s ending raises for me…

General Comments and Observations

  • Publishers: All of these books were from mainstream national publishers.
  • Genre: Tuesdays at the Castle is a middle grades novel. The rest are all YA novels, though reading Variant made me ponder on the often subtle differences in speculative fiction between YA and adult-with-a-teen-protagonist a la Dan Wells’s John Wayne Cleaver books. Variant and Slayers are contemporary science fiction, Shifting and My Unfair Godmother are contemporary fantasy, and Tuesdays at the Castle is other-world medieval-style fantasy.
  • Point of view: 4 of the 5 books use the first-person POV that has become standard for YA fiction, with the single exception being Tuesdays at the Castle.
  • Central conflict and tropes: Speculative fiction inevitably involves some kind of external struggle for the characters, whether that’s against a dragon and its master (Slayers), evil shape-shifters (Shifted), the need to get back to one’s own time while fending off King John (My Unfair Godmother), plotters against the king (Tuesdays at the Castle), or evil android jailors in a fake school (Variant). That said, the focus of both Shifted and My Unfair Godmother is on internal development and/or self-acceptance. Both Shifted and Slayers involve a main character coming to terms with a heritage of specific gifts/superpowers. In all of the books except My Unfair Godmother, the central conflict includes a stuggle against conspiracy or group of evildoers.
  • Gender: In all cases, the point-of-view protagonist follows the gender of the author, which means 4 female leads and one male lead. (C. J. Hill is female, as her website clarifies; I should also acknowledge that she devotes some space to secondary male point of view characters.) One of out 5 guys is better than zero out of 5 (as was the case in general youth fiction), but perhaps more surprising in light that speculative fiction generally features a strong male presence. I have to wonder again: does this gender balance this is reflects the state of youth speculative fiction in general, gender (im)balance among LDS writers of same, tastes of the Whitney judges, or simply the way things turned out this year?
  • Romance: Dating and relationships play a substantial role in all 4 of the YA novels, though in the case of Slayers it’s mostly a matter of interest and potential. In Shifted and My Unfair Godmother, development of a relationship is one of the major plot strands and a significant story outcome.
  • Characterization: Interestingly, I find the characterization in these books better overall than in the general youth fiction category, though there’s still a lot of engagement with cliche. Maybe writers showing teenagers doing something tend to portray them more realistically than stories where the focus is simply on being a teenager…
  • Mormon connection: No discernible Mormon connections here. I can’t even say these stories are about Mormon values, or for that matter are different in substantial ways from what you might find in a recommended list of youth speculative fiction from any non-Mormon source, except for the absence of explicit sex — and even that might not make make a noticeable difference, since a lot of speculative fiction (youth and not) isn’t big on the sex anyway.
  • General assessment: Another strong collection of books, with all except Shifting displaying good writing on the sentence, paragraph, and scene level, and with several featuring spot-on characterization for their specific genre. How individual readers respond to this set of finalists will likely say more about the kinds of fiction they prefer than about relative levels of quality among the writers. I think it’s more than just genre preferences, however, that make me put Tuesdays at the Castle and Variant at the top of the list in terms of writing craft.

10 thoughts on “Whitney Youth Speculative Fiction Finalists 2011”

  1. I really, really like Variant, but as I said before, I very might well have voted for Crossed by Ally Condie (had it been actually nominated and had I asked to be a voter this year).

  2. Wm,

    Did you read the others? I’m particularly interested in whether you agree with my high assessment of Tuesdays at the Catsle.

  3. I have not read the others. I may pick up Tuesdays, but am not really interested in the others.

  4. I loved Tuesdays as well, and I agree with your assessment of the Castle as a powerful force that somehow avoids becoming a deus ex machina.

    Another thing I appreciated about Tuesdays was that Jessica Day George managed to put her child protagonists in positions of having to solve big problems without having it seemed forced (particularly without making all the adults in the story incompetent, which is a particular pet peeve of mine).

  5. As you may know, C. J. Hill is a pen name for Janette Rallison, so she has two books in this category. She is open on her blog about using the pseudonym, so I am not outing her.

  6. Did not know that, Andrew. Thanks for the information. The two are quite different in tone and style, so it makes sense that she would use different names.

  7. Jonathan,

    Thank you for writing such a well-thought-out, thought-provoking review of SHIFTING. It has really made me reflect on my writing. Plus, it’s pretty cool being mentioned on this blog. I hope you get a chance to read and review my next book–I would love to ponder your thoughts on it. Cheers and happy reading!


  8. I have nearly finished reading Tuesdays at the Castle (read beginning and end, and most of the middle–my own crazy reading style.) I also picked up Variants at the library on the same trip, based on a Horn Book review. I had completely forgotten your review. I’ll read that next. I really enjoyed Tuesdays at the Castle. As you point out, the child protagonists are solving their own problems, but not merely because the adults around them are incompetent or clueless. I think we discussed once before that one of the first things that has to happen in an adventure book for children is to get the parents out of the way. I’ve enjoyed other books by the same author as well. I’m not sure that the “Mormon experience” and speculative fiction go together very well. I’m not sure I would dare make God a character in a fantasy novel. It seems really cheeky. Although I do confess that there are many times when I am reading that I really wish I could hand the main character a copy of the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet and tell them to get their act together.

    I am also aware of several books by LDS authors that could be on this list, but are not. I guess the Whitneys really aren’t attempting to highlight best sellers, so much as things that would be otherwise overlooked.

    So many books. so little time.

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