Young adult authors used to be like the table of nerds at the back of the high school cafeteria: small in number, ambitious yet overlooked, and most likely to turn up at the 10-year reunion sporting sneakers and earnest political buttons. But now YA writers are in the mix: throwing food, taking risks, starting trends. Two best-selling adult writers have joined the fold, making their debuts last spring, and a new author hits the scene with a compelling fantasy.
Jodi Picoult, author of numerous adult novels, wrote “Between the Lines” with her daughter Samantha Van Leer, a high school junior. Their earnest but flawed collaboration is about a 15-year-old New Hampshire teen, Delilah McPhee, who discovers that the handsome prince in her favorite fairy tale can talk to her. Prince Oliver, 16, is doomed to repeat his story every time a Reader (capital “R”) opens his book. Like any teen he wants the freedom to choose his own life. Lonely, awkward, Delilah vows to help him escape his world to hers so he can.
Every fantasy asks readers to suspend disbelief. But this one has a lot of “huh?” moments to be truly convincing, and the explanations for the contradictions are often unsatisfying. For example, Oliver understands how to play chess because “anything that was in the author’s mind might exist in the book, even if it doesn’t show up in the proper story,” and he knows how to handle a fire extinguisher to defeat a dragon, but he doesn’t get what a sandwich is. The randomness of his knowledge is perplexing.
There are funny parts: a horse with body image issues, a pirate with a passion for dentistry, swipes at “Twilight,” etc. And the narrative format — which switches between Delilah’s and Oliver’s perspectives and the telling of the fairy tale — is fresh, while the illustrations by Yvonne Gilbert and Scott M. Fischer are in turn playful and dramatic. However, the plot, which consists of Delilah and Oliver’s numerous attempts to free him from the book, lacks suspense; Piccoult’s fans who are anticipating a final twist will be disappointed.
Nonetheless, the sincere love of books, stories, and appreciation of the relationship between author and readers that permeates “Between the Lines” might speak to bookish younger teens. “The act of reading is a partnership.” The fairy tale’s creator explains to Delilah. “The author builds a house, but the reader makes it a home.”
Two best-selling adult writers have joined the fold, making their debuts in young adults novels last spring.
In “Changeling” renown writer Philippa Gregory sticks to historical fiction. It’s 1450s Italy and Luca Vero, a teen so bright and handsome that it’s rumored that he’s a changeling, a fairy child, has been sent on the road by a secretive order of the Catholic Church to solve heretical mysteries. His first mission brings him to an abbey where the nuns are going mad, and the lady abbess, beautiful, 17-year-old Isolde, is trapped there because it is her father’s will. Though the blame for the nuns’ distress points to Isolde, her companion, Ishraq, and witchcraft, Luca uses logic and an understanding of human greed to root out the real guilty parties.
Isolde and Ishraq become Luca’s travel companions — at least until they can reach Isolde’s godfather, who she hopes can help her gain her rightful inheritance from her treacherous brother. A robbery, possible werewolf, and forbidden attraction bring this series opener to its conclusion.
The story consists more of problem solving than drama, and the lead characters are overshadowed by their best friends, who add intrigue and humor. Ishraq is a “Moorish girl” with myriad talents, and Luca’s servant Freize is a loyal, big-hearted buffoon. Like in many of her adult historical books, Gregory examines a past society through the freedoms it allows or doesn’t allow women. “People don’t understand women who are neither wives nor mothers, daughters nor confined.” Ishraq tells Isolde. “People fear women of passion, women of education.” The promise of more adventures sets the series up smoothly for the next volume.
Finally, newcomer Leigh Bardugo’s rich fantasy, “Shadow and Bone,” features an adolescent heroine who, like Delilah, feels that she doesn’t belong. Orphan Alina Starkov thinks her best friend Malyen “Mal” Oretsev, who has transformed from a stocky boy into a handsome tracker, is the extraordinary one. However, when their army convoy attempts to cross the Shadow Fold, a monster-filled swath of blackness that divides their country of Ravka from the True Sea, it’s Alina who reveals abilities she did not even know she had to save his life. She’s a Sun Summoner, someone who can bring forth light. She’s whisked off to join the Grisha, elite beings with magical talents, by their merciless leader, the Darkling. Alina may think, “I’m not the world-changing type,” but she finds herself in a glittering world of jealousy, deception, and power where she’s Ravka’s only hope of defeating the Fold for good.
Tension builds as Alina struggles to master her talent, figure out whom she can trust, and make sense of her emotions. Young-adult readers are used to (and dare I say fed up with) love triangles, but the dynamic between Mal, Alina, and the Darkling kicks it up a notch. Alina has loved Mal since childhood, but feels pulled toward the Darkling even after he makes demands her conscience will not let her meet.
Plenty is left to be explained or resolved by the next title in the projected series. “But you have suffered, haven’t you, Alina Starkov?” a priest asks her. “And I think…yes. I think you will suffer more.” If readers are lucky, Bardugo will not make them wait too long to find out whether his prediction is true.