So often in young adult novels, main characters are the centers of their universes. They are divine, with their interests, school work, and supernatural powers placing them apart — if not high above — their peers.
They can ditch their families to run off with vampires and still, their greatest concern is themselves.
That’s part of the growing appeal of the genre, of course. For younger readers the attraction is obvious; for adult fans, who must be constantly concerned about the welfare of others in their real lives, the books represent a break in which they can live vicariously through teen characters who are quite comfortable luxuriating in their own heads.
But occasionally empathy isn’t so bad, as evidenced by some recent YA releases, including German author Wolfgang Herrndorf’s first American novel, “Why We Took The Car,” and one finalist and a near-finalist for the National Book Award with heroines so well connected to others that compassion is their superpower.
In Herrndorf’s “Car,” teenager Mike Klingenberg is a nobody. When his mom checks into rehab and his dad leaves him home alone, Mike is lured into a road trip by another unpopular kid, a Russian student he calls Tschick, who persuades him to hop into a stolen car for a journey across Germany.
The trip isn’t that interesting, but the book works because Mike proves a sensitive and thoughtful observer. He notices people and dissects their motivations until he gets lost in his own empathy. He feels deeply for his mother, who struggles with addiction and an uncommitted husband. He thinks about what it will mean to age and tells detailed stories about his former teachers and the kids in his class because he’s always paying attention. He talks about the motivation of people he meets on his journey.
“Ever since I was a little boy my father had told me that the world was a bad place. The world is bad and people are bad. . . . And maybe it was true, maybe ninety-nine percent of people were bad. But the strange thing was on that trip. Tschick and I had run into almost only people from the one percent who weren’t bad. . . . Maybe they should tell you about things like that in school too, just so you’re not totally surprised by it.”
Herrndorf’s Mike would make a fine fictional friend for Mila, the heroine in Meg Rosoff’s National Book Award finalist “Picture Me Gone.” Mila accompanies her dad from their London home to the United States to help him find his missing friend, Matthew, who’s coping with a bad marriage and the loss of a child. He might be somewhere taking his own life — or maybe he’s bluffing to seek attention. Mila’s great ability to read people and to perceive beyond simple small talk turns her into a Nancy Drew who can save him.
“I look at a picture and I see the things that aren’t visible at that moment,’’ she says of her talent for perception. “It’s not that I’m some sort of mystic; I just see a constellation of tiny facts too small for other people to notice.”
It’s Mila’s aptitude for asking questions and deducing the motivation of others that allows the reader to get to know her. There are very few “I” statements in her repertoire, but we learn quickly that she is deeply aware that she is lucky that she has two parents who are in love. We know that she cares for a best friend who can’t always reciprocate. And we know that she is forgiving. As soon as she learns that the most trustworthy adult in her life has lied to her, she forgives.
In “The Summer Prince,” longlisted for the National Book Award, Alaya Dawn Johnson creates a dystopian Brazil where women rule because men have made a mess of the world. The leaders are called Aunties, and society queens are chosen by “kings,” young men who volunteer — and actually compete — to have their throats sliced so that they can point to a woman and name her ruler before they die.
It’s sort of a “Hunger Games” scenario, but everyone is a willing participant. Johnson’s narrator June Costa talks about these kings as if they’re members of One Direction. Everyone goes gaga for them, and they get to party and enjoy promiscuity throughout their short reign.
June turns out to be the anti-Katniss Everdeen. Unlike Katniss — who can’t even perceive enough to know that a boy likes her (at least in book one) — June participates in a revolution by sensing every little thing. She hopes to use her art to help her leaders understant the lives of their subjects.
At times, June despises her mother, perhaps irrationally, like a teenager might, but she truly considers every little movement, every conversation. “Her lips unbend slightly,” June says, of her mother. “I wouldn’t dare call it a smile, but it’s a little looser than her habitual expression. I guard myself against it.”
Even the novel’s hearthrob, the beautiful, subversive King Enki, is an emblem of empathy. In Johnson’s futuristic world, there are “mods” and “bots” — devices that can heighten people’s appearances and senses. Enki has chosen to use that technology to heighten his ability to feel the entire city. It’s empathy on the grandest scale and turns out to be just as thrilling as young adult self-absorption.