A YA Adventure!

I don’t focus my book purchases on a particular genre so Young Adult (YA) – bring it on. My mom got me this book for Christmas and neither of us knew it was YA. I’ve read some of Isabel Allende‘s other novels and just assumed it would fall under the ‘adult fiction’ literature, and I mean that in the cleanest sense.

But City of Beasts is the first in a trilogy featuring Alexander Cold. Allende’s dedication lists three names who asked her for this story. I had heard Stephen King wrote The Eyes of the Dragon for his daughter and actors often talk about doing a family-friendly film so their children can see it (I’m looking at you, Rock). So I get it. Maybe I’ll do it someday.
So I worried that the book for would too young to engage me. Luckily, City of the Beasts contains a lot of Allende’s strengths: solid storytelling, compelling characters and a sense of magic and/or magical realism.

Due to Alexander Cold’s sick mother, he is sent to travel with his adventuring grandmother who works for a National Geographic-like magazine. She is searching for the Beast. There is mystery and deception and mind-altering drugs and dangerous climbs up steep mountains. The plot kept moving and Allende’s descriptions of South America were riveting.

YA novels fills in a nebulous space in literature. Not yet a girl, not yet a woman, and all that. Kay E. Vandergrift with Rutgers has some interesting points:

Young adult literature is often thought of as a great abyss between the wonderfully exciting and engaging materials for children and those for adults–just as young adults are often ignored in planning library facilities and services. There is, however, a wealth of fiction created especially for teens that deals with the possibilities and problems of contemporary life as experienced by this age group. These contemporary problem novels reflect the troubled times in which young readers are coming of age, but young people also need to laugh at themselves and at their world and to escape that world in flights of fancy.

Allende certainly includes flights of fancy with Alexander Cold’s dealings with the natives. In smaller, but still obvious ways, she does address some issues on a fifteen year-old boy’s mind: sexuality, girls, recognizing the adults are fallible.

With greater freedom in both content and form, young adult literature is moving into a closer connection with adult literature, and fluent readers in this age group may read primarily adult books. Societal changes and the mass media have, in some ways, pushed young people to an earlier maturity, or at least a facade of maturity. What might once have been thought appropriate for a fourteen-year-old is now appropriate for a considerably younger reader. Often, however, what is perceived as knowledge or maturity is only at a surface level, and young readers need a great deal of time for the distancing and reflection possible through literature. Nicole St. John wrote about teenagers as “inexperienced adults,” and literature provides a safe haven to accrue experience.

I would agree with this point of teenagers as ‘inexperienced adults.’ It makes me feel old when I hear young children talking with authority (however false) about things I know I didn’t know at their age. Literature is a medium meant to be consumed slowly and thoughtfully so more complicated concepts and concerns can be presented in a fanciful, fictional way but with the benefit of extra time.

Through story a reader can confirm one’s own life experiences, illuminate and gain insight into those experiences, and vicariously expand and extend them. Although each of us must walk alone, authenticate our experiences, and make our own meanings and sense of truth in the world we know; there is always that tension between the uniqueness of the person and the commonalties of the human condition. This tension is evident in everyday life but revealed most fully in story. Story has always been a very powerful way of venturing beyond the scenes we know to connect with people, places, ideas, and events beyond our normal range.

Honestly, Vandergrift’s thoughts on YA literature can be applied to all literature. I know that is why I read voraciously: to learn something new, hear a different opinion, see how other people might live, visit a place I’ve never been. Cheaper than a plane ticket and more vivid than any photograph. Even if some photographs can be pretty cool.

P.S. If you want a recommendation of a grown-up book by Allende, try Zorro.

Bonus Fun Fact: Movie rights were optioned in 2006 but I can’t find any recent articles that indicate that the project is moving forward. I wonder who would make a good Alexander Cold. Zac Efron is too pretty. Taylor Lautner is too popular. Maybe a nobody would be best.


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