‘Snakes. Why’d it have to be snakes?’ (or Historical YA Fiction I’d Love to Read)

Today on the blog we’re talking two of my favourite things: history and YA! Historical fiction can be a love-hate affair, conjuring up images of dense prose and dreary detail, but when it’s done well it can be fantastic. And it has so much potential. It has all of history at its disposal!

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So what would I like to see more of? Well…

First up: actual medieval fantasy/historical fiction. ‘Medieval’ has become a catch-all or default term for any historical fiction-meets-fantasy world, but really good Middle Ages-set (roughly between years 500-1500 JUST DON’T ASK A MEDIEVALIST ABOUT IT for the love of god) teen fiction is quite rare. And okay, it was 99% terrible for everyone, but there were still many interesting events and people that haven’t been written about yet! That is a long time. Centuries’ worth of stories. Peasants and princes and dramatic storytelling possibilities.

A classy spy drama with a capable, complex female lead (and great outfits). Me? Still bitter over the cancellation of Agent Carter?

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Fancy high-society discovering-secrets YA set in Edinburgh. Or anywhere that isn’t London, really. I know, I know, London was where people paraded around in their finery and where eligible heiresses were presented to the royal family so they could become even fancier and more eligible or whatever but there were surely interesting things happening somewhere outside it…

An Indiana Jones-style archaeologist-explorer adventure with a courageous heroine. Look, I know he’s not great at preserving Sites of Importance, but Indiana Jones is the big name in action adventure. Movies tend to objectify (yes, Lara Croft, I’m looking at you) but a female-led archaeo-adventure in YA would be A+.

ARTHURIAN ROMANCE. Epic quests, the Round Table, castles, magic, dragons, Middle English no one can read… WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU DON’T THINK HE WAS REAL

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YA set in the free-spirited 1960s. Or 1900s France. (…I have very specific tastes in historical eras.)

Historical fiction set in the Byzantine empire. I’ve never seen any young adult fiction set in the heyday of the Byzantine empire, but it was SO INTERESTING. There’s art and a whole different culture and my faves Justinian and Theodora *heart eyes emoji*

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More historical YA about badass ladies. This is bit of a theme when it comes to book requests from me, to be honest, but there are SO MANY AMAZING WOMEN in history. Warriors and daughters and musicians and teen heroines doing things. Badass covers a multitude: intelligent, hard-working, brave, skilled, honourable, flawed – or maybe ALL ALL OF THE ABOVE IN THE SAME PERSON?! *collective gasp*

Robin Hood. I’ve yet to read a young adult take on Robin Hood that I’d give five stars! I know there are movies and the BBC’s version is a strong television adaptation, but- WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU DON’T THINK HE WAS REAL EITHER

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And of course: historical fiction set in unusual time periods and places. I’d just like to see more exciting, different stories about teenagers in history. There’s so much to choose from, and what I’ve mentioned here barely scratches the surface. An amazing  book could be about a person you’ve never heard of or a place you know very little about (…except that they probably had badass ladies doing awesome things there at some point).

What about you? Historical fiction: love it or loathe it? What would you like to see more of in YA?

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Under Rose-Tainted Skies by Louise Gornall // short, serious YA (and some Wonder Woman fangirling…?)

29566743Author: Louise Gornall
Publisher: Chicken House Books
Publication date: 7 July 2016
Category: YA
Genre: contemporary
Series or standalone?: Standalone
Source: I was kindly sent a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Every day Norah wakes up in a quiet house on a quiet street, and every day she prepares for battle with the combined forces of agoraphobia and OCD. Years of struggling with illnesses that seem much stronger than she is have left her weary and increasingly resigned to the confines of a life where the sky is a glimpse through a window and the world is always out of reach.

When groceries are left out on her porch, Norah can’t step out to get them. Struggling to snag the bags with a stick, she meets Luke. The sweet, funny boy next door just caught her fishing for groceries, because of course he did. And just like that: Norah has a crush. But love can be tricky even when your life can fit the rose-tinted lenses of a Hollywood romance – and what about when it can’t?

The set-up of Under Rose-Tainted Skies may be simple – it tells the story of a girl, a boy, and the agoraphobia which throws a bit of a spanner in the works when it comes to conventional romance – but it’s also nuanced. Short, serious and just sweet enough to temper its heavy subject matter, Under Rose-Tainted Skies will undoubtedly please readers calling for more young adult fiction which tackles teen mental health head-on.

Stepping back to look at the story as whole, you’ll also find (in no particular order): red lipstick, passed notes, inconvenient birds, fumbled French, bad movies, and one unusual protagonist. Whatever kind of narrator you were expecting for Under Rose-Tainted Skies, Norah probably isn’t it. Frank, fearful, foul-mouthed and morbid, she won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but she’ll have readers rooting for her faster than they expect. Blunt, arresting and distinctive, Norah’s voice is not confined.

The romance between Norah and Luke, in contrast, is quite sweet. There’s a lightness to it which lifts the prose long enough to keep you reading, but it doesn’t go unblemished by the seriousness of Norah’s situation. Luke is kind, funny, and while he makes mistakes, he cares about her – though I definitely felt like there was a touch of that scene in the new Wonder Woman where a curious and wide-eyed Gal Gadot sees Chris Pine on the beach and is like, “This is the first man I have ever seen, yes, good, I like him, I shall not kick his ass today, I will keep him” to the way the Norah falls in love with essentially the first teenage boy she claps eyes on.

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(Sidenote: I am more excited for the Wonder Woman movie than is probably warranted, that line in the trailer “what I do is not up to you” I NEARLY FELL OVER it’s amazing)

But then maybe Norah is as strong as Wonder Woman, too: Norah, after all, has the persistent ability to contend with a brain which often works against her. There’s exploration of a teenage relationship in which serious issues and boundaries have to be dealt with early on, and while it’s tame in terms of content, that’s sort of the point. Under Rose-Tainted Skies strives to show a relationship in which two teenagers care about each other while scaling back the usual step-by-step of contemporary romance to fit its heroine’s needs. It’s a book that makes you cheer when they get to hold hands – for Luke and Norah, it’s a real triumph.

And in a move that will delight many with an interest in mental health-focused teen fiction, this book states pretty emphatically that love does not cure mental illness. Luke is Norah’s light in the dark, but he’s not a knight in shining armour, swooping in to show that mental illness can be fixed with a bit of starcrossed love or the quirk of an expressive, sculpted eyebrow.

The story may even have benefited for a little more of Luke, as it’s cast is more short film than blockbuster-sized. Norah and her mother are close and she has a positive relationship with her therapist which just about counterbalances what can come across as the book’s harsh judgement of other female characters. The writing style still needs work, as it relies on uninspired plot contrivances, the ending is rushed and poorly explored, and in a not-uncommon occurrence for a début, the plot is as simplistic as its structure. It lacks the warmth of polished, get-stuck-into-it contemporaries like Huntley Fitzpatrick’s My Life Next Door or Holly Bourne’s How Hard Can Love Be? It’s set in America though there’s no particular reason for it to be. It requires a trigger warning (self-harm) and it’s not always the most enjoyable of reads given its heavy theme.

Of course, it’s no secret that the best thing in, and perhaps the point of, this book is its raw, honest approach to mental health. It’s the reason it’s being recommended, the reason it’s being read. Much of what can be said about Under Rose-Tainted Skies’ approach to mental health has already been said, but it’s still worth mentioning. Norah’s distinctive voice and validated perspective aside, it notes her worries about medication and therapy and how an emotionally healthy support system – without caveats, without take-backs, without impatience disguised by tolerance – can be invaluable. There’s an unexpected physicality to the prose, specifically in the case of its emphasis on Norah’s awareness of her body and of how what many would assume is a purely psychological experience is in fact a highly physical one. Descriptions of place and colour may be a little lacklustre, but more internal descriptions, like those in which Norah relates what her agoraphobia kicking in does to her legs or limbs or brain, are visceral and incredibly specific. Descriptions of her body’s reactions to fear are more suggestive of a relentless mind-body rugby match than anything else. It’s not perfect, but it’s stark, unflinching stuff.

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A sensitive and defiant portrayal of a teenage girl’s complex relationship with the world, her brain and the boy who makes her wonder if she’ll ever be able to navigate both.

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London Belongs to Us by Sarra Manning // fast, funny suspend-your-disbelief stuff

26177619Author: Sarra Manning
Publisher: Hot Key Books
Publication date: 2 June 2016
Category: YA
Genre: Contemporary
Series or standalone?: Standalone
Source: I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Told over the course of a single night, London Belongs to Us follows seventeen-year-old Sunny in a mad dash across London as she juggles a race for romantic retribution with herding grumpy French boys, wingwomaning for her roller-derbying best friend, and her sudden discovery of what is probably best described as gumption. Think of it as a reverse Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight: not twenty-four hours in a new place with a soulmate, but twelve hours in our heroine’s dodgy, decrepit, dazzling city as she faces a life where first love is rarely last love at all.

When her boyfriend is caught kissing another girl, known wallflower Sunny sees her night fall to pieces around her. At first sure that it was just some kind of mix-up, her race to find answers becomes one of mishaps, detours and chance encounters with unexpected allies. From Crystal Palace (so far away from civilisation you can’t even get the Tube there) to Clapham, Soho to Shoreditch, Mayfair to Muswell Hill, Sunny’s escapades plunge the reader into a London so vivid it spills from the page. Manning whips the city into a vibrant, dizzying, living, breathing place. Whether you love London or you struggle to understand just why anyone would bother, this book is a giddy, sensationally energetic story.

It’s so good at whirl-winding about, in fact, that it foresees your raised eyebrow at the string of maybe, possibly, slightly unrealistic twists, turns and coincidences which allow Sunny to zigzag across London in search of the boyfriend who thinks he can get away with cheating on her and says, I know. Look, have another late-night takeaway, maybe some RuPaul’s Drag Race, take your mind off it. Now that’s better, isn’t it? Oh, look! A dance sequence! It’s joyous, suspend-your-disbelief stuff.

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More than anything, London Belongs to Us is unexpectedly, brilliantly, bitingly funny. Its humour is effortless, sharp and clever, an offshoot of the story rather than the point of it. If you’re looking for a book which evokes madcap out-all-night teenage escapades without the Hollywood shimmer, this is the book for you: pacy but down-to-earth and full of good humour. Sunny, a proud resident of the affectionately-termed People’s Republic of Haringey, provides the kind of snark and commentary only teens can master. Sprinkled with lists, pie-charts and chatty introductions to different parts of London, the prose is solid, if slightly too reliant on old-fashioned texts (in 2016 reality, the whole thing would probably go down on Snapchat, but where’s the fun in that) and a little too busy jumping from one chaotic scene to the next.

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Manning’s skill lies in making even the most fleeting of touches count, whether it’s on family ties, feminism, pride in multicultural identity, sexual orientation, gender politics or any other part of everyday life for modern teens. Even the book’s hints of a potential romance are left tantalisingly out of reach. Manning saves her power for the punch of a showdown, and it’s a cracking formula. I’d love to see more YA with such distinctly story-focused style and flair.

Sunny’s quest is a decidedly buoyant one, despite the rough-around-the-edges reality of her city. It sees her coming face-to-face with all kinds of characters, from bolshy doorgirls to handsome, grumpy French boys (Vic and Jean Luc Godard, who I’m pretty sure was named after a filmmaker), whose air of mystery is somewhat punctured by their bickering and perhaps, a kind of loneliness far from home. There are even cameos from the cast of Manning’s acerbic Adorkable, including the brutally frank Jeane and the rather more laidback Michael (plus his poetry-inspiring cheekbones). Sunny’s single-minded pursuit of justice sees her on the brink of losing friends who would rather be crashing on the sofa at 3am on a Saturday night, but there are moments of strong friendship and great loyalty (except from OMG Martha, who’s probably just still in it for the drama).

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Fierce, fast-paced and fantastically fun, London Belongs to Us is ideal for fans of Holly Bourne and Karen McCombie. It’s a delightfully dramatic, astonishingly incisive and incredibly satisfying caper, as full of sarcasm as it is of emotionally powerful showdowns. Highly recommended.

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And I Darken by Kiersten White // ambitious, enthralling alternate history

25324111Author: Kiersten White
Publisher: Corgi Children’s/Delacorte
Publication date: 7 July 2016
Category: YA
Genre: alternate history, historical fiction
Series or standalone?: Series
Source: I was kindly sent a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

No one expects a princess to be brutal.

In the perilous courts of fifteenth century Europe, there’s only one person Lada Dragwyla can rely on: herself. Abandoned by their father and used as pawns in a distant conflict, Lada and her brother Radu know their new home in the Ottoman empire is more prison than palace. Survival, let alone revenge, appears a slim possibility – but then Lada is no ordinary princess.

Lada has a thirst for power, but first she must find a way out of danger and back to the throne she believes is rightfully hers. A skilled warrior and a sharp tactician, even friendship with the sultan’s son, Mehmed, cannot quell Lada’s dreams of home – or her ruthless heart. Soon, however, Lada will find that the tangle of intrigue and suspicion which surrounds her is more complicated than she thinks.

A sweeping, elaborate alternate history with a ferocious cast, And I Darken is Kiersten White’s most ambitious project yet. I’m a fan of The Chaos of Stars, her entertaining, sometimes gorgeously written tale of starcrossed love, sunny San Diego and mythological sass. It’s a Stephanie Perkins meets Rick Riordan standalone with a great heroine. Also, when I reviewed it this happened:

(I JUST REALLY LIKE BOOKS OKAY AND SOMETIMES THIS MAKES VERY WORDY AND FULL OF FEELS also I’m doing my best to make this review one that, while enjoyable, will not provoke sobbing??)

YA is full of retellings, and still the premise behind And I Darken could make you do a double-take: it’s the reimagined what-might-have-been story of a genderbent Vlad the Impaler. It’s an idea most would never imagine as YA. It almost shouldn’t work – but somehow, it does. The writing style is detailed but familiar, weaving strong plot, page-turning intrigue and an interesting cultures into a novel which is both busy and clearly just the beginning of an epic saga. Throw in twists, turns, betrayals, lush backdrops and a well-written central trio, and this is enthralling historical fantasy.

It’s rare that a writer’s work matches up so fervently to their premise. To pull off its demanding hook, And I Darken has to commit to the possibilities of exploring alternate history. Kiersten White doesn’t underestimate her audience, but doesn’t assume they’ll invest in the idea either, and the result is bold but careful storytelling. By the end, you’ve forgotten Lada is supposed to be anyone but herself.

Lada is vicious, audacious, and prepared to do whatever it takes to save her own skin. She’s angry, blunt and spirited. I wrote that The Chaos of Stars’ Isadora is the kind of person you’d want on your side in a fight, but Lada is a completely different kettle of fish. She’s the person you’d want to be as far away from as possible in a fight, because she’s probably there to beat you. She’s brutal, though perhaps not quite as heartless as she thinks she is. She longs to see her childhood friend Bogdan again, has her curiosity piqued by new acquaintance Mehmed, and while she treats her brother Radu with the long-suffering sighs of someone fed up of her charge falling over and needing her to right them again, she does love him. Radu is the sun to her shadow, a welcome narrative relief who reveals secrets of his own. Mehmed is young, just finding his way around power, and may find that crossing Lada is a mistake not many would be brave enough to make.

There is a lack of positive relationships between Lada and other women, at least initially. Lada’s mother is written off almost immediately and the women of the Ottoman harem meet with her derision. White seems to notice this about a third of the way in, however, and while the book stops short of having Lada form deep, lasting female friendships, there are important female characters: power-hungry Huma; savvy, cynical Mara; bouncy, optimistic Halima; beautiful, coy Nazira. There are LGBTQ+ characters, several of whom I’d like to see more of in the sequels (which look set to be darker than this opener, but there’ll have to be happiness in there somewhere…)

The pacing is slow and while the first half is solid, the second half meanders in spite of action sequences. There are so many subplots they seem to merge together, hazy and hard to untangle. The jam-packed secondary cast can be difficult to keep up with and as the book tends to jump from place to place, I would’ve liked more vivid description to conjure the many scene changes. Fortunately, the book’s satisfying, unusual take on history was more than enough to keep me reading.

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And I Darken is fantastic historical fiction. Compelling, detailed and full of drama, it’s a challenging and unusual read with a ferocious heroine and an accomplished narrative voice. I’d love to see more YA take on ideas as ambitious as this. One of Kiersten White’s best books yet.

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Cuckoo by Keren David // an unusual foray into the fringes of YA fiction

25458775Author: Keren David
Publisher: Little, Brown/Atom
Publication date: 4 August 2016
Genre: contemporary
Category: YA
Series or standalone?: Standalone
Source: I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Jake Benn is a teenage actor. Or at least he was.

Made famous as a familiar face in the nation’s most popular soap opera, Jake’s character went upstairs to his bedroom six months ago and hasn’t been seen on-screen since.

Now everything is crumbling around him: his mother reveals they’ve spent all his money, his father is charging unannounced into auditions, he can’t get a straight answer from his agent, no-one can get a straight answer from Market Square’s producers, and tensions are through the roof. At breaking point, he seeks escape at friends’ houses and, more and more often, on their sofas each night, but couch-surfing is a lot less glamourous when you’ve got nowhere else to go. As his life goes from bad to worse, Jake starts to feel like a cuckoo in every nest.

From the acclaimed author of When I Was Joe and This Is Not a Love StoryCuckoo is a novel about what happens when teenagers fall through the cracks, and finding unlikely solace when home is the least welcoming place of all.

I loved Keren David’s Salvage – the warm, engaging, dramatic tale of Aidan and Cass, a brother and sister separated by adoption and facing their own struggles at a time when their lives come twining back together – so of course I had high expectations for her latest novel. Her books are all about being lost and being found in some way, and in that sense Cuckoo is no different – though it is, simultaneously, very different. While she retains a trademark incisive approach to tough themes and hefty storylines, this book’s format is her most unusual yet.

Smart and unflinching, Cuckoo is written as transcripts from a web series, with chapters as episodes complete with comments and only minimal scene description. It may be a divisive technique, but if you stick with it there’s plenty to get your teeth into, from acting insights to social issues to the appearance of unexpected allies. For fans of Alice Oseman’s podcast-riddled Radio Silence or Claire Hennessy’s unusually-told Nothing Tastes as Good, this is an intriguing read.

Keren David sets herself quite the challenge in conjuring Jake’s story without the tools usually at an author’s disposal. Plot and character details have to be slipped into a narrative where almost all of the story is told to camera. It reads quickly and holds the reader’s attention. It presents the audience with a wide range of issues and challenges the audience to keep up with dialogue devoid of tags. It manages to create a distinct voice for at least some of its many characters and there’s frankly brilliant use of Shakespeare.

Lack of description and the general implausibility of the storyline (for example that people would agree to star in some twisted recreation of recent events in the protagonist’s life), however, make for a read which is both difficult to visualise and to invest in. Keren David attempts to ground the book with gritty realities, such as homelessness and the unreliability of work as an actor, but a bizarre mix of Jake’s unwillingness to actually explain what’s happening to him to anyone he knows and the unrealistic reactions of people around him leave the reader unsure whether this book is surreal or too real. The book is so full of issues which can’t be examined fully through the medium of dialogue alone that many are simply dropped in or not explored at all. The ending is rushed and there aren’t many characters to actually like, though the story is page-turning.

Perhaps this experiment in style has come from David’s role in turning Lia’s Guide to Winning the Lottery into a musical, but if Cuckoo resembles any of her previous books, it’s When I Was Joe. It’s hard-hitting, direct and leaves you wondering how much of the real story you’ve seen. Jake has a tinge of the unreliable narrator, but then so too do the characters who pepper the pages around him. An eclectic cast sees Jake meet many characters who wouldn’t be seen in the high-school-prom-dates-and-the-occasional-supernatural-event side of teen fiction. This book takes its pick of characters who fall through the cracks, and it’s particularly well done in the case of Marguerite Morgan, an elderly lady whose infirmities hide an illustrious past in acting and directing and who leaves even teenage characters in the dust when it comes to the sharp tongue stakes.

Cuckoo is a strange book. It’s not an easy read structurally or thematically, and it’s not exactly light-hearted, though there are elements of hope. It’s a book that will depend very much on the individual: for some, the fact that there’s no romance will appeal, while for others, the off-kilter style won’t provide enough detail to make it enjoyable. For others still, thinly-disguised parodies and homages – Market Square is Eastenders, Dame Edie Lombard evokes Dames Judi Dench and Helen Mirren – will pique interest. For me however the novel lacked the narrative warmth and generosity which makes good contemporary YA such a fan favourite.

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Serious, bold and a bit perplexing, Cuckoo asks a lot of its readers. It’s unusual format doesn’t work seamlessly, but it’s sure to stand out in UKYA this year. A tough but page-turning read.

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GOOD VIBRATIONS: fans, music and boyband lit in YA fiction

YA has had its fair share of phases and trends in recent years, from ones we can’t wait to see more of (books focused on friendship, books exploring different kinds of relationships) to ones we’d like to see less of (paranormal romance, dystopia, cover models in giant dresses…). One trend I’ve seen crop up frequently of late (due to an increase in new releases under the label, including Songs About a Girl by Chris Russell, my review of which inspired this post, Eleanor Wood’s My Secret Rockstar Boyfriend, and Sophia Bennett’s brilliant Love Song, and to readers like Sally at The Dark Dictator who champion the genre) is boyband lit.

It’s a phenomenon which has both its delights and its drawbacks. For the uninitiated, boyband lit seeks to capitalise on the popularity of boybands by merging the ever-so-slightly-out-of-reach daydreams of fandom with the audiences of YA and the skill of the professional pen. It often sees a heroine – almost always ordinary, often not an ardent fan (it’s cooler for when she has to form coherent non-starstruck sentences later on) – run into the most famous band on the planet in a way which distinguishes her from the screaming masses – by tripping over nearby, by seeing them as people etc etc. – before discovering that one of them is the love of her life (alas it seems it’s too soon for polyamory to have kicked in as a solution to everyone’s problems). For added drama there may be a love triangle, or the bandmates will reveal their deepest secrets. This formula is commonplace in heteronormative fanfiction, but good boyband lit must seek to do more – to tell not only a polished story, but a surprising one, too.

27396059In fiction, story must come first. Teenagers aren’t the only members of fandom – fans come all walks of life and age groups – but they are often the target audience when it comes to marketing. It’s what every boyband for the last sixty years has depended on, whether we’re talking old-school music mania or the terrible haircuts of NSYNC. Music careers sink or sail on this stuff. This genre may be an attempt to tap into a lucrative financial opportunity, but at least in books, authors can draw from an already-established pool of themes and storylines, from friendship drama, social issues and family ties to school pressures and relationships. Twists, turns, and the skill of professional writers can create plot-focused, thought-provoking YA with the occasional pop quartet thrown in. It’s not written to start fandoms for or launch the careers of semi-believable fictional bands. If anything, it’s as much about giving readers a taste of music fandom as it is about bringing music fans to YA.

On the surface it might be easy to dismiss this trend as light-headed, inconsequential stuff. Except that while boyband lit may be new, boyband culture isn’t, and fandom being powered by teenage girls isn’t new, either. Many of the most passionate, talented, knowledgeable people in every fandom are women, and teenage girls are among the most powerful fans of all. Who do you think made most of music history’s best-known names so famous? Who bought their records and listened to songs over and over until they knew every lyric? Who makes their tangible pay-the-rent-and-make-another-album success possible? Because it’s not the limited circle of people who write for Rolling Stone.

Of course, shop-floor real-reader response to these books may be very different from that of forever-chasing-the-next-big-thing publishing and its trusty sidekick book blogging. (And there has been boyband lit which does an injustice to the very real readers who should be able to find solace, not mockery, in YA). But so as long as boy band lit respects readers, teens and young women, I’m fine with it.

21472663I can’t wait to see more YA featuring music, musicians, bands and the perils of balancing passion and fame. There’s such potential for exploring the way music is not only the soundtrack to but a real influence teenage life, as in Non Pratt’s fantastic Remix. And I’d absolutely love to see more YA where the heroine is a musician, or there’s a girlband (think Sarra Manning’s fictional  creation Duckie) at the heart of the book.

For now, this trend is on the up and up. Because, after all, it tells readers that it’s okay to enjoy things like pop music and wish fulfillment. It may even examine or improve damaging tropes which permeate fanfic, Most of all, it says that it’s okay to be a fan, to take an interest, to be enthusiastic.

What about you? What do you think of #boybandlit? Love it or loathe it? What would you like to see these books do next?

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