Okay, I’m going to be honest here. I don’t read YA as much as I should. But I qualify as a YA librarian now, so I’m working on it. I don’t think I avoid them on purpose. Maybe the stories are a little too contrived for my taste. Maybe I’ve had my fill of angsty romances. But if I take a second to travel back in time to the early days of my adolescence, I find the appeal. When I was a teen, I fell hard for fantasy stories. I was consumed with literature that could take me into a rich new world and let me live there. Being a teenager is hard. And the more I work with teens, the more I remember how raw it all felt. Every emotion, every life event, every single person who crossed my path could fill my head and my heart until they were nearly bursting. So I’m approaching these books with those time-traveled eyes.
Caraval by Stephanie Garber
I think Caraval tries to take you to those fantastic places to be consumed by the magic and mystery and romance. What I loved the most was its colorful and flowery language when dropping the reader into the heart of the game on the Isla de los Suenos. That’s where this book really comes to life. It’s all in the hazy atmosphere and the caricatured carnival characters and the beautiful dresses described in meticulous detail. The main protagonist, Scarlett, on the other hand, fell a little flat. I didn’t find her compelling nor did I quite buy her motives. The sister bond she spoke of constantly between her and Donatella felt painfully one-sided. For sisters with shared trauma and an unconditional love, they were surprisingly out of sync.
Scarlett’s over-the-top rejections of Julian’s “advances” grew old after the fifth time. Yes, we get it. You’re engaged and it would be totally improper to share a room with your pretend-fiancé. Now Julian? I bought. His charm, his swagger, and his character development were totally believable. But where Scarlett’s character development fell flat, her emotional development for Julian (after the countless rejections—let’s pretend they didn’t happen) really shone bright. But that’s the point, isn’t it? Insert yourself into the story and you’re the one falling slowly in love. You’re the one feeling her hesitation and Julian’s breath.
This is the first in a series and I’m interested to see how the author builds the rest of the world. I didn’t find the antagonists, Governor Dragna or Master Legend, particularly threatening, but I imagine there’s something more at stake that we won’t find in the first book. But as much as I am critical of the story, I’d definitely suggest this book to my teens looking for a different kind of fantasy read. I think Caraval will appeal to fans of dystopian fiction (somehow I get this vibe) as well as fantasy-romance.
Dear Martin by Nic Stone
And then we do a 180 from dystopian fantasy to realistic fiction.
I don’t think I was prepared for what Dear Martin was going to be. I mean, in my head I think I knew it, but things got real fairly quickly.
As a Latina, I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve let myself be blind to the race issues that surround me on a day to day basis. I fear I’ve lived in a bubble too long. Too long looking at the world through rose-colored (brown-tinted?) glasses and not really seeing myself for the minority I actually am.
I identify with Justyce. When you come from the hood, but come out too educated, where do you even belong? How can you be not White but feel like you’re also not not White?
I recently made friends with an old acquaintance whose writings on his perspective of what being a brown person means to him have made me focus the lens of my own cultural and racial identity. I know what it’s like to hear from your own family members, “Why do you talk so white?” and to ask yourself what that even means. And I’ve been confronted by white people who, when feeling slighted by me in some inconsequential way, told me to “go back to you where you came from, you [racial slur].” I know what it’s like to be so disgusted by the color of my own skin that I wished I could just scrub it all off as if it were just dirt.
I’ll never know what it’s like to be Black. And I’ll understand even less what it’s like to be a Black man. But representation in literature matters. Even if it’s not entirely representative of its reader. We can identify with Jus whether it’s because we’re a teen, because we’re Black, because we’ve suddenly fallen in love with someone we never thought we would have, or because we’ve been served some kind of injustice and we’re trying to make sense of it all.
Dear Martin does all of those things in a short, but powerful read. Every character felt like a real person who could be sitting in my library right this second. Every letter Justyce wrote to Dr. King was a raw and gripping insight to the hurt and betrayal he, or any kid like him, felt by a society that should be serving and protecting him. We need to be calling out and shutting down not just the Blakes (guy who thinks it’s hilarious to dress up as a Klansman at a Halloween party) of the world, but also the Jareds (guy who thinks Affirmative Action gets a Black kid into Yale and not his merit). We need to protect our Mannys from trigger-happy racists. We need to embolden and empower our Sarah Janes. We need to recognize that we are every single one of them.
And I think it matters now more than ever. This book deserves all the attention it’s receiving because if more YA were like this, maybe we can foster an awareness of the racial injustices that still exist to this day and engender social justice in our youth. I mean, it’s already there. So let’s keep sharing these stories.
So Dear Martin wins this round for me. No contest.
Priscilla Resendiz works in Adult Reference with a focus on Young Adult services at the Waukegan Public Library. She’s attempting to expand her reading horizons beyond comedy and sci-fi and is open to every reading suggestion. In the spaces between odd library hours she volunteers with the local high school, goes to kendo practice (but not nearly enough), and watches way too much Star Trek.