Something about its being YA month makes me want to go around saying things like, “To the exTREEEEEEEEME!” One of the great things about YA novels is how everything is so over the top, and it’s totally okay, because remember when you were a kid and everything was over the top? So many things seemed like either the best or the worst thing that had ever happened to you.
It makes sense then, that for characters in YA novels, everything really is either the best or worst thing that happens to them. Avi’s Crispin: The Cross of Lead is about a 14th century boy who, until just before the first page of the novel, has lived as a nameless serf his whole life. Teenage drama or no, this puts my childhood issues into real perspective. His mother, Asta, simply called him, “Son,” so the villagers call him “Asta’s Son.” He does not know his name is Crispin. He has no concept of himself as an independent entity; he only understands his existence as it relates to his feudal lord, Lord Furnival, and how he belongs to Lord Furnival. After Crispin’s mother dies, he suddenly finds himself falsely accused of theft and declared a wolf’s head, meaning that he is less than human and subject to death at the hands of anyone who can catch him. But of course, no one’s going to catch him just yet, or CCOL would be an even shorter book than it already is. Crispin needs to find out why he’s being hunted, and in doing so, discover his self-sovereignty.
I first encountered Avi in fifth grade, when I read and re-read, and lent to any of my friends who I thought would read it, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle. Dude has been around a long time, and I can see why: he has the ability to create an urgency in his plotting that’s very appealing to young readers (and to older readers burned out after a period of more serious fare). Crispin is not quite as interesting a character as Charlotte Doyle is (and yes, I remember the book very well). But while I was reading, I noted that the book felt very much like a prologue to something more, and I found upon finishing that there is in fact at least a second Crispin book. I wonder if this book would have worked better as a prequel, published after a few mid-story books had already come out. Though I enjoyed it, it didn’t have as much… savor as I’d been hoping for, but I can’t count this as a detractor, I suppose. I got the impression that it was intended for the younger end of the YA range. This impression was confirmed when I saw that there was a glossary at the back of the book. Remember glossaries?! Although if you don’t know what a “kirtle” is, you have been reading Entirely the Wrong Kind of Books.
Much more interesting, and in keeping with the drama of teenage-dom, was Justine Larbalestier’s** Liar, which came to me recommended by my good buddy, Cheezy,* a children’s librarian. Cheezy said Liar “blew her mind.” Liar is a difficult book to describe without spoilers. It’s really essential to the reading experience that you know as little about it as possible aside from a few basic facts: Micah, our narrator, is a teenage girl living in NYC. Her “secret” boyfriend has just been found dead in Central Park. He was her only real friend, considering that Micah is something of a misfit at school. At the very beginning of the book, Micah informs us that she is a near compulsive liar, but that she will tell us nothing but the truth. The book is interesting in that it leaves the reader to determine whether Micah has mostly kept her promise or not. Some of what Micah tells us would be quite a stretch were we to believe her. It’s a testament to Larbalestier’s skill that even when Micah presented certain unbelievable details, the book itself somehow held its credibility. It can be interpreted in a few different ways. Though I’m not quite sure yet whether the book works, exactly, and I wouldn’t say it blew my mind, I’ll be thinking about it for a while, which is a high compliment from me. It has something.
*Cheezy is a nickname. Bestowed upon her by me.
**Interestingly, Larbalestier is married to Scott Westerfeld, another YA novelist I’ve enjoyed.