EW talks YA: These harrowing tales of trauma and grief find the light
EW is here to provide reviews and recommendations for the biggest new YA titles. This March, we’re discussing four novels that can turn pretty grim at times, but always feel urgently human, including long-awaited returns to the genre from Laurie Halse Anderson and Ally Condie. Check out our roundup below, and in case you missed our column from February, we’ve got you covered.
March’s Top Pick: Internment, by Samira Ahmed
Where plenty of books across genres right now are winking at recent seismic cultural shifts, paying lip-service to ongoing resistance efforts, Internment sets itself apart as a true polemic against the politics of the Trump Era. Set in a near-future America — just a few years after the 2016 presidential election — the novel imagines an intensification of the current climate, wherein Islamophobia has become a sort of national policy. It’s refreshing to read a novel so bluntly, directly, and brutally delivering a wake-up call.
As the novel begins the U.S. feels somewhere between the Japanese internment camps of WWII and the dystopia of The Handmaid’s Tale: Muslim-Americans in a liberal California enclave are being watched more closely and suspiciously than ever. Curfews and mandatory “National Security Address” screenings have been implemented. Book burning and identification-number imprinting are now standard occurrences. The novel centers on 17-year-old Layla, a regular American teenager forced into activism, as the Muslim Ban that the president signed into law (as in real life) escalates to internment camps, where her family is “relocated.” The sense of injustice is raw for Layla, who’d previously been suspended from school for kissing a non-Muslim boy. Upon entrance into the camp, her parents, defeated from having their rights steadily stripped away — her father, for instance, was a poetry professor before losing everything — accept their fate. But Layla cannot.
Ahmed, previously behind Love, Hate, and Other Filters, is a gifted and passionate writer. “There are a million shards in my heart, but the one that really stabs is having my damn phone taken away,” she writes in one of the book’s best passages. “Maybe it’s dumb to think of it this way, but it’s not only my phone. It’s all my pictures, every memory of school and tennis team and David. I stifle my sobs. Dread clutches me, but so does anger. They didn’t merely take my phone; they took my voice.”
The current YA landscape can feel a little grim at times, perhaps just given the state of things. And Internment isn’t exactly a respite from that. But it ranks among the strongest arguments for what YA fiction can do in this political period that I’ve encountered, showcasing young people fighting back and demanding a better future. Layla falls in with a resistance group, banding together in an effort to bring down the regime and put an end to the Islamophobic policies. Her journey is terrifying, thrilling, and urgent. —David Canfield
The Art of Losing, by Lizzy Mason
Before the first chapter of Lizzy Mason’s debut novel, the author includes something unusual: a letter directly from her to the reader. In it, she details her own experience with drug and alcohol abuse, and her recovery through Alcoholics Anonymous, pausing to mention her recognition of her own privilege with the skillful self-flagellation of one familiar with the cancel-happy YA literature subcommunity.
Addressing one’s own personal experience in an afterward, or in the “About the Author” section, is more or less par for the course, but I can’t recall seeing a personal letter signed by the author before a fiction book before, especially after the epigraph (in this case, the Elizabeth Bishop poem from which the book takes its title). Was it designed as a last-ditch trigger warning, for those who didn’t realize this was a dark book about alcoholism from either the bright cover design, or reading the summary? Or was Mason trying to preemptively justify writing about tragedy? Whatever the reason, it had the effect of infusing the novel that followed with an air of “Very Special Episode.” One half-expected Punky Brewster to emerge halfway through and remind readers not to climb into old refrigerators.
But fortunately, The Art of Losing handles the themes of guilt and the cycle of addiction with grace and deftness. The novel follows Harley Langston, a moody high schooler who sees her boyfriend cheating on her at a party with her younger sister, Audrey. Harley storms out of the party in a rage and leaves her (drunk) boyfriend to drive Audrey home. Their car crashes, and Audrey is stuck in a life-threatening coma, the nexus of all of Harley’s feelings of guilt, shame, humiliation, and anger. Interspersed within the story of Harley dealing with that night’s aftermath are small flashbacks that illuminate her relationship with her boyfriend and her sister, as well as with her childhood friend, Raf, who comes back into her life after years of drifting apart.
When it tries to become a love story, The Art of Losing clunks through an inventory of YA clichés, lacking in the poetry Mason otherwise proves capable of. Indeed, when it focuses on the dynamic between Harley and Audrey, the story finally engages with its dark and subversive potential. —Dana Schwartz
SHOUT, by Laurie Halse Anderson
Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak is a book that you’ve likely heard of even if you haven’t read it. Published in 1999, the novel was a landmark young-adult book about sexual assault that won and deserved all the accolades that it received. Now on the 20-year anniversary of its publishing, Anderson reveals the truth behind her breakthrough novel in SHOUT: a memoir written in poetic verse about her own rape, which led her on the path to putting Speak out into the world.
A poetry memoir in general, especially one that’s very technically labeled as YA, is a hard sell. And while it’s beautifully written and carefully constructed, Shout is a tough read. The first section of the book goes through Anderson’s teen years, when she was raped, and the aftereffects of that trauma. She links this to her recovery, which came about during a study-abroad trip and through her subsequent career as an author and activist — advocating for people who have experienced sexual assault and the flimsy laws made to “protect” them.
Anderson’s prose is so gorgeous, with such visual and arresting phrases like “skeletal white privilege” and “my mother lacked a mouth,” that at times the book needs to be put down to absorb her utter mastery of language. But the one question that Shout leaves unanswered is who, exactly, it’s for. It’s published under a “Young Readers” imprint, which considering Speak (and YA’s seemingly dark plunge this year, judging by the entries in this month’s column alone) makes enough sense. But it’s hard to imagine YA readers connecting to the structure of the book and Anderson’s final section linking Speak to today’s #MeToo climate. Perhaps I’m not giving the YA crowd enough credit, but regardless, this is a more than worthy complement to Speak. Knowing more about Anderson’s past renders the themes of that book and her own history vital to the discourse surrounding how we’re protecting and caring for survivors of sexual assault today. —Kerensa Cadenas
The Last Voyage of Poe Blythe, by Ally Condie
Centered on Poe Blythe, the 17-year-old captain of the last mining ship in her community of the Outpost, this eponymous tale follows her vow to exact revenge on the river raiders who killed her best friend — and the man she was planning to run away with — named Call. Here, in other words, is YA’s latest buzzy payback saga, only this time set against a dystopian high-seas backdrop. It also marks a bit of a comeback to the YA space for Matched author Ally Condie, who’d largely been working in middle-grade over the last few years.
Poe has secretly turned the dredges into killing machines, armored and bladed. But she is soon, abruptly sent on the final voyage for the Gilded Lily ship. Condie introduces its inhabitants, from its gruff mechanic to its enthusiastic cook, and tracks Poe steadily keeping her distance from them. As the author brings us into our heroine’s headspace, it’s clear the fact that she doesn’t know or trust these people weighs on her greatly — especially given her greater mission. But soon she’s put into survival mode: There is a traitor on her ship, and as they — inevitably — clash with raiders, the journey becomes a matter of life and death.
Secrets about the Outpost’s past bubble to the surface, and Poe — still just a young woman — comes into her own, healing from a painful experience and wading through her grief. Condie only gets so much mileage out of the vengeance mission; her character’s dedication to that cause gets a little redundant. But in exploring the complexities of rebels and the power of connection, The Last Voyage of Poe Blythe finds a more compelling story to tell along the way. —David Canfield