Cassy Pallo is a teen programming specialist for Mid-Continent Public Libraries.
In a shocking turn of events, I’ve actually had the opportunity to fulfill my duties as a young adult librarian and read some young adult novels recently. Two of them are “Graceling” by Kristin Cashore and “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins.
The first is a fantasy novel about the adventures of a young noble gifted with exceptional fighting abilities. The second is science fiction, set in a totalitarian, post-disaster North America, and features grim gladiator games among children.
Before you roll your eyes about my limited reading tastes, be advised that both books came highly recommended by several people who are usually terrified of fantastic fiction. I’m always thrilled to see books from my favorite genres achieving widespread appeal, especially when said appeal includes young adult readers. Aside from their general level of awesome, these books have several things in common that make for good reading.
First, both books are light and easy to read, and they succeed at building unique and believable future/fantasy worlds without pages and pages of exposition. The concepts should be familiar to science fiction and fantasy readers without being boring, but they’re also easy to digest for those who usually steer clear of fantastic fiction.
Second, in spite of being very easy to read, each book features a variety of interesting issues that could make for great discussions in either a casual or classroom setting. In “Graceling,” some of the prominent themes are gender roles in society and relationships. “Hunger Games” expands to include more generalized social issues that center around class division and oppression.
Finally, both books feature an engaging young hero who, to my everlasting delight, is a girl. In spite of my love for fantasy and science fiction, I tend to have issues with some of the more common tropes that surround female lead characters. Women rarely get the “hero” spotlight to themselves, and when they do, it’s often because they’re wearing a chain mail bikini or something equivalent.
Also, there’s a lingering irrational idea that only boys read fantasy and that they won’t be able to identify with a main character who doesn’t share their gender, in spite of the fact that the converse has been true for years. Women appear to have no problem successfully negotiating the strange feminine caricatures in fantasy, nor are they unable to identify with or enjoy male fictional characters.
Anyway, I’ve wandered, but my essential point is this: Cashore’s Katsa and Collins’s Katniss are part of a long overdue but much welcomed trend toward universally popular girl-heroes. They’re young and smart and consistently presented in terms of their own abilities and merits, and I devoured every word of both their stories.
Needless to say, I recommend these books for almost anyone, starting with very young teens and including high school folks and reluctant adults of all ages. As always, I’ll include the disclaimer that concerned parents of precocious young readers should probably do their own read-through first.