I used to have this thing about young adult literature, or YA for short. I thought it was...well, for kids. "Young adults" means kids, right?
As I outgrew book series like Goosebumps and Animorphs and moved on to the heavy hitters like Notes from Underground and Moby-Dick (getting tired of hearing about that one yet?), I instinctively sensed that I was "too old" to venture back down the trail and revisit old classics—or discover new ones.
One of the few exceptions to this rule was the Harry Potter series. I got in on the ground floor, as it were: Sorcerer's Stone came out in the U.S.A. in 1998. It took a year for word to spread to my family that this book was the living shizz. My mother originally picked up for my brother to read, but he wasn't interested. I happened to notice it on the coffee table one day in early 1999, when I was 12 years old, just a year older than Harry. I read it and was enthralled. For about three years afterward, Harry and I were practically the same age: Chamber of Secrets came out in June of 1999 (I was still twelve); Prisoner of Azkaban in September 1999, just before my 13th birthday; and Goblet of Fire appeared in July of 2000, two months before my 14th birthday. After that the age gap began to widen, but for a few short years Harry and I shared some kind of age-related bond. And it was magical, let me tell you. I was totally unashamed to be seen reading Deathly Hallows in 2007 at the age of 20.
But even if I had been, I would have soon been cured, for everywhere I looked I saw people twice my age reading it. The big wake-up call came during a visit to the doctor's office, where a large, curly-haired, middle-aged woman in a shapeless blue dress was sitting in the waiting room, riveted by the same orange volume I myself had just finished reading. Another telegram came in when my mother bought me Stephen King's book On Writing. In its pages I discovered that even my favorite contemporary horror writer loved reading the "Potter" series, and had included some shout-outs to it in his own works.
Despite this, somewhere between my twenty-first birthday and my twenty-sixth, I became leery of young adult literature again. Kid stuff, I couldn't help thinking. Yeah, I'm sure it's got literary merit. I'll bet the plot and pacing are second to none. The writing likely kicks ass.
But something always held me back. I'd see the "YA" label on a book on Amazon or in Barnes & Noble, and I'd click away or put it back on the shelf. This prejudice even extended to fellow human beings: I'd be reading someone's blog and liking it, but then I'd check their biography and see that they were a writer of YA. I'd promptly get turned off and leave. Cripes, you'd think I was insecure about my manhood or something.
Well, I'm here to tell you today about two books that changed my outlook: Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve and Airborn by Kenneth Oppel.
You might remember 'em from my last book-related post. Mortal Engines is the first book of the Predator Cities series (known inexplicably as the Hungry City Chronicles in America). Basically, the world's become a wasteland following some kind of nuclear holocaust, and in the wake of this disaster some enterprising fellow put the city of London on gigantic tank treads and gave it humongous steel jaws and decreed that cities should roam all over the planet's surface eating and assimilating each other for spare parts and fuel. Thus the system of Municipal Darwinism was born. Every city and town and village became a mobile eating-machine and started chasing each other around like Pac-Man.
Tom Natsworthy, a 15-year-old apprentice historian and Londoner, is on punishment duty in the Gut—London's hellish underbelly where her prizes are pulled apart and fed to the boilers. Unexpectedly, though, Tom has gotten to meet his hero, Thaddeus Valentine, a renowned master historian. As the scruffy survivors of London's latest catch are processed, one of them draws a knife and makes an attempt on Valentine's life. Tom prevents the ragged captive from stabbing his hero, and in the ensuing struggle both he and the would-be assassin fall out of London's bowels and into the Out-Country, the ravaged remains of Earth's surface. Tom learns that Valentine's attacker is Hester Shaw, a teenage girl with a horribly scarred face, who blames Valentine for her disfigurement and for murdering her mother. During their ensuing adventures, Tom must adjust to a great many things: the savage lifestyle of the Out-Country, Hester's brutal and standoffish nature, the Anti-Traction League (a terrorist organization dedicated to the destruction of London and every moving city like it), and the unsettling evidence that Thaddeus Valentine may not be such a hero after all.
Airborn follows Matt Cruse, also fifteen and a cabin boy on the grand passenger airship Aurora. During the course of the novel, the Aurora is caught in a storm, boarded by pirates, stranded on an uncharted island, and very nearly destroyed. All this is rather traumatic for poor Matt, who loves the airship more than anything in the world, for his father served (and died) aboard her. Complicating Matt's comfy existence aboard his floating home is Kate de Vries, a wealthy heiress and amateur zoologist who is out to prove that her balloonist grandfather was not crazy when he claimed to have discovered an unknown species of flying creature on his final voyage. She and a reluctant Matt have a series of whirlwind adventures on land and in the air, surviving storms, ducking pirates and meeting the ferocious cloud cats—the "beautiful creatures" that Kate's grandfather spoke of with his dying breath.
Even more awesome, right?
I don't even care that these are both technically YA works. The writing's good. The characters are vivid. And the imaginations of these two authors are off the flippin' chain. (Reeve, in particular, makes a bunch of obscure pop culture and literary references, most of which I get. It's like I'm receiving a direct geek-to-geek call!) Labels like "young adult" don't matter to me, not now. These are the first works I've really gotten lost in since Harry Potter. It's nice to have rediscovered that feeling. Getting lost in a book is the best thing in the world. You feel like you've taken a running leap off a diving board and submerged yourself wholeheartedly into a vast unexplored ocean, a galaxy of new worlds and new horizons.
The next book in the Mortal Engines quartet is Predator's Gold.
Next up in the Airborn series is Skybreaker.
Gad, don't those titles give you the chills?
Excuse me, I have some new worlds to explore. Turn off the lights when you leave.