Thursday, 26 November 2015

Morally Complicated YA Recommendations

I'm sure some of you have seen all of the Scott Bergstrom nonsense all over twitter the past few days, but for those that haven't, I'm just going to briefly sum it up:

Debut author dude gets impressive publishing deal for his previously self published YA book. Fair enough. But the article announcing it and interviews he's done have him saying some things that are incredibly ignorant, sort of arrogant and a bit on the narrow minded side?

I have other issues with his book, but I'm trying to reserve judgement on that for if I actually read it (for now, it's sounding an awful lot like a man trying to write from the perspective of a teenage girl without actually understanding teenage girls -- and all the bits of it I have read from the self published version support that and have been awful on multiple levels)...

So this post isn't going to be about that. It's going to be about the fact that in the interviews and articles he kind of trash talks the YA that is already out there, and implies he's bringing something new to the table (he actually goes as far as to insult YA dystopia in the book itself -- well, in the self published version at least).

That -- no. That's not cool. You don't write for a category, and use its audience for your own gain, while trash talking your peers (and sort of being unintentionally insulting towards its readers in the process). He claims that most of the YA out there isn't morally complicated and he's dismissive of genres in YA that aren't his own (which sort of read like "well, those ones are morally complicated but they don't count because they're X genre and they're just a metaphor for high school, so...").

I could get so ranty about this, but to be honest, I can't be bothered. Other people have already said what I would've said anyway... What I do want to do is recommend some morally complicated YA books.

And, just to clarify before I begin, these will be a variety of different types of moral complexity.

Perhaps the main characters aren't transforming themselves into lean ninjas and traipsing on a killing spree through the dark corners of Europe (à la Taken)...but let's be honest, that isn't the kind of moral complexity that young adults are likely to face on a daily basis, it's not the kind that many (or any) are likely to actually relate to in a real way. The moral complexity that we see more often in YA books? It's subtle and it's more realistic than his book is likely to be and that's why it matters.

Book Recommendations

1. Basically anything that Courtney Summers writes - All of her books are raw and gritty, they have fierce female characters who aren't likeable but you can't help but like them in spite of that. Her characters make mistakes, big ones -- they say and do things that should make it difficult to sympathise with them but you do anyway because they're well written, because they're complex, because they're human.

2. Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein - I can't get into specifics about the moral complexities of this book without spoiling it, but it's about two best friends during WW2 and let's just say they have difficult choices to make. Elizabeth's other books are good for moral complexity too.

3. I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson - This is the story of two siblings, twins, and the time leading up to and after a big loss in their lives. There's so much moral complexity in this book, with the characters doing things they regret that they can't ever take back, with them having to decide if it's better to be stay quiet or tell a truth that will hurt people they care about. The book has romance in it, but even that is complicated (with issues like sexuality and age differences playing a part in them). 

4. Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma - This's kind of the epitome of morally complicated. It's about the consensual incest between two siblings. It's about their absentee father and their negligent, barely present mother and the choices they have to make every day to keep their family together. It's about mental illness and kids making decisions in the heat of the moment that have ripple effects they'll regret for the rest of their lives. It's, well, complicated. 

5. Stolen by Lucy Christopher - This is a story about Stockholm Syndrome. A girl is kidnapped by a man and taken to the Australian outback. It's often easier to feel sympathy for the kidnapper in many parts than it is with the girl...because it's complicated, very emotionally and morally complicated. And the reader is left trying to untangle their feelings at the end because what we feel and what we know to be true get all knotted up while reading. This is the book that made me really get what Stockholm Syndrome was all about in a way that hadn't quite clicked before. 

6. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson - This is the story about a young girl who was raped and the impact it has had on her life. She didn't report it, but then she sees her rapist at school and she has to make a decision -- say nothing, move on, or risk speaking up and facing all the backlash of that. Risk not being believed. But if she says nothing, what if he does it again? That'd be on him, but she'd feel like she should've tried to do something to stop it. That's a moral dilemma that way too many girls have to face. 

7. Entangled by Cat Clarke - This is a story about grief and mental illness and relationships that are wrong and unhealthy. The main character isn't always the easiest person to like and the characters that seem good sometimes do awful things because good people are capable of bad things. (Really trying not to spoil the story, which is why I'm keeping it vague.) Actually, quite a few of the Cat Clarke books I've read have been pretty dark and morally complex -- tackling bullying, suicide, sexuality...even manslaughter/murder in one of them, if I recall correctly. 

8. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins - He was pretty dismissive of this genre, and this series in particular, but I completely disagree. There is a lot of moral complexity in this book -- for one thing Katniss isn't always a good person but I wouldn't say she's a bad person either, she is a reluctant face of a revolution...she never set out to change the world she was in, all she wanted was to save her sisters life. Even when the revolution was already in motion, she didn't want to be a part of it until it was having a direct impact on the people or things she cared about. If you look to the past or even the present, The Hunger Games isn't all that far fetched -- the specifics of it may be, but people rising up against a corrupt government? And the way we can be so desensitized to violence and compartmentalize it until it's impacting us directly? That's reflected very much in our reality. 

9. These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly - A historical novel about a girl who has to choose between the life she feels she should have and the one she actually wants. Where she has to decide whether pursuing the truth is important enough to risk her life and the lives of others. Where she has to decide if justice is worth ruining the lives of people she cares about, if it's worth throwing away her money and social status and everything she's ever known. She has to choose between her own happiness and the happiness of her family. 

10. Me and Mr J by Rachel McIntyre - This is a book about a girl who is bullied. It's a book about a girl who has an unhappy home life. It's a book about a girl who has a romantic relationship with her teacher. That is pretty morally complex. The teacher, he's not a bad guy, he's not vilified in the book...but it doesn't condone his actions either. They're not a bad couple if you ignore the age difference and the fact that he's her teacher -- except those facts can't be ignored. This is one of those books that really highlights what is wrong with those sorts of relationships. A lot of young girls find themselves in that sort of position -- perhaps not with a teacher specifically, but with a guy that is older and he's interested in them and making them feel loved and wanted, except the power dynamics of those relationships are wrong and they can be so damaging. 

11. The Lumatere Chronicles by Melina Marchetta - All of her books really, she writes the most excellent characters, but if you're looking for moral complexity then this series takes the cake for so many reasons that I don't even know where to begin. And yes, it's an epic fantasy series but that doesn't mean it should be dismissed -- the world may be vastly different to our own, but the characters and their emotional struggles are still universally human.

12. All Fall Down by Ally Carter - I can't explain the big moral grey area in this book because it would spoil the ending, but trust me, it's way more morally complicated than a girl killing bad guys to save her dad. (Also, Heist Society and Gallagher girls too -- realistic? No, but it has teen criminals and teen spies, so... Plus, the books don't treat strength and being stereotypically feminine as if they're mutually exclusive traits).

13. Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas - The main character in this is an assassin. And she's one of those reluctant heroes too, which I appreciate. It's easy to root for someone who is all about overthrowing the corrupt leader no matter the cost, but someone who is a little bit selfish, someone who has to grow as a character to reach that point where they want to fight for the greater good? Those are the ones I like best. And the witches and characters like Chaol? A whole lotta moral complexity right there.

14. Bleeding Violet and Slice of Cherry by Dia Reeves - More the latter than the former, all you need to do is read the summary to figure out why... It's about two sisters, the daughters of an infamous serial killer, who follow in their fathers footsteps and go on a killing spree of their own and amongst all that it's about family, it's about growing up and growing apart and figuring out who they want to be on their own and out of their fathers shadow.

15. Pretty Little Liars and The Perfectionists by Sara Shepard - This one probably received some eye rolls from some people, but... The books are full of teacher/student relationships, murder, stalking, bullying, characters lying to the police, their parents, each other, mental illness. These books are those fun, entertaining reads but even they are full of morally complex situations and characters.

And those are just a few of the morally complex YA books out there. I've read more than I can count (nearly every YA book I've read this year alone could make this list) -- the only way anyone could argue that YA books aren't morally complex is if they have a very narrow minded view of what constitutes moral complexity.

This isn't intended as a personal attack on Scott Bergstrom, the reason I wanted to make this post was because this isn't the first time I've seen those sorts of comments. They crop up way too often -- people being dismissive of YA, of it's readers, people oversimplifying the category or making it out to be lacking in depth or merit... And what's worse is, these comments are too often coming from people trying to write YA.

I'm a firm believer that you shouldn't try to write something without first understanding it. That goes for men writing female characters or white people writing non-white characters or slim people writing fat characters... Just, anything outside your own realm of experience, research it first. The same goes for YA -- don't write for a category without first exploring what already exists in that category, especially if you're going to claim you're doing something new.

Assuming anyone read my rambling to this point: Are there any YA books you'd recommend that are morally complicated?



  1. It's interesting how liking an author is important in liking a book.

    1. Yes, I agree. There are books I love by authors I have issues with, but I'd read those before I found out things that put me off the authors... I'm not sure how much it would've impacted my reading experience had I read the books after instead of before.



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