I found myself reading a lot of YA this month, in two categories: (1) Nominees for the Hugo/Lodestar award for YA, and (2) books that the Shit People are trying to get removed from school and public libraries. I used to take pride in having read all of the banned books, back when FARENHEIT 451 and PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT were cutting edge. But they keep writing more wonderful, controversial, mind-expanding, thought-provoking books. and the Shit People just can't handle it.
Among the books they're trying to get rid of:
LAWN BOY, by Jonathan Evison. I found it mostly wholesome and relatable to young people who aren't likely to go to college and are wondering what else is out there. The protagonist, a recent high school graduate, lives in a trailer with his single mom, who is dating a man who wants the kid to move out. He drifts from one dead end job to another, gets ripped off by bosses, and is too embarrassed to ask out the girl he likes because he's poor.
The reason Shit People want to ban it doesn't come across until late in the story. It's a weak excuse to throw a wet blanket on what should be a positive story about making discoveries and finding one's niche.
THE HATE U GIVE, by Angie Thomas. This one is a riveting, very topical story about a Black girl trying to balance her life in "the hood" she lives in with the privileged, mostly white school her parents sacrifice to let her go to so that she can have opportunity. And then she becomes the only non-police witness to the police murder of her best friend. Banned because accurate depictions of police behavior might tend to cause youth to lose respect for the police.
A COURT OF MIST AND FURY, by Sarah J. Maas. Part of a standard fantasy series, where all the relationships are cis-het and the main racial difference is "fae" v. "mortal". Seems to me, if you'd want to ban this, you'd want to ban Tolkein and most of the entire fantasy genre. Because fae beings are Satan or something. Then again, the protagonist is a strong woman engaged to a traditional male who sees himself as her protector and who therefore keeps her locked in his palace "for her own good", thereby making her feel the need to escape even though she loves him. So---banned for "disobedient female"?
ALL BOYS AREN'T BLUE, by George Matthew Johnson. The autobiography of a Black gay man, with emphasis on the challenges he had in school and how he overcame them. I found it tender, honest and uplifting, and so it definitely had to be silenced by those who hate those things.
JACK OF HEARTS AND OTHER PARTS, by LC Rose. And finally, one that really did take me aback and cause me to wonder whether it was age appropriate. The protagonist has a lot of gay sex and says a lot of fuck words, but he also has a sex/relationship advice blog that reveals a great deal of emotional maturity, and addresses issues that I really wish I'd seen addressed when I was that age. Heck, I wish I'd seen them when I was in my 20s. This book could be vital to some kids who have had the facts of life withheld from them, and to the people they date. And, as my wife reminded me, everyone in high school knows those words whether the grownups are comfortable about it or not. So yes. Let it stay.
And now for the Lodestar nominated novels, which differ from the "banned" lists in that they all have a sci-fi/fantasy theme and the Shit People haven't discovered them to object to yet. I was blown away. All six protagonists are women and girls, and almost all of the female protagonists are powerful warriors who are IN CHARGE. Witness:
VICTORIES GREATER THAN DEATH, by Charlie Jane Anders. During the climax of the Battle for the Fate of the Galaxy, history's greatest space opera general fell, and her identity was something something garbanzo transformed into a teenage girl on earth where she could be hidden from the enemy until it was time to rise again (just roll with it. Think of the origin of Dawn, Buffy's little sister. Like that. Sort of). Except that when they reactivate her...they can't get the general's memory back, and she is just Tina, suddenly depended on to save the universe.
THE LAST GRADUATE, by Naomi Novik:. An extremely confusing book about a protagonist named Galadriel in the most hellish Wizard School I've ever encountered. As if Hogwarts was in the land of Tamsyn Muir's Locked tomb series. It's all books, no teachers. Magic monsters are everywhere. Kids are on their own, with no one but each other for help, and an effective way to live is to let someone else get killed, and if you're in the half of your graduating class that makes it through the final year alive, you'll probably die during graduation.
So, yeah. Pretty much nailed my elementary school experience.
REDEMPTOR, by Jordan Ifueko: The protagonist has become queen of a land with an indigenous sub-Saharan African feel, and must prepare to go to the land of the dead to fulfill a bargain made with monsters that could rescue her people.
It's worth noting that the heroines of these three books, and Xiran Jay Zhao's IRON WIDOW (see my March 2022 bookpost), who run the agency gamut from Empress to slave, are tradition-defiers, continually told by men that they're doing it wrong, that they're going to get everybody killed, and that they must be crazy. And yet they follow their own moral compass, not for themselves (every one of them is willing to die for the greater good, if necessary), but because their people are depending on them, and they're going to break all the rules if that's what it takes to save the people. All of them, not just the privileged few. It's interesting to me that a theme like that recurs in so many books in this particular genre, at this moment in history when my country suffers the horrible consequences of having failed to put the smart woman in charge.
A SNAKE FALLS TO EARTH, by Darcie Little Badger, is about the intersection of our world with a parallel world of animals who can transform themselves into human form. the story goes back and forth between the perspectives of a girl in Texas who is trying to make sense of her dying great grandmother's last words and discover whether the rumors of animal people are true, and a snake from the other world who must visit this one to try to save a friend's life.
Which brings us to CHAOS ON CATNET, by Naomi Kritzer, the book I would pick to get the Lodestar if I was voting in the Hugos this year. The others are badass, thought-provoking, and build incredible new worlds, but what brought me the most joy was the amazing adventure with a friendly AI right here in our own world. The predecessor book, CATFISHING ON CATNET, which featured one of the more realistic and frightening villains I've encountered in fiction in a long time, won the Lodestar last year, so I am not alone in my praise.
This then is the second adventure featuring protagonist Steph and her friends around the States who meet in the chat group Catnet, hosted by their special friend "CheshireCat", an AI who can access All Things Online, and who will keep our teenage heroes safe as they investigate a creepy religious cult and an online game that instigates players to perform increasingly problematic "pranks" in the real world to gain game points. very highest recommendations.
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