Growing up in the 80s, I didn’t have access to “young adult” as a genre, let alone entire bookstore sections dedicated to teen readers. No, I had to rely on Stephen King and Piers Anthony to get me through my middle- and high-school years.
So I feel I have a lot of catching up to do now that YA isn’t just available, but is so popular even we adults don’t have to be ashamed to be seen carrying around books (and book covers!) obviously geared toward our 14-year-old selves.
I’ll spare you my extended reviews of the Twilight series (addictive like jelly beans but less nutritional) and of the Hunger Games trilogy (rich like a Cadbury Crème Egg but by the end, you feel like you’ve been eating the same piece of candy for 3 books, and the conclusion upsets your stomach a little) and of every other of the dozens and dozens of YA books I’ve read over the past several years, so many of them formulaic: A girl falls for a boy only to find out he’s a bad boy/fairy/vampire/angel, but along the way she discovers she’s a fairy/vampire/angel, and she’s sure she can turn the bad boy/fairy/vampire/angel into a good boy/fairy/vampire/angel, if only time doesn’t run out for them first. Oh. And only if the other boy/fairy/vampire/angel doesn’t prove to be too tempting to resist.
I’m not trashing these YAs. Formulas are formulas—and not misguided mathematics—because they work. Just like clichés are clichés because they’re true, and little black dresses really do serve multiple purposes.
That being said, however, I love with an all-my-heart kind of love young-adult novels that break from “tradition.” And here’s what it takes for me to find that kind of love (call it another formula if you like):
1. An authentic voice. And I don’t mean an authentic YA voice. I mean an authentic teen voice. I mean the voice teens actually use and not the one teen characters use.
2. A plot outside of the romance. Yes, love stories are wonderful and have their place in literature. But “Romeo and Juliet” was done right the first time. Let’s move on and raise the stakes a little. Let’s have a storyline that would still be a great book even if the main characters weren’t falling in love.
3. Good pacing. The reader shouldn’t be sweating or sleeping by the end of the story. A little heart-racing action is great. But just like the rest of us, the characters need to have time to breathe, have a snack, and then get back out there for the next round.
4. Characters worth caring about. I watched “Contagion” the other night. This movie has an 84% on Rotten Tomatoes, and I don’t understand why. I didn’t care about any of the characters. Gwyneth Paltrow dies five minutes in, and flashbacks surrounding her don’t make her sympathetic. Matt Damon’s total minutes onscreen are well acted, but we know all along he and his daughter will be just fine, so I’m just supposed to mourn with him for his cheating wife? The purpose of the film was to scare us. I get that. And, yes, the idea of a virus wiping out 25% of the people it infect is frightening, but it was frightening before Kate Winslet got sick and before Jude Law got angry. I want to feel involved with the people that make up the story, not just the story.
5. Believability. I know fairies and vampires and brooding teen angels don’t exist. But I’m willing to believe in them for 300+ pages if the author believes in them. I’m willing to believe in them if the world the author has created is so real and vivid and downright tangible that I find myself thinking, “I get it now! Of course!”
A book that has all five of these qualifications is rare, which is why I love with an all-my-heart kind of love Brigid Kemmerer’s Storm.
1. Book reviewer Brodie on Eleusinian Mysteries said it best: “Is Brigid Kemmerer really a teenage boy in disguise? 5 times over? The dialogue and mannerisms and the way they express themselves... she nails it!”
2. My 15-year-old son read this as well. When he first picked it up, he rolled his eyes at the cover. But he’d finished the book two days later. He said he didn’t even notice the romance because he was caught up in the story. Now, I promise you there’s puh-lenty of romance in this book: four hot brothers who each control an element, and then an equally hot new and mysterious stranger comes to town, and soon all five of them are thrown off their game by Becca, the main character. It’s a story about controlling your own life. It’s about finding and defining yourself. It’s about SO much more than who hooks up with whom.
3. When the pacing is too fast in a book, you don’t get to know the characters well enough. You feel rushed. Too slow, and you wonder when Godot is going to show up. “Storm” takes you along for a buckle-up sort of ride, but it doesn’t give you whiplash along the way.
4. Brigid is a female. We’ve met. And she’s not a teenager, even if she is a good bit younger than I am. But she has created five male characters that are different and infuriating and sweet and arrogant and off-putting and insecure and stubborn and naïve and not always likable. But I still love every one of them because they make sense. As for Becca, she’s strong without being abrasive. She has weaknesses, but they’re what make her real and relatable. She’s not an action hero dressed in black leather with a whip at her side and enough lip gloss to polish the Statue of Liberty. She’s a normal girl who’s faced some really rough times and has learned to confront and deal with them. I cared about her. I cared about all of the characters. It’s impossible not to.
5. Vampires, fairies and brooding teen angels don’t exist. Like I said: I know that. But I’m pretty sure Elementals who can control earth, air, fire, and water do. Brigid says so, she believes so, and I believe her.
Storm comes out on April 24. Spark (book 2) comes out in the fall. This series is refreshing and brilliant and exciting, and Brigid Kemmerer is an author well worth keeping an eye on for the foreseeable future.