YA Books You Need to R

Online lists about which books need to be read by everyone at least once are plentiful, but they never have the books I think are most needing of attention. For instance, Ender’s Game is on several of them, and for good reason; but Ender’s Shadow, which I confess to loving even more, rarely is.

That said, some of the books on this list are probably on others. Some are not. They aren’t a particularly literary selection. One is a Star Wars novel. One is dystopian. Perhaps a better title for this post would be “YA Books I  Love” but I’m not going to call it that, because that title would require a list too long for this blog post, and because they really are good books I think most fiction lovers can enjoy.

The Beyonders Trilogy by Brandon Mull

  A teenager falls into a magical world. This sounds like the premise for an enjoyable, but familiar story about heroes and adventurers and dragons, but that’s not how Beyonders works. The heroes of Lyrian have all been systematically bribed, corrupted, tortured or killed out of hero-ing. There are no dragons, which is a serious mark against the series in my book, but the creatures that are there are each fascinating in their own way–giants and zombies and wizards and things that we don’t have any stories or names for on Earth.

It’s an exciting story about integrity and the true meaning of courage. And sword fights, because obviously there have to be sword fights if there’s no dragons.

The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett

This is the first of the Discworld books focused on Tiffany Aching. I don’t know if everyone considers it YA, but that’s where it’s shelved at my library and it’s about a girl as opposed to the adult protagonists of most of the other books.

The book is excellent for its dry humor and magic, but it also has this quote:

“All witches are selfish, the Queen had said. But Tiffany’s Third Thoughts said: Then turn selfishness into a weapon! Make all things yours! Make other lives and dreams and hopes yours! Protect them! Save them! Bring them into the sheepfold! Walk the gale for them! Keep away the wolf! My dreams! My brother! My family! My land! My world! How dare you try to take these things, because they are mine!

It’s a very Slytherin way of choosing to protect those in need of protecting. I love it.

The Giver by Lois Lowry

I’m fortunate to have never been forced to read this book for class, since the way I had to read and analyze literature in English class tended to make me hate them, though maybe I’d have hated The Crucible anyways.

The Giver is early dystopian fiction, and some of the best work in the genre. In a society where everyone is more or less the same, a boy named Jonas is surprised to stand out when he is chosen to be the new Reciever of Memory.

Some of my favorite themes in the book are the value of having differences between people, and whether and why emotions are important. The movie is really good too.

Ahsoka  by EK Johnston

This is a more recent book, part of the new Star Wars canon. Ahsoka Tano, former apprentice to Anakin Skywalker, survived the Jedi purges and is on the run in the Outer Rim. With an assumed name and her skill with droids, she is able to stay out of the Empire’s way as a mechanic.

Then the Empire comes to the small farming town she’s been staying in, and she is faced with the choice of running again, or helping the people she’s beginning to befriend and being targeted as a Jedi. Can she fight again after losing everything?

Also, it’s very fun to read Star Wars from a non-human’s perspecive.

On Meeting Your Heroes

Here’s the thing about heroes: they’re people. They have people’s desires and exhaustions and flaws. They can be good people, often, but people all the same. No one on this planet is Superman, even if I still think of my dad that way sometimes (I blame his love of Smallville).

I try to keep that in mind whenever I have the chance to meet someone I admire, whether for their voice or creativity or uncommonly kind heart. Heroes are people. People are flawed. Both of these things can be true, no those we consider our personal heroes can still be worthy of respect.

Last month, I had the opportunity to meet David Archuleta before one of his concerts. He’s one of those people I respect, for his integrity and for the messages he works to share through his music. During the concert, he introduced one of the songs with some commentary on social media.

He pointed out that on the internet, people usually only share the things about their lives that they are happy with-the good selfies, the weekends spent with friends, not the time spent on makeup or the quiet nights in.

I think this filtering of information is also in effect when it comes to our heroes. Parents don’t usually tell their children about their doubts and struggles as they raise them. Creative people share their successes far more readily than they do their weeks of struggling to come up with an idea. Emergency responders don’t tell the people they’re rescuing about the times they didn’t get there soon enough.

This can be good. I, for one, am not even slightly interested in seeing everyone’s dirty laundry.

But it can lead to the impression that heroes aren’t ordinary People Like Us, and that’s just inaccurate. Heroes are ordinary. They have favorite foods and bad habits and toothbrushes, same as me and probably you, dear reader.

Which leads to the conclusion that any of us can be heroes for someone.

Gratitude

Things I am grateful for:

1. Freedom of speech. It would be difficult to make awesome things without it. The rest of the Bill of Rights goes here too.

2. Dumbo octopuses

3. Mythology, folklore, and fairy tales. Some fairy tales are more than six thousand years old, and still told today!

4. Brains. It would be hard to live without them.

5. Water. I grew up in a desert. Rivers still blow my mind.

6. That while I may occasionally find lizards on my bed, I will never find a satanic leaf-tailed gecko there unexpectedly. Meeting one while knowing I was going to meet one might be fun, though.

7. Duct tape. I once won brownies in a duct-tape craft contest. Later I made my prom dress from duct tape. Duct tape is good.

8. Vision. My eyes mostly see fuzzy shapes and colors without glasses or contacts, so I am very grateful to live in a time when those are available.

9. Shoes. Especially high tops. And low tops. And combat boots.

10. This photo Juno took of Jupiter’s south pole.

11. Star Wars.

12. Cool apps like Amaziograph, which I used to draw today’s picture.

Things I am not grateful for:

1. Violence.

2. Wasps.

3. People who think yelling at you will make you agree with them.

4. Yelling in general.

5. The fact that Captain America got turned into a Nazi in the comics. Seriously?!

6. Those little prickly seed pods that stick to EVERYTHING.

7. My attention span going AWOL when I’m trying to learn something cool.

8. Lots of other things. I’m trying to shorten this list and lengthen the previous one, though.

The Scorpion in the Sky

This is an old story. A brash hunter. An infuriated deity. And a monster.
What the crime was and which deity was infuriated, depends on who’s telling the story.

The hunter, Orion, stays the same, though. As does the monster–Scorpius.

Supposedly, their final battle was so destructive that the gods feared putting them both in the Underworld, where they might keep fighting. Instead, they were placed in the sky, as constellations, on opposite sides of the heavenly sphere. You will never see Orion and Scorpio in the sky at the same time. That was deliberate, so they cannot fight anymore.
Watching Scorpius’s heart flicker as he rises in the evenings, I wonder about him. Was he created just to kill Orion? Did he start out as one of the many monsters wandering about Greek myths? How did Artemis (or Apollo, or Gaea) get him to cooperate? Did he have some specific grudge against Orion to begin with?

This is an old story. It’s been told and retold thousands of times, the details altered or faded or lost to living memory. If Scorpius was ever anything other than the weapon that killed Orion, we have no way of knowing. He got the short end of the narrative–no characterization, no motivations, just a capacity for violence and a target. Like the Winter Soldier, sans tragic backstory.

Writing protip: figure out what drives your villains. You don’t have to reference it specifically, you don’t have to make it a sympathetic drive, but figuring out why a bad guy acts as they do is the first step towards believable characterization.

Scorpius doesn’t have that, right now. But, myths don’t have a copyright. We can fill in the details ourselves, if we think to.

Say the deity was Artemis, and that Orion’s crime was more than boasting. Say she turned to an old friend for aid-perhaps she had slain a greater monster than Scorpius, saving his life. He would have gladly hunted Orion, to right a wrong and repay a debt.

Or say it was Apollo, envious of Orion’s rising star (pun completely intended) and his friendship with Artemis, who turned up in his lair and took Scorpius’s mate or hatchlings hostage. He would have fought fiercely then, if it was in hopes of saving a loved one.

Or Gaea, Earth Mother, seeking to protect her creatures from the mighty hunter, went to Scorpius for help. As one of her creatures, he gave it.

Or say Scorpius was a monster, and did what monsters do, and it was only because someone whispered a suggestion to him, or claimed Orion had insulted him, that he became so focused on the hunter.

All or none of these backgrounds may be applied to the myths, with varying degrees of effectiveness.

This is an old story. We can’t know what its original tellers intended for it, or for Scorpius, to mean. We can only know what it means for us, now.

How to be a Star Wars Villain

So, you’ve finally figured out a career you want to pursue. Congratulations. It’s about time; you’re graduating in the next couple weeks and your family has been nagging you about what you’re going to be for years.

It’s a good career for you. The money’s good, the hours aren’t awful, and you get to wear a snazzy outfit. It’s something that allows you to act how you’ve always secretly wanted to, but been prevented by society.

You are going to be a Star Wars villain.

You probably already have your evil name picked out, and have started on the long application process, but you’ll need advice. This is the place for it. For starters–keeping a running total of the ants you’ve stepped on? Not impressive. Keep that information far away from your resume.

Here are a few tips for how to act once you get the job.

1. Call everyone you don’t like scum.

This is very important. Even if you haven’t yet had the screen time to show by your actions how evil you are, if you call people scum, your audience will get the hint. Rebel scum. Jedi scum. Scavenger scum. Person-who-butters-their-toast-Wrong scum. Everyone can be scum, except for you and your underlings. Not that your underlings will have an easy time of things, of course.

2. Kill people who don’t need killing.

Not because you don’t see them as people. You have to know they’re people, and kill them like moths. Kill all the villagers who happen to be near you. Kill any underlings who make mistakes, however innocent or unavoidable. Kill some planets while you’re at it. And if someone is needed for plot purposes later on? Don’t kill them. Torture them. For absolutely no reason, of course. How is anyone to know how evil you are if you aren’t sowing senseless carnage everywhere?

3. Make yourself seem less than human.

Unless they are a budding young villain like yourself, no one wants to think themselves capable of the things you do. So distance yourself from the audience. Be a cyborg, because that isn’t rude to amputees everywhere. Get some really noticeable scars. If you’re cursed enough to be attractive, wear a scary mask. Be careful not to take it off, though, or viewers might start to think you’re jus misunderstood. And whatever you do, do not make any reference to a tragic backstory. Your childhood was perfect, understand?

Follow these guidelines, and you may just become a worthwhile villain, one you audience will love to hate and cheer for the death of. Oh. Erm…maybe set your affairs in order before you start.

Strength and weakness

During Stan Lee’s time writing the Avengers comics, Thor shared a body with a Doctor Donald Blake. Nothing out of the ordinary, in a universe that featured super soldiers, radioactive superpowers, a creepy-eyed guy who showed up to watch big events, and of course magical space Vikings, but looking back over those comics that detail catches my eye. See, without Mjolnir, Thor would revert back to Donald Blake, and so whenever something separated him from his hammer during a fight he panicked. He didn’t want his teammates to find out that, when he wasn’t being Thor, he was a small man who used a cane and looked utterly un-godlike.

Angst like that was common in the Avengers at the time–Iron Man didn’t want the team to find out about his heart condition, for instance. But the characters evolved, and Thor and Donald Blake parted ways, so it wouldn’t be relevant if the hammer and title of Thor were not currently being carried by Jane Foster–as of the last time I caught up with the series, anyway. It’s been a few months.

When Jane holds Mjolnir, as far as anyone cares, she’s Thor. Maybe not the same Thor as the other superheroes have worked with in years past, and definitely not the Thor that Odin wants, but she has the same powers and does the same work to protect people, so there isn’t much to be concerned with. The biggest difference seems to be that Iron Man tried to flirt with her. She’s physically imposing, wears almost practical armor, and looks really really cool, like every good superhero-deity should.

Separate her from the hammer, though, and not only is dear Jane a small, frail, human, she is also dying of cancer. And the transformation between Thor and her own body is just making her more sick.

I have mixed feelings about the incorporation of cancer into Jane’s story. On the one hand, cancer is real and it’s not going away soon, and reflecting that in the stories we tell is only reasonable. Stories may contain fantastic, unbelievable elements, especially superhero stories, but they also have aspects of the things their storytellers see in real life.

On the other hand, cancer is real and it keeps interfering in far too many of the lives of people I care about, and I’d like it to stay out of my fiction if possible. Along with tarantula hawks, most forms of paperwork, and broken guitar strings. But if this were a dissertation on the representation of cancer in fiction, I wouldn’t be starting with the Thor comics.

Despite my misgivings, showing the dual nature of Jane’s strengths and weaknesses in such an overt way in these comics is effective in raising the questions it’s meant to, I think. What are your strengths? It asks readers. How do your strengths make the impact of your weaknesses more dangerous, in a twist of cruel irony? In the case of Jane Foster, the questions refer to literal strength, but it can also be applied to other types of strength–strength of courage or or endurance or integrity or character as a whole, and weakness of the same.

Tony Stark’s strength and weakness stem from the same place: he is highly intelligent, and unfortunately, he knows it. Percy Jackson’s strength is his loyalty to his loved ones, but it also puts him in danger all the time. Luke Skywalker’s strength is in his love, but his love for and faith in his father nearly gets him killed. Actually, I think he inherited that strength-weakness from Anakin to begin with.

But the weaknesses can come from a place completely different from the strengths. Kaladin Stormblessed’s strength is in his magic and his protective nature, but the betrayals and failures of his past threaten to take away both. Frodo’s strength is his endurance, which is tested and broken by the One Ring.

Of course, most characters and all people have more than one strength or weakness. Reading stories like these Thor comics encourage me to try to identify all, which is looking to be a lifetime’s work. Hopefully, it will be worthwhile.

Here’s the thing about words

I don’t know if anyone else’s mind works like this. I’ve never been anyone else.

For me, words are anchors to thought. They nail down a concept or idea into easily definable parameters so that that concept can be shared. Sometimes it’s hard to be sure that the concept fits the parameters the words are forming, but so far the errors are manageable. Sometimes it’s hard to assemble the words to match the concept quickly enough to engage in conversation, but again, it’s manageable.

Thinking in words is nice. It’s the simplest way to engage with the world.

Words are communication. Those who can’t use them, or who use words in a language other than the one used by those around them, have difficulty getting their thoughts and needs across.

And words are fun. The way that “right” can mean either a direction or “correct” is amusing. The different connotations attached to words like “combat boots” can lead in dozens of fascinating directions. The different ways people use words, based on where they are from and what they have experienced, those are really cool.

But it’s not the only way to think. There are numbers. Colors. Line. Melody. Thinking in those is useful and exciting too. It can have remarkable results–creative works no words could make.

And sometimes I don’t use any of those to think, not words or color or number. Thinking without anything remotely like language to nail down the thoughts isn’t not-thinking. It’s just a different way of experiencing things. Once I was thinking in that way while fidgeting with a puzzle box no one in my family could figure out. I dismantled it in a few minutes, though I still am not sure how.