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.

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.

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.

Redemptive Traits

I’ve talked before about causing readers to experience hatred for villains, and I probably will again, but today I’ll look at the other side of the coin:  loving villains.

It’s easy enough to hate a bad guy.  There are some outstanding examples where the opposite is the case in recent pop culture, but usually audiences want the bad guys to come to a bad end.

However, villains are people–well, characters–as much as heroes are.  People are complicated, especially the ones who do terrible things.  Reflecting that truth in a villainous character can make them incredibly interesting, and when I want to write such a villain, that starts with the aspects of the character that wouldn’t go on their bad guy resume.

The wholly evil villains aren’t terribly realistic, after all, any more than wholly virtuous heroes are.

Take Star Wars, for instance.  Emperor Palpatine is a backstabbing, scheming tyrant who really likes power and doesn’t much care about who he walks over to get it.  We never see a single redemptive act during Palpatine’s screentime.  Darth Vader, on the other hand, loves his son and misses his wife.  That doesn’t make up for the slaughter of the Jedi younglings or the destruction of Alderaan, but it gives us a look at him as something other than a scary black mask.

Star Wars would not be Star Wars without Emperor Palpatine, but Darth Vader is the face of the dark side.  In some ways, his redemptive qualities make his terrible acts even worse–how can you love that deeply, and kill that easily, at the same time?

It’s similar with the Lord of the Rings.  Sure, Sauron and the Ringwraiths are terrifying, but Gollum is the bad guy we remember, and Boromir the hero whose fall from grace speaks loudest.

It’s easy enough to look at popular villains and say what it is that makes them so interesting.  It’s harder to write similarly interesting baddies without accidentally slapping a new name on an old character.

However, there are some common themes which the most memorable villains tend to share.  Love.  Revenge.  Fear.  Hunger, in some cases.

Loving someone, as Darth Vader does, is the simplest way of giving a villain extra depth.  Real love, valuing someone else at least as much as oneself, is universally considered good.  Or so I assume.  If it isn’t universally good, then there are dark corners of the universe that I do not wish to visit.

Because of that belief in the goodness of love, baddies who love someone are fascinating.  Those who slip to the dark side as a result of their efforts to protect a loved one are doubly interesting.  Artemis Fowl loves his father enough to do practically anything to find him–and Artemis is definitely a villain in the beginning–and so we understand him.

Revenge is another common theme in the genesis of a villain, and it usually begins with love.  (Blank)’s need for vengeance against (blank) because of the death of (blank) in Captain America:  Civil War makes him far more interesting than the run-of-the-mill “I will destroy the Universe!” villain.  His destructive tendencies have a purpose and a motivation, even if they’re misguided.

Yes, the censoring was necessary.

That said, vengeance because of some slight against oneself can be as interesting as vengeance because of love.  It can establish the villain’s selfish nature, as well.  Loki joined the dark side initially because of his father’s rejection and finding out he’d been lied to his whole life.  We’ve all felt rejection, and we’ve all had some aspect of our worldview prove to be false–even if it was just Santa Claus.  The rest of us don’t normally try to destroy planets afterwards.

Well, I thought about it.  Briefly.

Giving our villains those redemptive traits so both we and our audience can better relate to them can be complicated.  Everything worthwhile is.  I keep at it anyways.  The characters that result are often at least as interesting as the flawed heroes.

Stormtroopers and Droid Armies

My wisdom teeth were removed earlier this week, and I’m still on quite a bit of pain medication and shouldn’t be allowed to drive or discuss Important Topics.

I don’t think that rules out talking about Star Wars, though.  I mean, yeah, Star Wars is important, but no one will leap down my throat for discussing it wrong.  Except maybe a few die-hard fanboys.

So.  Let’s talk Star Wars morals.

The Old Republic was meant to be the best government the galaxy had seen, but time and corruption messed that up and made it easy for Palpatine to manipulate events.

It didn’t have any sort of military force–just the Jedi, who were peacekeepers and meant to be separate from the government–so when they actually needed an army, the Clone Army of dubious moral roots slid right into place without anyone raising an eyebrow.

I feel like someone should have questioned the way the clones’ only purpose was to serve the Republic and the fact that they’d been programmed to be okay with that.  How can you protect the galaxy’s freedom when the majority of its fighters have never had what they’re supposed to protect?

The Jedi aren’t off the hook either.  Most of their recruits were babies who grew up knowing nothing but the Jedi ways.

The Separatist army was a little better, with droids–but droids are people the same as any human or alien in the Star Wars universe, and the fact that they get bought and sold like ordinary computers is concerning.  Maybe the Separatist droids weren’t as advanced?  We don’t really see any individuals from that army long enough to figure it out.

Then there’s the Empire.  There are still some clones in that army, but for the most part Empire soldiers were recruited from the Academy–the same Academy Luke wanted to go to.  Maybe the recruits were manipulated or lied to.  We don’t see how the recruitment process works.  But it seems like for the most part, the Empire’s stormtroopers and officers were there willingly, and worked hard towards promotions and the Empire’s cause.

The First Order took a few steps back morality-wise from the Empire.  At least in case of the Jedi, the kids they took were either orphans or given up willingly.  The First Order just kidnapped.  We haven’t seen serious ambition from any of their stormtroopers, but we haven’t seen everything of the First Order yet.

On the other hand, the First Order has female stormtroopers, which is cool.

The Rebellion, the New Republic, and the Resistance all seem to recruit in similar ways.  People who believe in The Cause volunteer.  Of course, they’re supposed to be the good guys, so having it otherwise would be problematic.

The similar recruiting styles make sense.  While they aren’t the same organization and don’t have the same goals, they rose from the same ideals and had several of the same people involved in each, such as Princess/Senator/General Leia.

People or families, that is.  Poe Dameron’s parents fought at Endor, for instance, and then Poe flew for the New Republic until the Resistance offered him a chance to do more against the First Order than he could with the New Republic.

It isn’t just the Skywalker clan getting tangled up in galactic affairs now!

It’s fascinating to see how groups like these work in Star Wars and other universes, since they tend to be less-than-accurate as representations of actual places or people, but they do tend to mirror our own universe and problems.

Today’s drawing is a study for a portfolio piece I’m working on.  Inspired in part by David Archuleta’s music, if anyone’s interested.

What’s in a name?

Personally, I wouldn’t be all that interested in smelling a rose if it was called Decaying Flesh.

Names can have as much an impact on first impressions as appearance does.  Most of us have a picture in our mind of what a Sarah should look like, or an Angelique or Eugene.  If not those names, then others.  It’s not the most reasonable of pictures that our brains put together, but it’s there–like our minds expect a handful of syllables to tell us all we need to know about a person.

And woe be unto the child whose name carries the weight of history.  There’s a reason the name Adolf has gone out of style.

So whether it’s for fiction or a newborn baby, careful consideration is required over the choice of name.  In the case of real babies, it’s hard to know who they’ll be when they’re not so small and wrinkly anymore.  Family names are common, and names that refer to some good quality or person.  Names like Hermione are increasing in popularity lately, but who knows if the kid will match the expectations behind that name?

With fictional characters, it’s easier.  Some characters may run off from their writers and do something unexpected, but generally we can have at least some idea of who a character is and what role they have to play, and can choose a name accordingly.

JK Rowling does this frequently in the Harry Potter books.  A wizard who can turn into a dog is named after the Dog Star.  A werewolf is named Remus.  The Big, Bad Guy’s chosen name roughly translates to “flees from death.”  The worst teacher ever is named Severus, which means grumpy.

Names are especially notable when they play an active role in the plot.  In the Bartimaeus Trilogy, magicians rarely reveal their birth names to anyone because they could be used against them magically.  When a magician finally separates himself from their toxic lifestyle, one of the first things he does is tell someone his real name.  It’s a moment that the entire series is aimed towards.

A more recent example of a name influencing the plot is from The Force Awakens, when Poe Dameron names his unlikely rescuer from the First Order.  FN-2187 is just a string of anonymous numbers (albeit ones that also refer to Leia’s cell on the Death Star) and could refer to any stormtrooper.  By calling FN-2187 Finn, Poe marks him as an individual and separates him from his mass-produced upbringing in the First Order, though the old name’s influence on the new is obvious.

That’s a great way to get a name, even with them getting shot at while it happened.

All that said, even the best names won’t capture the full complexity of a person.  I just try to capture a piece of them.  Eventually, I may even have an excuse to name a character Loki.