Have you ever browsed the YA (Young Adult) section at Chapters in search of a new book, and come across one or more of the numerous similarities between various novels? Why do a hundred books display the radiant face of a teenage girl with perfect skin and makeup? Or why do some book covers display a specific body part of a girl, such as her legs, feet, hands or torso, or even a teenage couple seemingly madly in love? What kind of plot is a book with such a cover likely to have? What dilemmas do the characters face?
The realization of how YA covers continuously use images with perceived beauty, romance, sex, or fantasy came to me as I matured into a grey zone where there are very few YA novels that I actually enjoy anymore and very few General Fiction novels that don’t leave me bored or confused when I read for simple pleasure. Whilst stuck in this grey zone, I can still spend an hour – easily – in Chapters picking up books that fit the very description I am criticizing. It’s true, like sexy, Instagram-esque covers sell!
Although every story is different, and endless hours of work have been poured into getting them out of the authors’ heads and into your hands, I can’t help but question since when redundancy became so appealing. It makes books appear almost like magazines, and the redundant plots don’t challenge me or encourage me to think about them deeply. Thus, I have devised a theory called “The Twilight Formula”.
Ever since Twilight, teen fiction has found a niche in books featuring a hero/heroine who is portrayed on the cover with supernatural good looks who in his/her story deals with the dangers of having some sort of paranormal power. On top of that, there is often a love triangle tossed into the mix; a choice between “The Mysterious Bad Boy” and the “One I’ve Loved All Along and I’ve Only Just Realized it Now”.
One classic example is a trilogy by Kelley Armstrong, The Gathering, The Calling, and The Rising. Maya is struggling with figuring out the secrets behind her affinity with animals and her ability to shape-shift into a cougar. For most of the series she is seemingly in love with bad boy Rafe, but ultimately (spoiler alert) ends up with her childhood best friend Daniel. One of my all time favourite series, Maximum Ride, was abundant in action and adventure, but then another love interest for heroine Max was added to create some romantic drama. Halo, Hades, and Heaven, another trilogy with fantastical covers, was all about the romance between angel Bethany and her human boyfriend Xavier. It was all very cute and mushy, and of course Jake Thorn was thrown into the pot to spice things up a bit. Seriously, I can think of very few YA books I’ve read where the protagonist is single beginning to end.
Even The Hunger Games stimulated Team Peetas and Team Gales among the fan base, but maybe there is a reason why YA authors benefit from cliché romantic entanglement. It obviously sells, to co function the cover. It clearly appeals to the hopeless romantic by creating fantasies that are impossible in real life. It also sells because many teens do enjoy all that cheesy romance. It appeals to the mindset of “someday I want love like that”. It explains why having a crush or a girlfriend/boyfriend seems like such a big deal during adolescence.
Is there anything wrong with that? Absolutely not. I too have been swooned by how charming and pathetically sweet some of the characters have been, and have “d’awwwwwwed” when I read a passage so poetic and beautiful the words themselves give me butterflies. I admit I am a bit of a hopeless romantic when it comes to books. My personal preference; however is that the stories are a tad more realistic. Has anyone else read Eleanor and Park?
So what to do about this grey zone? What about some of the other aspects of teenage life besides romantic fantasies? Some of us dream about better grades, being more athletic, or simply just having the confidence to break out of our shells and live with our insecurities. Where are the novels that make you think, not because you’re being forced to read it for English class, but because the reader is choosing to open their mind to new ideas and contemplate the endless complexities of the human experience? The answer is clear, in defiance of those books that are asking to be judged by their covers. Those who poke around Chapters or the library for long enough to see around the prevailing “I’m Using this Model’s Flawless Face to Sell Myself” books shall find originality should they simply seek it.
If you are like me and find you are stuck in a similar literary grey area, I recommend defining what it is you are looking for in a book, and checking out a nice little site like http://www.goodreads.com/ for some recommendations. Another method is to try browsing the General Fiction section for a new interest or try a genre you haven’t read before. I did that by reading a new type of guilty pleasure/fantasy: travel literature. Or try non-fiction on a topic that actually interests you (no globalization, nationalism, or politics for me now please!)
Like I mentioned earlier, there really is nothing wrong with books that seem to follow The Twilight Formula. If people are genuinely interested in what much of YA fiction has to offer, that’s wonderful. But my reading tastes have matured with me, and just like that time when I was 12 and didn’t fit into kids jeans anymore but was still too small for women’s jeans; I can no longer find many teen books that appeal to my interests, nor can I find many “adult” fiction books that I can completely understand or relate to. Sooner or later though, I would find a pair of jeans that would fit just right, and when I took them home and wore them, it was undeniably worth it.