Whew. The online world has been abuzz again about who’s reading YA, MG (middle-grade) and who it’s being written for. This is something that Nicola, Alyssa and I have been discussing quite a bit, both privately and in upcoming features here. As the popularity of the YA genre grows, particularly in fantasy and paranormal genres, we’ve noticed a trend of “blurry lines” that often create spaces where adult content makes its way into YA books, and is perhaps not totally appropriate for YA audiences.
We come now to a strange divide in publishing that is consistently confusing. What is the difference between a book about young people and one for young people? Oftentimes, very little, in my opinion. However, I do find that as I read more and more children’s literature there are books that differentiate themselves in these categories. I often write here about YA that I think adults will like, but today I’d like to recommend two delightfully creepy books that adults may enjoy, but that are very clearly written with a middle grade and young adult audience in mind.
Doll Bones, by Holly Black
Zach, Poppy and Alice have been friends forever. They love playing with their action figure toys, imagining a magical world of adventure and heroism. But disaster strikes when, without warning, Zach’s father throws out all his toys, declaring he’s too old for them. Zach is furious, confused and embarrassed, deciding that the only way to cope is to stop playing . . . and stop being friends with Poppy and Alice. But one night the girls pay Zach a visit, and tell him about a series of mysterious occurrences. Poppy swears that she is now being haunted by a china doll – who claims that it is made from the ground-up bones of a murdered girl. They must return the doll to where the girl lived, and bury it. Otherwise the three children will be cursed for eternity.
I loved this book for the sheer fact that I remember this moment in my own childhood so clearly, and you probably do too, the moment the magic started to disappear. It got harder to make pretend happen seamlessly and without embarrassment, and the real world got all too real. Some of us reacted by leaving our childish ways behind and others of us reacted by pretending harder, to try to make the magic stay.
Doll Bones addresses this sad moment so very well, while keeping the door open to the possibility that real spookiness does exist and that there are things beyond our knowing. The real world and that of the haunted doll combine deliciously to create that liminal space between what is known and what isn’t. You’ll change your mind a half dozen times about whether or not Poppy is fabricating her story.
The Accident Season, by Moïra Fowley-Doyle. (Psst… Remember when Alyssa rec’d this one?)
The accident season has been part of seventeen-year-old Cara’s life for as long as she can remember. Towards the end of October, foreshadowed by the deaths of many relatives before them, Cara’s family becomes inexplicably accident-prone. They banish knives to locked drawers, cover sharp table edges with padding, switch off electrical items – but injuries follow wherever they go, and the accident season becomes an ever-growing obsession and fear. But why are they so cursed? And how can they break free?
The Accident Season blew me away with how magnificently adolescent it is. Before you decide that’s an insult, let me say that I think that all too often in YA we see the same flat protagonist: awkward smart teen who mostly does the right thing, but feels ostracized. The protagonist’s are often the eyes that observe the “cool kids” or the “bad kids” doing things, but aren’t always apart of the action. But that’s not really who most of us are or were as teenagers. Mostly, I think we all felt weird and awkward and some of us pushed the limits of “the rules” more than others.
I love that the core group of friends in this book smoke and drink and feel weird, but also have those precious moments of belonging, to one another, to the world, to their parents that we feel so acutely when we’re seventeen. They’re not stereotypes of “good kids” or “bad kids,” they’re just kids doing what pretty much everyone does when they’re seventeen, break the rules, fool around, fall in love and poke their noses in haunted houses.
The cause of the accident season, what’s ghostly and what’s simply the past haunting the characters gets wound together so tightly that even when you think it’s unwound, you see it’s not and I think that’s a perfect metaphor for what being human is. Even if you don’t believe in ghosts or supernatural goings-on, life is profoundly strange and coincidence weaves a spell of its own. Part of what makes The Accident Season so powerful is that it mixes up the way memory works when it comes to abuse, tragedy and deep sadness with what very well might be real ghosts. Fowley-Doyle avoids revealing the “truth” about the accident season, even when many truths about the past are uncovered. I actually found this to be the most realistic aspect of the the book; horrible things happen sometimes and not being able to sort out why is one of life’s great mysteries.
For me, the best thing about these books is that they understand the way fear affects us as children. I remember reading somewhere that Neil Gaiman says that when children read Coraline they read an adventure and when adults read it they read horror. I think this is perfectly appropriate to both Doll Bones and The Accident Season in that both books are directed at audiences who haven’t given over to fearing fear quite yet. They’re scary, but not terrifying, and they’re the exact kinds of books I would have read cover to cover multiple times when I was appropriately aged for them.
Do I think you’ll like them as an adult? Sure, you’ll probably enjoy your ghostly read, but I think that some of the true magic that both Black and Fowley-Doyle weave into these books will be lost on you a bit because they weren’t written for adult readers. Of course, if you’re a bit more in-tune with your inner child/teenager, you might get more out of them than the average adult.
You should be so lucky. But if you aren’t and you know some younger folks who love a good ghost story, pass Doll Bones and The Accident Season on.
Allison Carr Waechter is planning to read ghost stories and witchy novels until well past Halloween, so get settled in for some wickedly scary recommendations.