YA + Romance = Revenue - Respect
It has come to my attention that Young Adult books are getting a bad reputation. The books are seen as formulaic, escapist, shallow, silly, trashy . . . basically the kind of stuff people read only because they're not mature enough or intelligent enough for "proper" books.
The charges sounded awfully familiar to me--and indeed, I used to hear them on a regular basis when I was still reading a great deal of Romance. And it makes sense that even a genre with YA's combination of classic and nostalgic appeal and reputation for literary excellence would be brought low by an influx of Romance plots and conventions. Romance never gets any respect. (Sometimes not even from Romance readers.)
My first plan was to come up with a Top 5 YA-Romance Hybrids list . . . but I could think of exactly one title I thought belonged on it. In all my years of YA reading, Romances have either been that rare or just the sort of book I tend to avoid. (Odd, aye?)
I suppose the old school authors competing for literary awards knew that sliding too close to straight Romance would hurt their chances. Today, the competition is for market share, TV or movie crossovers, and everything else that comes with a successful franchise; and so authors (well, publishers, really) are going with what has worked. A few years ago, it was Harry Potter and the non-YA-but-what-the-heck Lord of the Rings. At this dark hour, it is Twilight.
So this Top 5 list will go in a whole other direction as I celebrate more traditional boy-girl pairings in the genre that opened my mind to the greatness of literature.
My Top 5 Brother-Sister Teams in YA
1. Peter, Susan, Edumund and Lucy Pevensie (The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis)
It takes leadership to be the sole ruler of a kingdom, but it takes teamwork to be one of four kings and queens running the same kingdom at the same time. Known to their subjects (and to Narnian posterity) as King Peter the Magnificent, Queen Susan the Gentle, King Edmund the Just, and Queen Lucy the Valiant, they each take charge of a different corner of royal administration and play together very well.
Yes, play together, not work together: they're really all just playing until the final book shows us how serious everything has actually been. And for most of their reign, Narnia is as much a rainy-day play setting as the Professor's roomy old home. Kind of like World of Warcraft, only more real. (You know?)
It would have been nice for Lewis to have written more stories about their glorious and happy reign--but as his good friend J.R.R. Tolkien pointed out, pleasant memories are never as good to recount as harrowing, dreadful ones. We get a little peek into their royal lives in The Horse and His Boy, when they are making a diplomatic visit to a neighbouring realm. (I can imagine the young David and Douglas Gresham making that particular request. Can't you?) But this "flashback" novel is not really their story.
(Oh, by the way, my #1 Pick is not always my personal #1 Pick: it's just the most obvious one that I need to get out of the way. The real one comes after the "Keep Reading!" mark.)
2. Meg and Charles Wallace Murry (The "Time" Quintet by Madeleine L'Engle)
And my real #1 Brother-Sister Team in YA is that of the galaxy-hopping, farandola-befriending, constantly-kything Meg and Charles Wallace Murry.
A Wrinkle in Time opens with Meg black and blue because she has taken on much bigger bullies who were making fun of her baby brother. Yet it soon becomes clear that Charles Wallace is as protective of Meg as she is of him--and more capable in that role than anyone might give him credit for.
Interestingly, although Charles Wallace is the one with the "super powers," it is whenever he tries to do things on his own--to be the lone hero--that he gets into the most trouble. Ordinary, unremarkable Meg is not merely his sidekick; she is his anchor.
A few months ago, a friend and I were discussing the strangely negative view other women characters in L'Engle have of Meg's childbearing. They seemed to think that Meg has been denied her "own" work because she is constantly putting her husband and children first. Well, I think I've hit upon a compromise that is both satisfying and canonically plausible: What if Meg never stopped kything with Charles, even after L'Engle stopped writing those stories? Housewife and homeschooler by day; cosmic warrior by night. The brother-sister bond in this series totally supports that.
3. Barney, Jane and Simon Drew ("The Dark Is Rising" Sequence by Susan Cooper)
This trio is so great that I almost wish that Cooper hadn't made this series all about Will Stanton in the very next book--especially since she wasn't spotlighting his fantastic family of eight siblings. (On the other hand, that second book has one of the sanest theories of time travel ever worked into a plot . . . so I embrace it with all my heart.)
It is the first book, Over Sea, Under Stone, which is all Drew: on holiday in Cornwall, these three siblings discover an ancient map that plunges them into an Arthurian adventure. (Oh, the Englishness of it!) And of course there are villains who are willing to kill for the treasure to which the map leads. This wouldn't be a respectable children's adventure without the threat of death!
But the Drews also have an uncle who is a spectacular priest-figure: not there to steal their thunder and be all stodgy and adult about it, but there to help them bring it as only they can. And what they "bring" is more of that non-magical human element that we saw in Meg Murry and that is often neglected in YA Fantasy. In this subgenre, it is the characters with the super powers who are the stars. (Case in point: Will Stanton . . . and Bran Davies.) But it is the common folk for whom the world is being saved, and they, too, deserve to be recruited for the battle between good and evil. Barney, Jane and Simon bear our standard into the fight and acquit themselves admirably to the very end.
4. Claudia and Jamie Kincaid (From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg)
This brother and sister have only one adventure to their name and no hope of a sequel . . . but oh, their chemistry! And the perfect complementarity:
he was adventurous (about everything but money) and rich.
Mastermind Claudia would never have been able to pull off this great caper without financial wizard Jamie putting up the money. Conservative card shark Jamie would never have had any excitement in his life beyond playing War on the school bus if it weren't for big dreamer Claudia's fitting him into her plans. They have other siblings who make life miserable for them at home, but these two are better partners than rivals. And as their bond grows stronger, they grow from "just" brother and sister to good friends.
But as delightful as Claudia and Jamie are are, they are harder to write about because they aren't driving a series. And they suit not just each other so well, but also the rest of the elements in their novel, that their appeal can't be examined apart from their context. So I shall have to end this analysis here and hope that if you don't pick up any of these other series, you at least try this stand-alone book.
5. Amy and Dan Cahill (The 39 Clues, Various Authors)
Last school year, I met a tutee who loves to read. (No, not one of my own . . . The story of my career!) One day I happened to mention that I couldn't think of many brother-sister detective teams, and the next day he brought the first five books of The 39 Clues series to the centre and told me I could borrow them!
Amy and Dan aren't really detectives--unless the contestants on the reality show The Amazing Race count as detectives, too. They are among five other teams scrambling to find the legendary family treasure from a series of clues scattered all over the world. The first five books are set in the United States, France, Austria, Japan, South Korea, Egypt, and Russia (I'm not brave enough to Locus Focus any of them yet!), and the globe-trotting continues as the action unfolds.
With such a huge historical and geographic background threatening to overwhelm them, it is almost necessary for this brother and sister to be a little colourless. Or to be nicer about it: they have to be Everygirl and Everyboy, easy for every child reading the series to identify with--and this is a series not just set all over the world, but also read all over the world. Heck, it was easy for me to step into Amy's shoes . . . though I think I would have preferred to be Dan. =P But it is true that their nemeses in the supporting roles are often more interesting and fun than they are--though that is a plus for the series as a whole!
Image Sources: a) The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis, b) A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle, c) Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper, d) From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg, e) The 39 Clues: The Maze of Bones by Rick Riordan