Young Adult books get a bad rep. Some of that might be for good reason (I can think of plenty of crappy YA books off the top of my head) but those books somehow seem to represent the whole of YA as a genre (if it even is a genre) and that sucks. There are plenty of great YA books out there, and those should be the ones that represent YA. After all, those great books are the reason I keep reading YA!
One of the biggest things people cite when bashing YA is the use of tropes. The whole, ‘I’m a clumsy white brunette who’s not like other girls, and I’m the ONLY ONE who can save the day in this dystopia I’m living in, and along the way I meet this bad boy who I instantly love and can’t live without, but uh-oh what about this typical nice guy who I’ve been friends with for years – I wonder what my black/asian/gay best friend has to say about all this? Also it’ll take three books to tell you about all this, except the second book will be super boring because this story doesn’t really need to be told over three books.’
So I thought I’d share some of my favourite YA books that either do a trope well, put a great spin on it, or just defy them completely. Of course there are plenty more than just these, but I don’t have all day here, so please leave your recommendations in the comments – I’d love to read them!
Trope #1: ‘I’m not like other girls’
This is a horrible trope. Not only is it just something that’s annoying to read, it really gives a bad message to readers, particularly to any younger girls that are reading. This has the message that it’s bad to be like other girls, and that boys only like girls who are ‘different.’ Putting down other girls does not make the main character better, it makes her worse.
The trope-buster: The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski
Now, the main character here, Kestrel, isn’t perfect. But she definitely goes against this trope. She also goes against the trope of a main girl who has little to no personality, no hobbies, no interests, she’s just kind of nothing-y. Kestrel knows that she wants, and isn’t afraid to go for it. In the world of The Winner’s Curse, anyone (male or female, which I love) has two choices when they reach 20: join the military, or have children. Kestrel has spend her life being trained up, as she’s the daughter of a general, but she knows that it just isn’t for her. She’s good at strategy, she likes to use her mind – she doesn’t like fighting and she isn’t great at it. She also loves playing the piano, even though it’s frowned upon as it’s something only the slaves should do, but she does it anyway. Kestrel manages to have a rounded out character of her own, without having to compare herself to others to validate it.
Trope #2: The tokenistic diverse character
This is a bit of a tough one to discuss, because the line between a good diverse character and a tokenistic one is a little blurred. And, generally, as a white, cis female, I find it difficult to put in my opinions on this. However, it’s hard to get wrong when it’s seen a lot. For example, a trope that seems to go around a lot of having a diverse best friend, while the main character is cis, white, and straight (like the Indian best friend in the Vivian versus series, or the gay, black friend in Mara Dyer). I suppose the way to bust this trope is to have a diverse main character, or, if the main character is cis and white, to have more than just one diverse secondary character, and to develop them.
The trope-buster: Beauty Queens by Libba Bray
This one is busting tropes all over the place. The basic premise of this story is that a group of girls competing a beauty pageant crash on a desert island. This has characters of different ethnicities, sexualities, religions, even that struggle differently with gender. The way the narrative goes in this story, each of the girls get a perspective at some point, which means each character is developed really well. The backstories and effects of being a minority in a mostly white/cis/straight society are addressed and dealt with really well, so this one definitely doesn’t use tokenistic diversity.
Trope #3: The Love Triangle
Does this one even need an explanation? It’s gotta be one of the biggest tropes out there. A girl is in love with two guys and readers get strung along while she agonises over which one of these eternally devoted boys to pick – neither of whom seem to mind that she has feelings for them and for someone else. This always bugs me and as soon as a second love interest is introduced in a book it always lowers my opinion of it – couldn’t the author think of anything else to do?
The trope-buster: Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys
This book is great for some many reasons, but it has a really nice version of a love triangle. First of all, the main character’s love life is, if anything, a sub plot. Or even a sub sub plot. There are so many bigger things going on in this book and she always makes those things a priority over any feelings for guys she might be having. Second is that it’s a really weak love triangle. There’s no huge struggle between two guys, and for most of the book it isn’t really an issue. It just seems like a realistic way to do it, because she’s a normal teenage girl who’s never had a boyfriend, who knows two very different guys and likes them both for different reasons – as friends. People around her start to talk and gossip and wonder about which guy she likes, and that’s really what makes her start to think of them as possibly being more than friends. Usually love triangles are so annoying because they’re so over the top and unrealistic, but this seems like something that a lot of girls might struggle with, as they’re getting into their first relationship and wondering what they like and don’t like in other people.
Trope #4: Second book syndrome
I don’t know if this is a trope exactly, but it comes up a lot in YA trilogies. Second book syndrome is basically where the first and third books are good, but the second one is crappy. Usually it’s because the second book feels like it’s building up to something, and that something is book three. It might have a slow plot, it might all feel like filler before you can get to the third book – a trope often associated with a second book is where two characters from the first book are now separated for some reason. I have read plenty of these. I suspect it’s because publishers love a trilogy because they make more money, so books that may only need two or even just one book to tell the story are made into trilogies.
The trope-buster: Shift by Hugh Howey
Shift is the second book in the Wool trilogy – and it’s the best one in the entire trilogy. Take that, second book syndrome. I feel like this is even more impressive because this trilogy was originally self-published, before publishers discovered the brilliance that is Hugh Howey and jumped on the series. This second book is actually a prequel to the first book, which already makes it stand out from most trilogies. However, just because it’s a prequel doesn’t mean it’s going to be great. It could be full of dull backstory that an author wrote to fill up another book. THIS IS NOT THAT. This second book has so many twists and turns, it makes you think completely differently about the first book, and leaves you gagging for the third book now you have all of the twisty knowledge. The number of times my jaw dropped reading this. All three books in this series are great, that’s why it’s my favourite series ever, but the second one is the best. And you can’t say that about many sequels.
Trope #5: Instalove
Instalove. Isn’t that word an oxymoron? Surely it’s impossible to fall in actual real genuine love in an instant. Sure, they might think they’re in love. I met my current boyfriend when we were 13 and I was convinced I loved him straight away. We’ve now been together eight years and let me tell you, 13 year old me knew nothing about love. Just because we stayed together doesn’t mean that I felt real love. It meant I felt normal teenage feelings that grew into love. (Aww.) I feel like having instalove in a book is a sign of a not great author. I use the term ‘not great’ because they may be great in most other ways, but including instalove always bring them down a peg for me. Instalove is not realistic, it’s not authentic, even in magical fantasy worlds, it is just silly. Why an author would write something so far from the real world I don’t understand.
The trope-buster: The Leaving by Tara Altebrando
I’m gonna be vague here, because this book is a mystery. I mean it’s in the mystery genre. I think? A bunch of kids that went missing years ago come back with no memories, and they try and figure out what’s going on. I love this book, excuse my crappy synopsis there. So right from the beginning of the book, two of these kids feel drawn to each other. They feel like they have a connection, they think they must have been in a relationship before they lost their memories, and they feel this pull towards each other. Now, when I was reading this, my eyes were rolling up the skies. I just thought the author had used the amnesia thing as a way to excuse the instalove and sloppy character/relationship development. But I spoke to soon. The characters start to feel obligated to be together, but they’re not really feeling it. I really love this spin on the instalove trope because it’s basically in reverse – the love is there already and they kind of back away from it. And then other stuff happens. No spoilers here!
I’m looking at the word count for this blog post and I figure now’s a good time to stop. As a side note, I highly recommend every single one of these books, they are all fantastic and some of my favourites! Let me know if you can think of any other trope-busting books – or leave your most hated tropes in the comments and I’ll try and find books that bust them!