I generally don’t read young adult books on principle. I used to, that is, after I stopped reading them as an official young adult. I read them happily along with adult books until I was 20 or so. But I do feel that young adult books should in some way hold some secrets in them, nothing more really than the secrets of life itself – but it feels like an intrusion to read the secret in the form it is told for the first time to young people.
Many of the great young adult books do just that. I believe for me the Tillerman Saga was the guiding force. The world it granted me still colours my life today. The things you read as a kid are indeed powerful. Now that I am undeniably adult, I don’t want to intrude in that world. I certainly didn’t want adults intruding in my fiction world when I was young. I didn’t want anyone to debate with me about Dicey’s character.
And yet the world seems drawn these days to young adult fantasy series. It has irked me since the early days of Harry Potter, when I was in high school and my friends became obsessed. I read Harry Potter only after the final book came out – all books in one weekend. With the Hunger Games, I resisted also. I read only to see what the fuss was about. Both times, I was reinforced in my belief that adults should not read books for young adults. For two reasons: first, kids may be discovering new worlds through these books, they don’t need my critical adult perspective interfering; second, adults should read books with more mature ideas and non-grating prose. I prefer books that treat kids and young adults as intelligent enough to grapple with sensitive ideas, so in that case – well, I guess adults can stand to learn from them as well. But Harry Potter and the Hunger Games do not include such books.
To me, Harry Potter was mediocre at best. The plot was well developed, but the writing was obnoxious and the characters tedious and underdeveloped. The Hunger Games trilogy was better, in the sense that the prose did not irritate me and the characters had some development. However, in both cases, the ideas were simplistic. I had hopes for the Hunger Games … but what is a dystopia without reason? What does the trilogy reveal about humankind? What does it criticise? What is the point of the whole thing? There is no truth that I could sense. It was as though the whole situation had come about by chance. The characters still could all be defined as good or bad. Are kids not capable of more?
I hesitated therefore to read the Earthsea Cycle, but I caved because I simply love Ursula K. Le Guin. Left Hand of Darkness is brilliance, and just a few months ago I read the book Lavinia, which was simply beautiful and incredibly powerful. One thing I love about Le Guin is her awareness of herself as a writer, her awareness of what she is doing.
And so I have now read the first two books of the Earthsea Cycle. There is no chance here. Everything is infused with meaning. Most importantly, Le Guin moves away from the dichotomy of good vs. evil. She instead recognizes that light and dark are codependent. There is no wondering about whether or not Le Guin reveals anything about the nature of life and humankind – the problem is perhaps she reveals too much. Even for an adult, these books justify a rereading or two so that you can fully understand just how much she is saying.
And this is what I love about the Earthsea Cycle. Not that it says something – but that it does not treat children and teenagers as idiots. It trusts them to understand the more complex issues. It doesn’t have to be as simple as good vs. evil. They are capable of more.
When I finish the Earthsea Cycle, I will write more. But I am thus far very pleased … not just because I like the books, but because Le Guin writes these books with true ideas and with true prose, nothing dumbed down or made silly to appeal to teens.