Today we have an exploration of the fae in YA by author and book fair maven Sue Penkivech. Which ones are your favorites?
The Fae in American YA
by Sue Penkivech
Warning: The Fae are among us.
No, literally. You’ll find them everywhere – on peering out from every shelf in the Young Adult section of your local bookstore, nestled in between the wizards and vampires on the library’s “Recommended Reading for Teens” list, and precariously perched on the edge of your end table if you’re so fortunate as to have a twelve year old daughter who likes to read.
Well, perhaps that last one only applies to me. But seeing as she’s willing to share, I can’t really complain. It saves me from having to explain to the YA librarian why I’m raiding her section of the library. Again.
My infatuation with YA faery stories dates back to before there was a “YA” genre, when I stumbled upon Thursday by Catherine Storr (1972). For the first time in my experience, fairies were taken out of “fairy tales” and into the modern world, with a teenaged protagonist named Bee whose friend Thursday has gone missing. The police question her, but don’t expect foul play; Thursday’s family life is unstable, and they assume his disappearance is intentional. Bee doesn’t believe it and launches a search of her own – but when she finally finds Thursday, he’s changed – distant, dismissive, and outright cruel and uncaring. While the adults speculate about drug use and gang membership, Bee recognizes the truth: her musically talented friend has been taken by fairies, a changeling’s been left in his place, and it’s up to her to save him. If she’s willing to risk losing herself.
If you can find a dog-eared copy of Thursday, I heartily recommend it. But the theme of changelings is alive and well in more contemporary YA novels as well.
Poison by Chris Wooding (2003) is a perfect example of the traditional changeling story; when Poison’s younger sister Azalea is taken from her crib, Poison refuses to accept the changeling left behind as her sister. Instead, she embarks on a quest that not only takes her into the realms of phaerie, but into the middle of a battle for supremacy between the various phaerie factions. Ultimately, she faces a choice: save her sister, or save the world. Unfortunately for Poison, she’s forgotten one key item – bargains made with the phaerie folk are rarely what they seem.
Then there’s Lament (2008), the first book in Maggie Stiefvater’s “Gathering of Faerie” series. Luke Dillon was taken by the Faerie Queen over a thousand years ago. With his soul held hostage, he’s since served as her unwilling hound and assassin. But the Queen makes a mistake when she sends him to seek out a harpist named Deirdre, a cloverhand who has the ability to draw the faeries to her presence. And Luke Dillon, whose soul will be condemned to hell should he disobey the Queen’s order to kill the girl, instead falls in love with her. While I personally preferred the second book in the series, Ballad (2009), Lament puts a nice twist on the faerie prisoner story, as Luke’s spent his entire existence in the real world without ever being a part of it. Until now.
On the other hand, Sonny Flannery, one of the main characters of Wondrous Strange (Lesley Livingston, 2009) has spent nearly his whole life in Faerie as the “adopted” son of Auberon, King of the Unseelie Court. At his father’s command, he’s now returned to Earth as part of the Janus Guard, a group of changelings who ensure that the gate between Faerie and Earth remains inviolate. Unfortunately for him, it seems that Queen Mabh has plans for Samhain, plans which include Kelley Winslow, a budding Shakespearean actress who suddenly finds herself the target of creatures whose existence she’d never even suspected. With piskies and kelpies, the roan horse and the wild hunt, Titania and Puck, the books is practically a Who’s Who of faerie mythology – all couched in an original, contemporary storyline that’s continued in two sequels, Darklight and Tempestuous.
Not all stories of the fae involve changelings, of course. The magic of the fae is versatile and often put to nefarious purposes. In Magic Under Glass by Jaclyn Dolamore (2009), it’s a fairy prince who’s ensorcelled. When the magician responsible hires Nimira to dance for a piano-playing clockwork automaton, little does he suspect that not only will the clockwork man find a way to communicate with her through his music, but that Nimira will seek out a way to break the spell. Or…partially break it, at least.
The Changeling Sea, by Patricia McKillip (1988, reprinted 2003) tells the story of Peri, a young girl who’s lost her father to the sea and her mother to her dreams of a kingdom beneath it. In frustration, she casts a hex upon the sea, demanding that “all your spellbindings will unravel, and your magic is confused, and so that you will never again take anything or anyone who belongs to us, and you let go of whatever you have-“ Much to her surprise, her simple hex has results – ones that not only prove her mother was right to believe in a kingdom under the sea, but that unravel a decades-old deception involving the king, a pair of princes, and a chained sea monster that isn’t what it appears to be.
Old cover, but I like it better than the new one. Blame the fae for the substitution.
In Beastly (Alex Flinn, 2007), Kyle Kingsbury has it all – money, good looks, and a famous father who can get him out of any situation he might get himself into. Everything, that is, except the ability to care about anyone other than himself. All of that changes when he attempts to humiliate the wrong person at a high school dance, and finds out the hard way just what being “beastly” really means. Technically speaking, Beastly doesn’t involve the fae – but as a modern day retelling of Beauty and the Beast, it falls under the same genre.
In fact, fairy tale retellings are nearly as plentiful as original works. Some are simply reconstructed versions of the originals. Ella Enchanted (Cinderella), Black Pearls: A Faerie Strand (various), Curse Dark as Gold (Rumpelstiltskin), and any of the books in the “Once Upon a Time” series for young adults are some notable examples of fairy tales that are perhaps differently slanted, but which maintain most if not all of their original setting and plot. Others, like Beastly, turn the fairy tales on their heads and transpose the stories into a more contemporary locale. A few examples include A Kiss in Time (Sleeping Beauty), Cloaked (The Elves and the Shoemaker/The Frog Prince/others), and Silverweed (Little Red Riding Hood).
So, as you can see, the fae are alive and well in contemporary America – or at least, in contemporary American young adult literature. Stay alert, and you’ll find these and plenty of others lurking in your teen’s bookshelf.
Sue Penkivech is a bookfair merchandiser, a former school librarian, and an aspiring writer. Her work has been published in Barren Worlds, “Fantastic Pulp Magazine”, and her short story, “Zombie Elves”, received first place in the 2009 Spec The Halls Contest. She’s prone to rambling about what she’s reading to anyone who’ll listen – which might be why she has so much time to read! Visit her on the web at suepenkivech.wordpress.com!