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Course Syllabus: Young Adult Speculative Fiction

Hello readers! As promised, here is the syllabus for a seminar that I’m currently teaching at Bowdoin College. The seminar is entitled (Im)Possible Lives: Young Adult Speculative Fiction, and it is currently offered under Bowdoin’s English Department and the Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies program. The course description is as follows:

How do wizards, monsters, cyborgs, and dystopias shed light on precarious issues such as sexism, homophobia, racism, poverty, and illness? This seminar examines representations of identity and difference in young adult speculative fiction—texts created for younger audiences that include elements from genres such as fantasy, horror, science fiction, and magical realism. Students not only analyze the approaches that writers implement to construct hypothetical settings and characters, but also examine how speculative young adult novels depict different possibilities for existing and mattering in the world.

There are many goals that I have for this course. For the most part, I want students to realize the ways in which the content and structure of contemporary YA speculative fiction is symptomatic of many of the political, environmental, and sociopolitical crises that we face today in American society. In literature, film, and media, many have been exploring the issue of who matters, or who doesn’t matter. Particularly in social media discourse, we have seen a rise in attitudes such as homophobia, xenophobia, transphobia, sexism, elitism, and so on and so on. We are also developing greater awareness of the violence experienced by people of color, LGBTQ+ communities, and immigrants. It’s becoming increasingly difficult for us to ignore violence (and violent discourse), and recent events have been pushing many of us to question the value and future of human life. Through these acts of hate and violence, however, many of us are recognizing the need for community, highlighting the importance of self-care, and developing a desire for safer, more collective ways of being and knowing.

I think that YA speculative fiction offers readers a unique opportunity to think through the aforementioned precarious issues, and I believe works in this genre will push my students and I to ask difficult questions and explore complex issues. Teaching this seminar is not going to be easy. It will involve difficult and tedious emotional and intellectual labor. But I think that my students and I will grow both as people and thinkers by the time the semester is through.

Part of what I find valuable about works categorized as YA speculative fiction is that they are often crafted with a Utopian bent, and they often envision alternatives to the suffocating and violent conditions of the present. Books in this genre are often exercises in positive affect, and they push readers to imagine, desire, and work for better ways of living in the world. Students and I will explore both the perks and the pitfalls of the ethical frameworks discussed in a selection of YA speculative novels that overtly include themes of gender, sexuality, race, and class. It is my hope that through this seminar, my students will not only learn more about themselves and their place in society, but they will also recognize the value and importance of narratives that deviate from normative paradigms. Furthermore, I hope that students will be able to recognize and discuss current and emerging trends in the genre of YA speculative fiction, especially the genre’s increasing penchant for non-traditional narrative forms and genre-blending.

Just in case you missed the link above, you can access my course syllabus by clicking here. I hope you enjoy it!

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Developing a Course on Metafictional Young Adult Literature

During the past couple of weeks, I’ve been working on developing various literature courses, including a course on the metafictional turn in contemporary young adult literature. As of now, I have entitled the course Book-Ception: The Metafictional Turn in Young Adult Literature. For those of you who are confused about the title, -Ception is a suffix (slang) popularized by the 2010 film Inception, and it is usually attached to a noun in order to indicate that this noun is multifaceted, multi-layered, or contains parallel objects embedded within it (i.e. a dream within a dream, a text within a text, a play within a play, and so on, and so on).

I’ve noticed how many young adult novels published during the last fifteen years have demonstrated an increased interest in exploring matters of form, readership, authorship, and literariness. Some YA novels published during the last five years in particular have rivaled some novels published during the peak of postmodernity in terms of their exploration of the nature and purpose of narrative, the relationship between fiction and reality, and the intimate connection between text and audience.

I thought it would be interesting to develop a course in which students explore how metafictional elements and metanarratives affect how we interpret, analyze, and understand the imagined lives of teenagers in contemporary fiction. This course, ideally, will attract students interested in young adult literature, students interested in the literary remnants of the postmodern movement in contemporary fiction, and students interested in exploring the role of narratology in the creation, distribution, and consumption of literature.

The description for this course is as follows:

What do young adult novels have to say about the status of literature and narrative in contemporary society? Can a book be self-aware of its existence as a literary object? Can young adult novels challenge or thwart the relationship between a reader and a text? Recently, novels written for adolescents have been interested in addressing these questions—thus leading to a boom in young adult metafiction: books that explore the nature and function of literature, that question the parallels between reality and fiction, and that overtly scrutinize the relationship between audience and text. In this course, we will investigate how contemporary young adult novels use metafictional techniques in order to deliberate the importance and value of literature, narrative, and language in the imagined lives of teenagers. Furthermore, we will assess the role of metanarrative and form in disrupting the divide between “low” and “high” literature. We will read novels written by authors such as Lemony Snicket, John Green, and Andrew Smith.

I wanted to select texts from different genres, including realism, fantasy, and speculative/science fiction. The novels that I selected for this course also make use of different metafictional and metanarrative techniques. Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart, for instance, explores the possibility of bringing words to life through literary consumption, and the overall role of books in the development of one’s imagination. Others such as Andrew Smith’s Winger and Patrick Ness’ More Than This explore the role of narrative and storytelling in helping one cope with traumatic and unprecedented events. Novels such as John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars explore notions such as the ‘death of the author,’ narrative endings, and the imagined lives of literary characters.

Here is the current version of the syllabus that I’ve developed:

What do you think of this course? Do you have any comments or suggestions regarding the course’s content or design? Are there any other texts that you would recommend for this course? Any and all feedback will be great appreciated!

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We Are the Stories We Tell: Patrick Ness’ [More Than This]

(Major spoilers ahead. You’ve been warned!)

Front cover of Patrick Ness' More Than This

Front cover of Patrick Ness’ More Than This (2013)

“People see stories everywhere,” Regine says. “That’s what my father used to say. We take random events and we put them together in a pattern so we can comfort ourselves with a story, no matter how much it obviously isn’t true.” She glances back at Seth. “We have to lie to ourselves to live. Otherwise, we’d go crazy.” (Ness 217)

The notions of storytelling and narrative are central to Patrick Ness’ 2013 young adult novel entitled More Than This. As can be seen in the quote above, Regine, an important character in the novel, demonstrates awareness of the cognitive function of narrative: it is a method of organizing the world to make sense of it and to interpret it. In other words, it is an ordering or sequencing of events that conveys a particular set of ideas, beliefs, or functions. Through the implementation of metafictional elements and characters who are aware of the nature of storytelling and narration, Ness’ novel brilliantly subverts many of the grand narratives present in young adult literature, and fiction in general.

More Than This is a young adult novel that is difficult to describe. On one hand, it is a philosophical exploration of narrative, the afterlife, the nature of storytelling, and reality. On the other hand, it is a young adult dystopian novel that explores topics such as death, sexuality, family, and friendship. More than a novel, Ness’ work is an exhilarating narrative experiment: through the exploration of adolescence in a post-apocalyptic context, Ness pushes us to question the value of stories in our lives, regardless of whether said stories are real or fabricated.

In the novel’s introduction, Ness challenges the expectations that we have of narratives by beginning the story in an unexpected fashion. Although death is traditionally viewed as the endpoint of a narrative, it marks the beginning of the story being told in More Than This. The novel opens with Seth, the protagonist, committing suicide by drowning himself at sea. He immerses himself into violent and cold waters found in the Pacific Northwest area of the United States, and he is thrashed against some unforgiving rocks by the relentless waves:

The impact is just behind his left ear. It fractures his skull, splintering it into his brain, the force of it also crushing his third and fourth vertebrae, severing both his cerebral artery and his spinal cord, an injury from which there is no return, no recovery. No chance.

He dies. (Ness 3)

The introduction of the novel is thus a reversal of the usual teleology that we have come to expect in traditional narratives (particularly young adult narratives) which focus on the linear development or the transition of a protagonist from point A to point Z. Like most young adult novels, More Than This does focus on transition–but said transition is triggered through death rather than adolescence.

After killing himself, Seth awakens in a perverse version of his childhood home in England. Although Seth recognizes this home, he notices dramatic differences between the place that he knew and its current condition: thick ashen dust has covered nearly every surface, and everything seems abandoned and mistreated–as if nobody has lived in the house for decades. Seth soon realizes that he is alone in this strange place, and he comes to the conclusion that he is living in “A hell built exactly for him” (20).

What is fascinating about More Than This is its ambiguity. At first we are led to believe Seth’s interpretation of his surroundings as a personal hell, but as the novel develops, we receive conflicting events and pieces of information that make it difficult to fully understand and know the setting of the novel. Various theories develop as the narrative progresses. Although Seth believes that he is in hell, paying consequences for actions he committed in life, the narrative takes a dystopic, post-apocalyptic turn. It is revealed that Seth is now living in the “real” world, and that the world that he used to live in was merely a virtual (online) space that society created to escape the pressures of living in a decaying and fractured world (this is actually a very complicated part of the story that’s difficult to summarize, so bear with me).

The novel, however, complicates the reader’s ability to fully believe this dystopian narrative. Seth understands that the presence of a digital alternate reality does explain many things about the “real” world, but he also admits that this explanation is full of gaps. Further complicating Seth’s ability to trust in the “real” post-apocalyptic world are the inexplicable coincidences that he encounters regularly: loose ends tie a little too nicely, Seth is always rescued from danger at the last possible moment, and things sometimes materialize when he thinks about them. His distrust in his current reality begins to peak when he encounters two other people, Regine and Tomasz, who rescue him right before he is attacked by an ominous, Death-like presence known as the Driver, who travels around in a black van: “Something’s still not right about this. These two just happened  to be there when he was running toward the hill, just happened to stop him before he made contact with the black van, just happened  to find  the perfect place to hide from the Driver?” (183, emphasis in original).

Because of the factors mentioned above, Seth begins to believe that what he is experiencing is simply a “story that he’s telling himself” (250)–and this is where the novel becomes increasingly interesting from a (meta)fictional perspective. The novel’s metafictional aspects are highlighted earlier in the novel, when Seth encounters a book that he read as a child. While re-reading this novel, he reflects on the nature of books, and how these objects are able to contain a reality within their pages: “A book, he thinks at one point, rubbing his eyes, tired from so much focused reading. It’s a world all on its owntoo. He looks at the cover again. […] A world made of words, Seth thinks, where you live for a while (135, emphasis in original). Although Ness uses italics to mark thoughts that are substantiated in Seth’s mind, one cannot help but notice how these italics inevitably highlight key phrases and ideas. These italicized words bring many thoughts to mind:

  1. Seth is a protagonist who literally lives in a world made of words.
  2. Through reading More Than This, we as readers end up living in a world made of words for a while.
  3. It is possible that Seth’s current reality is nothing more than a world made of words.

The possibility of Seth’s reality being a story that he is telling himself becomes even more of a possibility towards the end of the novel, where he makes predictions based on past narratives that he’s encountered before. The most jarring of these predictions occurs after Seth, Regine, and Tomasz first destroy the Driver:

The Driver seems clearly dead, but Seth notices how slowly they’re all moving, as if at any second they expect it to surge back to life and attack them.

That’s what would happen if this were a story, Seth thinks. The villain who wouldn’t stay dead. The one who has to be stopped over and over again. That’s what would happen if this were all just my mind trying to tell me something. (407, emphasis in original)

As can be expected, the villain does not stay dead. Towards the novel’s conclusion, the Driver appears out of nowhere to stop the characters from re-entering the virtual world with their current knowledge of the “real” world. After defeating the Driver, once again, Seth, Regine, and Tomasz question whether the reality they are currently experiencing is no different from the virtual world that they managed to escape–whether they are all, in due course, a figment of Seth’s imagination. This is especially true after they witness Seth’s ability to predict the outcome of events that they face. The novel, however, refuses to provide readers with any answers to this question, and instead embraces ambiguity as an alternative to knowing:

He’s uncertain what’s going to happen next.

But he is certain that that’s actually the point.

If this is all a story, then that’s what the story means.

If it isn’t a story, then the exact same is true. (471, emphasis in original)

More Than This is thus a testament to the power of fiction and storytelling. Seth is the story that is told… we all are the stories that we tell. Regardless of whether said stories are true or fictional, they still have the power to produce meaning, to produce knowledge, and to produce selves. The narrative refuses to provide readers with direct answers, but this refusal, in due course, gives us the power to make what we want out of the story. We do not know if Seth is experiencing the “real,” whether he is living a narrative that his mind created to cope with his suicide, or whether he is simply a character lost within a sequence of random events. But this novel is precisely about not being able to know–and how by not knowing, we are able to stitch together an infinite amount of patterns and events to comfort ourselves, to orient ourselves, and find ourselves.

This post does not do justice to the philosophical richness, complexity, and brilliance of Ness’ work. More Than This also contains illuminating discussions on notions such as queerness, sexuality, loss, and relationships. Seth is also one of the most complex gay characters that I’ve encountered in young adult fiction (yes, the protagonist is gay, and his sexuality is a major component of the narrative). I wholeheartedly concur with John Green’s assessment of this novel: “Just read it.”

You can purchase a copy of More Than This by clicking here.

Work Cited

Ness, Patrick. More Than This. Berryville: Candlewick Press, 2013. Print (paperback edition)

Cover/featured image by Diane Yuri. Original version cropped and flipped.