When I fit into the Young Adult demographic, which I assume to be from late pre-teen to mid- to late-teens, I doubt if I ever read anything that was considered written for that age group. The closest I came would have been the obligatory books that were foisted on me in high school: Salinger's Catcher In The Rye and Golding's Lord Of The Flies. Of course I don't really think those books are what you would call your normal Young Adult reading – they were just what was on offer in grade nine thirty very odd years ago.
The main problem I had with fiction that was geared for my age range was that none of it, no matter what the genre, had characters in it that I could either identify with or recognize as being human. Part of the problem were the times, and back in the mid 1970s the majority of youth-oriented fiction had not stayed abreast of things as far as I could see. None of the books I came across that proclaimed its authenticity ever had a character that smoked drugs who wasn't "bad news".
Now how was that supposed to make me feel, when everybody I knew (including myself) and was friends with had more then a passing acquaintance with smoking dope? It wasn't just the lack of dope-smoking characters that made these books and stories such a waste of time, there was also the fact that pretty much everything about them was clichéd or formula. Anyway, I was too busy reading real books to want to waste my time with stuff like that. How could they compare with Hemmingway, Joyce, Tolstoy, and the legions of books that were waiting to be devoured on the regular fiction shelves?
Well, times certainly have changed and it's now possible to have characters in young adult stories know about drugs without being evil. In fact, one of the wonderful things about the stories contained in a the new anthology Firebirds Rising from Firebird Press (distributed by Penguin Canada), is the fact that there are no clear-cut lines that separate the good from the bad.
The Firebird imprint of Penguin books was established to resurrect titles in the fantasy and science fiction genres that might have otherwise been lost forever. Although its primary focus is on titles that were originally written for a younger audience, the works that I have come across to this point have been of equal value to adults as to adolescents. A quick examination of the list of contributors to Firebirds Rising, who represent a cross-section of the authors published by the Firebird Press, is enough to explain why the quality of their books is so high.
Charles de Lint, Tanith Lee, Patricia McKillip, and Allen Dean Foster are all well-established fantasy and science fiction writers with successful careers and if they are the types of people writing for young audiences today it's no wonder the quality has improved. Of course fantasy and science fiction have always been a cut above its competitors when writing for a younger audience — dating back to the days of Jules Verne and his novels The Mysterious Island, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, and Journey To The Centre Of The World, to name just a few.
In her foreword to the collection, editor Sharyn November talks about the difficulties in putting together this type of anthology. Aside from the usual stuff about having to choose between two equally good stories, and editing the stories as they have all been expressly written for the collection, there was the problem that normally faces musicians — the sequence in which the stories should appear.
She said that it reminded her of doing a set list when she was in a band and how delicate a balancing act that was. She also said that she didn't expect anyone to read the anthology through from beginning to end, but that she wanted to make it possible for the person who just might want to. Being a person who did sit down and read each story in the sequence they were published in, I can honestly say they do flow together like chapters in a book. Even though each "chapter" is a different "book", there is an underpinning tying them together.
There are so many things being foisted on young people today that are de rigueur if they want to belong and be part of the group. Self-identification has always been a problem for all but the most assured teenager, and each story in this book reflects that in some way or another. The desire to be accepted and be part of the group is taken to the extreme in a couple of the stories: "Hives" by Kara Dalkey, and "Huntress" by Tamora Pierce, while the search for personal identity is given whimsical treatment in "In The House Of The Seven Librarians," by Ellen Klages.
Charles de Lint provides an interesting perspective on teenage resentment and isolation with "Little (Girl) Lost", and "Quill", by Carol Emshwiller, bringing new meaning to how being different can be dangerous. But no matter how the story ties in with a teenager's ability to appreciate himself or herself, or his or her lack of self assurance, what is obvious is how well written and intelligent each of these stories are.
There is none of the cuteness or sentimentality that so often plagued the stories written for young people in my generation. Not once did I feel like I was intruding in somebody else's territory by reading these stories, like I have in other specifically targeted material. Perhaps it's because the writers of these stories are incisive enough to avoid cliché and seek a way of making the characters' problems universal so all readers can relate on some level or another to their plights.
Firebirds Rising is a great collection of science fiction and fantasy stories that just happen to have been written with young adults as the focus. Don't that let you put off picking up a copy of these rich and well-crafted tales, as they are every bit as sophisticated as today's young people like to think they are.