Category Archives: young adult

Books that are written for young adults.

Review 22: House of Stairs


House of Stairs by William Sleator

Young adult fiction must be a really tough genre to wrap your head around, for a writer. You have a story that you want to tell, and you have to tell it in such a way that it is simple enough for your target audience to read, yet engaging enough to keep them reading. The themes have to be familiar enough for them to understand and relate to, yet unusual enough to be interesting for them. Go too far in the wrong direction and you have a failure. So how does a YA writer do it, balancing all those issues, while still writing a good book?

Damned if I know. I’ve never managed to write a decent book for adults, much less young ones.

Fortunately, there are plenty of talented writers who can write for young people, and one of those is William Sleator.

A YA writer who specializes in science fiction, Sleator has written his fair share of strange, fantastic and sometimes disturbing books. Of all the ones I’ve read, this book is probably the one that creeped me out the most.

The setup for this story is simple. Five sixteen year-old orphans – two boys, three girls – are put into a giant room, with no visible walls, ceiling or floor. The only structures in this room are stairs and landings. Nothing else except for a small machine with flashing lights and odd sounds that dispenses food.

That’s it.

The five characters are very different and very interesting. First we have Peter, a scared boy, uncertain of his surroundings in the best of times, and utterly overwhelmed by being dropped into this bizarre place. He’s afraid of everything and everybody, and finds solace only his the strange trances he drops into, in which he is with an old orphanage roommate, Jasper, feeling safe and protected. As an interesting aside, it wasn’t until I was much older that I figured out Peter’s sexuality. It wasn’t that thinly veiled, either. I really don’t handle subtlety well, I think….

Lola is not a showgirl. Sorry, had to put that in. Lola is a tough, street-smart girl who has no tolerance for stupidity or cruelty. She’s had to learn a lot in her time, and doesn’t look to others to decide what she should or should not do.

Blossom is a fat little girl who is the first to figure out how to use the food dispenser (in a rage at it, she sticks out her tongue, and out pops a food pellet – but more on this later). She is cunning and devious, much sharper than people would give her credit for being. If anyone is truly dangerous in this crowd, it is her.

Abagail is a mousy girl, pretty in her own way, but with very little in the way of self-confidence. She tends to latch on to other people and question her own thoughts and actions. She does have compassion, however, though not the means to make her compassion a reality.

Finally, Oliver is the other boy of the group, and he is all that Peter is not. He is strong and confident and good-looking. For a while, Peter thinks that Oliver is his old friend, Jasper, and subsequently Peter is devoted to Oliver. A certain power structure evolves when it is discovered that of all the people, only Oliver can bring Peter out of his trances. Oliver has power, and he is not afraid to use it.

These five kids are trapped in this house of stairs. None of them know why they’re there, they only know that they are. They soon discover that the food-dispensing machine will only give them food under certain conditions. In the beginning , they are forced to repeat a series of actions and movements, that evolve into a kind of dance, hoping to get food from the machine.

From there it gets only worse. They soon discover that the dance isn’t enough. The infighting that comes naturally becomes essential to their survival, for only when they are cruel or greedy will the machine start flashing its lights and entice them to dance. The question then becomes whether or not the kids will do as the machine wishes, and how long they can hold out against it. Or if they will.

This book is disturbing to say the least. It levels some pretty harsh accusations about human nature, not just regarding the kids in the house of stairs, but also regarding the people who put them there. The kids are there for a reason, and not a good one. The whole setup (which is thoroughly, if somewhat clunkily, explained at the end) is about conditioning, and changing people’s personality through stimuli and reinforcement to make them behave as desired. Because it demonstrates people, young people in particular, behaving in a manner that displays the truth of their nature, this book has often been compared to Lord of the Flies, and rightly so.

In its way, it’s even more disturbing than Lord of the Flies – at least the kids in that book had been left to their own devices, as terrible as they were. In this book, the horrors that these five teens go through are part of a deliberate state-sanctioned experiment in human conditioning – a kind of horrible, Pavlovian Breakfast Club. Such is the nature of that experiment that the two children who resisted the conditioning were actually regarded as failures. Upon reflection, the people pulling the strings are far more frightening and disturbing than these poor, manipulated children.

If nothing else, the lesson to be learned from this story is simple – be a human being. There are some things that are too important to sacrifice for something as simple and petty as food and acceptance. We must never allow ourselves to be beasts. We have to be human. This has relevance today, when we are debating the ethics of torture – is it a necessary evil that we must tolerate if our society is to survive, or is it an offense against our humanity? If we allow ourselves to be fooled into thinking that an evil act is somehow the right thing to do, then we have lost a very important part of ourselves.

Of course, it’s also about science, but the message here is less dire – we must not allow science to lose its humanity. In this book, a strange future with a monolithic state government, science is entirely utilitarian, with no moral qualms about putting minors through psychological torture. The good news is that, at least as of this writing, science errs on the side of ethics. Modern science certainly has its moral gray areas, but the majority of scientists out there would never consent to run an experiment such as this. I hope.

The last line in the book is one of the more frightening ones in literature, right up there with the last line in 1984. It’s a blunt reminder of everything that has happened in the book, and a pointed summation of everything that Sleator has been trying to say – that humans have a base nature, that we can be manipulated, and we will, given the right circumstances, allow others to shape who we are. His message to his readers – teenagers like the ones in this book – is to refuse to submit to such control. Good advice for them, and for us.

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“You… you’re not going to… to go along with it, are you?”
– Peter, House of Stairs
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William Sleator at Wikipedia
House of Stairs at Wikipedia
House of Stairs at Amazon.com
Operant conditioning at Wikipedia

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Filed under behavioral conditioning, children, morality, science fiction, survival, teenagers, William Sleator, young adult

Review 21: The Thief of Always


The Thief of Always by Clive Barker

This book has one of the best opening lines I have ever read:

“The great, gray beast February had eaten Harvey Swick alive.”

Having grown up in New England, where February is the punishment that God metes out for all sinners, I have decided that you can’t beat that.

Harvey Swick is ten years old, and like so many ten year-old boys, he is bored with his life. The interminable grayness of February, the drudgery of life – going to school, coming home, going to school again – and believes that, if his life became the tiniest bit more boring, he would most certainly perish.

Then he met a strange, smiling man named Rictus, who told Harvey of a wonderful place where boredom could not enter, and there was nothing to be had but fun and adventure. There is no better place for children, Rictus said, than Mister Hood’s Holiday House.

Thinking about it, given that Harvey was willing to follow a strange man to a mysterious house without much consideration for his safety, suggests either that Harvey is not very bright, or Rictus is extremely persuasive. Given the rest of the book, I’d bet on the latter.

The Holiday House is truly a place of miracles. The food is better than you’ve ever eaten and there are enough toys and games and costumes and masks to keep any child happy for the rest of their lives. And in every day there are four seasons – a perfect green spring in the morning, a blazing wonderful summer in the afternoon, an evening full of woodsmoke, pumpkins and fallen leaves, and every night is a white Christmas with a present for each boy and girl.

It is the best place Harvey has ever been, and it takes him about a month to realize that something is not… quite right. Why would the mysterious Mister Hood do this for children? And what happened to the children who had come before? And what’s the deal with that cold, deep pond full of big, creepy fish?

It’s a coming-of-age book, the kind that chronicles the transition from childhood to young adulthood. Ten isn’t exactly young adult territory, but it is a time when kids start maturing in the way they think about themselves and the world. Not for nothing that so many young adult novels feature a protagonist that is somewhere between ten and twelve years old – they’re still young enough to have an air of innocence (which inevitably gets torn away) but old enough to think for themselves when there are no adults around to think for them.

There is no end to this kind of book – Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, Stephen King and Richard Bachman’s Peter Straub’s The Talisman, John Gilstrap’s Nathan’s Run, and just about anything written by William Sleator are among my favorites in this genre. They represent a growing-up that we feel we ought to have had, but are happy to have missed. They deal with the concepts that kids have to deal with as they age, and do so in a manner that young people can understand – analogy.

The Thief of Always is a book about getting what you want. Anyone who’s spent time around children knows that they’re greedy little beggars. They are dominated by their id and don’t understand that there are concerns out there that might supersede their own. Harvey Swick is just such a boy. He is concerned with his own excitement, his own happiness, and, having a child’s limited view of time, believes that the boredom he feels in the grip of February is permanent. He wants adventure. He wants change and variety, a life that never slows down and never gets old.

As the old saying suggests, however, one must be careful what one wishes for.

In the end, Harvey learns a Valuable Lesson ™ – to let the future happen in its own time, and appreciate what you have now. Because once time is gone, you can never – or at least very, very rarely – get it back again.

It’s a very quick read, but a very good book. I pull it out every February, if only for that opening line. For those who think of Clive Barker as being a master of the gory, pin-headed horror genre, this book may come as a pleasant surprise for you. And if you have kids around Harvey’s age, leave this one lying around for them to find. I’m sure they’ll appreciate it….

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“I only took the days you didn’t want,” Hood protested. “The rainy days. The gray days. The days you wished away. Where’s the crime in that?”
“I didn’t know what I was losing,” Harvey protested.
“Ah,” said Hood softly, “but isn’t that always the way of it?”
– from The Thief of Always
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Clive Barker at Wikipedia
The Thief of Always at Wikipedia
“The Beautiful Moment” – a Clive Barker website for all ages
The Thief of Always at Amazon.com

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Filed under children, Clive Barker, fantasy, time travel, world-crossing, young adult

Review 16: Watership Down

Watership Down by Richard Adams

This is one of my top five books. Whenever anyone asks me, “What is your favorite book?” this is at or near the top. It was the first adult-length book I read when I was in Elementary school, and I have every intention of getting my hands on a copy for my goddaughter at some point soon. I remember watching the movie when they used to show it annually on CBS, way back in those days beyond recall….

Why should this book, of all the books I’ve ever read in my life, stay so dear to me? I have no idea. Perhaps because, even though its main characters are rabbits, it isn’t a “talking animals” book. Adams didn’t talk down to his readers, and assumed that they were ready to follow Hazel and Fiver wherever they went. And so, unusually for children’s literature, there is violence and loss and true danger in this book. Characters die. Unpleasantly. The rabbits live in fear of mankind and the Thousand, and accomplish great things despite. They do what no rabbit had done before, and find a new world for themselves. And, of course, are forced to fight for it.

Our heroes, you see, are living an idyllic life in a warren in England. They do what rabbits do – eat, sleep, mate, and entertain themselves. But one rabbit, Fiver, can see more clearly than others. He can sense danger, and grasp the shape of the future, and he knows that any rabbit who stays where they are will certainly die. With his brother, Hazel, Fiver and a small group of rabbits leave their home.

They do what rabbits never do – they explore. They go through dense woods and cross streams. They hide among gardens and search for the best place they can find to set up their new warren – a safe place, high in the hills, where they can see all around and the ground is dry. They seek to build a new society, as so many humans have done in our history.

And what’s more, they try to build the best society that they can. The need leadership, yes, but how much? How much freedom should the ordinary rabbit have to live its life? This question becomes more and more important when they meet the cruel General Woundwort, de facto leader of the warren known as Efrafa.

The battle that they have, choosing between personal liberty and the safety of the warren, is emblematic of so many struggles that have gone on in our world, and continue today. Through a tale about rabbits, Adams manages to tell us about ourselves, which is the mark of a great writer.

As cynical as I have become in my years, I still find this story to be honest and true. Adams isn’t trying to make an allegory or grind an axe. He’s trying to tell a good story about hope and perseverance and triumph over adversity, a story with – as Tolkien put it, “applicability” – that we can overlay onto our own lives and experiences. The fact that the main characters are rabbits is incidental.

Well, not really. Another layer to this story is the culture that Adams has created. The stories of Frith and El-ahrairah (which, I’ve just noticed, is misprinted on the first page of the contents in this edition as “El-ahrairah.” Weird) are sometimes deep and meaningful, sometimes fun and silly, but always relevant and rich, in the tradition of oral storytelling. There is a language to the rabbits, which is regularly used throughout the book (and one complete sentence in lapine – Silflay hraka u embleer rah. Memorable….) Adams did a lot of research into the social structure of rabbits and their lifestyles, making it as accurate is it could be….

Anyway, every young person should read this. Hell, older people should read it too. Every time I read the story, it moves me. I can hear the voices of the characters clearly and see what they see. I am inspired by the steadfastness of Hazel, the strength of Bigwig and the resolve of Blackavar. I find qualities in these characters that I would like to possess, and that’s as good a reason as any to love a book.

As a side note, this book is the reason I got into Magic: The Gathering way back in college. For a long time, I thought it was just a stupid card game, with no cultural or imaginative merit. Then I happened across a “Thunder Spirit” card, which had a quote from Watership Down at the bottom:

“It was full of fire and smoke and light and…it drove between us and the Efrafans like a thousand thunderstorms with lightning.”

Still gives me goosebumps.

Anyway, I thought, “Maybe there’s something to this,” and the rest was (very expensive) history….

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“All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies. And whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first, they must catch you, digger, listener, runner. Prince with a swift warning. Be cunning and your people will never be destroyed.”
– Frith, Watership Down
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Watership Down at Wikipedia
Richard Adams at Wikipedia
Watership Down at Amazon.com

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Filed under adventure, England, fantasy, made into movies, rabbits, Richard Adams, survival, totalitarianism, travel, war, young adult