When I reluctantly tell people how much I love to read, I wait in dismay for the inevitable, nerve-wracking question: “Oh really? What’s your favourite book?” Several answers pass through my mind: Gabriel García Márquez’s A Hundred Years of Solitude, Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. All respectable, critically acclaimed novels.
The truth is that my favourite novels have always been, and perhaps always will be, young adult (YA) novels. Maybe it’s the dark, brooding bad boys. Maybe it’s the cheaper prices. Maybe YA novels are my last ditch effort to avoid the chaos and monotony of adulthood and hold onto the chaos and wonder of my childhood. Or perhaps — and this may shock you — YA books are genuinely good books.
YA fiction is largely targeted to younger, female audiences. It is also the most ridiculed and disreputable genre in academic circles. Coincidence? I think not. There’s been a general pattern in ‘high society’ to sneer at anything young women enjoy: boy bands, the colour pink, Starbucks, and yes, YA fiction.
Perhaps the stigma around YA novels isn’t gender-related at all. Maybe it’s enough that YA is catered to younger generations. “Breaking news: Millennials are ruining everything, even books!” Critics label YA novels as artless because they’re easy to read and understand. Why must a novel be difficult to be considered valuable? Why must it be old? Or have a sad or vague ending?
Many are quick to dismiss YA novels, even critically acclaimed ones, as unsophisticated. What the majority can’t see is just how intricate and creative these novels can be. Take Renée Ahdieh’s The Wrath & the Dawn. Ahdieh reimagines one of the oldest and most beloved stories of all time: One Thousand and One Nights. Set in Khorasan, a real historical region in the Persian and later Islamic empire, The Wrath & the Dawn follows the main elements of the old fable.
An evil king takes a new wife each night, only to slaughter her come sunrise. When her best friend becomes his latest victim, Shahrzad Al-Khayzuran, The Wrath & the Dawn’s protagonist, vows to kill the king no matter what it takes. Shahrzad is the first to voluntarily marry the king. Being a master storyteller and literary scholar, she plans to captivate him with fairy tales, night after night, until she can exact her revenge.
But wait! Ahdieh’s retelling has a twist! Not everything is as it seems in this palace of marble and death. The caliph, the great and malevolent King of Kings, is merely a boy of 18 years. Khalid, the name with which Shahrzad comes to know the caliph, does not meet her expectations at all. He loves stories, the colour blue, and the smell of lilacs in her hair. There are people in the palace who would defend him until their very last breath, not out of fear, but out of respect. He has amber eyes, a jawline that could cut steel, and a tragic past. There may or may not be a curse involved.
Ahdieh’s writing style is exquisite. She captivates and traps you in a world of sparkling cities, colourful bazaars, Persian delicacies, and patterned silk sashes. The world-building is absolutely fabulous, completely transporting you to a different time and place. The Wrath & the Dawn becomes a living, breathing being under Ahdieh’s careful hand, a tangible world you can almost touch. The romance is flawless, the characters enchanting, and the fantastical and magical elements are striking at every turn.
The Wrath & the Dawn was also groundbreaking to me because it starred Middle Eastern characters. It will always hold a special place in my heart because I saw myself reflected in a protagonist for the first time in Shahrzad. That is another great thing about YA — it strives to truly represent its diverse, young, and impressionable audience.
What I’m proposing is a revolution in how we view YA fiction. I want to be able to enjoy YA novels like The Wrath & the Dawn without my intelligence and appreciation for literature becoming a point of contention. YA demonstrates the worth and value in young voices, the leaders of tomorrow. It gives us a sense of agency in a world that continues to belittle our experiences and our voices. There’s no shame in loving a book like The Wrath & the Dawn, and we shouldn’t be made to feel like there is.