Why Eccleston Is My Favorite Doctor

Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor in Dr. Who.

Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor in Dr. Who.

If you had asked me who my favorite Doctor was in high school when I first started watching Dr. Who, I would have told you what any teenage girl first introduced to Dr. Who would have told you: David Tennant. I mean…what girl wasn’t taken in by 10’s adorable charm? Tennant was funny, cute, and an excellent actor. It was going to be hard to imagine Dr. Who without him.

But if you had asked me in college who my favorite Doctor was, I would have told you Matt Smith. I was not prepared to like the 11th doctor, based on my undying loyalty to Tennant, but Matt Smith completely won me over. His Doctor was, too, funny, cute, and adorable. And Smith is also an excellent actor. His performance was amazing, and he truly proved that his Doctor could be as good as Tennant’s.

But upon watching Dr. Who again–third time, I know, I have issue problems–my favorite Doctor is Eccleston.

Eccleston and Billie Piper as Rose Tyler.

Eccleston and Billie Piper as Rose Tyler.

Eccleston is often overlooked and even forgotten when people think about all of the Doctors since the reincarnation of the British television show, even though he was the first. People got so swept away by Tennant and Smith, and Eccleston was only the Doctor for one season while Tennant stayed for three, that it became easy to forget Eccleston. But I think the main reason Eccleston was forgotten was because Dr. Who became a “fandom”. It became part of the geek world, a world mostly run by fan girls who like their men handsome, British, and adorable.

Eccleston is indeed British, but few fangirls would classify him as handsome, at least traditionally. And even fewer would label him adorable. But that’s why I love him so much as the Doctor. Eccleston’s Doctor is not adorable. Yes, he’s fun and adventurous and has a quirky sense of humor, but he’s not adorable. At times he’s dangerous and angry and unpredictable. Eccleston is the one actor who shows us that the Doctor is capable of dark things. He shows us the pain and anger that comes from losing your entire planet, all the people you love, and the loneliness that can plague the Doctor.

Doctors 1-11

Doctors 1-11

Even though I love shows like Joss Whedon’s Firefly or J.J. Abrams’ new Star Trek reboot, I’m not much of a sci-fi person. I can only handle so much of aliens and UFOs and campy British television. It’s why I can’t binge watch Doctor Who–eventually I need a break from BBC special effects. But I love Doctor Who so much because the show is built on deep, heavy, palatable emotions. I mean, the whole premise of the show reeks of painful feelings: a man who has lost everything he loves–his family, his home, his people, his planet–is doomed to travel throughout time and space alone. I mean, that alone gives me so many feels. Of course, there are good feelings–the love the Doctor has for Rose, his friendship with Donna, his happiness with Amy and Rory. But at the end of the day, the Doctor has to say goodbye to his companions and continue alone.

Eccleston, better than any of the Doctors, captures the raw emotions of the Doctor. He’s the only one who seems truly dangerous, who can show in his face the anger festering under the surface. He gave the Doctor a bit of a dark side, and he reminded viewers of everything the Doctor had lost. That is why I love him so much, and why 9 is my favorite Doctor.

(Also, you never forget your first Doctor.)

(And 9 loved Rose first.)

A Natural History of Dragons

natural historySometimes it can be difficult finding a good fantasy book. You go looking for something Tolkien-ish, and all you find is cheap rip offs. You want a good story and all you find is two-dimensional characters with staves and headdresses. Basically, all you see on the shelves are mass-market paperback copies of one hundred books that are all exactly the same. The sci-fi/fantasy genre can be exceedingly difficult to navigate, but it is not without its rewards. Overjoyed are you when you discover Brandon Sanderson and Joe Abercrombie. But even though you enjoy the stereotypical fantasy novel with wizards and female warriors, every now and then you wish for something different, something that falls within the fantasy category—dragons, fictional worlds, plot twists—but maybe something minus pointy ears and fireballs. Something more “normal”.

I enjoyed Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent because even though it is technically a fantasy novel, it felt more like historical fiction—even if it is history from a made up universe. It is a nice break from the fantasy genre standard.

Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan

A Natural History of Dragons is an “autobiography” of Isabella Trent, who, now in her old age, is a renowned naturalist and author, particularly known for her life’s work with dragons. This book, however, takes the reader back to the very beginning of her career. We learn how her interest in dragons began in her childhood, how she came to marry her husband Jacob, and how she became involved in her first expedition to study dragons.

There are several things that make this story different from most fantasy books. One is the setting. Most fantasy novels take place in worlds that are equivalent to ancient civilizations or the Middle Ages—limited technology, magic, primitive beliefs and social customs. A Natural History of Dragons, however, moves this setting forward in time. It is not modern, but it has the feeling of a later time, perhaps closer to the Enlightenment, Scientific Revolution, or Regency periods. It’s a good change of scene, and one that I enjoyed. There are social conventions more align with the British television shows everyone is into these days, so that should be a draw.

An illustration from the novel, drawn by Todd Lockwood.

An illustration from the novel, drawn by Todd Lockwood.

Another difference that I greatly appreciated was the female/main character Isabella. In fantasy novels, almost every single female protagonist is a badass warrior. While this was something that was the main draw of fantasy literature for teenage me, after ten years of reading nothing but the same female warrior character over and over again in every fantasy novel, it was really nice to get a female protagonist who was strong without being an elf warrior who kicked all the boys’ butts.

Isabella is bookish with unconventional interest, i.e. dragons. Her nerdiness and desire to break with social conventions are cliché, but not in fantasy novels. Unconventional bookworms are plenty, but usually in contemporary of history fiction novels. While this personality does not make Isabella anything unique in literature overall, it makes her different than her contemporaries in the fantasy genre. She does not wield a weapon, though she is independent and curious. She has a strong desire to learn about the creatures that have captivated her imagination, and she is not afraid to travel far from safe, conventional society to get her chance. This makes her strong without wielding a sword, and it’s a nice change of pace.

The other unconventional thing I liked about this book was the relationship. First, it is not the overly passionate let’s make out in the forest kind of relationship you see in every other fantasy novel. *cough* Graceling. Isabella and Jacob’s relationship is semi-arranged, though they meet and decide to marry on their own. They are good friends who respect each other. The book describes no hot make out scenes, but rather demonstrates their love for each other by showing how much they care about each other when they’re hurt or in danger. It’s a more realistic portrayal of love. When you’re together for years, every second is not a moment of passion. Love also shows itself through small, day-to-day moments, and that’s what Jacob and Isabella share.

Illustration by Todd Lockwood.

Illustration by Todd Lockwood.

Isabella and Jacob also get married at the beginning of the book. They go through their adventures together as a married couple. Weddings usually come at the end of books, or not all, but I enjoyed reading about both of these characters going on their adventures together as husband and wife. It was a new way to do it.

The last thing I will say about this book is that the voice was very engaging. The cliché nature of Isabella’s personality, even though it is original in her genre, kept me from diving into the book headfirst. I read a little at a time, but the voice was what kept me coming back. The writing has a unique feel to it. Marie Brennan really made the book feel like Isabella’s autobiography. Her writing is humorous, clever, and engaging. Perhaps my favorite part of the whole book.

For anyone into the fantasy genre, or anyone looking for a different read, I recommend A Natural History of Dragons. For you die-hard fantasy nerds out there, you still get a dose of the good ol’ fantasy—dragons, schemes, etc. But I think most people will enjoy this new take on the fantasy genre.

The Theory of Everything

The-Theory-of-EverythingOne of my favorite movies is A Beautiful Mind directed by Ron Howard, starring Russell Crowe, Ed Harris, and Jennifer Connelly. It tells the story of mathematician and economist John Nash. Nash is a genius, but he suffers from schizophrenia. With the support of his wife and friends, he learns to work through his schizophrenia and goes on to win the Nobel Prize in economics.

There are several things I love about this movie. It’s beautifully done, from the acting to the cinematography to the music, but I also love the mathematical elements because I’m a nerd. I love nothing more than the intersection of art and science found in a good movie about something science-y. A Beautiful Mind is one of those films. James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything is another.

theoryThe Theory of Everything is about renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, focusing on his scientific breakthroughs in cosmology, his relationship with his first wife Jane, and the progression of his motor neuron disease. The movie begins with Hawking’s time at Cambridge where he met Jane. It’s shortly after they begin seeing each other that Hawking is diagnosed with his disease and only expected to live for two more years. Despite Hawking’s attempt to distance himself from his friends, Jane is determined that they will beat this disease together and the two are married in 1965.

The next decades of their life together include Hawking getting his Ph.D., three children, and years of dedicated care giving. Jane serves as a full-time caregiver as Hawking’s muscles deteriorate. Much like Nash’s wife’s care and support, Jane does so much for Hawking, and it’s a testament to a beautiful relationship between the two. Though it is far from easy. Jane struggles to work on her own Ph.D. while taking care of three children and Stephen as his career and popularity grows. Eventually, Stephen and Jane are forced to accept help due to his deteriorating state. Help comes in the form of a church musician who befriends the entire family while growing particularly fond of Jane, and a nurse who grows particularly fond of Stephen.

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Left: Stephen and Jane Hawking. Right: Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones.

Eventually, Jane and Stephen separate, which is sad after you invest in their relationship, but it is the story of what happens, and both Jane and Stephen seem to understand what the other needs. The end of the movie still resolves their story nicely, as Hawking invites Jane and their three children with him when he meets the Queen of England. It may not be as beautiful as Nash’s story, where his wife stands by his side through everything and in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech thanks only her, but it is still a good story. Stephen and Jane went through so much together, more than they did with their other spouses. They worked through his disease as his condition worsened, she helped him with his work, and they created three children. That last fact is the one Hawking chooses to highlight at the end of the movie. Together they made something beautiful, so theirs is a beautiful story.

75The relationship between Jane and Stephen really propels the movie forward. It is heart-wrenching to watch one of the most brilliant men of our generation slowly lose control of all his muscles, but Jane’s care and Stephen’s wit offer moments of tenderness and humor. The acting job of Felicity Jones (Jane) and Eddie Redmayne (Stephen) are phenomenal, especially Redmayne. Redmayne captures Hawking’s movements perfectly as his disease progresses, and even when Hawking’s only possible expressions are slight movements, Redmayne fills his face with emotion. It’s truly amazing.

As a nerd, or really anyone interested in academic or scientific concepts, and as a romantic who loves a good love story, I think The Theory of Everything was a great movie, despite the fact that their marriage ended. The Theory of Everything tells a remarkable story about a remarkable man and woman. Stephen Hawking did the impossible. Now aged 72, he is decades older than the doctors ever expected him to live. He wrote his book A Brief History of Time while in the thrall of his disease, and he traveled extensively. He never would have been able to achieve so much for the science world if he hadn’t had Jane’s love, support, and care. He may not have even made it past those two years. She saved him, and the movie tells their remarkable story. The acting is amazing, definitely Oscar-worthy, and the film is well done. I can’t wait for it to come out on DVD so I can watch it again.

A New Take On An Old Fairytale

ImageEver After, A Cinderella Story, Ella Enchanted. The list of Cinderella adaptations in books and films is seemingly endless. Fewer fairy tales have received so many renderings that I wonder if anything original can be done to the story about the servant girl turned princess. Of course, as often happens, I was wrong. Cinder by Marissa Meyer is a completely new and original take on the Cinderella story, and a quite enjoyable one at that.

In this retelling of the fairytale, which takes place in the future, Cinder is still the stepdaughter forced to do hard work to support the stepmother who hates her. This time, though, Cinder is not just the stepdaughter, she’s also a cyborg. After suffering a terrible accident as a child, parts of Cinder’s body were replaced with mechanical parts. As a cyborg, Cinder is considered a second-class citizen in her hometown of New Beijing, but she is a first rate mechanic. This is how she meets Kai, the prince of the kingdom. Kai comes to Cinder hoping she can fix his android, which he jokingly tells her contains important information to the security of the country.

Fixing the prince’s android isn’t the only thing on Cinder’s mind, however. There’s also a plague raging through New Beijing, and after it infects Cinder’s nice stepsister, Cinder becomes involved with a doctor trying cure the disease. This takes Cinder to the palace, where she repeatedly runs into Prince Kai, who must deal with his own troubles. With his father ailing quickly, Kai faces a difficult threat coming from the Lunar people, a country inhabiting the moon where the people possess magical powers.

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Marissa Meyer

Okay, so that sounds a little odd. A cyborg Cinderella and strange moon people with magical powers. It is a little odd, but Meyer weaves traditional aspects into the story—the mean stepsister, the cruel stepmother, the ball, the glass slipper—while interpreting these aspects in an original way to fit her story. Meyer also adds in a mystery surrounding the Lunar princess to the midst of the story to keep it exciting and moving forward.

Any lover of fairy tales will enjoy this new adaptation of the Cinderella story, and readers who like fantasy or sci fi books will enjoy this novel. It is dystopian without the dystopian setting being the center of attention. The world is different and futuristic, but at the same time modern. Cinder deals with being an outcast in society, not to mention dealing with saving the people she loves and falling in love herself. Cinderella is a timeless tale that can thrive in any setting, and it flourishes in Meyer’s novel. Cinder is not a groundbreaking book, but it is a very enjoyable read. Audiences will fall in love with Cinder and relish the new interpretations of the traditional aspects of the Cinderella story. Just as Cinderella transcended from a mere servant to a beautiful princess, Cinder rises as a great futuristic interpretation of a very old fairy tale.

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If you enjoyed Cinder, check out the next two books in the series: Scarlet and Cress.

Every Girl

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Kerstin Gier

Two words: time travel. You’re probably thinking Dr. Who, but I’m actually referring to German author Kerstin Gier’s Ruby Red Trilogy—Ruby Red, Sapphire Blue, and Emerald Green. Ruby Red, the first novel in the series, was a best seller in Germany and is quickly gaining popularity in America, translated into English by Anthea Bell. It’s no surprise given the popularity of sci fi/fantasy YA novels featuring a female protagonist. But Grier’s Ruby Red stands apart from other YA novels because the heroine successfully fulfills the most important character trope of the YA heroine—she is both plainly normal and incredibly special.

ImageGwyneth Shepherd is the most normal heroine I’ve ever read about, and I mean that as the highest compliment. Gwyneth is the girl next door. She enjoys movie marathons with her best friend Lesley and playing with her younger brother and sister. She has no exceptional talents or interests. She is, in every way, normal. Her family, however, is anything but normal. The Montrose (her mother’s maiden name) family is the female line of time travelers, meaning that one girl in each generation carries the time traveling gene. The female time traveler works with the male time traveler, from the de Villiers family, traveling back and forth to different time periods under the instruction of the mysterious Count Saint-Germain. The girl time traveler from Gwyneth’s generation is supposed to be her cousin Charlotte. Charlotte’s spent her entire life studying languages, history, etiquette, and other similar subjects to prepare for traveling to other time periods, while Gwyneth has lived the life of a normal teenager. So it’s a big shock to everyone involved when it turns out that Gwyneth can travel back in time and Charlotte cannot.

Now Gwyneth is hardly normal—she’s a time traveler, and not just any time traveler, but the “ruby”, the last and most important traveler. Of course, Gwyneth is hardly prepared for everything expected of her, and it doesn’t help her that none of the Guardians, the time traveling inner circle, seem to trust her. Or tell her anything useful that could help her. All Gwyneth knows is that her cousin Lucy Montrose and Lucy’s husband Paul de Villiers stole the chronograph, the “time machine” per say, and are hiding in the past. Everyone seems intent on finding Lucy and Paul, and even more intent on “closing the circle”. But all Gwyneth has to go on are snippets of an old prophecy and the internet research of her best friend Lesley.

ImageMuch like in The Hunger Games, Twilight, Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone, Kiera Cass’ The Selection, and other YA novels, Ruby Red is about a normal girl thrust into extraordinary circumstances—Katniss into the Hunger Games, Bella into a world of vampires and werewolves, Alina into the Grisha, and America into the Selection. This is the foundational premise of YA novels targeted a female audience, and not without reason. Books like these promise girls who feel ordinary that they are indeed special and are capable of great things. It’s an important and valid message. The whole point is that the reader can relate to the heroine and identify with her, because the heroine is supposed to be every girl. But how relatable are some of these YA heroines? It’s hard to see Katniss as “every girl”. How many of us can identify with what she went through? And hopefully real girls are a little more interesting than Bella Swan. Not every heroine really seems to quite fit with the “every girl” trope of the YA heroine, which makes her difficult to relate to.

But Gwyneth is different, perfectly representing the dichotomy of normality and specialness of the heroine. She has common interests—movies, books, music. She has a normal girl’s life—friends, school, family. She leads a remarkably typical teenage girl’s story, boy problems included. This makes her an incredibly relatable character, which makes the time traveling adventure part of the story even more exciting. Unlike other YA heroines, Gwyneth fulfills her promise to her audience that even the most normal girl is in store for an exciting adventure and is capable of greatness and courage.

ImageThere are other wonderful aspects of Grier’s story. The love interest storyline is up and down, keeping it more original than most YA novels. And rather than focus on the romantic relationship, Grier places just as much emphasis on Gwyneth’s relationship with her best friend Lesley and her family. The series reads more like one big book than three books, and it is full of delightful twists and turns. Grier weaves together character, plot, themes, and setting in a beautiful way that makes Ruby Red a fantastic read. And the heroine shines out in a sea of YA characters female protagonists. Gwyneth is you. Gwyneth is me. If I may, she’s the Martin Freeman of YA heroines. She’s the most extraordinary normal girl you’ll ever meet.

P.S. There’s a movie too. Trailer. Full movie.

Ender’s War

Warning: Spoilers. But I don’t feel bad about it because if you’ve read the book then you already know what happens. And if you haven’t read the book, why are you reading a review of the movie? Go read the book!

ImageWith all the present hype over books like The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, and Divergent it can be easy to forget one small book from 1985. Ender’s Game, originally published as a short story in 1977, is one of the first and most significant science fiction books for young adults. The story takes place in Earth’s future, after attacks from an insect alien species. In order to protect Earth from further attacks, the leaders of the International Fleet (IF) select the best and the brightest children to participate in training and competitions. One of these children is Ender Wiggin.

Ender enters ‘Battle School’ at a very young age, but his strategic genius becomes quickly apparent. However, as the third child in his family in a country with a two-child policy, Ender faces isolation and abuse from other students. His talent and success also alienates him and makes him enemies. In one instance, a bully corners him and Ender fights back. He injures the boy badly, inflicting a wound that proves fatal. Ender tells IF leader Colonel Graff that he beat the boy excessively in order to prevent any future attack. This kind of strategic answer prompts Graff to move Ender up to a higher level. In this new program, Ender commands a company of misfits that he turns into the top company in the program.

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Ender commanding a simulation.

After this, IF moves Ender to ‘Command School’, where he and several of his company members participate in simulated skirmishes against the aliens. Eventually, Ender comes to the final test. He succeeds, destroying the pretend alien planet only to discover that it wasn’t pretend. The ‘simulations’ were real, and Ender has actually destroyed the alien planet and effectively won the war. Now Ender feels the weight of his actions, guilt ridden and depressed over destroying a species, especially after he realizes that they were sentient creatures able to communicate telepathically. Ender, however, is offered a chance of redemption. He finds the eggs of a queen of the insect alien species and decides to find a safe planet for the species to repopulate.

Without changing anything significant, the movie captures the essence of the book. One of the best aspects of the story that the movie portrays is Ender, in both his empathy and viciousness. In the book, Ender is presented as a contrast between his violent brother and his compassionate sister, a contrast that the movie balances well. Much of this is due to the impressive acting of the then fifteen-year-old Asa Butterfield. Butterfield portrays Ender’s violent side but also stirs his audience’s emotions with his empathetic side. Much of best acting is in the subtle mannerisms he uses to show Ender’s strategic mind and internal struggle between violence and peace. Ender also represents a classic child character, one beset by bullies, isolation, and self-identity issues who manages to rise above his challenges to create a successful team out of misfits, make friends, and ultimately become the commander of the IF military forces.

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Another spectacular aspect of the film is the visuals. The Battle School is located in space, and the battle practice simulations take place in zero gravity. These battle competitions are fun to watch, and the uniforms, space environment, and technology give the film a real sci fi feel that fans of the book will enjoy. The stunning visuals, however, do not detract from the story. Harrison Ford and Viola Davis give excellent performances. The young actors who play Ender’s friends and sub-commanders also do a good job with their roles. And at the heart of the film is a deep and meaningful story about grand themes like war and peace, but also the story of a boy struggling to find his true purpose.

Readers can rest assured that the movie Ender’s Game is a rather faithful adaptation of the book. Orson Card, the author, was involved in the filmmaking process, and Gavin Hood (the director and writer) did an excellent job with the screenplay. Some things were cut, including much of the storyline of Ender’s brother Peter and his sister Valentine, but everything essential to the story and Ender’s character development remains. The movie characterizes Ender extraordinarily well, and does a good job handling the tension of the war and Ender’s internal struggle. This is definitely one of the better book-to-movie adaptations I have seen in a while, and it is also a good movie. People who love the book and people who have never read it will enjoy this film.

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Hailee Steinfield and Asa Butterfield at ‘Battle School’.

The Blessings and Curse of Genre Literature

photo-1024x764On June 19th in a mad high of excitement and sleep deprivation, I posted this as my status on facebook:

284 pages and 79,081 words later I have finished the first draft of my first book! I am feeling very thankful and excited. Now it’s time to start the editing process!

I had so much fun for the next day or two as I had people from all of the different parts of my life congratulating me about finishing my first draft.

But then came something that I didn’t really expect. People started asking me what my book is about. The first few times people asked me this, I’m pretty sure I babbled incoherently for several minutes, floundering to find a way to encapsulate what I had written in a few sentences. I have it pretty nailed down now, and it goes a little something like this:

Friend: “So what is your book about, Em?”

Me: “It’s a murder mystery…with superheroes on the side…” * hangs head *

I was talking to several people about it last night, and I realized with horror that I was embarrassed to admit that there are superheroes in my story. I shouldn’t be ashamed of my superheroes. I am very passionate about comics (though the New 52 has dampened that fervor slightly… Scott Snyder, we need to have a serious chat). But sometimes people give me this knowing smile when I explain that my book a.) contains superheroes and b.) is written for a young adult audience. They stop taking me seriously.

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Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2001.

I’m angry at myself for allowing other people to make me feel embarrassed for what I write, and I am not the only one who feels this way. I just finished reading a collection of essays called Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the book The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay which, shockingly, is partly about comic books and superheroes.

Maps and Legends at first seems like a hodgepodge of essays. There are essays on Sherlock Holmes, Norse mythology, Cormac McCarthy, comic books, and children’s books. But looking back on the book as a whole, I understand what Chabon set out to do with these essays—he set out to expand readers’ horizons and our understanding of what “serious” fiction can be.

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Chabon’s collection of essays seeks to break down the barrier between “Literature” and “genre fiction”.

Sure, we all know about the Canon of Literature—a list of books by dead white guys that we all read in high school. These books are Classics, with beautiful prose and deep themes that we can still analyze and deconstruct today. But there are other books that, as Chabon writes in the essay “Trickster in a Suit of Lights: Thoughts on the Modern Short Story” are stuck in the ghettos of bookstores, that are considered “genre fiction”—science fiction, high fantasy, children’s literature, young adult literature, etc. You know, the things that you would find on NPR’s Guilty Pleasure list, in which writers talk about the books that they enjoy but are embarrassed about reading because they are not considered ‘Literature.’

Chabon writes, “The undoubted satisfactions that come from reading science fiction or mystery stories are to be enjoyed only in childhood or youth, or by the adult reader only as ‘guilty pleasures’ (a phrase I loathe). A genre implies a set of conventions—a formula—and conventions imply limitations (the argument goes), and therefore no genre work can ever rise to the masterful heights of true literature, free (it is supposed to be) of all formulas and templates.”

Genre books, Chabon argues in Maps and Legends, can also be complex, lyrical, and have deep themes and characters, even though they take place in space or have people running across rooftops in spandex. As an avid reader of young adult fiction, I know that writers such as Markus Zusak, Maggie Stiefvater, Melina Marchetta, and John Green know how to tell good stories, write compelling characters, and string together wonderful sentences. The young adult genre is filled with innovation, creativity, and experimentation.

I wrote what I wanted to write and I had so much fun doing it.  So the next time someone asks me what my book is about, my goal is to hold my head high when I answer.

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Michael Chabon with three of our mutual friends.