Sunday, June 12, 2011

Graceling and Young Adult Literature

Through the author’s understanding of psychology and her use of themes, character, pace, and action, Kristine Cashore has created in Graceling a feminist fantasy novel relevant to contemporary young adult readers. The traditional fantasy setting, with kingdoms and castles, is a very different reality than ours and potentially could scare off teens accustomed to contemporary urban fantasy like Stephanie Meyers’s Twilight and Holly Black’s Valiant. However, Cashore describes emotions so eloquently and develops such well-rounded characters that teens can have no trouble immersing themselves in the book and relating to the characters.

The first thing the intended audience sees is the beautiful book cover in the young adult fiction section at a book store or library. The cover does not show a literal scene from the book (appealing to middle grade readers), but, more appropriate for teens and adults, a stylized image that evokes the novel’s essence. The background resembles elegant wallpaper representing a palace, and the foreground is a dagger reflecting Katsa’s green and blue eyes. In the book’s world, the different colors of her eyes identify her as someone who has a Grace, a magic power. The title and author’s name are prominently displayed in metallic gold on the center front cover. The gold title is huge on the spine; if the book were shelved spine-out, it would still attract attention. With a color scheme of green, red, orange, gold, and silver, the cover can attract both boys (who might be drawn to the dagger) and girls.

Teens will easily relate to the protagonist, Katsa. Very early in the book, we see Katsa choosing to be more compassionate than others expect her to be (page 7), by giving guards sleeping pills instead of killing them. Cashore strategically places this before the reader finds out that Katsa commits murder and torture under her uncle-king’s command. If the author had chosen to show her killing or torturing someone at the beginning of the book, rather than rescuing someone, teen readers wouldn’t have taking a liking to Katsa off the bat; it would have been harder to relate to this character. After the reader finds out that Katsa has killed, we learn she has on occasion come up with ways to avoid taking out King Randa’s orders as harshly as he wants.

We also witness how Randa talks down to Katsa with extreme contempt, accusing her of being stupid; this has a debilitating effect on her self-esteem, and that is the only power he has over her. Any teen reader who has been bullied will relate to how Katsa feels and how life-long verbal abuse from her uncle has warped her perception of herself. Similarly, an abused teen reading about Katsa’s decision to defy Randa, and her eventual fearlessness toward him, can be empowered.

Cashore’s portrayal of Katsa and other characters challenge stereotypical gender roles. Katsa is the niece of a king, but she is no dainty, helpless lady who gets rescued by a male character. For teen girls who have grown up with Disney movies and read Twilight, Katsa is refreshing and unexpected. She isn’t vain and doesn’t care much about her appearance; she doesn’t like dressing up in gowns and she gets her hair cut short. Prince Po is vainer, wearing a lot of jewelry (granted, that’s the norm in his culture). Young adult readers live in a world in which women and girls are expected to be obsessed with their appearance, so this book opens minds. The female ship captain challenges gender roles, especially given that the book is clearly set in a very patriarchal reality with male kings in charge of every country.

Even ten-year-old Bitterblue from the very start is not what we expect from a little princess. Cashore uses her astute understanding of psychology with Bitterblue: a child who has grown up with a cruel and power-tripping father is of course traumatized and doesn’t trust people, especially men. Bitterblue changes gradually and is eventually able to be comfortable with Po, to hug a male sailor, and to become a capable queen.

Keeping the book psychologically and sociologically realistic, the author has only made some characters challenge traditional gender roles, not all. When Katsa and Po are staying at an inn and witness merchants harassing the innkeeper’s daughter, the merchants and the teenage daughter don’t challenge gender roles (p. 207). Many teen girls will relate to the daughter’s experience of misogynists harassing her and seeing her as an object, and the same readers will relate to Katsa’s indignation at the merchants.

In that scene, Katsa witnesses how most teenage girls are perceived; with her Grace, she is accustomed to people fearfully treating her like a dangerous monster. Now we see her conscious of how vulnerable the innkeeper’s daughter is, and of how young women should be able to protect themselves rather than expect their fathers and brothers to protect them. Katsa later meets Bitterblue, who has a knife for defense, and Katsa eventually reflects on the irony of a society―much like ours―in which females are the most vulnerable and yet males are the ones who are trained in self-defense (p. 398). This is all too familiar a world to any teenager reading the book, and it could inspire teen girls to learn a martial art or take a self-defense class.

The themes of the book are self-awareness, self-reliance, independence, love, friendship, and abuse of power. Po’s supportive love and friendship helps Katsa understand her Grace, her potential, and herself, at a realistically slow pace. Even so, in Monsea she is uncomfortable with taking orders from Po, although he is no King Randa and is the only one whom Leck cannot fool. Friendship is a very important theme, and Gracelings Katsa’s and Po’s challenge in making friends is similar to the experience of introverted or socially rejected teens. A Grace can be a metaphor for special abilities or handicaps; people who have these are often rejects in our society. Today’s teenagers don’t meet many power-tripping kings, but they encounter plenty of bullies, and they might find King Leck’s Grace―his magical ability to influence others through speech―reminiscent of real-life bullies with cliques.

The fast-paced action scattered throughout the book is sure to appeal to young adults, including boys. Nowadays teen readers expect action starting on page one of a novel, and in Graceling the first chapter begins and continues with action and suspense. Important exposition is slipped in here and there for clarity, such as: “No one would think of her. Whatever the Graceling Lady Katsa might be, she was not a criminal who lurked around dark corridors at midnight, disguised (p. 7).” Exposition truly comes in after the author has already grabbed the reader’s attention with action.

Closely connected to action is pacing. Teen readers are accustomed to books like the Harry Potter series, hard to put down due to pacing. Graceling likewise is fast-paced during action scenes and internal conflict scenes. It’s somewhat slower-paced during dialog scenes and scenes in which Katsa and her companions are traveling or hiding out in a cave (p. 288). The shifting of pace is not a fault but rather gives the reader a chance to take a deep breath. The scenes in which characters are conversing or lost in thought supply so much insight and contribute so much to the plot and characters that it doesn’t matter if they’re a bit slower than the fighting scenes: the book is never boring. On the topic of dialog, besides contributing to the plot and telling a lot about characters, it follows ordinary, modern speech and won’t intimidate a teen reader. Also, characters such as Bitterblue tell stories through dialog, filling in scenes that Katsa didn’t witness firsthand; teens reading this dialog will enjoy the story and adventure rather than perceive the scene as talking heads.

The book has more than one climactic moment. The most climactic scene is at the end of part one, in which Katsa finally confronts King Randa the bully. She demonstrates to him that she’s not stupid―by explaining how she could get out of that throne room alive―and she proves to herself that she can escape the throne room without killing anyone (p. 170). Not only does Cashore brilliantly and gradually show the protagonist changing for the better, but also many a bullied teen would like alternatives for dealing with bullies.

However, that’s only the climax of part one, not of the entire book, and the ultimate climax is not as dramatic. The climax is Katsa killing King Leck (p. 417); however, Katsa’s sufficiently befuddled that she thinks she has done something horrible. It would have been a bigger and more dramatic climax if Katsa had somehow suddenly remembered everything about King Leck, or if she had cultivated immunity to his spell. On the other hand, she was vaguely aware that she disliked Leck, and Katsa’s motivation for killing him―consistent with theme and plot―was love and loyalty: Leck was about to reveal Po’s secret, his real Grace, in front of his whole family, and Katsa had to stop Leck, so she threw a dagger at him. Teen readers will not only enjoy the action and the bully’s demise, but also connect with loyalty to a friend or loved one.

The book could have ended traditionally, with Katsa and Po settling down in his castle; we are conditioned to wish for such a comfortable, happy-ever-after ending. However, that wouldn’t suit Katsa, who will continue having a life of adventure. This is especially appropriate because of her Grace: survival, which wouldn’t be much use if she lounged around on velvet cushions and munched on chocolate. In addition, ending the book with Katsa becoming domestic would have short shafted the teen reader, who has been reading about this self-reliant and independent female character with no interest in marriage or breeding children. The resolution, while refreshing and unpredictable, is consistent with the character and the novel as a whole. Not only does Katsa send out a message as a strong role model for teen girls, but the fact that she doesn’t ride into the sunset and move into the castle but rather continues to have an independent and adventurous life tells teen girls that they shouldn’t wait for their prince to come like characters in Disney films they’ve grown up watching. Best of all, Katsa starts teaching girls self-defense.

Graceling succeeds in appealing to the intended audience, young adults, and while it probably attracts more female than male readers, teen boys would enjoy the action, suspense, and mystery and could learn a lot from the book, including respect for girls and women. Teenagers have intense emotions, and Cashore knows how to vividly describe emotions. The book is a brilliant feminist epic fantasy with a strong female protagonist and a large cast of highly believable characters. Teens can relate to the emotions and well-rounded characters, no matter how exotic the setting.

Cashore, Kristin. Graceling. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, NY: 2008.

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