For some reason, the end of the summer always has me thinking about “place.” Some of us got to visit new places on a vacation or traveled home or others of us, like me, spent most of the summer in the same place dreaming of where I could go. The back to school season evokes a sense of place, too. Who among us doesn’t have vivid memories of that one place in school that stands out in our memories? For me, it is the “Senior” hallway in my high school where all the seniors’ lockers were located. It had about ten dangerously slippery stairs leading down to it and every year – without fail – some unfortunate freshman running late for class fell up the stairs. The seniors always laughed mercilessly at the “Stair Fresh” for a week or two. Needless to say, it took me until my junior year until I could confidentially walk up or down those stairs.
That is a vivid and not particularly pleasant example of a place. I find that really developed sense of place is really important for readers. It allows you to feel comfortable or to be intrigued. Place for me is more than just the setting, it’s the culmination of the setting and the plot, as well the memories that that creates in a reader. That was a long way to say that place, and the memories that places make, matter. The same goes for books and I’ve found that YA in particular has some really great examples of place. Take The Hunger Games series for example- the horror of the arena, especially the terrifying clock of the Quarter Quell in Catching Fire makes a particularly vivid memory for me. Or how many of us wouldn’t want to live in Middle Earth, even if just for a day? Or Karou’s Prague, from Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone?
It’s not just fantastical worlds that many YA books do a great job of creating a sense of place, but there are some real life ones that while some I may not want to live in, I can certainly feel the realness of the place. For example, in The White Darkness (2008 Printz winner), Geraldine McCaughrean paints such a vivid and frightening picture of Antarctica, the book is very memorable to me. While reading it and imagining the oppressive whiteness and bleakness of the landscape you almost can feel yourself descending into the same madness of the characters. Trekking through inhospitable terrain with threatening people just might make me talk to long dead explorers in my head, too!
Take Tupelo Hassman’s 2013 Alex Award winning Girlchild: Rory Dawn’s life in the ‘Calle’ trailer park is less than idyllic for many reasons but the hardships of the book are so authentic and Rory’s attempts so earnest, they break your heart. I don’t think I’ll look at Reno, Nevada the same way ever again.
All of these books are are imbued with a strong, authentic sense of place. Why does this matter to YA? As much as YA books can be characterized as plot- or dialogue-driven, I think teen (and adult) readers still want to be transported to a new place. Many of us want to be able to explore new worlds and learn about new places. Readers of YA need those, too. A well-developed sense of place is making a many a classic YA book. What’s your favorite or in what fictional world would you like to inhabit?
-Anna Tschetter, currently reading Who is AC? by Hope Larsen