Don’t call it a comeback!
Okay, fine. You can.
However, I’m a little inspired by my main man, Prince, who, when Justin Timberlake busted out “Sexy Back,” just shook his head and said, “Sexy never left.”
Contemporary never really left, either. Some of the greatest contemporary YA books I’ve ever read were written right at the height of the Paranormal/Dystopian boom. Stephanie Perkins’ first two books, Anna and the French Kiss and Lola and the Boy Next Door came out around the same time as Mockingjay and Divergent, respectively. Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher, Perfect Chemistry by Simone Elkeles, and The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson all found success in the wake of Twilight. So, contemporary never really left. I think it’s just speaking a little louder these days.
In dystopian, and particularly post-apocalyptic, storylines, I think there is a considerable draw to a world that has collapsed in on itself and has to start all over again. The idea that a person or group of people need to rise up and become a force to be reckoned with. As readers, we like underdogs – of course we do. Essentially, there is nothing better than a comeuppance.
But, sometimes, the end of the world is all about perspective. What we feel is a crisis might not look that way from the outside – a good contemporary novel can delve into that idea and can explore that inner implosion. In dystopian or paranormal genres, you often watch the world literally fall apart. In many contemporary novels, the world can fall apart and no one ever sees a thing. From the outside, a character will look “perfect.” That’s the way we, as humans, can disguise our truth.
Amy Reed does a wonderful job of this sort of inner implosion in her novel, Clean, which uses an alternating narrative of five different characters in a rehabilitation facility. By studying the inner monologues of these characters, we’re able to see the trials and missteps that brought them to where they are and that made them who they are. There is less world building, less focus on setting. But there is a heavy reliance on narration that enlightens the reader, that sparks empathy and sometimes frustration.
So, when the call to arms is internal—and the only war is against one’s self—a writer has no choice but to explore the insides more than the outsides. There isn’t a world war, but there are battles to be waged. They’re just a little quieter and often have more room for emotional baggage.
I think this is part of the reason why The Fault in Our Stars by John Green has become such a phenomenon; it slips right into the space vacated by explosions and good vs. evil and creatures that are created to destroy our race. Cancer, while treatable in many cases, is a far more poignant and unavoidable reality in our world than werewolves or cyborgs. Looking at the struggle of Hazel and Gus, watching love bloom in a place where, admittedly, there isn’t going to be a happily ever after, is gut-wrenching. But, isn’t that, too, an illustration of the aspects we love in YA literature? The idea of people banding together and rising up against a force that is bearing down on us. How is Hazel and Gus fighting against their disease different than Katniss and Peeta fighting against the Capitol?
So, is contemporary having a comeback? Maybe. Maybe we’re all just opening ourselves up a little to the vulnerabilities of what’s immediate or true. But that doesn’t change the fact that there are beautifully written dystopian or paranormal novels, books that are eye opening and life changing and can completely wreck you. Moreover, there are dozens of books with touches of otherworldliness that are contemporary in most ways, but add just a dash of something else – something that seems a bit more magical. Sometimes, that’s the way we add hope.
Here are a few of my favorite novels that I feel are contemporary, but also include subtle and successful touches of paranormal, magic, or dystopian themes.1
- Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King
- Liar by Justine Larbalestier
- If I Stay by Gayle Forman
- Going Bovine by Libba Bray
- Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta
- The Freedom Maze by Rebecca Sherman
KELLY FIORE has a BA in English from Salisbury University and an MFA in Poetry from West Virginia University. Her first young adult novel, Taste Test, was released in August 2013 from Bloomsbury USA. Her second book, Just Like the Movies, launches July 22nd college composition in Maryland, where she lives with her husband and son. Kelly teaches college composition in Maryland, where she lives with her husband and son.
- Just to clarify, it is purely my opinion that these novels have undercurrents of something more than a mere contemporary label. ↩