EXPeriencing Escapism & Inspiration through YA

Cover images via Kirkus and Leigh Bardugo’s website.

The 2016 presidential election concluded nearly a month ago, but I don’t think it’ll ever be behind us. Not when our president elect is tweeting his frustrations at a satire comedy show and upsetting international relations.

That’s why I needed some escapism as we head into the end of the year.

Earlier this fall, in an attempt to save money and stop cluttering my bookshelf (a.k.a, my guest room floor), I got a library card for my local library. The first book I picked up was Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I’d never read it, and it was a beautiful, heartrending book. And as you can imagine, it was not a light read. So as Election Day neared, I wanted to read something light. Something that wouldn’t make me look at the wrongs of our past and fill me with dismay.

I picked up the sequel to the newest series by my favorite young adult author, Libba Bray: Lair of Dreams. As far as not looking at America’s past and feeling shame, fear, and distress, I definitely failed in my choice.

Lair of Dreams, part of the Diviners series, is set in 1920s New York City. The racism and misogyny of the day is enough to make you want to throw things, but Bray’s strong diverse cast of characters helps show the wrongness of those ways–and that there’s hope to overcome it.

Despite the fact that we live 90 years later, those reminders are apparently as relevant as ever.

“America had invented itself. It continued to invent itself as it went along. Sometimes its virtues made it the envy of the world. Sometimes it betrayed the very heart of its ideals. Sometimes the people dispensed with what was difficult or inconvenient to acknowledge. So the good people maintained the illusion of democracy and wrote another hymn to America. They sang loud enough to drown out dissent. They sang loud enough to overpower their own doubts. There were no plaques to commemorate mistakes. But the past didn’t forget. History was haunted by the ghosts of buried crimes, which required periodic exorcisms of truth. Actions had consequences.” —Libba Bray, Lair of Dreams

Thankfully, the mystical elements of Lair of Dreams provided enough escapism that I didn’t feel I was delving into a history lesson for 1927. That’s exactly what I was looking for. The racism and misogyny is certainly present in the novel, but mostly for historical reference. The real conflict comes from ghosts and magic and secret government programs. The conflict and the strong characters drew me in and wrapped me in their magic, and I was happy.

To keep the escapism train going, I finally decided to check out a YA series my publishing friends have been gushing about for years: the Grisha trilogy from Leigh Bardugo. I picked up the first novel, Shadow and Bone, just before Thanksgiving and devoured it in four days. I started the sequel this afternoon and the third book is ready and waiting on my kitchen table.

While Leigh Bardugo’s world is filled with war, it’s also filled with gender equality. That’s Refreshing Element #1. Refreshing Element #2 is that it’s set in a fantasy realm she invented, and it’s not based on Western Europe, but rather Russia. Despite how much Russia has been in the news, Bardugo’s Ravka is completely new and I can process its history without having to think forward to current U.S.-Russia relations.

Refreshing Element #3: Like Bray, Bardugo’s world features a strong female lead, reminding me why I’ve loved YA since I was 12. In today’s world where the most qualified woman in the country can run for president but lose to the least qualified man on Earth, seeing strong young women in action fighting government cover-ups and tyrannical mages gives me hope for women and girls today. If these are the writers and their heroines we have to look up to, I am reassured that our fight over the next four years won’t be in vain.

“The story of America is one that is still being written. Many of the ideological battles we like to think we’ve tucked neatly into a folder called ‘the past’—issues of race, class, gender, sexual identity, civil rights, justice, and just what makes us ‘American’—are very much alive today. For what we do not study and reflect upon, we are in danger of dismissing or forgetting. What we forget, we are often doomed to repeat. Our ghosts, it seems, are always with us, whispering that attention must be paid.” —Libba Bray, Lair of Dreams

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