I finally read the book that had been sitting on my shelf for ages, that I had suspected I would love but decided to avoid reading because apparently I don’t like being happy. I was an idiot to wait, because The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender (IB) by Leslye Walton is pretty fucking brilliant. Lush, lyrical language without being purpley in the slightest, a compelling story, and utterly perfect characters. A must-read, truly, and a book I hope will help the YA naysayers change their minds, since this book doesn’t really seem YA in the traditional sense and instead serves to further break down the idea that YA is anything (problematic, but also useful).
Senior year of high school in AP English, we read Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon (IB), and everyone but me booed or made fun of the ending. SPOILER ALERT: Milkman flies away. Literally. Figuratively, yes, but literally, because that’s slave legend, and literally, because that’s what the book says, and literally, because that’s how magic realism works. And nobody could accept it, even though there’s no reason in the world, or in the world of the novel, to doubt its truth. But because to most people who read or watch television or movies, “magic” is a thing that has to be explained ad nauseum as part of worldbuilding, or at the very least “taught” or “learned” or “harnessed” over the course of a story. In stories like this, it just is, and that’s what matters.
This was the same reason I loved movies like Big Fish and Chocolat (which I know were based on books, but they didn’t seem like the types of books I would like, strangely – much of the trappings I enjoy, but often too saccharine overall, which is a far more excusable fault onscreen than on the page), even though my peers didn’t seem to share my opinions. But very few stories, printed or filmed, were about teenagers, and even fewer were about girls of color. For that, I was happy to have The Icarus Girl (IB), which I identified with quite strongly even if none of the cultural markers were really mine to claim, but there wasn’t much else. I got as much out of The Dovekeepers and Practical Magic as I possibly could, but had there been a book like Ava Lavender, I think I would have been better served. The “literary fiction” people have been telling me to read my entire life almost always centers around men’s relationships with each other, or it’s about white girl problems, and I wanted neither after awhile. And the fantasy fiction I wanted was never there – I wanted real life kids experiencing magic, but I wanted them to look like me every once in awhile, not always be about white kids. Nor was I particularly interested in excessive exposition on how magic works or Middle Earth. Magic realism is everything I’ve ever wanted, and yet I keep forgetting or something. Or maybe it’s just so rare that I find the right book.
I was tempted many times to start close reading the metaphors in this book, to see the rising tension and know exactly where things were leading (which I imagine will be, like in E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars [IB], not a surprise to many adult readers and quite a big one to younger readers, simply because they’ve read fewer stories so far in their lives – and to be glib about a quite serious subject, and to give a bit of a SPOILER, I will say that I hope reading this book will help people understand why the Maleficent film is about rape revenge), to try to pinpoint what real life thing was being simply explained as magical, not really magical. But that was stupid, because this book is magical, and its story should be taken at face value in that sense – not to say that it isn’t brilliant and worth poring over, but that the magic should be taken as simply magic, even if it is also metaphorical. That’s why “magic realism” is such a perfect term for it.