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"The Story of Owen" by E.K. Johnston and My YA Problem

I tweeted last night that I wanted to hug The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim by E.K. Johnston. Today, none of the glow has worn off. But … there had to be a but … I’m still learning how to recommend YA novels.
Part of the problem is I don’t love many YA novels. In fact, I can’t stand YA novels with too much angst. Or mean girls. Or unrealistic situations. You may find that last one funny when I tell you the YA novels I recommend over and over again:

  •  Feed by M.T. Anderson: In the not too distant future a customized World Wide Web is piped directly into our brains. Having the system know everything about you is both helpful and harmful, though.
  • Seraphina by Rachel Hartman: A half-dragon girl is able to pass for human and become an important member of the royal household. But where will her loyalties lie if humans and dragons go to war?
  • The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater: A group of private school boys are on a quest to find an ancient ley line and awaken a long dead king. They’re helped by Blue, who comes from a family of psychics, but whose real ability is to magnify others’ powers.
  • The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater: Once a year, carnivorous horses come out of the sea and a few brave men ride them. This year, a young girl wants to take part in the race.

This isn’t to say I don’t appreciate the clamor behind such titles/series as Divergent, Eleanor and Park, The Fault in Our Stars, The Fifth Wave, The Hunger Games, Matched, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The School for Good and Evil, Thirteen Reasons Why, and so on. I even liked many of them, at least at first. But I don’t want to hug them.

So I’m left with a disconnect. The books the teens want to read aren’t necessarily the books I want them to love. I have a feeling The Story of Owen is going to be a hard sell. No sex, no drugs, no alcohol. No mean girls, no texting, no dead parents. It’s not even dystopian. Instead, it’s subtle. It’s filled with dry humor. It’s about family. It’s about music. And for a dragon lover like me, it’s not even about good dragons. The dragons in this alternate reality are bad. They maim and kill and due to our reliance on fossil fuels have become carbon-eating monsters that attack oil tankers, factories and anything emitting smoke. (When Siobhan, our protagonist and narrator, gets her first car, she’s so wonderful she doesn’t even ask her parents if they don’t love her enough to get her a hybrid. That’s funny.) Siobhan has been enlisted by Owen’s family to become his bard and she does that and so much more. 

The heart of the novel, though, is how Owen, dragons, and his family change everything about Siobhan’s life. Kids may look at the cover and the title and think it’s a fantasy. It’s not. But it is fantastic.


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