About once a year*, I read a YA book to see what the youth are up to these days (or, what publishers think the youth want to read, I guess). I’m never disappointed, for while YA isn’t my go-to bookstore section, I think YA authors tend to be folks passionate about the lives of teenagers, and that passion shows in their work.
Enter Jeff Zenter’s debut novel The Serpent King. Set in rural Tennessee, the book follows three friends through their senior year of high school. Dill is a soulful and sad musician, haunted by family history and dogged by his father’s reputation (the former minister is in jail for possession of child pornography) and his mother’s refusal to acknowledge that he might want to leave Forrestville. Lydia is a savvy fashion blogger (and fan of Donna Tartt & Leonard Cohen, so I was contractually obligated to like her, despite her annoying tendency to brush off her privilege) who dreams of moving to New York, though she’ll miss her supportive, Trader Joe’s-loving, hybrid-driving parents. Travis has a rough time at home and at work in the lumberyard, but he copes by retreating into a Game of Thrones-like fandom, not caring what anybody (including Lydia) thinks of his all-black ensembles, dragon necklace, and staff.
The novel revolves mainly around Dill, who’s distressed not only at the prospect of losing Lydia (he’s got a crush), but also at his lack of prospects. His parents have made it clear that he’s responsible for helping to pay off the debts they incurred; his mother even thinks he ought to drop out of high school.
While the trajectory of the plot is somewhat predictable, I enjoyed reading this book because Mr. Zentner depicts a segment of the population that is often overlooked. Dill and his mother are flat-out poor, and Travis’s family is just scraping by. Despite her attitude towards Dill’s education, Mrs. Early is depicted as a person who’s making choices using the arithmetic she knows, one that’s bound up with job insecurity (even with multiple jobs), no health care, and mountains of debt. She’s not a sympathetic character, but she’s understandable, not a caricature, and I think that’s important. Mr. Zentner shows readers that circumstance is a powerful force in shaping character.
And so is friendship. Forrestville has its racists and bullies, but it’s also chock full of beauty and people of outstanding moral fiber if you know where to look, and the three heroes of the tale do. It’s a pleasure to hear the sounds of night insects with them, or visit a college campus through their eyes. This book is full of heart; Mr. Zentner clearly loves his subject, looking at rural Tennessee life with affection, and with eyes wide open to its flaws.
I’d recommend this book to YA fans and to readers (like me) who dip into the genre just once in a while.
Have you read any YA books lately?
* 2013: Sara Farizan, If You Could Be Mine
2014: John Green, The Fault in Our Stars
Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower
2015: [I did say about once a year. It averages out, right?]
12 thoughts on “YA Foray: Jeff Zentner’s The Serpent King”
My YA attempts are similarly rare. This year I’ve only read Mosquitoland by David Arnold, which I quite enjoyed. It has a sarcastic narrator who’s a lot like Ellen Page in Juno. Some years I read up to 3 or 4. Gotta love The Fault in Our Stars. Apart from that another favorite was Wonder by R.J. Palacio. I’m not sure I understand all the distinctions between middle grade, new adult, etc.
I think part of the distinction between middle grades (slash) young adult/new adult is the writing level. Middle grade novels have clear writing, simple sentence structure, and do not use large vocabulary. What I’ve found the difference between young adult/new adult writing to be is the age of the characters. I’ve read some YA that I would definitely call literary fiction for their subject area and writing style, although it leaves books like “Tell the Wolves I’m Home” in kind of a limbo, because it’s about a youth but isn’t readily considered YA. I’ve been pretty fascinated by YA in the past year, because it’s such a “new” genre. Coming of age stories that cover all kinds of topics that I think could really help youth if exposed to early, especially before college/full-time employment.
I think you’re spot-on; I was saying to someone a few years ago that I don’t remember YA being a category when I was a teenager; there was a “teen” section at the library, but not a YA section. I loved Tell the Wolves I’m Home, and for me that was a typical lit-fic book with a younger protagonist, not YA. In titles specifically marketed as YA, I’ve often found the writing is very good, but it deliberately fills in gaps for the reader–you aren’t asked to take big leaps to draw your own conclusions about characters/plot/themes.
I think Rory reviewed Mosquitoland (don’t hold me to that) and recommended it. I have 2 more YA novels on deck for this year–The Lie Tree and a time travel fantasy the name of which escapes me at the moment.
Ooh, I’m keen to read The Lie Tree.
I dip into YA a little more than you because my kids are that age now. I like to see what they’re reading! A lot of them are very good, and I often wonder where they were when I was that age. I guess I was pretty happy with my LM Montgomery, though. 🙂
This sounds like a good one – I think my daughter already has it on her list!
I think a lot of Judy Blume counts as YA, and some Madeline L’Engle, Lois Lowry–a lot of the books I remember reading as a kid/teenager would now be marketed as YA, I think.
I dip into YA pretty regularly (my books spreadsheet says it’s 12% of my reads so far this year), just cause I feel like I can depend on YA to tell me a good story that’ll sweep me along. I haven’t read this but it sounds good! I like it when books deal seriously with class divides — speaking of which if you are seeking a YA book for 2017, I’d recommend Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys. It’s reeeeeally good.
Thanks Jenny! I’ll put it on my list; I have The Lie Tree on deck next 🙂
I try to read a few YA titles each year (as I’m not terribly far away from having a teenager – 5 years) and this one sounds appealing. While it’s not a genre I typically enjoy, I agree with you, I do usually enjoy the author’s passion.
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