With series like the Harry Potter, Twilight, and Hunger Games books becoming international mega-bestsellers, young-adult fiction is now a thriving genre that draws readers of all ages. YA Why? is a periodic book-review column that looks at YA releases from the perspective of what they do or don’t do with familiar YA tropes, whether they appeal to a broad audience or strictly to the younger set, and why we might want to read them.
Book: Kiera Cass’ The Selection, published April 24, 2012
Plot: In post-World War III America, now known as Illéa, times are tough and a hierarchical caste system is in full force. Teenager America Singer is a Five, meaning she’s a working artist, like the rest of her family. They don’t make much money and often go hungry, but they have each other. America also has a secret boyfriend, Aspen Leger, who’s a Six—the servant class—thus considered below her. America doesn’t care, though, because she wants to marry him anyway, even if it means taking on a lower class and a life of servitude and hunger.
But then her mother encourages her to apply for The Selection, a once-in-a-lifetime televised contest where young women between the ages of 16 and 20 can attempt to win the heart and hand of Maxon, the prince of Illéa. America doesn’t want to leave Aspen, but her mother bribes her with a promise that America will be able to keep some of the money she earns with her music, instead of turning it over to the family pot. Given that America feels she’s unlikely to be chosen, she agrees to apply. Out of the blue, Aspen dumps her over his shame at potentially lowering her social status. And of course, that’s when America is picked as a representative from her district in The Selection. Cue the chapters about getting waxed and dressed in fancy clothes.
America goes to the capitol with 34 other girls who have been selected to live in the palace with the royal family, go on televised dates, and occasionally be in danger from rebel attacks. She makes some friends, draws the ire of other girls, and ultimately draws Maxon’s attention by just being herself. She tells him she isn’t interested in him romantically, but she’d be glad to be his friend. So she gets to spend time with him, and love slowly blooms. Then Aspen shows up as a palace guard, and she doesn’t know which direction her heart wants to go.
YA cliché? This book avoids the supernatural tropes so common in YA fiction these days, but it also substantially apes themes common in hits like The Hunger Games. It has a futuristic, class-segregated America. It has a reality-TV-based plot and “poor little rich girl gets dressed up” scenes. Like YA’s two mega-heroines, Bella and Katniss, America is torn between two guys: the sweet one and the one who sparks chemistry. She’s also an outsider in a world she’s not meant to be in, a theme so common in YA and children’s literature, it’s practically mandatory.
Bad sign: The Selection isn’t exactly anti-feminist in the way it portrays its protagonist, but it certainly doesn’t do anything to dissuade legions of young readers from dreaming that they too could one day become princesses. Nor does it discourage girls from thinking that getting on TV to find true love is a great idea, and that the only true path to fame and happiness is onscreen.
Good sign: The Selection is something of a Hunger Games rip-off, but at least it’s an entertaining one. Plus, with less death and more dresses, it plays firmly into modern television’s wheelhouse. Hence the proposed CW series, which has a notable cast—Friday Night Lights’ Aimee Teegarden plays America Singer—and has been fast-tracked for production. Teen TV fans with a little beach-reading time on their hands can happily plow through the book over the course of an afternoon just to be able to tell their friends they knew about it when.
Young-adult appropriate? Things get a little racy when America is alone with Aspen, but there’s nothing more than vague descriptions of groping, and assertions that if they don’t wait, they could go to jail. What violence there is—unseen rebels breaking into the palace to steal trinkets, or rioting outside and throwing bricks—happens mostly off the page, and nothing escalates beyond hand-wringing.
Old-adult appropriate? America’s naïve idealism about how everyone in Illéa should have food and go to school regardless of their family’s money situation might be a little grating at times for pragmatic adults, but it’s sweet all the same. The prose isn’t college-level, but the story makes sense and moves along at a pleasant pace without a lot of Twilight-style hemming and hawing.
Could use less: Prince Maxon, who’s a sweet guy almost to a fault. Readers never really know why he’s so simplistic, or whether he has flaws. He floods America with gifts like—gasp!—pants, which she’s allowed to wear while all the other girls are required to wear skirts; at the same time, he kindly dismisses the other girls he just isn’t that into. With so much vanilla blandness, he’s kind of boring. Why would readers root for the young grandpa when there’s a rough-and-tumble sexy soldier in the mix?
Could use more: Explanation of the origins of the caste system. There’s a vague reference to it as a decision made generations ago, but it’s unclear why people can’t move around within it. Just by being in the contest, America moves from a Five to a Three, and her brother, a relatively famous artist, has jumped a couple of levels through his work, alienating the rest of his family in the process. It’s unclear whether Cass is pooh-poohing the traditional notion that hard work pays off, or all this economic chatter just a setup for a grand revolution in a later book.
For fans of: The Hunger Games, The Bachelor, any movie about a regular girl becoming a princess. The Selection is Hunger Games minus the woods, and plus dating. It differs from Hunger Games in the strength of the female lead, though. America is fierce, but she wouldn’t kill someone to survive. She’s sassy and direct, but she’s also easily won over by tasty desserts and tiny gestures. Whereas Katniss would rather overthrow the government than become princess, America would happily put on a dress and kiss babies if it meant her family didn’t have to literally sing for their supper so often. Where there’s a bleak hardness in The Hunger Games, The Selection revels a little more in romance and triumph. Even when Katniss wins the games, she still hasn’t really won anything. America Singer, on the other hand, is going to win either way.