While making mylastfewlists, I realized I’d had a pretty good life. The bulk of my book betrayals occurred after I turned 18; I couldn’t recall any hurtful childhood reads.
Then I remembered.
There were betrayals, all right.
And they started early.
Riding Freedom by Pam Muñoz Ryan
I was 6 when the school librarians tricked me.
“Hi, Lauren,” they said as I approached the checkout counter. “You like horses, right?”
I looked down at the stack of Saddle Club and Marguerite Henry books in my arms. “Obviously” felt like an overstatement.
They slid a slim volume across the counter and smiled. “Then you’ll love this book.”
The librarians knew I only read horse literature, a genre I clung to until I turned 10. We’re not talking horse-adjacent literature – the horse had to play a large role or I lost interest. (Think The Horse and His Boy.)
Call me paranoid, but my teachers must have been in talks with the library to get me to read more “substantial” stories. They tricked me the only way they knew how: by bribing me with horses.
I never saw it coming.
Three revelations about this story:
The plot focuses on the life of Charlotte (later called Charley) Parkhurst
Besides being a metaphor, the title refers to Charley’s favorite childhood horse
The horse dies in the first 20 pages
Thus begins Charley Parkhurst’s life as a runaway and the last time a specific horse is mentioned in this book.
I was too young for symbolism. All I felt was horror.
Not only was the horse DEAD, I’d wasted my time reading about a boring REAL person who disguised herself as a MAN for some reason??
“How did you like the book?” the librarians asked on my next trip.
“HATED it,” I griped as I checked out another Saddle Club, little knowing how my interest in trans characters would skyrocket in the years to come.
I could tell my librarians weren’t sorry; they thought they’d done me a favor.
Maybe they had.
Shades of Gray by Carolyn Reeder
Many of these betrayals were born out of misunderstandings.
Careful reader that I am, I believed this book would take place during the Civil War, an impression not helped by my classmates (who thought the same thing) and my eighth-grade teacher (who deliberately fueled those misconceptions.)
Looking back, I think our teacher felt insecure about her choice of book and needed any encouragement, genuine or manufactured.
She was right to be uneasy.
The story does NOT take place during the Civil War, automatically lessening the tension. Think of how good this book COULD have been if Southern-sympathizer Will moved in with his abolitionist uncle DURING THE WAR! Then, as the conflict raged on, Will would have to reconcile his limited view of freedom with the ethics of slavery.
Unconcerned with notions of “stakes” or “plot,” author Carolyn Reeder set her story after the Civil War. The bulk of the plot focuses on Will’s struggles with chores (“WHY CAN’T SLAVES JUST DO THEM FOR ME?”), his crush on his cousin (…ew?), and his battle with local bullies.
His moral conversion takes place in a series of preachy conversations with his uncle Jed. Eventually, Jed convinces Will that Slavery is Bad, Freedom is Good, and sometimes Courage is needed for Hard Things. Inspired, Will does his chores and stands up to his tormentors.
Imagine if Will’s conversion had had an impact on his actions ASIDE from the requisite bully defeat.
I was 14 when my teacher forced us to read this. I’d been in school long enough to learn that Slavery is Bad. The book tried to convince us of this obvious fact without addressing the historical nuances.
When the class rebelled and began trash-talking this book, our teacher lost it. “THIS IS AWARD-WINNING LITERATURE!” she screamed.
She’s right: this trash won awards for telling an anti-bullying story with the moral “Slavery is Bad.”
I now know where my cynicism comes from.
The Sky Inside by Clare B. Dunkle
Y’all remember this book? No? Good, because I’m about to trash it ALL OVER AGAIN.
As always, the cover drew me in.
I noticed my friend Amby reading this book during math class (in the front row, no less!) She glared when I reached out to touch the shiny cover.
I had to know what it was about. “Amby!” I shoutwhispered. “What’s it about!?”
Rolling her eyes, Amby handed me the book.
I scanned the details, attention snagging on the words “fast-paced science-action thriller.” “Can I borrow this?”
For reasons I will never understand, Amby agreed. I read the first few chapters in awed silence. Protagonist Martin and his family lived under a dome with simulated weather. Instead of favoring natural birth, parents genetically engineered children. Instead of actual pets, people owned robotic dogs.
This, I thought, had never been attempted in all of fiction. (I was 14.)
After the initial set-up, a stranger appeared under the dome, promising to take the genius children to a “special school.” After discovering no such school existed, Martin and his robot dog Chip left the dome to rescue his sister.
The rest of the novel read like a survivalist manual.
“Protagonist must brave elements” is one of my least favorite tropes. During elementary school, I opted out of reading “Hatchet,” “Guts,” “My Side of the Mountain,” and any other boy-oriented adventure novel published between 1950 and 2005. I don’t want to read an entire book about a character’s struggle to stay warm during harsh mountain winters.
The bulk of The Sky Inside follows Martin as he hoofs it outside (odd, considering the title.) He might have encountered genuine stakes at some point, but I only remember him falling down hills and talking to his robot dog.
Good gravy, that last part.
In its first act, the musical Murder for Two introduces a mute, invisible cop named Lou. The other characters interact with Lou, joking that if it wasn’t for him, they’d be talking to themselves.
Martin’s robodog Chip serves the same function without the humor brought by Lou. Any thought Martin has, he directs at Chip. “Gee, boy, why hasn’t the sun gone down?” “Golly, Chip, it sure is cold out here!”
I’d guess Clare B. Dunkle wanted to avoid writing “he thought to himself” over and over again, yet having Martin talk to a dog doesn’t feel any more natural than hearing Martin’s inner monologue. In fact, I’d rather Martin talk to himself than have inane, one-sided conversations WITH HIS ROBOTIC DOG.
Both Martin and I survived this reading experience, but it tarnished my view of sci-fi forever.
Forever Princess by Meg Cabot
My favorite book in The Princess Diaries series is Princess Mia.
In the series’ penultimate book, Mia battles depression, copes with a breakup, reconciles with her enemies, loses a friend, and upends her country’s government.
I remember bursting with hope when I finished the book. I’d never been more invested in Mia’s struggles or felt so proud of what she’d accomplished. It was the perfect end to a long journey.
Then the final book of the series came out.
Forever Princess isn’t awful, if my umpteen rereads are any indication. It has all the jokes and drama you’d expect from a Princess Diaries novel. I made my peace with this ending a long time ago.
I wasn’t so understanding when it first came out.
Where do I even begin? To parse out my feelings on Forever Princess is to unravel my psyche.
Let’s liken it to Winterto simplify things: like other series finales, Forever Princess is too happy. No bittersweetness here; the final book is all fluff with every plot line ending happily.
In some ways, this isn’t surprising: the reason I read the series is for its light-hearted tone.
After the previous two books, however, the fluffy optimism comes as a shock.
Mia deals with more complex issues as she grows older, as seen in books 8 and 9, which deal openly with heartbreak and mental illness. The realism in these books makes Forever Princess feel all the more jarring.
Most disappointing to me was Meg Cabot’s handling of the romance.
Suffice it to say Michael Moscovitz was never my perfect Prince Charming. The longer the series went on, the less I liked him. Meg Cabot argues for the “opposites attract” theory of romance, claiming that Mia and Michael’s lack of common traits makes them a perfect pair. Personally, I prefer couples that have more in common (which is why I shipped Mia and JP.)
Michael also makes some choices regarding his relationship with Mia that I found unforgivable at ages 14, 15, and 16.
At best, Michael is a clueless dud. At worst, he’s kind of a tool.
Luckily, there’s a way to fix that!
By book 9, Meg Cabot had broken up her beloved couple and paired Mia with theater geek John Paul “J.P.” Reynolds-Abernathy, another nice, if clueless, love interest who at least treated Mia well.
To make Michael the more suitable option, Cabot transformed J.P. from a rebound into a dastardly villain. Watch as he expertly manipulates everyone around him! Witness him booking a hotel room without Mia’s knowledge! Feel his arrogance as he climbs the stairs to accept his Prom King crown! MWAHAHAHA! It’s a full-on Prince Hans situation.
To contrast with his younger persona, Michael became buff, rich, and famous, and therefore more suitable for reasons that contradicted the series’ “Be Yourself” moral.
I’m not as anti-Michael as I was in 2009. Still, I’m unconvinced Michael is Mia’s perfect prince, especially as Mia was so anxious during the bulk of their relationship. I was more interested in seeing Michael get his comeuppance for the way he treated Mia, or SOMETHING aside from the “love covers everything” approach to their reunion romance.
At the time, Mia and I were both graduating from high school and dealing with all the emotions that come with change. After following Mia’s adventures for years, I watched my favorite princess earn a “majorly happy ending.”
I didn’t want a happy ending – I wanted a fresh start.
Almost a decade later, it still hurts to see my path diverge from Mia’s. I go back and reread the series from time to time to experience that same giddy, fizzy feeling I felt when I first read these books, but it’s not the same.
Princess Mia gave me the shot of hope I needed as an 18-year-old soon-to-be graduate. Peaceful as I pretend to be, part of me wishes Forever Princess never happened.
Background Mia started as an awkward nobody with bad hair until her father revealed their royal lineage. Now she’s an awkward somebody with slightly better hair and control over a small European principality.
Azula, the Fire Lord’s favorite child, prefers flunkies to friends. She pursues fratricide with dogmatic devotion and nearly succeeds. World domination she saves for her nights off.
The Couple For eight books, Mia’s main antagonist is Lana Weinberger, a catty cheerleader who bullies Mia’s friends.
To get Azula, take Lana and add firepower and a predilection for murder.
Yeah, that’ll work. Nothing says love quite like torment.
I bought Cinder in 2011 when I ran out of books my freshman year of college. I no longer have my original copy due to my annoyance when what I thought was a standalone ended on a cliffhanger.
It took a good friend of mine to convince me to give the series another chance.
Looking back, I don’t know why I didn’t love this series right away. The Lunar Chronicles was made for me: it’s a female-led space drama with straightforward romance, bad boys, and princesses, which is what I secretly want out of every book I read.
The intense plot of Lunar Chronicles would have had me sold but Marissa Meyer makes it with her excellent characters. I want to marry all (well, most) of the men and be all (well, most) of the women; for Meyer, I’d call that success.
Strangers who have seen me reading Lunar Chronicles ask me about it when they see my crazy reactions.
Like with Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, I’ve had to stop reading Lunar Chronicles in public. It’s rare that one series can make me cry/blush/squeal/scream with rage. Never have I been so invested in four different ships at once.
If you want to understand why I love these books, I need to introduce you to the characters. Let’s start with ladies first.
WARNING: Lunar Chronicles spoilers ahead
There’s a lot to admire in Linh Cinder.
I love the cyborg as a binary-challenging device. I also love that Cinder actually does something and kidnaps the emperor/love of her life to save the planet.
At times, I find dorky, sarcastic, relatable girl a bit too cool. There are things about her I can’t connect to, like the fact that she can remodel cars (no big) or that she carries the fate of Earth on her shoulders (whatever). There’s also the whole “burn victim with cybernetic enhancements” thing. And, as Cinder acknowledges, she’s nothing without her supporting cast; I didn’t get into the series until they were introduced.
Cinder’s character benefits from the others’ presences. Her interactions with them are what make the series interesting. Still, I like Meyer’s exploration into Cinder’s psyche as she deals with her (lack of) humanity, her new responsibilities, and the mystery of her past. I’m down for more heroines who save their male counterparts through abduction and spaceship hotwiring. Meyer has created a funny, smart protagonist that is easy to cheer on.
The little I know about Princess Winter hints that her mind isn’t a very fun place to be.
Canon states that if a Lunar doesn’t use his or her gift for an extended period of time, they will go insane. Winter’s intense hallucinations are proof of this.
“But you are crazy.”
“I know.” She lifted a small box from the basket. “Do you know how I know?”
Scarlet didn’t answer.
“Because the palace walls have been bleeding for years, and no one else sees it.”
How great a euphemism, though, does her psychosis provide? “That girl is not using her Lunar gift, if you know what I mean…”
So far, Winter terrifies me, but I’m interested to see the world from her perspective.
Also, she must be pretty cool if someone as awesome as Jacin Clay loves her.
Cress is my least favorite of the four mains. I don’t have a lot of positive things to say about her.
A lot of my dislike stems from Cress’ character type. I have a hard time not interpreting “naive and innocent” as “stupid.”
Finefinefine. Cress was trapped in a satellite by herself for 7 years. No doubt that would make for naiveté and poor social skills, but COME ON. I got tired of her wide-eyed newcomer act pretty quickly, especially since she’s a newcomer to MY PLANET. I don’t share her fascination with SAND. Cress tends to make choices that get her sold into slavery. Not surprisingly, she’s a bad judge of character. She manages to convince herself Carswell Thorne is a virtuous soul. Carswell Thorne. The Lunar Chronicles version of Han Solo and Mal Reynolds. Virtuous.
Two other counts against Cress: she doesn’t like Iko and she doesn’t trust Wolf. As I love Wolf with every fiber of my being, this last part is offensive to me.
Lastly, Cress thinks she lives in a romance novel. She fantasizes constantly that she’s an opera singer, a beautiful actress, an adventurer… Reading Cress’ POV chapterswas like watching “UHF,” only not as fun.
Thankfully, Wolf doesn’t like Cress much either, resulting in one of my favorite scenes:
Wolf was scowling at a mirror and trying to pat down his unkempt hair. He wore an impeccably fitted tuxedo with a classic white bow tie and pressed lapels.
He caught Cress’s eye in the reflection, and she couldn’t help but stand a little straighter, but though his gaze skimmed over her, he had no reaction whatsoever.
Deflated, Cress clasped her hands. “You look great, sweetheart.”
He did, in fact, look like a romance hero, all muscles and edges and chiseled bone structure. He also looked miserable.
Suddenly nervous, Cress gave a little twirl, displaying her full regalia.
Wolf only gave her a crisp nod. “The hover is waiting.”
She let her hands drop to her sides, resigned to the fact that Wolf would dress for his role, but he would not play it. “Right. You have the invitations?”
He patted his breast pocket. “Let’s get this over with.”
I lovelovelove Cinder, but Scarlet is my favorite heroine as sole representative of Team Normal.
Scarlet is 1/4 Lunar, but she doesn’t have–or hasn’t yet exhibited any signs of–the Lunar gift. Unlike Cinder and Michelle Benoit, Scarlet can be manipulated by Lunars. I appreciate Scarlet because I know how useless I would be in these intense situations. Scarlet has more weaknesses than the other characters and still manages to be SO COOL.
Shooting thaumaturges? Like a boss.
Flying ships? Of course.
Withstanding mental torture and chopping off her own finger to defy Lunar royalty? You bet.
Rescuing her grandma? …well, she tried.
I’m sad there wasn’t more of Scarlet in Cress, somethingI hope will be remedied in Winter. Less Cress! More Scarlet!
Each of these ladies gets me pumped to save the galaxy, and each one has a hot male counterpart to help them do so. I can’t wait to talk about the men…