Unearthly and Ashfall: A Comparison of YA Themes

I read a lot of young adult fiction, from contemporary coming of age stories to urban fantasy. Very fun stuff. Some of it makes me cry (most notably John Green’s recent work, The Fault in Our Stars) and some has me in stitches (what can I say, The Fault in Our Stars). A good number of current YA novels tackle a dystopian/post-apocalyptic future or fantastical present. I’m going to compare the two I’m reading now.

Unearthly, by Cynthia Hand, tells the story of an angelblood. Clara Gardner is a quarter angel (on her mother’s side). One element to this story I found refreshing was that Clara knows her family secret from the beginning. Every angelblood has a purpose, a task they must complete, and Clara is just waiting to discover what her purpose is. Ashfall, by Mike Mullin, is a post-apocalyptic tale of what might happen if the Yellowstone supervolcano erupted. Alex Halprin is home alone when his house is struck by chunks of volcanic rock erupted from the Yellowstone Caldera almost two states away. His family isn’t with him — they’re east, and hopefully safe — and the book follows him as he tries to find them. Both books are the first in a series.

I’m enjoying both stories, and I’d gladly recommend them to any one who likes YA, but this isn’t really a book review.

What interests me is, how do I respond as a reader to these two very different possible futures?

Unearthly awakens the part of me that wants to believe in something other. Meaning the part of me that loves fairies, waterhorses, LOTR, and such. Could I be an angelblood? I know it sounds hokey or ridiculous or insane. Rationally, I know  my parents weren’t angels (no offense, Mom). But doesn’t each one of us fantasize about being special in some way? I certainly did as a teen, and I still do now. So, Unearthly takes me to a place where that could be possible, in a hopeful sort of way.

Quite the opposite with Ashfall. I live in Jackson, WY. According to an interpretive park ranger I asked on a recent Yellowstone visit, if the Yellowstone supervolcano erupted, I would be dead before I was even aware of it. The future of Ashfall seems more plausible, real, even though it’s unlikely that the volcano will erupt while humans are still on Earth. And this kind of story affects me in some kind of visceral way. What would I do in the event of a natural disaster? Or war? Would I be one of the survivors? Honestly, with how griped I am reading this story, I hope I never have to answer that question.

In thinking about this comparison, I realize that I read both types of books for separate reasons. I like to slip away into other worlds or possibilities, and at the same time my (more) rational mind likes to flirt with tangents of our current reality. Lucky for me, a plethora of books offering me both experiences is out there.

What kind of stories do you like to read? Do you want to be an angelblood? Would you survive the supervolcano?

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