The Necessity of Young Adult Fiction

Oxford University Press “Literary Agenda” Series

The Necessity of Young Adult Fiction argues that YA fiction—often maligned as “lite” and unserious—in fact creates the opportunity for readers to engage with some of the most pressing problems of the twenty-first century, particularly those that arise around nationalism, citizenship, and climate change. Using contemporary YA speculative fiction as a series of case studies, I argue that YA fiction shows us how a cosmopolitan world view can enable the formation of communities that are not threatened by difference but instead see diversity and dissent as sources of strength against the forces that endanger not only individual well-being but also the well-being of the planet.

This book has two goals: the first is to demonstrate that YA fiction offers an “arena of thought” about climate change and definitions of citizenship—issues that are, as these novels illustrate, inter-related. The second goal is a re-examination of the figure of the monster. In all the novels that I discuss in this book, the “monster” must reckon, in some fashion, with climate catastrophe—either as looming threat or actual fact—and their responses to these challenges reveal the need to reconceptualize how we think about identity and belonging: what does it mean to be a citizen, to belong to a nation, to be human?

The Corset and the Veil

The Corset and the Veil is a novel based on the remarkable life of Lady Hester Stanhope, who fled England in 1809, searching for alternatives to her life as an impoverished aristocrat.

Seen as a spinster by London society, 32-year-old Hester is left without a protector when her uncle, Prime Minister William Pitt, dies suddenly. She is estranged from her politically radical father and her strong opinions, tolerated by the English aristocracy when her uncle was alive, now make her an outcast.

Adrift and penniless, Hester is thrown a lifeline by her half-brother, who offers to take her with him to Gibraltar as a brief respite from London life—and, perhaps, the opportunity to find her a husband who will ignore her opinions in favor of her title.

Their plans for a brief trip are upended when Napoleon marches into Spain—and when Hester begins a passionate, unexpected love affair with a man twelve years her junior, who is enchanted by her wit, her boldness, and her political shrewdness. Hester and her lover embark on a journey that takes them away from Europe, through the Ottoman empire, and finally to Egypt.

By the time they arrive in Egypt, Hester has become notorious, not only for her radical politics but also because she dresses like an Arab man. In Cairo, Hester meets Nafissa Khatum, an Egyptian concubine who understands the difficulties of being an ambitious woman in a man’s world. When Hester’s lover decides to return to England, Hester must choose between his offer of safe domesticity or Nafissa’s dangerous plan to help the Bedouin tribes unite against European exploitation.

Just as Shondaland’s “Bridgerton” upends conventions about Regency romance, so too does Hester’s story: a Regency lady whose unladylike adventures scandalized people across multiple continents. Hester’s exploits precede those of Lawrence of Arabia by almost a century, but history has all but forgotten her.