All right, all right, I’ll cop to it: I didn’t learn how to read until I was eight.
In my defense, I had a good reason—or as good a reason as anyone can have for that kind of stubbornness—and it was that my parents read to me. There were the requisite picture-book years of course, many of which (Zelinsky’s Rumpelstiltskin, Mayer and Craft’s Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Brave, and the entire works of Kevin Henkes, to name a few) still live on the bookshelves of my parents’ house. When I was older, my dad tackled Tolkien, and my mom handled Lewis, one chapter a night. My biggest fear was that, if I learned how to read for myself, no one would bother to read to me again.
My biggest fear was that, if I learned
how to read for myself, no one
would bother to read to me again.
It has been said that we are human because we tell stories. From morality tales to escapist jaunts to cerebral think-pieces, the stories we tell are the heart of humanity. Telling and listening to stories can even (as Scheherazade would attest) save lives. So it should come as no surprise that in trying to create believable worlds and characters, so many writers have written storytellers, and occasionally themselves, into their narratives. The following list of mostly YA titles comprises multilayered narratives and stories-within-stories, some of them so deeply nested that they are different with every rereading.
Afterworlds, by Scott Westerfeld
Westerfeld’s latest is also his largest, and with good reason; this 600-plus pager tackles not one but two complete narratives. First there’s Darcy, a precocious 18-year-old who has just sold her first novel for a hell of an advance and is forgoing college to move to New York City, where she’ll see if she can make it as a writer. Interspersed with her struggles and triumphs is the story she’s writing: a parallel-worlds, paranormal romance about teenager Lizzie and the enigmatic Yamaraj, a Hindu god of death. Both story lines are rife with romance and coming-of-age moments, and Westerfeld’s addition to the writer-and-character relationship canon was both well handled and well received.
Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell
This love letter to fandom follows college freshman Cath, who, unlike her twin sister, is reluctant to dive into their first year away from home. Cath prefers instead to navigate the world of Simon Snow, a Harry Potter-esque series with one final upcoming book. Cath is one of the fan base’s most popular fan fiction writers and is rushing to finish her longest, most popular story (“Carry On, Simon”) before the final book comes out and renders everything she’s written Alternate Universe. Along with Cath’s story about loneliness, creativity, possible romance, and new adulthood are various chapters from the Simon Snow canon—mostly from “Carry On,” but also some of Cath’s older stories, as well as her source material—and eventually, a piece of Cath’s original writing. Since the novel’s publication, the world of Simon Snow has apparently taken on a life of its own: Rowell recently announced that her next project will be the full-length Carry On, due in October.
Keturah and Lord Death, by Martine Leavitt
Already a quietly ethereal fable, Leavitt’s National Book Award finalist is made all the more otherworldly by its ghostly framing device. Beautiful Keturah’s wishes are simple: a house of her own, a husband to love, a baby in her arms. Having yet to find that, she is known in her small village as a storyteller, and it’s a skill she puts to use when, after she has been lost in the woods for several days, Death comes for her. Though he insists he makes no exceptions, Keturah, by telling him a story she leaves unfinished, gains more time and strikes a bargain: if she finds her true love in one day, Death will let her go. A prologue and coda set this up as another story Keturah is telling—albeit, she says, “The truest story I have ever told”—and draws a hazy line between the mundane and the supernatural, leaving readers wondering where the truth of the story really lies.
Life of Pi, by Yann Martel
A deceptively simple narrative about science, faith, and survival is, upon closer inspection, a veritablematryoshka doll of narratives. Pi Patel is a young boy living on his family’s zoo in India; when offered the opportunity to move to Canada, his family packs up said zoo and hits the high seas. Tragedy strikes, the boat sinks, and Pi is left alone in the Pacific with a boat full of wild animals—including a tiger. What follows is an extraordinarily detailed account of how Pi survives the sea and his wild companion, an account that is suddenly circumvented when—spoiler alert!—the end comes and we are told that this version may not be entirely real. Adding to the layers is the fact that author Martel wrote himself into the narrative as a writer who documents Pi’s story, providing a stark journalistic contrast to Pi’s incredible, unreliable, and often fantastical narrative. Ultimately he (as are we) is challenged by Pi to choose the “true” version of the tale. Remember, the fictionalized Martel tells us halfway through, “this story has a happy ending.”
My list would be incomplete without this self-proclaimed Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure, which possesses arguably one of the most successful framing devices in contemporary literature. Possibly an entire generation (I include myself) thought that Simon Morgenstern was a real person, that William Goldman was really abridging his book, and that Florin and Guilder were actual countries. Like Yann Martel, William Goldman writes himself into the narrative as a foil to Westley and Buttercup’s swashbuckling romance, claiming to have first been read the story as a small, ill child. As an adult, he says, he rediscovered the story only to find that it was not a fantasy adventure so much as a satirically charged political allegory about the “author’s” home country of Florin (I know it’s fictional now, okay?) and the rest of high-class Europe. Goldman purports to extract the “good parts” and create the version he himself enjoyed as a child while keeping his own running commentary throughout. The end result is, of course, its own kind of whirlwind fairy-tale satire.
Shadow Spinner, by Susan Fletcher
This retelling of Arabian Nights follows Marjan, a young girl whose mother crippled her so she would never be considered a worthy bride for the murderous sultan. The killings have stopped since Shahrazad became queen, but it is a tenuous peace. Like her idol, Marjan is a storyteller, but she never expects to be taken to the palace: it has been almost three years since Shahrazad married the sultan, and she’s running out of stories to tell him. It becomes Marjan’s task to sneak around the city and find new ones. Fragments of these tales are interwoven with the narrative and with Marjan’s memories of her past in this tribute to the power of storytelling.
The Thief, by Megan Whalen Turner
Gen may be a talented thief, but he’s also a captured one, scheduled to rot in the king’s dungeons for the rest of his life. But there exists a legendary stone whose powers will solidify the king’s rule, and the king’s scholar has discovered the location, one so guarded that only a skilled thief can slip through. Gen is given a tenuous reprieve on the condition that he retrieves the stone. His difficult journey with the king’s scholar, a soldier, and several apprentices is tempered by Gen’s stories about his god of thieves and legends of the object they’re searching for. Furthermore, Gen proves to be as skilled a liar as he is a thief, and throughout his first-person narrative, he keeps both readers and his companions in the dark about his true nature, adding another layer of doubt to his reliability.
The Wrath and the Dawn, by Renee Ahdieh
The second Arabian Nights retelling on this list, The Wrath and the Dawn focuses much more on the story of Shahrzad herself than on the stories she tells—although she does, of course, still tell them. Often more like allegories than actual tales, the stories keep her alive through the somewhat cheap trick of cliff-hanger endings while also providing the foundation for the slowly developing trust between Shahrzad and the not-so-evil-after-all caliph. Pieced together with Shahrzad’s tales are other points of view, balancing the magic of her stories with political intrigue, developing relationships, and the magic that exists in Shahrzad’s own world. The tightly spun plot and layered, polyphonic narratives create depth and mystique in the stories’ various fabrics.