Monday, August 10, 2015

Deeper Than YA

Review: Serafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty

Let's face it, most novels written for the YA market are fluff, designed to entice young readers to engage with the process of novel reading. When they engage reader's adolescent emotions, they do well with their YA readers, and with the adults who are charged with selecting books to add to the young-readers' section of the local library or bookstore.

But some novels labeled as YA are more substantial than that. While still engaging for the young reader, they possess a deeper message, and present ideas that can engage a reader of any age. 

By doing so, the author partakes of a legacy that comes from an older time, before the YA niche market was designated, when adults read the same novels their children would read. For example, C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia novels, the Wrinkle In Time books by Madeleine L'Engel, any of Mark Twain's Mississippi novels or anything by Roald Dahl—this is a very short list of novels which give the young reader more than emotional candy to tempt them to read.

You can add Robert Beatty's Serafina and the Black Cloak to that list.

12-year-old Serafina is one of the most intriguing characters I have run across recently in my reading, whether YA novels or general literature. She is the "Chief Rat Catcher" at Biltmore, the Gilded Age Vanderbilt estate in North Carolina. Her job—in fact, her very presence—is unknown to the 1899 Vanderbilt family. She and her train-mechanic father live in hiding in the basement of the sprawling maze-like building George Vanderbilt had recently built in the middle of the woods, and Serafina knows more about the nooks, rat-runs, secret passages, and hidey-holes in the building than anyone else who lives there.

To help her catch and release rats, Serafina has some advantages. She is slender, with an ability to squeeze her body through any opening she can get her head through. She has only four digits on each hand and foot, but they end in strong fingernails, useful for holding onto the squirming rodents when she catches them. Her large golden eyes see very well in the dark. Any tiny sliver of light is sufficient for her to do her work.

When the girl observes a child from "upstairs," a guest of the Vanderbilts, vanishing after being enveloped by the crackling black cloak of a tall man wearing dress shoes, Serafina is faced with a dilemma. Her father does not believe her tale. Should she approach someone upstairs and report her experience? If she does, she risks exposing her father's and her presence in the Biltmore basement. But if she does not, who will stop the child-snatcher in the black cloak?

Serafina must answer this challenge, moving beyond her childhood reliance on her Pa for direction to make this decision. She must also face her own night-creature nature, and learn to move in the world above-stairs as nimbly as she has in the rat-runs.

Did evil creatures think of themselves as evil? Or did they think they were doing what was right?

Despite the many vampire and shape-shifter allusions, this is not a "hidden world" story. Serafina's choice of battles proves that the people she deals with are all too human. It is that which gives the story its winning appeal.