Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Ursula Le Guin as a YA writer

This whole post takes its cue from Greg Hatcher’s recent column about the ‘on-ramp’ to get younger people, whether teens or preteens, interested in reading. In the comments there, I mentioned my favorite author, Ursula Le Guin, and, among other things, the books in her absolutely outstanding Earthsea cycle – which is where I first discovered her writing when I was about 11 or 12 years old.

That actually got my wheels turning and I started to think about Le Guin as an author of children’s and YA books – a smaller but, I think, vital part of her total ouevre. So what follows are some of my thoughts on her various offerings for younger readers, most of which I think can be serve as suitable on-ramps to the world of reading. The Earthsea books, however, will be conspicuously absent here, because some time in the hopefully near future I’m going to reread them all and then possibly write a separate post.

So I won’t start at the beginning, neither my own first encounter with Le Guin’s work nor her first YA book, but instead I wanted to touch on The Beginning Place. This one isn’t necessarily a YA book, although mostly reads like one. However, the two main characters are not children or teens, but rather a man (Hugh) and woman (Irene) in their early twenties. Both of them are living in a sort of limbo; working at steady but dead-end jobs and not entirely independent of their parents/families. The depiction of their home lives is very unsentimental and rather gritty.

At the different times, both of them find a place in a forest on the outskirts of town where they both live which leads to a sort of enchanted place (that we later learned is called Tembreabrezi). It always seems to be twilight there and time passes very slowly – the equivalent of a few days is only a few hours in the ‘real’ world. The people speak a strange language and seem to live in some type of preindustrial society. Both Hugh and Irene feel strangely at home there, and prefer it to their real lives, so they come as often as they can. However, some unnamed dread overcomes all of the people in Tembreabrezi  and they claim that only Irene and Hugh can overcome it. So they go on a sort of quest that turns out to be a harrowing experience, and they come out of it with a very different perspective on themselves, each other and their place in the (real) world. This is basically a coming of age story, and that’s sort of a unifying theme of all of Le Guin’s YA books.

Very Far Away From Anywhere Else is very much a young adult novel, and also non-genre (i.e., there’s no science fiction, fantasy or any speculative elements whatsoever). It’s a story that focuses on a thoughtful and intelligent, yet socially awkward teenage boy, who soon meets and befriends an equally thoughtful and intelligent teenage girl who’s also a bit of an outsider (and who’s a musical prodigy as well). The story deals with the ups and downs of their friendship during their senior year of high school, mainly through the lens of the boy’s own confusion about whether they are friends or something more (remember, he’s a teenager…). Again, as in The Beginning Place, what we see is the gradual process of both main characters moving toward adulthood and general maturity.

The cover of my current copy, which is the British edition; don’t know why the title was changed…

This book may not necessarily be a good jumping-on point for the types of genre fiction we usually talk about here, but it is a good book to give any confused teenager, and hell, it’s LeGuin – there’s no such thing as a bad LeGuin book or story.

Next up is a trilogy of books sometimes referred to as the Annals of the Western Shore, and also Chronicles of the Western Shore. We’re back to the realm of fantasy in a setting somewhat similar to Earthsea: a pre-industrial society that resembles what most people associate with medieval Europe. The denizens of the ‘Western Shore’ live in a variety of communities, from wealthier city-states through village communes and nomadic or sedentary tribes to wandering bands of outlaws hiding out in forests and swamps.

Gifts is set in a far north, a hilly region called the Uplands where the agrarian residents eke out a living from the rather unforgiving terrain. Their society is tribal, with wider kinship groups living in villages under a chieftain. Sometimes the various tribes engage in violent feuds with each other. There’s just one twist about these people: many of them have hereditary, basically magical abilities, called gifts, such as being able to communicate with animals (handy for hunting as well as taming and training draft animals), but also less pleasant stuff like being able to bend other people to do your will, or something called ‘unmaking’ – basically being able to make anything, organic or inanimate, crumble apart with a focused glance.

The story involves two adolescents, a girl named Gry, whose family’s abilities are to communicate with animals, and Orrec, whose family members are known, and feared, for their ‘unmaking’ ability. Early on, while Orrec is still a boy of about 12 or 13, his father claims that his son can’t control his unmaking power and forces him to wear a blindfold for several years.

It turns out, however, that Orrec has another talent, and that is an affinity for telling stories and singing songs, and eventually he and Gry decide to leave their homeland and seek their destiny elsewhere, with Orrec propelled by his desire to learn new stories and songs from the people they meet as they wander through their world. They become supporting characters in the remaining two books.


The main character in the second book, Voices, is a teenage girl named Memer who lives in a coastal city-state far to the south of the setting in Gifts. The city had been violently conquered some years previously by a war-like, austere people from the harsh inland desert plains to the east. They are strict monotheists, and find the more lax polytheism of the city-dwellers heretical. They also consider books, and anything written, abhorrent. As Memer moves toward adulthood against the backdrop of this tense situation in her home city, she is taught to read by the lord of the household she lives in, where there is also a secret library. This household also has an Oracle, and Memer becomes aware that she is able to interpret its messages, which she calls ‘voices.’

She eventually meets two intriguing visitors to the city, Orrec and Gry, both of them now quite well known throughout the land. Orrec in particular is renowned far and wide as a storyteller and singer. They befriend Memer and serve as a catalyst for the events that follow in the city.

The last book, Powers, is centered on a boy named Glavir. He was initially living a happy life with his older sister in a large wealthy manor in a city-state in the north central section of the Western Shore. Glavir and his sister, though, are slaves. Glavir, furthermore, is often troubled by visions, which he calls ‘remembering’, even though what he sees are glimpses of the future. And true to one of these visions, his life gets turned upside down when the city-state is attacked by the army of a rival city, and Glavir eventually flees. Trying to elude a rather determined slave-catcher from the city, for the next few years, he wanders through the countryside. He sometimes lives with the people he encounters, like forest-dwelling outlaws or a community of fishers and farmers who live in an immense marshland (where he learns about his true heritage), but he always moves on, fearing the possibility of being enslaved again. He eventually decides to make his way to a ‘free’ city farther north. It’s only near the end of the story that his path crosses with that of Gry and Orrec, but that also marks a crucial turning point in his life.

These are my favorite of these books, as they showcase Le Guin doing what she did best: crafting intriguing stories peopled with very real characters who grow, change and mature as they learn about their place in the world and deal with life’s challenges. She also wove in a number of themes, like power and the abuse thereof, cultural and religious conflict, the treatment of women, slavery, warfare and colonialism. And as with so much of her other speculative fiction, she proved yet again that she was one of the best world-builders in all of (English-language) literature.

As a sort of postscript, I’ll just add the delightful Catwings series. These are meant for small children just learning to read, and in my opinion it’s never too early to get kids interested in reading, especially if that involves reading something by Le Guin. As the titles suggest, it’s about cats – with wings! It all starts when a tabby alley cat named Jane has a litter of four winged kittens. In the course of the four books, they move from their big city slum to the country, go back to the city to visit mom and find out they have a younger, similarly winged sister, meet some new friends, and so forth. Even here, the unifying theme of this post, the coming of age, comes into play.

These are fun to read – even by adults – for a number of reasons. Le Guin really ‘gets’ cats, but these stories are not sappy and cutesy. And S.D. Schindler’s illustrations are perfect.



  1. Le Messor

    My Mum used to read me Earthsea; it was one of the earliest fantasies I read. (Uh, I also read it myself.)

    “However, the two main characters are not children or teens, but rather a man (Hugh) and woman (Irene) in their early twenties.”

    Should have no effect on whether it’s YA or a kid’s book or not. Doctor Who was originally aimed at kids, and didn’t have any kids in it.

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