May's YA Brings Unlikely Connections Between Very Different Stories
At first glance, new YA releases The Ones We're Meant to Find and Luck of the Titanic don't seem to have a lot in common. One of these books is set in an imagined future, and the other represents a potential past. Though the protagonists of both are part of the Asian diaspora, their concerns are divided by hundreds of years of social upheaval and climate catastrophe. But as I read, I began to realize that they somehow bear surprising thematic connections: Siblings who are divided by differing values but yearn to support one another. Worlds where privilege casts a long shadow but the struggle for survival becomes universal. Boats with names that ultimately don't bear our protagonists to the end of their journeys.
While each book is fascinating and worth a read on its own merits, paired together, they offer something deeper.
The Ones We're Meant to Find by Joan He
Cee is stranded on an abandoned island, her only company a little dictionary robot and Hubert, the boat she's been building, piece by piece. Hubert is her best hope of getting home to her sister, Kay. The need to find her is a powerful force that has gotten Cee through years of amnesia, hardship, and loneliness.
Kasey lives in a city in the sky. Safe from the toxins and weather hazards that make the outside world almost uninhabitable, everyone in the eco-city must do their part to cause as little environmental impact as possible. But Kasey needs to find her sister Celia, who was lost at sea, and she'll do whatever it takes to find her, no matter the consequences.
When they were together, these sisters never saw eye to eye. One of them was obsessed with freedom, the other with constructing forbidden artificial life. But now that they're apart, the only thing that matters is each other.
The Ones We're Meant to Find is a two-for-one extravaganza, offering both dystopia-punk robot shenanigans and island survival adventure in one very artfully constructed package. But beyond all of that, it's a story about sisterhood, and the complex love and conflict that fuels two siblings to push themselves to the edge of their ability and morality in order to save each other.
And then, there's a twist, and it becomes about something else altogether, without ever losing track of the relationship at its core. With the sophistication of adult speculative fiction and the intense feelings of YA, this book is sure to have loads of crossover appeal as it explores the pressing question of who deserves to survive in a world we are destroying.
Luck of the Titanic by Stacey Lee
Valora Luck isn't exactly a stowaway. But with her ticket rejected because of her gender and Chinese heritage, she has no choice but to sneak on board an ocean liner that's carrying both her estranged twin brother and the owner of a circus that might employ them as performers — if she can convince them both to give her a chance. Once on board, she finds herself juggling more than she intended as she hides behind multiple disguises, intriguing first-class passengers as a wealthy, black-veiled widow and mingling with the Chinese sailors her brother has befriended down in steerage.
Her dream is for the two of them to flourish as performers in America. But between the racism of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the classism that divides the massive ship, and her brother's reluctance to give up sailing for the stage, the cards seem to be stacked against her.
And the name of the ocean liner? The RMS Titanic.
Author Stacey Lee has made a name for herself by looking at historical narratives through the eyes of the people history deliberately erases. From the western frontier to the post-Reconstruction era South and now the deck of the most notorious ship to ever sink beneath the waves, Lee gives life to the young women of the Chinese diaspora, writing them back into the story. Valora is determined to the point of recklessness and uses her chameleon talents to become whatever she needs to be to reach her goals. So rich and focused are her schemes that as a reader, it's very easy to get caught up in them, and forget that before long, the only thing that will matter is the icy depths of the Atlantic, and the chance to escape drowning there.
In both of these books, the water is rising, and the determination and humanity of their heroines is the only thing that can possibly save them.
Caitlyn Paxson is a writer and performer. She is a regular reviewer for NPR Books and Quill & Quire.
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