Cringe fiction: the best of the worst
YA keeps its finger on the pulse of teenage trends. However, what might have appealed to us in our youth can seem cringeworthy now. Nonetheless, Tabitha Hannam revisits some of her favourite YA novels despite their questionable tropes.
Like many teenagers growing up in the ‘golden’ era of YA fiction (I’m thinking the years that brought us Divergent, John Green’s books, The Hunger Games, Gallagher Girls, Percy Jackson), I sped through these series as quick as a flash. You could give me the newest Cassandra Clare book on a Friday, and by Sunday evening I would have already devoured it.
I can’t exactly say I read the books from cover to cover. In fact, that is the beauty of these books. YA writers tap into a certain type of shorthand that, over time, establishes a recognisable vocabulary and tone. For example, the phrase “suspiciously bright eyes” suggests that a character (often the heroine) is holding back tears. Through your intertextual knowledge of other YA works, then, you unlock the scene’s emotional tenor.
Although the peculiarities of YA fiction make for breezy reading as a teen, on returning to my favourites during the holidays I cringe more every time — and yet I still return! Without further ado, here are my three “so bad it’s good” series.
The Princess Diaries series by Meg Cabot
Meg Cabot’s epistolary books about a dorky teenager who discovers she is a princess never fail to liven me up. There’s an endearingly relatable property in Mia’s overwrought worries. Of course, she has all her royal duties which provide a wonderful flight of fancy, but she also stresses about normal teenage things, such as being ‘flat-chested’, her friendship issues with Lilly (her opinionated best friend who has her own TV show), and her mum’s relationship with the algebra teacher. The diary entry format makes for an easy read, and there are some surprisingly poignant scenes alongside the ‘oh-my-god-I-can’t-believe-Mia-just-did-that’ moments filled with second-hand embarrassment.
The Finding Sky series by Julia Golding
Who doesn’t love those series that focus on one couple per book, yet have characters from previous books hanging around in the background? A staple of my teenage reading, this series follows the famous Benedict brothers from Colorado who all share special powers and are looking for their ‘Soulfinder’—the only other person in the world who can ‘complete’ them. Coming from a large family myself, the quick-witted, dry dialogue between the brothers keeps me returning to these books. They feel like a welcome back — especially after a long term of academic reading!
The Twilight Saga by Stephanie Meyer
I recently reread this series for my third-year module (called ‘Reader, I married him) that charts romance fiction through the ages. And let me tell you, I’d forgotten how downright creepy Edward is. If you’ve spent any time on Instagram or Tumblr, you might have come across those memes about Edward just sitting up all night and watching Bella sleep. Reading this as an adult, I’m astonished that I actually enjoyed these books. Sure, the Jacob-Bella-Edward love triangle produced a generation of YA books with the same love-sick teenager, but quite frankly, I’m team no one now!
This is a series I ended up hate-reading and then laughing about with my sister, but it felt necessary to include it in a list of cringy YA books. If you’re truly dedicated (like I was over a Christmas dominated by Covid), give Midnight Sun, the recently published book which narrates Twilight from Edward’s perspective, a read.