❉ Young Adult lit is a booming industry where cult has found a nest in which to settle.
“Young Adult, or YA, literature is a wing of publishing that is bursting with life and imagination and risk in a world where books are so often (and, sadly, rightly at times) criticized for being too safe.”
Three questions arose as I read this novel:
- Can something try a bit too hard? (Yes.)
- What is ‘cult’? (Debatable.)
- Can something try a bit too hard to be cult? (Yes. Yes, it can.)
Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend by Alan Cumyn was released in 2016 and it is an arresting book if nothing else, and that is going on name alone, not to mention the UK cover art, showing a toned young man with the head of a dinosaur (the titular pterodactyl) grafted atop. It’s not the sort of book you simply walk by when you see it upon a shelf.
The plot of the novel is simple and nothing you have not seen before in Young Adult fiction: a promising academically-minded young woman on the brink of going to college (Shiels) suddenly meets a young man (Pyke). Romance tugs with responsibility, desired career and academic prowess with something more primal, and our protagonist finds themselves at a coming-of-age crossroads at a developmentally important and integral part of their life.
The difference here is that the young man is half-pterodactyl. Literally. It’s not a figurative/symbolic gesture in the title. He is quite honestly a dinosaur-cum-man hybrid who she finds herself attracted to, in parts sexually but mostly with a base desire more instinctual and bestial in parts, a tell-tale purple stain upon her very face acting as a scarlet letter for the modern day generation in this instance.
Returning to my questions though. The first is very much directed at the blurb of the book. “He’s a freaking pterodactyl!” it screams, and whilst this is true it as, somewhat unexpectedly, actually tonally at odds with the story being told, which takes this in its stride.
Is it a thinly-veiled symbol for accepting the ‘other’ at high school? A way to show the clumsy and misguided attempts by our protagonist to make people accept him (they already are, but because he’s so alien she fears they will not, thus revealing a hidden and unconscious set of prejudices)? In actual fact, it’s both of these. He’s a dinosaur, get over it, says the book. He’s a dinosaur, that’s CRAY-CRAY! Cries the blurb.
“What is cult?” is a question better left to people more well-versed in socio-media theory than I. Frankly, if we knew then more people would bottle that and sell it on. It’s something outside the mainstream but with a kick and appeal to entice others in. It’s Royston Vasey, a box bigger inside than outside, Jay and Silent Bob hanging outside a video rental store, and more besides. It’s almost but not quite easy to attain and consciously striving for it often comes across as far too self-conscious and clumsy.
There is an argument to be made that this novel falls into that trap, and yet at the same time it wears its heart very much on its sleeve. It’s a daft premise, yes, and it’s fine with that but doesn’t play up to its wackiness. It uses it to pervert a well-trodden road of plot and character; to subvert expectations with a story we’ve read before and use the very obvious otherness to wedge home a perceived gap in generational tolerance. The children and youth accept the pterodactyl; the adults don’t know how to deal with him.
This ties in with the third question. I’m not sure Cumyn in writing this novel was trying to create an underground hit. I think he just found the idea intrinsically amusing and wanted to write it. Who knows though. Perhaps he intended for this to be the sort of runaway success where one reader spies another devouring it aboard a train to work and knowingly winks at their fellow commuter with the air of a club shared by a select few.
I suspect not though, but a publisher somewhere decided it very much was meant to be and flags up its eccentricities large.
“This novel!” It screams. “This novel is WEIRD!”
This blurb! I sigh. This blurb is trying too hard.
But then again, it is a hard sell as books go. The fact it was published at all by a mainstream printer and not a small independent unit or via self-publishing is arguably the greatest accolade of them all. Someone somewhere saw this and thought, “Yes, this is fun.”
Young Adult, or YA, literature, though, is the place to do this. Often shunned as adolescent by those who have never actually read it, it’s actually a wing of publishing that is bursting with life and imagination and risk in a world where books are so often (and, sadly, rightly at times) criticized for being too safe.
YA is a place where you can hear about Lady Jane Grey’s relationship with a half-man, half-horse (My Lady Jane by Brodi Ashton, Cynthia Hand and Jodi Meadows). This is the genre that tells a refreshingly novel time-travel romance in the story of a girl who glimpses the future through an AOL disc, accessing Facebook years before anyone else knows about it which makes her try to influence her own future as a result (The Future of Us by Carolyn Mackler and Jay Asher). It’s a place where treasure hunts for love and discovery fells less contrived (he said, giving a Paddington hard-stare to Dan Brown) and comes to life (see Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan, and the truly sublime 13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson amongst others).
It deals with teenage pregnancy, friendship, transsexuality, love, death, racism, and isolation with an ease other genres struggle with, and that’s barely scratching the surface. Want a story about identity, fragility, twins and fan fiction? Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell has you covered. It’s praised for a reason, just as there is a good reason novels such as The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, and Trouble by Non Pratt are spoken about with such reverence.
Young Adult literature is a booming industry where cult has found a nest in which to settle. Alan Cumyn’s novel here was perhaps never going to make the same waves as its bedfellows, but I know that when I think of the genre now, there will forever be a (hot) pterodactyl-shaped silhouette standing tall amongst the others, and I love that it is able to do so.
Whatever else, this isn’t a novel I will forget any time soon and that’s to be celebrated.
❉ Originally published by Simon & Schuster on 22 March 2016, Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend by Alan Cumyn is available in paperback and Kindle formats from Amazon and other major retailers.