Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake is a 2011 romance/horror novel aimed at readers age 12 and up. It tells the tale of 17-year-old Cas, a loner who travels from town to town with his witchy mother and their cat hunting down and destroying dangerous ghosts. The titular Anna is the ghost of a 16-year-old girl who was murdered on her way to a dance in 1958, and Cas becomes determined to free her spirit without having to resort to destroying her.
Visceral descriptions and age appropriateness were both on my mind when I began reading the book. Blake isn’t coy about introducing the peril and gruesomeness of the narrative; the first chapter opens with Cas picking up the ghost of a young man who was murdered while he was hitchhiking and has been haunting the stretch of road where he was killed in the decades since, in turn killing the unwary drivers who pick him up as he’s forced to try to seek unattainable vengeance. Unlike the hollowgasts in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, the ghost is sympathetic and tragic in addition to being frightening and threatening: he really just wants to get back to his girlfriend, but never can, and lashes out at the drivers he thinks are trying to rob him as his murderers actually did. Despite how sorry he feels for the hitchhiking ghost, Cas has to stop the supernatural cycle of violence by overpowering the phantom and cutting his throat. In order to do his job and save people, Cas has to engage in some pretty cold-blooded behavior, and he knows it. He’s not really a kid anymore.
I was struck not just by the up-front violence and grimness of Cas’ world but by the general adultness of the prose in the novel. Blake doesn’t limit Cas' vocabulary or simplify the sentence structure for the sake of the youngest of her readers; she doesn’t even shy away from the dreaded f-bomb, which I’ve seen Amazon reviewers breathlessly protest in adult novels. If I didn’t know that this was a YA novel based on the marketing materials, there’s not much other than Cas’ and Anna’s ages to mark it as such. The fast-paced prose style and quality is mostly indistinguishable from dark urban fantasy novels aimed at adult readers.
And that’s something I’ve been peripherally wrestling with: what marks a novel as a young adult novel, anyhow? What makes something a work for younger readers as opposed to being for any readers? The older YA novels I’ve read do seem to shy away from complexity beyond a certain grade level and sex and the worst violence, but I see less and less of that in more recent works. The success of YA series like the Harry Potter books has made publishers fully aware that if a book is good, plenty of grown-ups will be reading it along with teenagers and advanced grade schoolers.
If Anna Dressed in Blood is any indication, an ironic thing may be happening to young adult literature. YA was originally fostered as a genre because publishers saw a demand for books that were in between children’s and adult literature. But the popularity of the genre has seemingly caused most of the meaningful language and content separators between YA and adult books to be erased.