In the world of SFF, books are positively littered with supernatural protagonists, many of them young people just coming into their power as they hit their teen years. But one thing that has always been interesting to me are stories that are utterly realistic—even gritty—until suddenly, out of nowhere, one of the protagonists turns out to be telepathic or telekinetic or psychic. I’ve been thinking about a few specific titles that meet these standards, mostly heavy slices of socially realistic YA that abruptly drop their readers into the icy waters of fantasy. Here are five such books—can you think of more titles that fit the bill?
The Girl with the Silver Eyes by Willo Davis Roberts
I read this at some point in the blur of elementary school, and the reason I include it is that it seems like an innocuous coming-of-age tale, shelved with other stories of prepubescent misfits, and its world is entirely realistic. Katie Welker lives in an apartment with her mom and step-boyfriend, her somewhat abusive grandmother just died, she’s still trying to adjust to her family’s new paradigm, and she doesn’t have any friends. But… she has silver eyes!!! Not just grey, or even gray, but silver. And, as becomes clear to the reader—a bit sooner than it does to the character—she’s telekinetic! And she can talk to animals, kinda! She’s comfortable with her ability, and uses it to turn pages while she’s reading and turn lights off without getting up, but it makes everyone else nervous. Noticing this, she sometimes uses it to frighten babysitters. But her gift also makes her lonely, until she learns that she was probably born telekinetic because her mom worked at a pharmaceutical factory, and there might be others like her. And then because this book was written in the ’80s, when children left home in the morning and didn’t return until they were hungry, she’s able to go out alone and find the others—and it turns out they do have powers. At which point the book takes a hard turn back into social realism as the kids team up not to fight supervillains, but to investigate the mundanely evil pharmaceutical company.
Which, I mean that’s a choice, I guess?
A Ring of Endless Light by Madeleine L’Engle
Many of Madeleine L’Engle’s most famous works are fantastical, and feature teens with supernatural powers, talking unicorns, literal cherubim, and the idea that everyone in existence is locked in a constant cosmic battle between vaguely Christian Good and vaguely materialistic Evil. But not so in her Austin books! L’Engle’s other big series followed Vicky Austin, who is a dreamy teen girl who wants to be a writer, growing up in a loving family during a nebulous time that seems to be more-or-less the mid-1960s. After her beloved grandfather dies, Vicky ends up spending a lot of time with Adam Eddington, a marine biologist-in-training who also works with Calvin O’Keefe occasionally in L’Engle’s other books. But more important, she spends time with Adam’s dolphins, Basil, Norberta, and Njord (fucking L’Engle), and discovers she can commune with them in a way that is basically the glittery psychic dolphin connection that was promised to all of us by Lisa Frank and her bewitching artwork. Vicky’s talent culminates in a scene toward the end of the book when she unwittingly “calls” Adam during a moment of crisis, but these psychic flashes are brief moments in what is otherwise a realistic exploration of grief and romantic awakening.
Sweet Valley High #13 Kidnapped! by Francine Pascal
OK, granted, calling Sweet Valley High, in any of its incarnations “realistic” is a little bit of a stretch. But generally speaking everyone at least obeyed the laws of physics while they were all disproportionately rich/gorgeous/turquoise-eyed. This goes out the window in the thirteenth installment of the Original Series, titled Kidnapped! In this entry, Elizabeth Wakefield is, you guessed it, kidnapped, by an orderly at the hospital where she’s volunteering as a candy-striper. Again, by Sweet Valley standards, this is a normal week. Where it gets weirder is that not one but two separate people have premonitions that something is wrong after Elizabeth is kidnapped, but before anyone knows she’s missing. One person is her jerk twin, Jessica, and that makes sense—it’s completely within the bounds of teen fiction that twins have psychic connection. What’s more notable is that Jessica has two separate moments where she “knows” something is wrong, and that she shakes both of these moments off so she can flirt with a guy she likes. But a “punk” kid Elizabeth is tutoring also has a premonition. He just knows something is wrong, and finally investigates her disappearance himself before teaming up with Jessica and Elizabeth’s useless boyfriend, Todd. So, spoiler alert, they find Elizabeth, she’s fine, and lives to be manipulated by Jessica in approximately 137 future books, but for one weird moment there are two different psychic teens on the loose in Sweet Valley, California.
Emily of New Moon and Emily’s Quest by L.M. Montgomery
This is another not-quite-as-famous series by a beloved author. L.M. Montgomery is primarily know as the author of the resolutely realistic Anne of Green Gables series, which follows a young redheaded orphan (who kinda wants to be a writer) through romantic trials and triumphs in Edwardian Canada. Emily of New Moon, my preferred Montgomery work, follow a black-haired orphan (who really, really wants to be a writer) through romantic trials and triumphs in Edwardian Canada. The difference between the two series is that Emily actually dedicates herself to her writing and sees some success despite the misogyny of the time, and also she’s fucking psychic. Two separate times over the course of the series she has several three-dimensional, full color, totally immersive visions. One concerns her best friend, Ilse Burnley. Ilse is practically feral, having been abandoned by her father, Dr. Burnley, who believes that Ilse’s mother left him for another man. It’s all very tragic and convoluted (especially as filtered through the points of view of two prepubescent Edwardian children—thanks, Lucy Maude) but it leads to a lot of misery. UNTIL. Emily contracts measles, nearly dies, and has a vision of a young woman running through a field and falling into a well. She recites the vision in a terrifying voice, the well is investigated, and voila! There are the bones of Ilse’s mother, who didn’t run away at all (yayyy!) but fell into a well and died (um, yay?). This has the happy (???) outcome of Dr. Burnley actually caring for his daughter. The second incident is much creepier. When Emily’s on-again-off-again artist boyfriend, Teddy, is about to leave for Europe, she falls into a fit. Hundreds of miles away Teddy sees her across a crowded dock, and follows her until he loses sight of her. This causes him to miss boarding his ship—which then sinks, killing everyone aboard. This isn’t even just telepathy or a psychic vision of some type, this is full-on bi-location! Teddy lives, tells Emily about it weeks later when he sees her again, and everyone in the book just goes about life as though they don’t have a superhero in their midst.
Tree by Leaf by Cynthia Voigt
Another lesser-known title! Cynthia Voigt’s best known books are Homecoming and Dicey’s Song, both ultra-realistic YA fiction of the ‘80s variety, in which a group of abandoned kids have to take care of themselves in a tough and unforgiving world. And those are great. But the book I’m interested in here is Tree by Leaf, which is about a young girl named Clothilde (which I still to this day do not know how to pronounce) who lives in an otherwise realistic New England. Her father has come back from World War I a shattered, silent man, her mother has abandoned the tasks of running the household (leaving Clothilde to do it all), and her brother has left the family to live with other relatives. Again we have a novel of grief and coming-of-age. But then Clothilde has an awe-filled experience in the woods when a strange and otherworldly voice speaks to her. She becomes hyperaware of life around her, hearing sap running through veins on leaves, seeing individual blades of grass growing—for a time. As terrifying as this is, she is grief-stricken as the effect fades away and she returns to normal perception. After this, however, she realizes that she can maybe, somewhat, read people’s thoughts and emotions in a way that she couldn’t before. Everything else about the book is completely realistic, but Voigt leaves the experience in the forest whole and uncanny. Was it a dream? Was it some form of deity? A hallucination?
Now it’s your turn—do you have any favorite books that lulled you into a sense of realistic safety, only to take a sharp turn into the supernatural?