White Cat by Holly Black is all about the experience of adolescence as a solo journey. All of the members of Cassel Sharpe’s family were born with a gift; each is a curse worker who can alter memories or dreams or life itself. Cassel doesn’t understand why he doesn’t have the gift. He doesn’t fit in with his peers (because of his family’s heritage—curse-working was banned in 1929) nor does he feel that he belongs in his family. Adolescence is all about questioning. Why is my body changing? What do I believe? Where do I belong? It is during this period—when you feel entirely alone—that you discover who you are, what you enjoy, what is uniquely yours.
The best YA authors explore this central experience of adolescence in new and interesting ways, as Holly Black does here. She answers none of these questions, but raises them in a fictional context and from different perspectives to allow teens to examine these questions for themselves. Cassel’s family tells him that he killed Lila Zacharov, but this makes no sense to him. He loved Lila. Something also seems off about his memories of the night that he supposedly killed her. And he’s been having strange dreams about a white cat. Little by little his instinct to investigate these nagging questions leads him to discover that his family is not telling the truth. Are they protecting him? Or themselves? He feels betrayed by them.
What do you do when you feel alone? You search for the answers yourself, and you begin to take responsibility for your life. This is the transition to adulthood, and while Holly Black constructs a framework of magic, the feelings and the experiences are real.