I’ve been reading a lot of current young adult literature before bed. Usually these books are not mentally taxing — despite the current trend in rapes, teenage pregnancies, physical and mental abuse, and vampire love affairs — so they’re much more likely to gently lull me to sleep than, say, Little Dorrit or Nicholas Nickleby or any other Dickens novel that I haven’t read and therefore have a complex about.
I’m reading these novels to stay up-to-date for the next job market cycle. Most colleges and universities hiring in children’s literature don’t want a Victorianist who studies children’s literature. They want someone who can teach every aspect of children’s literature. Understandable. So a few har-dee-har Twilight questions arose during my interviews and campus visits, which I handled, I think, with grace. But it did make me realize that I need to be a little more aware of what’s going on out there.
I’ve been pleasantly surprised for the most part. YA writers are doing such inventive things with style, narrative structure, and genre. I’ve also reread a few “classics” of adolescent lit — these are a little difficult to define, exactly, as fiction written explicitly for young adults hasn’t been around as long as, say, children’s literature — and have remembered why I loved some of the books I did.
Because I’m so excited about some of these novels, I thought I’d make a list of five books I recommend, some old and some new, as well as a list of five I’m really looking forward to reading myself. I’m not including plot summaries here, as Amazon will do that for you, and my picks vary as to target age group. Some are more appropriate for teens and others for almost-teens or precocious child readers. Those of you who keep up with the genre probably won’t find anything new here, as I’m still a little behind the curve, although I’m trying to catch up. Here goes.
- I will admit that I picked up The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart because I liked the cover. Somehow I missed all of the to-do about this novel when it was published in 2007. This is a really fantastic book, featuring characters with names like Sticky Washington and The Great Kate Weather Machine. While the plot isn’t overly complicated, there were still a few moments I wasn’t expecting. I can tell that the author is a puzzle fiend.
- You need to read (or reread) The Giver by Lois Lowry right now. I was never required to read this novel for school, and that breaks my heart. It’s beautiful. It probably doesn’t seem as revolutionary today as it did when it was published in 1994, but it’s still relevant and smart. It will make adults think, and it will make young adult readers reconsider — perhaps for the first time — the very basic categories and definitions they use to understand the world. It’s so compact you can read it during a plane ride, and still have a few minutes to digest it while making the final descent.
- While I was putting together a survey of YA literature syllabus I came across Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan. I think it used to be difficult to find a young adult novel you could categorize as “multicultural,” whatever that means, that wasn’t’t preachy or overtly and mind-numbingly educational. This book is part of a wave of novels that solve this problem. Esperanza, the title heroine, is a complete person. Ryan manages to include, organically, everything that makes her Mexican and everything that makes her a girl, flaws and all. No American Girl perfectness here.
- Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbit is another book I should have read in school but didn’t. This novel manages to ask readers some pretty important questions in an unpretentious and practical way, and the language Babbit uses along the way is just… painterly.
- Walter Dean Myers has written quite a few successful novels for a young adult audience, but I think Monster is his best-known work. It’s written from the POV of Steve Harmon, in jail suspected for murder, as a screenplay, and this allows for some interesting angles on crime and cultural identity and the absolutely impossible circumstances facing some teenagers. Even if it’s not the sort of novel you would usually read, it’s worth a look, just to see how Myers plays with genre.
A few books that wouldn’t fit into my five: Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, The First Part Last by Angela Johnson, Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse, and The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
Carrots is excited to read:
- I’ve been cruising Borders and Half Price Books for a few weeks now, hoping to find a copy of The Trouble Begins at Eight: A Life of Mark Twain in the Wild, Wild West by Sid Fleischman. I’ve heard two things about this book that really make me want to read it. First, it’s about Twain’s earlier years and focuses less on his writing than on where his writing came from, which I think could be great. Second, the language Fleischman uses is supposed to absolutely vibrate. Everyone talks about the energy of the book. I’m going to have to break down and order it from Amazon, I think.
- I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve included Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian on many syllabi without having read it. (Not, mind you, on syllabi that I’ve actually taught.) I’ve read a few Alexie short stories, and he’s got this sarcastic humor that I love, paired with a gift of choosing exactly the right detail.
- Jerry Spinelli of Maniac Magee fame has a novel entitled Stargirl that is supposed to be pretty good. I’m a little wary of books that claim to include the “quirky” high schooler — that kid who dresses weird and is meant to be exceptional because she doesn’t wear Abercrombie jeans and she loves to read. (This is one of the downfalls of Twilight, I think. Bella is supposed to be so exceptional, but I still don’t understand what is so exceptional about her except, perhaps, her tolerance of a vampire’s bipolar mood swings and her sweet-smelling blood.) In any case, this is supposed to be a more complicated treatment of that character, so we’ll see how it goes.
- I’m hoping that Feed by M. T. Anderson will turn out to be an infinitely teachable novel. I think it will be. Students tend to get totally into books about how technology is taking over their lives. It’s why my students loved White Noise by Don DeLillo last year (which I also recommend, although it’s certainly not a young adult novel). They get to talk about iPods and facebook and YouTube — in class!
- I guess I should read Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block. It seems to be on a million YA syllabi. I’m hoping to be surprised, because the jacket copy does not describe a book I would enjoy.
A few books that wouldn’t fit into my five: The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan (that one sounds pretty nuts!), and Pretty Monsters: Stories by Kelly Link (because I don’t think there are enough story collections for YAs).
So, what do you remember reading as a teenager? What should I reread? Is there anything new out there for YAs you would recommend? Also feel free to rage against the horrible horribleness of series like The Clique.