We all know that person—or those people—who like to stare down their noses at you for reading a YA book. “You’re reading that?” They sneer imperiously, “isn’t that for a younger crowd?” As a reader and a freelance writer, I make it a point to immerse myself into almost every genre, even stuff for kids, to:
A) Remind myself what it was like to be a certain age. It would be really easy for me to put up indestructible (okay, indestructible-with-the-exception-of-a-bulldozer-that’s-therapeutic-in-nature) mental blocks against most of my childhood and teenage years, and roll my eyes whenever a kid in my vicinity whines about how their life is difficult, because I got through it, and experience tells me they will too. But when I was younger, I remember people rolling their eyes when I tried to express myself, and I’d never want to dismiss a person—regardless of age—like that when I can help somehow. So reading YA and even middle-grade reminds me that there are some issues people are facing for the first time, and it’s scary for them, and I shouldn’t belittle it because it seems silly to me. Other times, the stories are just plain good (Flame In The Mist).
B) Keep myself current in whatever’s going on. Books are a reflection of the world around us; new stories shed light on things that need to be talked about (The Hate U Give) more, and things that need to be addressed in the first place but are often left by the wayside until tragedy strikes because “that won’t happen to anyone I know” (Speak, Boy Toy, Lighter Than My Shadow, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, etc). But there’s such a stigma against the YA genre—and, from my experience, the “average” teen is disillusioned by the notion of reading because they have school-mandated books to analyze, which I think we can all agree, leaves a bad aftertaste when trying to pursue reading outside the academic arena. Some teachers and librarians are great, they know exactly which book might speak to which student, but others aren’t quite so in-tune with the pupils in their classrooms—from people of all ages. There’s also this strange but prevailing notion that all YA is either fluffy or mindless or both.
If you’re one of the naysayers, or you’re trying to convince someone of the merits of YA, check out these books:
Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds
Will’s older brother Shawn has just been murdered, and Will is pretty sure he knows who fired those fatal bullets. Armed with Shawn’s old gun and spinning with grief, rage, and a sense of duty he must uphold, Will is on his way to make things right. An eye for an eye, a life for a life, that’s just the way it has to be. Told in verse and spanning the duration of an elevator ride, Reynolds has his thumb on the pulse of a profoundly moving, harrowing story that will bury into the back of your mind and take root for a long, long time.
Everything Beautiful Is Not Ruined by Danielle Younge-Ullman
This is definitely one of my favourite reads of 2o17, as Younge-Ullman has perfectly captured that precarious, volatile emotional balancing act that is unique to mothers and daughters: the unconditional love, the blinding frustration, the glorious innocence and the shrewd wariness that follows after. This book also offers a raw look at mental illness, but there are no safety measures that will guarantee you a safe landing. Younge-Ullman will tear away all your defences, beat them down, then offer you a very rare gift: hope, in even life’s harshest moments.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie
I was in high school when I read this for the first time, and that was because of the year’s biggest project. My English teacher set the guidelines, but I got to pick the books that would ultimately flesh out my assignment, and Alexie’s semi-autobiographical tale was one of them. I could not put this book down, and because I loved it so much, my teacher picked it up, and then the library had ordered new copies, and so on and so forth. This is still one of the most powerful, heartbreakingly real, surprisingly funny, honestly hopeful, messily tragic stories I have ever read. Junior, a budding cartoonist, lives on the Spokane reservation with his family. Determined to carve his own path in life, Junior chooses to attend an all-white school in pursuit of a better life for himself, defying all expectations.
Bang by Barry Lyga
This book actively hurt my soul, and was my introduction to Lyga as a writer. Holy sh*t. Before Sebastian Cody was in kindergarten, he accidentally shot and killed his baby sister with a gun. Now a 14-year-old, living with the weight of his mistake and unable to see past the pain, Sebastian has made a decision. A gun ruined his life before he had a chance to know better, a gun ended his sister’s life before it had the chance to really begin. A gun will get him out of this, and fix the worst mistake he’s ever made. This is not for the faint of heart, and the book is especially, unfortunately timely.
The Lifeboat Clique by Kathy Parks
Denver Reynolds’ life already sucked before she decided to crash her ex-best-friend’s house party and got swept away in a tsunami. Her father left, the entire school turned against her thanks to her ex-best-friend, and the only reliable companion she has is The Discovery Channel. Now, trapped on a boat with a squadron of “popular” kids who hate her (the feeling is mutual), Denver must use her Discovery Channel-acquired knowledge to survive while battling the numerous things that could kill her: sunstroke, dehydration, starvation, and Abigail, the girl who stabbed her in the front, the back, and is determined to make their survival on a pathetically small boat just as much a popularity contest as their high school was. Darkly funny with unabashed snark running all the way through, Parks’s YA debut doesn’t get nearly the acclaim it deserves, dealing with issues of broken families, broken friendships, survival (or not) against the odds, and bullying.
Caraval by Stephanie Garber
I didn’t mean to turn this list into a “contemporary with sharp edges,” list, so the last one is a fantasy with a look at the unconditional love between siblings. Caraval follows Scarlett Dragna, an 18-year-old who is willing to marry a man she’s never met to protect both herself and her devil-may-care younger sister, Donatella, from their tyrannical father. When Scarlett was younger, she believed in magic; specifically the magic of a travelling show called Caraval, and she wrote the show’s Grand Master for years in hopes that Caraval would travel to her isle. Now that she’s older and about to be married off, Scarlett has no time to believe in anything other than practicality and safety; so when she is personally invited to Caraval by Grand Master Legend himself, she does the sensible thing and declines. One fake-Scarlett-kidnapping-staged-by-a-roguish-sailor and one real-sister-kidnapping later, Scarlett finds herself not only a spectacle of but an active player in Caraval’s sinister games. Desperate to find her sister before their father finds and kills them for their disobedience, straight-laced Scarlett must play by Legend’s rules and be swept up in his magic (but not too swept up!): all magic comes at a price, and no one can be trusted.
Which YA books have kept you hooked? Let me know, I’d love to add them to my ever-growing list of titles to read!