Favorite young-adult novels
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NPR just launched its annual summer books poll; this year, it’s asking readers for the best young-adult novels in history. What are your picks? What’s your favorite young-adult novel, whether it’s something you remember fondly from your youth, or something you recently encountered?
Note: As the NPR poll points out, it can be hard to define what exactly a young-adult novel is. For general purposes, we’re going with the loose definition of “literature aimed at roughly a teenage reading level, marketed primarily to teenagers, or primarily about the young-adult experience.” Tasha Robinson has been asked to serve on the NPR panel determining what books qualify to go on to the next round, though, so any constructive or thoughtful input you have to offer on what makes a novel “young adult” is appreciated.
I listed my absolute favorite young-adult book in a 2008 AVQA on our most-recommended books. (No surprise that there’s some crossover there.) It’s Diana Wynne Jones’ excellent, deeply strange fantasy Dogsbody, in which the anthropomorphization of the dog star Sirius is framed for murder and condemned to life on earth as a dog. But it seems cheaty to fall back on that same answer, so I’ll suggest a different favorite Jones book instead: Fire And Hemlock, a fairy tale that blends elements of the Tam Lin and Thomas The Rhymer myths into a modern mystery. I read that book over and over as a teenager, loving the energy and the way the characters were designed, but also trying to puzzle out the references, and how Jones subtly altered existing folklore to make it her own. Not to mention trying to puzzle out the abrupt, allusive ending, which is still a bit of a mystery to me today. The Internet being what it is, I’m sure there’s an interview out there somewhere where she explains it, but do I really want to spoil a mystery that kept me distracted for so many years when I was a bored-as-hell teenager?
Why, Claire Zulkey’s An Off Year, of course, blurbed by our own Nathan Rabin, as well as YA superstar John Green. It isn’t a girly book, in spite of the molten-lava-hot-pink cover, so check it out, guys and girls alike! But seriously, the YA book that stuck with me the most over the years that wasn’t written by myself or a friend was called Celine, by an author named Brock Cole who is probably better-known for another YA book called The Goats. Celine is about a high-school student in Chicago who is by and large left to her own devices, sans parents, to figure out who she is as an artist and a young adult. What I loved and still love about it is that while Celine is technically a high-school student, in her brain, she’s past high-school years and thus isn’t bound by high-school tropes: frenemies, the big dance, the hunky dude. Cole even has her read Catcher In The Rye in the book, and she remains unimpressed by Holden Caulfield’s whining. Celine is a female character with a lot of voice and personality and odd humor, who’s rooted in the real world. (I’m not much of a fantasy buff.) I began writing my own YA book back in college (way before I intended it to be a book, YA or otherwise) inspired by Cole, trying to emulate his character and tone. I re-read Celine once a year or so, and while it’s now ever so slightly dated (Chicago landmarks that are no longer there, television shows that are off the air), I’m still in love with the depth, strengths and weaknesses of his character. It’s a testament to the fact that while a book can technically be YA and technically be for girls, sometimes the terms “young adult” and “chick lit” don’t do the writing justice.
I used to read a lot as a kid. Way more than I do now that I have a PlayStation Plus account and watch 15 or 20 movies a week. But apart from R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps books and Canadian author Gordon Korman—whose books are more juvenile than young-adult, to nip a Simpsons gag—I can’t really recall connecting with anything explicitly pitched at this demographic. Perhaps the closest thing I can latch onto is Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. I read it in grade 8, and it had a huge effect on me at the time. Not only are dystopic alternative futures appealing to any middle-school outcast eager to imagine that the world that rejects them is marked by stupidity and hypocrisy (readings of Brave New World, 1984, and A Clockwork Orange followed suit), but it made literature feel dangerous and vital. Fahrenheit 451 was the kind of a book a young bibliophile could use as a bludgeon to beat back the bullies who mocked such a bookwormish pastime.
I never read young-adult novels as an adolescent, because I was a snob who thought I was too sophisticated for anything written with kids in mind. (At the same time, I was rather proud of still reading comic books, to show that I was immune to literary pretentiousness. The mind of the culturally insecure is a strange and murky thing.) But when I was in college, I took a couple of courses on children’s books and YA lit, thinking they’d be easy A’s and might give me a giggle, and I was startled at how thoroughly caught up I became in some of those books. It was humbling, and a truly eye-opening experience, to recognize the level of thought, craft, and ingenuity that goes into applying an adult talent to telling a good story designed to hook in and satisfy readers at a pre-adult level of consciousness. I was especially taken with Robert Cormier’s I Am The Cheese, a cerebral downer of a puzzle novel that I think would have hit my younger self right in the sweet spot, and that I think of as a ’70s ancestor of such bloody dystopian books as The Hunger Games series. Also Katherine Paterson’s A Bridge To Terabithia, which I believe is officially classified as children’s literature, for anyone who insists on a distinction between that and YA, though I don’t think my pre-tween self would have been able to take it. My list of favorites that I’ve picked up on my own since taking that class would have to include The Explosionist and Invisible Things, both by my friend Jenny Davidson, which, due to conflict of interest issues, I obviously can’t put a plug in for here.
The passing of Samuel Youd—better known by his pseudonym, John Christopher—didn’t make much of a splash earlier this year, mostly because the British author’s most famous work, the Tripods trilogy, isn’t widely read today. But the three books (1967’s The White Mountains and The City Of Gold And Lead and 1968’s The Pool Of Fire) made a huge impact me when I was a kid in the early ’80s. The premise is simple, indelible, and haunting as all fuck: In a post-apocalyptic future, Earth is ruled by giant, walking, mechanical tripods—reminiscent of those in H. G. Wells’ The War Of The Worlds—that have subjugated the human race. A group of teenage friends get caught up in the struggle for survival and liberation. The series drew together just about every paranoia harbored by my adolescent brain, while inventing a few fresh ones I carried with me into adulthood. Now I come to find out that not only was there a prequel, When The Tripods Came, published in 1988, there was a British TV show based on the series produced around the same time. Of course I was in high school by then, surgically purging all traces of my childhood innocence via habitual exposure to William S. Burroughs. But still.
Perhaps it was the product of a passionate teacher or some regional blip, but when I was in elementary school, it seemed like everyone was reading Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising, and it took years for me to discover the book wasn’t as well known as The Chronicles Of Narnia or A Wrinkle In Time. In those pre-Internet days, it took me a while to discover the book was only one of five in a series, and not even the first: Few, it seemed, read all the way from Over Sea, Under Stone through Silver On The Tree, and almost no one read the middle book, Greenwitch, which I had to special order in hardcover even though the others were readily available as paperbacks. Out of curiosity, I picked up Cooper’s contemporary (for the 1970s) reworkings of Arthurian mythology and found them still gripping, and like most British children’s books, better written than their American counterparts. The story of 11-year-old Will Stanton, who’s informed he is the last of a race of Old Ones joined in a centuries-old battle against the forces of evil, seems like an obvious precursor to Harry Potter, albeit one far more steeped in ancient mystery. No one saw the apparently terrible film version, The Seeker, a failed attempt to jump-start a franchise, but the books are there for those who would seek them out.
Not to betray my own generation—which came of age with the über-successful Harry Potter and graduated from high school along with the release of the seventh and final book in that series—but how have we gone this far without someone mentioning To Kill A Mockingbird? Harper Lee’s only novel is the single most important book I read when I was growing up, even more than that first foray into the world of Hogwarts with a young orphan wizard. One summer when I was in middle school, my parents essentially forced the book on me when all I wanted to do was run around outside playing soccer and sneaking into movies so I could spend my money at the arcade. I read more than the average middle-schooler, but I was just the right age to start resisting on principle anything my parents recommended. I wanted to skip the book and just watch the film version instead, but my parents held firm until I finished reading. After tearing through the book in record time, I had to admit that in spite of my initial misgivings, my parents were right. Where The Red Fern Grows made me shake with tears, but To Kill A Mockingbird was probably the first book to make me think, learn, and cry so much at the same time. In California, where I grew up, the public-school system only covers certain atrocities at the elementary-school level when teaching the history of the state. To Kill A Mockingbird was my first big exposure to the cultural legacy of slavery in the Deep South, which led to exploring African-American literature, the Harlem Renaissance, and the work of writers like Jean Toomer, Ann Petry, and Edward P. Jones. It sparked an interest in trial law (which thankfully ran its course during Mock Trial in high school), and I can trace my nascent fascination with film back to watching the 1962 film with my parents after I completed the book, completely transfixed by the trial scenes and Gregory Peck’s performance. Mockingbird can be looped into the Southern Gothic genre, and it’s technically a bildungsroman, but as a preteen, I had no concept of literary theory or categorization. The book just spoke to me. Animorphs and Redwall weren’t going to cut it anymore, and while I still have a great deal of nostalgia built up for the children’s literature I read growing up, after To Kill A Mockingbird, I was ready to dig deeper into the classics to find something else that could rattle my bones like Harper Lee’s masterpiece.
Since we’re all mentioning books that aren’t actually YA novels so much as they are books with young protagonists aimed at wider audiences than just teenagers (pedantic!), I will feel safe in talking about one of my favorite books ever written, Watership Down. On its face, Richard Adams’ tale of brave rabbits striking out to set up their new home when one has a vision of terrible doom coming to their old one is the sort of thing that seems like a joke, part of the 1970s’ brief fascination with talking-animal novels. Yet there’s a beauty in the primal nature of the book, which anthropomorphizes its characters, sure, but also allows them to be actual animals, driven by instincts that seem simultaneously familiar and alien to human readers. Adams skillfully sketches in a host of characters, until the new warren (atop the titular hill) feels almost like a small town on a TV sitcom, and by the time these characters are making a desperate last stand to protect everything they have, the book has entered that space where it feels almost poetic. If I were to make my top 10 novels of all time list (and please don’t ask me to), it would be filled with the usual suspects, the Gatsbys and Middlemarches and Sound And The Furys, but this book would be right alongside them, as weird and moving as anything I’ve read.
My all-time favorite YA novel is Daniel Pinkwater’s Alan Mendelsohn, The Boy From Mars. It’s a science-fiction tale of two alienated, nerdy new kids in town—one of whom is the titular boy from Mars—who discover a variety of psychic powers and other weirdness with the help of some oddball characters they meet at the local used bookstore. The story is nearly equal parts absurdist humor and high adventure (okay, it’s probably a bit more on the absurdist side) and it is endlessly entertaining. Apart from the sheer entertainment value, a big part of what made it so special was the particular resonance it had for me as the resident weirdo in each town I moved to (and I moved a lot)—Pinkwater understands what it is to be an outsider at the age where that suddenly matters, and he never captured that sense better than here. It’s easily one of my most-read books—I’ve probably read it a dozen times—and I’ve passed it on to my oldest daughter and my nephew, making it a multigenerational favorite. As far as I’m concerned, it’s an all-time classic.
I’m late to the AVQ&A party this week, and I figured by now someone would have taken my selection. But lo and behold, my favorite YA novel, Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War is still left waiting for a dance partner. I can’t say I particularly related to the story of Jerry Renault’s struggle against the mob mentality in Trinity High School, but I felt a keen connection with Renault’s desire to reject what was expected of him. I hadn’t even heard of T.S. Eliot when I first read this book, but the quote inside Jerry’s locker (“Do I dare disturb the universe?” from “The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock”) blew a small hole into my brain. Could I even disturb the universe if I even wanted to do so? My preteen self had no idea. My extremely post-teen self still isn’t quite sure. But I’m sure this book has had a lasting impact on my outlook on life, and I can’t help but wonder if it’s far more relevant now than it was upon its initial release in 1974.
Laura M. Browning
It’s hard for me to name an all-time favorite, since I roughly divide up YA into “those as I first read as a kid/young adult” and “those I first read as an adult,” and those favorites don’t always overlap. But I’m going to go with C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles Of Narnia—all seven of them, read in the order they were published in (beginning with The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, and ending with The Magician’s Nephew and The Last Battle). That’s how I read them when I was about 7 years old; I re-read them dozens more times, and still do an annual reading just for old time’s sake. I was young enough when I first read them that I glossed over some of the sourer notes, like racism and misogyny, and I even got to read them a few times before the Christian allegory totally clicked into place for me. I’ve thankfully been able to hang on to that magic as an adult: When I arrived in Oxford in 1998 as a student, many years after I’d first read the series, I immediately had to have a pint at The Eagle And Child, the pub where Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien used to write. I’ve since read better YA books, but none that spoke so profoundly to a young girl’s need for a fantasy world, or that demanded a lifetime of rereads.
I’d go with a Judy Blume book, if only because of the insights Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret provided me about both women and Judaism, but nah, I’m going with a two-fer that helped define my off-kilter sense of humor. When my daughter first started to have an interest in “chapter books,” as she calls them, the first one I picked up was Daniel Pinkwater’s The Hoboken Chicken Emergency, about a boy named Arthur Bobowicz who’s sent out to buy a Thanksgiving turkey and ends up coming home with a very-much-still-alive 266-pound chicken named Henrietta. (They made a TV special out of it, with Peter Billingsley playing Arthur.) I was thrilled when she seemed to enjoy it as much as I did, but I think I’ll wait a bit to introduce her to my other favorite, given that Ellen Raskin’s The Mysterious Disappearance Of Leon (I Mean Noel) served as my first introduction to footnotes. There’s no way I can explain the plot in this space, it’s so intricate, but suffice it to say that a mystery runs throughout the book—a garbled message from a drowning man that’s referred to as “the glub-blubs”—which kept me gripped throughout. I’ve re-read it dozens of times since, even as an adult, and I’m still fascinated by it. Some young adult-authors dumb it down a bit for their readers. Raskin challenged me throughout, and I remain grateful for that.
Of all the books I read when I was a kid, the one that seems to stick the most for me is The Carp In The Bathtub by Barbara Cohen. Perhaps it was because I grew up a disenfranchised Jew in a community that didn’t have a lot of Jewish families. Or it could have been because the book’s story of ’30s-and-’40s-era Brooklyn invoked visions of how my parents and grandparents might have grown up (albeit in the Bronx instead of Brooklyn). But the details, though foggy, have always stayed with me: two kids get attached to the carp their parents bring home a few weeks before Passover so it can be made into gefilte fish for the seder. As per the standard procedure of the time, the carp is kept alive in the bathtub until it’s time for it to make its grand sacrifice. But the kids just can’t part with the carp, and can’t imagine it becoming a gelatinous mass that gets served somewhere between the Four Questions and the search for the afikomen. As you’d expect, their quest to keep the carp fails, but the book did point out to the little-kid version of myself that some traditions are there for a reason, even if I found them unpleasant. It certainly didn’t make the gefilte fish I had at my next seder—made by Manischewitz, so any carp that were harmed were out of sight, out of mind—go down any easier, but that may have been because it tasted like shit. (Guess what? It still does.)
Most of my middle-school and high-school social life revolved around midnight Harry Potter-related excursions, so I know a bit about YA fervor. Though my obsession never came close to that of my friend Ellie, who owned actual robes and currently sports a quill tattoo. So when she lent me Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy and put it on the same level as Harry Potter, I took it seriously in the way only 13-year-old girls can. She was not wrong. I have a hard time thinking of anything that captivated me as completely as that series did. The novels are technically fantasy, with talking animals and warring angels, but to me, they were just a grand adventure. Lyra Belacqua is one of the few lady protagonists a girl can look up to, and her ability to navigate tremendous dangers with only words made me a more daring person. Plus there’s a love story tucked into all the fighting that still reduces me to tears. All of that was small potatoes next to the books’ religion though. At the time, I didn’t notice it was setting up an alternative to Christianity, and I certainly didn’t think of it as a religious book. But when the film version of The Golden Compass was released and fundamentalists railed that it was going to teach America’s children how to be heathens, I found myself in the odd position of having to agree. I’m an only child who wrote and read more than I talked to anyone. So to tell me that stories are ultimately what sets us free—how could I not believe that?
The thing is, I don’t always go in for young-adult novels, because I don’t know. I guess they’re just not what does it for me. You gotta read what does it for you, is what I mean, and if I’m gonna be reading something, I want it to be big and grown-up, a book you could really wallop somebody with. I love stuff like that. But if I gotta pick something, I guess it’d have to be this book by a guy who’s dead now, Catcher In The Rye? J.D. Salinger was the guy’s name. He was a bit of a loon, I guess, because he didn’t get out much. I get that, I really do. Anyway, this book he wrote. He wrote a lot of books, but this one book he wrote, it always really did it for me. I don’t mean I got my rocks off with it or anything. Nothing like that. There’s hot stuff in it, like a prostitute, and there’s this other girl, you’ll be over the moon about her, really you will. But it’s all really sad, deep down. Like, it’s just this kid, and he goes out on his own, and everybody keeps thinking he’s a grown-up because he’s so tall? And he’s okay with that, because who wouldn’t be. So he goes around and it’s sort of an adventure, him playing hooky and all, but what it really is is just him not being able to find any place he can stay for more than a little while. Because everything is just so gruesome, it’s just so goddamn gruesome you could die. When I was a kid, that really did it for me. He had this great hat, and I thought I wanted a hat like that, and I got one, only it wasn’t the same, and I figured I was just another phony. But I loved that book, though, even without the stupid hat. I got older, and I read it again, and I started noticing, maybe it wasn’t so great after all. Maybe this kid, all he ever does is feel bad for himself and blame other people for it, and the author, he sets it up so all these other people maybe kind of deserve some of the blame, except for a couple, who are swell. So I got sour, and I was going to give up on the whole mess, but the bit about the carousel still does it for me, and the bodies in the rye. I think now, and I could be wrong but I think that the book is just about how most times all we really want is that perfect moment. Just to be someone who has a purpose and is doing the right thing, and is needed. And how hard it is to find that, and how easy it is to just tell yourself everybody else is crummy and flawed and awful, because life isn’t a perfect moment, and everybody’s a phony. Anyway, it’s a good book.