When new acquaintances find out I’m a librarian, our conversations generally go in one of two directions—either people apologize for not reading enough OR they quiz me about the latest “important” book, usually a New York Times bestseller by a middle-class white male that’s a character study of a middle-class white male navigating midlife. (Not that I’m knocking middle-class white guys—some of my best friends are middle-class white guys).
Eventually, once I’ve explained that I don’t care if you read (and that you probably read more than you think—hello, BuzzFeed click bait and Facebook updates) or that no, I haven’t spent much time with either David Foster Wallace or David Mitchell in the last decade, they ask me what I read. When I say Young Adult and children’s books, I get some strange looks and questions like, “Why don’t you read adult books?” Or “What real books have you read lately?” (Not as many since The Hunger Games has become a crossover phenomenon, but still enough to make me sigh.)
Young Adult books ARE real books! I think it requires WAY more talent to write for teens and children. You have a vast developmental range, and you have to catch brains that are in the middle of the hormonal challenges of puberty as well as navigating the pressures of the classroom, family, and ideas of independence.
What exactly do I like about YA, since I’m technically two decades older than the target audience? I think it’s that things happen. Since YA fiction (and good nonfiction) has to grab its audience, there is tons of action, all of the feelings, and, you guys—the plot twists! There are very few YA books that are “character studies” or “explorations of cultural dissonance.” These are phrases I read in a lot of “Adult” book reviews that I’ve learned to equate with “nothing happens” or “everything that happens is going to be a total bummer.” How much risk taking or authority questioning do you see in your average 500 page adult novel? Did the character show growth along her journey, or did she just get divorced and moan about that for 400 pages? How about death? First love? Abuse? The nature of power? Corruption and questioning of the current societal structure? How about all of those in the same novel?
So I tell you proudly, with no shame, that I read Young Adult books. Honestly, there is some fantastic Young Adult fiction being released these days—covering tons of hard hitting topics. Admit it—you loved The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, Divergent totally blew you away with its ending and left you craving the sequel, and, honestly, is anyone not aware of The Hunger Games? It’s okay, fellow adults, to admit we still have feelings, that we love a great story, and that sometimes it’s okay to take a break from being “important” and “serious.”
So next time someone at a cocktail party or a coffee shop starts talking about the most recent New York Times bestseller (that they probably haven’t even read), think to yourself, “I bet my local librarian is reading a really fun teen romance or dystopian right now. I should probably reach out to him or her for a recommendation.” To guide you on your way into the great wider world of YA fiction, here are some of my favorites from 2015:
- Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older—Our main character Sierra is a fantastic muralist, close to her family, and loves her friends and her Brooklyn neighborhood. One day she meets a fellow artist named Robbie, and then strange things start happening—murals are fading and looking sad, strange undead creatures are chasing her, and is her grandfather trying to tell her something about a family secret? A little bit teen summer romance and A LOT supernatural thriller, this vibrant novel will keep you guessing until the end and hoping for a sequel. (Seriously, fingers crossed.)
- Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin—Remember in U.S. History class when you got to Nixon and Watergate and Deep Throat and you weren’t quite sure what had happened but you knew it was bad and Nixon resigned but …? The story that frequently gets lost in modern history texts is the story of Daniel Ellsberg, former NSA analyst turned whistleblower, who becomes disillusioned with the lies, deception, and flat out illegal government activities (Edward Snowden anyone?). Sheinkin is a superb narrative nonfiction writer—he provides context to players and weaves together the threads in an engaging way. (I really don’t read nonfiction—but for Sheinkin I’ll always make an exception.)
- Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks—This Carnegie Medal-winning British import is not for the faint of heart. Our protagonist runs away from home, gets kidnapped, and wakes up in an underground bunker with no way to communicate with anyone—including his captor. To make sense of his situation (and fellow detainees), he chronicles his experiences in a journal. If you enjoy moral dilemmas, kidnappings, and dark tales, this one is for you. (If you read it, send me an email—I’m dying to talk about it.)
- Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma—This one is frequently called “Orange Is the New Black Swan” in YA lit circles. Featuring super competitive teen ballerinas, concepts of privilege and class—this story works backwards to the ultimate, gruesome, and slightly magically realistic conclusion that had many of my friends a little unhinged. If you like your books a little on the dark side, this one is a gripping “read it in one sitting” kind of novel.
- The Prom Goer’s Interstellar Excursion by Chris McCoy—If you are the boy next door and you finally get the girl next door to agree to go to prom with you, what do you do when she immediately gets kidnapped by aliens? Obviously you get yourself kidnapped by aliens and then explore the universe with an alien rock band on a comeback tour, duh. This one is a fun romp about friendship and self-reliance with an otherworldly bent.
- Kissing In America by Margo Rabb—First love! The strength of female friendship! Cross-country road trips! Cowboys! Game shows! C’mon, what else do you need? Spoiler alert—you will ugly cry, but it’s the good kind of ugly cry.
- X: A Novel by Ilyasah Shabazz and Kekla Magoon—We all know the Malcolm X story, right? Well, what about his childhood? His father’s involvement with Marcus Garvey and subsequent murder? His mother being involuntarily committed? Malcolm going to live with his half-sister in Boston and getting involved with drug dealing and other crimes? His time in Harlem as a hustler and numbers runner? Basically—what happens to a smart kid who has to find his way in the world and makes questionable choices? Compiled from journal entries and interviews with family members , this fast-paced, fascinating look at the childhood and adolescence of one of the most well-known figures in 20th-century history made the long list for the National Book Awards for good reason.
- The Boy in the Black Suit by Jason Reynolds—When someone you love dies, how do you cope? If you are Matt, the titular character, you get a job in a funeral parlor and begin attending the funerals of strangers, hoping for a sense of connection in seeing your pain reflected in the eyes of others. Throw in a great best friend, a new romance, and interesting neighborhood characters and you have a winner. The characters feel real, Matt’s pain feels real, and the journey from loss to healing is handled delicately and with heart.
- Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli—Simon is 16 years old, on the set design crew for the high school drama club, a good friend—and secretly emailing a guy he might have a crush on. When he forgets to log out of the school computer and his email history falls into the hands of a frenemy—well, let’s just say the drama leaves the stage and enters Simon’s life. This is a sweet, complicated, funny coming of age story AND a National Book Award finalist for literature for young people. So, you know, it’s like totally a real book.
- The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness—Ever wonder what the rest of the kids in town were doing while Buffy and pals were dealing with the supernatural? This is that book. Each chapter begins with a quick blurb about forces that the “indie” kids are battling (you know, zombies with glowing blue eyes, aliens incinerating kids) while our heroes are navigating prom and relationship woes. A fun, smart, and snarky read for fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Supernatural.
- Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans by Don Brown—Ready to feel mad and sad and shocked all over again? In this efficient graphic novel, Don Brown explains the chaos, tragedy, and timeline of Katrina’s effect on New Orleans better than anything else I’ve ever read. Seriously, be warned that you will have the rage by the end.
For the entire month of November, Free Library staff will be embracing our so-called “guilty pleasures” without embarrassment! Join in and show us your pride for whatever you’re reading, watching, or listening to by snapping a photo with the hashtag #FLPNoShameNovember. We’ll feature your photos on our social media accounts and curate a list of the now-shameless titles!