The Compulsive Reader: YA for Beginners

Monday, December 17, 2012

YA for Beginners

Recently I've become a member of Riffle, and the best way I can describe it is saying that it is sort of like Pinterest for books. It's a very image-based way of sharing what books you've read and liked, and still in the invite-only phase, but it's a great way to recommend books and compile various lists. Seeing as I am a compulsive list-compiler in addition to a compulsive reader, it's been a lot of fun.

One such list that I created last week that has been drawing a lot of attention is one that I titled "YA for Beginners." I created it with the idea of having a manageable list of YA books that attempts to represent what YA is all about. (Major emphasis in the word "attempt.") The list is a mix of some personal biases and some major hits, but I think that these ten books do a decent job at showcasing the talent, voice, and depth of the YA category. Admittedly, I sort of came up with this list quickly, so it's not exactly perfect...which brings me to why I'm showing it to you.

I want your thoughts, not because I think that we can pigeon-hole YA in a list of ten books, but more because I want to know if you agree with some of these selections, and if not, what YOU consider to be absolutely-you-must-read-this-book-or-die recommendations.

So, here we go!

Looking for Alaska by John Green

John Green is, to quote Chris Colfer, "the Justin Bieber of literacy," only much cooler in my opinion. His immense web presence is almost as popular as his amazing literary accomplishments, and his first book, a Printz Award winner, is probably my go-to book when it comes to recommending YA books at the bookstore. You can't go wrong with anything by John Green.

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

In many ways, Speak paved the way for YA lit being regarded as serious and important, with the power to change lives. Published in 1999, it was a National Book Award finalist, and had an entire YA imprint named after it. All that, and the story is phenomenal. Melinda, the protagonist, stops speaking after a traumatizing event at the end of the school year...now in high school, her peers won't speak to her and no one understands her. I dare you to put this book down.

Graceling by Kristin Cashore

This book burst onto the scene not long after The Hunger Games was published, and it was wildly popular because of its complex plot, amazing world-building, and its protagonist Katsa, the unconventional and tough heroine hardened by her special abilities to kill. Cashore writes brilliantly, but she also creates a fantasy story that is complex but never confusing, emotional but not overwrought, and action-driven but rounded out with plenty of other crowd-pleasing elements. If you only read one YA fantasy novel, it better be written by Cashore.

Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta

Oftentimes I feel as if Jellicoe Road is an overlooked book, despite winning the Printz Award here in the US and being published first in Australia (where it also won some major awards). The reason I love it so much is that is deals with complex issues of identity, loss, grief, friendship, and trust in an affecting way, and the writing style is so unusual, yet heartrendingly beautiful. Perhaps the only criticism is that you must be willing to be a little confused as first, but trust me--it'll be worth it. You must, must, must read this book!

13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher

I tend to think that this book sells itself based on how staggeringly popular it has become in the few short years since its release, and its subject matter. Like a few other books on this list, this book deals with death, particularly suicide, in an unusual manner that sucks you right in, and it has the perfect mix of elements to appeal to a broad range of teens and adults alike.

The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen

Sarah Dessen is a tremendous writer who knows how to get at the heart of the most complicated matters, and she writes seamlessly about those experiences. While The Truth About Forever is not my favorite book by her, it is one of her most popular, and one of her best written. This book has a certain amount of charm to it that is nearly impossible to resist, and will most likely send you searching for more by Dessen (lucky for you she has ten other books!).

If I Stay by Gayle Forman

What I love about Forman's book is how she boldly addresses what it means to live in this book, with all of its joys and heartbreaks and complicated questions. Her protagonist is put in the impossible situation of deciding whether or not to keep on living in the face of unspeakable pain and tragedy, and Forman handles the subject with grace, sensitivity, and wisdom from a unique perspective. This is one novel that you can't help but talk about.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

It may seem a little silly to include this book on this list (yes, yes, we all know how awesome and popular this book is), but here's the thing...too often books receive fame and movie attention and become bestsellers and, well...they're really not that well-written or the story is lacking in some way. The Hunger Games is not one of those books, and neither are its sequels. This is one book that lives up to the hype; the characters are tangible, the world is breathtakingly real and frightening, and the writing is incredible. The question at this point shouldn't be, "Have you read The Hunger Games?" but "Why haven't you read The Hunger Games?"

Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork

This is another book that I feel might be too often overlooked, but it's an incredibly important book. The protagonist, Marcelo, has an unusual form of Asperger's and is high-functioning, but he still struggles with living in the real world. He's quite comfortable with his routine, until he's forced out of it by his father, and discovers that the real world can be harsh, unjust, and incredibly hard to navigate...but he also discovers that he can figure it out and he can live in the "real world." We might not all have Asperger's syndrome, but I think everyone feels daunted by the world like Marcelo, making his story all the more personal and important.

Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King

King is definitely an author to watch in YA. Everything she writes is wonderfully weird and smart and so good. Please Ignore Vera Dietz is a Printz Award finalist, and it is remarkable for its unusual and magnetic style. What I loved about it was its unexpected emergent theme of the relationship between Vera and her father, and how they manage to find a way to get over Vera's mother's abandonment together. Really, I'd recommend anything that King writes, particularly Ask the Passengers, but this book is probably one of her weirdest and most accessible (that description may see like an oxymoron, I assure you that it is not).

I don't intend for this book to be a list of the "ten best YA books ever" (that would be impossible to manage), but rather a springboard for jumping into the YA genre. Which books would you put on your own "YA for Beginners" list?

ETA: If anyone wants an invite to Riffle, shoot me an email!


Jennifer Neyhart said...

can you invite me to this Riffle site, it sounds like something I would very much enjoy!

The Compulsive Reader said...

Jennifer, shoot me an email at thecompulsivereader@gmail.com and I'll send you an invite!

Sarah @ YA Love said...

This is a great list! I've created a list like this before and am planning on creating one for Riffle as well. Cool post :)

Anonymous said...

Those are some seriously awesome picks, there are only one or two that I haven't read yet but I need to correct that.

One of the things I love best about the stories you pick is that the authors never go for the obvious easy way to deal with these issues or to bring out the emotions.

Like in If I Stay, one of the things that affected me the most was that the accident was really just an accident, it wasn't a drunk driver that would be easy to hate, it was just bad luck. Or in Jellicoe Road, how both Taylor and Jonah had really dark things in their past and it wasn't sugar coated.

Sarah Laurence said...

Terrific list I'd add Code Name Verity.

Lauren said...

There's only a few of these that I haven't read...and I completely agree with those I have read.

If you were looking for another fantasy (my favorite genre), I would add the Mortal Instruments trilogy. It's part of the paranormal craze without being "just another vampire romance." It also, in accordance with a YA theme, separates the main character from the life she's always known, away from her mother, and she has to grow into this new world she has found.

The Compulsive Reader said...

Alex: Yes, I think that these books are emblematic of YA because they don't take the path that you would expect. They deal with ordinary things in extraordinary ways.