I love to read and the genres I enjoy cover a wide gamut. Still, I am often guilty of scoffing at YA lit as nothing but fluff, and even as a youngster upgraded to the adult section of the library growing up as soon as my parents would let me, though there was a heated discussion about gratuitous vampire sex when I started checking out all the Anne Rice books I could get my hands on, and my mom happened to flip through one while I was at school – oops! Despite this, when I really stop and think about it there are so many YA books I read and reread multiple times, and that I still remember to this day. These books had an impact, and though geared towards a younger audience still offer quality characters and rich story lines, and are worth reading today. Granted, my list is going to be revolving around the time period of when I was a young adult, so there may be brilliant new YA lit that I have never heard of. However, I believe these have stood the test of time and would still be enjoyable and thought provoking today. I let go of most of these when I stupidly did a book purge before going away to college, and I regret it to this day!
For a period of time when I was a kid, around 5th grade, my mom and I would choose books to read aloud together before bed, a handful of pages each night in my parents big fluffy bed that somehow always seemed so much more luxurious than my own, maybe because it was bigger and had more pillows :P. This was one of the books we read together along with one about a little girl with a best friend who has childhood leukemia – Apparently, we both had a penchant for sad stories, and don’t you just have the deepest sleep after doing a bit of crying before you lie down for the night? It’s a great energy burner. All jokes aside though, this is by no means an easy read but it is important, and for that reason has stood the test of time and is still being discussed to this day, over 20 years later. It centers around a young girl starting her freshman year of high school, who is ostracized for calling the cops on a party she attended over the summer, when in fact she was assaulted there but never told anyone. The novel follows her freshman year, and her personal journey as she learns to acknowledge what happened to her, call it by its name, and speak up. Sadly, this is still 100% relevant today if not more so though it was written long before this was a national conversation. Worth the read no matter your age.
Garth Nix was the Sci-Fi and Fantasy author for tweens in the late 90s/early 2000s. This series was always my favorite and I think the most powerful. The Abhorsen trilogy takes place in an imaginary universe based on early 20th century England. It centers around a family of Necromancers, and has an array of strong and complex female protagonists (as well as some interesting male characters!), and of course their equally fascinating daemon companions. What was always cool about this series was the exploration of necromancy as just another type of magic whereas normally it is portrayed as the “evil” or villainous vein. I’ve been hard pressed to find any other fantasy series young adult or otherwise that matched the elegant style of writing and creative and entrancing plot. The books also have gorgeous cover art, which is what made me check the little box when they appeared as a choice in the Scholastic book order 😉 (No Amazon! How’s that for nostalgia?). I have actually not read them yet, but there is a prequel titled Clariel that came out in 2014, and apparently another new installment, Goldenhand, that came out in 2016 – so imagine my surprise to see that this series is still going after all this time!
This is another book that humanizes the type of fantasy character that is often seen as “bad”. I’m a sucker for stories that are retold from a different perspective, and became deeply interested in Arthurian legend ever since watching this amazing made for TV movie in 1998, with the goddess that is Helena Bonham Carter playing miss le Fay herself. Though her actions prove abysmal, this story causes the reader to still feel some empathy for her as her ill fated lot in life, familiar to those aware of the classic tale, unfolds from her point of view and through her eyes. Living with the knowledge of her dark fate which she eventually gives in to and later even embraces, we are forced to contemplate, do we have control over destiny? Is fate really just a self fulfilling prophecy? Must our past control our future? Doe we change prophecy as we take our life into our own hands? It also fills in the blanks of her childhood, showing us how she learned magic, a part which is not usually included. Merlin is, in contrast to his usual whimsical self, portrayed as more evil and manipulative. At the end of the day, everyone is flawed, none are blameless, and that is what makes this such a compelling story.
Dystopian futures – always a popular concept! This novel portrays a near-future in which the feednet, an advanced form of the Internet, is directly connected to the brains of the majority of American citizens by means of an implanted device called a feed. The feed allows people to mentally access websites; experience shareable VR from entertainment programs, to music, to others’ memories; “continually interact with intrusive corporations in a personal preference-based way”; and communicate telepathically on closed channels with others who also have feeds, basically direct messaging but it’s in your head. Of course, by this point the environment is destroyed. There are artificial, trademarked Clouds™, you can custom design your own children before pregnancy, the entire national school system (called School™) is now owned and run by the people who run and own The Feed – it’s a total creepshow mess. Some start to question and try to resist The Feed … adventure and calamity ensues. It’s interesting how wild all of this sounded when I read this in high school (That’s me, before prom, getting picked up and being like ‘Wait, imma read one more page …’), and how almost 13 years later I’m thinking in the back of my head, “I don’t know that could be feasible …”. Only time will tell …
The Alice Series, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
I only read the books in this coming of age series from when our Alice protagonist was in junior high, and had no idea at the time that this huge series of books started with Alice in elementary school and went on to adulthood, where she lands a job in the fitting role as a middle school guidance counselor. What was interesting about this series, and her main character, was that she was not really interesting at all. I in no way mean that as an insult, she was just a perfectly average young girl that everyone could relate to, especially those that maybe hadn’t found their niche yet. I remember this series being pretty inoffensive, so I was shocked to hear later that they had been banned from a couple of school libraries! Alice was an average, realistic picture of the adolescent girl and as such she had an innocent curiosity about things like kissing, condoms, sex and babies. In the books, she didn’t have a mom to talk to about this kind of stuff, connecting with other kids who may be in this same situation. Apparently there was also a mention of homosexuality in one of the later high school aged books. Guess what guys, gay people exist and not learning about them doesn’t make them go away – Next! Can you tell I really don’t like censorship? The writer of this fantastic article and interview with Phyllis Reynolds Naylor sums up the appeal of the Alice books best when she says, “Katniss Everdeen’s bow and arrow are all well and good, but sometimes you just want a heroine whose current problem is heartbreak and a tragic haircut”.
Born Confused, Tanuja Desai Hidier
I was drawn to this book partially because I’ve always found it interesting to read books from the perspective of people that were very different from me, and also partially because I had a fast best friend I met in my 7th grade speech class whose family was from India. This was the first time I’d heard of the idea of cultural appropriation (though that term wasn’t used at the time), way before it would become a major discussion point. The book portrays the double standard of how when the main character of Indian descent, Dimple, wears her traditional garments and jewelry she is seen as backwards or conservative, odd, and out of touch, but when a blonde white girl (her best friend) borrows her clothes and wears them out she is trendy, cool, exotic, and bohemian. This novel is a coming of age tale explored through the lens of not just a generational gap between daughter and parents but a cultural one, and also a cultural gap between the main character and the rest of her peers. It explores both the feelings of uniqueness and identity and also loneliness and isolation in being an American citizen that is visibly from somewhere else. I found it funny, insightful, and moving.
Abarat, Clive Barker
I sadly never finished the series as I soon leveled up out of YA fiction, but this is another book that grabbed me with the cover art, if not just the name attached to it as a horror fan. I ALWAYS judge books by their cover, and what is amazing about these novels is that prints of Barker’s actual surreal, colorful paintings on canvas depicting the various characters and scenarios in the book are peppered throughout, some in the margins and some in beautiful full page inserts. Our main character Candy Quackenbush lives in Chickentown, Minnesota (hilarious!), and is just about as fed up as she can be with her dull school and boring life when she finds a point of entry to the fantastical archipelago of Abarat, filled with strange creatures both wonderful and sinister. It’s basically a weirder Alice In Wonderland, with a lot more adventuring on the part of our protagonist. I mean, it’s Clive Barker – it’s going to be a wild ride.
What were some of your favorite young adult books growing up?