Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Best YA Books You Haven't Read

As a person who stopped being a young adult nearly 25 years ago but who never outgrew a love for YA stories, I was thrilled to be asked to participate in YAnnabe’sThe Best YA Books You Haven’t Read” Day. I’m always game for a chance to talk about my favorite YA titles.

But Kelly over at YAnnabe made things a little more challenging. Rather than have us wax rhapsodic about the books everyone already knows are fantastic reads, she asked those of us willing to scan our YA libraries for titles that we loved that maybe have continued to fly under the radar when it comes to mainstream love.

To gauge popularity, we used LibraryThing’s membership as a representative sampling of the larger public. The more members who listed a particular title in their library, the more popular the book. To give you an idea of popular versus not popular from the 120 books in my YA library: Twilight reigns with 26,128 members, Sing the least with only 9 members. We tried to stick with titles owned by less than 500 members.

I’m indulging my inner thirteen year old with four titles I read and loved as an actual Young Adult. They were the first books to earn spots on my keeper shelves, and they are well-worn at the corners and yellowed with age. Three of the four are out of print but well worth the work tracking down copies via used books outlets or the library. Two have been made into movies that perhaps haven’t aged so well but afford a great chance to wallow in nostalgia.

To prove I’m still hip and down with the current teen trends (!) I’ve also chosen four titles that have been released in the last few years. What really struck me as I went through this process is that even though things are a lot different today than they were when I was a kid, books written for and about Young Adults haven’t changed fundamentally in the issues they tackle. Popularity, fitting in, first love, first sex, broken homes, drug and alcohol abuse, psycho parents, best friends and worst enemies, growing up and figuring things out. None of that has changed a bit.

So, here are 8 YA books you probably haven’t read but should.

by Francine Pascal
First published: 1979

Victoria will do anything – ANYTHING – to get the attention of uber-popular guy Jimmy. She even manages to finagle an au-pair gig on Fire Island where she knows Jim will be spending the summer. And to her amazement, her plan actually seems to be working. Jim notices her. He even seems to like her! Things should be absolutely perfect. But this other guy Barry keeps popping up at the worst possible times. The family she’s working for is dysfunctional with a capital D. And she’s starting to think that maybe Jimmy isn’t such a hot catch after all. Victoria starts to question just how much she’s willing to do to get the guy of her dreams who just might not be so dreamy.

Light and frothy, this book still conveys a great message – that sometimes what’s on the surface isn’t necessarily what counts. Since it's out of print, this book may be hard to find. But it’s worth it.

by Jean Van Leeuwen
First published:  1972

Kathy is thirteen and despairs that she’ll never outgrow her horrible awkward stage. At a whopping 98 pounds and taller than every guy she knows except her father, she sees herself as one giant beauty flaw in need of some serious fixing. Her curvaceous best friend Beth and already-attracting-boys little sister Lisa only seem to highlight Kathy’s deficiencies, and she’s sure she’ll never get a date.

When she meets cute guy Keith while on vacation at her family’s lake cabin, Kathy’s stunned when he seems genuinely interested in her. She struggles to do all the things girls are supposed to do to get guys to like them, but it’s only when she manages to relax and be herself that Kathy begins to see that maybe being 98-pound duckling isn’t so bad after all.

Kathy is a great heroine. Despite her lack of self-esteem, she’s far from whiny or self-pitying, and her observations about herself and those around her are often very amusing. While the story is far too short to delve deeply into any of the characters, Van Leeuwen does a great job in expressing that universal adolescent delusion that if only your outsides were perfect your life would be magical as well, and that once you manage to get a date, all of your problems will be solved.

This book is what I call a small story. The entire book covers a span of time no longer than 24 hours. Funny, however, that I never realized that until rereading it for this review – in my teenage memory it seemed to cover a whole summer. Surprisingly it doesn’t read as dated despite being almost 40 years old.

by Bruce and Carole Hart
First published: 1978

Jessie is in love. Michael is seventeen and a musician and pretty much perfect in every way. Jessie’s thrilled because Michael really seems to like her. Of course, he doesn’t know that Jessie is only thirteen. He thinks she’s sixteen because that’s how old she told him she was when they first met. But it’s okay. She’s positive she can handle dating an older guy. Maybe. Things are about to get very complicated. 

Sooner or Later jumps head first into the drama of what happens when teens think they’re ready for things they really aren’t ready for, and what kind of trouble a simple lie can get you into. Plus the heartbreak of loving someone you probably shouldn’t and wanting something you aren’t ready to have yet and the confusion of knowing what’s right versus doing what’s right and chocolate cake and the magic of makeup and guitar players and how unbelievably hard it is to be thirteen and in love for the first time.

This book was actually a movie first. Some of you might remember it – Rex Smith played the part of Michael and had this groovy long hair and was soooo cute. You can still get the DVD. (Go on, check it out. I know you want to.) Because of this film-to-book conversion, the narrative itself gives the sensation of written sound bytes. The pacing is quick, and even Jessie’s internal musings are somewhat choppy. I didn’t mind this because the story itself is so good.

by S.E. Hinton
First published: 1979

Tex and his brother, Mace, live parent-free on a tiny farm in Oklahoma. Most kids would think that having no parents around to give you headaches would be great. And Tex does enjoy getting into a fair amount of trouble, both on his own and with his best friend, Johnny Collins. But his brother Mace is itching to go off to college and the money situation has gotten dire. When Mace is forced to sell their horses – including Tex’s beloved Negrito – to pay the bills, the brothers come to blows. Even Tex’s new feelings for Jamie Collins are causing him all sorts of confusion. When Pop returns to town, Tex figures things are finally going to get better. But he learns something about himself that changes everything, and he realizes that there’s no going back.

I’ve stated before that S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders is probably my favorite book of all time. I’m talking favorite book ever, not just YA. Tex runs not far behind. As a character, Tex melted my heart. (For fans of Friday Night Lights, think the original Tim Riggins.) He’s like a loveable puppy who only wants to play and can’t understand why he keeps getting kicked by those he loves. 

Tex is a true classic. Published in 1979, it has never been out of print. It was made into a movie starring Matt Dillon, but the book is far superior.

by Jenny Han
First published:  2007

Annemarie “Shug” Wilcox has a lot on her mind. She’s about to start junior high. Her best friend is a boy named Mark, and she’s starting to have feelings that are more-than-friendly about him. One of her teacher’s hates her. Her father stays away on business trips for longer and longer. Her mother spends much of her time drinking or drunk. And when her parents are together, they fight. Even her perfect older sister is starting to break. Plus, she’s been assigned to help her worst enemy, troublemaker Jack Connelly, with his homework. The only good thing about life is her best friend, Elaine. Facing junior high is hard. Facing the fact that nothing and nobody is what you thought they were is impossible.

I read this book with my daughter as part of a project for her class. The heroine, Shug, is so cute as she suffers through that awkward phase when boys stop being friends and start being something else. And when it becomes clear that Mark doesn't necessarily share Shug's changing feelings, my heart broke for the girl. Thankfully, salvation comes from another source. This is a great book for younger YA readers.

by Thu-Huong Ha
First published: 2007

John “Caesar” Miller is golden. The star of his high school basketball team and most popular guy cruising the halls, life is one giant party. Girls are objects to be scored, friends nothing more than people to tell him how great he is. Best of all, Caesar lives in a perpetual state of not caring about the feelings of anyone other than himself. When new girl Eva proves immune to Caesar’s good looks and surface charm, he’s at first angry and frustrated, then intrigued, and finally obsessed with capturing her attention. But the harder he tries to win her over, the more he comes to see himself through Eva’s eyes, forced to acknowledge how empty and shallow his life is. As his carefully constructed walls of indifference begin to tumble, Caesar’s world is rocked to its core.

First and foremost, what sets this book apart from so many other YA titles is that the hero, Caesar, is really a rather unlikable person. He’s a user who makes no apologies for the crappy way he treats people. He sees himself as entitled, and it’s true to real life that he is not wholly redeemed by the end of the story. People as loathsome as Caesar seldom experience 180 degree character shifts.

That said, Caesar is likeable, and the story is very readable. Author Ha does tend to slide into the poetic, and at times the narrative is told through Caesar’s eyes in a way I doubt any high school boy would ever express, removing the story away from a truly authentic male teen voice. My biggest beef, however, and the one flaw that almost gives me pause in recommending it to others, is Ha’s affectation of removing nearly all tags from lengthy stretches of dialogue. Many times I found myself baffled as to who was saying what, even at one point becoming so frustrated that I almost set the book down for good.

My extended review can be found here, but I’d give this book a solid 4 out of 5 stars.

by Gordon Korman
First published:  2008

Capricorn “Cap” Anderson was raised on a deserted commune by his ex-hippie grandmother. He’s never seen a TV. He’s never eaten food that didn’t come from his own garden. He’s never worn shoes other than sandals. So when he’s forced to attend the local public middle school after his grandmother is injured and unable to care for him, culture shock takes on a whole new meaning.

Because he is so very innocent and unaware of the cruelties kids perpetrate against each other, Cap serves as the perfect victim for his fellow students tricks. But what his tormentors never expect is Cap’s failure to be humiliated or change his positive outlook. As the bullies become more determined to bring him down, Cap earns more and more followers.

The appeal of Schooled – and the reason I picked it up in the first place – was the opportunity to read about someone who fell so far out of the mainstream and how that person would fair when forced to join “normal” society. I did find it hard to read on as kids picked on Cap, but because of Cap’s complete lack of awareness in the evil intent of the bullies’ actions, I never felt sorry for him. He didn’t feel sorry for himself at all. In every situation, his failure to see all but good helped him win the day.

If this book has one drawback it’s that Cap as a character is somewhat hard to believe. He’s almost too good. And it’s hard to imagine a person so insulated from the larger world that he has no concept of money or other rudiments of society. Still, Schooled is a fun read, and Cap is a hero you can root for.

by Malina Marchetta
First published:  2008

Taylor Markham was abandoned by her mother when she was 11, pseudo-adopted by Hannah, and has been appointed the reluctant leader of the Jellicoe boarding school students in an annual, clandestine war against the Townies and the Cadets. Hannah disappears mysteriously just as the war is about to begin. Taylor learns that the leader of the Cadets is Jonah Griggs, a boy from her past. And for some reason the scary Brigadier seems to be stalking her. All of these bits and pieces are connected, and Taylor comes to see that if she wants to understand who she really is and where she came from, she needs to unravel the mysteries of the past and face those ghosts that lurk there. 

Jellicoe Road is a challenging book. It requires the reader to stay the course in order to make sense of the knotted ball of thread that is the first few chapters. However, the effort is well worth it. As Taylor begins to put together pieces of the puzzle that is her history, she finds all the answers she’s always been looking for. The romance that develops between Taylor and Jonah is very well drawn and poignant. And the end evokes real tears. I can’t recommend this book enough.


Patti said...

Jellicoe Road was so good. It is amazing that you can win an award and still be relatively obscure.

Pam said...

You are right I haven't heard of any of these!

Lenore said...

Schooled sounds delightful! On my wishlist it goes.

Katie said...

Loved "Jellicoe Road" -- such a great book! And my teens are constantly checking out "Shug" -- I'll have to try and weasel it away from them to read it myself. ;D

Kelly said...

Totally agree on Jellicoe Road. How can you win the Printz and still be so under the radar?

I wonder if it's the "puzzle" nature of the book where you only get a little piece at a time. Might be off-putting. I know my husband had a hard time getting into it, but I held a knife to his neck til he got past that point. He ended up really enjoying it. :) See? Wife always knows best!

Lynn M said...

I'd read several reviews that warned me that Jellicoe Road was fabulous but took some time to get into, so that went a long way in getting me through the first few chapters. I was so blown away by the Taylor/Griggs relationship - it was by far my favorite part of the book. I admit that I was a bit confused about the whole "ware" aspect. I didn't quite understand exactly what the point of it was. And I did figure out pretty quick the mysteries of the past, who was who and what had happened. But the ending had me bawling like a baby. I'm going to give this to my daughter to read in a couple of years - I think she's a bit young at 12.

Anastasia said...

Schooled sort of sounds like Stargirl, except with the genders switched, obviously. I really liked Stargirl, so maybe I'll like Schooled, too!

Melissa Walker said...

TEX and SHUG are definitely on my list!

Cazzy said...

@Anastasia stated exactly what I was thinking re: Schooled. I will definitely make an effort to read that. I am also going to put Shug on my TBR list.