So You Want to Read YA?: Kelly’s Picks

One of the reasons I wanted to start a blog — and one of the reasons I wanted to make it a group blog — was not just because I love talking about books, but because I like learning about new books from other readers. And I think anyone who has spent a little time here knows that Kim, Jen, and I have some similarities in our reading preferences, but we also have a lot of differences. I’m able to be a better reader and a better librarian because of them and because of the other great bloggers who dedicate time and effort into talking about books.

Over the course of blogging and being a librarian, one of the questions that I think about and one of the questions I get asked a lot is the question that prompted this series: where do you start when you want to start reading young adult fiction? It sounds like a daunting question, but for the most part, I feel my librarian background has helped me think about how to best answer it. You ask the person asking what sorts of books they like reading, and from there, you can figure out whether they’re genre readers or they want contemporary reads or if they just want a good book, regardless of category.

I feel like I’ve talked at length about books I really like and about books I recommend, especially when it comes to contemporary ya fiction. As I thought about this question, I thought about how I could answer it a little bit differently.

So I focused in on the last group of new-to-ya fiction readers. The ones who just want a good book. But rather than give a list of “good books,” I’m breaking it down by specific writing or story elements which make the book stand out, and I’m keeping my list fairly short. You’re getting eight titles in four categories.

And not only will some of these authors be sharing their answers to this question over the course of this series, but I will also be giving away a half of these titles at the end of this post.

I’m hoping some of these might be off-the-beaten-path answers.

Knock-out voice:

The biggest, most powerful element of a good YA story for me is voice. You hear the character and you feel the character through it. It’s a distinct style and manner of writing, and when it’s good, you just know it is good. A book with voice sticks with you well after you finish the story, and you think more about that character than the story itself. I’ve got two memorable titles for this category that I think are must-reads for anyone looking to see an example of true voice in a YA novel. 

The Sky Always Hears Me (And The Hills Don’t Mind) by Kirstin Cronn-Mills: I’ve talked about how much Morgan’s voice stands out in my review from earlier this year. Even months after reading this one, I’m impressed with how much I remember of the story, of the emotional tug inside of it, simply because I can hear Morgan’s voice in my head.

Split by Swati Avasthi: There’s a reason this book made the Cybils short list, and there’s a reason it wont the Cybils last year, and that reason is that Jace has an amazing voice. It’s raw and wry, and it’s honest. He’s in a desperate and painful situation, and while the story is about this pain, it’s Jace’s voice that makes it palpable and searing.

Classics still holding strong:

We all know YA fiction has changed a lot over the last few years and the last few decades. But there are classics that still hit all the right notes.

Celine by Brock Cole: Barring the cover, this book is nothing short of what a YA book should be and it’s one that stands the test of time. First, this book could have fallen right into my great voice category because 16-year-old Celine has a memorable one. More than that, though, this is the story of a girl who wants to become an artist, and through her art she discovers who she is. Her family’s not the most stable, and she’s unsure of the relationship she’s in — but the thing that trumps all that is a friendship she forges with a boy in her apartment complex. Celine is snarky and funny without being too smart or too self-aware and even twenty-some years after being published, it is still a must-read and relevant.

The Pigman by Paul Zindel: This was a book I remembered reading and loving in middle school, and I revisited it recently and it’s still one that stands up. Zindel develops two fully-realized characters in John and Lorraine and he makes use of first-person multiple points of view well. But more than that, this is a story about friendship inside and outside of high school and it cuts to the meat of what it means to have relationships. What I didn’t remember about the book that I appreciated a lot more on my recent reread? These kids make bad decisions, and these kids drink and swear and party. They have crummy home lives. John and Lorraine are also lower middle class kids, and they’re well aware they don’t always fit in because of this. This book explores self-realization, and while there is a tiny bit of dating to the story — it begins with a prank phone call in the age before caller ID — that won’t change the fact it’s a must read.

Physically-chilling stories:

I think a hallmark of really good novel is it impacts you emotionally. You can have a great action-driven novel for sure, but the reason it is great is because it’s tapped something emotionally. You find yourself caring either about the character or the story.

An element that’s begun to stand out for me more and more as a reader, though, is the physical impact of a book. I’m not talking about the tears, though that happened in both of these books for me. I’m talking about books that tear apart your insides and that make you feel like you’re going to be sick. It’s part the author’s ability to write well, and it’s part the author’s ability to tackle a situation that demands that sort of reaction, too. These stories transcend genre, but both books that left me feeling physically weak happen to be (surprise) contemporary and both happen to tackle bullying. And as much as we want to pretend it’s the extreme, these are stories teens today are living daily. As far as I’m concerned, these are must-reads for anyone who works with teens because they shed light into what’s often unseen by adults.

Some Girls Are by Courtney Summers: When Regina’s knocked out of her clique, the girls she once called friends are out for revenge. And it won’t be pretty. Whenever I sell this book to someone, I tell them it’s like “Mean Girls,” but with actual mean girls. This novel is relentless and it’s brutal, and it left me sick to my stomach both times I read it. As much as I’d like to think this sort of story is just that — story — the fact is, it’s not. Knowing this happens made the pain in reading it even stronger. Bonus points to Summers for not wrapping this book up tidily, either. There’s not a firm resolution and that uncertainty adds another layer to the physical experience of the story.

Leverage by Joshua Cohen: Taking it from the male perspective is Cohen, who manages to tackle not only bullying, but hazing (which is a whole different form of bullying). This is the guy’s locker room. It’s dirty, it’s gritty, and it’s painful to read. The two main characters in the story have powerful voices, but it’s the situations into which they’re thrown that are the physically tough parts to read. This is one that requires a few breaks while reading to catch some relief and it does not shy away from depicting cruelty.

Setting as character

Something I pay attention while reading is setting. Setting can give so much insight into character and into the story, and sometimes, setting becomes a character in and of itself. There are a ton of books for me that fall into the great settings category, but in keeping with the tradition, here are two that do it very, very well.

Stolen by Lucy Christopher: When people think of this book, the first thing they tend to think about or associate with it is that it’s the book about Stockholm Syndrome. And while that’s certainly true and the bulk of the story, for me, one of the most memorable aspects of the story is the setting. It’s set in the desolate and desperate Australian desert, and that setting only further enhances the struggle in the story. I can’t see this story working as well in any setting other than the one it’s in and I don’t want to separate setting from story here, either.

Ten Cents a Dance by Christine Fletcher: I gravitate to stories set in Chicago, since I’m familiar with the city and am familiar with its history and development. It’s the historical time frame coupled with the gritty, working-class Back of the Yards neighborhood in Chicago that makes this book’s setting sing. Ruby, the main character, lives with her mother and they are poor, just like the bulk of families living in the neighborhood. Her solution? To become a taxi dancer and make the money they need to live better lives. Fletcher’s story gives us not only the incredible setting of the Yards neighborhood (if you didn’t click the link above — think Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle) with the rich neighborhood where taxi dancing brings in the bucks.

There you have it — eight titles I think answer the bill of where to start in YA if you’re looking for something specific to read in the YA realm. I know I left out big names. I know I left out perennials. But I’ve got an inkling those titles will make their way into this series.

Because I want other people to experience some of these titles, I’m going to give a few of these away! Up for grabs are finished copies of The Sky Always Hears Me (And the Hills Don’t Mind), Some Girls Are, and The Pigman, as well as an advanced reader’s copy of Leverage. I like to think of it as a starter kit for the good stuff in YA lit. One person will win all four titles, and I’ll draw a winner March 25.

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  1. says

    Completely agree with the importance, and effect, of a strong voice. Though I'd actually put Stolen in my Knockout Voice category, because, wow, did it capture my attention from page one.

    Physically-chilling… It hadn't occurred to me as a category, but it's a good one. Totally agree with Some Girls Are as a powerful and brutal (and highly recommended!) book.

    I'm so excited to see what people are recommending!

    • says

      I debated where to put Stolen because it DOES have a knock out voice and really…it's also physically-chilling (especially that one scene — and that other one — and that other one). But when I think back on it, the setting really played a huge role in the story and was noteworthy because of that and partially because the foreignness of it enhanced the foreignness of what happens in the story itself.

      Physical chills are an interesting thing. I don't think I've ever read an adult book that's made me feel the way these two have. Granted, I read primarily adult non-fiction and literary fiction, but when I was thinking of examples of great ya…it struck me how hard-hitting both of these novels were. Right to the gut.

  2. says

    What a great post! Voice is totally that irreducible thing that I'm always looking for across genres of YA, so it's the perfect way to make standout recommendations. I especially respond to that category of physically chilling: there are always those books that I have physical reactions to when I first read them and I can never read them again without importing that reaction.
    I've added many to the TBR pile—thank you!

    • says

      I'm with you on voice. It is THE thing that always stands out to me first and foremost.

      I find myself drawn to rereading those books that give me physical reactions, thinking the second time maybe won't be as intense. But then it's almost more intense the second time. And that for me is pretty darn impressive.

  3. says

    I really don't need any more books on my list (as you know) but I'll be back every Monday looking for ideas for my list, and for the Reader's Advisory/YAvangelism I'm spreading through campus! Thanks!

  4. says

    I was so curious to see what you would recommend. This is a pretty diverse collection of titles. I've read one from each category, so now it will be fun to read the other :) Thanks for a chance to win!

    • says

      Stolen is a total mind trip, and as someone else said earlier, it'd be an easy voice category book too. Or maybe even physically chilling.

      If you liked Some Girls Are, you will appreciate Leverage, as well, and I highly suggest picking it up. Just be prepared.

  5. says

    It makes me happy to know that some of these books were on my TBR list. It makes me sad to know I haven't read a few of 'em yet, though. I think I need to make a list titled "So you wanna learn how to manage your time so you can read books you've been meaning to read for a year now."

  6. says

    Ooh, some really awesome-sounding titles here! I've only read Stolen and I've read other work by Courtney Summers and loved them all, so I'm guessing that I'd probably enjoy the others too. Thanks!

  7. Anonymous says

    Can you believe that I found out about this blog in AARP Magazine "60 Going on 16"? I am a HS librarian and liked Stolen but absolutely loved Leverage. Was an English teacher and actually taught Pigman. Look forward to reading the others.

    • says

      I'm glad you found us (and through that great AARP story, too). If you loved Leverage, you'll find the Summer title to be equally gut-wrenching AND good.

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