So You Want to Read YA?: Guest Post from Liz Burns

This week’s “So You Want To Read YA?” post comes from one of my favorite bloggers, Liz Burns. Here’s how she defines herself:
I blog about young adult books, TV, and other things that capture my fancy at A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy over at School Library Journal. My favorite book is Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta and my favorite TV series is Buffy The Vampire Slayer. I have also been known to enjoy House Hunters International (what’s with the granite countertop obsession?) and live-tweeting shows like Toddlers & Tiaras and 19 Kids & Counting. Liz tweets @LizB. 

p { margin-bottom: 0.08in; }a:link { }
“There weren’t any YA books when I was growing up!”
Yes, there were.
Maybe your local library didn’t have the books, or didn’t shelve them in a way that was easy to find.
Maybe your bookstore didn’t carry the title.
But they were there.
For those who want to take a look at what some of those books may have been, start with Lizzie Skurnick’s Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading. I’d also point out two personal favorite authors: Ellen Emerson White and Norma Johnston.
What’s different about today’s YA books? There are more. They are easier to find. There is less shaming with reading YA (that is, less people telling thirteen year olds, implicitly or explicitly, that smart kids skip to adult books and don’t read those YA books). It’s easier to find YA books for older teens. Publishers are more aware that the over-sixteen crowd, in addition to reading adult books that show the world they are part of, also want books that reflect their lives and fears, hopes and dreams. 
So, where to start with YA? To be honest, the books I recommend may be ones that you read and then say, “wait, what? That’s YA? But, well, that’s just a good book that happens to have a teenager as a main character.” Exactly; trying to define YA is actually pretty difficult. Name any factor – teen main character, character growth, coming of age – and you’ll also be able to name an adult book with those factors, also. Name any factor exclusive to adult books – sex, drugs, rock’n’roll – and you’ll quickly find a YA book about those things. It may be a bit of a cop out, but my definition right now is a YA book is a book that has been published YA. Once that simple matter of publication classification is out of the way, does it really matter? What matters is, is it a good story? Is it one I’ll like? Is there something in there I’ll connect with?
So here are the top books and authors I recommend starting with:
Sometimes a good book into YA is one with older characters: try The Piper’s Son by Melina Marchetta. Marchetta is brilliant at writing about real life: messy lives, the complications of family, the love between family and friends. Tom has dropped out of university, disconnected from old friends, ignored his family. When he has no place else to go, he moves in with his Aunt Georgie, who has her own problems to deal with. Tom and Georgie’s world was ripped apart by the death of Tom’s Uncle Joe, Georgie’s younger brother. In the years since his death, both spiraled into isolation and grief, and now, together, they are ready to accept that they can have a future with happiness and not betray the loss they suffered.
OK. Sounds like all YA is serious stuff. Hardly! Spend some time with Ruby Oliver, introduced in Ruby Oliver was first introduced to the world in The Boyfriend List (15 guys, 11 shrink appointments, 4 ceramic frogs and me, Ruby Oliver) by E. Lockhart. Ruby is trying to manage high school, boyfriends, best friends, ex-best friends, ex-boyfriends (and the complication of ex-best friends dating ex-boyfriends) and panic attacks brought on by the stress of it all. Ruby is funny, wry, smart, and OK, maybe a bit boy crazy at times, but hey, who hasn’t been?
Another way into YA is to read present day YA set in a time when the reader was a teen. One of this year’s best books is The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth. It’s a coming of age story set in the late 1980s/early 1990s in Montana. Cameron’s parents died the same day she kissed a girl, and those two things become linked; she explores her sexuality in a time and a place where being gay is neither cool nor popular nor accepted, and when her religious aunt finds out about Cam she sends Cam to a religious school to be “fixed.”
Sometimes, YA is called a “genre” and I’m not a fan of that term because I tend to think of genre as things like mystery, horror, or fantasy. YA includes all those genres, and what better way to get into YA than to find something in a genre you already read?
If you like fantasy (especially that of the Games of Thrones variety), read Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief series, starting with The Thief. Gen is a master thief, in prison not because he was caught stealing the King’s seal but because he was arrogant enough to boast about it publicly. Now he’s offered a deal: help the King’s Magus steal something valuable from another country, get out of jail. Gen says yes, trying to figure out how to make this unlikely offer work for him. Gen finds himself in the middle of three countries on the edge of war; this series is full of politics, fights, battles, and, best of all, The Thief, Gen who is exactly what he says he is – and nothing like he says he is. Once you’ve read through this series, turn to Melina Marchetta’s Lumatere books, starting with Finnikin of the Rock, about exiles trying to recover their country in a world with few allies and fewer resources.
What about horror? Look no further than the Monstrumologist series by Rick Yancey. The Monstrumologist is about horror without vampires or werewolves; it’s set in the 19th century and follows young Will Henry and his mentor/guardian, Dr. Pellinore Warthrop, a “monstrumologist” who seriously studies those creatures others call “monsters”. The problem with studying monsters is, well, they are monsters: the bodies pile up and it’s not pretty. The Monstrumologist series is Stephen King by way of H.P. Lovecraft, and after reading these books you’ll be sleeping with the doors locked and the lights on.
Some like their horror to have more of a supernatural thrill; try Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma. Chloe left town two years ago, following the accidental drowning of a classmate. Chloe’s older sister, the irresistible Ruby, convinces Chloe to return home. Guess who shows up at a party? How can a dead girl still be alive? Does Ruby know? What is going on?
More a fan of literary fiction? YA has that, also. Each year, YALSA (the Young Adult Library Services Assocation) awards the Michael L. Printz Award to the best book written for teens. The entire basis for this award is literary merit. This year, the Printz went to Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley. Some things don’t come back; like Cullen’s cousin Oslo, dead from an overdose. Some things may come back, like the woodpecker that people believed was extinct until one self-important and pr-savvy professor came to town. In the town of Lily, Arkansas, eager, dream filled teens leave town, sure of bigger and better things that await them, and return because of heart break or sick parents or accidents. Lily, where things come back . . . . sometimes. Will Cullen’s missing younger brother be one of those things that come back?
Disclaimer: a few years back, I was on the Printz committee. The book we selected? Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta. It is a brilliant book, with multiple narratives, heartbreak, hope, and love. I’ll share the blurb the committee put together for it: “Haunted by the past,Taylor Markham reluctantly leads the students of the Jellicoe School in their secret territory wars against the Townies and the Cadets. Marchetta’s lyrical writing evokes the Australian landscape in a suspenseful tale of raw emotion, romance, humor and tragedy.”
I would go on and on, but I suspect Kelly is already saying “enough! We don’t want a tl:dr post!” But trust me… once you try out these books, you’ll want more!
Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on Pinterestshare on Tumblr


  1. says

    Liz, I love the way you approached this theme. What an awesome variety of books! And I absolutely agree – YA is not a genre! Although I certainly think some published with that classification are much more YA than others. Just finished Life: An Exploded Diagram and can't help thinking it was mis-classified… But I digress! You touched on a lot of my own favorites, and gave me several suggestions that I'm now eager to read. Thanks!

    • says

      Katie, thanks! Are you paying attention to School Library Journal's Battle of the Kids Books? LIFE is getting some love over there, plus discussion as to whether its YA or not.

  2. says

    Great choices! And I will forever be grateful to you guys on that Printz committee for your choice of Jellicoe Road. Yay! I also loved The Piper's Son.

  3. says

    I have The Miseducation of Cameron Post waiting for me on my shelf. I did try reading The Boyfriend List, but I couldn't finish it. This might sound weird, but Ruby really stressed me out! I have the series in my classroom, though, and the girls adore Ruby and this series. Your list reaffirms the fact that I REALLY need to read Jellicoe Road, or just something by Melina Marchetta. Great list, Liz! :)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *