So You Want to Read YA?: Guest Post from Trisha Murakami

This week’s guest post for our “So You Want to Read YA?” series comes from one of the very first bloggers I ever read — Trisha Murakami of The YA YA YAs

When I first started library school, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to specialize in. Thankfully, I took a YA literature class my first semester and immediately knew that this was where I wanted to be. Less ten years had elapsed between my reading YA (well, mostly Christopher Pike, R.L. Stine, and Sweet Valley High) as a youngster and my “rediscovery” of it in library school, but so much had changed in that time. These days, my taste in YA lit has broadened and I work as a YA librarian in Hawaii.

There are so many great YA books that I had a hard time limiting myself to a reasonable number. I finally managed to narrow things down to two categories of five picks each, though I was only able to do that by including series (don’t worry, none suffer from mid-series slumps) instead of individual titles. Even then, there were a couple of books that didn’t quite fit in with my categories, and I couldn’t bring myself to create a list that excluded them, hence my bonus picks.

Since my list of books is long enough, let’s keep this introduction short. Here’s what I picked:

Memorable Characters

Some authors are capable of creating characters that leap off the page, so believable and alive I could swear they were real people. If you’re looking for a story that doesn’t skimp on tension or conflict, but are primarily character-driven, give one of these a try.

A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly

Not because there’s a swoonworthy love interest, but because of the luscious, expressive prose. Sixteen-year-old Mattie is a lover of words and writing, and this love shines through in her narration.

After her mother died and her pissant brother who took off to drive boats on the Erie Canal and refused to come back and work the farm like he ought to abandoned the family after a fight with their father, Mattie must care for her three younger sisters and toil on the family farm. With her father’s struggle to make ends meet, not even a long-awaited letter informing Mattie that she has been accepted to college and awarded a scholarship offers the same sort of hope it once would have.

As soon as she said it, as soon as she talked about my dream like that and brought it out in the light and made it real, I saw only the impossibility of it all. I had a pa who would never let me go. Because it’s 1906 and Mattie’s father does not understand her yearning to leave, especially not when he needs her help at home. Accepting a neighbor’s marriage proposal would solve some of her problems, but then what would happen to Mattie’s dreams?

Right now I want a word that describes the feeling you get–a cold, sick feeling deep down inside–when you know something is happening that will change you, but you can’t stop it. And you know, for the first time, for the very first time, that there will now be a before and an after, a was and a will be. And that you will never again be quite the same person you were.

[quotes from pages 23-24, 66, and 2]

I Know It’s Over by C. K. Kelly Martin
Nick is sixteen and still in love with Sasha when she tells him she thinks they need a break, still in love with her weeks later when she tells him she’s pregnant. I Know It’s Over is written from Nick’s point of view, tracing his and Sasha’s relationship from beginning to end.

First love can be a messy topic, but Martin writes about it with an honesty and, in a way, precision, that gives the story a quiet intimacy. Yet Nick’s characterization and voice never ring false–he always seems like a teenage guy. Just as importantly, Martin allows both Nick and Sasha to make mistakes and decisions that seem true to them, instead feeling contrived or melodramatic.

Note: the ending (Sasha’s decision) won’t be for everyone, but this is still outstanding contemporary realistic fiction. A book that deals with issues without ever feeling like an Issue Book.

Flygirl by Sheri L. Smith
It’d be easy to root for Ida Mae Jones to achieve her dream of becoming a pilot, even if she didn’t have so many obstacles to overcome. But although Flygirl is historical fiction, Ida’s biggest obstacle isn’t sexism. It’s her race–which gives the story an added level of tension.

Ida’s father taught her to fly in their cropduster, but now he’s dead and she can’t afford to go to Chicago to earn her pilot’s license. After the U.S. enters World War II and Ida learns about the Women Airforce Service Program, which trains female pilots to fly non-combat missions, her dreams are revived. Then she realizes the only way she can become a WASP is to take advantage of her light-colored skin by passing as white. Once accepted into the program, Ida leaves home and travels to Texas, where WASP training takes place. And, needless to say, where Jim Crow laws make Ida’s deception extremely dangerous.

While readers will empathize with Ida and want to see her become a WASP, what makes Flygirl so memorable to me is the palpable tension caused by Ida’s race. Not just the fear of someone discovering she is black and the physical danger she’d be in, but also the mental and emotional weight of passing.

Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork
Now that Marcelo Sandoval is seventeen, his father, a high-powered lawyer, decides it is time that Marcelo learn to function “in the real world.” Instead of the job that Marcelo wants to take, he is forced to spend the summer working in the mailroom of his father’s law firm.

Marcelo has an unidentified autism-like disorder that has put him at a distance from most people. Now he’s forced to interact with people who don’t know him, don’t understand him, or want to take advantage of him. But he also begins to recognize emotions and feelings he’s never felt before, to live beyond the boundaries he previously restricted himself to. And through it all, Stork masterfully brings Marcelo to life, with intelligence and tenderness and so much heart.

The President’s Daughter series by Ellen Emerson White (1. The President’s Daughter 2. White House Autumn 3. Long Live the Queen 4. Long May She Reign)
Unlike the books mentioned above, which are all written in the first-person, White uses a third-person narration in this series that I swear is more intimate than most books written in first (excluding the other books on this list, of course).

The second word I’d use to describe this series, after intimate? Smart. And leavened by an ironic, sarcastic sort of humor, often courtesy of some strong and intelligent female characters.

It begins during Meg’s sophomore year of high school–when her mother, a U.S. Senator and rising star in the Democratic Party, decides to run for president–and continues through Meg’s freshman year of college. As I’m sure you’ve guessed from the title of the first book, and the series, her mother wins the election. At times, the first book feels like a prologue or prequel to the series, introducing readers to Meg and her family and how they ended up in the White House. The traits that make Meg such a compelling character are present from the beginning, but they don’t come out in full force until books 2-4, when she and her family go through some intense ordeals and her strength of will is something to behold.

The President’s Daughter, White House Autumn, and Long Live the Queen were originally published in the 1980s. They were re-released in 2008, a year after Long May She Reign debuted, seamlessly updated to remove out-of-date references (well, except for some of the names).

bonus pick: Drums, Girls, & Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick
So all my earlier picks all had memorable main characters. I’d be shortchanging Steven if I didn’t acknowledge his, um, memorableness, because he’s a great character himself. But honestly, Steven’s younger brother Jeffrey is the reason Drums, Girls, & Dangerous Pie makes my list. This book is proof that cancer books can be funny and heartbreaking at the same time, and the bond between Steven and Jeffrey is just awesome.

Twists and Thrills

Flipping things around, what about books with fully-realized characters that are primarily plot-driven? In this category I’ve included books packed with twists and thrills. That is, books that 1) leave you breathless with anticipation, unable to put the book down; 2) practically demand you to read them again right away because of plot twists you didn’t see coming; or 3) put a new spin on a familiar story.

The Curse Workers trilogy by Holly Black (1. White Cat 2. Red Glove 3. Black Heart)
Noir mysteries + magic.

Black’s series is set in a brilliantly conceived world very much like our own, only with a magical Prohibition that was never repealed. Ever since 1929, when curse work–magically manipulating emotions, dreams, memories, etc.–was outlawed, most curse workers have been selling their goods and and services on the black market or working for one of the big six organized crime families, like the Zacharovs.

Take Cassel Sharpe’s family. Cassel is the only non-magical member in a family of curse workers. His (imprisoned) mother is an emotion worker and con artist, his eldest brother a body worker for the Zacharovs, and his grandfather a retired Zacharov death worker.

When Cassel was fourteen, he killed his best friend, Lila Zacharov. Three years later, as White Cat begins, he is a student at a boarding school, Wallingford Prep. After he wakes up one night on the roof of his dorm with no memory of how he got there, the school won’t allow Cassel to live on campus anymore unless he can get a doctor’s note saying the sleepwalking was an isolated incident and won’t happen again. As Cassel tries to con his way back into Wallingford, he realizes there is more to Lila’s death than he remembers. Memories can be manipulated, after all, and only Cassel’s talent for con games will allow him to uncover the truth.

And, just an FYI, I liked White Cat, but I thought Red Glove was much stronger.

Liar by Justine Larbalestier
On page one, Micah tells us she is a liar. Everyone at her school knows that she lies, but that hasn’t stopped her from continuing to lie. But now, after a missing classmate’s dead body is found and the police begin questioning students, Micah promises to stop lying. She swears she will start telling the truth.

Or is that a lie, too?

Despite her promise to be honest, Micah presents some things as truth that she later admits are lies. She tells us some of the things she (claims to have) lied about. She puts you, the reader, on guard, never knowing what or how much to believe. Because when a narrator admits she is a liar, and she makes such outrageous stories seem plausible, how much can you trust her?

Liar is not told in a linear, straightforward fashion. Instead, Micah narrates her story in short bursts that flash from “Before” to “After,” from “Family History” to “History of Me.” It’s an effective way of allowing Micah to control the flow of information, telling the reader what she wants to when it suits her, and leaving it up to the reader to decide what is true and what is a lie.

Read Liar, then make a friend read it so you can debate what *really* happened.

Cinder by Marissa Meyer (Lunar Chronicles, book 1)
Okay, the plot of Cinder isn’t new–it’s based on Cinderella and I found it mostly predictable in terms of plot twists (though I don’t consider this is a major flaw, considering the book is a retelling). Meyer’s assured writing keeps readers engaged with the story, even if you’re pretty sure you know where it’s going, and–the main reason I’ve included it here–she’s put a great twist on the setting. Many fairy tale retellings mine a familiar psuedo-medieval European landscape, while a few transplant the tale into modern times. Not Cinder. This is a sci-fi Cinderella (in fact, a cyborg Cinderella, as one of my coworkers exclaimed when I recommended Cinder to her), set in a futuristic, multiethnic New Beijing. Not as “literary” as most other books on this list, but definitely enjoyable.

The Chaos Walking series by Patrick Ness (1. The Knife of Never Letting Go 2. The Ask and the Answer 3. Monsters of Men)
Patrick Ness is an author who is not afraid to tackle big themes. That he does so in books with breakneck plotting and heartstopping cliffhangers (oh my god, those cliffhangers!) makes the series even more stunning.

In one month, Todd Hewitt will become a man and there will be no boys left in Prentisstown. All the women who once lived in Prentisstown, including Todd’s mother, are dead–killed by the same virus that made the thoughts of the remaining men audible to all.

Oh, and did I mention that the first book is narrated by Todd in a sort of common vernacular, complete with run-on sentences and occasional misspellings?

Yeah, I know what some of you are thinking. I thought it, too, when I first heard about The Knife of Never Letting Go. It took reading rave review after rave review on so many of my favorite blogs for me to finally give it a try. After which I mentally kicked myself–hard–for waiting so long before reading it. (Though on the bright side, it did mean I didn’t have to wait as long to get my hands on The Ask and the Answer and Monsters of Men. Because, seriously, those cliffhanger endings!)

Todd’s voice is strong and electric, and by the time I hit the end of chapter six in The Knife of Never Letting Go, I was hooked. As the story, and series, progresses with increasing intensity, the main characters become engulfed in a web of moral ambiguities; questions of war, terrorism, genocide, and more; provoked by one of the most charismatic villains in YA literature. It’s not an easy read, and not for everyone, but worth taking a chance on.

The Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner (1. The Thief 2. The Queen of Attolia 3. The King of Attolia 4. A Conspiracy of Kings)
I refuse to give too much away about this series, other than to say it’s a fantasy about a thief and political intrigue, because I don’t want to spoil even the tiniest bit of the reading experience, but this also makes it tough to talk about and recommend the books.

Sample conversation:
Me: “Read it, it’s awesome.”
Other person: “What’s it about?”
Me: “It’s awesome!”
OP: “…”
Me: “Do you trust me?”
OP: “Uh, yes?”
Me: “Then just read it. In order.”

I can tell you from experience, this is not always the best way to get a person to read a book. But it won’t stop me from trying again!

If you need more, how’s this? Megan Whalen Turner is a genius. She’s a genius with point-of-view, a genius with the subtleties of language, and a genius when it comes to plot twists and reveals. She’s the kind of author who is still able to surprise you, even when you’re on the lookout for hints. And these are the kind of books that stand up to, are even enhanced by, rereading.

bonus pick: Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta
Jellicoe Road could have easily been my bonus pick in the Memorable Character category, as it is bursting with them. But I’ve included it here in Twists and Thrills because, although it’s not as relentlessly thrilling or cleverly twisty as the other books in this category, part of what makes Jellicoe so wonderful is its structure. You’ll start off the book confused, plunged into a war (what?) between the students at the Jellicoe School, the townies, and cadets (who?), with initially random excerpts of a story that’s not our main story (huh?). Then suddenly, everything starts to fit together. You see the connections and relationships that have been there all along. And still Marchetta manages to throw in a few more “Aha!” moments. It’s complicated and emotionally complex and respects its readers, and that’s what ultimately makes Jellicoe Road such a satisfying read. Not to mention, it includes my all-time favorite romance in YA fiction…

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  1. says

    Great post Trisha! You were one of the first YA blogs I started reading and you've kept up the quality of the blog to this day.

  2. says

    These are such wonderful choices! Jellicoe is a book I often recommend to people without telling them it's YA (I have no problems with sneak attack reading recommendations). And the Curseworkers series is one of my go-to recommendations for guys who are looking to get back into reading. For some reason, I haven't read Northern Light–which is weird, since I love Jennifer Donnelly's writing. I have got to fix that ASAP.

    Thanks for this awesome list!

  3. says

    @Christa – You're welcome! I consciously tried to cover a mix of familiar and under the radar titles, so I'm glad to hear that. Especially that you're excited about the Megan Whalen Turner books! A couple things I didn't mention above, or my post would have been even longer: 1) the scope of each book changes, from the narrow quest of The Thief to the broad international intrigue of A Conspiracy of Kings (which I consider another sign of brilliance); 2) The Thief is great (Newbery Honor! #13 in the recent top 100 children's books poll at A Fuse #8 Production!), but my impression is that, if forced to pick a favorite, many fans will pick The Queen of Attolia or The King of Attolia (which I think says something about the quality of the writing of all the books).

    @fakesteph – Yay!

    @Abby – Let me guess, Jellicoe Road would be one that's not on your list, right? :) I'd love to see your list.

    @Sarah (YA Librarian Tales) – Aww, thanks.

    @Sarah #2 – Love the stealth approach! I think Holly Black's YA books in general are great crossover titles. And hope you love A Northern Light as much as you do Donnelly's other books.

  4. says

    Ah, great list! I am an aspiring YA librarian, and I will be sure to read all the books on this list that I haven't gotten to already. Thank you! Also, what's it like being a librarian in Hawaii?

    • says

      Well, I was born and raised in Hawaii and have never worked in another library system, so everything seems…pretty normal to me. (Not that there aren't things I dislike or disagree with, but I didn't suffer from culture shock or anything.)

      That said, for the most part, it's probably quite similar to YA positions elsewhere. I mean, demographic and cultural background plays some role in the behavior of the teens I work with, but I think that'd be true at any library. Likewise, the day-to-day of working in a branch is probably much like that of a branch library on the mainland (depending on the size of your branch). It's mostly beyond the branch level, the larger administrative and governmental hierarchy, that differs from other libraries/library systems. The most noticeable difference is that we have a statewide public library system–I didn't even know we were unusual in this regard until I went to college and saw a friend's library card and was shocked, like, "What!? You can only use your library card in Cleveland???"

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