So You Want to Read YA?: Guest Post from Gwenda Bond (author of Blackwood)

This week’s guest post comes to us from Gwenda Bond, author of Blackwood and the forthcoming The Woken Gods (Strange Chemistry, September).

Gwenda Bond is the author of the YA novels Blackwood (out now), The Woken Gods (Sept. 2013), and Girl on a Wire (summer 2014). Blackwood is currently in development as a TV series by MTV and Lionsgate. She is also a contributing writer for Publishers Weekly and regularly reviews for Locus Magazine. Her nonfiction work has appeared in the Washington Post, Lightspeed, and Strange Horizons, among others, and she has an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in a hundred-year-old house in Lexington, Kentucky, with her husband, author Christopher Rowe, and their menagerie. You can find her online at her website ( or on twitter (@gwenda).

The danger of being a serial book recommender (I am a book pusher, but hey, there are far worse things to be) is that when faced with the amazing posts that have already appeared in this series and the vast sea of my go-to recommendations, I froze up. You have no idea how many iterations of this I’ve started, how many different types of ways I’ve considered focusing this list. Because: I want to recommend all the great YA I love and think most anyone dipping an eyeball into the waters of YA reading would love as well.

But in the interest of space and time (and Kelly’s patient waiting for me to Finish This Up), I finally decided on a list of some of my favorites, most lesser known but some iconic, that I feel push at the boundaries of the kind of story the authors are telling or of people’s assumptions about what YA is or should be. Still, there are so many books I had to leave out, ghost novels in the shadows I’d love to recommend to you some other time. (In fact, I keep a running semi- up-to-date list of reading recommendations here.) Anyway, all of these are books I have continued recommending long after I first encountered them, a surefire sign that they belonged on this list.

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks by E. Lockhart. Here we have a feminist boarding school novel that is relevant, political, and fun. I would have become obsessed with this book as a teenager (shocking to no one, I’m sure, that I was quite the prankster), and was obsessed with it in an entirely different way as an adult. This is a novel that doesn’t take the easy way out, and subverts the narrative we expect at the beginning in such a pleasing way.

The Dreamhunter Duet by Elizabeth Knox. The two books that comprise the Dreamhunter Duet–Dreamhunter and Dreamquake–are Knox’s masterpieces to date, set in an Edwardian-era fantasyland inspired by New Zealand. There is a geographic anomaly known as “the Place”that only dreamhunters can enter, societal intrigue, and a girl with a sand golem. Also, one of my favorite friendships between girls. Majestic, sweeping, and imbued with rich oddity.

The Catalogue of the Universe by Margaret Mahy. Let’s go back in time a little to one of my favorite romances, period. This is the story of an unlikely pair of lovers, who start the book as friends–the beautiful and witty Angela May and the brilliant but nerdy Tycho Potter. A strange and satisfying book about the immensity of the universe and finding a place in it anyway.

Freak Magnet by Andrew Auseon. Another of my favorite romances, and one I’m mentioning because it’s criminally underknown. Did you love Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park? Do you love John Green’s work? Because I do, and Auseon is who I’d recommend if your answers are also yes. Freak Magnet follows Charlie Wyatt, aka the Freak (a Superman-obsessed stargazer), and Gloria Aboud, aka the Freak Magnet (a writer, she records the many who approach her in her notebook), as their relationship gets complicated. I cared about these characters so much and was surprised by them in ways that have lingered.

Valiant by Holly Black. I could recommend any of Holly Black’s books, because I love them all. You should definitely read her recent Curse Workers series, too. But I’m putting this one on because it’s one of my favorite reinventions of an old story. This retelling of Beauty and the Beast centers on main character Val’s journey as she flees an old life that’s falling apart and ends up in service to a troll named Ravus. The novel produces constantly raised stakes and memorable characters that result in a fresh and immersive faery tale.

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 1: The Pox Party by M.T. Anderson. This is one of those books that sometimes gets mentioned in “but is it really YA?”contexts, but I believe it is and that it’s also essential reading. I urge you if you haven’t read it yet and are about to: read nothing else about it. All you need to know is that a boy named Octavian lives in the strange world of the College of Lucidity, a household of men known by numbers instead of names, in which he is the subject of an experiment. Baroque, emotionally gripping, and thematically dense.

Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom, edited by Leonard Marcus. You didn’t see this one coming, now did you? So, it’s more about children’s literature than YA, but I believe that Leonard Marcus (a giant of a scholar) is an excellent starting point for anyone who wants to understand this part of the literary world. And there’s no more enjoyable place to begin than with famous editor Ursula Nordstrom’s correspondence to authors and illustrators you probably remember well from your own childhood, no matter what age you are. She’s the Dorothy Parker of children’s literature, and if that doesn’t make you pick this up, well, then, I’m shaking my head, because no one can help you.

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