This week’s contribution to So You Want to Read YA? comes from literary agent Amy Stern.
Amy Stern is currently an assistant agent at the Sheldon Fogelman Agency. She taught science fiction and fantasy at the Simmons College Center for the Study of Children’s Literature, where she also got her MA in children’s literature and her MLS in library science. She is occasionally pretentious about children’s literature on her twitter @yasubscription and her blog yasubscription.wordpress.com. She reads a lot about superheroes, watches a lot of reality television, talks a lot about problems with gender normativity in popular culture, and spends entirely too much time on the internet.
We talk a lot about finding the “right book at the right time for the right reader” when we’re talking about getting things for other people to read. I don’t think that we give it nearly as much thought when we’re choosing what to read ourselves. We are people who crave good stories, and then talk about them on the internet. We are the opposite of the reluctant reader.
One of the hardest things I’ve had to do- as an agent, as a scholar, and perhaps most importantly as a person who loves stories- was come to terms with the fact that I can’t actually separate myself from the books I read. I can recognize the artistry and skill that goes in to telling a story without loving it; conversely, I can recognize there are parts of a novel that are deeply flawed while still connecting with it on a deep visceral level. But I will always see the best stories as the ones that combine those two for me, and that’s inherently subjective.
So for this blog post, I didn’t choose what I think of as the “best” novels by some kind of arbitrary external standard that probably doesn’t really exist. And I didn’t choose my favorites, because that’s more an exploration of my id than young adult as an overall category. Instead, I’m taking this opportunity to look at twelve novels that made me reexamine my own criteria for what makes YA something worth taking another look at- books that were the right book at the right time for me as a reader, and why each of them struck when they did.
A HOUSE LIKE A LOTUS by Madeleine L’Engle
The first time I read the novel, I didn’t get it. I mean, I really didn’t get it. I was in fifth grade, and I just kind of passed over the parts that didn’t fit into my world view. Looking back, I’m not sure how I got anything out of it without all of those parts, but I did have that emotional connection that made it one of my favorite books. A HOUSE LIKE A LOTUS is about Polly, a teenaged girl struggling with her understanding of the world in both practical and abstract ways. When I was older and reread the novel, I was stunned by how much of the world she discovers; the novel explores- sometimes delicately, sometimes clumsily- sex and sexuality, childhood and adulthood, belief and betrayal.
If you’re familiar with L’Engle’s work, it’s hard to separate LOTUS from the context of L’Engle’s other books. Polly is the daughter of Meg and Calvin, two of the protagonists of her Newbery-winning A WRINKLE IN TIME. This is never brought to the forefront, but it’s a constant undercurrent; if you’re familiar with L’Engle’s Time Quartet, the characters will ring very familiar. And it’s through that lens that it hits so hard when Max, Polly’s brilliant but troubled mentor, points out that Polly’s mother is unhappy.
Lots of young adult books deal with the complexity of realizing that the adults in your life have as many conflicting emotions as you do, but this was the first novel where I couldn’t escape the fact that the adult in question was a grown-up version of a teen protagonist I’d identified with. She hadn’t just grown up and lived happily ever after; she’d made choices, and those choices had consequences, both good and bad. A HOUSE LIKE A LOTUS is Polly’s story, but when I remember it, I think about how Charles Wallace is off on a secret mission and Calvin is performing cutting-edge surgery on animals and Sandy is an international diplomat and Meg is at home, helping with Calvin’s research and not getting her PhD because she doesn’t want any of her seven kids to feel “less than,” the way she did compared to her own mother.
A HOUSE LIKE A LOTUS isn’t the book that introduced me to intertextuality, but it’s the one that taught me- many years after my first read- that a series of books can be more than the sum of its parts.
EVIL GENIUS by Catherine Jinks
First, a word of warning: this novel starts when Cadel is seven and ends when he’s a young teenager. But this is not a middle grade novel. This is the first novel in a trilogy, and by the third book Cadel matches up to the age we expect in a YA novel, but this is not Harry Potter. There isn’t sexual content, and the violence isn’t horribly explicit, but a nine-year-old isn’t going to get much out of this. I’m 28 and some of the sociological and scientific concepts the book covers confuse me.
That said, this book is totally worth the time and effort it takes.
I love stories about giftedness, but hate stories about smart kids whose intellect is rivaled only by their failure at basic social interactions. As an awkward, nerdy kid who both had friends and liked spending time alone, I resented the idea that academic talent was inextricably linked to wanting desperately to belong and falling flat. When a friend gave me a copy of EVIL GENIUS and told me I’d love it, I cringed, but decided to give it a shot. And the book did the impossible, by turning that plot I hate into something I deeply care about.
Cadel’s genius lies largely in understanding complex systems, and he views everything as yet another case study. Being raised by not-terribly-well-meaning adults who are trying to make him the best super villain he can be does not increase his empathy. He doesn’t interact with other kids much, and while he may be lonely, he doesn’t have any real desire to be part of their world. He simply views them as gears in the larger machinery, and the story- told in close third person- allows the reader to see this as logically as he does. When Cadel slowly develops empathy, it feels earned, and we see that his intelligence wasn’t at all a blockade to connecting to other people. In fact, he’s able to use it as a bridge.
EVIL GENIUS is my reminder that there’s no story out there that’s been done to death, because there are always new angles making something old fresh. If that angle is supervillainy, so be it.
ON THE JELLICOE ROAD by Melina Marchetta
For context here, I have to explain that I am a pretentious jerk who desperately wants to be well-read enough that when the ALA awards are announced every January, I say “Oh, I read that” and promptly begin arguing whether or not the best story won. Some years, I get more into this goal than others.
The year JELLICOE won was probably the height of my commitment to this completely asinine goal. I basically stopped sleeping in favor of reading a YA novel every night. I read all of the prediction blogs, and used them to make lists that I took to libraries and bookstores. I started to get YA lit fatigue; each book I read started to feel more like a chore than a treat, and I was so stressed about reading what would win that I wasn’t registering the individual stories as much besides items to check off on a list. The day before the ALA awards were announced, though, I decided that if I hadn’t read it yet, I wouldn’t have read it. I’d read something for fun- something to relax. And I’d really liked SAVING FRANCESCA, so I figured I’d give this book I’d picked up on a whim a shot. Instead, JELLICOE wrenched me apart, and then it put me back together again.
I could talk for days about the ways JELLICOE uses various literary techniques to build an outstanding story, one which stands up even better on second read than on first. Structurally in particular, JELLICOE does what I love most in a novel: even unrelated parts parallel each other, adding depth, by the end, every aspect of the story feels complete and whole, without a beginning or an end; this is a Moebius strip of a novel. Nothing is extraneous; every piece has emotional or plot payoff, if not both, and even as the story comes full circle, so does the reader, as the appreciation of each part snowballs in the context of the pieces around it.
But more than anything, JELLICOE is a novel about the power of stories and of storytelling that also recognizes how things which help you heal are often the ones that hurt the most. None of its answers are easy, and that makes all of its answers, both good and bad, feel honest. And what matters most to me is that I found all of that in the story, not when I was looking at it with the lens of “will this win an award?”, but rather when I just sat down and let myself drown in it. When I got myself to a place where reading YA novels felt like work, JELLICOE reminded me why I choose to read in the first place.
HOUSE OF STAIRS by William Sleator
I love a good dystopia as much as the next YA aficionado, but I have to admit that every time I read one, my evaluation of it butts up against my feelings on this book. Nearly all of HOUSE OF STAIRS takes place in a single room, with only five characters. The novel is short, under 200 pages. The teenagers feel contemporary, but small details pop up which feel incongruous to what we know of our world. Gradually, the reader realizes how disturbing the world of HOUSE OF STAIRS is.
Everything about this novel is surprising, but in a way that’s earned; once you’ve read it, you’ll see how much all of the groundwork was expertly laid while you weren’t looking. My favorite part, though, is how the characters subvert stereotypes. I’m almost afraid to say more, because it gives away too much, but reading the novel there’s a sense of “Oh, I know all of the pieces in this game” that slowly dissolves as you realize you know nothing about this world- just like the characters! (Yeah, shit gets deep in this book.)
This is not a perfect book. On my most recent reread, I was horrified by the fat politics of the story; additionally, when you step back, the overall plot has some holes you could drive a truck through. But even when I was appalled or disbelieving, I never considered putting the book down; it’s that gripping. HOUSE OF STAIRS is my reminder that
YA isn’t about the biggest concept or the most ostentatious plot; a young adult novel is discovering more of your world, and that can be as big as the universe or as small as a single room with nothing but endless staircases.
DOING TIME: NOTES FROM THE UNDERGRAD by Rob Thomas
Like most librarians and publishing people on the internet, apparently, I saw Veronica Mars when it aired, fell in love, and immediately tracked down Rob Thomas’s YA novels. But I wasn’t just a quitter who stopped at RATS SAW GOD, or even SLAVE DAY. Oh no. I tracked down all of them. And while I understand why RSG was everyone’s favorite, there will always be a special place in my heart for DOING TIME.
DOING TIME: NOTES FROM THE UNDERGRAD is not technically a short story collection, but it feels like it; after the introductory chapter, each story is a first-person account from the perspective of a different kid completing their school’s mandatory volunteer hours. Nothing about this should work, but somehow it all fits together. When you hear the summary RATS SAW GOD, you say “Yes, this sounds fascinating and it definitely should work.” When you hear the summary of DOING TIME, you say “what the fuck? Are you at all familiar with the young adult market?” But the miracle of this book is that each story is successful, on its own and as a part of a larger whole.
Objectively (or as objectively as anyone can when talking about literature), this isn’t Rob Thomas’s best book. It’s self-consciously edgy, and some pieces feel like they’re just present for the sake of controversy. While every story in the collection works, some are much more successful than others, and the stories aren’t long enough to make me believe every character. DOING TIME isn’t a book I can get lost in. But it is a reminder that in the right hands, even the craziest concepts can work.
EMPRESS OF THE WORLD by Sara Ryan
There are queer novels that function primarily as Queer Novels. They are fundamentally about gayness; they are important in our canon because rather than shying away from queer relationships they dive into them headfirst. These novels are important; they pave the way. But they pave the way for books which have queer themes and queer characters but aren’t fundamentally ABOUT queerness, books that are primarily about characters discovering who they are, and if part of that is their sexuality, that isn’t the whole. EMPRESS OF THE WORLD was the first queer novel I read that wasn’t a Queer Novel, and I fell in love with it.
I can’t pretend I wasn’t predisposed to liking this. EMPRESS is about a group of teens at a summer camp for gifted students, and two of them- both girls- fall for each other. This is basically a checklist of things that would make me fall in love with a story. But EMPRESS uses all of these elements as a starting point, rather than the goal. There are both straight and queer romances in this novel, and obviously those are the focus, but what grabs me is the group’s immediate deep friendship, the kind that you only develop at summer camp. I knew enough of the concept to expect, going in, that we’d see characters explore their sexualities, but what struck me even more the first time I read it was that this book had non-white and non-Christian characters, just as a matter of course.
Sexuality, race, and religion are all just factors in the greater task of exploring who these characters are as human beings, and no one part of their identities exists in a vacuum.
EMPRESS OF THE WORLD is the story that reminds me a novel is only as strong as the relationships that form its foundation, and world building is only as strong as the people inhabiting that space.
[Note that may or may not be necessary: I’m using “queer” here as a catch-all term for QUILTBAG- queer, uncertain, intersex, lesbian, trans*, bisexual, asexual, gay.]
THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE STORY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN by Sherman Alexie
This is not a book I would recommend if you’re interested in young adult literature. This is a book I’d recommend if you live in the world.
A lot of these books I have a single explanation for, a specific thing that makes it special. The closest I can come with this book is that, while Junior is clearly the protagonist and we are definitely rooting for him, there isn’t anyone I’d identify as straight-up villain. There are antagonists, but everyone is complex and human, and characters who do awful things also show complexity when you least expect it. This is a universe filled with people who behave like people, and through all the plot twists and turns, the novel never loses sight of how the root of every action is in real humans beings.
One of my golden rules for exceptional novels is that you should genuinely believe that, outside of the protagonist’s point of view, every single character has a full life and is living out their own complex thematic arc that occasionally happens to intersect with the main character’s. For me, this novel is the gold standard in that.
AFTER TUPAC AND D. FOSTER by Jacqueline Woodson
Jacqueline Woodson’s novels tend to exist in the space between middle grade and young adult, and judging by the Newbery honor it got, I know that most people would classify this one as middle grade. The characters are only twelve, and while I’m sure some parts of the plot could be seen as “edgy,” the three girls in this story are constantly aware of the dangers of the world without ever succumbing to them.
What makes this novel YA for me, though, is how much the story exists on a precipice. Neeka, D, and the narrator (she’s never named) see all around them what growing up means- both becoming a teen and becoming an adult- and they’re simultaneously desperate to make that jump and determined to stay where they are. What makes AFTER TUPAC AND D FOSTER exceptional, for me, is that it manages this without ever being nostalgic. The text doesn’t romanticize adulthood, childhood, or adolescence. And that choice makes the emotional impact more, rather than less, because every development feels achingly real.
I’ve known for a while that young adult literature shouldn’t be nostalgic, but this novel is what I look toward when I think about how that doesn’t mean it can’t remember the beautiful moments and the terrible moments that you don’t always notice when you’re in the middle of them.
NORTH OF BEAUTIFUL by Justina Chen
Mixed-media is my favorite style of art. I’m constantly amazed at what can be done with collage, using several different materials to create something that’s more than the sum of its parts. But I’m always suspicious of art in literature. Too often, it’s just there because the writer and much of the target audience (I include myself in this!) views a creative outlet as a necessary part of existing. Art needs to be used deftly, I think, to capture the idea that the act of creating isn’t just a source of joy. It’s also frightening, and that’s part of what makes it so valuable.
The protagonist of NORTH OF BEAUTIFUL, Terra, loves working on collages even as she denies being an artist. Throughout the novel, she evaluates her circumstances in the context of her art. Her father doesn’t support her art, and she doesn’t have much faith in it herself, but at the same time, it shapes her world view. Terra is self-conscious about the birthmark on her face, and she uses her art to discover her own definition of beauty. She slowly learns to view each piece of her life as one item in a larger collage, and at the same time, to view her collages as things worthy of being seen and appreciated by others. Throughout this, though, the novel admirably refrains from hitting the reader over the head with the symbolism of collage. Terra is allowed to slowly discover how her art and her worldview are related, while rarely explicitly spelling it out.
NORTH OF BEAUTIFUL is about a lot of things. It’s about geocaching; it’s about living up to expectations; it’s about unrealistic standards of beauty. All of those are probably more central to the plot than the motif of artwork. But none are more important to me. When I think about this novel, I think about the excitement and terror of destroying things to make new and better things, and how expertly that’s woven into the text- one of many pieces that contributes to the novel being more than the sum of its parts. It’s really difficult to integrate symbolism in a way that feels honest to the reader and realistic in the text, and it’s to this book’s credit that it pulls it off so well.
BLEEDING VIOLET by Dia Reeves
I love and hate books about mental illness in equal measure. I love them because I think, done right, they’re some of the most brutally honest reflections on what it means to be a person. I hate them because, so often, a character is reduced to a stereotype of a disorder, and that stereotype is the plot of the story as well as the whole of what passes for personality.
Hanna identifies as bipolar. But that isn’t all she is. Even though she’s clearly unbalanced, far beyond bipolarity- within the first chapter we learn she talks to her father’s ghost and she’s probably killed someone- she’s learned to allow herself to live a life that works for her, sometimes in ways that are incredibly detrimental but often in ways that show how people are fundamentally resilient. It isn’t normal, but it’s how she’s learned to cope. So when she finds herself in the town of Portero, a town which is dangerously supernatural in ways no paranormal romance could prepare you for, she doesn’t get frightened and leave. Her abrupt mood shifts and her tenuous grip on reality, which have hurt her in so many other places, help her adjust to a town where things change on a dime and the surreal is a fact of life. As a reader familiar with unreliable narrators, it’s easy to place Hanna into that box, but that’s as unwise as trusting Hanna completely. She’s crazy, but she’s also often right.
This is a bleak book. If you’re squeamish, you don’t want to read this. (And you especially don’t want to read Dia Reeves’s other book; compared to that, this is tame.) It’s also a very disquieting reading experience. Much of the enjoyment in the book seems to stem from how much you believe Hanna, and how much you’re willing to go along with her for the ride. I don’t see this as a flaw with the writing, but rather a consequence of how successful the writing is. Hanna’s psyche is dangerous, and getting tangled up in her mindset is unsettling. But that discomfort lends to the atmosphere of the book, and when I think about books with such strong character and voice that they can take me anywhere, BLEEDING VIOLET is the first that comes to mind.
HOUSE OF THE SCORPION by Nancy Farmer
In the same year, HOUSE OF THE SCORPION got a Printz honor, a Newbery honor, and the National Book Award medal. The year it won, my writing prof told me I’d get a lot out of reading it. I saw how long the novel was, saw the family tree at the beginning that told me how complex the story would be, and decided to ignore her advice. I didn’t think any novel could be worth that much work. I was so, so wrong.
There are plenty of books for children and young adults about drugs, but very few are this nuanced. This isn’t about the dangers of opium, or even of the drug trade; this is a novel about power and identity, and it uses contemporary issues to create a dangerous science-fiction world that feels terrifyingly plausible. From the first pages, we know Matt is the clone of a powerful dictator, who rules over a strip of land between the United States and what was once Mexico. Over the course of the novel, although the story goes deep, we are aware we’re barely scratch the surface of what that means. We learn just enough to realize how many other layers lie just beneath.
Despite being blatant and even over-the-top about how terrible the world can be (there are multiple dystopias within the same universe, and the very idea of a place of safety is an illusion), HOUSE OF THE SCORPION is often quite subtle. It can achieve this because the novel is told from Matt’s point of view. The novel can be terrifying, but while occasionally it’s graphic, most of the true horror exists in the space between what Matt understands and what the reader does. When I want to remember how much authors can trust their audience to fill in the blanks, this is the text I return to.
WELCOME TO THE ARK by Stephanie S. Tolan
This book is a cheat to include on the list. I can’t tell you what about it makes it good, or even that it really is good. What I know is that the first time I read this book I couldn’t put it down, and that while the cover on my copy has fallen off, I refuse to replace it. This book is, for me, a marker in time and place; when and where I read it are as ingrained in me as the plot and the characters.
WELCOME TO THE ARK is ostensibly the first book of a trilogy (the third book still hasn’t come out, and it’s over ten years later), about two children and two teenagers who meet at an experimental group home within a mental institution. All four of them are extraordinarily gifted in different ways, and while alone each of them is isolated, they find themselves are able to connect with each other- and through that with the world- in ways which defy explanation. It’s a mostly-realistic story that has fantasy elements; it is wish fulfillment for every kid who feels like there’s no one in the world who sees the world as they do.
This is the book that reminds me that at the end of the day, the book that we need to read- whether or not we know why we need it, or even that we do- is a hell of a lot more important than any other standard we can place on the literature we read.