For this month’s genre guide, we’re focusing on Westerns. Classic Westerns that most people are familiar with are usually characterized by their setting: the American frontier in the 18th and 19th centuries. They’re often high on action and feature an abundance of cowboys, outlaws, sheriffs, and settlers. They’re also known for often problematic depictions of American Indians. Popular authors for adults include Zane Grey, Louis L’Amour, Elmer Kelton, and Larry McMurtry.
I have to admit, I’ve put off writing about Westerns for a while because I just don’t read them that often. I’m not the only one: Western reading hit its zenith in the 1960s and has been dropping off ever since. Anecdotally, we’ve significantly reduced the number of Western titles for adults at my library because they’re simply not being read as often as they used to be. There’s a bit of a bias against them as being old, dusty, and irrelevant. Even the covers of newly-published Westerns set in contemporary times have a very retro feel.
That doesn’t mean there’s not a readership for them. When you find westerns in YA, they’re usually not marketed as such (probably at least in part because of the bias I mentioned above). Instead, they fall under the umbrella term of historical or contemporary fiction, and the selling point is the adventure or a specific part of the setting (the Oregon Trail, for example), rather than the Western setting in general. This makes searching for YA Westerns a bit more difficult since they’re usually not physically delineated in the bookstore or library (then again, neither is historical fiction). Subject headings are your friend: Frontier and pioneer life, West – History – Fiction, and Overland journeys to the Pacific are a few that would net results.
Despite its decline in popularity, there are a number of authors doing fresh and interesting work with the genre today, particularly for teens. They’re helping to diversify the genre (Stacey Lee) and expand its definition (Moira Young). Genre crossover happens frequently, such as with Patricia C. Wrede’s Frontier Magic series. Teens interested in stories about brave young women and men tackling dangerous situations, exploring unknown lands, and surviving on their own in a harsh setting would be interested in YA Westerns, though they may not know to ask for them specifically.
- The Hub has a couple of good posts discussing YA Westerns, including reading lists.
- The Western Writers of America is an organization dedicated to promoting the literature of the American West, and their definition is expansive. They give out the Spur Awards annually, including one for juvenile fiction.
- Women Writing the West is an organization that promotes Westerns by and about women and girls. They also offer an award, the WILLA, that recognizes the best published stories each year about women and girls set in the American West, including a Children’s/Young Adult category.
- The 2001 Popular Paperbacks committee selected 22 Westerns for teens.
- Historical Novels has a list of YA books set in the American Old West organized by topic. Most of these titles are older (early 2000s and before).
Below are a few books published within the last five years, a few forthcoming titles, and a few that are a bit older but still circulate well among teens. I’ve also thrown in a few middle grade titles that may appeal to younger teens. Descriptions are from WorldCat and links lead to our reviews when applicable. Any we missed? Any diverse titles in particular to add to the list? Let us know in the comments.
Wanted by Heidi Ayarbe
Seventeen-year-old Michal Garcia, a bookie at Carson City High School,
raises the stakes in her illegal activities after she meets wealthy,
risk-taking Josh Ellison.
Vengeance Road by Erin Bowman (September 2015)
When her father is killed by the notorious Rose Riders for a mysterious
journal that reveals the secret location of a gold mine,
eighteen-year-old Kate Thompson disguises herself as a boy and takes to
the gritty plains looking for answers–and justice.
Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson (September 2015)
A young woman with the
magical ability to sense the presence of gold must flee her home, taking
her on a sweeping and dangerous journey across Gold Rush–era America.
Relic by Renee Collins
After a raging fire consumes her town and kills her parents, Maggie
Davis is on her own to protect her younger sister and survive the best
she can in the Colorado town of Burning Mesa. Working in a local saloon, Maggie
befriends the spirited showgirl Adelaide and falls for the roguish
cowboy Landon. But when she proves to have a particular skill at
harnessing the relics’ powers, Maggie is whisked away to the glamorous
hacienda of Álvar Castilla, the wealthy young relic baron who runs
Nobody But Us by Kristin Halbrook
Told in their separate voices, eighteen-year-old Will who has aged out
of foster care, and fifteen-year-old Zoe whose father beats her, set out
for Las Vegas together, but their escape may prove more dangerous than
what they left behind.
The Water Seeker by Kimberly Willis Holt
Traces the hard life, filled with losses, adversity, and adventure, of
Amos, son of a trapper and dowser, from 1833 when his mother dies giving
birth to him until 1859, when he has grown up and has a son of his own.
Grace and the Guiltless by Erin Johnson
When Grace’s parents and siblings are murdered by the Guiltless Gang for
their Arizona horse ranch outside Tombstone, she vows to devote her
life to revenge–but the Chiricahua she finds sanctuary with try to
teach her a better way.
Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson
sixteen-year-old orphan Hattie Brooks travels from Iowa in 1917 to make a
home for herself and encounters some unexpected problems related to the
war being fought in Europe. | Sequel: Hattie Ever After
Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee
In 1845, Sammy, a Chinese American girl, and Annamae, an African
American slave girl, disguise themselves as boys and travel on the
Oregon Trail to California from Missouri. | Read Stacey Lee’s guest post on friendship for our About the Girls series.
The Devil’s Paintbox by Victoria McKernan
In 1865, fifteen-year-old Aiden and his thirteen-year-old sister Maddy,
penniless orphans, leave drought-stricken Kansas on a wagon train hoping
for a better life in Seattle, but find there are still many hardships
to be faced.
The Last Summer of the Death Warriors by Francisco X. Stork
Seventeen-year-old Pancho is bent on avenging the senseless death of his
sister, but after he meets D.Q, who is dying of cancer, and Marisol,
one of D.Q.’s caregivers, both boys find their lives changed by their
How I Became a Ghost by Tim Tingle
A Choctaw boy tells the story of his tribe’s removal from the only land
its people had ever known, and how their journey to Oklahoma led him to
become a ghost–one with the ability to help those he left behind.
Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool
Abilene Tucker feels abandoned. Her father has put her on a train,
sending her off to live with an old friend for the summer while he works
a railroad job. Armed only with a few possessions and her list of universals, Abilene jumps off the train in Manifest, Kansas, aiming to learn about the boy her father once was.
Thirteenth Child by Patricia C. Wrede
Eighteen-year-old Eff must finally get over believing she is bad luck
and accept that her special training in Aphrikan magic, and being the
twin of the seventh son of a seventh son, give her extraordinary power
to combat magical creatures that threaten settlements on the western
frontier. | Sequels: Across the Great Barrier, The Far West
Blood Red Road by Moira Young
In a distant future, eighteen-year-old Lugh is kidnapped, and while his
twin sister Saba and nine-year-old Emmi are trailing him across bleak
Sandsea they are captured too, and taken to brutal Hopetown, where Saba
is forced to be a cage fighter until new friends help plan an escape. | Sequels: Rebel Heart, Raging Star