So, now that I’ve ranted about people who get snobby about YA lit, it’s time to recommend some of those books I love so much. Some of these are more middle-grade than YA, but whatever the label, they’re high quality books that you might have fond memories of reading as a kid—or, if you haven’t read them yet, you might enjoy reading as an adult.
The Book Thief by Markus Zuzak
I first read this book about five years ago. Warning: do not read it on public transportation. I started crying on the T when I finished it.
Anyway, it takes place in Nazi Germany, and it is narrated by Death himself. Death is not a villain, just a benign force with a job to do. It tells the story of Liesel, a foster child who has lost her brother and been abandoned by her parents. The family she lives with is hiding a Jewish man in the basement, and as the war goes on and life becomes more and more chaotic, Liesel finds comfort by stealing books wherever she can find them to read and share with others. It’s a wonderful book—sad, but absolutely beautifully written.
I Am the Messenger by Markus Zuzak
This isn’t as heavy as The Book Thief, but just as deep. Ed Kennedy is a nineteen-year-old cabbie and kind of a loser, with little in his life to be proud of. Then one day, after he foils a bank robbery, he receives an Ace of Diamonds in the mail with a list of addresses and times. Soon he realizes that they represent tasks that he must complete. The whole idea behind the book is that people are capable of much more than they realize, and although that’s a platitude that you can tell yourselves a million times but never believe, it touched me deeply when I read it here.
The Giver by Lois Lowry
This might be the highest-concept children’s novel I’ve ever read. It creates a dystopian world devoid of color, of music, of strong emotions, and most of all, of choice. In the community where twelve-year-old Jonas lives, everything is decided by orderly process—a person’s career, spouse, number of children, and the ages at which certain milestones, such as riding a bike, are reached. But when Jonas turns twelve, he learns that he has been selected to be the Receiver of Memory and learn about the past. An old man he calls the Giver transmits memories to Jonas, and he begins to know of the joy and sorrow of the world before the only world he has ever known. Despite the heavy subject matter, it’s easy to understand and extremely thought-provoking. If you didn’t read this as a kid, believe me, you will still enjoy it now.
Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes by Chris Crutcher
Eric, a shy, overweight teenager, bonded with his best friend, Sarah Byrnes, over their shared status as outsiders. Sarah Byrnes has lived with horrific scars on her face and hands since being burned at age three. One day, Sarah Byrnes suddenly stops speaking and is placed in a hospital, and eventually Eric discovers a horrible secret that she has been hiding for years. Besides the friendship at the heart of the book, which rings very true, there are a lot of interesting subplots that add a lot to the book—Eric’s conflicts with a swimming teammate (side note: I love this book for actually portraying competitive swimming in a pretty realistic way—movies and TV never get swimming right); a class at school that causes characters to reflect on issues like abortion, suicide, and religion; romantic possibilities for both Eric and his single mother. Although it certainly has flaws, not the least of which is the implausibility of Eric not guessing Sarah Byrnes’s secret earlier, this book has stayed in my thoughts for so long because its characters are so memorable, and even most of the characters who start off unlikeable have moments of redemption. Ms. Lemry, Eric’s compassionate teacher and swim coach, was one who especially stuck with me.
Looking for Alaska by John Green
I just read this book recently and liked it a lot. The book starts “one hundred thirty-six days before” and ends “one hundred thirty-six days after.” In the “Before” section, Miles Halter leaves the high school where he’s been an outcast to attend a boarding school in Alabama. Immediately, he makes friends, including his roommate, nicknamed “the Colonel,” and a beautiful and charismatic girl named Alaska. Halfway through the book, we learn that the “before” and “after refer to Alaska’s sudden death in a car crash that may or may not have been a suicide. As Miles and the Colonel try to uncover clues to explain Alaska’s death, Miles realizes how little he really knew about the girl he’d been so infatuated with. As sad as it is, there is a lot of humor mixed in and a lot of memorable, wonderfully drawn characters.
Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
I actually blogged about this book awhile ago, but it’s worth mentioning again. This is a young adult novel that begins after a teenage girl named Hannah commits suicide. The narrator, Clay, had a crush on Hannah and is devastated by her death. Then one day, he gets a package in the mail containing several audio tapes. Before her death, Hannah recorded herself explaining her state of mind before her suicide. Each side of each tape explains what one person did that played a part in her decision to end her life, and the tapes have been passed down from one person mentioned on the tapes to another, in the order that they’re mentioned. A lot of actions had unintended consequences, and Hannah herself is not innocent in that regard. It did bother me how Hannah seemed to blame her problems on so many other people and had so little regard for her parents, who weren’t the source of her problems. But this was an engrossing, thought-provoking read overall, and I like that the book acknowledges that suicidal depression isn’t always caused by one big thing, but sometimes by smaller things that add up and spiral out of control.
The Wayside School series by Louis Sachar
Okay, I feel like I’ve recommended a lot of very dark books here, so now for something lighter. These books—Sideways Stories from Wayside School, Wayside School is Falling Down, and Wayside School Gets a Little Stranger— are really for younger kids—I first read them in third grade—but I find them just as entertaining now. They’re about a wacky thirty-story-high school with one classroom on each floor—except there is no nineteenth story. The books, too, have thirty “stories.” Most stories focus on one kid in Mrs. Jewls’ class on the thirtieth story. All kinds of crazy things happen—a teacher who turns kids into apples, a talking dead rat, three strange men with an attaché case who show up at unexpected times to keep the school in order. They’re hilarious and a lot of fun to read.
Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech
This is the Newbery Medal winner from 1995. Thirteen-year-old Sal is traveling across America with her quirky grandparents and begins to tell them a story about her friend Phoebe. Shortly after Sal and her father moved to a new town, Sal’s new friend Phoebe’s mother disappears suddenly. Phoebe is convinced that her mother has been murdered by a young man who has been showing up at her front door, or perhaps by a neighbor who she thinks has murdered her husband. But as she tells Phoebe’s story, Sal starts reflecting on the absence of her own mother, a Native American whose personal problems led her to leave home. It’s a wonderful story—gently funny in some places, deeply sad in others.
Absolutely Normal Chaos by Sharon Creech
Technically, this is a prequel to Walk Two Moons, but it doesn’t matter what order you read them in. The main character in this book, Mary Lou, is a minor character in Walk Two Moons. She’s been assigned to keep a journal over the summer for school, and she ends up documenting a crazy summer. While living in a chaotic household with her parents and four siblings, she experiences everything from the unexpected death of a neighbor to conflict with a friend to a developing crush on a classmate to the arrival of a quiet and occasionally frustrating cousin to stay with them for the summer. She also reads The Odyssey and provides her own entertaining commentary as she makes her way through it. There are serious moments, but for the most part, this is a much lighter read than Walk Two Moons, with laugh-out-loud funny moments throughout.