YA Fiction

It’s no use denying it any longer…we’ve hit YA territory.  I honestly didn’t see this coming.  I thought Stage Four Chapter Books would wrap things up nicely, to be honest.  But then Roy turned 11 and he read Every Hidden Thing.  And then he turned 12.  And Geordie read Eleanor and Park.  So here we are.

My very first trip to the YA section of the bookstore was a rude awakening:  what’s up with all the vampires?!  What’s up with all the romance?!   Yikes — this is going to be the most challenging group to curate of them all…

Roy’s first foray into YA was actually The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, which I’d purchased for a later date but he picked it up when he was somewhere between 10 and 11.  Soon after that, he read Green’s An Abundance of Katherines.  It was only about a month ago that things really picked up; here are his recommendations thus far, including Green’s two aforementioned titles:

Every Hidden Thing, Kenneth Oppel (romance between competing teen archaeologists; a couple of very tasteful and brief sex scenes)

Challenger Deep, Neal Shusterman (main character slips into schizophrenia)

The Bunker Diary, Kevin Brooks (Roy said it was like The Hunger Games but darker and more believable…yikes…)

Eleanor and Park, Rainbow Rowell (massive hit, smart, funny, sad romance)

The Chocolate War, Robert Cormier (classic!)

We Are All Made of Molecules, Susin Nielsen (another big hit and critical darling, with good reason — funny and moving)

Dorothy Must Die, Danielle Page (he gobbled up the first one in a single sitting, and immediately demanded the rest of the series from the library…now, Mum! These books touch on important major themes, like: does power corrupt?  is it better to exact revenge or mercy? I love anything that questions the nature of a simplistic good guy vs bad guy plot, and these books certainly do.)

This one Geordie has read, but not Roy:

Lies We Tell Ourselves, Robin Talley (I’m so grateful for this book, which not only shines a light on the civil rights era, but also on marginalized sexualities, by featuring a gentle love story between a black girl and a white girl in 1959 Virginia).  We also recommend her book What We Left Behind, which tells the story of Toni and Gretchen, who, despite being an “out” teenaged gay couple, are widely admired and respected.  They are deeply in love, but when they leave for different universities, things begin to shift as Toni moves towards a new gender identity and Gretchen grapples with who she is and what she wants as an individual.

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Canadian author Eric Walters is almost an institution, he’s got so many books out.  This one, called Just Deserts is about a teenaged boy whose reckless behaviour finally pushes his dad to make a desperate move: drop the kid in the Sahara Desert with three other teens so he can try and make his way out.

There’s so much distopian YA fiction out there, but Scythe, by Neal Shusterman, rises above the pack not only with its premise but with the questions it asks about what we, as a society, might be willing to sacrifice for a world without hunger, disease, and war. What happens when we figure out how to cure death?  How does a population manage itself?  Two protagonists here, one girl and one boy, are apprenticed to become scythes — the people responsible for carrying out this population control.

Both Roy and Geordie loved The Art of Picking Up Girls (and other dangerous things) by Eric Walters, in which a boy who is unlucky in love starts playing wing man to a popular ladies man.  Luckily, he meets someone who reminds him that there are better ways to meet girls.

Roy and Geordie both loved Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia; in fact, Roy read it more than once while it was on loan from the library.  The story deals with extremely current and important topics like teen depression and isolation, online lives vs real lives, celebrity and fandom….  Eliza, though awkward, shy and alone at high school, is secretly the creator of a hugely popular webcomic.  A series of events, however, threatens to unbalance the carefully constructed separate lives she lives.

The Other F-Word, by Natasha Friend, is long overdue, as it explores the lives of five teens who were conceived using the same sperm donor, and who finally meet.  Roy and Geordie both liked this one, and I’m so glad they had the chance to read a book that portrayed gay couples as parents.

I heard about Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor after Okorafor was interviewed on the CBC.  She is, to put it mildly, a force, and is making a place for black female heroines in the traditionally white-male bastion of sci fi and fantasy.  She’s won multiple awards and nominations for her writing, and it seems as if every major publication has sung her praises in their book review section.  In the story, Sunny is an albino Black girl in Nigeria, though she was born in the US.  She doesn’t feel she fits in anywhere – American but West African, white but black, active but restricted to the dark – until classmates help her discover that she has magical powers.  A lot of them.  Check out the sequel, too!

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein is not for the faint of heart:  two young women working as British secret agents during WWII are thrown together and then torn apart.  We learn about their story gradually, as one is interrogated by the Gestapo, but the pace is anything but slow.

Material Girls by Elaine Dimopoulos got zero attention when it was published, which is a head-scratcher because it’s actually very good, tackling the fashion industry’s tyrannical, often arbitrary dictums as to what’s in and what’s out.  Marla, once a powerful teen arbiter of taste, gets tossed after disagreeing with her peers.  Ivy, a singer, feels a teen pop princess nipping at her heels.  A very compelling look at fashion and music and how they manipulate and control public attention.

Roy was absolutely thrilled with Warcross, a sci-fi thriller by Marie Lu.  I’m not entirely clear on the details, but the protagonist, Emika Chen, is a hacker and bounty hunter looking for Warcross players who bet on the game illegally.  There are hacks, championships, spies, rabid fans…fast-paced, obviously….  Lu’s Legend series was equally enjoyed; another female protagonist, June, is a military prodigy whose elite upbringing is in stark contrast to Day’s origins in the slums of what used to be the USA but is now a Republic at war with the Colonies.  The two are brought together when June’s brother is murdered.

They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera is at once completely current and futuristic:  two young men are contacted by Death-Cast and given their End Day — the day they’re going to die.  An app called  Last Friend connects them so they can make the most of their last day of life. Don’t worry:  it’s ultimately equal parts hope and despair, lightness and dark.  Roy loved it.  Geordie wouldn’t touch it.

Kat has anxiety.  Meg has ADHD.  Neither is exactly thriving, especially now that they’ve arrived in high school, but when they’re paired for a year-long science project, they find new levels of life to be lived.  Kat and Meg Conquer the World by Anna Priemaza is one of those increasingly rare books that BOTH Roy and Geordie LOVED. HUZZAH!

In Other Lands, by Sarah Rees Brennan, 13-year-old Elliot goes on a school trip and finds he can see a wall that no one else can see.  This is his ticket to another world, where he’ll go to school with elves, harpies, and mermaids, and take classes in things like weaponry. Perhaps most exciting is that he will meet Serene and her human friend Luke.  And then there’s a bit about saving the world.  Very contemporary style here, despite the presence of elves – sarcastic humour, words like “badass” and “awesome,” etc.  Part adventure, part sci-fi, part fantasy, part romance….  Roy’s pick.

Natalie Standiford’s come up with a smart conceit that, while familiar for adult readers, might be new to the YA genre.  In Confessions of the Sullivan Sisters, the aging matriarch of a wealthy family brings together her son, his wife and their six children to inform them that one of them has offended her deeply, and unless they come forward and confess and apologize, the whole family will be cut out of the will.  Naturally, multiple confessions start coming out of the woodwork in the ensuing day.  This was Geordie’s pick.

Recommended by BOTH Roy and Geordie (!):  A Short History of the Girl Next Door, by Jared Reck.  This is an edgier look at what it’s like to be in high school (complete with a realistic amount of swearing), with very smart, perceptive observations coming from its freshman narrator, Matt.  These are not stock characters by any means – Matt and the people in his life ring absolutely true, as do their problems.  Great sports angle (loads of basketball), true love, heartbreak….

The Shadow Cipher is the first book in a forthcoming series by Laura Ruby.  I think you might call it a bit steampunk – an 1800s rethinking of New York City as built….  OK, I’m really tired and I honestly can’t come up with anything succinct.  This is one of Roy’s picks, which usually means that the plot is extremely difficult to summarize, so I’m just going to cut and paste here.  Forgive me: it’s “an epic alternate history series about three kids who try to solve the greatest mystery of the modern world: a puzzle and treasure hunt laid into the very streets and buildings of New York City.”  And: “The pleasures of the novel go far beyond the crackling, breathless plot and the satisfaction of watching the puzzle fall into place. The book is shot through with humor, both laugh-out-loud and subtle.”  There.  Done.