Beyond red, black, and death…
Now. Don’t get me wrong, there are things I adore about the current wave of the red/black/death/vampire stuff in the teen sections of bookshops nowadays (Hodges Figgis actually has a separate section within their teen books for this stuff) – it is fantastic to see new editions of Christopher Pike’s The Last Vampire series, as well as some of his other books (Read them. Read them all.), and to see teen books doing well, but occasionally (as a writer and reader of realistic fiction) I get gloomy. So many vampires and werewolves and zombies and fallen angels…
I also know that for a lot of readers, the ones who’ve been reading all along (instead of suddenly discovering books exist, as so often happens when there are big bestsellers out there), it’s off-putting to feel like something as huge in scope as young adult fiction is being reduced to a couple of its current trends. It feels like all there is is the red/black/death stuff.
One of the great appeals of having books categorised by age is that it evens out the playing field in other ways. It’s basically having, in that one section of the bookshop, what would happen if all those General Fiction/Literary Fiction/Irish Interest/Fantasy/Horror/Crime/Science Fiction/Classics/Anthologies barriers dissolved. You do hear, more frequently than is really necessary, “oh, it’s written for teens, but actually it’s a really good book”, but at the same time that snobbishness and mentality cuts down on what people say about ‘adult’ novels, the “it’s just light reading but…” or “it’s just a thriller/crime novel/romance/page-turner…” stuff that people throw out to justify reading something they actually enjoyed reading.
So there is more to the teen section in bookshops, in books generally, than the red/black/death. Lots more. This would be the part where I start making suggestions….
Meg Cabot turns up in the black/red/death for her The Mediator series (originally published under Jenny Carroll), but The Princess Diaries books, though occasionally irritating, are definitely worth reading. But the best ones are the standalones (and I’m immediately going to contradict myself here, because there are two All-American Girl books, both brilliant), including Teen Idol, Tommy Sullivan Is A Freak and How To Be Popular.
Sarah Dessen writes love stories that go way beyond love stories, the kind of entanglements that happen when you’re not quite ready for them and yet need anyway, because of everything else that’s going on. Family looms large in Dessen’s books, as does summer – the long days of a different routine and pace, when you get that little bit closer to discovering who you are. Her latest is Along for the Ride.
Deb Caletti is another one writing what are ostensibly love stories and actually journeys of self-discovery. The supporting characters are always fleshed out, and there is always a sense of the narrators figuring out where they fit in the wider world, not just at school/home/in a relationship. Her latest is The Six Rules of Maybe, though you’re more likely to find Honey, Baby, Sweetheart or Wild Roses on this side of the Atlantic.
Abby McDonald writes smart, funny, feminist books. Life Swap is the best take on the ‘let’s trade lives! Fish out of water!’ plot I’ve seen.
Siobhan Vivian writes terrific, realistic, funny, compelling books about friendships and romances and creativity. Highly recommend her second novel, Same Difference; her third, Not That Kind of Girl, is out now.
E Lockhart writes funny, quirky, insightful books about teenagers. I can take or leave the Ruby Oliver books, but Dramarama and The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks are two of my favourites.
Sara Ryan, despite being very fond of and knowledgeable about fantasy and sci-fi, has written two of my very favourite contemporary YA novels – Empress of the World and The Rules for Hearts.
Adele Geras writes a number of different things, but when she writes realistic fiction, it is thoughtful and quiet and moving and stunning. Pick up silent snow, secret snow or the Egerton Hall trilogy (The Tower Room, Watching the Roses and Pictures of the Night).
Laurie Halse Anderson will blow you away. Speak is an extraordinary book about being a teenager and being afraid. Catalyst (even though I think Kate is a lot more right about things than the book gives her credit for) is another stunner about what happens when the life plan goes off-course. Prom is a fun Cinderella retelling; Twisted dissects the male teen psyche; Wintergirls is a modern day Persephone story about ghosts and eating disorders.
David Levithan has written several extraordinary books for teens, including the very brilliant Boy Meets Boy, the heartbreaking/heartwarming Marly’s Ghost, the thought-provoking Wide Awake and Love Is The Higher Law, and (with Rachel Cohn) Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist and Naomi & Ely’s No-Kiss List. Sharp, fast-paced, and sympathetic.
John Green gets a lot of love on the internets generally, but is being mentioned in this list anyway for smart and quirky realistic fiction – with (gasp!) male narrators. Why, realistic teen books for boys do exist after all! I have a particular fondness for An Abundance of Katherines, which has anagrams and a mathematical formula to predict break-ups.
Garret Freymann-Weyr writes exquisitely. She has written five YA novels and I can’t recommend just one, but if I had to it would be My Heartbeat. Or maybe Stay With Me. Or After the Moment. Or The Kings Are Already Here. Or When I Was Older. Hmm. The teen characters in these books are thoughtful and introspective, and the adult characters are consistently complex and compelling.
Jacqueline Wilson has written approximately ten bajillion books, for children and teenagers. Some of my favourites for older readers include Kiss, Dustbin Baby, My Sister Jodie, and the Girls quartet.
Sara Zarr writes about family and redemption of various kinds. Story of a Girl, about a girl who dreams of getting out of her small town and is still haunted by an early sexual encounter, is a moving read. Zarr’s most recent book, Once Was Lost, is about a reverend’s daughter and life falling to pieces around her one summer.
Donna Freitas‘s The Possibilities of Sainthood and This Gorgeous Game are two very different but equally compelling books about girls, love, obsessions, religion, and family.
Elizabeth Scott writes consistently readable fiction, mostly realistic, including The Unwritten Rule, Something, Maybe, Bloom, and my favourite Love You Hate You Miss You. Particularly worth noting is the way that parental relationships are always handled in an interesting way, rather than falling into either category of invisible/overbearing parents.
Julie Anne Peters writes teen fiction mostly LGBTQ-related, including the stunning Luna (dealing with transgender issues), Keeping You A secret (oh, Holland and Cece!) and Rage: A Love Story (intense/damaging relationships).
Melina Marchetta is a superb Australian author, whose Jellicoe Road and Saving Francesca are well worth checking out.
Gayle Forman‘s If I Stay has potentially fantastical elements, but it’s how real it all feels that makes it so moving.
Sally Nicholls writes mostly about death. Ways to Live Forever and Season of Secrets are often shelved for older readers for partly this reason, I think. Well worth reading, but do have tissues handy.
Rachel Vail understands the details of teen friendships, obsessions and feelings. Her books ring true. Particularly recommended are Ever After and You, Maybe.
Ned Vizzini‘s It’s Kind of a Funny Story is a terrific (and funny) book about depression and self-expression. This and Be More Chill are fantastic additions to the ‘realistic fiction for boys, should they want such a thing’ category.
Ellen Wittlinger‘s Hard Love and its sequel, Love & Lies: Marisol’s Story, are two amazing books about love, writing, and self-discovery. There are no easy answers or neat solutions: sometimes people get hurt, and quite often they don’t get what they want.
Kevin Brooks writes fiction that isn’t afraid to go dark. Lucas is one of my favourites.
Melvin Burgess wrote Junk and really, that’s all you need to know. ‘Gritty’ is a word thrown around a little too much, perhaps, but it definitely applies to Burgess’s realistic fiction for teens.
(For the sake of my own sanity, I’ve left recent debut authors with only a first novel out off the list. I know we got an extra hour today, but nevertheless…)