And some more YA…
Sarah Dessen – Saint Anything
Dessen’s twelfth book has been pitched as darker than her others, but for me Dreamland will always be that book. In this latest, Sydney deals with being an invisible girl – the one in the shadows in her family, as attention is paid to her charismatic and troubled older brother Peyton. The novel begins with Peyton sentenced to jail time after a car accident that left a kid paralysed; Sydney’s haunted by the thought of this kid, while her parents are more concerned with how Peyton’s getting on. When she makes friends with a family that includes a supportive new friend, Layla, and potential love interest, Mac, she sees their problems too – an ill mother and a recovering addict sister – and starts to process what’s going on in her own life. There’s also a really intriguing subplot about a creepy guy, a friend of Peyton’s, who’s hanging around and not doing anything that pushes the boundaries just yet – but who Sydney finds unsettling. A great read for Dessen fans – I’m not sure it’s her Best Ever but it’s damn good.
Alyssa Brugman – Alex As Well
This book broke my heart. I liked it, but found it horrifying. The central narrator is fifteen-year-old Alex, who’s been raised as a boy but now identifies as female – and what she has never been told is that she was born intersex and the meds she takes are hormones to make her more ‘male’. The mother, in particular, is an utterly awful parent; we see her yammering in parenting forums and people basically supporting her total lack of supporting her kid, and it’s all just a little unsettling. It’s an interesting but not especially in-depth look at gender issues and terrible parenting.
Liz Kessler – Read Me Like A Book
Ashley’s never particularly liked school, but when her new English teacher, Miss Murray, comes along and encourages her talent for debating, it opens a number of doors for Ash – including her interest in women. This coming-out story was fifteen years in the making and is a great addition to the UK queer YA canon. (Interview with the lovely Liz forthcoming in Inis magazine later this year.)
Lisa Williamson – The Art of Being Normal
I adored this. Everyone presumes David’s gay – only his two best friends know the truth. David identifies as female, but has never openly dressed as such or used his female name of choice. New kid Leo just wants to stay out of trouble, but ends up sticking up for David after an incident involving David’s secret notebook – and an unlikely friendship forms. The narration splits between the two characters and explores gender identity alongside bullying, friendship, family and being yourself. This is… I think perhaps the best way to explain what it is for trans YA reads is that it’s its Boy Meets Boy – an important, optimistic read that goes beyond coming to terms with your own identity and instead focuses on what next, and what other things are going on in people’s lives. Highly, highly recommended.
Five YA books plus one 8-12s this time around, featuring rehab and summer camp and weight issues and families and friends and angst. So, y’know, the usual.
Amy Reed – Clean
I have a weakness for teens-in-rehab stories, and this one is intense. Told from five different perspectives, it looks at both the intense time in treatment and what came before – the steps towards an addiction getting so out of hand that it landed them here. This shies away from easy answers and simplistic explanations, and features bucketloads of ‘issues’ without ever making them the sum total of what the characters actually are. Worth checking out.
Una La Marche – Five Summers (via NetGalley)
Summer camp novel! Four friends over the course of five summers at camp, plus a reunion – there’s a lot of flipping back and forth time-wise with this one. Emma, Skylar, Jo and Maddie promise to be best friends forever at age ten; at seventeen they’re finding out that life isn’t always that simple, and some secrets emerge that threaten to shake things up (although the more subtle growing-up, growing-apart has also taken its toll). Fun read, at times a bit predictable, but… summer camp! Yay!
K A Barson – 45 Pounds (More Or Less) (via NetGalley)
I really liked this book about weight loss and body image and the dieting industry of doom. Ann is sixteen and a far, far cry away from her teeny-tiny mother, or any ‘ideal’ weight. When her aunt Jackie says she’s getting married and wants Ann to be a bridesmaid (lovely twist on this: it’s a same-sex marriage, and Jackie is the sanest one in the entire family), it’s the catalyst for an infomercial-advertised weight-loss regime that… does not work. But making new friends, and exploring the relationship she has with food, and with her family, is what Ann needs in order to start feeling a bit more comfortable in her own skin. (But less, y’know, preachy and simple than that, because it does address the way in which it is far, far easier to be a thin girl in today’s world, and how eating and weight issues are complicated.) Recommended.
Ann M Martin – Ten Rules For Living With My Sister
Cute read for the 8+ crowd about Pearl and her has-everything-good-happen-to-her-ever older sister Lexie, and what happens when their grandfather comes to stay – forcing the girls to share a room but also to come to terms with what’s happening to him. Family, friendship and classroom politics feature heavily. The sequel, Ten Good and Bad Things About My Life (So Far), is now available.
Sarah Dessen – The Moon And More
I love love love Sarah Dessen’s books and I did love her latest one, which revisits the beach town of Colby that features in several of her other books. I love that we get to see a town that is ‘tourist destination’ for most other people through the eyes of people who live there all the time, and as ever there are some nifty references to familiar characters. That being said, I did miss the swoonworthy-love-interest factor that Dessen does so well – which is in some ways, it must be said, part of the point of this book. Emaline, the main character, is torn between small-town life and the opportunities that getting out of there would offer, and this is reflected in her break-up with longterm boyfriend Luke and a new romance with college-going, intellectual Theo. Theo is charming in some ways, and definitely has an appeal, but there are also many ways in which he’s not a dream guy (which the book is definitely conscious of). It was a really interesting relationship to portray, but… you’d miss the loveliness of Dexter or Wes or Owen. Anyway. That aside, there is general fabulousness about family – Emaline’s birth father and half-brother are in town for the summer, and she’s figuring out how to deal with them, alongside her own crazy-yet-loving family (her mom, stepfather and stepsisters). And there’s the intense filmmaker who’s determined to make a documentary about a reclusive local artist, which raises a lot of questions about small-town life and success. This book, more than Dessen’s others, makes me wish she’d write an adult novel – there is a richness here to the supporting characters that isn’t often found in YA, and it’d be great to see that play out in another field. For the moment though, this is another thoughtful and eloquent summer read for Dessen fans.
Dawn O’Porter – Paper Aeroplanes
Flo and Renee have never really spent much time together, but are brought together by first an embarrassing incident at a party and then a family tragedy. Set on Guernsey in the 1990s, this is a story of best friends and school pranks and family troubles and boys and sex and all those other good things. It does a good job at zooming in on teenage concerns, although some of the dialogue feels a little stilted (more contractions, please!) and at times some of the mean-girl stuff feels closer to thirteen than fifteen, particularly in the context of what else is going on.
Jeff Kinney – Diary of a Wimpy Kid (series)
A bit late to the party on this one – after various recommendations, including from young students, I picked up the first book and loved it. Greg’s journal – not a diary! – is a mix of written entries and comic strips, which breaks up the pace nicely and adds to the humour. The drawings are simple but effective – and often hilarious. Greg is a real kid – no overly-mature insights or realisations, just authentic observations on middle-school life and the zany antics that go on. Loved it. Then onto books two, three, four and five – which I zoomed through in a weekend. I would say ‘highly recommended’, but I am pretty sure everyone else in the universe has already figured out that these are brilliant, so… yes. I’ve seen the light and am eagerly awaiting book 6.
Hannah Moskowitz – Invincible Summer
I’ve been following Hannah’s blog for a while, and this – her second YA novel – sounded mightily intriguing. I can’t think of anyone else writing like this in the YA field at the moment – this is a story about a family breaking apart, brothers, summers, innocence, sign language, and Camus. Definitely recommended for anyone interested in dramatic, realistic, smart fiction about teenage boys. My own favourite character was their younger sister, Claudia – I live in hope of a Claudia-POV sequel.
Cat Clarke – Entangled
Cat Clarke’s debut novel grabs you right from the start. Seventeen-year-old Grace wakes up in a white room, no idea of why she’s there or how to escape. She recounts the events that led up to the night she met her captor, involving betrayal and angst and self-injury and all kinds of fun stuff (oh, not one for the faint-hearted). A page-turner that has me excited to see what this author does next.
Sarah Dessen – What Happened To Goodbye
Oh, Sarah Dessen. You can do no wrong. This is the story of a girl in her senior year of high school who’s reinvented herself every time she and her dad move to a new town – it’s easier than making real connections with people, which is the last thing she wants after her parents’ messy divorce. But then – of course – there is a boy. And there are new friends. And our heroine, Mclean, finally finds herself belonging somewhere – though this is not without its own complications. While I would have loved to have seen more of the supporting characters and their backstories, Mclean’s journey is a compelling and authentic one, with all the gorgeous details that Dessen fans are used to.
Patrick Ness – A Monster Calls
Completely lives up to the hype. And I hate hype. It makes me grumpy and cynical and sceptical and convinced that everyone’s just jumping on the bandwagon. I had heard so much about how brilliant this book was. How moving and heartbreaking and all that jazz. But yes. Yes it is. And the illustrations are an additional strength. Go read. Now. Now. Now.
Sarah Rees Brennan – The Demon’s Surrender
The conclusion to the Demon trilogy, this time focusing on Sin, the dancer at the Goblin Market. Plenty of drama, intrigue, fighting, and fabulous one-liners in this book, but mostly – ALAN. Oh, Alan. (With a dash of OH, JAMIE!) One I stayed up late reading, needing to see how it all ended.
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…)