Which YA Book Should I (or You) Read Next?

I grew up reading. Throughout my elementary and middle school uears, I read and read like crazy. In high school I loved reading books from “the canon” written by all the great dead white men Dickens, Twain, Shakespeare, and Flaubert. I was a full on “lit nerd.” It was a lonely existence, because I often had no one to talk to about these books. The only “talking” I could do was in my English classes where I talked through writing papers and “analyzing” literary features of the story. There was almost no “just talking” about love of books – just analyzing for grades and to impress my teachers.

There were no YA books in the mid-eighties. There were a few awful teen magazines, and some of my friends and I wrote complaint poetry and tried out other writing forms very timidly. It was a very different literary landscape from today.  There were no contemporary books written for teenagers then.

Today, I am an avid Young Adult book reader. In some ways I am an adult who is reaching back to see and feel those overwhelming emotions of my teen life and finding a whole tribe of writers and characters who actually get it and understand what I went through. I think that many of us adult YA readers are like a survivors group who find validation and healing through the acknowledgement of the feelings and experiences of our teen lives. Encountering a novelist who says “I see you and I get it” is so powerful and healing.

So, now that books like that are out there, how do you find one to read? How do you recommend them once you’ve found them? I have learned from the teenagers I’ve taught and those who have spent time with me discussing books that you do it the way that teens do a lot of things: with great passion and in stark positive or negative language. Here are some examples:

“Oh my God! You haven’t read this book? What are you doing with your life? Why are you sitting there NOT reading it right now?”

“This book is LIFE CHANGING! It’s just so… ugh! And the character is the most perfect and amazing person I’ve ever met and I can’t believe that this book even exists because it’s that good.”

“I love this book so much that I have read it eight times. It is my life and my reason for getting up in the morning. Read it now. Why are you still sitting there NOT reading it?”

This is how I like my book recommendations.  The fact that I like to communicate with teens this way and hope that they’ll “talk books” with me the same way they might talk to peers is sometimes jarring to the teens I encounter.  If I see a teenager carrying a book, I am most likely going to ask them about the book they’re reading.

I have attended a few book festivals, have approached teens in lunch lines or other places where they’re carrying books, and I like to read tweets and Good Reads reviews. If I hear a recommendation any less passionate or definitive than the above examples, I don’t read the book. If I see a teenager reading a book with a beautiful girl in a flowy dress on the cover, I ask if they like the book. My next question is: “Does the girl in the book DO anything or does she just sit around waiting to fall in love?” This question sometimes startles the teen I’m talking to, but I’m not interested in a book where the girl takes no other action aside from falling in love.

Once a teen reader realizes that I’m actually interested in their opinion, I usually get the full force of their passion (for good or for bad) and can decide whether or not to read the book.  As I said before I get anything less than fully passionate endorsement, I don’t even bother with reading it.  There are too many great YA books out there to spend time reading books that are deemed only “OK.”

I find myself speaking about the books that matter to me in the same terms. I don’t make any literary judgments or definitive style comments. I’m not writing a literary analysis. I just want you to know which books I love. They affect me deeply and stick with me for long after I’ve read them. Yes, I have favorite authors. Yes, I have favorite books. I can’t always explain why I love them, but I do.

Next weekend I am heading out to the ALAN – Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the NCTE (National Council on Teaching of English) Conference. I will be seeing many of my favorite authors – Jason Reynolds, A.S. King, Andrew Smith, Laurie Halse Anderson, David Levithan, Kwame Alexander, Jandy Nelson, Matt de la Peña, Sharon Draper and Gene Luen Yang. I will be star-struck. I will be speaking in the terms above. “The book was so… ugh… amazing and beautiful.” “I love how the character was so… and ….” My inner teen will be on full display.

Please leave a comment about the books that you recommend with such passion and definitive endorsement. My ‘to read’ list is never long enough.


Get Over It

Hippodilly Circus Contributor AS King is one of my favorite authors.  When I recommend her books to people, which I do often, I say that she is so honest with her characters’ voices that I often read a paragraph and feel like I’ve been punched in the gut. She captures the feelings of adolescence so honestly and without sentimentality that I am yanked right back to my teenage life and emotions. Her books heal my teenage self and let me know that someone else out there understands how I felt and still feel.  She is also passionate about changing the way we treat teens and wrote this post for Hippodillly Circus for which I am very grateful. 

I get great fan mail. A lot of the time, I get letters from adults. Those who are used to reading YA literature don’t usually give me reasoning for reading it or connecting to my characters. They know already that young adult literature can be enjoyed by all age groups and they don’t have any reason to explain themselves.

But the letters I get from people who have only recently discovered young adult literature and enjoyed my books often include a line like this one:

Not sure anyone ever completely gets over their high school/teen years.

In fact, that’s an actual line from a letter I got this week. The man who wrote to me was very kind and had read almost all of my books after reading one that he enjoyed. He was so excited to find these books—books that resonated with him so many decades past his teen years. But he needed to add this phrase to make it okay.

Not sure anyone ever completely gets over their high school/teen years.

It got me to thinking. (Okay, I’m always thinking so it got me to thinking more, I guess.) Why do people say this to me? Why do adults separate themselves so much from the teen experience? I have my theories. I will explore them in future posts. But today, I want to speak to this idea that teenhood is something to “get over.”

I replied to the lovely man who wrote me the letter. I thanked him for taking the time to write. I thanked him for his support. And then I wrote this, because I decided that if the revolution is going to start, it will start by people speaking up about teenhood in American culture:

You know, I don’t think it’s so much that we don’t get over our teen years. I think it’s just that stuff that happened to us as teens keeps happening to us as adults, so we can still relate. Our culture sticks teens in a box and disrespects them terribly, really. How many times have we heard about our children, “Well just wait until she’s a teenager!” as if this means our child will turn into this unmanageable creature we can’t understand. How many times have we rolled our eyes at a teenager who has an opinion of his or her own? We underestimate them and then wonder why they undervalue themselves. And that is our starting line to life, right? When we become adults, it’s only after this hazing ritual of being a teenager in our culture.

I will add to this reply here:

We arrive at the starting line feeling like anything we have to offer is bullshit to the people in charge because for so many years, we were just seen as going through a series of phases that would eventually go away like acne or weird pubescent sweating. Even if those phases were passion for art or music or sport or a pastime that we loved. Even if those phases were something that could have grown into a real vocation that would make us happy for the rest of our lives. If we thought it up in our teen years, there’s a good chance someone squashed it. And you know as well as I do that this never goes away. Plenty of adults have great ideas that are squashed. Plenty of adults are undervalued and treated unfairly. I know several people in my life who think I’m still just going through “a writing phase” and I’m 45 years old, feeding my family with my work, and I have a decent career.

I remember being 22 and thinking teenagers were so annoying. That’s about when it stopped for me because I was a 22-year-old woman in a man’s workplace and I realized that nothing had changed for me, really. There was still plenty of eye-rolling. It was still up to me to back my own ideas. It was still up to me to support my own value. It was still up to me, and it still is, to fight for my own rights as a human being. That started in my teen years. It hasn’t ended yet.

So maybe the reason adults can connect with young adult characters is because, as much as we want to dismiss teen life and everything that goes along with it, it’s still our life. I don’t have to take a standardized test this year, but I have to do my taxes. I don’t have to get up for school, but I have to get up for work. I don’t have to do homework but I have plenty of paperwork that crosses my desk in a week and an inbox that never gets emptied.

Life is life. Childhood—the years before we hit thirteen—is seen as nostalgic and forgivingly innocent. But teenhood is debased and dismissed for no good reason when it’s really the most important part of development. It’s when we find our feet. It’s when we might even find the beginnings of ourselves…only to be told that we’re being silly, immature, or impractical.

I knew I wanted to write novels when I was 14 years old. The only way I actually made it happen was to move 3,000 miles away from the people who rolled their eyes at the idea. Not many former teenagers have the opportunity I did to make that move. What happens to their dreams?

A.S. King is the award-winning author of highly-acclaimed young adult novels including Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future, Reality Boy, the 2012 Los Angeles Times Book Prize winner Ask the Passengers, Everybody Sees the Ants, 2011 Michael L. Printz Honor Book Please Ignore Vera Dietz and the upcoming I Crawl Through It. After fifteen years living self-sufficiently and teaching literacy to adults in Ireland, she now lives in Pennsylvania. Find more at www.as-king.com.