Friday, August 7, 2009

Young Adult Books Too Good To Miss

For most adult readers, a “young adult” or “teen” book is a no-go. To be seen reading a teen novel would be embarrassing, like getting caught reading one of those old romance novels with the peek-a-boo Fabio covers (not that there’s anything wrong with that). But the young adult label can be very misleading, and adult readers are missing out on some great literature. The following list of books proves that the stigma of the “teen” label is finally blurring and maybe even fading away all together. After all, a good story doesn’t care how old its reader is. 

Twilight by Stephenie Meyer, 2004, Little, Brown, and Co. (Teen Fiction/ Fantasy/ Romance)

Ah, Twilight, the teen-angst-filled saga about one teenage girl’s crush on the dreamiest vampire-hunk this side of Brad Pitt. Or should we say Robert Patterson? Twilight has made fictional character Edward Cullen synonymous with those screen idols, and that’s a rare feat for any book (even a book that’s also been made into a hit movie with a cast of young heart-throbs). Twilight is the first book in a quartet that chronicles the challenges high school loner Bella Swan faces when she falls fangs-over-heels for Edward, a mysterious classmate/ brooding vampire. The series was written with a teen audience in mind, but millions of its readers have turned out to be actual grown-ups. There’s even a fan website for “Twilight moms.” It’s true that author Stephenie Meyer takes some controversial liberties with classic vampire mythology. And yes, Bella and Edward’s relationship has some sticking points that won’t resonate with every reader. But the appeal of Twilight is Classic Romance—two young lovers, torn apart by circumstances beyond their control, must fight against all odds to stay together. Whether you love it or hate it (and there’s really no in-between), even adults will find themselves passionately devoted to debating their own point of view. And any book that gets us talking—or crushing on its characters—if worth looking into, regardless of how old we are.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, 2008, Scholastic Press (Teen Fiction/ Fantasy/ Adventure)

In the not-so-distant future, the nation of Panem has risen from the ruins of North America. To keep its citizens in line, the Capital forces one boy and one girl from each of its twelve distracts to act as “tributes” in the Hunger Games, a fight to the death televised live to the people at home. Our heroine is Katniss Everdeen, a poor but resourceful girl who also happens to be this year’s choice for the Hunger Games. Decidedly lacking in resources that tributes from wealthier districts take advantage of, Katniss is not the favored contender. She may be able to rely on Peta, the baker’s son from her neighborhood who was also chosen for the Games—but with only one winner allowed, making friends is a huge risk that can only end in betrayal and death. Katniss is not a quitter, but her determination to win is complicated by shifting loyalties, the pressure to perform for those in control, and a desire to rebel. The adventure is more than a survival story; it’s a commentary on government power and the entertainment value of reality TV. It’s also a dystopian moral tale in the grand tradition of The Giver, Brave New World, and 1984. More to the point, The Hunger Games is an absorbing and thrilling page-turner with sophisticated themes to boot, and that makes it required reading for any age group. The eagerly anticipated sequel, Catching Fire, is due in fall of 2009; a final book to complete the trilogy is in the works.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, 2005, Alfred A. Knopf Books (Teen Fiction/ Historical Fiction)

The Book Thief is only a young adult book here in the States; in its home country of Australia, it was published as a general fiction title for adult readers. Lucky for us, it is readers who make a book great and not its place on the bookshelves. In The Book Thief, Death narrates the story of grubby little Liesel, a mere child struggling to understand life in Nazi Germany. Despite being illiterate, Liesel copes by becoming a full-fledged book thief, stealing her first book from her brother’s graveside and moving on to raid Nazi book-burnings and rob the mayor’s library. Liesel’s accordion-playing foster father teaches her to read and Liesel is enchanted with the world of words, but life is dangerous, and more so when the family hides a Jew in the basement. World War II is always a complicated subject; when you make Death one of your main characters and let him tell your story, things get really interesting. But that complexity makes it ideal for every age, especially when combined with Zusak’s intelligence, intensity, and humor (yes, humor, a very dark humor, much of which comes from Death's periodic bold-font bulletins). Whether you’re a teen in Australia or an adult in America, bibliophiles everywhere will beg, borrow, or steal to read The Book Thief

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, 1999, Pocket Books (Teen Fiction)

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is another young adult title that was nearly placed in the adult fiction section. The book is a coming-of-age story about an awkward high school boy, but then again, we’ve all been awkward high school boys (or girls) in our day. Charlie is sensitive, smart, and endearingly bewildered about life in general. Poised on the fine line between childhood and the rest of his life, Charlie has some things to figure out. For one thing, he has an impossible crush on an unattainable girl even though he’s the shoulder to lean on when others confess their romantic secrets. And he may finally feel accepted when he befriends an older group of students who appreciate and understand his oddities, but he’s is in danger of being left behind with his own troubled past while they move on to bigger and better things. Charlie pours his heart out in letters to an unidentified recipient, and as readers we are privy to all his charms, foibles, and secrets. Like Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye or Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, Charlie is a kid telling an adult story, and his unique point of view will be universally appealing no matter how long ago or how gracefully we got through our own high school years. 

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation; Volume I: The Pox Party by M.T. Anderson, 2006, Candlewick Press (Teen Fiction/ Historical Fiction) 

M.T. Anderson’s other books (Thirsty, Burger Wuss, Feed) have all been for young adults; it makes sense that his most recent title would be a teen book too. But that Octavian Nothing is different is apparent at first glance. Octavian is a young boy living in Boston on the eve of the Revolutionary War. Raised in near-isolation by a strange group of philosophers and scientists, Octavian doesn’t understand his place or purpose in the world—until one day when he does, and he is horrified. He rebels, only to find that his unusual upbringing has left him woefully unprepared to meet the prejudices of the real world. Octavian finds himself in the unique position of being forced to face a frightening future even while grappling with the terrors of his past—and with no time to linger in the present. M.T. Anderson presents a way of life and a set of characters that don’t know the outcome of the Colonies’ war with England, and that have some very difficult choices to make. Anderson tells Octavian’s history in a forthright, intimate voice with no frills attached, and it is a story that the reader will feel utterly compelled to explore. The sequel, Volume II: Kingdom on the Waves, presents Octavian and his compatriots with more paths to choose and asks them (and us) to live with the consequences. The tale of Octavian Nothing asks a new set of questions about the history we thought we knew, questions that are worth asking whether we took American History last year or last decade.

The Surrender Tree by Margarita Engle, 2008, Henry Holt and Co. Books (Children’s Fiction/ Teen Fiction/ Poetry/ Historical Fiction)

You don’t have to be a poetry reader to appreciate this remarkably unique story. Told in free verse (a poetry style that doesn’t rhyme and concentrates instead on a realistic rhythm), The Surrender Tree is a work of historical fiction that tells a version of Cuban history we don’t read about much in history texts. In 1868, a few Cuban plantation owners freed their slaves and declared independence from Spain’s rule. For the next three decades, the tropical isle was wracked by nearly constant warfare. Amidst the turmoil and bloodshed emerges Rosa, a slave-turned-healer who spends the tumultuous years of the war hiding in the jungle and healing anyone and everyone she comes across—runway slaves, Cuban rebels, Spanish soldiers (many who change sides after Rosa helps them) and even the legendary Lieutenant Death, the son of a slave hunter who becomes a cruel soldier and Rosa’s most feared foe. Rosa and her husband José spend years camped out in make-shift hospitals in huts and caves, constantly on the move but always connected to the land by the plants, flowers, and herbs that Rosa uses as medicine. Rosa, José, Lieutenant Death, and others like Spain’s General Weyler, who in 1896 called for all Cuban peasants to be herded into “reconcentration camps,” and Silvia, a young girl who escapes from one of Weyler’s death camps, take turns telling the story of Cuba’s fight for freedom from their own point of view. The story becomes an interwoven, haunting story full of brutal tragedy, quiet triumph, and, above all, the beauty and history of the nation of Cuba. Author Margarita Engle writes about real historical figures, though she takes a few liberties with the facts of their lives to weave a more completely unified story. In the end, she tells a powerful story in an elegant style to create a work that won her a Newbery Honor (the first Latino author to do so), a Pura Belpré Award, and a Jane Addams Award. The Surrender Tree may be a book for young readers, but is truly a book that should be ignored by no audience. 

His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass/ The Subtle Knife/ The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman, 1995/ 1997/ 2000, A.A. Knopf Books, (Teen Fiction/ Fantasy)

This trilogy is recommended in its entirety as a series to truly grow with. The journey begins with an unruly girl named Lyra who lives in a world that is just a bit different from our own. People are born with a daemon, an animal companion whose life and spirit are intertwined with their own. There’s also Dust, a mystical, invisible substance that falls from the skies and seems to have a power that transcends worlds. The institutionalized Church of Lyra’s world fears Dust; her powerful uncle Lord Asriel covets it. Lyra and her daemon tackle witches, armored bears, and a captivating woman named Mrs. Coulter in The Golden Compass, and the overall tone is that of an extraordinary adventure story with serious consequences lurking just below the surface. The Subtle Knife introduces Will Parry, a stoic young refugee from the all-too-familiar problems of our own world. Will flees into a strange parallel world and finds Lyra hiding there as well. The children discover that their destinies lie together, and that they have crucial roles to play in the magical happenings between worlds. In The Amber Spyglass Lyra and Will find that the fates of all these connected worlds rest on their shoulders. Author Philip Pullman creates an extraordinary fantasy world with rich, complex characters and meanings that reveal themselves over the course of the three novels. This modern fantasy trilogy is sure to be as influential as any of the classic children’s fantasies we’ve come to know and love. With far-reaching themes of love, death, and the end of childhood, and ideas that hit closer to home like the role of religion and the state of the human soul, Pullman’s trilogy can be read and re-read and loved throughout a lifetime.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, 2008, HarperCollins (Children’s Fiction/ Fantasy)

The Graveyard Book is actually not a teen book—it’s a kid’s book, the 2008 winner of the esteemed Newberry Prize for children’s literature. But its storyline begs to differ—adults too will be drawn into the story of a little boy who lives with the dead. The book begins with a serial killer picking off members of a family in the dark of night. The lone survivor is a baby. With no family and no home, the lonely tot wanders up to the town graveyard, is adopted by the ghosts who haunt the hill, and bestowed with the appellation of Nobody “Bod” Owens. The boy faces dangers within the graveyard and without, but the tale is ultimately charming and sophisticated—just what we expect from author Neil Gaiman, who is equally at ease writing his unique brand of fantasy for adults, young adults, and children. The Graveyard Book, much like that other fantasy about an orphaned boy (Harry Potter, anyone?), is an ideal crossover title for ages eight to thirty-eight to eighty-eight.

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