I am an English major and a librarian, which means I am really into books. I am also incredibly immature, which means that even though I am a legal adult and could probably buy a firearm in the state of Nevada if I wanted to, I really like YA novels. Riese and Green just did a whole bit on this over at Autostraddle, and they are obvs better at it than me, but I am sticking with the theme and talking about my top five YA novels from then and now.
Echo by Francesca Lia Block. If you know me, and know Francesca Lia Block, then it will be obvious that I was obsessed with her from about the age of 13 to, well, now. This is the best, no question. It has everything a fantasy-oriented gay teen could want; angels and vampires and pretty girls you meet in bars and some excellent symbolism done with delicious-sounding fruit (ex. blood oranges, blueberries) and wonderful characterization and oh goodness I could go on. I mean, you kind of have to be into Block’s whole conceptual thing to like this, but I don’t think that’s hard to do.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. This is one of the ones I actually read as a grownup and still really enjoyed. It’s written as the first-person diary of a teenage boy, and as such it is kind of self-indulgent and dramatic and focuses a little too much on watching the girls volleyball team practice. But that is all part of its charm! The combination of small, universal teenage insecurities (oh man, I want to date that pretty popular white girl so bad!) and huge, crushing problems that are way bigger than one small boy (my dad’s alcoholic best friend died when he crashed his motorcycle while driving drunk, we couldn’t afford any presents at christmas so my dad went binge drinking instead, that pretty popular white girl’s dad is really fucking racist) is what makes it work. It’s kind of semi-autobiographical, which is great for me because I kind of like Sherman Alexie a lot. He is funny! The only parts I didn’t like where the romance-y bits; the girl he dates is way out of his league and I found it hard to believe they ended up together, also she is pretty shallow and uninteresting. Oh well!
Empress of the World by Sara Ryan. This one is totally gay, guys. Which is why it got reviewed on Autostraddle, and also part of why I liked it. But what I think I liked most was how much respect the author gives to her teenage characters; they are allowed to be actual people,with a lot of emotional depth and nuance, who solve their problems in mature and adult ways instead of crying and writing sad poetry. They were smart (like, at-a-gifted-kids-summer-camp smart) and strong and it was really nice to read a book that thought of teenagers the way that I thought of myself. I think this is one of those books that may not be 100% as enjoyable to read now that I’m older, but still maybe like 80%! Try it out.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. Obviously. My friend Megan once said “I feel like everyone in our demographic read this when they were 15,” and she was right. I know that everyone else also liked it, and I hate liking things that everyone else likes, but there is no getting around how good this book is and how essential and vital and urgently true it feels when you’re like 16. (Or now, if you’re me. Whatever.) As many coming-of-age stories do, it touches on everything – sex, love, drugs, homosexuality, abuse, dating violence, teen pregnancy, cheating, your parents, whatever. It has some of the familiar motifs of YA novels (a teacher who sees how special the protagonist is and takes time to mentor him) and some silly things (I don’t believe there’s a single boy in America who’s made it to freshman year of high school without knowing how to masturbate), but manages to be completely and totally original and unforgettable. Maybe it’s because I am actually pretty close to the protagonist’s demographic, but I felt like it was universal. Like, upon first reading I tried to decide whether it was set in the 60’s or the 90’s; in the end I decided that it didn’t even matter. (I eventually decided on the 90s, because there’s a Nirvana reference.) Just read it, if you haven’t already. Even if you don’t like it, at least you’ll be on the same page as the rest of us. (Oho, see what I did there?)
Big Mouth and Ugly Girl by Joyce Carol Oates. When I first read this as a teenager, I did not know who Joyce Carol Oates was, or that she was a Big Deal, or that what I was reading was probably a Work of Great Literary Significance. Anyways, it is pretty good! The characters are incredibly rich and well-done; I think you will know upon reading which is my favorite. (Hint: it’s Ugly Girl.) This is set in the mid-90’s high school shooting terror that gripped America, and so it deals a lot with that. But it has a lot of other stuff going on too, and it’s great. The Pollyanna ending might have you rolling your eyes a little bit – but honestly, in that case you probably shouldn’t read YA novels.