Before starting my tenure as a branch librarian, I spent twelve years as a teen librarian. During that time, I always had an excuse to read books written for and marketed to teens– it was a professional obligation. As the years went on, I noticed an increasing number of other adults were catching on to what had previously been a teen librarian secret: books marked teen or young adult are often some of the most engaging, enjoyable literature being published. After a few high profile titles that had clear generational cross-over appeal (Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games), more and more adventurous “grown-ups” started seeing the teen section as a place they too could discover books worth of their time and devotion.
One of the (many) great things about teen books is that there is truly something for every reader. Historical fiction, realistic, thriller, fantasy, whatever your favorite genre is, you can find some wonderful teen literature to expand your “to read” list.
Historical fiction fans won’t want to miss A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly. Based on a true story, Donnelley’s fictional heroine is struggling with the expectations of her family and the man who wants to marry her. Their demands clash with her own desires to attend college and become a writer. When Mattie takes a summer job at a hotel, she becomes embroiled in a mystery when a guest, who after entrusting Mattie with a secret, drowns. Donnelly is the author of a popular trilogy for adults, starting with Tea Rose. Another of her young adult titles, Revolution, is another sure-fire hit with fans of historical fiction.
After you’ve made your way through Donnelly’s teen fiction, you may want to check out A Mad Wicked Folly by Sharon Biggs Waller. Another tale of a young woman chaffing against society’s expectations, Victoria is more interested in becoming an artist than in attending debutante balls, as her parents expect. Both of these competing pulls, however, seem to be at odds with Victoria’s increasing involvement in the British women’s suffrage movement.
For a darker, more gothic historical story, with a sweet love angle, we have Wildthorn by Jane Eagland. After Louisa is told she is being sent to stay with cousins, she find herself imprisoned in an insane asylum. Here Eagland borrows from the all too common real life practice of locking up young women who showed too much interest in academic pursuits or a attraction to same-sex love. Louisa is “guilty” of both. Amid cruel treatment and great frustrations in the asylum, Louisa finds affection and a blossoming relationship with a young asylum worker, Eliza. With Eliza’s help, Louisa plots an escape from her imprisonment, seeking both freedom and explanation of why she was locked up in the first place. Dark and gripping, yet still hopeful.
I have been on a mission for several years now to get everyone I know to read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. A rare story that will have you laughing and crying within pages of each other. Alexie’s main character, Arnold Spirit, is one of those classic literary underdogs, who readers will root for from start to finish. Arnold lives on a Native American reservation, but fed up with the poor schools, he decides to become the first kid to leave the reservation school for the more affluent and primarily white school in the surrounding town. Arnold’s path is certainly not smooth, either on or off the reservation, but he relates his story with humor and optimism and it is one that will stay with you for a long time.
Personally, one of my favorite things about teen literature is that so much of it has a real social justice bent to it. It can be seen in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, but also in two of my other recommendations: The Queen of Water by Laura Resau and Bamboo
People by Mitali Perkins. Teens often get the reputation for being self-centered and oblivious to the world and injustices around them. The literature that has been written and enjoyed by them, however, often tells a different story. In The Queen of Water, Resau tells the story of a Quechua Indian girl in Ecuador who is indentured by her desperately poor family to work as a servant for an upper class family where she suffers abuse as a young child at the hands of the mother and finds herself facing worse at the hands of the father as she reaches adolescence. In Bamboo People, Mitali Perkins’ character, Chiko may live on the other side of the world, but his life as an forced child soldier in the Burmese army is yet another tale of exploitation and survival.
If you’d like to explore the world of teen fantasy fiction (and I do highly suggest it), you really must make room on your reading list for Tamora Pierce. The prolific Pierce has so many wonderful series to her credit that it can difficult to pick a starting point. My personal favorites are Trickster’s Choice and Trickster’s Queen, which take place in her fabulously detailed, magic world of Tortall. Other Tortall series include her first series about Alanna the Lionness, Keladry in the Protector of the Small series and Beka Cooper, a Provost guard in the series that begins with Terrier. Pierce has created other beloved magical worlds that are featured in her Circle of Magic and Circle Opens series, featuring mages who can control the elements of the earth. If you’re having trouble picking one Pierce novel to read, just give it up and commit to reading them all!
If you like your science fiction with more than a touch of the apocalyptic, you won’t want to pass up Life as We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer. Miranda’s account of life after a meteor hits the moon and causes an unprecedented wave of natural disasters on Earth has been a favorite among teen readers since even before The Hunger Games launched the current wave of dystopian novels.
Dangerous Angels by Francesca Lia Block is a compilation of five, genre defying novels. The closest category I think they could fit in would be magical realism. Block’s five, very short novels revolve around the lives of Weetzie Bat and the family she creates for herself in an intriguingly magical, but still gritty Los Angeles. Lyrical and beautiful, the Dangerous Angels novels are truly hard to compare to any other writing for teens or adults I’ve come across.
While I am certainly no expert on the issue, I will say that I find the portrayal of LGBT characters in literature to be more diverse, likable and enjoyable to read about in literature aimed at teens over much of what is written for adults. Examples include Louisa in Wildthorn and also in the love story of Dirk and Duck in Dangerous Angels. Kirstin Cronn-Mills creates another wonderful LGBT character in Beautiful Music for Ugly Children. Gabe is a female-to-male transgender teen, who still lives as Liz at school and home, but is able to be himself when he is on air as a disc jockey on a local radio station. When Gabe’s radio show gains popularity, his secret is threatened. The cast of characters in this novel is simply beautiful, Gabe’s love of music is palpable and the whole story is a satisfying read.
While those who know me can tell you I’m not a big thriller reader, I am glad I made an exception for Double Helix by Nancy Werlin. Werlin, who has her roots in Peabody, has written some intriguing teen thrillers, as well as branching out more recently into some interesting fantasy fiction. Double Helix brings her trademark ability to create suspense together with a controversy concerning genetic engineering. After graduating from high school, Eli decides to postpone college in favor of a job in a lab with a renowned geneticist. Eli’s father is unexpectedly outraged by this move, which puzzles his son, until he starts to unravel the story of how he and his family are deeply connected to these same genetic experiments.
So the next time you’re in the library, stop by the teen area and browse for some engaging reads. We officially give you our permission to read as much teen literature as you want!