young adult books

Friday Book Chats: What Makes a Book YA and Some YA Books Worth Reading

I recently had a conversation with my husband about what criteria must be satisfied for a book to be classified as Young Adult. While there are obvious answers to this question like, “The protagonist is an adolescent,” this isn’t by itself an accurate answer. There are plenty of books that are not classified as YA literature that feature a child protagonist or even a child narrator. (Off the top of my head Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and To Kill a Mockingbird all come to mind).

What makes a book like The Book Thief a YA book while All the Light We Cannot See is a Pulitzer Prize winning adult novel? Both books have child protagonists. Both books are about WWII. Both books have a stylized, literary feel. And yet, they are considered different genres.

I brought this question up with a few different friends who made various suggestions. They postulated that YA books have a sense of immediacy not present in adult literature. They are often written in the first person and sometimes use the present tense.  My husband suggested that there’s a certain simplicity to the language and syntax of YA books that allows for comprehension by a younger audience.

Some scholars and critics have suggested that YA as a genre is solely a construction of the publishing industry. How do you get more teenagers to buy books? By marketing certain books directly to them. And this seems to be working.

While these conversations didn’t provide me with a clear answer to my question, it did make me think about some of my favorite YA books. While publishers may have created a niche market that’s great for selling some of these books, I think they’ve also isolated some of those same books from reaching a wider audience who aren’t as likely to pick them up because they are stamped with that YA label.

Here are some books that (in my opinion) are worth your consideration even if you wouldn’t call yourself a YA fan.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Since I already mentioned it above I’ll just say that yes, it’s as good as it’s hyped up to be. This is a fantastic book that tells the story of a young German girl (with a penchant for stealing books), her adoptive parents, and the Jewish fighter they hide in their basement during the Holocaust, as narrated by the omniscient character, Death. I can’t possibly sum this book up in a few sentences, but it will pretty much wreck you.

The Grisha Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo. Alina Starkov is nobody – an orphaned refugee whose never been noticed. Until her best friend’s life is threatened and a dormant power is awakened in her unlike an the world has ever seen. Alina is immediately taken into the Grisha court to study and train under the most powerful Grisha of all, The Darkling. Together he says they can destroy the Shadow Fold that threatens their country. Together they can remake the world. But nothing is as it seems and Alina must learn to see things that have long been hidden, even the things inside her own heart. This trilogy is masterfully done.

The Lunar Chronicles (series) by Marissa Meyer (The first book, Cinderis only $2.99 for Kindle right now!) I’ve actually only read the first book in this series so far, but it blew me away. It’s set in a futuristic world where androids are essential to daily life and the moon has been colonized and become the home of a new species known as Lunars. This unique twist on the Cinderella story involves a cyborg/mechanic Cinderella, a handsome prince, and the search for a cure for the plague pandemic that is wiping out Earth’s population. This is not the sort of book I would normally gravitate towards, but it is so fresh and clever and well-done that I couldn’t put it down. I plan to read the rest of the series soon!

The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials Series) by Philip Pullman. In a world where people’s souls exist as Daemon forms who walk beside them, orphaned Lyra Belacqua leaves her home among the scholars of Oxford’s Jordan College sets out on a quest to find her kidnapped friend, Roger. She carries with her an instrument given to her by her uncle, Lord Asriel, an instrument that tells the truth, an instrument that changes everything when she discovers that someone is kidnapping children and running experiments on them – experiments that will separate them from their Daemons. Honestly, these books are better as an adult than they were as an adolescent. As an adolescent you read these and think, “Yeah, down with the Magisterium. Stick it to the man!” As an adult you are fascinated with the implications of what it means to become an adult and the influences of society and religion in that process.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell. This book is precious. A love story for the ages, but with real characters in real and difficult situations. Eleanor is the wrong size with the wrong hair and the wrong clothes and most definitely the wrong family. But to Park, she is the magic that holds the sky up. They know it’s destined for disaster. But they also know the real thing when they see it. I was enchanted.

The Fault in Our Stars and other John Green books. I assume I don’t have to tell you much about The Fault in Our Stars, but I will say that it is my favorite Green book. His books are all so compelling because they don’t flinch away from hard truths and big questions. They are serious and sad and funny and beautiful and his characters have something meaningful to offer the world.

Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants The premise of the magical pants aside, the stories of these four girls wove their way into my heart. There are things I love and identify with about each of them – Wild Bridget, Rebellious Tibby, Quiet Lena, and Dramatic Carmen. These books are portraits of friendship, of family, of growing up, and of what it means to live a meaningful life. There are five books in the series, with the last one, Sisterhood Everlastingcrossing over into adult fiction as it picks up the girls’ lives 10 years later as they are about to turn 30.

What do you think? What makes a book YA? What are your favorite YA books?

Friday Book Chats: Summer Reading List

Summer always feels like the perfect time for fun, quick reads. Even people who aren’t normally big readers seem more inclined to pick up a book while lounging by the pool or on the beach. Below are my recommendations for some great summer reads. I’m not including some of this summer’s hot books (like Harper Lee’s highly anticipated Go Set a Watchman) because I only wanted to share books that I’ve actually read and could confidently recommend.

These aren’t all chick-lit or completely mindless, escapist books (though some are), but they are all books I found to be fairly quick, enjoyable reads that remind me of summer for one reason or another. I’ve written about some of these in past posts, but some are new. I broke them into categories to make it easier to find something you might like.

I read all kinds of books in lots of different genres and some books I recommend do have some language, sexual content, or violence in them, so if you’re concerned about anything in particular, just leave me a comment and I’ll be happy to give you more details.

Contemporary:

Liane Moriarty books – Moriarty is just a great storyteller and her plots are fresh and unique and interesting. I’ve read all of her books except one and really enjoyed all of them. While a lot of her main characters are female, I think men would enjoy some of them, too. I’d start with What Alice Forgot or Big Little Lies.

Jennifer Weiner books – I’ve enjoyed most of her books. They aren’t totally chick lit as the plot and characters are more developed and complex than your typical romance, but they are definitely more focused on women and women’s issues and are very quick reads. I’d start with In Her Shoes or Good in Bed.

Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan. The cover of this book is a bit misleading. It looks like a nice beach read. It is a fairly quick read, but it’s more a domestic drama than a feel-good summer fling book. It tells the story of four women from three generations of the dysfunctional Kelleher family centered around their month spent in close quarters at the family summer home in Maine.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett. This book really is worth the hype. If you haven’t read it yet, this summer would be a great time!

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter. I love this book for summer because it takes place in so many exotic locations. This book follows artists of different types – a writer, an actress, a film producer, and a musician, from post-war Italy to modern-day Hollywood and weaves each of their stories together in a unique way.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple.  15-year-old Bee is preparing to leave for boarding school, but first she and her family will take a long-anticipated trip to Antarctica. That is, until her mother, Bernadette, disappears. Bee pieces together all the information she can find to figure out what happened to her mother.

Classics:

Gatsby

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I love this book even though it’s sad. Every time I readTo_Kill_a_Mockingbird it I’m transported to this beautiful, magical summer that’s as intoxicating as it is tragic.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Since I can’t recommend Lee’s new book, the least I can do is insist that you read this classic if you haven’t before. It’s relatively short and an easy read, but so so good.

Young Adult:

The Grisha Trilogy, by Leigh Bardugo. I read this entire trilogy this month and I think it’s fantastic. Very fast read, engaging, interesting world/plot/characters, etc. It’s definitely “fantasy lite” so don’t read it with the expectation that you’re heading into an epic saga, but I couldn’t put them down.

John Green books. The Fault in Our Stars, Looking for Alaska, Paper Towns, and An Abundance of Katherines. Green is the master of YA literature for the simple reason that he captures so perfectly what it is to be an adolescent, to ask big questions about life, and to expect more than trite answers. Not always happy books, but always moving.

Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series  by Ann Brashares. These aren’t new books, but if you like YA fiction and you missed them the first time around, I think they are worth the read. Of course, the premise is kind of ridiculous, but the individual stories of the girls go far beyond summer romances or petty fights. There are five books in the series, with the last one, Sisterhood Everlastingcrossing over into adult fiction as it picks up the girls’ lives 10 years later as they are about to turn 30.

Mystery:

What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman. Lippman has a large mystery series involving her character detective Tess Monaghan, but this one is a stand-alone novel. The Bethany sisters disappeared from a shopping mall 30 years ago. Now a woman has turned up claiming to be Heather Bethany, but nothing she tells the police seems to check out.

Jackson Brodie mysteries by Kate Atkinson. I genuinely think Atkinson is one of the best writers of our time and I love what she brings to the mystery genre. Her Jackson Brodie mysteries interweave the personal life of Jackson Brodie, an ex-cop turned Private Investigator, with mysteries that range from the mundane to the criminal to the bizarre. Start with Case Histories.

Veronica Mars: The Thousand Dollar Tan Line by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham. OK, I lied about having read all of these. I haven’t read this yet, BUT I have watched all of Veronica Mars including the movie. As far as I understand it, this book picks up right where the movie ends and is as good as it is in television/movies. Sounds like the perfect summer read to me!

Fantasy:

Gentlemen Bastards

The Gentleman Bastards Series by Scott Lynch. Besides the books I always write about (*cough* Way of Kings *cough cough* Name of the Wind) this series is an especially fun summer read. Think Pirates of the Caribbean meets Oceans Eleven and you will get some idea of these books which involve a clever band of thieves and con-artists seeking to have it all. The first book in the series is The Lies of Locke Lamora.

Historical Fiction:

GuernseyThe Guernsey Literary and Potato Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. This is a heartwarming epistolary novel about writer Juliet Ashton who is looking for a subject for her next book when she receives a letter from a total stranger living on Geurnsey island. This book is a record of their correspondence as Juliet learns about the resilient people of Guernsey living in he aftermath of German occupation during WWII.

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All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. This book just (deservedly) received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. This is a WWII novel and while it is very literary, it’s also quite easy to read. It’s really a beautiful book if you are looking for something a little more substantial, but easy to get into.  In alternating chapters the book tells the story of a blind French girl whose father is the Keeper of the Locks for the Museum of Natural History in Paris and a German orphan boy whose talent with engineering gets him recruited into an elite military academy and then sent into the field tracking the Resistance during WWII.

Humor/Memoir/Spiritual Memoir:

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling. I just want to be Mindy Kaling’s best friend. If you are a fan of The Mindy Project, you will love this book.

Bossypants by Tina Fey. As with above, if you love Tina Fey from SNL or 30 Rock or Mean Girls, then you will enjoy this book. I’ve heard that it’s even better as an audio book because Fey reads it herself.

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading by Nina Sankovitch. I just read this last month and forgot to write about it. I think this is the perfect book to get you in the mood for a summer of reading. After the death of her sister, Sankovitch throws herself headlong into her life, cramming it full to the brim with activities only to find herself exhausted a few years later. Unable to continue at her current pace she decided to slow down. She reads one book a day for an entire year and writes about the healing and growth that come from stories.

An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor. This is my favorite BBT book and it strikes me as summery because of how much it focuses on the holiness of our ordinary days, especially emphasizing nature and being physically present in the world. Summer always feels like the season I spend most “in” my body in a way – more time spent outside and more time in tune with things like sweat and the power of the sun and the sweet relief of a cool breeze.

Maybe next week I’ll post about what’s on my personal summer reading list (though it’s partially all those books I mentioned that I own and haven’t read yet).

What’s on YOUR summer reading list? (Or, you know, winter, for my friends in the Southern Hemisphere!)