Friday, August 3, 2012

YA Friday: Best-Ever Teen Novels

This summer's NPR "100 best" book list poll has gotten huge responses so far: it asks folks to vote for ten of their all-time favorite young adult novels, a clearly-loved genre by readers of all ages. I've seen mention of and links to the poll everywhere, from Twitter and Tumblr to blogs, newspapers, and all-staff e-mails. By all accounts NPR has already received massive voter input to whittle their list of 235 YA titles down to the top 100. Have you voted yet?
image from NPR
Since the run-up to the new school year is always a scramble for teens to read the assigned summer reading--some of which they enjoy, a lot of which they don't--I figured now is a good time to share a list of what I consider to be dependably-awesome YA reads. Here are the top 10 YA novels that I voted for in NPR's poll, in alphabetical order by title:

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
     I've said for years that I think every high-schooler should read this book. It's funny, poignant, and meaningful, dealing with issues of poverty, alcoholism, racism, prejudice, and entitlement without ever feeling heavy-handed. Alexie has a talent for making the experiences of one admittedly quirky kid, Junior, resonate with everyone--a talent in writing in any genre.

The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak
     I'll be the first to admit that I had to work hard to get through the first 150 pages or so of this book, which is narrated by Death in a voice that can feel confusingly achronological. Once you get deeper into the story of Liesl, a young girl who finds herself with a foster family in WWII Germany, you get absolutely sucked in. Liesl wants more than anything to be able to read, and that innocent quest pulls her through the horrors of a brutal war.

The Giver by Lois Lowry
     Lois Lowry knows how to write a dystopian world. When Jonas receives his life assignment from his elders, his life takes a different turn from the placid normality he's been taught to expect. With the guidance of the Giver, he sees that his perfect world may not be so perfect after all. This story is compelling, intriguing, and so well written--it absolutely deserves its long-standing place on best-of lists.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
     This is perhaps an odd choice, as I don't know that many people have had access to Smith's I Capture the Castle. It is the story of Cassandra and her eccentric family, who have lived in a falling-apart castle in rural England since her genius father failed to produce a second novel after his hit debut. Cassandra confesses all aspects of her life to her diary, and when new, young neighbors move into the manor house next door, she puts her daydreams aside to witness the real-life romantic interactions that play out before her. A great voice from a remarkable narrator.

Looking for Alaska by John Green
     Every YA reading list needs a story set in a boarding school, and Looking for Alaska is one of the best. When Miles started school at Culver Creek, he wasn't expecting to meet anyone as interesting, alluring, or reckless as Alaska. The two become good friends, and all seems like normal teenage angst until an event that reshapes Miles's life forever. Fun fact: Looking for Alaska recently appeared on the NYT Bestsellers List--seven years after it was first published.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
     I once had a friend who loved unreliable narrators--thus she loved Charlie in this book. Charlie is that misfit high school freshman that we've all seen or been, and the year he falls in with a similarly-misfitting crowd, including Patrick and Samantha, makes all the difference in his life. Perks is chock-full of situations and scenarios real teens encounter, from romantic confusion to trying to fit in to discovering things about self.

The Pigman by Paul Zindel
     What starts as a prank for teens John and Lorraine turns into a surprising friendship with the older Mr. Pignati, a man whose collection of pigs is what first catches John's and Lorraine's eyes. This odd new friendship greatly affects the pair of teens, and they are left wondering how they can fill the void left by the Pigman when he dies. This story does not shy away from the fact that teenagers can do mean, stupid things, but it gives them credit for great kindness and feeling, too.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
     This is probably the only book in my top-ten list that regularly makes it onto school reading lists, and with reason. Not only is the story amazingly beautiful and impactful, it provides so much fodder for discussion. What is right? For what things should we as humans fight? Is there such a thing as doing good vs. doing evil? If you stop to think about it, teens face questions like these every day.

Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block
     Set in Shangri-L.A., this story is a bona fide urban fairy tale full of glitter, fun, and self-discovery. Weetzie and her friends were very unconventional characters for most readers when the book was published in 1989, and they are still kitsch-ily odd today. The group do things their way, form a family on their own terms, and always face the world together. To narrowly define this book as a fantastic LGBTQ read--which it is--might limit the enjoyment all readers will surely get from Weetzie Bat.

Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley
     In his debut novel, Whaley gives teens credit for being capable of reading--and enjoying!--a non-cliched story with complex themes. The summer that Cullen's younger brother goes missing is also the summer an extinct woodpecker reappears in his hometown. It is also the summer to which everything in Cabot Searcy's life has been leading. I could say I love this book for its strong male characters, or for its beautiful language, or for its truthful depictions of teenage ennui and familial love. This book is so much more than I can briefly sum up. Let's just say it deserves all the awards it has won, and more.


So there you have it, my votes in NPR's Top 100 Young Adult Novels poll. If you're looking for a book to finish out your summer, I hope you enjoy one of these.

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