Please note: If you recommend these books to your students, keep in mind these novels are for high school (possibly very mature 8th grade) readers.
The recent success of both the novel and film “The Fault in Our Stars” has instigated a cage match of brawling pundits discussing the pros and cons of adults reading young adult literature.
At the core of the discussion is the recent study that showed that 55 percent of people who buy young adult books are older than 18 (28 percent of whom are ages 30 to 44). Some literary snobs have argued that reading YA fiction keeps adults from exploring the richer, more complex novels addressing the conflicts of their ages.
They dismiss them as trivial or melodramatic or superficial. Many of them are, just as many adult novels are. Mixing in a few with your usual reading list will remind you of what it’s like to be young and afraid in a world of adults who don’t remember what you’re going through.
Some YA fiction rivals adult literary fiction in terms of nuance, subtlety and thematic depth. As Stephen Colbert recently said on his show, “As far as I can tell, a young adult novel is a regular novel that people actually read.”
One reason YA fiction has consistently gotten better is that so many great adult writers have taken to writing them, including Elmore Leonard, Sherman Alexie, Gillian Flynn, and Michael Chabon. Another reason is that adult readers can relate to the coming-of-age stories because they’ve grown to realize that life is a whole series of coming-of-age transitions in which we have to keep releasing notions of our past selves and redefining ourselves at a new and unfamiliar age. Becoming a senior citizen is not that different than becoming a teenager in some very basic ways.
Following the success of my children’s book “What Color Is My World: The Lost History of African-American Inventors,” I started writing a series of novels for middle-schoolers about some brainy basketball-playing kids, the first of which, “Sasquatch in the Paint,” came out last year.
I could say that my reading of YA novels was merely research, but the truth is that I’ve always loved YA novels. The novels I read growing up include “The Three Musketeers,” “Lord of the Flies,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Huckleberry Finn” and “The Catcher in the Rye,” among many others. Those works inspired and shaped me as the man I would become, and they continue to remind me of the values of compassion and courage I still embrace.
As an adult, I focused more on history books, literary fiction and mystery novels, but I still occasionally returned to YA fiction to recharge my sense of wonderment. Novels such as S.E. Hinton’s “Rumble Fish,” Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple,” Robert Cormier’s “The Chocolate War,” and Paul Zindel’s “The Pigman” are as exciting, moving and insightful as anything else you’re likely to read.
Today, I’m a senior adult, long past the expiration date of the demographics for young adult fiction. Yet I am always delighted when I find a new YA novel that surprises me with its boldness and audacity.
Here are five such books that I’ve recently read I think will surprise and delight you:
1. ‘This is What I Did:’ by Ann Dee Ellis
The capitalization and punctuation in the title are not a mistake, but part of the very original style. The guilt that eight-grader Zyler feels over an incident from his past is the conflict at the center of this uncompromising and often funny story. The mystery about what happened to him intensifies as the novel progresses because Zyler’s guilt keeps getting worse, making him even more of an outcast. What’s remarkable here is Ellis’ unique style of brief one-sentence paragraphs that stack up like a powerful poem.
2. ‘Monster’ by Walter Dean Myers
Sixteen-year-old African-American Steve Harmon is on trial for his life. But as the trial progresses, Steve recalls the events that led to his arrest, and the reader sees that nothing is what it seemed. Steve, an aspiring filmmaker, deals with the horror of the trial and his incarceration in juvenile lock-up by writing those sections in a screenplay format, as if it were all a movie happening to someone else. That creative approach makes us wince and squirm even more as we compulsively flip pages to learn his fate. You won’t soon forget this haunting novel.
3. ‘Slave Day’ by Rob Thomas
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Author Rob Thomas is also the creator of one of my favorite TV shows, “Veronica Mars.” Before becoming a Hollywood bigshot, Thomas wrote several excellent young adult novels, including another of my favorites, “Rats Saw God.”
Slave Day was once a popular fundraising tool in high schools during which students and faculty were auctioned off as “slaves” for the day. The theme was usually ancient Rome in an effort to avoid any insulting connotations about our own past. Thomas’ novel is about such a day at a high school, with multiple narrators revealing how the concept of Slave Day forces them to re-evaluate who they really are and how much of a slave they’ve been to the idea of who other people want them to be.
I especially like the battle between two black characters, one who uses the event to further his own ambitions and popularity, and the other who has some vague political agenda. Both discover truths about themselves they didn’t realize. Very clever, very funny and socially savvy.
4. ‘Dare Me’ by Megan Abbott
The moment you start reading this novel about the infighting among a group of cheerleaders, you know you are waist-deep in a story as politically riveting and scary as “All the President’s Men.” The style is lean, yet poetic, and the characterization is as sharp as the cutting stares they exchange. What makes this so effective is that Abbott doesn’t demean the girls by making them “Mean Girls” clones. She takes them and their ambitions seriously.
5. ‘Au Revoir, Crazy European Chick’ by Joe Schrieber
Forget theme and insight here. Start reading and hold on, because this novel rockets straight ahead so fast that you’ll feel the G-force on your face. High school student Perry is stuck taking the quiet, reserved foreign-exchange student, Gobija, to prom. But she’s not the shy wallflower he thought she was, and now he’s fighting off international assassins while learning some sobering truths about his own family. When you’re done you’ll wish there was a sequel. Then you’ll be happy to find out there is: “Perry’s Killer Playlist.”
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s column runs Sundays in the Los Angeles Register. Follow Kareem on Twitter @KAJ33 and at Facebook.com/KAJ
By Kareem Abdul-Jabbar / Los Angeles Register Columnist June 27, 2014 Updated 8:43 p.m.